The Other I

October 14, 2017

Uncertainty is scary

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:26 pm

In her comment of one of the blogs I read regularly, the author says:

“I do not believe there is a One True and Only Infallible anything – and I’m including all organized, semi-organized and disorganized religions, voodoo cults, talk show hosts, diet plans and scientific theories. (I’m hoping I’m wrong about diet plans, but evidence hasn’t been encouraging so far).”

I was amazed.  Not because I don’t agree because I do.  But because it seems to me to be a view held by so few people.   I know many people who have given up religious belief, and others who simply dismiss scientific findings like evolution or climate change because they do not mesh with their values.  But religious believers whom I know don’t usually appreciate that “faith”, by definition, means that it is beyond proof.  And scientific followers often think that facts are proven by evidence beyond dispute.  But a study of the short history of science demonstrates that absolute “facts” supported at one time by science are no longer considered valid.  Newton, for instance, thought that the entire universe ran like a huge totally determined mechanical clock, and that theoretically, at least, it is possible to know not only what has happened in the past but what is already determined to happen in the future.  As little as a century and half ago, eminent scientists thought planet earth was less than 4,000 years old.  They now think it is closer to 6 billion years old.

I used to think that people didn’t understand this reality of our inescapable human uncertainty because they were not intelligent or educated enough.  I don’t think that anymore.  Of course what ideas any of us have are in part dependent on the opportunities our culture might expose us to.  But as I look at both myself and others, I think the ability to live in what I call mystery, but which might simply be called uncertainty, is determined more by one’s psychology.

Living in mystery or ultimate uncertainty doesn’t mean one doesn’t live by principle or values.  But it does mean that I need to understand that I might be wrong.  Especially I might be wrong in the way I am applying my values.  An inability to tolerate dissent or disagreement is often a dead give away that I haven’t achieved that understanding.  Even something that at first seems as simple as Love is subject to huge diversity in our beliefs in what it means.  Should we beat the devil out of our children when they tell a lie or steal something, for instance?  Or explain why telling the truth and respecting other people’s property is important?  Is it immoral to save the life of the mother if it means losing the life of the unborn baby?  What about war?  Is there such a thing as a just war?   And of course there is the consolation offered by many religious faiths that death is not the end of life, but instead teaches that we each will continue to live “in the next world,” and that our separation from loved ones is only temporary.

Actually, this might sound like a fairly academic discussion.  But it’s not.  If I’m sure I am right, I am more willing to force others to behave by what I believe are my unassailable moral positions.   Throughout the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church felt justified in burning heretics to death,  for centuries all western Christian persuasions justified slavery and racism as the will of God.  Christians have engaged in centuries of warfare with other Christians with whom they disagreed, and today ISIS and other radical groups believe they have a God-given right to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

The world is convulsed with discrimination.  Perhaps it has always been, but with population growth, globalization, increasingly destructive weaponry, and climate change, these attitudes of intolerance are becoming increasingly dangerous to the very survival of our species.  In some ways, I think our biggest danger lies in our inability so often to live in the uncertainty and mystery intrinsic to the limitations of human consciousness.

 

 

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August 4, 2017

Test of my faith

As the regular readers of this blog know, I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic, and spent 9 years in an order of nuns which I believed was rather like becoming a life-time Peace Corps worker for the poor and disadvantaged.  But I was never sent to work among the poor and finally left the convent.

A t the same time I came to understand the bible as the Hebrews understood most of its stories – as metaphors and parables, rather than as literal truths.  And I came to accept the Hebrew translation of “faith” as “faithfulness,” rather than adherence to a strict set of doctrinal beliefs.  Eventually, what remained for me was a belief beyond either proof or disproof that existence is good.  That however mysterious it may seem, to be is its own meaning, and that consequently to respect, to love, to care for the world and for the living organisms within it is my greatest fulfillment.

For the first time in years that conviction was shaken when I read two articles  earlier this week by scientists giving us no more than a 5% chance of ultimately avoiding irreversible climate change so drastic that the human species, and potentially all of life on this planet, could be destroyed.

I’ve been aware of the extreme dangers of the climate change we humans are producing and I have taken it seriously.

Image result for the universe

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140211-are-we-alone-in-the-universe

But the potential of our losing this battle and of our becoming one of the millions of extinct species that have inhabited earth filled me not only with sadness, but with something closer to despair.  Are those who believe that life has no meaning right after all?

I haven’t reached that conclusion.  I continue to live by the conviction that it is we who must help create the meaning of existence, of life, of our individual lives.  And “Love” is still for me the best summary of the way I believe we can best live in this Mystery of Life.

But it hasn’t been since my adolescence that I appreciated that “faith” in this sense is no simple achievement.

June 29, 2017

Questions if not answers

My post ten days ago “I missed something big” has generated a number of online comments and even more to me personally.  It’s stimulated my thinking enough to provide another post.  So for what it’s worth —

I think I will stop using the word “socialism.”  Its meaning is too varied, stretching from various forms of Communism to simply a concern for the poor, in whatever way the problem may be addressed.

Nonetheless, the economic question being discussed does seem to revolve around how problems of injustice, unfairness, and gross inequality should be addressed.  There are those like Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes who offered different solutions, but both believed that the essential solution lay with government policy.  Marx, of course, developed Communist theory.  Keynes, on the other hand, believed that in times of depression, governments should shoulder significant debt in order to create jobs and thus stimulate the economy.

This theory was given a credence by the fact that military spending during the Second World War ended the depression in the United States and after the war, set in motion decades of growth and programs such as social security to provide pensions for the retired who no longer could earn a living by working.

But excessive government spending, unfortunately, does not always create better fortune for the many.

  • Corruption is a frequent crippling drain as is clear today in governments in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere.
  • But corruption is not the only problem.  Governments can’t always sustain the debt they incur, and once again, people are plunged into life-threatening poverty.  The dramatic drop in the price of oil has been extremely destructive for governments which have been dependent on oil.  Venezuela today is an outstanding, if not sole, example.
  • Finally, there is the call, made by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party in the UK today, to tax the rich to increase the minimum wage, and relieve poverty by providing government subsidies for university tuition, child care, parental leave, and more social care for the elderly and disabled.  Unfortunately, as the world becomes increasingly globalized, this taxing the rich policy must be applied very carefully.  When it was tried in Britain in the 1970’s, it led to a “brain drain” out of the country, and the economy faltered so badly that it needed help from the IMF.

The alternative to government spending which is particularly popular in the United States under the Republicans is to lower, rather than raise, taxes for the rich.  The theory is that it is the rich who generate jobs through the companies they manage, the people they hire to meet personal needs, in other words, through the money they make and spend.  And in some cases this seems to be true.

But like increased government spending, this approach does not always work in practice exactly the way it does in theory.

  • For one thing, the rich save a much larger proportion of their money than do the less well off.  In other words, much of their money does not generate jobs — except possibly for bankers.   It is not necessarily the rich who have “made America great.”   Many of the most productive companies in the US employing tens of thousands of Americans today were founded by immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but a willingness to work and a creative energy.
  • Thomas Piketty, who has had the chance to analyze several centuries of data, shows that capitalism is not intrinsically a system which rewards hard work and talent.  It frequently develops in such a way as to build in greater rewards for those who already are better off and to reduce the welfare of those who aren’t.  The effects of this reality have been substantial in the United States where the difference between the top 10% of the population and the workers has increased dramatically in the last 3 decades, gutting the middle classes and increasing serious levels of poverty.

The differences between these two approaches, as we have seen, is infused with a strong sense of  Right and Wrong, and so often becomes not only heatedly political, but theological.

I do not pretend to have the answers.  I do know I ask more often than most people I dialogue with how politicians propose to solve the problems of injustice they argue against, and I sometimes find those solutions – from whichever direction they come – untenable.  Just because the Republicans or Tories or etc might be wrong doesn’t make the Democrats, or Labour or anyone else right.

I have reached the conclusion in economics and government, just as in parenting, or in any other field,  it is important to remember that just because our intentions are good, that the consequences of our choices might be vastly different.  And so I am convinced that, important as any particular governmental policy might be, no system is going to be the total solution.  Our lives need to be imbued with both love and creativity to make any system work.

Image result for I got that wrong

 

 

Oh yes:  and the ability to recognize that we might just be wrong.

But that’s the topic of my next post.

 

https://revdavidsouthall.com

 

 

 

June 22, 2017

Would you work if you didn’t have to?

Trump’s appeal to his core supporters is often based on his promise to bring jobs back to America from countries where workers are paid less.  But more and more jobs are becoming extinct as factories and even many aspects of the service industry are being taken over by robotic technology.  Those jobs aren’t coming back from China or Mexico or anyplace else.  They are disappearing.

In the list of these developments which are scheduled to increase perhaps exponentially, economists are wondering how people are going to earn a living if there aren’t enough jobs.  One fascinating idea is for the state to give every adult a basic unearned income which will not provide any luxuries, but will provide enough income to cover basic shelter and food.  The idea is highly controversial.

Image result for basic income finland

http://www.occupy.com 

Where, for instance, would the state get the income to pay these basic costs if nobody is working or paying income tax?

The proponents of the theory think that people will work even if they don’t have to:

      They will work because they want to do or to buy the things that money can buy.

      They will also work because many people find work intrinsically rewarding.  Yes, they would expect to be paid, but, this argument goes, many people don’t work just for the money.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, builders, security workers and police, artists, musicians, researchers, cooks, caretakers, to name just a few, do work which they find rewarding in its own right.  They are happy to spend their lives getting up in the morning and spending their days working.   I certainly did.  I loved working.

     Others would use the basic income to support themselves while they start their own business, start-ups they may not have the confidence to try if they risk starving themselves and their family should the business fail.

The counter-argument questions if people really would go through the processes of education in order to engage in a lifetime of work for which they are paid, and which gives them many more opportunities like travel or the ability to buy things which are not strictly required for survival?  Because, in addition to having to learn their special skills, their earned incomes would be taxed, in part to support people who don’t want to work at all.

Now this theory is going to be tested in real life.

Finland is beginning a two-year trial among a randomly selected group of unemployed who, instead of receiving unemployment income, will get an unconditional monthly income.  They can also earn unlimited additional income without reducing the basic pay.

If you find this as fascinating as I do, there is a fuller description online.

They say international interest is intense.

Mine sure is.

June 19, 2017

I missed something big

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:27 pm

When I was a Maryknoll nun hoping to work with the underpriviledged in a developing country, my hopes and plans could be summed up in a single motto:

It is better to teach a man how to fish than to give him a fish.

I have had the same values ever since, whether I was thinking about religion, politics or the economy.  Consequently, I have tended to favour government policies aimed at creating jobs rather than primarily charitable hand-outs.  It’s an attitude of many Americans who came to this land for a chance to work hard, not for hand-outs.  The assumption was always that if one worked hard enough, one could improve one’s lot.  And for millions of Americans, that has been true for many years.  Even today, some of the most successful companies in America were founded by first or second generation immigrants.

Image result for fishing

http://www.fish.wa.gov.au

Personally, it is an attitude that suits my own psychology.  I am keenly aware of the often unearned help I have been given in my life.  But whenever I can I want to do things myself.

These values also permeated the way I taught at university.  When students produced an unsatisfactory assignment, my policy was to tell them how to do it better.  And then to give them a chance to do the assignment again.  That way, they had a chance not only to earn a better grade, but more importantly, they had help developing skills that would serve them for a life time.

I still hold these values.  But I think now I was missing something big developing in unrecognized steps for probably the last 30 years.   I did not see how, little by little, hard work was not being rewarded.  Rather the middle class was shrinking, as a small number moved into hugely financially rewarding jobs, but an increasing majority were paid for work that did not keep up with the increasing cost of living, or were made unemployable altogether.

I think this might be the key explanation for the far right support for politicians like Trump, and far left movements here in the UK and Europe.  I was never even tempted by the far right, and here in Britain the far left reminded me too much of the failed and corrupt Communists governments which have been overthrown in Eastern Europe.  Too often it seemed to me, everybody except corrupt government officials were punished for raising their heads above a level playing field.  Innovation was punished if it was too successful.  For the “working class,” it was criminal to be rich.

In the meantime, as a species we are experiencing increasing resentment of others and violence against people we consider to be “different.”  Rather than benefiting from our differences, we are trying to obliterate them.

I don’t have the answer to this increasing inequality.  I do read a lot of analyses by economists but I find I can analyze wrong answers much more easily than I can identify answers that will start righting this hugely destructive inequality which condemns too many people to their station in life, no matter how hard they work.  Taxing the rich too strongly risks re-creating the kind of brain drain out of the high-tax country that the Labour government created by its taxing policies in the 1970’s.  But the view favoured by the Republicans like Trump that it is the rich who create jobs has shown not to be accurate either.  And the risk of making people dependent on government for basics such as food and housing and child care condemns those people to the potential of life-long dependency on the state.

I still think it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.  But as I say,  I missed something big.

And I don’t really know the answers.

 

 

June 15, 2017

Tower tragedies

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

Image result for Glen Fell Tower

Watching the evolution of the Glenfell Tower in Kensington, London brought back the emotions I felt the day we watched the tragedy evolve on 9/11 after the bombings of the Twin Towers.

In both situations, people were trapped and the disaster was ongoing for hour after hour.  People jumped out windows, here in London children were thrown out windows in the hope they would survive.  In both cases, the firemen and other service personnel were heroic.

But there is one critical difference.  9/11 was caused by suicide pilots belonging to AlQaeda.  The London fire two days ago was the result of human actions, almost certainly reflecting disregard for the inhabitants of Glenville Tower.

Kensington, London, is one of the richest areas in one of the richest cities in one of the most developed countries in the world.  But Glenfell Tower, like many similar apartment towers throughout the country, was built by the government to house the less well-off.  The inhabitants of Glenfell Tower were often elderly or disabled;  they were often immigrants and their children, seeking an alternative to the civil wars in the Middle East and Africa.

All of the evidence is suggesting that Glenfell Tower was a tragedy waiting to happen.  There were no fire alarms, no sprinkler systems, only a single staircase ascending from the first to the 24th floor. Possibly worst of all, it was refurbished several years ago at the cost of several million pounds.  Unfortunately, the refurbishment consisted of  exterior cladding that seems not to have been fire-resistant, and quite possibly was the cause of the fire’s rapid spread from the 4th floor where it began when a cheap refrigerator exploded to the top, 20 floors higher, in less than 30 minutes.  It was also the middle of the night.

Apartment dwellers had complained to the relevant government departments for years.  But it looks as if these people just weren’t important enough.

Politically I guess I would have to say I am a capitalist rather than a socialist.  It looks to me as if socialism too often leads to a resentment of achievements of others, and a dependence on governments by too many people for everything from cradle to grave.  It’s a system that too often does not value diversity, and actively discourages creativity and innovation.

But it is clear that in any system, there are some things that only government can do.  Our federal superstructures – highways, bridges, electricity, financial stability, immigration – are projects that can only be accomplished cooperatively.   I also believe in a safety net in relation to the basic necessities provided for by governments, which the U.S. Republicans today do not.

It is clear to me that capitalism can – and sometimes has -gone just as disastrously wrong as various forms of socialism have done in the last century.  Capitalism unhindered too often gives honor and privilege and status to those with money.

I fear that is what has happened in relation to Glenfell Towers.  Governments – both Tory and Labour – have disregarded calls for basic safely mechanisms in the very buildings they have subsidized for the poor.  Even today, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, finally visited the site of the Glenfell fires.  She met with the firemen and police.  But she did not meet with a single victim, not a single person who lost everything but the clothes on their backs, which, since the fire occurred at night was often little more than night clothes.  People have been incredibly generous, providing donations of food, clothing, money, even sometimes opening spare rooms in their homes.  Theresa May said she was deeply saddened by the tragedy and promised an investigation to learn whatever lessons we could.

But that’s a promise that’s been made when fires like this broke out 3, 5, even 10 years ago.  One earlier tower block fire even pointed directly to the inferior cladding, which looks like the prime suspect in this fire.

Why was this allowed to happen?

I did not want to see Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party win the last election.  And they didn’t.

But I am beginning to think that it might be better if today’s fragile Tory government falls and there is another election sooner rather than later.   Despite profound reservations, I’m beginning to think it would be better if Labour won.

And I rather think I might be part of an increasing majority.

 

June 3, 2017

My new housekeeper

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:26 pm
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Image result for spider in a web

http://www.animalsandenglish.com/spiders.html

I’ve taken to watching a spider in its web on my bathroom ceiling.  Usually I try to get them back outside, or vacuum them up with an apology about their having landed on a foreign planet.  But Trump’s climate change denials have made me increasingly aware of just what a special, unique place Earth is, and I’m observing even the most ordinary things with fascination and even awe.

Besides, a new study estimates that spiders consume up to 800 tons of insects every year.  We humans consume a mere half that total in meat and fish.

So I thought perhaps I would not, as is my custom, try to move the spider outside, or vacuum it up.  This time of year, a whole feast of insects make their way through the sky light into the bathroom.  I’m welcoming the spider as my housekeeper.

As long as it stays out of the bed anyway.

February 25, 2017

What has happened to my America?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 5:00 pm
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Image result for taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut

The English Blog.com

I read with horror and anguish that some mainstream, accredited news media were shut out of the White House press conference yesterday.

It is not that I have not been appalled by the Trump administration’s behavior in relation to immigration, to trade, to climate change, or Trump’s behavior toward those who disagree with him.  I have.

And it’s not that I think America has lived up to its ideals of equality and justice and democracy for all.  It emphatically hasn’t.

But I have never seen an attack on this level against freedom of speech.  It’s what dictators do – take over the press and media.

Nothing has frightened me so profoundly.

It’s not much, but I’ve just taken out a paid subscription to the New York Times, a paper which I always thought of as rather center of the road.  Hardly revolutionary.  And as British residents, we pay for our BBC license fee.  Way too truthful for Trump as well.  My appreciation for them also just went up a notch.  And of course there was no room at the news conference either for the Huffington Post or Politico or CNN.  All way way too revolutionary for the likes of Trump & Co.

February 17, 2017

The power of the powerless

People overestimate what they can get done in two years and underestimate what they can get done in 10 years.

Bill Gates

 

 

We also often overestimate what an individual can do

And so are tempted to give up in despair in the face of the helplessness we think our anonymity bestows on the great majority of us who are not celebrities, high-profile leaders or recognized candidates for sainthood.

 

 

 

 

And paradoxically, underestimate what we can accomplish together.

Image result for time

February 1, 2017

The Times – They are a-changing

Filed under: Growing Old,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 5:14 pm

Image result for birthday cakeI have the feeling that the changes that are taking place in my own life keep galloping ahead in the same way that the world is changing.  On the one hand, I feel such a small part of our globalized world, and at the same time as I listen to the world news, it feels like a mirror of my own life these days.

As I’m studying political and economic events, I’ve realized that the world has gone through fundamental changes like this before.  And it’s not going to stop.  It isn’t just the industrial revolution that was so revolutionary.  There are events like this as far back as we can see.  The Black Death killed somewhere between 30 and 50% of the population.  By the time it had subsided, people had lost their faith in the promises of religious leaders and the political power of the Roman Church had been profoundly undermined, eventually reduced to a small country we now call “The Vatican.”  And because workers were now at a premium, serfs were freed from their economic slavery, able instead to offer their services to whomever paid them the most.  That might have meant freedom, but it was also a loss of security that people had relied on for centuries.  Then the confirmation that earth could be circumnavigated changed trade, and introduced a new kind of serfdom, slavery in which people were shipped like bags of coal dumped into the bowels of ships.

Today we are entering into mega-changes brought about by two forces.  The first is not, as Trump thinks, the destructiveness of global trade.  The movement of multi-national countries returning to their home bases began some years ago.  Companies are discovering that with new technological developments, companies that are selling what they produce in their countries of residence are more productive.  The force that is going to change things so drastically around the world is technological creativity, not international trade.

Widespread electricity isn’t a century old, neither is the car, but most of us take these changes as old hat.  Even the internet feels utterly familiar to millions of people.  But the changes that technological developments are going to continue to bring about in the work place and even in our home lives are going to continue to race ahead.  The unemployed factory workers of today aren’t going to get their jobs back.  But even people who are employed today are going to find that if they don’t keep learning all their lives, they are also going to be in the same unemployable position before they are ready to retire..  Work is changing and it is going to continue to do so at increasing pace.

The second force that is going to change our lives for the foreseeable future is climate change.  It won’t go away just because Trump says he doesn’t believe in it.  Droughts, floods, temperature changes, rising sea levels, storms are going to bring about changes in the kinds and places where we can produce our food, in the kind of houses we can live in, in our water sources, even where human habitation is possible.

None of us is going to live long enough to see these forces through to their finish.

My own hope is that somehow our creativity will outstrip our ignorance, and that our love for our fellow man will outstrip our impulse to pick up our toys and go home and slam the door.

 

 

 

January 17, 2017

The world’s 8 richest men

Oxfam has just published figures suggesting that the world’s 8 richest men own between them as much as the poorest half of the entire world.  Whether these figures are exactly right is questionable, but the evidence is pretty strong that the world’s richest people have so much more wealth as the poorest as to be shocking.

In outrage, the article is suggesting that these rich men are unethical grabbing tax cheats.  They did not refer to the possibility that any of these super-rich people may have made a valuable contribution to our ways of life in the modern world.  Instead, they simply argue that governments world-wide should agree to close tax loop holes and safe havens where these fortunes are stashed away.  Taxes should be given to governments to spend on the poor and starving.

If only the solution were  so simple.   It’s not for me

Yes, the tax systems too often favour the rich and I strongly support changes.  I would especially support (as does Bill Gates, by the way) a limitation on tax-free inheritance.   But that isn’t going to come close to addressing the essence of the challenge of poverty.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, for instance, are two of the three of the world’s richest men.  They also spend billions (yes, billions) of dollars a year on charitable organizations dealing with, among other things, global health.  Do you think it would be better spent in the hands of government?  I’d much prefer this wealth is in the hands of Gates and Buffet than in the hands of most of the governments where the poorest people live in Africa and other of the world’s poorest countries.  The chances are too great of taxes collected by governments in these countries for “the poor” ending up in overseas bank accounts of government officials.

Image result for money tree

Yes, corruption exists in the developed world.  But research suggests that the biggest cause of economic well-being is not natural resources, population density, or even educational levels, but a commitment to the rule of law and strong institutions.

Jeremy Corbyn, the current head of the Labour government here in the UK is suggesting that along with increasing taxes on the rich, the government should cap how much any individual can earn.  I agree that what he calls the “telephone number earnings” of many CEO’s is mind-boggling, particularly when they sit atop companies with workers barely earning a living wage.  There might be a place to find ways to support the increasing pressure coming from shareholders to address this exorbitant inequality.

But I would be loathe to put a cap on the earnings of some of society’s most creative, innovative, intelligent, hard working individuals who are meeting needs and creating opportunities that in profound ways are making the world a better place.  And many of whom are contributing significantly with their earning to improving our environment, educational systems, health, and working conditions.  Gates & Buffet are not the only ones doing so.

We need to resist the  temptation, I think, to believe that the answers to all our problems lie in changing the system without the constant ingenuity, dedication, and drive of the individuals who comprise it.  That’s all of us.

Even the little people like me.

 

January 13, 2017

Bad or Beautiful?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:21 pm
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Following my post yesterday, someone asked if there were any expert opinions about altruistic behavior in the living world.  It seems a fascinating question, and led to such a long response on my part that I am posting it here, with the hope that there may be others who can broaden my own musings on the subject.

There are, of course, theories of redemption offered by various religious theologies.  I won’t elaborate on them.

In terms of science, there are several theories in psychology which do suggest that we go beyond basic survival and self-seeking pleasure, although none of them deal with altruistic behavior specifically and insofar as they suggest it, it is something which develops with maturity, and that you would not expect to find in a child, and certainly not in any other species outside of us humans.

Eric Erikson’s 8th stage – the last one – is wisdom vs despair which while not exactly explaining altruism does suggest that we go beyond the undiluted reality of self-service.  Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also argues that we grow beyond what he called our basic deficiency needs for food and shelter, and even beyond our social needs for belonging and recognition, to “Being needs” for self-fulfillment.  Lawrence Kohlberg also developed a theory of moral reasoning elaborating Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.  In Kohlberg’s highest level we have grown beyond the simple reward/punishment thinking of level 1, and also beyond the social reasoning of level 2 in which we worry about what other people think.  In the highest level, we are guided by universal principles such as equality and a commitment to justice for all.

The idea which personally I find holds the greatest resonance for me is the Buddhist concept of Incompleteness.  It seems to describe my own observations.  No matter how gifted, intelligent, loving, or fortunate, none of us are absolutely complete, none of us ever without needs which only someone else can meet.  Our consciousness may be circumscribed, but life itself is a single whole.  We all need each other.  And by “we”, I think one must mean “all living things.”  We can’t survive without them.
Image result for incompleteness
However one explains it, I think there is a goodness, a capacity for caring for others, at the very heart of every living creature.  There’s more to each one of us than pure selfishness — whatever the nightly news might suggest.
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But to be completely beautiful, we need each other.

January 12, 2017

Love is as deep as selfishness

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:26 pm
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Whichever way one turns in the world these days, there seems to be a plethora of disturbing, scary, depressing news.  And whether it’s war, climate change, rates of extinction, or “false facts,” so much of it seems to be our doing.

I don’t pretend I find comfort by walking around saying “I don’t believe that.”  I wish I could, but although I’m highly skeptical of a lot of reporting, I can’t argue that I think the world is really a jolly great place right now with a bright future we don’t have to worry about.

And religion and science add their discouraging bit.  Modern Christianity teaches that Augustine of Hippo was right when he said we’re all born in a state of sin.  Freud argued that what really motivates us is sex.  Not love, not reason, but pleasure.  Orgasms.  Today sociobiology says the same thing is a slightly more esoteric form, arguing that what drives us all is the continuation and spread of our own genes.  Those who do not engage in overt sex, like worker ants or celibate priests or nuns do so in order to protect and care for their own and so increase the likelihood of their own group survival.  Other theories posit survival as our strongest motivating source as well.

All of these ideas basically say that each of us is fundamentally driven by self-service.

What none of these theories can explain adequately, however, is intra-species altruistic behavior.  Why would dolphins save the lives of swimmers from an attacking shark?  Why would a lion save the life of baby monkey that’s fallen from the tree?  Why would a bear share its food with a starving cat that got inside its cage?  Why did crows bring those trinkets to the little girl who left them food?  There are millions of examples of this kind of behavior in the world every day.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BJbNbUICcAAd4_K.jpg:large

Why is this policeman comforting Panda, scared after the
earthquake in Japan?

I am quite committed to the view that we are each responsible first and foremost for ourselves.  Without a sense of self-preservation, we remain in psychological babyhood, needing someone else to care for us.  But I think there is a deep spontaneous altruism, a sense of mutual responsibility, in all of us as well.  In fact, I believe it is evident in all living things.  Even trees are known to communicate to each other that a dangerous disease is in the air.

I just went to Google and typed in “animals helping each other.”  There are thousands of examples, photos and videos.  Here is one video.  I suspect that you have examples of your own.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BJNp5quCQAE7MsY.jpg:large

Two year-old Chimpanzee feeding
milk   to “Aorn”, a small tiger 60 days
old.

.

November 14, 2016

Front door dialogue

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 12:46 pm
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Many members of my family have been exchanging views about the result of the U.S. election, and asking what we can do about the geysers of hatred and resentment that seem to be gushing up around us.

One of my sisters reminded us of what we call our family “Table Discussions” which characterized so many of our evening meals.  My father was a lawyer and during these discussions he taught us one of the most important things I’ve ever learned – that to win an argument, it is important to understand the opposition’s argument from their point of view.  So we would often assign ourselves to argue for a position that, in truth, we thought was wrong.  It helped us realize that the point of view of those who disagree with us sometimes makes a lot of sense.

Image resultSo about half an hour ago, our door bell rang.  It was two Jehovah Witnesses.  I confess I could not resist the temptation to engage in what I’d learned around that family dinner table.  In response to their reading to me from the Bible to illustrate just how selfish and materialistic people are today, I quoted the Bible back to them to support my reasons for seeing love and care for their families and communities reflected in the unemployed who had voted for Trump in the States and for Brexit over here.

Very friendly and respectful, but quoting the bible back to them in support of my disagreement was not a strategy they were equipped to deal with.  When I told them I thought the solution was love, she stumbled and said but there was something more — and then to her credit said “well there really isn’t anything greater than love, I guess.”  “Yes, God is love,” I said, at which point the mail man showed up at the door.  I think they were hugely relieved to say thank you and use that as an excuse to depart.

Not sure I should be proud of myself.  I enjoyed it too much.  And anyway, I wasn’t arguing for the side I disagreed with.

 

November 9, 2016

umpty Trumpty

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 4:46 pm
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Well, “shock” is the word contained in almost every headline I’ve read since I got up this morning, barely ten minutes before Trump’s presidency and congressional majorities were confirmed beyond doubt.  Here in Britain, the response reminded me that several hundred thousand people signed a petition about a year ago asking Parliament to forbid Trump entrance to the UK on the grounds of his attitudes toward Muslims.  On the other hand, the Brexit vote here to withdraw from the European Union had a lot in common with the attitudes expressed by the Trump campaign.
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I saw an interview yesterday with a highly reputable British pollster who said he wasn’t convinced by the polls predicting a Clinton win.  He said he thought there very well may be a meaningful number of people – including registered Democrats – who would not admit publicly that they were supporting Trump but who could very well swing the vote.  That sounded like a rather terrifying possibility to me, and so this morning when the results were clear, I was more shocked than surprised.
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What I wonder now though is whether even those who feel they have been disenfranchised by the wave of immigrants coming into the States will actually be any better off as the result of the policies Trump & his Republican congress will implement.  Same question we are asking over here about those people who voted for Brexit on the grounds that immigration should be limited.
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The thought that Trump will now be the deciding factor on the next Supreme Court judges – including replacing Scalia as soon as he gets into office – is scary as well.
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Just read an article arguing that what the Trump voters really want is to re-establish White supremacy.  How strong that kind of racism is compared to a realistic sense of economic disenfranchisement by workers displaced by either migrant workers or international trade, I don’t know.  I suppose one might ask a similar question about British colonial rule.  Both US and UK governments, in my view, have under-estimated the resentment and done too little to solve very real problems of joblessness and the increasing gulf between the 2% and the shrinking middle class and stunted social mobility.  It’s not what Americans have been taught to believe is right for a country where hard work is promised to reap rewards.
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My only (small) hope is that reality may force Trump to modify some of his worst promises and prejudices.  In any case, his election will certainly change attitudes of nations toward the U.S.  I remember back in 1969 an NYU professor  of political science said that China’s power lay partly in the fact that other countries simply did not know what to expect.  That is now true of the U.S.

October 22, 2016

Why I still like capitalism

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:45 pm

Before I say my few words about liking capitalism, let me begin by saying that I am fully aware that sometimes it is not perfect.  In fact, sometimes it is simply awful.  It is a system that can run awry, motivated by unbridled selfishness and destructive greed.  It can, and has, been a system which can trap people in terrible poverty and suffering.  Capitalism is a system that cannot be let to run free of any social discipline and government controls.  It is one that sometimes fails people and where safety nets by social services are sometimes needed to provide the basic necessities of life, including food, shelter, medical care, and education.

Capitalism is a system that always has risks, because it allows people to try out new ideas.  And those ideas might fail.  So capitalism needs constant surveillance to guide or even reign in ideas, businesses, banks, or any organization that become too destructive, too domineering, too controlling.

Image result

https://www.papermasters.com/capitalism.html

Having said that, I still think capitalism is the best system we have devised so far for the welfare of humanity.

When I was young and still ignorant enough to think I had all the answers, I thought that it was possible to set up a system where the risks of capitalism were eliminated.  In other words, I thought Utopia was possible.  I flirted with communism, and various versions of dogmatic socialism that remain popular today.

I abandoned communism and most forms of rigid socialism because they did not permit people to think for themselves, and because by the time I was in my 30’s, it was clear that it did not work any better at eliminating poverty than capitalism.  In fact, capitalist countries with democratic governments were providing a higher quality of life than communist-led countries.

I was also influenced by my nine years living in an order of nuns committed to helping others.  It was a rule-oriented life, highly disciplined and organized.  It wasn’t too different from living within the military, except that our goals were to serve the poor.  But room for creativity, for spontaneous acts of kindness – telephone calls, conversations, letters, even had to be made within certain guidelines – were severely limited.  (In the order of nuns I was in, that has changed very substantially, but Rome doesn’t like it, and would like to put all nuns back in their full religious habits and kept within bounds.)  But one of the things that convent life taught me was that all the answers can’t be found by confining people within rules, no matter how well-intended.

And today I read two blog posts that made me want to ring the bells for capitalism.  They gave examples of ingenious kindness that I think are far more possible within capitalism than within strict systems, even if those systems are deliberately designed for the good of all.  One post is from Help Scout, 10 inspirational stories of customer service, the other is about customer service that simply incorporates thoughtfulness.

There are thousands of examples like these, of course, but I read each of them and danced.  I’d love to hear if you do too.

Thank you to Raghu, author of About This and That, one of my favourite reads who sent me to the posts above.

 

October 16, 2016

The Good Old Days of Breadmaking

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts recently, we elderly are subject to the temptation of wiping out the negative aspects of the past from our memory banks, leading to a rather one-sided longing to return to a mythical “Good Old Days” that never really existed.

But the more I read about the history of Christianity, the more I wonder if I might still be committed to the Christian faith if I’d lived several thousand years ago before church leaders decided that the diversity of beliefs held by various sub-groups was unacceptable, and declared anybody who did not agree with them to be heretical.  Up until then, “faith” was not seen as synonymous with doctrine, but with faithfulness.  And until then, love was still, as St. Paul wrote, “the greatest of these.”

At about the same time, Constantine decided that the Christian God was a better backup for governments trying to hold onto power than the fickle gods of the pagans.  So the Romans adopted Christianity as their official religion, moved the clergy into palaces and cathedrals, gave them royal robes and head-gear, gold crosses and incense burners to demonstrate their “lordship”.

But I’ve just learned that it was at about this time, and almost certainly a result of these changes, that the meaning of “lord” and “lady” changed dramatically.  Until then, these terms did not refer to any kind of authority or royalty.  The “lord” simply referred to the “keeper of the bread,” and the “lady” was “the maker of the bread.”

That makes a lot of sense to me.  And it seems to fit so much better with the original message of Christianity.

Perhaps the change in meaning is another example of the original biblical warning that where there is power or money, there is always temptation.  Pope Francis has just said it again.

 

October 9, 2016

International Trade: The devil’s own?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:41 pm
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In my last post, I reviewed what I found to be the astonishing feat we humans have accomplished in providing nourishment for literally billions more people than populated our globe a mere 75 years ago.  This is an incredible feat for which we as species can be proud.

Most of us have no idea of the size of this gigantic accomplishment nor that it could not have been achieved without international trade.

The great risk of this ignorance is that many of us, especially in the developed world, are undergoing a mega-temptation to close off the very processes of this source of enrichment.

This might just sound ignorant, selfish, or racist on the part of people who are just too lazy to work.  But it would be a huge mistake to reduce the problem to bigotry or a preference to depend on hand-outs.. Vast swathes of joblessness resulting from international trade has created real problems for hard-working people who have been driven from a middle class life style to the edges of serious poverty.  This has happened before, but perhaps never so rapidly and without the accompanying awareness made possible by our modern communications system.

Worldwide international communication conceptHere’s an example.  China was accepted into the World Trading Organization in 1993, it looked like an unalloyed win-win situation for the world.  It indeed has been a win for Chinese workers who now supply 20% of world-wide manufacturing exports.  China has been transformed from a poor to a middle-income country, taking hundreds of millions out of poverty.   And in the developed world, the less well-off benefited hugely from cheaper imports of everything from computers to solar panels.

But the developed world did not foresee the millions of  factory job losses in countries benefiting from cheaper products being imported from China.  Today, economists estimate that up to 2.4 million jobs in America alone may have been lost as a  result of Chinese imports.

And these jobs were not replaced.  Workers could not simply move to another part of the country.  The kind of jobs for which these unemployed workers were trained no longer exist in sufficient numbers in the developed world.

It is easy to understand why people on the ground resent international trade.  It’s a resentment swelling up in Europe, Australia, North and Latin America, the Middle and Far East.  But the solution, unfortunately, is not to build walls, to slam the door shut, to go back to the mythical days when we were supposedly all able to take care of ourselves.

The problem is extraordinarily complex, and solutions are not simple.  But there are things we can do which will not destroy the huge benefits which so many have received as a result of international trade.

Culturally, the human species has always had to walk that narrow road between benefiting from our great diversity of gifts and being quite realistically threatened by them.  But we are all in this together, and with increased globalization, it is increasingly important that we learn to appreciate the huge value of our differences.

Politically, we also need to make changes.  The America government has been particularly – but not uniquely – slow to appreciate the scope of job-losses resulting from China’s rapid industrialization.  Some countries – Denmark, for instance – have done a better job of providing job retraining and meaningful unemployment benefits for those actively seeking for work.  Governments can also create jobs.  In the U.S. the needs for upgrading our transportation, electricity, and other superstructures is significant.  Few countries are without similar needs.

There are also world-wide problems of reduced competition and tax avoidance by international companies which is increasing joblessness among former factory workers.  Internet giants by and large pay above-average pay to all their workers.  But they crowd out small businesses or buy them up, reducing competition.  These are not easy problems to solve, but we must grapple with them if we don’t want to lose the benefits of international trade which enriches us all.

September 26, 2016

Feeding the hungry

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 3:31 pm
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Before reading the rest of this post, you might find it as interesting as I did to make a guess at percentage of the world population you would estimate are undernourished in the world today.

To put that estimate in context, here are a few more relevant facts:

  • in 1945 at the end of two world wars, the global population was 2 billion, 50% of whom the Food & Agriculture Association of the United Nation estimates were undernourished;  that’s about half a billion people
  • in the 60 years since then, the world population has swelled to 7.4 billion, an increase of the human population never seen in the history of our species

http://www.fooddepot.ca/en/page.php?id=325

I was astonished to read that today, the World Health Organization estimates that about 11% of the human population is malnourished.  That’s a painful 8 million people.  But somehow, even with a burgeoning increase in the human population, the percentage of malnourished has dropped in 60 years from 50% to 11%.  Instead of more than 3 1/2 billion starving people today, the problem has shrunk dramatically.

How did it happen?

Do you want to make another guess?

That’s the subject of my next post.

 

September 21, 2016

The danger of the Good Old Days

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 7:54 pm
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As a cognitive psychologist, I have long known about the research showing that as we age, we tend to cleanse the past of unpleasant memories, leaving us with a view of the past that is actually better than it was.  Knowing this, and besides, being an optimist by nature, I did not expect to fall into this fallacy.

I don’t think of the past as a time to which I would like to return.  But I was rather surprised by the conversation I had with a friend last week in which we both seriously wondered if the world was in a worse state now than it has ever been.  What with our environmental destructiveness, our resistance to immigration, a seeming growth in those who believe that they have a God-given obligation to murder those who disagree with them, and the millions of starving and displaced refugees, most of whom are being refused entrance to countries who see them as dangerous and different, things seem pretty awful.

But I’ve discovered one of the most amazing books I’ve read in perhaps 15 years.  It’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg.

One cannot accuse him of naivete or denial.  He begins with a brief statement of the state of the world:”Terrorism.  ISIS.  War in Syria and Ukraine, Crime, murder, mass shootings.  Famines, floods, pandemics.  Global warming.  Stagnation, poverty, refugees.”

And yet the gist of his book is a strongly research-based argument that things are better now than perhaps they have ever been, and that the most dangerous thing we can do is to pull back from the conditions that have reduced famines, increased life-span, even reduced war.  The book is divided into 10 chapters, examining dramatic improvements in food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, and equality.

Norberg is not suggesting that everything is going to work out.  He is quite aware that we could destroy our environment and ourselves to the point of extinction.  But his argument is that we don’t have to wring our hands in despair.  In the last century we have already made incredible progress.

I think it is worth studying what he is saying, and I am hoping to write a series of posts summarizing what I am learning.

Right now I’m beginning to suspect that The Good Old Days might be far more than a benign fantasy of old age and instead a very dangerous myth.

 

 

August 12, 2016

I don’t believe that

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 3:26 pm
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The more we understand about human intelligence the more we realize how much room for doubt there is in our conclusions.  But it seems to me that whether it be in relation to religion or science or politics, I’ve been hearing “I don’t believe that” more often these days than I used to.  Why?

There is always room for legitimate doubt in whatever field we look.  Science is based on observable evidence, and as our observations expand, so do our interpretations.  Which means that what we think of as “facts” change, and science is constantly re-assessing the validity of earlier conclusions.  Today, quantum physics and the Standard Theory, both theories about the very nature of matter and the universe are not even in agreement with each other, and both are being questioned by recent findings.

But the areas of scientific dispute are almost without end.  Is drinking alcohol in moderation good for health?  What about fats?  or more than 3 eggs a week?  or various grains?  or super-aerobic exercise like jogging every day?

Religion, of course, is a completely different matter.  Religious beliefs, by definition, cannot be verified.  They are accepted on “faith” without proof.  Believers think that their beliefs are divinely revealed and  are the true ones, but since so many religions believe so many contradictory things, somebody must be wrong.

So how do we decide what it is that we believe, or not believe?  And what determines how certain we are that the beliefs we hold are right?

I don’t know the answer to this.  When I was young, I thought it was a question of intelligence and education, but that obviously isn’t so.  It’s partly culture, both secular and religious.  I was reared as a Roman Catholic, which argues even today that it is the one and only true Church.  As a young person, I thought, therefore, that I had all the right answers to all the fundamentally important questions.  Today, I see the Church’s position as limiting.  (I would even use the words arrogant, destructive, and ignorant, if I might not be misunderstood to be saying that all Roman Catholics are arrogant and stupid, which obviously they are not.)

Of course on a daily level we cannot go around questioning every aspect of reality.  If we did we’d never get anything done.  But we are engaged in mass killings of our fellow human brothers and sisters simply because they disagree with our religious or political beliefs.   Why are we so varied in our ability to tolerate uncertainty on such a profound level?

In part, I wonder if it’s economic.  In societies where men, particularly, cannot get employment, religious and political fanaticism seems to proliferate.

If that’s so, then understanding economics and creating systems where swathes of the population are not disenfranchised is critically important to human survival.  It’s what America thought capitalism was about, but research shows that it is not as automatic as we thought for so long.  Without government intervention, the wealth of that 2% may be entrenched.  Creating equality is what Communism set out to do as well, but it also has not succeeded.  The temptation of various forms of contemporary socialism is to take from the rich, variously defined as anything from the top 2% to anybody who has more than anybody else.  And I’m dead wrong if Trump has the answers to “make America great again.”

In the long-term, we have not yet found a system that sustains development and opportunity across the board.  But in my old age, I find myself tending to study the problem from the point of view of economics rather than from theological or psychological perspectives.

 

 

 

 

July 25, 2016

How much is 1+1?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:29 pm
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My nephew who is a qualified engineer and is retiring from industry to take a position as a university lecturer  was visiting us last week, and we began to talk about creativity and how to teach it.

I shared with him Einstein’s view that “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

In other words, we have to learn to recognize the assumptions on which our “right answers” are based, and then to think out of the box.

I said I sometimes gave my students the assignment of coming to class with at least one concrete example of times when 1 + 1 does not equal 2.

My nephew immediately came up with an idea I’d never thought of before.  If a computer is programmed to round off numbers to eliminate decimals, then any number between .50 and 1.49 will read “1.”  If you then tell the computer to add these numbers in pairs,  it will round off as “1”all the pairs that add up to less than 1.49.  For example,  .74 + .74 which equals 1.49 which round off as 1.

And just to add another twist, all the pairs that equal 2.5 or more will round off as 3.

Not, I admit, quite as brilliant as Einstein’s ability to give up the assumption that time and space are absolute.

But it delights me nonetheless.

July 9, 2016

The orange glow

I was intrigued when I was recently reading what I thought initially was a serious review of the research into dementia.  The author – a medical doctor – claimed that curcumin (which includes the spice tumeric) drastically reduces the rate of Altzheimer’s disease, a fact demonstrated by India, where the reported percentage of this debilitating disease is lower than in any other country in the world.

Then I realized what I was reading was an advertisement for tumeric supplements.  Not just any tumeric supplements either.  Only high quality supplements will bring about the desired results.

I started to ask a few obvious questions:

  • What percentage of the population over the age of 60 in India have been in contact with a qualified professional who might have made a diagnosis of some kind of dementia?  I know more than one case in both the US and Britain where an elderly person suffering from dementia is being taken care of by family members and who have not seen a doctor in years.
  • To make matters even less clear, a certain diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is extremely difficult if not impossible without a post-mortem examination of the brain of the affected person.
  • And since the advertisement insisted that the quality of tumeric supplements was important, it may be relevant to ask just what kind and how much of this treasured spice is consumed on average every day in India.

There was no discussion of any of these issues vital to substantiating the claims made.

So to claim that India has a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease than any other country in the world, let alone to claim that this is a result of the fact that so many Indians eat curry spiced with tumeric, is highly dubious.

I have tumeric in something I eat almost everyday because I like it.  I am aware that claims for it are made for curcumin as an antioxidant, for reducing joint pain, the incidence of cancer, brain & heart disease, depression and the side effects of many cancer treatments.  I strongly suspect that tumeric, like many herbs and spices, is very good for us.

But if it’s a miracle, science has not yet proven it.

Sometimes I think the differences between religious faith, political promises, and scientific claims are indiscernible.

 

 

 

 

June 29, 2016

Still learning

When I was a university lecturer, I found that I learned a lot by giving lectures, because in the process I inevitably kept thinking, not only from the questions my students asked but from the additional questions the process of interaction stimulated.  I doubt many students knew it, but I was paradoxically learning as much as they were.

I am not an economist – to my frustration sometimes as I try to understand this world – but have been experiencing a similar learning process as I did as a lecturer as I am writing now about Brexit and its global implications.

I said in an earlier post that the issues underlying Trump’s “make America great again” were radically different from the sovereignty issues raised by membership in the European Union.  Yes, on one level it is.

But digging a little deeper, Trump and Brexit are responding to similar economic and political issues exacerbated by the globalization of capitalism.  Specifically, the working class has been disenfranchised either by an influx of immigrants from poorer countries taking the jobs of locals because they are willing to work for less pay under less salubrious conditions.  Or factory work and increasingly services have been outsourced to countries where workers are paid less, and their products shipped back to Britain or the U.S.  This has not protected the working conditions of those who are actually doing the work either overseas or as immigrants, and it has put thousands of non-immigrants out of work or reduced their pay and working conditions dramatically.

At the same time, management and those at the top of international corporations are reaping the profits.  Since the early 1980’s, incomes of those at the top of the ladder have increased dramatically while those further down have not kept up with the cost of living.  So today the gap between the upper and lower classes is greater than it has been for close to a century, and the middle classes are being gutted.

So prejudice and bigotry and the increase of hate crimes particularly among the working classes against those labelled as outsiders is understandable.  But something has gone terribly wrong with the system.  Unfortunately, neither the Brexit or Trump campaigns to slam the door shut against immigrants is  a solution and will not return prosperity to either America or Britain.  But far left-wing socialist systems tried and still being tried throughout the world have not been the solution either.  Somehow, they too produce an elite while too many workers had little freedom of choice and few opportunities.

thomas-piketty.jpgToday, Thomas Piketty, a leading left-wing economist, resigned as an adviser to the Labour Party for its failure to effectively fight against Brexit in the referendum debate.  He’s got some interesting ideas and I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts over the coming months.

Now I’m going to try to restore a little sanity, and watch Wimbledon tennis.

 

June 26, 2016

The blonde bombshells

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:39 pm
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Donald Trump, Republican, running for President in the USA                                  Boris Johnson, Tory, successful leader of UK Brexit

 

Someone just asked me if I thought these two men had anything in common apart from their blonde mops.  It isn’t a question that had occurred to me.  But now that I think of it, it seems to me that they share a surprising number of things.

  • Both politicians are personally well off financially.  Trump may be several zeroes better off than Johnson, but beyond a certain point, what do a few zeroes on the end of one’s net worth matter?
  • Both politicians are offering far-right solutions to voters who feel disenfranchised by economic changes both global and local, many of whom want to go back to the mythical “good old days” and make their country great again.
  • Both politicians are addressing issues which are often legitimate and which have not always been successfully addressed, or sometimes even recognized, by current governments.
  • Both have made promises to change things if they are successful, promises which unfortunately are sometimes unrealistic, uncosted, or mistaken, and in relation to which they both have begun to row back on.  These include promises about immigration and health care.
  • Trump’s pronouncements have sometimes been openly racist, while that is not true of Johnson personally, although it is true of members in his camp.  Both camps appeal to an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign mentality, and whether they mean to or not, have benefited from it.

 

June 25, 2016

All the King’s horses

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

 

Some of the implications of Thursday’s referendum in which Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union are beginning to emerge with some frightening possibilities.  The Brexit leaders are now saying that two of the most convincing arguments for withdrawal are false and the claims should never have been made.  They say that immigration from other EU countries is unlikely to be reduced significantly, and the weekly additional £375 million promised to the National Health Service was “a mistake,” and will not occur.

People living in Cornwall, a region in southwest England which voted for Brexit and which receives significant money from the EU are only now realizing that these funds will no longer be paid.  They say they expect London to pick up the tab.  Airlines  will no longer be permitted to fly between the UK  EU countries without authorization as “foreign planes.”  Tour companies are already raising their prices, there will no longer be automatic health insurance coverage for UK citizens travelling or living in the EU, UK driver’s licences will not be valid on the continent, and of course, UK passports will no longer include automatic admittance into or out of EU countries.  Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating and Standard & Poors says they are considering a similar downgrade.

Some people are already regretting their Brexit vote, thinking it was a protest vote that would never pass.  More than a million people have signed a petition asking for another referendum.  Even Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexiteers and probably the next prime minister, is saying that there’s no hurry to extradite ourselves from the EU.  Personally, I tend to give credence to those who suggest that he never expected to win, but was merely positioning himself to run as leader of the Tory party and prime minister in 2020.

Nothing would please me more than to be dead wrong.  But I fear what has been done cannot be undone and that Britain has inflicted a great wound upon itself.

And all the King’s Men

And all the King’s Horses

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

June 24, 2016

Brexit the morning after

I was up an hour earlier than usual this morning, and was stunned almost speechless to see the Brexit result.  My thoughts are now tumbling on so fast that I don’t know where to start.

As I made clear in my last post, I was committed to the Remain-in-the-EU side because, although I deeply appreciated the limits of the EU, I thought Britain would be in a better position to influence change – for itself, for the EU, and for the world – in rather than out of the EU.

But probably the most appalling thing I heard today was from Donald Trump who claims that it was his influence that swung the British to the Brexit vote, and that he now wants to instigate the same thing in the USA as president.

Why is that so appalling?  First, because I assure you Trump did not swing that vote.  Hundreds of thousands of British people signed a petition asking that he be barred from ever coming to this country.  And because the issues over Britain’s position in the EU are in no way the issues facing the US.

The essential problem for Britain in relation to the EU is a democratic deficit that the US would never tolerate.  The US would not tolerate another country telling it that it MUST accept any migrants from 26 other countries who wish to live there.  It would not tolerate a ruling that convicted criminals – rapists, murderers, gangsters – may not be deported back to their own countries after they have served their sentences if it would “violate their human rights.”  In one case, the human right being violated was that the ex-convict would be separated from his pet cats.  (I kid you not.)  The US would not tolerate thousands of dictates a year from an un-elected bureaucracy in another country which they are bound to implement.  Everything from how much cargo must be carried on trains to the size of pans one may use in their kitchens.  The US would not tolerate a Supreme Court making the final decisions about whether its laws are legitimate.

Nor was this vote primarily motivated by bigotry or racism or religious intolerance.  It was a vote about sovereignty.  As one person said to me yesterday at the check-out counter of our local farm shop:  “It’s about making our own rules for ourselves.”

In any case, the decision has now been made, and the implications are huge, if not yet clear.  Both the Tory and Labour parties here are already feeling the repercussions.  So have the pound sterling and the stock markets.  How it will eventually affect the economy here is unclear.  Will it eventually break up the United Kingdom?  Scotland says another independence referendum is now on the cards, Northern Ireland shares an open unmanned border with Ireland which is member of the EU, a problem which must be addressed.  Hundreds of issues in relation to trade with the EU and with non-EU countries around the world will need to be negotiated.  And the EU itself, deeply shaken by this unexpected vote, must decide how to relate to an independent Britain and its effect on countries already within the EU that also want big changes in relation to the authority in Brussels.  The EU itself may not survive.

Enough blathering for now.  I am now off to have a Friday gin & tonic, followed by some very English fish & chips.

June 21, 2016

BR-Exit or BR-In?

Flag of Europe.svg        or       Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg

The day after tomorrow is the referendum in which Britons decide whether to stay or leave the EU.  I decided years ago not to make this blog into a political commentary since I would inevitably be repeating what those closer to the source would be writing.  But this week I have received a month’s worth of communications asking me what I think – should Britain stay or leave?  So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Today someone sent me John Oliver’s thoughts on the question.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but he pretty much expresses both my own views on the subject as well as my feelings.  At the heart of the EU is a democratic deficit replaced by a bureaucratic minefield of infuriating finger-wagging.  I even have reservations about the European Court of Justice.

If I concentrate on what drives me crazy, the overwhelming temptation is to join Brexit, pick up one’s ball and say we don’t want to play anymore.
But that won’t make things better.  That’s not the solution.  It’s infuriating, but Britain is crazy to think it will be better off without Europe.  Besides, during the last century, Britain has done a great deal to make Europe far far better – politically and economically.  And if we paid a little more attention to whom we are electing when we send representative to the European Parliament, we might be able to make a dent in that gaping hole of democratic deficiency.  As it is, most British citizens have no idea who their EU representatives are and don’t care.
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I do agree with those who say that this is quite possibly the most important vote every eligible voter in the UK today will make in their life time.   We must stay in and continue to fight – for our sakes, for Europe’s sake, and for the sake of the entire global economic and political world.
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Don’t know what it’s going to be like when we wake up on Friday morning…
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But at least there’s Andy Murray.

May 25, 2016

Mullarky?

A friend recently sent me an article commenting on Pope Francis and his attitude toward the poor.  The view of the author is that Francis’ views is Marxist and betrays the essence of Christianity.

Francis sounded at first like such a breath of fresh air in the face of a rigid and often uncaring and out-of-touch Vatican hierarchy.  But  I’ve started thinking once again about the Eight Beatitudes and what the Sermon on the Mount really says with its proclamations that the poor are “blessed.”

If “blessed are the poor” means, in modern day language, that celebrity or mega-wealth or a Facebook full of friends are rarely goals worth pursuing in their own right, then I agree.

But that’s not what Christianity has, by and large, been teaching for the last several thousand years.  Taking a vow of poverty, for instance, automatically lifted someone to a higher plane of holiness, even if the vow did not remotely entail the imminent danger of being hungry or cold or dispossessed.  Apart from that group of well-cared for allegedly poor nuns, monks, and brothers, most of those elevated to the official status of saints were not poor.  They were among the Great and the Good, people in positions of power and authority who treated their servants with a certain amount of fairness, or who took up the sword to slay the enemies of Christianity.  Or sometimes merely the version of Christianity currently in favour.

So what is essentially “Christian” about being poor?

Well, for starters, the translation of the beatitude about the poor in the Bibles with which I am acquainted does not say “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  It does not bless poverty in the economic sense.  It does not suggest that being hungry or living in squalor or unable to obtain an education for lack of funds is intrinsically blessed.  Conversely, it does not support the conclusion that people like Donald Trump, among others, who have declared themselves legally bankrupt on occasions are subsequently automatically “blessed.”

It seems to me that, challenging as economic poverty may be, “blessed” is a great deal more difficult to achieve.  In some ways, we are all “poor.”  We are all incomplete, all needy in different ways, we all need support and help from others.  It’s not being “poor” that is blessed.  It’s what we do with those challenges presented by our incompleteness.

Do we respond with violence, jealousy, resentment, with passive acceptance or helplessness?  Admittedly society is apt to respond to those who respond to their economic poverty with physical violence with a tit-for-tat punishment such as prison sentences and exile.  Those whose poverty is not economic are rarely punished with the same vindictive anger by society.  Partly because the violence of the well-off is less apt to be overtly physically abusive, and more apt to be manifest in betrayals, and scams.  But in either case, neither being rich nor poor or somewhere in-between is, all by itself, “blessed.”

By the same token, “serving the poor” in the economic sense of poverty, is not somehow holier than meeting all the other human needs we have besides those for food and shelter.  We need love, we need to feel special, we need guidance too.

And we need to give every bit as much as we need to receive.  The overt “giver” is often, in the very act, the true “receiver.”

I suspect that “poor” is much deeper, more complex, and more universal, than either Christianity or Marxism would have us believe.

 

May 16, 2016

Am I a mystic?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

I’ve never thought I was a mystic.  Well, not counting that time when I was about seven when a friend told me she thought she was developing the stigmata — marks of nails on one’s hands and feet in identification with the crucified Jesus.  But when no similar marks appeared in my own hands, I decided not to take matters into my own hands (excuse the pun), and decided it was not going to be my path to sainthood.

Many years later as a psychologist, I wondered in passing if many manifestations of “mysticism” weren’t really a form of neurosis or even psychosis.

But more recently I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences almost of euphoria in response to music and also of some studies of nature like quantum physics or animal consciousness.  My responses aren’t irrational, but they are somehow beyond reason, accompanied by this sheer sense of awe and joy in the presence of such almost-infinite beauty.

Then a couple of days ago I stumbled on a website discussing how quantum mechanics, mysticism, and vendata-yoga are influencing western thought today, and I began to ask myself what actually a mystic is.  How do they know something that us ordinary folk do not comprehend?  And how does one tell the difference between a mystic and someone who simply claims to know the Truth by some path which the rest of us have not attained?

So I went to the font of all knowledge in this second millennium and Googled “What is a mystic?”

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is of the opinion that “mysticism is popularly known as becoming one with God or the Absolute, but may refer to any kind of ecstasy or altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning.”   Maybe one needs simply to get a hold of the right drugs then, and interpret it as a spiritual experience.

Another website offered to help clarify my inquiry, with a set of ten telltale sign of a mystic.

Here are the signs and my thoughts about whether I qualify:

You value experiences above all else.  That means you trust your own experience above doctrine and laws and abstract principles.  Personally, I don’t trust anything, doctrine, laws, abstract principles, or my personal experience absolutely.  I think about them, I listen.  Some things make more sense than others and I use them as guidelines.  But I can’t say I value my experience above all else.

You question existence.  You constantly ask why we are all here, and have a natural curiosity about the physical and spiritual world.  I used to think the answer to this question was “God,” until I realized the concept of  “God” is unfathomable to the human mind.  Although I have a driving, almost endless curiosity about the physical world, including curiosity about consciousness which seems evident in all living things, I prefer to accept that I live in mystery to which I do not have the answers and do not believe I ever will.

You are comfortable with uncertainty.  Yes!  In fact, I am hugely uncomfortable with certainty – about almost everything.  I don’t trust absolute answers about anything from anybody no matter who they are.  Hmm, does that make me mystical?

You value intuition.   I value intuition, but I don’t trust it without testing it out.  My intuition is sometimes a leap into the light.  It is also sometimes dead wrong.

You are uncomfortable with spiritual hierarchies.  Mystics do not believe there is only one correct way.  No, neither do I.  We are each unique.  At least in this universe.

You have your own set of rules, looking beyond what may be socially accepted or mandated by leaders or society.  I’m not by nature a rebel and I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being socially awkward or insensitive.  But from a very young age I’ve always wanted to do things for myself and make my own decisions.

You value internal growth.  If this means, do I value it more than money or fame or public success, yes.  This strikes me more as a sign of maturity than mysticism, though.

You believe you are a conduit for power, not the source.  The answer for myself depends on what one means by “source.”  I’m inclined to think there is an intrinsic evolution in the universe, but I’m not inclined to believe it was created by some external power many people would call “God.

You believe love is the source of life.  Again, I might quibble with the use of the word “source.”  But love does seem to me to be the essence of the creative force in the universe.

You don’t know everything.  Agree.  But I’m pretty sure I haven’t discovered this because I’m a mystic.   I discovered it because I still have so many unanswered questions.

Well, I don’t seem to be a truly qualified mystic.   I’m also not convinced mysticism is intrinsically some higher way of knowing.  But I do think it might be a legitimate way of knowing.  The psychologist Carl Jung believed that we humans tend to favor reason or intuition during the first part of our lives, and somewhere around middle age begin to switch to whichever mode has been less dominant in our youth.  I suspect that mysticism is an intuitive approach applied to questions that are beyond the scope of science.  It is not always right, but it isn’t necessarily neurotic either.  It’s a legitimate way of trying to explore the question of existence and its meaning.

April 25, 2016

Which lesson have we learned?

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is Why do abused children become abusers? published more than six years ago.  In it I ask why some children who are abused grow up to be abusers themselves.  Would not children who are abused understand above all how painful, destructive, indeed awful abuse is?  Some children do grow up to be loving, caring parents.  But research shows that a surprising number of adult abusers were themselves abused as children.

Among other things, what they so often learned wasn’t that bullying is bad but that it is the biggest bully who gets his or her way.

I have just read another blog post, Are African Americans Our Palestinians?, that has led me to conclude that something similar sometimes happens to whole cultures, or at least sub-cultures.  In Israel today it seems to me that today’s government has come to believe that to achieve that oft-repeated vow, “never again”, it must be the biggest bully on the block.

And do you know who are Israel’s biggest supporters in this endeavour?  The Land of the Free.  The land where immigrants arrived and in the name of Freedom began a program of bullying the natives already living there.  It was effectively a program of ethnic cleansing, eventually reducing the native American Indian population to a mere 5% of its original size.  That lay the ground work for the importation of slaves, who even today in America suffer the effects of widespread prejudice.

We Americans and Israelis are not the only cultures, of course, to develop this pattern of bullying abuse.  Nor are the citizens of any bullying country all guilty of self-delusion either.  But we humans so often see the speck in our neighbor’s eye while missing the boulder in our own.

One further qualification:  I myself have struggled for most of my life over the problem of using brute force.  I do know that punishment is rarely as effective in child-raising or in changing behavior in general as encouragement and reward.  But sometimes it seems to me behavior must be stopped by force.  If force is necessary, I would use it on a two-year-old child heading for an open fire.  I would shoot a man, given the chance, who was threatening to murder his wife.  But would I support sending government troops to defend people threatened by ethnic cleansing?  That gets more complicated, but if I thought I could stop such an outrage, I would.

March 8, 2016

A story for Women’s Day

When I was ten years old, my mother had twins – a boy named Bob and a girl, Mary.  Within a year, my brother Tom and I had assumed the responsibility of socializing them, teaching them essential tasks such as learning to walk, to button one’s shirt, and critically, the highly abstract and complex task of learning to tie their shoe laces.

To fully understand the implications of the story I am about to tell, it is necessary to understand that the subtle indoctrination of Roman Catholicism in our family included the indisputable truth that men are more intelligent than women.  Bob, therefore, had to learn to tie his shoes before his sister Mary, or suffer the humiliation of sexual failure at the mature age of two.

So Tom set about teaching Bob to tie his shoe laces, and I took over the job of tutoring Mary.

Mary learned to tie her shoe laces first.

But when I told this momentous fact to Tom, and he asked Mary to prove it, she pretended that she couldn’t do it.

In fact, she refused to admit that she knew how to tie her laces until Bob had learned and demonstrated his achievement first.

My temptation is to say that this illustrates that girls really are smarter than boys, or that I was a better teacher than my brother, but of course it doesn’t.

But do you think that sometimes girls are just kinder than our counterparts?  I can’t ask Mary what she thinks because she died of cancer 20 years ago.

But that’s my hypothesis.  I think even at the age of two, there was no way she was going to play a game of one-up-man-ship  with her dear twin brother.

I Can Tie My Own Shoes (I Can Books) by Ltd. Top That Publishing

 

 

 

 

February 27, 2016

However it’s said…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

 

“Three things in human life are important:

the first is to be kind;

the second is to be kind;

and the third is to be kind.”

— Henry James

However you say it, whether it’s the Golden Rule, or St. Paul’s Greatest of These, it’s love that turns out to be what matters in the end, isn’t it?

Henry James, the writer, died 100 years ago tomorrow.  His work is still vibrant, and in coming months, museums, libraries, and universities are exploring his legacy in conferences across America and Europe.  

February 7, 2016

Yes we can!

As I said in an earlier post, I believe that the environmental change we humans are effecting on our planet is the biggest challenge facing the world today.  In so far as it could lead to our own extinction as a species, it may actually be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.

I do not agree with those who argue that the emergence of this challenge is a result of human greed.  It is the outcome of evolution, of the drive for survival which lies at the very core of every living organism.  Millions of species that survived for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, are now extinct because they were unable to adapt to the environmental change which they themselves often orchestrated.

In the last century, lighting and heating our homes and offices by burning coal and oil, increased transportation by road and rail traffic, industrialized farming, the domestication of farm animals, all have kept millions of people from starvation, poverty, the effects of deadly weather, and disease.

These innovations were spread by loving, creative, hard-working people around the world often making sacrifices for their children and communities.  We didn’t know it then – we had no idea – that carried to an extreme, we could be destroying the potential of our very existence.

http://www.datainfomobility.com/solutions/

Yet we may be the only species that can now see that many of the very solutions to the problems we have been intelligent enough to solve in the past in order to insure our survival have now created the very problems we need solve in order to insure our continued survival.

We have the intelligence to solve these problems without destroying ourselves.

In New Zealand today, research is being carried out which is already producing cows and sheep which expel less methane.  In Europe, scientists who have discovered that the huge expanse of man-made forests consisting of conifers isn’t reducing global warming but increasing it are moving to replace the conifers with nature’s original choice of broad-leaved varieties.  We are identifying new and clean ways of tapping into the sun’s energy using the ocean waves, pedestrian traffic, even the tires rolling on the road might someday be used to charge car batteries without their ever needing to be plugged into a socket.

There are hundreds – no, thousands – of examples like this.  Some are already being implemented, some are still in the experimental or even conceptual stage.  The solutions are not yet all obvious. Nor will the problem be solved in one fell swoop, with one big single answer.  It needs many steps, some small, some large.

But if we believe in ourselves and in our responsibility to care for this planet that has been given into our care, we can make it even better than it has ever been.

We are the ones who have to do it.  And we can!

 

 

January 22, 2016

Is global warming just a joke?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:44 pm
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Scientists have announced that the world for the year 2015 was an average of 1 degree celsius (that’s about 2 degree fahrenheit) warmer than has ever occurred in recorded history.

But 1 degree?  That doesn’t sound like the potential catastrophe of droughts, floods, extinctions, starvation and global disease scientists say could occur if the planet warms more than just one more degree.

Is this serious, is it mere hysteria?  is it a fraud?

Nothing would please me more than to write that scientists are exaggerating the problem.

But let us put 1 degree celsius into context.  A decrease of just five degrees celsius would plunge the world into an ice age.  So a change of a mere five degrees can dramatically change our planet.  Unfortunately, it can do so in the opposite direction as well.

Global warming in the form of 2-3 degree celsius can be devastating.  The melting of glaciers could raise the oceans’ water level by as much as 6-8 feet.  Think of how many of the world’s greatest cities will be underwater, how many islands will disappear, how much land will be lost to the sea.  As sea water becomes increasingly acidic, much of sea life will be lost.

From ChristianToday.com

 

Extreme weather patterns, some of which we have already seen this year, will proliferate.  Floods will sweep entire towns, fields and farm land away.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons will flatten anything and anyone in its torrential path.

Electricity, communication media, and travel could be devastated, leaving survivors isolated.  Water supplies will be corrupted.

Fifteen years ago when I first read about global warming, I thought it sounded quite comfortable.  Some of us would perhaps have to sacrifice our winter snow and skiing vacations.  But our heating bills would be greatly reduced, and the growing season for our crops would be lengthened.

But that’s not what’s happening.  Environmental change, even environmental destruction, would be a much better term for what we call global warming.  Yes, the temperatures are increasing, but the effects on our mother earth are not benign.

Can we stop it?  Yes, I believe we can.  It doesn’t have to happen.  With research, with ingenuity, if governments, if businesses, if individuals are determined to save our planet we can do it.  The ways of producing clean energy now being provided by polluting fossil fuels is developing fast.  Solar panels are becoming cheaper.  More efficient, lithium batteries are getting smaller and are even being used to store electricity in houses, making them independent of the grid.  We’re even finding ways of tapping into the energy that Einstein discovered pervades every inch of our atmosphere.

But we can’t walk around and deny the problem created by our unlimited use of fossil fuels.  Or count on somebody else to fix things.

We all have to do our part, no matter how small that might feel.  But we can do it if we choose.  We don’t have to be victims.

December 27, 2015

Am I still a Catholic?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:25 pm
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Several weeks ago, I received a comment asking several questions on this blog post of June 19, 2007  “The night I left the convent.”  The questioner asked if I was still a Catholic, if I believed in God, and if I’d felt a “desire to serve Jesus” when I’d entered the convent.

The questions might sound simple, but the answers aren’t.  “Am I still a Catholic?” doesn’t have a black & white Yes or No answer.  It depends on what being “Catholic” means.

I do not think the essence of being a Catholic  or a Christian – by any definition Catholic or Protestant – lies in doctrine.  It is a tragic mistake to think our salvation is based on what we believe and has led to centuries of religious slaughter.   The fundamental Christian message is one of love.  Nothing can replace it.  And love can make up for all – all – the other deficits which might afflict us.

And so no, I am not still a Catholic by the demands of those who insist that I agree with the decrees of the Catholic hierarchy.  I do not believe in  the doctrines most traditional Catholics would accept as essential to Catholic belief.  I have no doubt that by most standards I would be excommunicated.   I would not even try to partake in communion.

In fact, I do not believe in what most believers mean when they use the term “God.”  By definition, I cannot see how “God” can possibly be as human as most people conceive this concept.  But more profoundly, I  emphatically reject the concept of an all-powerful, all-loving creator who is prepared to send his creatures to an everlasting hell fire should they step over the mark and not manage to get to a priest for official forgiveness before death overcomes him.   I was taught that even so much as eating a single bite of meat on Friday was a mortal sin, an act so evil that it would dam me for eternity if I didn’t get to confession and receive forgiveness.  I won’t go on further at how hideous I experience this God to be.  Yes, we live in mystery.  We do not understand our universe in any ultimate sense.  But I do not give “God” as my answer to those ultimate questions.

Yet there are other ways in which I am still a Catholic.  The version of Catholicism I was given taught that all humankind are brothers.  We are called on to love all of our fellow mankind, and to care for all living things.  For me, the core of Christianity is “the greatest of these”.  That, as St. Paul said, is love.

That really does mean, though, that we cannot divide the world into “us” and “them.”  The important distinctions are neither Jew or gentile, male or female, Black or White, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, believer or non-believer, the saved or the unredeemed,  the right and the wrong.

We are all incomplete.  We all need each other.  We all need both to love and to be loved.  And none of us are 100% right.

There are other ways as well in which I am still culturally a Catholic.  I still like right answers, a preference which to some extent was reinforced by being socialized as a member of what I was told was the “one and only true church.”   I was quite good when I was young at explaining and defending those “right answers.”  I have found this tendency in general has often been useful in solving practical problems.  But an attitude like that can interfere with creativity, and I have often failed to distinguish between rigid rules and principles.   It was only in my later years that I have come to fully understand that rules are valuable suggestions that may be useful in achieving ones goals.  But disobeying a rule or even a law isn’t the same thing as committing a sin.

I have never felt any particular passion to “serve Jesus.”  Most of my life I have found great pleasure in helping others.  I loved teaching, for instance, with a passion.  And there was a time when I thought I was wise enough to construct a world that would eliminate injustice and unfairness and suffering.  I wasn’t, and I am hugely grateful I was never given the power to demonstrate my ignorance.

So am I still a Catholic?

Depends on what that means.

http://www.groweb.site/

Now I have to stop or I will end up moving this post to trash in sheer embarrassment.

 

 

 

 

December 13, 2015

Truly Tidings of Good News!

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:32 pm
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We watched the negotiators in Paris yesterday when the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that almost 200 countries in the world had reached agreement on climate change.  There was a moment of dumb silence, and then an explosion of celebration.  They had done it!

Christiana Figueres and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius welcome the final agreement.

from TheGuardian.com

Yes, I know it is only the first step to saving the only planet on which we live, and which is uniquely ours.

Yes, I’ve read enough of what is contained in the legally binding agreement to know that without good will, determination, generosity, and creativity we will continue down the road to destroying our only home.

So the problem is not done and dusted.  There is a great deal of hard work and sacrifice still facing us.  Governments, business, communities, and individuals must all do our part.

But we have taken an absolutely huge and essential first step without which no progress at all could be made.  And until the last minute, that was by no means assured.

And so I am celebrating the future of mankind today.

Truly it is a day that brings us Tidings of Good News.

December 8, 2015

I wish I’d said that!

I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb

Richard Feynman, American nobel-prize physicist

Richard Feynman Nobel.jpg

 Click here if you want to know how “dumb” he was

Impresses me as a better alternative than “I’m too smart to be wrong.”

December 5, 2015

Even at heaven’s gate

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:50 pm
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The day finally arrived.  Forrest Gump dies and goes to Heaven.

When he arrives, however, the Pearly Gates are closed, and Forrest approaches St. Peter keeping the gates.  St. Peter says “Well, Forrest, it is certainly good to see you.  We’ve heard a lot about you.  But I must tell you that the place is filling up fast and we have been administering an entrance examination you have to pass before you can get in.”

Forrest says “It sure is good to be here, sir.  But nobody ever told me about any entrance exam.  I sure hope the test ain’t too hard.  Life was a big enough test as it was.”

‘Yes, I know, Forrest,” St. Peter replied, “but the test is only three questions:
First:
What two days of the week begin, with the letter T?
Second:
How many seconds are there in a year?
Third:
What is God’s first name?”
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Forrest leaves to think the questions over.  When he returns the next day, St. Peter waves him over:  “Now that you have had a chance to think the questions over, tell me your answers.”
.

 Forrest replied, “Well, the first one — which two days in the week begins with the letter ‘T’?    Shucks,  That would be Today and Tomorrow.”

St. Peter’s eyes opened wide.  “Forrest, that is not what I was thinking, but you do have a point, and I guess I did not specify, so I will give you credit for that answer. How about the next one? – ‘How many seconds in a year?’ ”

 “Now that one is harder,” Forrest replies, “but I thunk and thunk about that, and I guess the only answer can be twelve.”

Astounded, St Peter said, “Twelve? Twelve? Forrest, how in heaven’s name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?”

Forrest replied, “Shucks, there’s got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd… ”

“Hold it,” interrupts St. Peter.  “I can see your point, though that was not quite what I had in mind…  But I will have to give you credit for that one, too.  So let us go on with the last question.  Can you tell me God’s first name?”

 “Sure,’ Forrest replied, ‘it’s Andy.”

The Economist cover, Dec 5, 2015
I must point out, however, that it is not featuring St. Peter)
“Andy?!?”  exclaimed St. Peter.  “Forrest, how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as God’s first name?”

“Shucks, that was the easiest one of all,” Forrest replied. I learnt it from the song,

ANDY WALKS WITH ME,
ANDY TALKS WITH ME,
 .
ANDY TELLS ME I AM HIS OWN.’
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St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates and said “Run, Forrest, run.”
 
 

November 30, 2015

Solar-powered celebrations

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 2:20 pm
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There is a company called Plantscape that sells or rents solar-powered Christmas trees and other decorations.

Hanging Christmas tree. Image: Plantscape

Don’t you wish you’d thought of that!?  And Christmas trees seem such a fitting spot to capture our winter sun.  After all, Christmas was originally introduced by the pagans as a celebration of the returning light of the sun.

It’s another example of human ingenuity suggesting that tackling environmental degradation doesn’t necessarily require a return to primitive life styles.  We don’t even need to contemplate pre-industrial life styles.  We just need to use our creative determination.  Plantscape has been in business for 8 years and still growing.

November 23, 2015

Should we bomb Syria?

Britain right now is in the grips of a debate over whether to join the coalition bombing IS in Syria.  The Tory government thinks we should.   Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial leader of the opposition Labour party and long-time pacifist is adamantly against it.  He believes that all conflicts should be solved by diplomacy, and initially in the face of a terrorist threat in London similar to the one in Paris, objected to increased armed police on the street.

I think we should bomb Syria IF – and only IF – we address the fundamental issues.  IS, in my view, is like a 2-year old who’s got a hold of a stack of papers he’s lighting with the wood fire in the living room and throwing them around the house.  He has to be stopped immediately – not through negotiation or discussion.  If it involves smacking him – or bombing them, then I would do that.  But just as with the child, you can’t stop there.

We were “successful” in our bombing Iraq, Afghanistan and Libia, but were arrogant idiots in our ignorance about the underlying problems there and ultimately made the fundamental conflicts within those countries worse.  Every one of those countries now have much stronger pockets of IS,  unknown numbers of trained committed jihadists – perhaps as many as several hundred thousand by some estimates – serving as recruitment and training centers for countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.

In addition, IS has money, and a sophisticated plan to convince Muslims, especially in Europe & America, that they are not welcome there, and are seen as inferior.  IS (quite rightly, I think) believe that this is helping them recruit jihadists from those countries, especially among young men who can’t get jobs.  America has just played into their hands with its latest vote on Syrian refugees.
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And there is an even deeper problem within middle-eastern countries than feeling thought inferior and unwanted by Western countries.  The Sunnis & Shias are as adamantly opposed to each other as were the Catholics & Protestants during the religious wars for several centuries in Europe.  They believe Allah has given them a mission to destroy the heretics who do not agree with them.  So if we go into those countries, victory will require boots on the ground.  But military presence wouldn’t be enough.  We need a strategy for what happens if/when IS per se is defeated to control the forces that are making it so attractive to so many.  Otherwise, it will simply re-emerge, perhaps under a different name, but no less destructive.
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I’ve read some interesting possibilities on that.  But they will require significant skill to implement them.  China, Russia, Europe, Iran, Turkey, the US and others may be united against IS but we are not in agreement about the alternatives either politically or economically.  Without that, what good would bombing do?  “Isis” will just turn up again, under a different name perhaps, but with the same deadly intents and possibly in even greater strength.
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Climate change and globalization have both been significant factors in amplifying these conflicts.  Resolving them – even moderating them sufficiently to ensure the survival of the human species – I think is one of the biggest conflicts we have ever faced.  Unfortunately, neither slamming the door nor dropping bombs will resolve them.

November 20, 2015

Are we doomed without religion?

In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.

Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.

One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species.  We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered its cage in the zoo.  There are thousands of examples.  If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.

Where does this altruism come from?  In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief.  Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes.  It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations.  But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.

Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures?  Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?

If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?

Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment.  But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself,  as if we need to be bribed to love others.

We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals.  We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.

Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?

Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.

But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.

Could we survive without religion?  could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?

As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer.  I don’t know if or when religion make things better or worse.  Religion does not do a lot for me these days.  I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding.  Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.

I don’t know.  I would be interested to know what you think.

November 19, 2015

Does religion make us feel superior?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

For the first 6 years when I was a nun, we dressed in traditional habits, covering everything except our faces and hands.  Obviously, no one would mistake us for anything but nuns, Christians dedicating our virginity to a higher calling.  We younger nuns eventually received permission to wear habits that were a little less traditional, but the mark of our “chosen way” of life was still pretty clear.  Everybody with whom we worked knew who and what we were.MM%2520group%25202

(FYI, I am in the middle of the bottom row)

When I left the convent after nine years and began life as a student in New York City, I realized that I’d been divested of a cloak of sanctity.  Strangers on the streets no longer held doors open for me, for instance, or offered me a seat in place of theirs on the subway.

But the bigger change was in myself.  I no longer thought of myself as holier than a mere  lay person.  And I realized that just putting on that habit had made me feel morally superior to the layman who did not aspire to the level of sainthood which I sought for myself.  Indeed, which to some extent I assumed I had already achieved for myself.

That insight was close to half a century ago and I have tended to reflect on it occasionally with some embarrassment at my arrogant egocentrism.

But I read a research review in the Economist this month, Matthew 22:39, that has made me wonder if my personal experience is not far more significant and widespread than I realized.  Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago has studied more than a thousand children between 5 and 12 years of age in America, Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey from many different religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. Decety and his colleagues played a game with each of the children in which they had a chance to share their winnings with other children who had not had a chance to win anything.

Children of families of non-believers were willing to share significantly more of their winnings than were children of families who said they were religious.  Not only that, but religious parents predicted with a fair amount of confidence that their children would be more generous than children of families that practiced no religion.  Their predictions were wrong.  Children raised in religious families were less generous than children with no religious background.  Significantly so.

As the world today is facing repeated murderous onslaughts from young people who believe they are killing and dying for the One and Only True Religion, I am beginning to wonder in a way I have not done before if the problem is not one religion or another, but the underlying message, whatever version it may be.  Does teaching a child that they belong to the One and Only True Church – whether it is Roman Catholicism or extreme Islam or all those True Religions in between convince us by that very fact that we are intrinsically morally superior?  Is it equivalent to donning that nun’s habit which somehow transformed me into someone wiser, holier, more righteous than everybody else?

Wars, as we know, are often fought flying religious banners, often on both sides.  This has led some thinkers to argue that religion causes war.  I’ve always tended to think that if there is a causal link between the two that it is not religion that causes wars but rather that religion was a potent force for energizing those who were fighting for their own people, their values, their identity, and most especially, for greater wealth.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.  Does religion itself make us feel superior?  is it in the very nature of religion to convince us that we are right, that we deserve everything that is given to us and that anybody who opposes us are on the side of the devil whom we must fight with all our strength and energy?  Obviously, that fight does not necessarily manifest itself in war.  But I wonder if, even in our charitable activities,  it does not manifest itself in an attitude of moral superiority.

 

November 15, 2015

Magical balloons

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:11 pm
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The news this weekend seems particularly depressing.  The multiple terrorist attacks in Paris seem especially terrifying and unexpected – on the par with 9/11 in terms of its shock value.

In the midst of this global awfulness, I stumbled on what might really be seriously important and good news.  Hang on:  this could sound utterly boring, but it might have implications for all of us and those we love and care about.

A group of international scientists have just published a report in Nature (highly respected science journal) in which they report having invented an ultra-porous liquid which contains huge (well, huge in atomic terms) bubbles.  What is potentially significant about this invention is that these bubbles may be able to contain vast amount of carbon-dioxide — the greenhouse gas we are throwing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels which is so destructive of our environment.

If we can capture the carbon-dioxides we are currently pumping into the air we might be able to avoid disaster.  That is, we may be able to avoid the droughts, starvation, wars, diseases, flooding, mega-storms, and destruction of our oceans that global warming is already beginning to visit on us.

Above all, it may make a significant contribution to earth’s not hitting what scientists call a tipping point.  One of the most dangerous tipping points we could trigger is the melting of the arctic ice to such a degree that it releases the vast amounts of methane gas currently trapped there.  Methane gas is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and once it escapes, it will be too late for us to turn things around.

When I was a child, I thought balloons were magical.  Maybe I was right.

Image from Wallpaperscraft.com

October 26, 2015

Helpless and hopeless?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm
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I’ve suspected for some time that people’s denial of the human contribution to environmental destruction arises out of a sense of helplessness.  Despite the fact that evidence is building up that we ourselves are potentially making planet earth uninhabitable, an astonishing number of people simply refuse to take the possibility seriously.  Many of these climate change deniers are religious fundamentalists.  Many believe that they will be among the Saved when four horsemen usher in the end of the world, and so they don’t have to worry.  (Not, I will admit, a very Christian attitude for those exhorted to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  But common, nonetheless.)  Others simply quote Jesus’ exhortation for us to “look at the lilies of the field,” and convince themselves that God can cure climate change “with the snap of his fingers” if he wants to.

Some recent research into the workings of the brain began to make this kind of reasoning make some kind of sense to me.  Researchers have found that we may very well use the same part of our brain for problem-solving as we do for at least some of our religious thinking.  In other words, religious belief may actually be a problem-solving exercise.

This has certainly been true historically.  What we now think of as religious belief was the explanation for why the sun seemed to go into a sulk every year and needed to be coaxed back by the sacrifice of a virgin or two.  Religion explained why the stars did not fall down on our heads, and even today is used by some preachers to claim that our sinfulness is the cause of events like tsunamis and earthquakes.

Religion, therefore, can often solve problems that otherwise seem unsolvable.  It saves us from a sense of hopelessness and despair.

I that context, I wonder if a lot of people deny climate change – or at least our contribution to it – because the problem seems unsolvable.  I will admit that until very recently, my main hope was not that the governments of the world would agree to the measures we all must take around the world to save us from destroying ourselves.  My most optimistic scenario was that a sufficient number of humans would survive the inevitable global droughts, starvation, wars, and disease that would reduce our numbers from the current 7 1/2 billion to a more manageable billion or so, which will have learned the lesson that God does not intervene when we ourselves are creating our own problems.

But I am reading a book, which frankly, I am finding astonishing.  It is Adventures in the Anthropocene:  A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by an Australian journalist Gaia Vince.  She does not by any means minimize the size of the problem we have created for ourselves.  With terrifying clarity she visits and describes the problems that are already evident – the air that is killing us, temperature changes that are moving populations, melting glaciers, depleting water tables and creating a rate of species extinction on a mega-scale, the destruction of farmlands and forests on every continent.

But she is also identifying solutions that creative individuals have designed that have addressed these problems, transforming entire villages, farmlands, cities.  Some of them are simply amazing.

It is convincing me that we can solve this problem of environmental destruction if we do not give up in despair.

And it is not up solely to governments.  In fact, many of the solutions have already been found on a small scale.  They have been found by creative, determined individuals and small groups who have refused to simply ring their hands in despondency, saying there is nothing they can do that will make a meaningful difference.  Governments need to look at these local solutions, study them, and find ways to spread them across the world.

No one – not even the most creative or powerful – is going to turn this problem around alone.  Nor are governments going to be able to do it alone.

But the human race is incredibly ingenious.

Jesus didn’t look at the lilies of the field and suggest that we should just sit back and trust that supper will somehow miraculously appear on the table tonight.  It is not telling us to sit passively in the trust that God will take care of everything and we don’t have to do anything to make things better.  Today, this parable, I think, is urging us to trust that we do not need to despair, that we have been given the capacity to solve the problems of environmental change.

But we do have to work at it.  We do have to take responsibility for what we are doing.  Almost all of us can take small steps that add up.  A few can take giant steps that we can emulate and apply.

Over the next months, I plan to describe some of the solutions Vince lays out in her book.  I hope it will help spread hopefulness, rather than helplessness.

 

September 8, 2015

The heart vs the brain

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:18 pm

I’ve not karumphed over my interpretation of religious obedience for many years, but a friend has just reminded me of the kind of advice we were given over 50 years ago as young Maryknoll sisters:

“God doesn’t want your brains, but your love …so don’t get upset after we teach you all this smart missiology and anthropology stuff when the bishop hasn’t opened a book in 40 years!  Just obey the bishop and please God.”  “I bet they don’t think like that now,” she added.

I suspect most American nuns might not think that way now, which is why the Vatican still has so much trouble with them.  Because I know a good number of priests and bishops who certainly still think like that.

This distinction between heart and brain, in other words, between love and intelligence, is bogus power-hungry advice posing as religious humility to keep people in their place.  Isn’t it, after all, the excuse that the Nazis used at the Nuremberg trials to justify the death of 14 million innocent people in the gas chambers of their concentration camps?  “I was merely following orders.”

As human beings, we survive by using both our capacity for love and for intelligence, and they are inseparable.  Does it not take intelligence to care for the sick?  to develop a vaccine for ebola or polio or small pox?  Does it not take intelligence to teach children to read or develop mathematical skills?  Does it not take intelligence to provide balanced meals for the family?  Does it not take intelligence to represent a defendant in court?  Does it not take intelligence to treat the mentally ill?  Does it not take intelligence to respond with compassion to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war and starvation in the world today?  Does it not take intelligence to run a farm that produces food for an entire community?

No:  don’t tell me that God doesn’t want my brain.  Do not tell me that I will please God if I do what the bishop or president or even the pope tells me to do – no matter how ignorant or damaged or unloving he has on occasion been known to be.  I know I might be wrong myself.  But I will take responsibility for doing my best to make a judgement based on respect for the life that surrounds me.

I will not willingly denigrate intelligence as merely a form of hubris, or elevate ignorance to the level of unquestioning obedience.

Whew!  I didn’t realize I still felt so strongly about this.  I think I owe it to what I learned from my parents – one who, when I was growing up, I thought was The Brain, and the other whom I thought was The Heart.  But they worked together in socializing their children.  I learned something essential from that.

August 24, 2015

my mystery

Filed under: Growing Old,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:45 pm
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Recently I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of human beings.  It’s not an intellectual thing.  It’s just a speechless delight.

Sometimes it’s when I’m watching a game of soccer and I see the beauty and energy of a young man running across the field.  I felt it when I read about the courage and skill and determination of the three Americans who attacked the terrorist on the train in France last week.  Sometimes I watch a child in the supermarket and feel it.  Today I was introduced to Josh Goban – whom I’d never heard of.  But as I watched the video, it came over me again.

If somebody tried to tell me perhaps ten years ago they felt this way, I suspect I would have felt an impatient irritation at such sentimentality.  And I can’t explain it myself.  Even now, I doubt if I were actually talking to anyone reading this post, I would dare to try to express what would probably sound like claptrap.  Maybe it’s a gift that only comes to super-rational people like me with getting old.

But despite everything, despite the terrible horrors we are inflicting on each other and on this amazing world in which we live, despite the fact that we are all going to die and move into we know not what, I think the privilege of being part of this amazing incredible mysterious beauty makes living my life a treasure beyond measure.

I can no other answer make

but thanks, and thanks,

and ever thanks.

Shakespeare – Twelfth Night

July 26, 2015

A little bird told me

 

 

 

My husband and I were sitting in our sun room yesterday having a pre-dinner drink when a very frightened little bird frantically flew into the room through the open door.  It hid underneath one of the unoccupied chairs, while we pondered what to do next.  But before we’d closed the door to the rest of the house, the bird suddenly flew into the next room and hid itself in a hanging pot plant.

Little Bird Wallpapers

A little belatedly we closed off the rest of the house, and explored the best way to help.   The plant was hanging in front of a window but it was locked and opening it would clearly be more terrifying than reassuring.  Should we go away and leave the door open outside?  But the bird looked quite comfortable there in the maiden hair fern.  What if it didn’t leave before night fall and was frantically flying around the room like the caged animal it was?

I decided to try to grab it.  In the process, it became clear it was a baby bird that didn’t yet understand that it couldn’t fly to freedom through glass and kept bashing itself against the window.  I kept talking to it in quiet tones, and finally caught it.  As my fingers wrapped around it, I felt it go limp.  I kept talking to it, reassuring it that everything was going to be okay, and carried it outside.  When I released it on the lawn, it flew speedily away across the property fence.

We returned to our drinks with a feeling of quiet pleasure that the bird had flown in when we were there and that we’d been able to help rather than discovering a battered bird on the floor the next morning.

Like that little bird, I would like to say thank you for the comments following my post of despair yesterday.  What you reminded me is that none of us can reconstruct the world to eliminate all suffering and injustice.  Yes, systems matter.  And there are good systems and bad systems.  But no systems can work if the individuals living in them don’t take care of each other in the small and sometimes big ways that fly through the door unannounced.

Your comments really did help me remember that.

Thank you.

 

July 25, 2015

My existential conundrum

I don’t remember ever having this thought in my life.  But I was sitting at my desk today and felt a huge desire to stop worrying about the world.  I even want to stop knowing about it and understanding it.  What good, I wonder, does it do me or anybody else for me to understand the problem of the Greek bailout and the faulty foundation of the euro?  or the problem of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria? or the Ukraine conflict? or the economic problems for Scotland if it became independent? or racism, or religious intolerance, or the problem to democracy of the U.S. Supreme Court giving corporations the right to pour unlimited money into political lobbying?  And then there’s Africa, and the entire middle east, and Latin America, and China, and Russia, and climate change, and the rate at which humans are responsible for the extinction of other species.

I will stop.  Probably half the readers of this post have given up reading already.

It seems obvious that the first step to solving any of these problems is to know about them.  But as I look around, I’m not sure that’s happening.  So many of the solutions being offered by both the left and the right seem ill-thought out but at the same time cursed with the kind of righteous certainty that only ignorance can support.

When our problems become too overwhelming, do we as a species resort to this kind of simplistic reasoning we see so often disguised as religious and/or political principles?  or barring that, the temptation with which I am struggling, a self-imposed indifference, a refusal to worry or get involved?

 Is “Digital” the Real Sixth Sense?  www.pcdrome.com  

I have always felt at home with globalization made possible by the digital world.  Terrifyingly so, perhaps.

Because I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by it.

 

 

July 3, 2015

Glimpse of the future

Two days ago was the hottest day ever recorded in Great Britain.  Ever.

When you look at a the globe and see that Great Britain shares a latitude with Siberia, one can appreciate just how hot that was.  The temperature hit 37.4 Centigrade or 99.3 3 Fahrenheit.

I lived for many years in New York City, and also in Spain.  So it wasn’t the hottest day I have ever experienced.  Although after living for 12 years here in England, it felt like the hottest day, and I was utterly exhausted and occasionally nauseous.

It felt like a glimpse of the future.  Environmental change is happening, and that change includes the seemingly contradictory changes reflected in exceptional heat as well as exceptionally cold winters for some, record-breaking droughts along with deadly floods and acidfying oceans.

But personally, the loss of energy I experienced felt like a it could be a glimpse of my own future as well.   If my getting to be seriously old-old is going to feel on a daily basis as tired as I felt during this heat wave, I’m not so sure I’m interested in lasting that long.

June 26, 2015

Sinner or saint

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

“The biggest deception of the past thousand years is this:

 to confuse poverty with stupidity.”  

Orhan Pamuk

Or, I would suggest, with crime.

Or race.

Or sanctity.

Poverty, however one defines it, is too complex for such simplicity.

June 9, 2015

My kind of nun

NUNSA friend just sent me the link to an eulogy in the Huffington Post, The Atheist and the Nun.  She sent it to me with the note “Thought of you … your kind of nun!”  It is a tribute to a nun whom the columnist, Alice McManus, had known as a student in high school.

Alice was routinely expelled from classrooms and clubs for defending gay rights in the Catholic schools where her parents hoped she would get a good education.  But Sister Pat was different from all the other teachers.  She did not teach me to love God, says Alice.  She taught me to love people.

“I’m still an atheist,” she writes. “But Sister Pat wouldn’t have minded. … Ironically, she also taught me to have faith. Not in God, but in people. Because there are people out there who are just amazing through and through. Who do good everyday for all the right reasons. And for me, that’s even more impressive than an all-powerful being.  Sister Pat herself was a beacon of light and hope — but one that you could touch and hug.  She will be missed.”

I am deeply moved that someone sees Sister Pat as the kind of person I admire, whom I would like to be like.

I do not call myself an atheist.  I do totally dismiss the popular demagogue of a supposedly all-loving, all-forgiving God who can somehow be placated by the tortuous crucifixion of his son, but whose forgiveness nonetheless includes sending people to eternal hell fire for eating meat on a Friday.  But atheists too often in my experience are just as intolerant of believers as some believers are of those who disagree with them.  I prefer to live in the amazing mystery of the universe with the knowledge that understanding it fully is beyond the bounds of human capacities — even those of the great genius.

What I do find astonishing is that praise of people like Sister Pat is so rare.  How did Christianity ever become so distorted as to assign to itself the right to judge which sinners are not “one of us,” to cast them out, to refuse to break bread with them?  How did doctrine ever become more important than loving one’s fellow human beings?

Today, becoming a saint isn’t nearly as popular an ideal as it used to be.  The achievement of sainthood, marked by inexplicable miracles seemingly beyond natural causes, is broadly seen as superstitious unscientific ignorance.  It is being replaced by a desire for celebrity, to be very beautiful, acquire great wealth, or possibly die as a martyr (also known as freedom-fighter or terrorist, depending on your point of view).

But in some deep and terrifying ways, aren’t they are all self-seeking goals for self-aggrandizement?

The older I get, the greater becomes my appreciate for those who love others.  Period.  They don’t need praise or recognition.  Love of those around them is what their lives, ultimately, are for.   I cannot think of any other achievement that I value or admire, however significant, if it is not at the same time imbued with this love of neighbour.

April 3, 2015

Menu for Good Fry Day

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:27 pm

In Scotland, deep-fat fried Mars bars are almost as familiar as french fries and battered fish.

But today, every item on the menu for the day at the restaurant Fry Hard is fried.  They fry roast, yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, pickles, parsnips, carrots, turnips, all sorts of greens.  They even apparently experimented deep-fat frying gravy, but that didn’t work.  The menu does include all the old favourites, however –  battered deep-fat fried Mars bars, Snickers and Creme Eggs.

Deep-fried Toblerone ... "inedible".Which, as the Guardian newspaper put it, might be “a case of batter the devil you know.”

 

March 17, 2015

An environmentally friendly concoction?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:53 pm
This is a photo taken by a real estate agent here in England, presumably to actually find a buyer for the house where this ingenious installation was accomplished.
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Optimisation of space taken to the extreme
I will admit to a certain admiration for the person who figured out all that clever piping to save water and space.  Well, I guess that’s what they were trying to do:  I’ve been trying to figure out what happens to the excess grey water from the machine when the cistern is full.  Or how the toilet flushes when the cistern is empty.
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And sitting on a toilet underneath a 500 lb washing machine seems a rather high price to pay for recycling, doesn’t it?
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I come from a family of engineers, some of whom have tried out some ideas that I think could legitimately be categorized as wacky.  But I am extremely grateful that the none of the engineers I know and love have ever tried to replace the picture above with toilet with a washing machine.

March 13, 2015

The vista of uncertainty

Before I was rudely interrupted by a crashing computer, I was preparing a post exploring how we know what we think we know.  Many people in the modern world think that the only way we can know anything is through reason and some form of what today we call science.  I have a huge respect for science.  I am a scientist.  Science has been an incalculable contribution to my understanding of the world, and has, at times, willed me with awe.

But valuable as science is, I am under no illusion that it is a potential source of infallible truth or certainty.  Scientific “facts” are not absolute, and are changing far more often than most people realize.  Facts must constantly be verified with evidence.  And then re-verified and re-verified in an unending process.  When we learn something new or take a different perspective, we often change our minds. Things which we assumed to be absolutely beyond question are no longer accepted.  Science, in other words, is our best guess based on the evidence we have before us at any given time.  But its conclusions are never beyond the possibility of doubt.

If logical reasoning or science can’t give us certainty even about this world here and now,  can we answer questions which are beyond the scope of science with any certainty at all?  questions like what happens after we die?  what is the purpose of life?  is warfare ever morally justifiable?  does my husband love me?  what career should I choose?  is there a God?  does prayer ever change what happens? should I have a child?  should I get a divorce?

Again, for some people the answer to these questions lies in religious faith.  Within this perspective, answers to these and many other questions are revealed to us by God.  These answers cannot be verified by proof, and are therefore beyond question.  Doubt therefore, for many believers, is a form of sin, because it is seen to be questioning God’s revelation.  In this sense, faith can give us absolute certainty.

When the same faith is adopted by the whole culture we live it, it is often highly convincing and supportive.  But the problem with faith becomes apparent when we come in contact with others whose faith leads them to different conclusions about what God has revealed.  Our globalized world today is awash with violence justified by millions of people who believe that their faith is the only valid revelation from God, and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.  Some of these people believe they have a God-given mandate to wipe the earth clean of anyone who disagrees with them.  Given such disagreements, it is obvious that somebody’s faith must be wrong however certain the individual may be that they are right.

So what about intuition?  Can we intuit some realities by some other method, through some other medium than scientific reasoning or blind faith?   Can I learn something from Beethoven’s Fifth?  Or the expression on the face of a child?  Can a poem teach me something I could never learn in church?  or from a scientific study?  Is that inexplicable sense of awe one achieves after hiking to the mountain top a valid insight into a reality that cannot be expressed adequately in mathematical equations or religious dogma?  Can I learn something holding my newborn child in my arms that I could not learn in any other way?

I am willing to live by – and even die for – some of the insights I have learned through intuition.  I would stake my life on the certainty that my husband loves me.  I live every day with the conviction that existence is good, that all life is worthy of respect, that although I do not understand it,  “the universe is unfolding as it should”.  But like acts of faith, these intuitive certainties are not necessarily universal.  I might be willing to live by them, but other people have reached intuitive conclusions, sometimes in the context of deeply profound experiences, with which I do not agree.  So on some level, I know I might be wrong.  My knowledge at the very least is seriously incomplete.

So is uncertainly the inescapable human condition?  Can we never know anything for certain?

My own guess is that the answer is both yes and no.

Personally, I deeply distrust absolute certainty.  I prefer to live in mystery.  But I have come to appreciate that for some people, certainty is a source of strength.  I am not as dismissive of religious faith, for instance, as I used to be.  Religious belief is not always stunting, it does not always constrict the world, or limit concern to those one might consider “one of us.”  Even those who interpret  the metaphors of revelation literally sometimes gain great strength and wisdom from them.  I remember my own mother facing her death at the age of 48 and leaving behind 10 children, the youngest of whom was 6 years old.  Expecting to be standing before the gates of heaven and telling St. Peter that she had accepted and loved all the children God sent to her gave her the strength and peace she needed to accept her death with great generosity.

To this day, I am not confidant I could do what she did.

 

 

 

February 23, 2015

How do I know what I know I know?

Bee on a rose by lalylaura

Bee on a rose by lalylaura

Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name would still smell just as sweet, but the rose as it is seen or smelled by a bee gathering pollen is very different from the Valentine rose I received .

This example of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology has had a very big influence on my understanding of the world.  Kant said was that what we perceive is always a result not just of the object we are perceiving, but also of the organism which is perceiving it.  There is no way, he argued, to get around that.  We will always be limited to perspectives we  are capable of taking.  So a color-blind person can’t see the difference between red and green.  He might believe other people when he is told there is a difference.  But  he cannot himself perceive it.  When I hear a foreign language, I don’t hear the meaning that someone who speaks that language can hear.

I am not a philosopher, however, and I was shocked to learn that Kant had also argued that music could never be anything more than entertainment, because it did not deal with ideas.  I am sure that any well-read philosopher knows this, but I had no idea Kant was such an intellectualizer.

This matters to me because I often intellectualize.  If I can’t think something through intellectually, I haven’t been convinced I know it.  I often haven’t, in other words, trusted my feelings or my intuition.

I love music, but it is only in my very adult years that I have come to appreciate that I learn something through music that I can’t learn by logic or by applying the scientific method.  The same can be said for all sorts of other kinds of experience which are not strictly-speaking rational or logically arrived at, or which I don’t have the opportunity to examine scientifically.  Being open to my intuitions has almost been like discovering a brand new universe.

I’m not suggesting that intuition is somehow better than scientific reasoning or logical conclusions.   But it is different.  We can understand differently depending on how we arrive there.

And both approaches are subject to error.  Our religious, ethical, or moral convictions may be based on intuition or reasoning.  Either way, we can be wrong.  Obviously sometimes we are, because not only do we personally sometimes change our minds, but the world even today is rife with examples of people defending with their very lives opposing beliefs and principles.  We know that sometimes, somebody is horribly wrong somewhere.

I am not a believer in any religion.  But I am beginning to wonder if we do not need what many people may call their religious convictions, and which I might, these days, call my intuitions.  This whole question of intuition and thinking seems to me to be related to the issue of science and religion.

A subject on which I suspect I am going to risk embarrassing myself by blogging in upcoming days.

January 19, 2015

Enough is enough

I have long been suspicious of politicians who talk about equality.  With increasing irritability, I find myself inevitably asking what kind of equality they are talking about.  As I become increasingly aware of my own gifts and limitations, it is obvious that I need other people with different gifts and limitations in order to so much as survive.  And our need for diversity applies to all living organisms.

On a slightly more limited level, I am highly suspicious of political and economic policies that seem to suggest that we should all have more or less equal wealth and opportunities.  We don’t all have the same hopes, the same things don’t make us happy, our abilities benefit from different kinds of opportunities and challenges.  We don’t want a society in which everybody is the same, and we can’t create a “fair society” in which nobody has a need to strive or struggle or compete.  Nor can we create a society where corruption or greed or self-serving laziness are eliminated.

But today I hit the limit  of my inequality tolerance.

Oxfam has just released figures preceding the annual meeting of the world’s financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland that even I find unconscionable.  In 2014, 48% of the world’s wealth was help by a mere 1% of the world’s population.  By 2016, it is set to exceed more than 50%.

Not only is it unconscionable.  This huge disparity is extremely dangerous.  Perhaps even more dangerous to the survival of humanity than extreme climate change.

Why?  Because it is this kind of inequality that leads to the kind of vicious, often religiously based, intolerance we see sweeping across the world’s continents today.  It isn’t being poor that makes people angry.  It’s being trapped.  It’s having no way out of seeing one’s children die of starvation, of living in hovels surrounded by sewage ditch streets, of having no access to education, or facing job opportunities that consist of scrounging through garbage dumps or working the streets through prostitution.

Today the hot spots of Islamic militants are where the poverty is.  In countries where the wealth disparity is not so immovable, Islamism tends to be far more tolerant.  Even in America, the land of opportunity, the land where the boy born in a log cabin can become president, the dream is beginning to lose its potential.  It’s beginning to look as if hard work does not necessarily dig oneself and one’s children out of poverty.  The top 1% are taking all the cream, even protected from higher taxes, while the working man and woman remain stuck in a rut that hard work, ambition, and even talent often cannot conquer.  And we see the lines of intolerance hardening.  Immigrants are no longer welcome by many, even those qualified to be of great benefit to America.  The tax system is based on a “top-down” system that says the rich should be allowed to keep the money they earn because it will “trickle down” to the masses.  Except it doesn’t.

What is the solution?

One’s first impulse, as even Pope Francis illustrated, is to punch back, not merely with a punch in the face but with economic sanctions, as well as drones, guns and bombs.  I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist – I suspect that some physical force is often called for.  But if the underlying economic strangle holds are not addressed, military might will eventually fail.

There are changes that can – must – be made in the economic systems which govern.  Obviously, fairer tax systems world-wide, less corruption, more job opportunities and education.  There are changes that must occur in some religious teachings, and cultural values as well.  But no system is fool-proof.  We will always have people who game the system.  There are others who manage to make disproportionate amounts of money through creativity and good luck even when that has not been their original motivation.  We don’t want to revert to those systems that pursue a fairer system at the cost of repressing creativity and originality.

In our global and rapidly changing world, our economic and social systems need constant adjustments.

I think it is only a sense of justice and community, that basic altruism and love of neighbor that can ultimately insure an economic and social system in which all of us can thrive and benefit from our mutual gifts.

 

January 17, 2015

Updating the worry list

 

Should we be unable to generate a list of our own, one of Britain’s major newspapers has just helpfully published a list of the most important things we humans might worry about for the next ten years.

Climate change:  The world has made literally no progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the first Kyoto agreement, and scientists are warning us of increasing deadly droughts, floods, water and food shortages, acidic oceans, air pollution, uncontrolled fires, and mega extinctions of up to 25% of all mammal species possibly within the next 50 years.  Oh, and 2014 has been the hottest year on record.

The global spread of a viral epidemic like SARS or Ebola:  The Black Plague swept over the world, reducing populations by 50 -75% of the population when it struck.  It is not inconceivable that a virus could jump on the back of our global communications systems today and outpace the ability of scientists to develop a cure or immunization to outwit it.

An implosion of failed states and states being taken over by religious fanatics.  Theoretically religion is supposed to make us better, more loving, more caring.  Again and again, though, it is the reason for torture and killing.  Western countries today look with horror at the terror being visited on peoples in Africa, Europe, America, and Asia by Islamists.  But Christians have more than a thousand-year history of doing exactly the same thing.  In fact, ethnic cleansing and rampant racism in our own back grounds suggest that we are even now not immune to persecuting those who are different from us.

Economic collapse:  An economic collapse similar to the one that shook the world in 2008, only bigger and longer and more universal worries some economists the way climate change worries climatologists.  Governments are still facing the problem of what to do about banks and other financial institutions that are too big to fail, and big corporations spent vast amounts of money lobbying state officials to make sure that legislation will not damage them.  Meanwhile, the gap between the richest and poorest is growing, not closing, and recently economists have produced research suggesting that this might be an endemic tendency of many modern capitalist societies, including America.  Historically, situations like these fester and simmer, until one day blowing up into outright rebellion and warfare.  Endings are not necessarily happy ones.

I think these are worries worthy of concern.  Great concern that singly or together they could even lead to the extinction of the Homo sapiens.  My problem with worries, though, especially when the worries are big and serious and global as these, is that they tend to turn people off.  We look at them and quite realistically realize that not one of us as a single person can solve any of them.  So we either deny they are happening at all, sink into despair or anger, or hope that God will do something about it rather than leaving it to us.

But the whole point of democracy, of community, or responsibility is not to say a single voice doesn’t count.  It says that lots of single voices is what change the world.  To give into the temptation of helplessness is the very thing that will contribute to our worst worries coming true.

What can I do?  Lots of little things that will change the world if a lot of us do them.  In relation to the environment, I can use my vote to make sure that I don’t help elect a climate-change denier or someone so indebted to big business that they won’t support reductions of fossil fuels and support renewables;  I can sign petitions supporting policies that I think will support work toward a creating economies that don’t destroy the environment;  I can do my best not to waste energy, turn off lights I’m not using, install solar panels, buy an energy-efficient car.  Ride a bicycle.

Etc.

We can’t solve any of these problems by ourselves.  Just as we couldn’t create any of them by ourselves.  We are just single human beings.  But for better or worse, what each of us does adds up.

pbs.org

January 10, 2015

Banks not to bank on

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:09 pm
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I was dumbfounded to learn earlier today that the  U.S budget bill passed by the U.S. Congress several weeks ago managed to sneak in a provision that would once again bail out banks that are “too-big-to-fail” if they get into trouble.  But this time, if Citi or Chase or any of the other big investment banks face insolvency, they will be permitted to take their depositors’ cash in savings accounts and CDs and replace with them a bank stock certificate — which may, of course, be of dubious value.  This applies even to deposits that are FDIC insured.

That’s bad enough.  But I also learned that banks may once again be on the edge of the same kind of disaster that floored them in 2008.

Deutsche Bank thinks that the falling oil price could trigger a huge wave of defaults because banks have lent so much money – more than a trillion dollars – to fracking companies which are now in deep water way over their heads.  To make a profit, shale gas and oil needs oil to sell on the world market for a minimum of $85/barrel.

It is now selling for under $50.

It’s nice to be able to fill one’s car with gas for so much less than it cost six months ago, or keep the house warm this winter.  And one can’t help but feel that Putin deserves to be in as much trouble as he is.  And it may encourage Iran to reach a compromise concerning its nuclear capacities.

But I wouldn’t leave any substantial savings with a big U.S. investment bank.  For the record, the ten biggest are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley,  JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, and Barclays.

January 4, 2015

What are we doing here?

We are at last moving out of the frantic Christmas season celebrations most of us enjoy – or endure – with the coming of the new light.  Theoretically at least, it has been a celebration of new life, of hope in the future.

But what of  those of us who no longer believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, who possibly no longer believe in a transcendent God who created this world with some final goal of perfection in mind?  What, for us, is the meaning of life, what are we doing here, what drives us, on what principles do we make moral choices?

A frequent answer given by those immersed in science is that survival is our over-arching principle.  Some philosophers argue that survival is the essential driving force of the entire universe. Here on planet earth, sociobiology says that the preservation of our genes is what ultimately drives us.  Sex, with the goal of instigating successful procreation as broadly as possible is our driving force.  Paradoxically, this is in agreement with both Freud’s theory of the id and the teaching of Catholicism that it is sinful ever to interfere with the act of sexual intercourse with the goal of preventing conception.

I’ve got a problem with survival, though, as the ultimate driving force.  In terms of the universe as a whole, physicists simply don’t know what is going to happen.  Some theories suggest that the universe will keep expanding into an infinity of space.  Others think it will return into the singularity of energy out of which the Big Bang first burst.  Or perhaps our universe will be swallowed up by a bigger universe.  But we have no evidence.  We just don’t know.  So survival on a universal scale impresses me as pretty theoretical and not very exciting.  Not the way being alive is exciting.

On the other hand, if we are talking about survival on a personal level, we are all doomed to failure.  Total failure, and even for the very-longed lived, failure in what is actually a very short-term.  Secondly, survival of the individual as a driving force does not explain altruistic behavior, something which we see throughout the living world.  Why, if my personal survival is the ultimate value, would I willingly give up my life to save another?  Why would I share my last piece of bread with a stranger?  Why would I dive into the water to save a drowning swimmer?  Why would I dedicate my whole life to serving others?   Why would a doctor volunteer to serve Ebola patients, putting his or her own life in profound danger?  Nor does this kind of behavior occur just among religiously dedicated humans.  It occurs among animals.  So personal survival does not work for me as an over-arching principle.  I’m doomed to fail by that standard, and it doesn’t explain the evidence anyway.

What, then, about survival of the human species as a whole as a driving force and over-arching principle?  or of the survival of life in general?  This has more potential for me, with the value it places on life.  But we know that extinction of all life on planet earth is inevitable when the sun has burned out in perhaps another 5 billion years.

Rather than focus on survival, I prefer embracing the fullness of the amazing, incredible reality as we can see it in the lights given to us in this 21st century.  Where we are going eventually is a mystery beyond our capacity to know.  In fact, what we think we understand reasonably well is matter, which consists of a mere 4% of the universe.  We have some glimmer of what another 23% consists of, called “dark matter,” but no idea at all of what 73% of the universe which consists of “dark matter” is.  There is, though, sound scientific reason to conclude that energy is eternal.  And we know from Einstein that matter and energy are convertible.  So the matter and energy out of which each of us is made is eternal.  What happens to “me” when I die is a mystery.  But the matter and energy of which I am made will continue on forever.

So each of us is participating in a potentially infinite and eternal process.  The glimmers of it we get today are fantastic.  I find this process utterly overwhelmingly wondrous and amazing.  To actively participate in it is a huge privilege.

To be faithful to this process to the best of our understanding seems to me to be a glorious challenge.  It’s my understanding of the biblical metaphor of God’s command to Adam and Eve to be stewards over all creation.  It’s why destroying the environment is such a denial of what we are.  It’s why caring for others, even at the cost sometimes of our individual benefit or even survival, can still drive us, and why we value that selfless love so highly.  It’s why figuring out problems – little ones and big ones – is so rewarding.  It’s why daily jobs like cooking and cleaning and washing the clothes aren’t menial jobs to be denigrated but essential to the whole process of an ongoing universe.

And when I die, I will continue to be part of that glorious challenge.  Even if I don’t know how that may evolve, and I don’t know what “I” becomes.

January 1, 2015

Thoughts on worms and pigs

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 10:05 pm
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When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disunited, many people thought that the system of democracy and capitalism, particularly as it was exemplified in America, had proven to be a superior system for everyone.  Today, though, many people are looking at the huge disparities of wealth in America and at the number of people struggling with profound poverty, and are looking for another system.

I think there are significant changes for the better that could be made in the American system, and I plan to write about them in upcoming posts.  But this is a prelude to any thoughts I might express about systems.

The answers do not lie first and foremost in the system.  The total answer does not lie in any system, no matter how noble, how intelligent, how meant to serve humanity, how righteous.  The Roman Catholic church tried it for centuries through the Middle Ages;  Muslims and Communists have not succeeded in re-creating a Garden of Eden, nor have societies guided by Buddhism or indeed the myriad of societies and communities which have appeared, sometimes prospered, and then disappeared over the 200 milleniums humans have walked this earth.

Why?  Two reasons, I think.  First, the needs of any society are vastly diverse.  What works depends on culture, on religious values, on the natural resources, on populations, on educational levels and on technological resources which have been invented and implemented.  Not only that, but all of these variables are constantly changing with immigration, communication systems, environmental changes and disasters, sometimes disease.

But the second reason is even more fundamental.  All systems operate for but also by individuals.  Groups are always made of separate people, and we are immensely diverse.  We want different things, we have different talents, different needs, different ideas and values, life deals each of us a different hand.  And so there will always be individuals whom the system does not serve well.  And there will always be individuals who can subvert the system to their advantage or invent ways to improve it.  It might or might not be ethical or even legal, but for better or worse, no system has ever succeeded in totally suppressing individual creativity and innovation.  Some systems will slow diversity and creativity down, will divert it, will punish it.  But if they stop it altogether, history shows us that the system will ultimately destroy itself.

Each of us as individuals often feel very small and helpless. But that is not exactly the case.  There isn’t and, despite our adulation of heroes of the past, there never has been a person who has changed the world alone.  It is often possible for relatively small numbers to change societies, sometimes for better, sometime for worse.    But the changing organisms are always individuals and remain individuals.  There is no substitute for the individual, either to make the whole work, or to bring it down.

I sometimes find myself feeling almost hopeless about the insignificant part I can possibly play in making the world a better place.  And then I ask if I would rather find myself in a place like Nazi Germany with someone who is willing to try to help me escape being sent to a concentration camp.  Or would I rather be a Black teenager facing a racist policeman with a gun in a country that says it guarantees equal rights for all.  In other words, would I rather be in a bad system surrounded by good people, or in a supposedly good system faced with a person bent on destroying me.  The deciding factor for me is not the system but the individual whom I am facing.

It might take thousands of worms to make silk for a purse.  But a pig is never going to produce anything but a sow’s ear, however insignificant worms might look in comparison.

December 29, 2014

Scandalous, no?

I have never thought of myself as wealthy.  I’m comfortable but I have never been able to spend money without regard for the bottom line.  Still, although I’ve often been careful, I’ve never had to choose between eating and heating, which is sort of my short-hand definition of poverty.  And I have been given the almost priceless gift of an extremely good education.

I am not a die-hard socialist, but I have a deep concern about the kind of poverty people cannot escape, no matter how hard they work, how careful and disciplined or clever they may be.  Systems in which there are extremes of extraordinary wealth and inescapable poverty seem to me to be one of the greatest moral outrages our economic systems can sustain.

And so I have been rather piously outraged when I read statistics that in 2013:

  • 8.4% of the people in the world own 83.4% of all household wealth – that is, property and financial assets like stocks and bank accounts
  • while at the same time, 67% of the world’s population have a net worth of less than $10,000
  • which includes 64% – that’s 3.2 billion people – who have no net worth at all: no property, no bank accounts, nothing.

Then I found where I belong.  Sort of slipped into the statistics is the information that only 393 million people in the world have a net worth of $100,000 or more – including property and financial assets.  That’s in the global top 10%.  10% of us own 86% of all the wealth in the world.

I’ve always known that life isn’t fair.  And I’ve always known that I’ve been given more than my equal share of good fortune.

I don’t feel guilty that I’ve been so lucky.  And although I think there is obviously a place for charitable giving, living on state or charitable hand outs simply because one doesn’t like work is as immoral as outright theft.  We need to pay our way, we need to be needed, we need to make a contribution.

But how to create systems which support human dignity and opportunities for work for everyone with our huge diversity of abilities and preferences has challenged far greater minds than mine.  The answers are not simple, however morally outraged I and many others might feel about the existence of so much profound poverty in the world.

I do think that it’s one of those problems – like the problem of human-created environmental destruction – that is worth struggling with though.

The statistics for the United States in a way are more disturbing than the global statistics although possibly more hopeful if we want to do something about it.  But enough for today.  I will tackle the subject of inequality in my own country in the next post.

 

 

 

 

December 28, 2014

My suggestion for heaven

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:37 pm
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My musician sister sent me the Colbert farewell YouTube video.  It was removed from the internet by Viacom who owns the copyright, so attached here in Vera Lynn’s rendition that gave hope to so many during WWII.

I have heard the Vera Lynn version many times and understood why it meant so much to so many.  But this post is about my unexpected response to the Colbert version.

First of all, let me assure any doubters that I personally do not believe in heaven as most people understand the term.  And if I did, I would not be motivated to try to get there.  Sitting around in a perfect world, with no problems ever to solve, with no one in need of an extra act of thoughtfulness, with no creativity because everything is already perfect sounds excruciatingly boring.

But as I watched the Colbert video, I suspended my unknowing, and began to wonder if, in some mysterious way that I cannot fathom, we will, indeed “meet again” in a next life.  What would that be like?

I imagined sitting around a fire, when our two dogs burst into the room, barking in wild enthusiasm as they recognized us.  And then Mom and Dad and my sister Mary who died almost twenty years ago joined us.  We each had a glass of wine and began to exchange stories.  And I asked them all the questions about what they thought about this and that, questions I couldn’t ask after they’d died.  And then four more dear friends came, and we continued to talk late into the night.

Of course, I would want them all eventually to leave.  Except the dogs.  I mean, sitting around the fire with a glass of wine forever would get to be pretty boring too.  I need sleep.  And besides, I don’t have a very high tolerance for alcohol.

So I don’t think I’ve figured out the great mystery of life and the universe in which it is evolving after all.  The scenarios offered by various religions are inadequate metaphors at best.  Some super-mathematical scientists suggest that there are an infinite number of universes in which life repeats itself in every possible version.  And another scientist has just seriously suggested that when the Big Bang happened, Time began to run both forward and backward in two different parallel universes.  Maybe we are in the universe where time is running backward and will eventually run into the universe where time is running forward.  I confess it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

The best I can hope for is that when we die we become part of some kind of transcendent consciousness.  And I say that only because I haven’t the faintest idea of what that means either.

I think I’ll just listen to the Vera Lynn YouTube again and be grateful for the mystery of life that has been given to me right now.

 

December 23, 2014

Is there a Santa Claus?

I was raised as a Roman Catholic.  But my parents, and the priests and religious brothers who were in our house literally on at least a weekly basis all understood that something that is metaphorically true is no less true than something that is literally true.   I understood, for instance, that someone who might be  “A bright light” wasn’t someone you switched on to read in the dark.  But that did not reduce the value of the person’s gifts or make it less true.  Alternatively, someone who was “a pain in the neck,” was not a physical pain to be treated with an aspirin but an irritation on a psychological or social level.

Metaphorical truth on the religious level was no less elevated.  My favourite biblical metaphor was the injunction not to bury one’s talents, but to use them.  It never occurred to me that I was being exhorted to go out and literally bury something in the ground.  And if it had, the idea as I reached adulthood would have appeared childish, if not downright silly.

In many cases, metaphors are far more powerful than literal truth.  My wedding ring, for instance, is the most valuable piece of jewelry I own.  It’s not the most valuable in terms of money, but in terms of what it stands for – a lifetime commitment from a man who loves me.  I remember someone who put her hand on my shoulder when I spilled hot oil onto her legs when I was taking a roast out of the oven.  I was aghast.  “It’s all right,” that gesture said.  It was a metaphorical truth I still remember.

I remember these things because metaphors so often convey an emotional depth that literal fact does not.  They convey a strength and significance that gives them an endurance.

In this context, I think much of modern Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, robs its followers of its greatest gifts by insisting on literal interpretations of so many of its doctrines.  We’re coming up to Christmas, a feast of immense metaphorical potential.  Is it less powerful if there was no literal birth in a stable?  no star guiding three kings with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  No angels calling the shepherds to the manger? Is it less powerful if Mary was not literally a virgin?  Any parent with their newborn child in his or her arms knows that gold and singing angels are not literally needed to make those moments any more profound.

In truth, if so many biblical and doctrinal truths were understood as metaphorical truths, we would not in the modern world find ourselves so often scoffing in disbelief.  Instead, we could ask what the metaphorical meaning of the doctrines might mean, rather than struggling with the conflict between religious teaching and science, or the ridiculous conclusions so often required by a literal interpretation.

We could listen to the music, we could look at the art, we could listen to the stories and the poetry and be transformed by their beauty and hope.  And yes, their truth.

Yes, Virginia:  there is a Santa Claus.

 

December 18, 2014

The Peacock Question

Birds Gallery.net.

I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching.  This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research:  are men and women the same?  are there cultural or religious differences?  does age have an influence?  what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?

Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience:  the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe.  I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service.  When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things.  People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit.  That might not be too surprising.

But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit.  I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice.  I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue.  I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception.  Or self-deception.

The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots.  The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose.  It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.”  “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.”  For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.

As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.”  I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.

But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic?  I’ll dress for it, of course.

December 10, 2014

Oh my dear America, what has happened to us?

I am feeling today rather like a woman who after 50 years of marriage, has just discovered that her husband has never been faithful to her.  She might have known that he was a womanizer, even occasionally had a one-night stand or passing affair.  But now she finds out that he has a family in three different ports.  Or is wanted for extortion and murder or war crimes in another country.

I have just read as much of the report on the CIA torture of terrorist suspects as I can bear.  And I am almost vomiting.

My America!  have you ever been what I thought you were?  The very foundations of this country began with the ethnic cleansing of 80-90% of the American Indians who had been here for hundreds of years.   Today, the treaty violations continue.  How many of us have ever equated this with the ethnic cleansing in other places in the world which we hold in such abhorrence?  Or ever thought that perhaps, we like other countries, have re-written our history to eliminate this shameful guilt?

And then there were the African slaves, brought in like cattle on the ships.  They might have been technically freed by Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, but even the Christian churches continued to assure the white man that they were inferior to us white folk.   So they still could not drink at the same water fountains, use the same rest rooms, sit in the front of the bus, eat in “white” restaurants or stay in the same hotels.

Two days ago I listened to a newscast and read a report which has just been published that shocked me to the core.  The ghettos in which, even today, Blacks are crowded, is a result of federal law requiring that housing be segregated.  Ghettos then were not and are not today the result of White prejudice or of Black poverty.  Initially, it was the law of the country that appropriated land for Whites Only which was highly preferable.  It was not zoned, as Black residential areas were, for polluting factories and where houses of prostitution were tolerated.  Nor were mortgages granted to Blacks by the banks.  This law was not found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1955.  By that time, Whites had amassed significant wealth in the real estate they owned.  That pattern has continued, and today, the great difference between average Black & White wealth in America is a result of the value of the homes they own.  Generations of Blacks have been disenfranchised because of these discriminatory laws.  I think we need a new kind of affirmative action to right this injustice.

And now we have George W Bush, a former president of these United States, and Dick Cheney, his defense secretary, saying that the CIA torture of terrorist suspects was justified and that those torturers are true patriots.  What Cheney objects to is the publication of the reports.  “The transparency and honesty found in this report represent a gross violation of our nation’s values,” he says.  “As long as I have air to breathe, I will do everything in my power to wipe out the scourge of torture reports from the face of the Earth.”  As far as I have seen, he has not objected to the torture.    It’s that it is being published.  The sheer hypocrisy of it.

I know that we are a country that loves guns.  I know we are a country that thinks we are the best because we have the biggest bombs.  I knew we went to war in Iraq over oil, not over the weapons of mass destruction that some politicians knew were not there even before the war began.

But I didn’t realize how often and deeply we really really don’t mean what we say.  Do we really believe in the rule of law?  Are we really committed to freedom for all?

Oh America, my America.  Who are we after all?  Are we going to say NO! WE WON’T HAVE IT?    When we reach the tipping point, which way will we tip in the end?

PS:  I have just read a blog post covering the Rothstein’s research on the disenfranchisement of Blacks from the property market from which so many of us middle class whites have profited so richly.  The author, like me, didn’t know it was happening, but on looking back, now sees events in quite a different perspective.  It’s an easy read – and worth it.  Hands up!  Why We All Can’t Breathe

November 24, 2014

Gothic fears

I’ve never been particularly taken with Gothic monsters like Frankenstein or vampires like Dracula, nor did I understand why mature men and women wrote or enjoyed reading these kind of fantastical stories.

But I’m beginning to understand.  The Gothic revival that produced these Gothic fantasies emerged during the Industrial Revolution when it was glaringly apparent that the old ways were disappearing.  People were moving off the farms and into often wretched hovels in the city to work in factories in which lives were at risk, hours long and for which there were few safeguards.  If your arm was cut off in a spinning wheel, or your legs smashed in a mining accident, there was no recompense.  There wasn’t even anything resembling disability payments or unemployment compensation.

Technology and science were drastically changing the world, and for huge numbers, it seemed to be producing a machine that was grinding inexorably to destroy human society as we know it.

And that’s what Dracula was – a metaphor of an economic system run amok, draining the life blood of the very people who fed it.  That is what Frankenstein was – a terrible invention of science stalking the lives of ordinary people without consideration of any kind.

The interesting thing is that these Gothic monsters still stalk us.  In metaphorical terms they appear, most blatantly, in science fiction novels and movies.  They are terrible creatures of evil from another universe totally without kindness, seeking only power.

What are these modern Gothic monsters really for those of us living in the 21st century?

For some it is climate change and the destruction of our home planet Earth.  For some it is capitalism, or immigration, terrorism, or the horrifying tools of modern militaries.  For some it is materialism, or sexual liberation, or the unstoppable spread of a deadly virus sweeping around the globe.  For some it is an Apocalypse sent forth by an angry God.

Perhaps our Gothic metaphors are a way of trying to deal with these very real fears.  Perhaps they are a way of disguising them to ourselves, or ways of convincing ourselves that our fears, like the metaphors, are fantastical.

However we deal with them, I now see that they arise from deep within the human psyche.  And I can see why they grow so strong in times of turmoil and uncertainty.

November 21, 2014

Don’t think about it that way

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human decision-making.  Now he has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It, exploring the psychology of climate change deniers compared to those who believe that climate change caused by human behavior could be lethal.  His basic conclusion is that all of us have pretty much already made up our minds and that we aren’t likely to be persuaded by evidence or experience.  What matters, he says, is the ideological group with which we identify.  Tea Party members, for instance, tend to have an ideology that automatically takes a position in opposition to environmentalists.  And vice versa.  For this reason, Kahneman is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of our avoiding what might be the worst Great Extinction ever to hit our planet.

The potential catastrophe is terrifying.  (Obviously, I am not a convinced Tea Party member.)  Several reports in the last six months have been published by leading scientists who in the past thought we had as long as a century to avoid drastic climate change.  That has now changed.  A very large number of scientists now think that we have as little as ten years to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and at most twenty years.  If we do not act within that time frame, within sixty years, we may have an 8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures.  That is a temperature not seen on Earth for the last 5 million years.  40% of plant and animal life cannot live in these conditions.  1/3 of the Asian rain forests would be at risk, and most of the Amazon rain forest would probably be destroyed by fire.  Crops would collapse in Africa by a third, in the US, crops like corn and soy, would fall by more than 3/4th.  2/3rds of the world’s major cities – like New York and London – would be underwater.  That’s in 60 years from now!  And that does not even factor in the conflicts and deaths in increased warfare created by starvation and disease.

Why aren’t we doing something about this!?  

Because scare stories don’t work, however realistic or scientifically-founded they may be.

Because when we read about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases, even if we take it seriously, there seems to be little we as individuals can do.  Will it matter in the great scheme of things if I walk or use a bike instead of drive?  if I turn down my heating so that all I do is prevent pipes from freezing, even if I myself am shivering?  if I change all the lights in my house to low-energy LED bulbs?  if I don’t turn on the lights at all?  if I don’t use the wash machine or dishwasher or microwave or oven?  The personal inconvenience could be huge, in some cases life-threatening, and it wouldn’t make a stick of difference unless there is mass cooperation in such a project.

I think we have got to think about this problem in a completely different way if we are to have any hope of cooperating sufficiently to solve it.

In September, 4 former presidents or prime ministers, 2 Nobel economic laureates, and financial experts from the World Bank, IMF and the Asian Development Bank published a detailed study entitled “Better Growth, Better Climate.”  They offer a list of costed changes that would both improve economic growth and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It would require governments world-wide to act on structural reforms of urban infra-structure, farmland, forests, and energy markets.  And it would not be a total solution to the climate change problem.  But it would be a huge start.  And it might make it possible for people of vastly different ideologies to cooperate.

http://logisticsviewpoints.com/

Even the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress might agree.

 

November 19, 2014

The liberation of being wrong

I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient.  There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong.  We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way.  I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day.  There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.

But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing.  People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light.  I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.

Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head.  I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance.  In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil.  Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell.  Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.

Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this.  But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous.  Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom.  In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write.  Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.

But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations?  I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion.  More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.

But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable.  I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue.  Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself.  Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.

Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.

I’m a human being.  That is fantastic!  How lucky I am!  For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature.  We all make mistakes.  We’re all incomplete.  We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion.  That doesn’t change the reality.  We are each simply incredible.  We are each simply wonderful.

Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong.  Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.

Dance anyone?

 

 

November 11, 2014

Selling God

We get a lot of unsolicited calls at our door in this little village.  If it’s not a delivery of something we have ordered, it is inevitably a request for money or a workman offering to give us a price to pressure-wash our drive or roof, or do work on our garden.

Yesterday, when my husband answered the doorbell he was met by a well-dressed woman, probably in her mid-sixties, who spoke with a mid-west American accent.  She was carrying several bibles.  I was on my way out to the garden and so by chance was standing in the entrance hall.  The conversation went something like “Good morning, Sir.  It is a lovely morning, isn’t it?  I was wondering:  have you ever thought about what makes you happy?”

I let out a noise which can probably best be described as something between a cough and a snort.  My husband paused, and then said in a not-unlikely but firm voice “Go away.  Just go away.”  She smiled, replied “”All right.  Have a good day” and left.

I have been wondering what I would have said had I been the prime combatant – err, I mean conversationalist – at the door.  I would have been tempted to ask how anyone can sell happiness as a payment for Christian belief in a crucified Saviour.  Or I might have mentioned the quote from Aristotle taught to us as children by my father who said that happiness is a by-product, not something that can be acquired by going after it directly.  Or if I was really going to take her on, I might have mentioned that I was a psychologist, and thinking about what makes people happy is something I have done all my professional life.

Come to think of it, I think it was a good thing I wasn’t the one who answered the door.

What do you think?  What would you have said:  Have you ever thought about what makes you happy?

October 9, 2014

My absurd idea

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Albert Einstein

I have often been mystified by some of the world’s greatest scientists who believe that the world of numbers has a real existence.  It’s a kind of modern version of Plato’s world of perfect forms, which exist in what most of us think of as “the real world” only in degraded form corrupted by matter.  As a cognitive psychologist, I have been pondering for years how a modern thinker in the world today could reach a conclusion that to me sounds so preposterous.

I don’t have the answer, of course, but I’ve been also thinking about a similar problem of my own, and I do have an idea.  My personal version of the numbers problem is with music.  When I listen to some of my favourite classical or folk musicians, I often seem to go into another world, to experience a different reality, to become convinced of things that are mere ideas in my every day state in which I generally view the world using scientific principles.  I listen to music, for instance, and the conviction that the mere act of existence is valuable, becomes overwhelming.  Faithfulness to existence seems to me to be the greatest good.  In everyday life, that more or less takes the form of respect, of kindness, of love for everyone and everything.  It’s a principle I can more or less defend intellectually using scientific principles, but it is one empowered with profound emotion and a certainty comparable to what some people seem to experience in relation to their religious beliefs.  I don’t have any convincing scientific proof.  And yet I feel I know it through direct experience.

Can this certainty nevertheless be wrong?  absolutely yes.    Just as scientific conclusions can also be wrong:  time and space are not unchanging absolutes as Newton thought they were.  Just as our sensory experiences can be wrong:  I might mistake a stick for a rifle, a bird for superman, the roar of an overhead plane for thunder.  Just as our memories can be wrong:  almost everyone has asked if some “memory” actually happened or was only a dream;  conversely many of us have a seemingly clear memory of something that could not possibly have happened.

My insights gained through music might be equally erroneous or incomplete.  They could be catastrophically wrong.  I might, for instance conclude that God is commanding me to behead anyone who disagrees with my religious beliefs. Just as the conclusions of those geniuses who describe the world in terms of numbers may be wrong, or at least incomplete.  

My hypothesis is that we are each like those blind men in the Indian story standing around an elephant.  They each experience a different aspect of the elephant, and are convinced by their own experience that they are right.  The challenge is to recognize that what we see is incomplete.  So that  even people who fundamentally disagree with us might be right too.

I don’t think there are separate words we call heaven or hell.   I don’t think the world of music or numbers or science or the arts have a separate existence from the “real world” we live in either.  But they are different perspectives, each of which tells us something different about the elephant around which we blind men are standing.

So I’m going to stop thinking that the “insights” I gain through listening to music, or that other people gain through the arts, or by walking in the mountains, or even through meditation, are somehow inferior to the conclusions I can buttress with scientific data.  Those insights derived from non-scientific sources deserve to be taken seriously.  I don’t think they are infallible, at least in terms that any individual human being can express them.  But they are valuable.

Okay, I’ll stop.  Just let me say that I do appreciate that Einstein said that if an idea is not at first absurd, there is no hope for it.  He didn’t say that all absurd ideas were brilliant.

 

 

 

September 20, 2014

What does ISIS want?

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 8:56 pm
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According to the papers, ISIS – or ISIL or the Islamic State – has released another gruesome video, this one a full 55 minutes long showing various torture scenes and hostages being forced to dig their own graves.

What is ISIS trying to accomplish?

I suppose they might argue that they are carrying out the wrath of God against those who defile His commands.  But the campaigns are too slick, too cruel, too obviously being directed by  a master-mind with some specific goal in mind.

Are they trying to terrify local inhabitants into submission?  I think that, although that is one of their goals, the videos would not feature the torture and beheadings of foreigners if they were targeted specifically at the local population.

So are they trying to use the anti-American feeling and resentment built up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation?  The U.S. certainly did not know what they were doing in Iraq, and often made things worse for millions of people than they were under Saddam Hussein.  Nor did the U.S. manage to reduce the ethnic tensions that had built up between the various religious groups.

I think they are trying to accomplish something more than that. I suspect ISIS trying to goad the US and UK into sending military to join the ground fight –  that are they reasoning that the presence of American and other Western troops will so alienate the people in Iran and Syria and other neighbouring countries that they will support ISIS instead.

I absolutely support President Obama’s attempt with John Kerry to bring together a real coalition of middle-eastern countries to join the fight against ISIS.  Because if the people there are not determined to overthrow ISIS, in the long run, ISIS will win.  For the same reason, I think it would be a dreadful mistake to send our own ground troops in.  We are using air power to support those indigenous fighters already there.  It’s got to be their fight this time, not that of the West.  We can help.  We can  give support.

But we will only make things worse if we make it our war.

August 12, 2014

What do you do with a problem like — Courgette?

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:38 pm
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So we all know what I’m talking about, let me begin by saying that what are called courgettes here in England are called zucchini and summer squash in America.  Having sworn off farming in the U.S. at the early age of about six, I do not know if these vegetables are as dependent on the weather as they are here,  but over here they are fussy prima donnas.  Last summer was not a productive year.  So this year, Peter sewed twice as many.

Being a Yorkshireman, he’s been announcing for months that they were a failure once again this summer.

Maybe.  But at last count, 10 plants have produced at least 50 courgettes, and they are still madly producing.  At the moment, there is  no end in sight.  I think they are even beginning to multiply in our refrigerator drawer.

So what do you do with what feels like a steady supply of about 3 courgettes coming into your kitchen on a daily basis for maybe as long as 8 weeks?  They’re not easy to freeze because of their high water content, so the solution isn’t to throw them into a freezer bag for mid-winter use.  At the very least, they have to be cooked first.

So far we’ve had courgettes baked, curried, stuffed, battered and au-provincial.  We’ve had courgette fritters, courgettes grated with cream and pancetta,  courgette tart, courgette cake, courgette soup, courgette in salad,  in a stir-fry, and used them as pasta substitutes with spaghetti.  And oh, I forget to mention:  courgette flowers are supposed to be a superb delicacy.  We haven’t tried that yet.

And to think I used to think they were a boring old vegetable.

 

 

 

 

August 5, 2014

We will remember…

It was 100 years yesterday that World War I began.  There were remembrance ceremonies in Britain, Belgium, and France that I found moved me almost to tears.  It was the first war in which weapons – tanks, aircraft, submarines, machine guns and mustard gas – produced en masse by the industrial revolution were used to kill  an average of 10,000 fellow human beings every single day for four continuous years.  By the end of the war, 8 million troops and 6.5 million civilians were dead.

Yesterday government representatives, military, and relatives of the dead gathered together in ceremonies of reconciliation.  “We will remember” was promised again and again.

Perhaps it is because of the current massacres in Gaza right now, but somehow, to me, “we will remember” isn’t enough.  We will remember those who died for our liberty.  We will remember those who died so young that we might live in security.  We will remember the brave.  We will remember the wives who lost their husbands, the children who grew up without their fathers, or brothers.

But I only heard one person say “we must learn.”  It’s not enough to be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives.  Those deaths were too terrible and too many.  We desperately need to learn better ways of resolving our differences, even of finding justice, than by killing on the mass scale that modern warfare makes possible.  The determination to negotiate must be our goal.  We must honor those who can find peace for their peoples through listening and giving and compromise.  Today we need them even more than we need those willing to lay down their lives.

We will remember.  We will feel sorrow.  We will honor those who were lost.  We will be appalled by the tens of thousands of graves spread throughout Europe.

But will we learn?

 

 

July 10, 2014

The peace of the incomprehensible

A friend sent me a reference to a series of books by Ilia Delio, which he said seemed to echo some of my ideas and which he thought I might like to read.  So I checked Delio out on Amazon and saw that the introductory quote in one of her books was Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

No.  I am among that group of scientists, including Stephen Hawking who believes that we will never reduce the universe to the totally comprehensible – that there is an infinity which we will never exhaust.

I find a deep and profound peace in that acceptance.  I don’t have all the answers;   I never will.  I live surrounded by mystery.  Somehow I am immensely comfortable here.  That knowledge and that peace is probably the single most important contribution to my coming to terms with my childhood socialization as a Roman Catholic.  There were several other significant steps as well.

One was the realization that the concept of matter as totally inert had been exploded with Einstein’s equation  e=mc2 – the equation that demonstrated that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  We know now that matter is not a passive blob sitting there until something else pushes it along.  Matter is a seething mass of movement and energy at its very core.

Why is this so exciting?  Well, for me, it brought the problem of the emergence of consciousness into the scientific world.  Even today, in my opinion, the single most important unresolved question for science is the fact that we have no idea how the brain produces something as seemingly immaterial as consciousness.  Consciousness in all of life is totally dependent on a functioning body.  Today through MRI scans, we are even learning some of the minute pathways in the brain that are activated by various kinds of consciousness.  But we do not have a theory about how this conversion takes place.   It is a parallel problem to the one we had when we used to think, less than two centuries ago, that matter and energy were two completely different things.  I do not have the answer to what many philosophers call “the mind-body problem” but I am convinced now that the answer lies in the natural world.

In other words, we do not have to have recourse to Plato’s “spiritual” world which Christianity eventually adopted as “heaven” and “hell,” populated by spiritual beings including God, the angels, and the souls of those who have died before us.  I remember the almost ecstatic feeling I had when I realized that I was already home in this universe.  I am not living in exile.  For all its pain and trouble and difficulties, I am already where I belong.   And whatever happens after death, I will not be spirited away into some another plain, to some ethereal heaven or fire of hell.  However it will happen, what I am will continue to evolve as part of this natural universe.

Another giant step in my coming to terms with Roman Catholicism was the discovery that the original meaning of “faith” as understood by the Hebrews and the early Christians did not reflect adherence to a strict set of doctrines, but is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.”  “Faithfulness” does not require that every one in the community always agree, or always accept the same doctrines.  This switch to belonging to the community based on faith as unquestioning acceptance of universal dogmas did not occur in the Christian church until the 4th century.  Until then, the  essence of the Christian message was that “the greatest of these is love,” that “we are no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female;  we are all one.”  In other words, we are all — all — in this together.  All of us in the human family.

Refusing to reduce faithfulness and universal love of all humanity to a set of doctrinal and liturgical rituals might diminish the power of religious leaders.  It certainly destroys the “one of us” attitude of so many religions, and the claims of any single religious tradition that it is the “one and only true church.”   Roman Catholicism with its proclivity today for excommunicating dissidents and its insistence on papal infallibility is benign compared to its torture and execution of those who refused to accept church authority for over a millennium until papal power was finally separated from the secular authority of the state.  But this commitment to literally killing those who disagree with us is still rife in the world today.  Turn on the news tonight and look at what is going on in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, even in the United States where some fundamentalists are trying to change the law to match their own religious beliefs.  In this war-torn, trigger-happy world, we badly need to understand the original Christian message that we are all one.
One doesn’t  have to be a Christian to understand that.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true:  one can think of oneself as a Christian and not understand it.

 

July 5, 2014

A heroic lesson still unlearned

The most frequently read post on this blog by far is the post  Why do abused children become abusers?    Why, I asked, are a disproportionate number of abusers people who have themselves been abused?  Would you not think that they, above all, would know how painful and destructive it is?  The key explanation seems to be that we don’t learn kindness and love through negative example.  We need to learn how to love from positive experience – at least from one other person in our lives for however short a time.

I have reflected on this fact again several times this week but especially this morning when I read that Israeli pathologists have announced that the Palestinian teenager kidnapped and murdered in an apparent revenge attack following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys last week, was burned alive.  Not just murdered.  Murdered in what must have been excruciating agony.

Would you not think that every Jew in the land, above all, would shudder at the horror of this act?  This is a people living in a land returned to them after the Holocaust, in which up to 8 million Jews were put into gas chambers for no other reason than that they were Jews.  This is a people whose by-word is “Never Again!”

This is not to suggest that the majority of the Israelis support this ghastly revenge.  I strongly suspect that the majority are as appalled as I am.

But how could there be a single Israeli who feels that this act is not abhorrent?

I think it is because kindness and love are not learned simply because one sees how terrible hatred and abuse can be.  Unfortunately, there is in all of us an instinctive desire for what we blindly call “justice,” a “tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.”

But history shows us it doesn’t work.  The legacy is bitterness and anger and an unending cycle of revenge.

It will not bring peace.

June 25, 2014

How we think about God

I have been introducing myself to a field of study called neurotheology.  It’s a relatively new field, made possible by our developing ability to study the brain.  Using magnetic resonance imaging  or MRI scans, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are operating in relation to different actions.   Different parts of the brain are activated, for instance, for analytical thought than are activated for strong emotions.  Nor do we use the same parts of the brain to see, to hear, to position ourselves in time and space.

Neurotheology is interested in how the brain is activated when a person meditates or thinks about God or other religious subjects.

This, as I have said, is a relatively new field, and the findings thus far, fascinating as they are, are still tentative, and should not be taken as “gospel truth.”  What does look pretty clear is that there is a relationship between the part of the brain that is active and a person’s concept or experience of some transcendent reality, whether it is called “nothingness”, or “god” or “the universe.”  This is accompanied by a loss of a sense of self, but a strong sense of interconnectedness of all existence.  During experiences like this, there is an increased activity of the limbic system which is connected with the experience of emotion, and a decreased activity in that part of the brain that we use to orient ourselves in time and space.

Interestingly, people who do not believe in any concept of God tend to have brains with highly active analytical areas, while at the other extreme, when people having what they describe as a religious experience and are speaking in tongues, analytical activity is almost completely replaced by an active limbic or emotional activity.

In addition, those who believe that God or other supernatural agents influence what happens in the time and space in which we live tend to use brain pathways often associated with fear.  Those who emphasize doctrinal believes use pathways primarily associated with language, while atheists favor visual pathways.

Similarly, the practice of religion often seems to be a healthy activity, leading to better mental, and physical health,  better social relationships and a sense of well-being.  Paradoxically, those who are “born again” religious converts often show signs of hippocampal atrophy leading to memory, dementia, depressions, and Alzheimer’s.

How strong any of these trends are is not clear.

In any case, our brains, formed by both genetics and the environment, are ultimately unique to each one of us.  Our experiences are highly individual — whether it be in relation to music or math, art or nature, hot or cold, men or women, colors or tastes.  It is no surprise, then, that individual experiences of transcendence, or concepts of divinity should be so varied.

There is a common mistake, however, made by both committed believers and non-believers.  That is the conclusion that if we can identify the parts of the brain that are associated with an experience of God, we can prove that “God” is no more than an illusion.  This isn’t so.  We don’t conclude that what we see is an illusion just because we know the part of the brain that is responsible for our experience of sight.  It is possible that God created humans with a brain that is capable of experiencing transcendent reality.

Each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about this.  I know I do.  But I do know that if I want to prove my point, science, even neurotheology, can’t give me the indisputable evidence, whichever side I’m on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 16, 2014

Scottish Independence

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

We’ve just returned from a week in Scotland.  Peter spent much of his professional life there, so he knows it well.  We’ve also spent many holidays there, but every time we go back, I seem to learn something more.  This time seeing Scotland up close as they grapple with the question of independence was particularly stimulating.

The referendum in which Scots will vote on whether to separate from Great Britain and become a totally independent country on its own is taking place in almost exactly three months, and the debate is becoming heated.  I was a little surprised at some of the name-calling and accusations that those who don’t want to vote yes to independence are unpatriotic.  Some of the debates within families are also becoming quite strained.  I hadn’t realized how psychologically complex the issue is for some.  It seems to resemble some of the religious debates among various believers all of whom are convinced that only they possess the Truth.

Scotland is an incredibly beautiful country, even when it’s raining, which is often, with a unique, rich, old culture of its own which I enjoy immensely.  That is one of the arguments I heard for independence, but not one which I found convincing.  Other areas in Great Britain can make similar claims.  Yorkshire is as different from London as Scotland is.  Or Cornwall, or Wales.  It’s the same in the U.S. where the north-east coast has a different culture  and different history than Texas, for instance.  (Interesting, though, that we did fight the Civil War which was basically over states’ rights before some compromise between the authority of Washington and that of the individual states was finally agreed.  Scotland and London have agreed to settle it with a vote.)

My own hope is that Scotland votes to remain within the United Kingdom, and that this results in greater devolution, so that more decisions are the responsibility of local people and not dictated from London.

It’s the kind of  challenge that is facing many parts of the world, including the European Union:  how to benefit from cooperation without over-riding individual cultures and the great benefits of our diversity.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when President Obama said he hoped Scotland would not become independent.  But to my astonishment, I read yesterday that Pope Francis also has expressed his view that Scotland should not vote for independence.   If I understood, he thinks it is a world-wide challenge for us all to learn to cooperate and to live together, and to break up  a partnership that has worked for centuries is a step backward.  The Yes campaign in Scotland apparently took a hit as a result.  But whether they become a separate country or not, they are independent  in themselves, and the Scottish people will make up their own minds.

May 28, 2014

Look who said it!

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:36 pm
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It might not be all that surprising to hear bankers castigated for greed one more time.  But when the head of the Bank of England says it, I’m surprised.

Mark Carney is the Canadian brought in last year as the best possible head to direct the Bank of England.  So far he’s been doing a good job in a position that takes economic as well as political skill.  But I never expected to hear him say that modern capitalism will fail if banks continue to be too big to fail, if they are not run ethically as a service to their clients rather than as a way to make huge personal fortunes.

He also said that the huge discrepancies that exist globally between the small minority of the very rich and the huge numbers of very poor is destabilizing.  I would not have been surprised to hear Pope Francis say something like that, or even a socialist leader, but not the head of the Bank of England.

If you are interested in reading or hearing more, take your pick:

It gives me hope.

May 18, 2014

Claude, the cows are out again

Filed under: Food chains,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:15 pm
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My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney.  But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of  virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing.  The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.

But at heart, my father was not really a farmer.  He went to his law office  5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming.   One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding.  Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road.  My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office:  “Claude, the cows are out again.”

For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York.  After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his.  It’s worked out well.  The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.

Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try.  I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table.  Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do.  Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.

I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though.  Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and  planted two dozen plugs,  I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons.  It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.

Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground.  It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new.  The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well.  It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.

Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here.  I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.  You aren’t going to like this at all.”  We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again.  I started to laugh.  My husband looked at me quizzically.

“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.

I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars.  And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat.  I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.

 

 

May 13, 2014

Money matters

Despite my silence, I have been giving some hard thought to just what it is that makes us all equal, and what inalienable rights and responsibilities flow from that fundamental equality.  I said in my last post that this equality obviously cannot be defined in monetary terms.  And of course it can’t.

But on further thought, it doesn’t seem that simple.  Almost the world over, we need money to meet some of our most basic needs – food, shelter, clothing.  Without a financial base, we cannot get an education, hope to do many of the jobs that are essential to a functioning society,  even to raise a family.

Seeing this, many people concerned with fairness and justice support the concept of a minimum wage – the belief that people should, by law, be paid enough for the work they do to live responsibly in dignity, to develop their individuality and skills, and to contribute to the common good sufficiently to help care for those who cannot work at a paying job.

So far so good.  In theory this should allow us to use our talents to contribute to the diversity that is so essential to the human community.  So we will ultimately be quite different in our contributions, our levels of education, our social and financial status, our popularity, our physical abilities.

But we’re human beings.  We often try to game the system.  Or turn it around in a complete reversal of values.  So on the one hand, there are those who will try to get social and financial support without working, even when they can.  Or we somehow conclude not that we pretty much all need some basic financial base in order to develop and flourish, but that if we have more money we must, by that fact, be more important, more valuable, even more virtuous than those who don’t.

Today, for instance, we have the far right who think that social security or health care should be earned, and if you don’t earn it, that’s your lazy fault and you should get along without it.

And we have those on the far left who will strike for unconscionable wages, whatever it costs the community. Similarly, there are many who think that no other criteria should be required except that one has at least one child, and that the more children one has, the more funding should be given, no questions asked.

I can’t buy either of these conclusions.  I think the far right are wrong in failing to appreciate how much we each need to be given what we have not earned.  We need to be loved, we need  opportunities, we need encouragement, and forgiveness and even to be given the chance to overcome failure and mistakes – sometimes big mistakes.  Personally, I am revolted by the idea of the Great and the Good.  I’m revolted by the idea that “success” is defined in terms of money.  I’m revolted by the idea that more elevated human beings must help “the poor”.  Whatever our finances, we need to help each other just as much as we need to be helped — all of us.

But I think the far left too often do not appreciate that we each need to feel that we are needed, that we need to make a contribution.  And just as having greater wealth does not necessarily make us more or less virtuous, neither does being poor.  The poor are not intrinsically either more virtuous or more criminal.

All of which gets me, rather tiresomely I fear, back to the conclusion that we are all part of an incredible universe.  We are all incomplete by ourselves, and we need each other every bit as much as we need to be individuals.  We’ll make mistakes.  Some of will make big, destructive mistakes.  Even when we are trying to be heroic, to make a significant contribution.  But that’s the way we were made.

So after this little sermon to myself, I will continue to do my hum-drum best.

And be grateful beyond words for a chance to share in this great incredible mystery of life.

 

 

April 30, 2014

What makes us equal?

Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea.  Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.

Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world.  Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.

But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word.  Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?   or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated?  or the religious exhortation to “love one another”?  These are principles which many of us support.  But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.

The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity.  It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period.  But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still  manage to have more money at the end of the week than others.  So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.

Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents.  We are all different.  And we need to be different.  We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves.  We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter.  We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex.  Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much.  Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians.  Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities.  Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others  have acute sensory abilities.  There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers.  The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.

The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality.  In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful.  Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity.  If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.

But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift.  Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.”  Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior.  We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”

Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics.  And yet there is a bottom line.  There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are.  And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.

I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers.  I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name.  But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.

 

 

 

April 25, 2014

“Made in the USA”

A friend has just sent me a You-tube arguing that Americans should stop buying imported goods and instead “Buy American.”  It presents what initially might sound like a rather convincing argument:  if we stopped paying foreigners for making things for us, and instead put our workers back into our own factories, America would completely eliminate unemployment.

It sounds well-informed with all sorts of statistics to back up its argument.  But I think it is economically and perhaps even morally quite naive.  Inward investment – ie:  investments from companies setting up businesses in poorer countries – has been the single most effective means of reducing poverty in the emerging economies in the last 20 years.  So now America brings all those jobs back “home”?  What happens to the families of those workers who have been working to support their own families in other countries?  young women who are supporting their families are driven back onto the streets, children no longer have any chance of an education, medical help is harder to get, starvation increases.

 
And trade is reduced not only for the emerging economies but for America.  America sells our cars, our computers, our food, etc. to the people in other countries who can now afford them.  That’s why free trade, when it is done well, is a win-win situation.  Each country sells to the other what they can best produce or grow, and buys from the other those things that are better done in that country.
 
Under the influence of Gandhi, India tried the Totally Self-Sufficient policy — we will make our own clothes, grow our own food, build our own trains & cars, etc.  It was in response to a one-sided trade arrangement that Britain had set up which had been great for the British — they imported Indian cotton, brought it back to the UK, turned it into cloth and clothes and sold it back to the Indians.  So it was understandable that India thought they could do it for themselves.  But it is only in recent decades when they opened the country up to international trade that they seriously began to reduce grinding poverty in the country. China tried it too, closing its doors to foreigners, and as a result, the West went galloping ahead.
 
No, Buy American is, in my opinion, an ignorant and destructive economic policy.
 
Yes, what we call “free trade” can be lopsided and destructive, and in some cases needs serious rebalancing.  But my own concern is not fundamentally with free trade.  Actually, many jobs are now coming back to the U.S., as transportation is getting cheaper, and workers in developing countries are demanding better pay.  So the issue is not essentially that foreigners are taking all our jobs, but rather that so few at the top of American society are taking such a great proportion of the profit.  For at least 30 years, the middle classes in the U.S. have been getting less and less of the profits while the CEO’s and those in the top 5% are making mind-boggling profits which are not filtering down to the workers.  And if you want to add another problem, it is technology.  A lot of jobs are simply disappearing, and being replaced by automation and robots.  
 
So we might very well find ourselves back to the question Henry Ford asked a century ago about his cars:  how can I make them affordable enough for people to buy them?  The whole entire global economic system is changing, and solutions like “buy American” aren’t going to work.  I think ultimately it could make things worse.

 
Because we are all in this together  It’s a global society now, and we can’t solve our own problems without worrying about everybody else.  This isn’t Christian charity.  It’s hard economic fact.  The bottom line is that I have to worry about you for my own self-interest.

April 22, 2014

“Forgive us as…”

For Roman Catholics, gaining forgiveness for one’s sins is fairly easy.  One pops into a dark confessional, tells the priest who is sitting behind a screen and is bound by life-long secrecy, what one has done, and forgiveness is granted, usually for a small penance, such as saying several short prayers.

In theory, this recognition in confession that we are all sinners should be the motivation for forgiving others.  In one of the great prayers of Christianity, the Our Father,  the petitioner asks God “to forgive us our sins as we forgive others.”  But learning to forgive others, especially for real injustice and injury, is rarely so simple as getting forgiveness for oneself.

Last week,  something that happened at a scheduled hanging in Iran is one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness I have ever heard.

Maryam Hosseinzadeh, standing on a chair, slaps Balal.Seven years ago a 17-year-old boy was killed with a kitchen knife in a street fight in Iran.  Four days ago, the young man who had killed him was scheduled to be hanged.  There was a crowd gathered to witness the public execution, including the mother of the young man about to be hanged, and the parents of the murder victim.   The prisoner was brought out blind-folded, and the noose placed around his neck.  The mother of the victim then asked for a stool on which she could stand to reach the prisoner.  She reached over, slapped him hard, and said “Forgiven!”  She and the victim’s father then took the noose from around the neck of the prisoner and he was released.

There are photographs of the mothers of the released prisoner and of the victim embracing.

This story seems to have been in all the international news media.  But I’ve not written about it because it has left me speechless.  As far back as the Greeks, we have myths teaching us that the poison of unforgiven acts can last for centuries, even for millennium.   Today in trouble spots around the world we see this tearing nations apart.  I thought I had long understood that the only way to grow beyond injustice and betrayal was to forgive, to let go of the bitterness and anger.   And I have seen people learn to let go of the desire for revenge and recompense, to forgive.

But I have never known anyone who has achieved  it moments before one might arguably say she was about to achieve what some might have called ” justice”  for the murder of her son.

I will not pretend that I’m sure I could do it.

But I do know that if humanity is going to survive, we must learn the lesson from this mother.

April 8, 2014

Who are my people?

I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates.   The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable.  The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.

I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible.  How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic?  The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.”  They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”

But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself.  Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of  Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”

In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught.  For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”

Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic?  It’s not that I don’t feel welcome.  It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, so sexually neurotic, so authoritarian.  But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off.   Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?

It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery.  And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.

This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of  Christianity:  that we are all one.  We are all in this together.  Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners.  He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics.  I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists.  We are all of these things.  Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings.  All human beings.

This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion.  Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life.  Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures.  We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions.  But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness.  We have incalculable benefit  to gain from embracing our differences.

So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences.  It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other.  Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.

Am I, I wonder, a minority?

 

March 27, 2014

Magnifying a ray of sunshine

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:35 pm
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Tesla is an electric car company that has recently announced plans to build a “gigafactory”  possibly in Arizona.  The goal is to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries while reducing the cost by 50% by 2020  for batteries that charge faster with a higher storage capacity than anything on the market today.

It’s potentially a serious game-changer.  If  Tesla succeeds, we are much closer to affordable storage batteries for individual homes which charge up when the sun shines or the wind blows and then give us heat, light, and power when the sun goes down.

Ultimately, this could do a great deal to reduce environmental pollution and climate change.

But it will be highly disruptive.  The role of traditional energy companies will change radically.  Energy companies in Germany are already facing huge losses as a result of renewables there. (One company posted a loss of $2.76 billion last year.)   Traditionally, energy companies have smoothed out the delivery of electricity to our homes and businesses, so that we mostly experience a steady steam of electricity whether the sun is shining or not, or however much electricity is being pulled out of the grid at any given peak time.

Of course, there aren’t any simple answers for problems as huge and complex as our increasing global use of energy.

But part of the solution lies in human ingenuity.

This might be a big one.

March 1, 2014

The question of war in Ukraine

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks,  germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches.  I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.

I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed.  I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it.  I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.

BelgiumThe first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about.  Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind.  History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914  when  a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the  heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo.  This took place in the context of  an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans.  Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia.  It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing.  But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia.  Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.

It almost worked.  There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement.  It included parts of France and Russia.  But they lost the battle and had to retreat.

That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved.  First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them.  This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel.  Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire.  Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled.  Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.

America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation.  For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them.  Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker.  But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid.  Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America.  As in Britain, the American public  swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.

World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.

The news today is about Ukraine.  It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914.  Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine?   Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion?  should we pretend that we don’t think  the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian?  Should we say it’s not worth the fight?  – after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea.  And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI?  And if so, was it worth fighting then?  Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether?  Could the Crimea become another Belgium?  Should it?

I don’t know.  Ukraine does not have a functioning government.  It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution.  The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day.  Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war?  Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?

We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge.  And good fortune.

February 21, 2014

Life on the street

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

Yesterday I sent a link to a newspaper article to a friend originally from Norway.  The story is about a ten-year-old boy near Oslo who, very early one snowy morning this week, put his little sister in the back of the car, and began a 68-mile drive to visit his grandparents.  Unfortunately – or otherwise – he drove into a snow bank 6 miles down the road, and was eventually found stuck but unhurt by a snowplow driver.  When the police arrived, the ten-year-old told them he was a dwarf and that he’d left his license at home.

Having grown up on a farm where several of my brothers were driving tractors and even cars around the property by the age of ten, my first thoughts as I read the story was about recent research suggesting that creativity tended to be associated with a relaxed attitude toward rules.  My friend who lives in New York city took a slightly more concerned view and wondered if something of concern was going on in the family home from which the boy was trying to escape.

She also sent me, at the same time, another story from life on the street subject to more than one interpretation:

A young nun who worked for a local home health care agency was out making her rounds when she ran out of gas. As luck would have it there was a gas station just one block away. She walked to the station to borrow a can with enough gas to start the car and drive to the station for a fill up. The attendant regretfully told her that the only gas can he owned had just been loaned out, but if she would care to wait he was sure it would be back shortly.
Since the nun was on the way to see a patient, she decided not to wait and walked back to her car.  After looking through her car for something else to use, she spotted a bedpan she was taking to the patient.  Always resourceful, she carried it to the station, filled it with gasoline, and carried it back to her car.
As she was pouring the gas into the tank of the car, two men watched her from across the street.  One of them turned to the other and said “I know that Jesus turned water into wine, but if that car starts, I’ll become a Catholic!”

February 17, 2014

Us and Them

Next September, Scotland is going to have a referendum to decide whether they want to be an independent country again and no longer part of Great Britain (also known as the United Kingdom) which today is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.  The wording of the referendum has been agreed by the current governments in London and Edinburgh, and whatever the outcome, nobody foresees the issue degenerating into outright war.

But the situation is becoming tetchy.  Last week all the main parties in the UK agreed that if Scotland chose independence, Britain would not agree to their using the pound sterling as a common currency.  Scotland could continue to use the pound, if she wished, but her debts would no longer be secured by the Bank of England in London.  The reasoning, which seems obvious to me, is that the euro has already demonstrated that a common currency used by a number of independent countries each responsible for their own budgets is unsustainable in the long run.  The Scottish National Party which is Scotland’s independence party is accusing the English of being bullies.  And when David Cameron, the Prime Minister, encouraged the English to ask their Scottish friends to vote against independence, many Scots asked who the English thought they were to tell them how to vote.  Etc., etc.

I strongly suspect the exchanges are going to become more heated, if not more enlightened.  My hope is that by the time September arrives, the trading of accusations will not have become so bad as to make it impossible for the British and the Scots to work together, whether Scotland is or isn’t independent.

All of which has set me wondering again if we human beings are capable of getting along in our increasingly globalized world.  Can we stand being this relentlessly close to each other and still maintain our individual identities?

It seems to me, war inevitably requires a sense that “Us”, and “Them” are incompatible.  Whether the conflicts are between Catholics and Protestants, Black and White, Shias and Sunnis, Allied and Axis powers,  the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, or one of the hundreds of other warring sides, it happens when we find it impossible to share our essential identities with others.  Christianity still preaches that we are all God’s children, but that has not stopped us from killing each other as intolerable heretics.  Whites for centuries enslaved Blacks on the grounds that Blacks are inferior.  Tribes in Africa and Asia are also unable to find common ground, and would rather die than live together.

I don’t know if we can do it in this stage of our evolutionary development.   Maybe we are too aggressive and insufficiently cooperative, unable to recognize our common humanity whatever our differences.  The European Union was founded as a result of World War II, in the belief that if Europe were sufficiently united economically, countries would avoid the destructiveness of war.  But more than a functioning economy is required.  Sometimes people don’t understand how much cooperation a global economy requires.  Sometimes they’d rather take the chance of going it alone rather than take orders from Brussels or London or Washington or Moscow or Beijing.

It is highly unlikely that a Scottish vote for independence would utterly destroy their economy.  I strongly suspect independence would come at an economic cost, however, to both Scotland and to a lesser extent to the rest of Great Britain.  But that’s not the only issue.  Many Scots don’t like the feeling that they are being ruled by London, just as many states in the U.S. resent federal laws and taxes, or the way many in England resent the rules coming from Brussels and the European Union.

As anybody in any long-term relationship has discovered, making it last requires both compromise and cooperation.  If both feel that the independence one gives up is worth what one receives in its stead, the relationship is experienced as a success.  But if I’m losing more than I’m giving, I want out.

I suppose it’s the same way with countries.  Right now it’s the Scots who are asking the question.  But there are many other places too that are asking if they wouldn’t be better off on their own.  Scotland, I am glad, is not resorting to bombs and guns to find the answer.

Still, I hope things don’t get too nasty before the issue is resolved.

February 12, 2014

Taking the weather seriously

Some years ago, I read a weather forecaster who said that the effects of global warming were unlikely to be what people were expecting – even looking forward to.  Familiar weather patterns would not disappear, he said, but become instead more extreme.  Droughts would occur more often and last longer.  So would floods, snow storms, and deadly heat waves.

For Britain, the forecaster said, the chances were that colder winter temperatures would sweep down from the arctic.  They might dump snow on America, but as the weather systems crossed the Atlantic, they would turn to rain, bringing more rain, gale-force winds, and potentially disastrous floods to Ireland and Britain.

Well, this might not be global warming.  One can’t say with certainty until a clear pattern has set in over many years, by which time it may be far more difficult if not impossible to reverse forces that have been triggered by greenhouse gases.

But the weather we are experiencing now in Ireland and Britain sounds like it could be a brutal introduction to environmental change, and is breaking centuries of records.  Storms have been arriving on a conveyor belt from America since December.  Some people have been flooded out of their homes since before Christmas, and many will never be able to go back.  Tens of thousands of acres of farmland are under water, and herds of farm animals are in grave trouble.  Tonight more than a quarter of a million homes in Ireland are without electricity and half that many again in England.  A thousand people were evacuated from their homes just last night.  Sewage water is backing up into the streets and into people’s houses.  Some homes have been told not to flush their toilets but to use porto-toilets.  Gale winds have washed rail lines into the sea and blocked access to much of England’s south-west coast.

The army and navy are both out, supporting thousands of volunteers who have been working for weeks to try to hold the sea at bay, and politicians have been buying boots in order to wade about in the waters to make it look like they are doing something.

What is most worrying is that it is getting worse and there is no end in sight.  These weekly – even tri-weekly – storms could last into the end of March, bringing more rain and floods, uprooting more trees whose roots have been loosened by the water, pushing more people out of their homes.  When I hear weather forecasters telling Americans in the north that more snow is coming to be added to their already 15-foot snow banks, I tremble.  I know what that kind of snow is like.  But when it arrives as unrelenting rain, it’s devastation can be even worse.

We here in Cambridge are not getting the worst of it.  Roads are closed and fields are flooded.  Yesterday when we returned from shopping, we had to take four separate detours to get through.

But we’re not flooded out – yet anyway.

I won’t say it’s easy, but there is a spirit of determination among the English right now.  I won’t say they aren’t angry.  And they certainly aren’t enjoying it.  But they are pulling up their boots.

If the only expected result of global warming were the potential for flooding, I wouldn’t worry about Britain.  They’re going to solve this problem one way or another.

In the meantime, it’s wet.  And depressing.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea

 

 

 

 

February 10, 2014

Alternative to innocence

I have just this minute finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, the volume in her trilogy that explores how America finally entered WWI.  It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and makes me realize how uninformed I have been.  It has convinced me that it is not enough to take a principled stance against war.  We need more.

President Wilson adamantly stayed out of the war for two years on the grounds that America had to remain uninvolved militarily in order to negotiate a peace between Germany and Britain.    He believed that America’s entering the war would simply harden the implacable lines of disagreement.  He did this despite the fact that by 1916 German troops bestrode Europe from the English Channel to the frontiers of Russia, and from the Baltic to the Black Seas, occupying Poland, Romania, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, and industrial France as far west as Reims.   In addition, German allies, the Austria-Hungary empire, and Turkey held the Balkans from Italy to Greece, and from Baghdad to Jerusalem.  German u-boats had sunk the Lusitania which was not a military ship with huge loss of life.   Even when Germany announced that any ship, even of a neutral country, would be attacked by German u-boats,Wilson remained determined to keep America out of the war.

It was only when German u-boats sank three US military ships with massive loss of life, and shortly after that, when Wilson got incontrovertible evidence that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join forces with Japan to invade the U.S. and  take back Texas and Arizona that he – and the American public – decided that war was unavoidable.  It was, Wilson said, democracy or dictatorship.  It was a cause more important than peace.

I have no doubt that had I been alive then, I would have supported the war.  I think that the evidence still supports the evaluation that Germany was set on world domination and the destruction of democratic governments in Britain and America.

But today I ask  Wilson’s own anguished question:  “For God’s sake, is there no other alternative!?”

I am convinced that a stance of pacifism is not enough.  It might be moral.  It is undoubtedly often courageous.  Yes, we need to stop glorifying war.  Yes, we need to stop using it as our weapon of choice when we feel threatened or outraged, even legitimately so.  But pacifism by itself is not enough.  It is not enough to say “never again.”  By itself,  it will not stop the almost unimaginable carnage wrought by modern warfare.

It is a hundred years since World War I began.  It is even more imperative, for our sakes, not for God’s, that we commit ourselves to find and implement alternative solutions to our differences.

Far greater minds and hearts than mine have struggled with this question, and have paid a far higher price in the search for answers.  The world is not going to be revolutionized by my search.  But it is a small step.  It is replacing a cozy innocence that belongs to childhood.

February 9, 2014

Gonna study war some more

Since I was old enough to think about it at all, the question I have always asked about a war was whether it was morally justified.  Were the wars being fought because of injustice so grave that it merited killing and dying for?  If all other alternatives had been exhausted, if negotiations or economic forces failed, genocide obviously seemed a cause worth opposing to the death.   Mass starvation, slavery, unjustified invasion for the purpose of taking over a land to which one has no right or need also seemed justifiable reasons to go to war.

But I am now reading Barbara Tuchman’s superb  trilogy examining the events preceding and during World War I – The Proud Tower, The Zimmermann Telegram,  The Guns of August – and I am realizing how very much more complicated the question of war is beyond questions of morality.  In the stories we tell ourselves afterwards, we inevitably make the victors of war into heroes, even saints provided we are the victors, and into villains if we are the losers.  But it’s much much more complicated than that.

It’s not just about good guys and bad guys, right and wrong.

As I look at this question, I feel much the way I felt when 15 years ago I decided to grasp the events of  time since the Big Bang, and ultimately wrote The Big Bang to Now.  My ignorance to begin with was vast.  But I was fascinated, and bit by bit I got a hold of time and the major events of the last 14 billion years – at least those we know about.

I am now staring at the abyss of my ignorance about  war.  I doubt I will achieve sufficient wisdom to write a book on the subject, but this blog has always been primarily my platform for thinking out loud.  So I am going to think out loud as I continue to read.  Any comments or suggestions will be accepted with appreciation.  Not, perhaps, always with agreement.  But I am emphatically in a learning mode right now and am seriously listening.

January 29, 2014

I ain’t gonna study war…

I’ve been struggling with the question of war once again in response to The Game of War, a recent post on the Writer’s Treehut blog.  Then this morning I found  Ain’t Gonna Study War No More in my email, sent by a friend in memory of Pete Seeger who died two days ago.  I’ve been listening to folk songs from the 60’s and 70’s all day.

I was not prepared for the depth of feeling aroused by a return to this time in my life.  I remembered again how strongly I felt about war, about racial discrimination, about the poor.  And I thought again that we were right.

Oh yes, we were naive, and innocent, and simple.  But we were right about war.  We were right about loving each other.  We were right that we needed to care about each other.  And we were willing to go out there and fight for what we thought was right.  We were not all just sitting around in communes smoking pot and passing flowers to each other in a land of complete sexual liberty.  People literally died in the firing lines of the fight.

But we had no idea then just how unclear and how long the road for peace, for civil rights, for justice, and against poverty was.  I think we thought that the world could be turned around in a generation — our generation, in fact.  Now I look at the continued and increasing horrors of war and floods of refugees, at the environmental degradation, at the increasing difference between the rich and poor, and I never dreamed in those days that it could possibly become so bad.

We had no idea the problems we thought we could solve were so complex.  I think we still don’t.  Actually,  we don’t need to “study war no more,” but to study war and poverty and the environment and our impulse to kill each other a lot more.  We need to understand ourselves, our motivations, the conditions which bring out the best and the worst much better than we do.

Is there something about war, for instance, that we do truly find glorious and heroic?  The BBC is showing a surprisingly good documentary on World War I right now.  I learned last night that the prime minister, and at different times, members of the cabinet broke down in tears, several men even resigned their posts, as they contemplated the oncoming war.   What they saw was Germany set on control of the entire European continent.  So they saw no alternative to war.   Was there?  Were there alternatives that would have been better than those four ghastly years that killed 8 million troops and almost as many civilians?  Was there an alternative to what was basically a continuation of this war in World War II during which 66 million people died?

This very day, negotiators are gathered in Geneva struggle to find an alternative to the continuing civil war in Syria.  Northern Ireland has still not fully resolved its conflict, and Africa today is seeing the daily carnage of war.

I’m old now, and there is little I can see that I might contribute to the solutions we humans have created for ourselves.

But the truth is, young or old, none of us can do it alone.  In fact, each of us can do so little by ourselves that the great temptation is to despair.  We can touch the lives of only a very small number of people.  Our kindness can reach only a very small circle.  Our individual problem-solving must be focused or we won’t answer any questions at all.  We each must be satisfied to do our small bit, and hope that others do too.

We’re all in this together.  Even the most powerful, the most gifted, the most sainted need others.

 

 

 

 

January 23, 2014

What’s wrong with Utopia?

As far back as my teenage years, my friends and university colleagues have inevitably been politically left-wing.  And I have almost as inevitably been slightly to their right.  I usually agreed that something was wrong that we needed to try to put right.  But what I have found myself saying more and more often is that the solutions are not nearly as obvious as those on either the right or the left seem to think.

Actually, I can’t stand them, but I think the Tea Party isn’t totally wrong when they say that giving people hand outs keeps them from feeling responsible for going out and finding a paying job.  I live in Britain now, but even when I lived in the US, I personally knew people who bragged about lying and getting free hand-outs from the system.  There are people who say the same thing about the far more generous system over here.

On the other hand, not everybody who is hungry or living on the street or struggling to make ends meet are in that situation because they are too lazy to work, or because they think the system owes them a living.  People do lose their jobs and they can’t get another one — even cleaning toilets or making the beds in hotels.  People do get sick and the medical costs are beyond what anyone but the wealthiest can afford.  In other words, there is a place for a safety net in a society that is not inhabited solely by uncaring egocentric self-absorbed know-it-alls.

I was reminded again that this issue of hand-outs and government supported programs has two sides by an article in The Daily Mail, which is by and large admittedly a rag.  One reads it for titillating gossip – like the fact that the First Lady in France has just trashed her husband’s office after finding out that he’s been having an affair with an actress.  But the article yesterday was written by a woman, a doctor and avowed socialist who serves the poor and needy here in Britain, and who sees both sides of the coin.  Do read it if you are convinced that either the left- or right-wingers have all the answers.

As I see it, no system is without potential abuse.  To make matters even more complicated, what looks like abuse to one person may look like real need to someone else.  I rather admire Britain for deciding after World War II that there was something terribly wrong with asking people to sacrifice for their country, even to fight and die, but refusing to provide medical help when they or their children needed it if they couldn’t pay for it.  I rather admire a country that will not force families, including children, to live on the street if they can’t pay the rent.  And at the same time I rather like the American can-do attitude of independence and responsibility with which so many immigrants have come to the States and which has made our country so prosperous.

What the British system risks is that some people will think the system owes them a living.  What the American system risks is a failure to appreciate that sometimes people need a helping hand simply to get food on the table.

But the one system I fear is Utopia.  As Thomas Merton said in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

The terrible thing about our time is precisely the ease with which theories can be put into practice.  The more perfect, the more idealistic the theories, the more dreadful are their realization. We are at last beginning to rediscover what perhaps men knew better in very ancient times, in primitive times before utopias were thought of: that liberty is bound up with imperfection, and that limitations, imperfections, errors are not only unavoidable but also salutary.  The best is not the ideal.  Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everyone as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good.  The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.

December 31, 2013

A blue-blooded compliment

Filed under: Thinking about it: Angst amongst the Thickets — theotheri @ 5:22 pm
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I grew up thinking that to describe someone as “blue-blooded” was a compliment to their genuineness, their gracious generosity, their unselfish nobility of spirit.  I guess it did.  But that claim to unselfish nobility came from a rotten core of arrogant self-elevation.

I had no idea until today where the term originated, and it certainly never occurred to me it was racist.

But according to Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, it began in Spain in the 15th century with European colonial aggressions into north and south America.  Throughout the Middle Ages, vicious discrimination existed between “Us” and “Them” but it was based primarily not on genetic or even cultural identity but on religious affiliation.  Jews and Muslims could agree to be baptized, and if their conversions were deemed to be sincere, they would be spared persecution.

But with the discoveries of the “New World,” it seemed that these creatures living there might not be humans like us at all.  Some of them didn’t wear any clothes whatsoever, and their skin seemed to be of a different hue.  They were a different breed.  You could tell, because you could see the blue blood running through the veins on the back of the hands of the white man, indicating that his superiority was not religious, but more fundamental than that.  They were of a different race.

In this sense, modern racism was invented by Europeans – and the first European immigrants brought it with them not only to Central and South America but also to North America.  Fully 95% of the North American Indian population died as a result of either the diseases imported from Europe and to which the Indian population had no immunity, or as the result of the harsh working conditions of what was essentially serfdom imposed by the newcomers who laid claim to the land in the names of their originating country.

And so I profoundly hope I am not blue-blooded in the original sense of the term.  I know for sure my blood runs runs red just like everybody else’s.

December 17, 2013

Equality is a dangerous word

Equality has a fuzzy comfortable feeling, especially if you’re an American like me.  We have a constitution that says we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and even though it took a century and a half and a civil war to recognize even in law that WE did not mean only white men, and even though racism still rears its nasty head, we nonetheless all cross our hearts to the concept of equality.

But what does it mean?  What does equal mean?  In hundreds of important ways we are obviously not equal.  We differ in sensory sensitivity, in physical strength and coordination, in talent, in looks, in mathematical, musical, spatial, verbal, and social abilities to name just a few.  And we can only be grateful that this is true.  We would all be indescribably poorer if we were all the same.

And that’s the problem with the word “equality.”  Equal does not mean identical.  It does not mean we all have the same needs, the same abilities, or the same desires or opportunities.

And so, with all due respect for Pope Francis who in so many ways is a breath of fresh air, I think to talk about the injustice of economic inequality is asking for trouble.  Of course it is absurd for Limbaugh to say Francis is advocating Marxism.  If nothing else, it shows how little Limbaugh knows about Marxism.

And yes, there are some aspects of economic inequality which are hugely unjust and which we must try to reduce.   When people do not have the basic needs of food and clothing and shelter, when they are denied education for which they have the ability, when they are sick and denied medical support, when they cannot live even with basic dignity, how can we justify this if we can prevent it?

And that is part of the problem.  How can we prevent the kind of inequality which denies whole groups of society the basic necessities of life, or the right to education? The last century is littered with systems that have tried and failed.  The sources of injustice in society are not simple to eliminate.  India is dealing with the effects of a caste system, Britain a class system, ethnic and tribal differences in Latin America and Africa are both overlaid by waves of colonialism.  American today is dealing with the 2%, whose influence is destroying the hopes of the middle classes that if they work hard enough, they can build a better life and become more prosperous.

But achieving justice does not lie in economic equality.   Nor will it bring happiness or fulfillment.  To preach that it does is to walk down the road of envy and resentment.  Having as much money as everybody else is not the road to happiness.

I think we need two things which are often confused with economic equality.  The first is opportunity.  Not every job should pay equally.  But every adult should be able to do work which enables him or her to survive with dignity and to support those who depend on them.  This might sound like a simple principle, but it demands an educational system that enables young people to gain those skills which will benefit society.  And it demands a functioning economy which provides jobs for society’s workers.  Figuring out how to achieve this is not obvious.  In fact, as the political disagreements demonstrate, we really don’t know for sure how to do it.  My own sense is that we are in desperate need of gifted economists as much as politicians.

Yes, let us offer a helping hand to those in need.  Let us worry about the poor.  But in some sense giving is much easier than receiving.  When  our needs are greatest, it is often humiliating to receive.  But it can be gratifying to give, one can feel quite superior as a giver in a way we can’t at the receiving end.  So let us worry about giving people the opportunity to work, and not languish on benefits or unemployment insurance, or even to starve and live in degrading  penury.

The second thing we need beside opportunity is an appreciation of the vast richness for human society of our diversity.  Let us be grateful that people can achieve things we cannot, that others have talents and abilities we do not have.    We are all in this together.  We need each other.  We need those special gifts of others in order for our own lives to be enriched.  We need to learn to delight in our differences, not resent them, or try to insist that our own differences somehow make us superior.

The great injustices of life are not inequality across the board.  We need inequality.

But we all need love and respect and dignity.  That is how we are equal.

We all need to give and we need to receive.  We do not need to be all the same.

November 26, 2013

Us and them

One of the enduring struggles in human societies for as far back as we can see in history revolves around the inevitable tension between the small and the large.  Some times the tensions is between the individual and the family or the small group that constitute our friends, classmates, neighbours, or associates.  Sometimes the tensions are between families, between teams, between organizations, between ethnic groups, between nations, or even groups of nations.  Inevitably there is always a trade-off in benefits.

We can’t, for instance, work primarily for ourselves or for our own group and still gain all the benefits of cooperating with a larger circle.  And we can’t work for the benefit of the larger group without giving up some of the benefits that come with exclusively pursuing our own.

Often these tensions lead to war – the Allies versus the Axis powers, the east versus the west, the Christians versus the Muslims.  Sometimes the tensions are manifest in political struggles.

The St Andrews Cross and the Union JackToday the Scottish National Party published its arguments for an independent Scotland, which is going to be the subject of a referendum next September.   If they win, Scotland will no longer be part of the United Kingdom, presently consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Scotland and England were united under the same king and parliament in London 400 years ago.  But although they speak a common language, they remain different cultures, rather the way the north and south of the United States are different cultures.  The Scottish National Party is trying to convince the Scottish voters that the benefits of becoming an independent nation of their own will greatly outweigh the benefits of being united with England.

Right now, those Scots who say they will vote for independence are in a minority.  But it is not at all clear how the vote will eventually go.  There are great number of undecideds, people who are not sure whether what they will gain with independence would be less than what they would lose.  For most people the questions seems to be primarily economic, and the paper arguing for independence promises all sort of goodies.  The question being hotly debated is whether these promises are economically realistic in an independent Scotland.

The struggle is not unlike the debate going on in the United Kingdom in general about British membership in the European Union.  All sorts of rules and regulations are sent down from Brussels which apply to all 27 member countries.  They inevitably sometimes feels high-handed, self-serving, picky, or ill-informed.  But they do a great deal to facilitate trade and economic development.  It’s a tension that also parallels the question of States’ rights in America.

As an American, I have no say on the question of Scottish independence.  As an outsider, it doesn’t look like a good economic move to me.  But I have some sympathy with the feeling that London is too far away, too remote.  I watch the struggle of the European Union, and particularly the struggle over its common currency, the euro, as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, even France, struggle, and I think I understand how the Scots feel.  Part of me would like to see the whole EU enterprise fail.   Brussels’ nannying is so infuriating.

But would it be worth it to try to go it alone?

My gut feeling is that in both situations, more would be lost by cutting loose than would be gained.

But for once, neither the EU or Scottish independence are my problems.

Thank goodness.  I have enough to worry about as an American.

November 18, 2013

Christians and Catholics and everybody else

 

A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, recently said that Pope John Paul II had taught him to be a Catholic, but that Pope Francis was teaching him to be a Christian.

For about two minutes, I had a positive feeling about this comment.  Yes, I thought,  being a Christian is about love and caring about the welfare of others rather than worrying about judging whether people believe the right dogmas or obeying what the church has insisted on calling “natural law.”

But I was socialized as a Catholic, and this distinction between Catholic and Christian made in this way makes me leery.

It sounds to me as if this particular Catholic who is broadening his perspective to include Christianity still sees the church as having access to truths that non-Christians don’t.  I worry that this “one true religion” belief is still alive and well.

Personally, I find Pope Francis a likeable, even admirable, person, and I’m grateful for a greater emphasis on caring about the poor and those in need rather than on sex and all its ramifications.  But ultimately, if he is made into a celebrity who simply makes Catholicism more appealing to the masses, deep down things really will not have changed that fundamental belief on the part of the RC hierarchy and many faithful that only they have access to “the one true faith.”

There are many groups in the world who care for the sick and poor.   Not all are religious.  NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam are not tied to any single religion.  Even terrorists groups often make themselves popular by their acts of good will among the poor.  Loving one’s neighbour is not a uniquely Christian virtue.  And bribing people into church with the promise of rewards either now or in eternity offers little appeal to me.

This is not a criticism of Pope Francis, or of the many Christians who care unselfishly about others.

I just want to point out that people all over the world, in big and small ways, give their lives in unselfish care and service of members of their family, their community, or complete strangers.  Loving others might be a central value  of Christianity.  But it is not unique to Catholicism or even Christianity.  Being a Christian is one way of framing a philosophy of love of one’s neighbour.  It’s just not the only one.

October 13, 2013

Peanut butter panic

Filed under: Growing Old,Worries — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
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Last night at about ten o’clock, I read a review of  some introductory research suggesting that the loss of the sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of dementia.  Specifically, if the sense of smell is more impaired in the left nostril, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.  If the greater impairment is in the right nostril, it may indicate some other form of cognitive impairment.

The research used about a tablespoon of peanut butter with a blind-folded patient who was instructed to indicate when they could smell it.  A difference of about ten centimeters (four inches)  in the distance between  when the peanut butter was detected by the right and left nostrils turned out to be significant.

I dashed into the kitchen and dished up a soup -spoon of peanut butter.  It could hardly be called a blind study, since it was self-administered, but it seemed to me I couldn’t smell peanut butter with either or both nostrils, at any distance.  I dug around the cupboards for something more strongly scented, but although curry powder made me sneeze, I couldn’t actually say I could smell it.  Ditto for the vinegar, orange, and tomato juice.

My scientifically validated conclusion, based on this evidence, is that either a) my allergies are still acting up, b) I’ve never had a good sense of smell, c) peanut butter doesn’t have a smell, or d) I’m in the late stages of cognitive impairment.  (Notice how I have cleverly omitted the possibility that I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.)

I have noticed, though, that I have to concentrate harder than I used to when I’m working on cognitive tasks or trying to figure out a problem — like how to make some new gadget work that three-year-olds can figure out in about as many minutes.

I also  concluded many years ago that achieving true and honest self-knowledge makes understanding quantum physics look easy.

So if I’m really loosing it, some complete stranger reading this blog will probably know it well before I do.

October 11, 2013

Which is the worsest?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 7:08 pm
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Like many others, I have been watching in stupefied horror as the House Republicans try to un-do legislation passed by an earlier Congress by holding the country hostage.

Some changes need to be made so that a minority is not again in a position to negate legislation which is already law because they don’t like it.  But that is for the future.  The question now is not just how to get government workers back in their offices again, but how not to avoid an even worse situation in which the United States defaults on its debts.

I have thought that Obama is right to refuse to compromise on Obamacare at this point.

But if it comes to it, and the choice is between defaulting on our debts and defunding (ie, essentially destroying) Obamacare, I think Obama should choose the lesser of two evils and make it clear that it is the Republicans who are responsible.

The health care being made available through Obamacare is essential for tens of thousands of seriously sick people today unable to afford essential medical treatment.  It is terrible to refuse to help them.  But the economic destruction that will be caused by default by a major economy whose currency is the reserve currency of the world will cause even more suffering and poverty.  It will last for years – some economists think the economic effects could last a generation.

And the loss of prestige and trust and leadership by a country that does not pay its debt because it is fighting over whether to provide health care for its sick will probably be permanent.

I’m finding it hard these days to be proud to be an American.  We seem to be betraying so many of our own basic principles of justice and responsibility.

September 29, 2013

Why do I care at all?

A comment following my post yesterday asked why I care at all about what happens to the structure of the Roman Catholic church, or about whether it might change from bottom-up after changes from the top-down have clearly failed.

Actually, I wrote the post as a result of discovering yet another of my unrecognized Catholic assumptions.  You’d think after almost half a century during which I no longer considered myself a Catholic that I wouldn’t still be discovering ways in which I am unconsciously thinking like one.  But it was only when I heard someone express the view that if Pope Francis can’t change the Vatican-controlled structure of the church, he will be a failure that I recognized this same unspoken assumption in my own thinking.

A study of history shows that power is rarely yielded by those who hold it.  Cultural and social structures change when the people no longer recognize their authority as legitimate.  Why would the Roman Catholic church be any different?  It won’t.

Do I care?  I do not take my direction from the church.  But many people do, and in that sense, I care to the extent that any powerful institution is as bigoted and sexist as the Roman Catholic church so often is.  But I do not see myself involved in any attempts to try to change that particular institution – from below, from above, or from the outside.

One thing I do ponder occasionally, however, is the recognition that some of my values were rooted in my early socialization as a Catholic.  They are values like a respect for truth, for the rights of others, for the value of work.  Not uniquely Catholic or even Christian values.  But it is where I first learned them.

I am grateful.

September 28, 2013

Top-down or Bottom-up?

I said in a post last month that my worry about Pope Francis was that he would eventually be canonized as a saint, while the Vatican hierarchy itself proceeded in its autocratic ways unchanged.

But I’m not so sure about that.  Pope John XXIII tried the top-down method of reforming the church.  He called Vatican II, and all sort of suggestions for radical reform were heralded.  Then the pope died and for the last half century, the Vatican has systematically dismantled, ignored, over-ridden or distorted practically every reform suggested by Vatican II.  Meanwhile, the exodus from the RC Church has reached hundreds of thousands.

And so I’m wondering now if the mistake is expecting change to be mandated from the top, rather than from below.  Perhaps 50 years ago too many practicing Catholics expected it to be done for them, so that all they had to do was to continue to follow in humble obedience.

But several of the things Pope Francis has said and done suggest that he does not think this kind of blind obedience to church authority is any more Christian than blind obedience to civil authority.  The Nuremberg trials were based on the recognition that “I was only doing what I was told” is not an adequate justification for crimes against humanity.  In the end, we must refuse to follow commands against humanity no matter where they emanate from.

So when Pope Francis asks questions like the one he asked about homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”, is he not saying that the bottom line is not obedience even to church teaching?  is he not saying the bottom line is caring, love, respect for our fellow-man?  When some bishops and priests are welcoming divorced Catholics who have remarried to the communion alter, are they not saying that love is more important than obedience?  When theologians argue against excommunicating a nun working in an emergency ward for authorizing an abortion for a woman who had been raped in order to save the life of the mother, isn’t the fundamental principle one of love?  When millions of couples use birth control so that they can engage in sex without passing on the AIDS virus or having another child which they cannot feed or care for, isn’t it getting our priorities backwards to say that this expression of love must take second place to procreation under any circumstances?

I don’t know, but maybe what Pope Francis is saying is that “the greatest of these is love.”  That whatever we do, for a Christian it is love that is the bottom line.  It’s not doctrine, not obedience, not approval from the religious powers that be.  Of course, the hierarchical structure of the church needs fundamental change.  But perhaps it is only going to come from the bottom up.  That’s the way it was with the first Christians.

Hmmm.  I might even consider myself an aspiring Christian again.  Though I’m sure I couldn’t possibly get the Vatican’s acceptance.  I don’t think they could handle the scope of my disbelief.

Well, unless maybe if I met Pope Francis.  He did say recently he believed that many atheists were men and women of good will and didn’t suggest that their only future was the fire of hell.

September 6, 2013

Why we shouldn’t bomb Syria

I have just read what for me is a compelling case against the United States bombing Syria.  The following are my own words, but the ideas are taken directly from  Dan Ebener.  He calls it “the Catholic case against attacking Syria,” using Catholic social doctrine but I can’t see what’s Catholic about it.  I’m convinced because I think he is right:  it gravely risks making things much worse rather than better for just about everybody involved.

Ebener gives several convincing arguments:

  • The evidence is pretty strong that somebody used chemical weapons.  It’s more likely to have been the Syrian government, but the evidence is not conclusive, and it could have been the branch of rebels supported by Al Qaeda trying to get the U.S. involved to support their attempts to overthrow Assad.
  • It would be illegal for the U.S. to bomb Syria under the circumstances.  Russia and China will clearly use their vote on the UN security council to veto a military strike on Syria.  Since the U.S. itself was not attacked, we will violate international law if we attack Syria without international backing.  In other words, as Ebener puts it, “we would be breaking international law against a country that we think broke international law to show that breaking international law is wrong.”
  • But let’s assume the U.S. bombs Syria and removes Assad from power.  I think about the possible alternatives.  The most powerful of the diverse rebel groups is probably controlled by extremists such as Al Qaeda.  If they gain power, they will have access to Assad’s chemical weapons.  Whether or not they have already used chemical weapons (and they may have) would they use them to maintain power?   I fear it is a strong possibility.
  • Along with putting the extremists in power, the chances that US military involvement will escalate the war seem to me to be huge.  Iran has already said it will not stand idly by, and Russia has made it clear that it is not a neutral observer.  How can a situation like this possibly make things better for the millions of Syrians already displaced?    or the millions more civilians caught in the line of increasing fire?  It is no good saying we would not target innocent civilians.  Modern warfare makes it almost impossible not to kill innocent bystanders.  Wouldn’t it be better to use the funding that would be used for a military attack to provide humanitarian assistance?
  • I was living in England on 9/11.  The response throughout Europe was one of solidarity with America.  But I saw that solidarity slip away as the Bush administration decided to use it as a chance to attack Iraq under the false pretenses that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction but was really a war in pursuit of oil and greater control in the Middle East.

Today, I’m convinced that our credibility and reputation would be far greater if we relied more on demonstrating that we are a country that lives according to its principles and the rule of law, even when we are threatened.

But the alternative to not bombing Syria is not doing nothing.   So what can we do?

  • We can give much more in humanitarian aid to help the refugees both in and around Syria who have fled the violence, support a full-fledged arms embargo in relation to all sides in the Syrian conflict, and reiterate again that the only viable lasting solution is political.
  • We can give our strongest backing to the United Nations/Arab League and call for a conference including Iran to work toward a negotiated settlement,
  • This settlement should not make the mistake we made in Iraq where we tried to replace all government institutions and people who had served in Saddam’s government.  It created a political vacuum, and ultimately simply changed the groups theoretically in control.  It has not established true democracy or eliminated regular acts of terrorism.  A true solution has to include the entire diversity of ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

America is often a trigger-happy country, and we tend to think that if our bombs are the biggest our moral superiority must be beyond question.  But the world today needs countries with the wisdom to find other paths to peace besides violence.

Besides, what we’ve had to recognize more than once since Vietnam is that our bombs simply don’t automatically make us the winners anymore.

And we really do need peace if we are going to survive.

August 29, 2013

A different point of view on Syria

In my earlier post today, I said I’d signed the petition to Obama not to try to deal with chemical weapons in Syria by bombing.

The Economist today published an argument for limited strikes, on the grounds that doing nothing in response to the chemical attacks that killed hundreds and injured thousands will eventually lead to more of the same.

It’s a measured reasoning which one cannot call war-mongering or even unreasonable.  Actually, it represents the kind of reasoning that has influenced my own thoughts every time I think of Nazi Germany.

I think now we have to find other ways than brute strength and military might to fight for even such important issues as the use of chemical weapons.

But the Economist’s position deserves to be taken seriously and answered with respect by those of us who don’t agree with them.  Because the results of whatever decisions are made will effect millions of people.  It’s worth struggling as hard as we can to be right.

Feeling righteous isn’t enough.

I don’t think we should bomb Syria

Tell President Obama: Don't bomb Syria

I am assuming that if enough of us sign a petition telling Obama that we don’t want the United States to try to solve the problems of chemical warfare by bombing Syria that it will influence his decision.

So I’ve signed the petition.

The more I read and think and listen, the more I am convinced that, ghastly as the situation is, our bombing Syria will make matters far worse, not better.

Yes, I know, we stood by in relation to Rwanda and we could perhaps have made things better if we had intervened.  And intervening in Bosnia, in retrospect, even without the UN approval, seems like a good idea.  But Iraq and probably Afghanistan have made things much much worse for the people living there, for the U.S., for the region, and probably for world peace.  Not all situations are the same, and each one must be examined carefully.

During the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations I asked my father what he thought about the war.  “I’m against it,” he said.  “Why?” I asked.  “Because we can’t win,” he said.

My first response was to be appalled.  How could one make a moral judgement based on whether one would win?  Shouldn’t one be willing to die for a cause that is right, whether or not one wins?

But I have come to realize that there is a terrible price that is exacted for fighting a war one can’t win.  The price is paid above in the deaths, starvation, loss, and suffering by civilians on whose benefit we are allegedly waging war.

Even when we drop our bombs, shoot off our missiles, or send out our drones without putting boots on the ground, we can make things much worse, however righteous our cause may be or wrong the actions we are trying to correct.

I think we can only make matters worse by military intervention in Syria at this point.

So as I said, I signed the petition.

August 28, 2013

Is there a third way?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:56 pm
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I hope the situation with Syria does not escalate.  I think Obama was a fool to say that the use of chemical weapons was a line in the sand.  One can only hope that the results of our going in there militarily are not as catastrophic as the past suggests they will be, and as many are predicting.

Having said that, I’m not sure what I would do.  The older I get, the more I am convinced that Homo sapiens is too trigger-happy, and Americans have a particularly bad case of it right now.  We seem to think that because we have been economically so successful and have so much money compared to everybody else that we are also morally superior, and that our use of force is qualitatively different from an body else’s who disagrees with us.

I don’t see how we in the West can possibly bring about a resolution of the kind of conflicts that are ripping Syria apart and that are crisscrossing the Middle East.

But yet:   even without Obama’s having warned Syria, for the West not to respond in some way to such a massive use of chemical weapons against civilians would be a green light for more and worse from Syria as well as other governments under threat from civil unrest.

Over here, Prime Minister Cameron is bringing a motion before Parliament tomorrow asking for support for a response to Syria specifically targeted to the chemical weapons, not toward regime change or getting involved in the civil war there.  That sounds great in theory to me, but in practice I have grave doubts that the two can be separated.

As the man once said who was asked to give directions to a lost driver: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

I’m glad I’m not the President.

August 13, 2013

The unfinished story

More than one thoughtful person who guessed rightly that I would be interested have sent me the link to the Sunday New York Times editorial and video about the Maryknoll Sisters, the group of nuns of which I was a member for nine years.  Sister Mary Joseph, originally Mollie Rogers of Boston, Mass. will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.  along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi and others.

Mostly over the years I have looked back at that time I spent as a Maryknoller rather the way one reviews  a long education.  It was often difficult, it was often traumatic, and  I was keenly aware that the Maryknoll Sisters were profoundly conflicted about their mission, and about what kind of women we wanted to be.  Should we be submissive, blindly obedient, unquestioning of our superiors?  Or were we an order that was creative, responsive, innovative, finding new ways to be among the poor?  Mollie Rogers had the latter in mind.  Those who took their cues from Rome thought the former.

As a result of this conflict, over several decades hundreds of sisters were either forced to leave Maryknoll or left voluntarily.   I’ve just learned that my friend Pat Logan, about whom I wrote earlier this year, was told to leave because she was “too creative.”  Others were told to leave because they were too questioning, or resistant to spending years at the Motherhouse in Westchester County, New York, when Maryknoll had said that they would be missioners in underdeveloped countries.  A few simply broke under the strain.  In 1969 there were 1169 Maryknoll Sisters, and hundreds of young women asking to be admitted every year.  Today there are 471 Maryknoll Sisters, and many of them are old.  Young women are no longer banging on the door to join.

I learned a lot during those years, though, and have not regretted the time I was there.

Summer in the City 1967What I had forgotten was why I had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in the first place.  But when I read the editorial and listened to the video, it came back like a flash of lightning.  Yes, that was why I’d entered the convent!  I wasn’t wrong.  The choices that had been offered to me as I was growing up on a midwest farm in America was to become a nurse, but not a doctor,  to teach grade school, but not in university, to be a secretary but not a lawyer, to choose social work but not psychiatry or psychology.  But nuns did all those things not open to me as a mere lay person.  And Maryknoll Sisters, above all, went to other peoples, other cultures, and lived there.  They made a difference.  I saw it as a kind of life-time Peace Corp.

As I have said before, the Maryknoll Sisters have changed a lot.  They took Vatican II on board, and in many ways are today among the most active and innovative group of nuns I know.  The hundreds of sisters who were forced or decided to leave were, I believe, a necessary part of bringing about that change.  It became apparent to those still there that Maryknoll itself had been in part responsible for betraying the promises made to those who thought that Maryknoll Sisters were different.

But on some level, Maryknoll is still conflicted, and I am not sure whether they can survive within the straight-jacket imposed by the ruling hierarchy of bishops.  The Roman Catholic Church is itself now engaged in the kind of conflict that characterized us at  Maryknoll.  Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the RC Church and not returning.  Pope Francis knows that change is called for, but I’m not sure at this point how fully he understands what needs to be done, or indeed how to do it.  My fear is that he will be loved by the people and eventually be canonized as a humble unpretentious pope who cared for the poor and who is held up as an example to the faithful.  But the Vatican power structure may remain, perhaps a little battered but fundamentally unscathed.

Perhaps I am wrong and real change is coming.  I think since 9/11 something similar may be happening in America.

Perhaps the tectonic plates really are shifting.

August 11, 2013

Do we want to know?

The Sunday papers today are reporting that two British professors have patented a test that analyzes endothelial reactivity.

Oh good, you say – just what I always wondered about myself.

The paper is calling it a Death Test, but if the Americans get hold of it, it will undoubtedly be called a Life Test.   Either way, endothelial reactivity measures the oscillation within the blood cells of capillaries, our smallest blood vessels.  The results indicate just how well an individual is functioning over all, and so can predict the undiagnosed presence of cancer and dementia.

But the results are also graded for optimal functioning between 0 and 100, and with sufficient data will ultimately be able to make a reasonably accurate prediction of when an individual will die – even if that event is decades away.

The good news is that the test is a laser test that is completely painless, non-invasive, even user-friendly.  The expectation is that the test will be available to GP’s within three years.

If it were on offer, would you take it?  At my age now I would – it would make it much easier to plan for the rest of my limited future here.  But would I want to know at the age of eighteen how long I probably had to live barring accident or epidemic.  Or at the age of forty?  fifty?

One thing for sure, once the data is reliable enough, insurance and pension companies are going to want to know.

July 31, 2013

Poverty really isn’t good for us

There’s a column in The Economist this week reviewing a paper by an economics professor at Georgetown University on our changing attitudes toward poverty during the last four hundred years or so.

The thinking that dominated European thought between the 16th and 18th century was that poor people were an economic necessity f a society didn’t have slaves.  Who else would be the workers in the factories and fields if we wanted to keep things ticking over?

Given that they were economically necessary, there was not much appetite for improving their lot.  Even the Poor Laws designed in the 18th century were not really designed to help people get out of poverty, but just to help them survive shocks like failed harvests or unexpected illness.

I suppose it’s not surprising that the poor, by and large, were blamed for their own plight.  The comforting rationalization gradually emerged that people were poor because of their own flaws like laziness, alcoholism, and lack of discipline.  The clergyman Thomas Malthus popularized this view, which led to an adjustment of the Poor Laws making the workhouse the only option on the grounds that people shouldn’t be given money or food or even shelter if they wouldn’t work.

There are people alive today whose parents and relatives know what the workhouse was like, or who survived under exploitative factory regimes.  But in the 20th century these attitudes toward the poor began to change.  Researchers began to show that poverty really isn’t good for the economy at large.  Henry Ford exemplified this thinking, insisting that if his workers were paid enough to buy the cars they were helping to manufacture it would be beneficial for everybody.  And Karl Marx began to develop a theory whereby the workers themselves would take over ownership of the economies which depended on them – although in practice it didn’t work out that way.

For the West, the real game-changer was the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  People couldn’t get work no matter how hard they tried, and platitudes blaming the poor themselves stopped working.  In addition, it became increasingly apparent that high levels of poverty were a drain, not an engine, for economic growth.

Fascinatingly, though, it was not until the 1990’s that economists began to develop alternative models to Communism by which the poor could be helped to break out of poverty.  Researchers began to demonstrate that low levels of education, health, and nutrition rather than laziness and drunkenness often kept people in poverty.   As a result, countries now are changing their policies.  Brazil, for instance, gives poor people money as long as they send their children to school, or protect their health by having them vaccinated.

For me, reading this article was like opening up a huge window to let in the fresh air.  I found the analysis of poverty as an economic challenge much more liberating than the traditional schizophrenic view of Christianity in which the hierarchy live in palaces and dress up in gold and jewels to carry out religious ceremonies and in which the poor are kept in their place with charity and assurances that they are blessed.

Poverty, real poverty, is not a virtue.  That is not to say that avaricious materialism is not destructive.  I think it is.  But its alternative isn’t poverty.

I’ve always had doubts about giving money to charitable causes for anything but short-term help in emergencies.  I’d rather give to the Malala Fund or some other fund that provides education for those who otherwise could not get it.

July 25, 2013

Papal thumbs up

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:32 pm
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I noticed on the news tonight that Pope Francis gave a blessing to a young boy in Brazil today, and followed it with a thumbs up sign.

I know it’s a long way off from carrying forward the Church reforms stalled after Vatican II.

But I have to admit it’s refreshing, coming from someone sitting in St. Peter’s chair.

July 20, 2013

Health care: two alternatives

In his exploration of democratic alternatives to some of our American institutions which seem to have gone array, Gar Alperovitz discusses health care.  In the United States, we have mostly either paid for health insurance or  pay up front when we need treatment.  Up to a point, Medicare and Medicaid helps those who have paid social security, but hundreds of thousands of Americans are deprived of medical treatments they need because they cannot afford it.  Obama Care was meant to plug this gigantic hole, making it possible for all Americans who need medical care to get it, whatever their financial state.  It has run into fierce opposition, been rejected outright by some states, and even taken to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Alperovitz recommends setting up a health system run not by private insurance companies and hospitals but a system by and for the people.  The National Health Service (or NHS for short) here in Britain is closer to the kind of system he describes.  The NHS was set up after World War II in a country rejecting the injustices of a system which allowed thousands of working class people to die for their country, but which did not provide health care even for families of those who had died for democracy if they could not afford it – as many many could not.   Today, it is a system at which treatment is free at the point of need to anyone.  It is paid for out of general taxes.

I have seen the NHS, for better and worse, close up for more than 20 years.  I have received, I believe, some of the best treatment available in the world here, and I have seen dedicated medical treatment go far beyond their defined duties to care for the sick.  I have also seen first hand examples of prejudice, particularly against the elderly, that are terrifying.  I saw a 90-year-old man dying of cancer in a wheel chair left outside a hospital door in the middle of winter.  I have seen arrogance and indifference on the part of medical staff, and now a major report has  identified 14 hospitals in the UK where the death rate is far higher than average, and in part almost certainly due to medical errors, carelessness, and sheer lack of concern even for the dignity, let alone suffering, of patients.

These latter are the kind of stories that turn many Americans away from “socialized medicine.”

But should we be so ready to dismiss the British system or other similar systems in Europe?

I’m not so sure we should.  First of all, the British are immensely proud of the NHS.

I have seen enough in America to know that injustices and disregard for patients occur in our medical system that are as grave as anything that has been uncovered here.  The difference is that here in Britain, failure to protect  the health care system can bring governments down just as surely as a failure to protect the economy.  The outrage at the state of some of the UK hospitals is huge, and the government as well as opposition parties are putting unprecedented effort into improving the system.  There is little doubt in my mind that some of the gravest deficiencies here will be effectively addressed.

Cost, too, is a major factor.  Americans’ life expectancy is lower than it is here and throughout most of Europe, although our medical expenditures are about twice as high.  That is in large part because the US system is private and run as a business to make money.

It seems clear to me that no system, as a system, is going to eliminate prejudice or disregard supported by the culture at large.  But when they are exposed in a socialized system of health care, there is apt to be outrage.

In America, too often I fear the response is the one we are seeing to Obama Care — that it is people’s own fault if they do not have the insurance required to pay for the medical care they need, and that the rest of us should not have to pay our taxes to take care of them.  To the extent that is true, I suspect socialized medicine would not work in America.  When scandals are uncovered, too many of us may very well respond by saying that it’s not the system, but the fault of the patient who should have been paying for his or her own treatment in the first place instead of relying on the state.

So which system, given the choice, would I prefer to live with?  If money is no object, one can get some of the best care in the world in the United States.  As long as I can afford adequate health insurance, the American system can meet my needs.  But what if I can no longer afford to keep paying insurance?

And what about those who, often through no fault of their own, do not have adequate insurance, or who cannot get insurance at all because companies label them as not potentially cost-effective?  I don’t really feel comfortable reaching the conclusion that “I’m okay, jack.  I’m sorry I can’t  help you as well. But that’s life.  It’s tough, and we get what we pay for.  You’ll just have to take care of yourself.  ”

For all its limitations, I think the British system is better.

July 17, 2013

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

A comment following my post two days ago “What’s good for the goose…” suggests that sometimes we are introduced to an idea that we somehow recognize without further analysis, that resonate with a depth that cannot be fully described.  As I said, I’ve had this experience in what we sometimes call “love at first sight.”  I’ve also had it in relation to music.  I can’t tell you why a piece speaks to me, or even put into words what it means.  But it is sometimes immensely powerful.

Ideas, on the other hand, rarely bowl me over in that way.  I love ideas, but I so often see their potential limitations that I am rarely stunned into silent awe.   “And the greatest of these is love,” probably belongs to that very small group of ideas that seem to reflect a transcendent truth.  And Chomsky’s exploration of the implications of Einstein’s e=mc2 which completely eliminates my need for another “spiritual” world beyond the world of energy and matter in which we exist.

Today I was introduced to a third idea that I find simply stunning.  It is an explanation of the “sin” committed by Adam and Eve which drove them out of Eden.  The Sin was to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, an action which always mystified me.  Until now, I thought this sin was a violation of some supposed arbitrary rule like eating pork or having meat on Friday.  Or far more destructively, the sin was the desire to understand, a definition that in my view represented nothing more than the attempt by those in positions of power to maintain that power by keeping the “plebs” in a state of ignorance by naming the attempt to gain knowledge “hubris.”

But today I was introduced to a third possibility.  The sin of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is exactly that.  It is believing that we can judge who is bad and who is good.  It is believing that we know who is pleasing to God and who isn’t, who is on their way to hell and who is going to heaven.  It is knowing who the enemy is who deserves to be killed, it knowing what other people’s motives are, it is knowing who is “one of us,” and who isn’t.

Believing that we can make these kinds of judgements with accuracy and impunity is what destroyed life in the Garden of Eden.  It divided the human community into good and bad, into “us” and “them.”  It gave war and revenge a legitimate evil justification.  No wonder the authors of Genesis made this an idea of the devil.

I need to think about this more deeply, but I am wondering if ultimately Genesis sees a willingness to settle our differences through physical power rather than through listening and negotiation and compromise as THE great sin of mankind.

Is all war, then, always wrong?

I have been greatly influenced by World War II.  Could we, in all conscience, simply have let Hitler complete his ghastly work of ethnic cleansing?

Clearly Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, his “peace in our time,” was a charade.

But could we have, should we have, negotiated?  Could we, in the worst case, negotiated to accept all of the Jews and all the other people Hitler claimed were “inferior,” into our own countries?

And what of Afghanistan today?  From what I am reading, outsiders from the British, the French, the Russians, and now the Americans, have,  for centuries, misunderstood the tribes living there.  Today we Americans have vilified the Taliban, with the “knowledge” that they are evil.  It’s an attitude which is making negotiations with these “terrorists,” and  our withdrawal from Afghanistan extremely difficult.  Because we already know who is right.  We already know that anybody who disagrees with us are the “bad guys.”

Of course we have to live by principles, and by our convictions.

But eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil might just be that terrible sin of judgement by which we think we know not only ourselves but everybody else too.

What if we had the conviction that war is always a Great Sin, always the wrong way to solve our differences?  Yes, I know this is immensely idealistic.  But as an ideal, how does it stand up against the nuclear option?  or sending in “more troops”?  or “dying for one’s country”?

As I say, I need to think about this more.  But I’m stunned.

July 13, 2013

What’s good for the goose…

When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.

The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either.  Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.

This rarely  emerges as an urgent problem for most of us.  Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand.  I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch.   Some people do.  But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work.  Gravity is one example.  Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years.  We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics.  In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.

Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.”  They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence.  What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies.  God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him.  Others have a  more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description.  Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.

So I Got It Wrong

The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not.  I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.

I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight.  I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus.  Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.

But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are?  And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?

No.  Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.

Even if they do disagree with me.

July 12, 2013

A cultural discovery

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Food chains — theotheri @ 9:05 pm
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Cuts of meat are not the same everywhere in the world.  A cow might be a cow, and when it is slaughtered, the cuts might be called “beef,” but after that, the variation in cuts is huge.  I have found that cuts in Spain, in France, and here in England have all often been quite mysterious, and I have come home with little idea of how to cook what I have purchased.

But I certainly was unprepared just recently for the biggest surprise of all.  Bavette and onglet are the names of two of the most delicious French steaks I have ever eaten.  Better even than rib eye or sirloin.  And very easy to cook – 3-4 minutes on each side a very very hot grille, followed by a (mandatory) 15 minute rest while you get the rest of the meal finished.

So what’s the surprise?

It is the discovery that bavette and onglet are what Americans call skirt and flank steak.

Skirt and flank steak were always fairly inexpensive cuts of meat in my day, because they require long slow cooking in order not to be tough.

But they aren’t tough if they are not cooked beyond medium rare.  They are simply superb served with sautéed mushrooms, and positively luxurious with a glass of red wine on the side.

Try it.  I’d love to hear what you think if you do.

July 9, 2013

What does a college education cost?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 2:58 pm

A comment following my post yesterday said “I always ask when this subject is raised is how much is the monthly repayment of the loan over the working life of the graduate? How does that equate to the monthly expenditure on a bottle of wine/gallon of gas or weekend break in Blackpool?”

The figures are different in Britain and the US, but it seemed to me such a relevant question that I did some calculations.

  • The average cost of tuition per year at a US college or university is $7,000 (about £4700 at today’s exchange rates).  A loan at 6.8%, to cover the cost of the 4 years it usually takes to earn a BA, would currently result in monthly payments during a thirty-year working life time of $123 or £82.
  • The most expensive US universities charge $28,000 (£18666) annually, which results in monthly payments of $737 (£490) for thirty years.

These figures do not take into account the cost of food, accommodation or books which for a full-time student averages an additional $15,500 (£10,000) annually.  Nor do they take into account, on the one hand, the cost of lost income during those extra educational years, or on the other, the increased income most college students do eventually earn as a result of acquiring a college degree.

I am, of course, reflecting my own experience.  But I think an education to those who are qualified and eager to work for it is one of the most rewarding investments we can make in our citizens, and for our country.

July 8, 2013

Banking on it

I have a tendency to think something is a good idea for about 24 hours, and then I begin  to think it might not be quite as unassailably brilliant as I first thought.

But 24 hours ago I learned that Senator Elizabeth Warren is submitting a bill to Congress which would make student college loans available for the same rate that the Federal Reserve lends money to banks.  That would reduce the rate students are charged from 6.8% to under 1%.

Every single day through the Federal Reserve, the US government invests in our banks – largest financial institutions in this country.  As the senator says,  “We should be willing to make that same kind of investment in our kids who are trying to get an education.”

This sounds like a brilliant idea to me.  It’s an investment in the nation ‘s future.  It’s not a hand-out or free-bee.  It says “if you have the ability and are willing to work hard, the government is willing to make an investment in your future.”

The only safe guard against potential abuse that I can see would be required would be that colleges and universities do not lower standards in order simply to be a four-year break between graduating from high school and entering the work world.

What do you think?   Read more here.

 

July 2, 2013

What can we do about the banks?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:00 pm
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Since reading What Then Must We Do? (see previous post), I’ve been thinking about banks and how they might be re-structured to be of greater service and less risk to our economies.

During the Great Depression, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act which separated commercial banks from securities firms.  This meant that banks could not gamble on the stock market or with derivatives using the money of their depositors.  Depositors’ funds were used instead to provide credit for mortgages and local businesses which the bank thought were good credit risks.  A share of the profits went to the depositors, the bank took a cut as the middle-man, and the borrowers also benefited hopefully through a successful business or eventual property ownership.

The banks, then, were not on a pedestal of moral high ground, but by and large they were seen as providing a valuable service to the communities in which they operated.

Gradually this quietly changed, and in 1999 the Glass-Steagall Act, which to a large extent banks had already circumvented, was officially repealed, and investment banking firms were free to gamble openly with the depositors’ money held in commercial banks.  With the help of computers and traders with mathematical gifts, banks began to make hundreds of millions of dollars.  Big banks became places where huge fortunes could be made, not places that were essentially there to service the diverse needs of the community, or even of the country.

Unfortunately, the risks still lay principally with the depositors, not with the banks themselves, and when the crash came in 2008, most top-level bankers were not bankrupted.  Many even continued to receive mind-boggling bonuses on the grounds that they were the only ones who understood the entire system well enough to keep the entire global economy from catastrophic collapse.

And that in many ways, as I understand it, is where we still are.  Big banks are still too big to fail.  In fact, some of the biggest banks are now even bigger than they were in 2008, and are effectively still insured by the government who could not let them fail.

What then can be done?

Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? gives many examples of banks still functioning today principally for the benefit of its depositors and borrowers.  There are many more than I had realized – thousands of credit unions, cooperative banks, and small and medium-sized public banks providing millions of dollars to finance small businesses, renewable energy, housing, and infrastructure.  He thinks we can not only survive, but actually thrive, with banks like these.

Alperovitz doesn’t say what he thinks specifically should be done about mega-banks like Citicorp, Goldman Sachs, JKPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.  But I think the implication is that they should be cut loose altogether from government support and that its investors should be made solely responsible for gains and losses they incur.

This sounds simple, but I can’t see that it is.  If their size is not regulated, their very existence is going to have vast economic repercussions, for better or worse.

But can their size be controlled?  Do mega-banks already have so much clout, so much money, so much political influence, that they cannot be cut down to size?

I don’t know.  But if it is possible, it seems to me it’s going to come from a ground swell of public demands as we realize two things.  The first is that we as individuals and as communities are not dependent on the big banks, that our credit unions and cooperatives and local banks are meeting our banking needs without the same level of risk related to the operations of the voracious mega-banks.  And secondly, we need to see that mega-banks themselves are too risky.  It is like living next to a volcano which we cannot predict with any precision, but which is certainly going to erupt again and again, pouring its destructive lava on all of us living in its path.

 

 

June 25, 2013

What’s the matter, honey?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 9:17 pm
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I said in my last post that I was going to try to summarize the main points in What Then Must We Do?, a book I have now read twice.  My initial enthusiasm for some of the solutions proposed by the author is not quite as unquestioning as it was after the first round, but it remains a provocative book.

It is provocative first of all because of the questions it asks and the depth of some of the problems that our American system of “Democratic Capitalism” seems to have developed.  There are four areas I find particularly worrisome.

The first problem, as I mentioned before, is the huge unequal distribution of wealth which has developed in the States during the last thirty years.  It is not only that a mere 400 at the top own more wealth than 180 million people at the bottom.  It is that this trend continues to accelerate.  This tiny group at the top are continuing to amass more and more wealth, and more and more power while the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes has almost stagnated completely for three decades.

Can we still call this a land of opportunity then?

This leads to my second concern:  unemployment.  The benefits of global trade are huge, and  it has done more to reduce poverty in under-developed countries than any other single factor.  But the benefits are not universal and companies often abandon workers in the States with little concern for their subsequent welfare.  Many of the dismissed workers remain unemployed despite their best efforts for the rest of their lives.  The devastation spreads from individuals to families to entire communities.

Should corporations have responsibility only to their shareholders and little or none to their workers?

Banks are my third concern.  One does not need to come to this blog to know that in 2008, banks brought the economies of the developed world to their knees, and it will be generations before they recover to pre-2008 levels.  The $2.6 trillion dollars lost to the American GDP alone, the $19.2 trillion loss in household net worth, and the loss of 9 million jobs is bad.  But the real worry is that almost every economist I have read, from far right to far left, are agreed that it has happened before and that it is going to happen again, probably in less than ten years time.

Yet today, banks are still the most powerful lobby with the most highly paid lobbyists in Washington DC.  With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that corporations have the same rights as private individuals to spend as much money as they wish to influence the vote, banks and corporations are terrifyingly powerful in determining our laws.

And what about Health Care?  America spends 18% of our GDP on health care, close to twice as much as other developed countries.  1/3 of all federal expenditures goes to health care, and 1/2 of all federal revenues.  But our health care is far worse.  Infant mortality rates are 31st of the 34 countries with developed economies.  Our life expectancy is less than 79, 27th of the 34 developed countries, below life expectancies in countries as diverse as Australia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore, Andorra all of whose residents can expect to live well into their 80’s.  We rank a shocking 34 out of 34 in terms of obesity.

What could it do for the quality of life if the American health system could get the same results as many other countries do for half the cost?  What if the savings could be spent instead on roads and bridges, on schools and education, on our energy grids?

No system is perfect, even good systems, like the one in the U.S. that has produced the biggest economy in the world and improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people.  But to hold onto the gains we have, we need to find a few new ways to achieve our goals.

In my next post I will talk about some of the solutions the author Gar Alperovitz suggests.

June 20, 2013

Thinking about it out loud

I’ve just finished reading What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz, a political economist with extensive political experience in Washington, and now a professor at the University of Maryland.

Fundamentally the book addresses the question:  if you think capitalism as it has evolved is not the answer to the needs of the majority, but if you are equally not enamored with the various versions of socialism which have been tried, what are our options?

Despite its drawbacks, I have long thought that capitalism operating within the context of a democracy was the least worst option.  But I am no longer convinced that this is still the case.  Today in America, 400 people at the top of the income scale possess more wealth than the bottom 180 million people put together.  It doesn’t bother me in principle that some people have a great deal more money than others.  But what does bother me is that these numbers suggest that a very small number — that famous 1% — have a great deal more political power than millions of people each with our famous “one vote.”  Just as worrisome, fewer and fewer people are able, in practice, to improve their standard of living by working hard, by creativity, ingenuity and saving.

I think that fundamentally this gigantic income, power, and opportunity gap is undermining democracy.

But most versions of socialism with which I am acquainted make me just as concerned.  Socialism might in theory mean power to the people, but in practice it seems has too often meant power to the politically elites in government.  At the same time, unearned benefits paid to the poor  too often risk creating people who expect a free ride, who do not feel they owe anything to anybody, that they don’t have any obligation to pay anything back.  This isn’t good for the economy, it isn’t fair to the taxpayer, and above all it is an unfulfilling, even destructive, way to live.  Because we all need to be needed.  We all need to make a contribution to the community.

What Then Must We Do? offers a fascinating series of analyses and suggestions, which over the next few weeks I hope to summarize.   I’m not trying to convince anybody.   It’s my way of  clarifying what I think myself.  It’s a kind of thinking out loud, which often provides me with the same return that preparing a class lecture used to do.

June 15, 2013

Oh please, not again already

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:33 pm
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The US announced late last week that the US would start arming the rebels because it was clear that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people.  Not unexpectedly, Russia defended the Syrian government and said that chemical weapons had not been used.

Nonetheless, a shiver of dread ran through me.  This sounds an awful lot like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the US going to war there, with all the subsequent catastrophe which this had caused and the disaster that still stalks that land.

And now chemical experts in Washington are saying it out loud:  they are highly skeptical of the evidence supposedly proving the claims that Assad has used chemical weapons.

The situation in Syria is tragic, almost 100,000 people have been killed there already, whole cities have been destroyed, and at least half a million Syrian refugees are living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.  But I’m afraid that our getting involved in Syria will make things worse for everybody.  Not better.

The Syrian conflict is multi-layered.  The conflict between the Sunni and Shia Muslims goes back more than a millennium.  Overlaying that are the conflicts between Iran and countries like Saudi Arabia, and between Russia and China on the one hand and the US and the West on the other.

There is also the difficulty of controlling who our weapons will actually go to.  Weapons the US sent to Afghanistan to help the rebels there against Russian occupation are even now being used again US troops there.  And the Syrian rebels are not a united front.  There are Al Qaeda operatives there, and the rebels cannot even agree to coalesce behind one leader.  Weapons are sold, captured, abandoned, and would certainly get into the hands of fighters who ultimately would try to impose a regime that would severely limit the rights of the Syrian people.  As I listen to the news analysis over here in Britain, I’m not convinced that Assad is not the preferred option.

The chances of the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries is also high, and could escalate into a major war with global ramifications.

And would American boots on the ground there help resolve the situation?  If Iraq and Afghanistan are anything to go by, they would not.  We do not understand the complexities of the mid-east conflicts, and more bombs and drones and raids will not bring peace.

And so I am terribly apprehensive about America’s announcement that it is going to send military aid to the rebels.  We cannot make things better by sending in more arms.

We should stay out of it.

I just look at the map with photos from the BBC and tremble.

Map of Syria and neighbouring countries

June 13, 2013

What is a thought made of?

Someone just asked me what I thought about recent research strongly suggesting that the brain and thought are intrinsically related.  Is thought physical, he asked?  

This is cheating, I know, but this was my attempt to answer the question to the best of my ability:

Whew!  Do you know you are grappling with one of the biggest philosophical, theological, and scientific questions of all time.  In psychology it’s most often referred to as “the mind-body problem,” but the question goes back at least as far as Plato.

 Whatever it’s called, the question is whether consciousness/thought/learning/intelligence are intrinsically bodily processes?  and if they are, how is it that something that seems to have no physical characteristics can possibly be physical?  Thought, in any of its forms, does not seem to take up any space whatsoever.  And although a thought can be communicated, the word or message itself is not the thought itself.  In other words, thought seems to depend on the body, but it seems to be different from any other bodily process which we can observe.
 
Basically, there are three potential solutions to this conundrum:
 
The first is the one offered by Plato – that there are two completely separate worlds – the natural world and the world of pure ideas.  Despite the fact that the early Christians did not believe in another world, this is the solution evenually adopted by the Roman Catholic church and in which you and I were socialized as Catholics.  Plato’s world of ideas became the spiritual world inhabited by God, the angels, and all the human souls who have managed to make it out of purgatory and into heaven.  
 
The second solution came into its own with the scientific revolution.  Paradoxically, it was in an attempt to keep the Roman Catholic authorities happy by assuring them that science only dealt with the “natural world,” and that the spiritual world was still under the sole authority of the church.  But in the process of accepting this division, science accepted the assumption that matter is completely passive, moved only by external forces.  Given that understanding of matter, life itself and especially thinking seemed to belong to the spiritual world.  The idea of a soul still seemed logically necessary.  Some scientists in recent centuries, however, rejected both the idea of a separate spiritual world and the idea of a soul.  Since they couldn’t explain thought, they simply said it didn’t really exist – that it is an epi-phenomenon, rather like a shadow that is really only the reflection of other forces and not real in itself.
 
Since Einstein a third possibility has been increasing in popularity, and is one with which I myself have the most resonance.  Until just over a century ago, most scientists assumed that energy and matter were two different things.  But Einstein’s theory, with his equation E=mc2, demonstrates that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  In other words, matter is potentially dynamic.  It is not an inert blob passively sitting there waiting for something to push it.  Actually, there is no evidence that we have ever seen in the entire universe of this kind of complete inertness.  A stone that looks to us like it’s just sitting there is a seething mass on the atomic level.  Matter, even on the level of the smallest particles, is continuously interacting.  Development, then, is intrinsic in matter.  The emergence of life and of consciousness is built-in to the very nature of matter.
 
(Interestingly, this position  has a lot in common with the original Hebrew position, and some forms of paganism, especially animism.)
 
This latter position makes sense to me, but as you may have noticed it does not solve the mind-body problem.  We still don’t know how thought is related to the brain.  MRI studies show increasingly that the brain operates in different ways depending on the thought processes that are occurring.  We also know, of course, that if the brain stops functioning altogether, thought, and life itself ceases altogether as well.
 
My own assumption is that there is a relationship between mind and body parallel to the relationship between matter and energy – that they are different forms of the same thing.  But we don’t have a clue at this point what the nature of this relationship might be.  Some scientists see this question of consciousness as one of the most profound unanswered problems of modern science, far outstripping the Higgs Bosom.   How do bio-chemical processes produce something that seems as ethereal as thought?
 
I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years, and for a long time didn’t see how we could make sense of life if we abandoned the idea of a separate soul.  I don’t think that anymore.  
 
But as I say – it’s still an unsolved mystery.  
 
Take your pick.

June 11, 2013

Spot the difference

I remember as a child a game in which we tried to spot the difference between two drawings.  Below is a grown-up version making the rounds on the internet.
There are 6 differences that can be spotted, and two more the camera doesn’t catch.
http://keralites.net/
1. The golden throne is replaced by a wooden chair …
something more appropriate for 

the disciple of a carpenter.
2. The gold-embroidered red stole,
heir of the Roman Empire, and the

red cape have been discarded .
3. The classic red Prada footwear are now just plain old black shoes.
4.  The cross in the second photo has no rubies or diamonds.
5.  There’s no red carpet in the second photo.  
Not apparent in the photos:
6.  the papal ring is gold in the first photo, silver in the second.  
7. And under the cassock in the second photo are black pants, a reminder that the wearer is another priest.
 
Have you guessed the 8th?  There’s a different man sitting there…
I would need an impossible doctrinal revolution to be re-converted.  But I’m glad for the differences.  It reflects, after all, the community into which I was born.

June 10, 2013

The liberty to think or the duty to believe?

For the first two and a half decades of my life, I was taught history from the perspective of Roman Catholicism.  That perspective was probably most influential in relation to the Tudor era of Henry VIII and his offspring Queens Mary and Elizabeth.  I have three brothers named after Catholic martyrs of this period – Thomas More, John Fischer, and Richard Reynolds.  According to the stories I was told, they were heroic martyrs who defended the True Church against the monarchs trying to displace the divine authority of Rome.  I had no idea that the “other side” also had an array of martyrs who had stood up against the Catholic regime.

The BBC right now is running a series of documentaries on this Tudor era.  Last night we watched the story of William Tyndale, the English priest who was burned at the stake for translating the New Testament into English.

As a Maryknoll nun, I also fought for the right to read the bible privately instead of hearing it only read, usually by a priest who then explained to us what it meant. Since I had Vatican II as the justification for my argument, I was not burned at the stake for my views.  Instead we actually managed to convince our superiors to change their minds.  At the time, however, I had no appreciation of the depth that had caused the determination to keep the bible out of the hands of anyone but the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Tyndale was an ordained Roman Catholic priest educated at Oxford.  But he believed that the Word of God should be put into the hands “even of the plowman,” that God spoke directly to each of us, without the intervention of others.  Tyndale was vehemently opposed by both church and government authorities who argued that ordinary people would descend into lawlessness and chaos if they were permitted to interpret the Word of God on their own.  Tyndale was pursued and finally cornered by the arch-heretic hunter Thomas More (he who was himself to be beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn) who was one of the leading defenders of this religious “rule of law” view.

Besides that, over the years, the Roman Catholic Church had added a good deal of superfluous doctrine to scriptures – original sin, purgatory, ordination of priests, confession, and indulgences were doctrines added centuries after the scriptures were written.  But since people were not permitted to read the bible for themselves, few of them were aware that these were additions, and believed them to share the authority of sacred scriptures. Rome rightly feared that if the bible were to get into the hands of ordinary people – even into the hands of mere plowmen – the authority of Rome would be undermined.

But ultimately, after many struggles and persecutions, the King James Bible, which incorporated most of Tyndale’s elegant translations, was placed in every church in Britain.  Every one who could read was free to read it and draw inspiration from it.

It was, said Melvin Bragg, the triumph of “the liberty to think rather than the duty to believe.”  It was the triumph of individual conscience against even religious authority.  It was the triumph of the common, ordinary man.

It was also, I think, one of the foundation stones of democracy.  People not only could hear the word of God without depending on the interpretation of the authority of the church.  That same ordinary man, that same plowman, had a right to determine who was to govern the society of which he was a part.

I understand now why so many people were afraid that electing John F. Kennedy as a Catholic president in the US could spell the end of democracy as we knew it.  Their fear was unfounded.  But I understand now where it came from.

June 8, 2013

Nothing to fear?

The British today are on fire after Barack Obama’s confirmation that UK spies are cooperating with the CIA to monitor the phone and internet communications of UK citizens.  Barack Obama, in the meantime, is wheeling out the old saw “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”  According to him, we all must bear some modicum of inconvenience and loss of inconsequential privacy in order to keep the world safe from terrorists.

I’m not a defender of terrorists, I do not want to minimize the terrible suffering they can inflict, and I think responsible governments everywhere must work to maximize the security of their citizens.

But I do not look without a certain amount of serious apprehension at our governments’ increasing intrusion into our lives without warrants or any court oversight.  I’m not worried that some secret activity of mine is about to be revealed to the glare of publicity or government scrutiny.

But I do not trust our government – or any government – absolutely.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Americans are not exempt from this reality.  Our founding fathers set up a constitution with checks and balances for this very reason. I fear the potential secret terrorism of my own government as much as I fear the terrorism from others.

Has our government ever lied to us?  Do you think they knew that Iraq did not actually have weapons of mass destruction?  Did President Reagan tell us Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala, was “man of great personal integrity and commitment,” even though he knew Montt’s forces had killed tens of thousands of Mayans in a single year, because it was a price worth paying to maintain a right-wing government in Central America?   Do you trust that the US had nothing to do with the mysterious dismissal of Montt’s trial which found him guilty of war crimes against humanity?  What about Guantanamo?  or Allende, the democratically elected president of  Chile?

Or etcetera.  I don’t believe the US government is guilty of every treacherous act suggested by every conspiracy theory offered to us in the last fifty years.

But I’m old enough to recognize the human condition, and I think watering down our system of checks and balances is a very dangerous development.

In fact, I find it terrifying.

June 4, 2013

Learning from the Neanderthals

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:21 pm
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We all know that we can’t predict the future with any certainty.

But I’m beginning to think what has happened in the past is just as uncertain.

This week we’ve been trying to figure out events in my family a mere generation ago.  Simple questions like “Who was it that was engaged to my mother before she married dad?  When did our parents meet, and who introduced them?”  have baffled us.

And now scientists are telling us that the evidence suggests that we Homo sapiens did not co-exist with the Neanderthals for any length of time in Europe.  Newer dating techniques suggest that the Neanderthals were probably extinct in Europe 40,000 years ago, ten to fifteen thousand years earlier than we thought.

Why did the Neanderthals die out when Homo sapiens did not?  The Neanderthals had brains as big as ours, and had survived in Europe for tens of thousands of years before Homo sapiens even left Africa.

And the Neanderthals were as big and as fast as Sapiens, so it is unlikely that we hunted them to death.  But we might have out-competed them for resources.  Neanderthals have larger eye-sockets and probably better eye-sight than Sapiens.  This made them good hunters, but used up much of the frontal brain that Sapiens developed for social networking and more abstract thought.  So Sapiens became more cooperative, better at sharing and learning from each other.

Hmmm.  Maybe there’s something we can learn from our ancient ancestors.

Or we may inflict on ourselves the same fate that befell Homo Neanderthalis.

June 2, 2013

Everybody wins

I’ve just read an interview with Noam Chomsky in which he suggests that effective education doesn’t teach to tests, but teaches students to discuss and explore processes, events, issues, problems.

This reflects my own philosophy of education.  I never tried to teach my students the right answers.  Their grades didn’t depend on their agreeing with me or with any particular theory we might be studying.  Their grade depended on their ability to describe each theory, or each side of an issue, in a way that someone espousing that theory would agree fairly reflects their thinking.  Then, and only then, do I think we have the credentials to make our own decisions.

Every once in a while, a student would say he or she didn’t want to learn about some theory or other because he didn’t agree with it.

How in heavens’ name can we legitimately disagree with someone if we don’t know what they are saying?

 

I’ve once again gotten so excited about the value of understanding the points of view with which we disagree that I’ve even fantasized writing a book for teachers who are mandated by state law to teach both Darwin’s theory of evolution and Creationism.

What an incredible opportunity for a teacher in this position!

This is a topic about which feelings run so deep that they often suffocate rational discussion.  And I am not talking only about the view of Creationists.  I have met Evolutionists (with whom I happen to agree, by the way) who are as dogmatic, close-minded, and judgemental about Creationists as any one.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn in the classroom to take the alternative seriously, seriously enough to grapple with the legitimate claims of both sides?

Wouldn’t we have brighter students?  And would we have a society that is more tolerant of those with whom we disagree?

 

Oh no, I’m not going to write another book!  There’s too much work to do in the garden anyway.

 

 

May 15, 2013

Ignoring the question

When I was about ten years old, my brother Jack came home from first grade one afternoon, and told my mother that he had some homework.  It was, he said, to learn the first five questions of the catechism.

I’m sure by then my mother knew the first five questions by heart – Q:  “Who made you?”   A:  “God made me.”  Q:  “Who is God?”  A:  God is the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving…” etc.  But she nonetheless sat down with Jack, opened his catechism and asked him:  “Who made you?”  “Who made you?” repeated Jack.  “That’s right,” my mother replied, “who made you?  What is the answer?”

“Oh, we don’t have to learn the answers,” Jack said.  “We just have to learn the questions.”

At the mature age of ten years, I thought this was so very funny.

But now I think how right this little brother of mine was.  As Roman Catholics, we belonged to the One and Only True Church, which in addition had just a century earlier infallibly declared itself infallible.  We had no need of questions;  we already had the answers.

And yet the questions are profound:  where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?  Oh, those questions are worth learning.  They are worth a lifetime of pondering.

What a terrible loss to learn to skip over them before we had barely reached the age of reason.

Jack was right:  we have to learn the questions.

April 29, 2013

The original garden view

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:05 pm
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I was taken aback when I was asked recently by a friend why anybody who doesn’t believe in God and in heaven and hell would bother trying to be good.  If there is no threat of punishment or promise of reward, why should we bother trying to be loving and generous?  Why bother being faithful and honest?  Why value truth above lies?

We’ve known each other for more than half our lives, and I thought my own answer to this question was clear:

Because human beings are happier if we love each other, if we are honest and truthful and trustworthy.

St. Augustine of Hippo concluded in the 4th century that the reason we humans suffer is because we are conceived in sin.  Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ate that forbidden apple, and God was so angry that He has punished every man, woman, and child ever since.  That, despite the fact that we are redeemed by the death of God’s own son.  We might be redeemed, but even innocent children are still being punished.

I don’t think that’s the meaning of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and I don’t think that’s the way the Hebrews, who did not believe in heaven and hell, understood its meaning.  I know that Augustine was trying to solve the problem of suffering, but he didn’t.  Turning God into an unforgiving, irrational tyrant doesn’t make sense.  Especially when at the same time one wants to argue that this is an all-powerful God of Love.

I think the Garden of Eden is a poetic answer to a question we all ask sooner or later – why is there so much suffering?  And I think the answer suggested by this ancient Hebraic parable is that we create much of our own suffering.  There are things we might want to do – figuratively eating the forbidden apple.  But if we do, we are ultimately going to be unhappy.  Profoundly unhappy.  Far more often than we want to admit, we create our own unhappiness.  We expel ourselves from paradise.  It is not God.  It is we ourselves who create our own hell.

I think Freud, who was Jewish, understood this.  As he was puzzling over patterns of unhappiness in people’s lives, he reached the conclusion that we so often are the authors of our own unhappiness.

It is Cain who murdered Abel, and the story is not that it made him happy.  So too, it is we who are bombing each other, it is we who are destroying so much of our environment, it is we who are untrustworthy, we who do not keep our promises.

It is we, not an eternally unforgiving God, who are the authors of much of our own discontent.

 

 

 

April 20, 2013

And now what will we do?

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
Unlike the politicians in Washington who were accusing the attitudes and policies of each other for being responsible, Boston’s response to the marathon bombing has been restrained.
It will be interesting to see what happens now that the bombers have been identified.  Will the fact that they were ethnic Chechens who’d converted to Islam be the only thing that matters?  Will it matter that they came to the United States as 9 and 17-year-olds?  Will U.S. attitudes toward using violence to get what we want occur to us Americans?  In the 31 days following the Newton shootings killing 20 children and 8 adults, an additional 919 people have died as the result of guns.  An estimated 176 children have been killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan.  Is there any relationship between our attitudes and those who we call terrorists?
I hope the people of Boston are more like the people of Connecticut or Norway.
Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty.  I’m assuming that the surviving suspect will be tried under state law. Don’t know if he can be tried under federal law, and if so, if he could face the death penalty.
I hope not.  Not because I feel sorry for terrorists.  But because too many Americans think our strength is in having the biggest bombs and the most guns, rather than in implementing our principles of freedom and democracy without prejudice.

April 17, 2013

The other side of the bombs

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:17 pm
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Celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher with joyous renditions of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead felt cruel to me.

But then there was the Boston Marathon bombing.

I felt horror and pain and outrage.  But there was a part of me that should help me understand the Ding Dong singers.  I found myself hoping that this bombing – awful as it is – might give Americans some insight into what it must feel like to be living in an Afghanistan village hit by an American drone strike.

Apart from that thought, which I confess gave me little comfort, I could see little that was positive in most of this week.

Then I read an article by William Rivers Pitt.  He was reminded of the advice given to frightened children:  “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”

And so it was in Boston. Not just the police and medical professionals ran into the smoke.  Runners and people who’d come to cheer them on ran into the potential danger to help.  They used their own belts and scarves as tourniquets.  They literally saved lives.

In that sense, the bombers failed.  This was Boston, where they ran to the sound and the smoke to help each other.

No, I’m not a Pollyanna about all this.  I am too well aware that there was dancing in the streets in America when Osama bin Laden was killed.  I know the opposing parties in Washington have already begun to blame each other for the Boston outrage.

But at least not every impulse in the American psyche is to shoot first and worry about innocent victims after we have wrecked what we think of as our justified self-defense.  There are helpers.  There is heroic selflessness.  There is another side of the bombs.

 

April 14, 2013

Ding Dong the witch…

It is something of a shock, if not a surprise, to be living here in England listening to some of the unedited comments about Margaret Thatcher.  Hatred lives long and deep in the hearts of those who feel that she destroyed their communities, their jobs, even entire industries.  “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” is reaching number one in the song charts, and people are drinking champagne to celebrate her death.

I personally think Margaret Thatcher saved Britain from becoming a much poorer country, but I can understand and respect those who disagree with her policies.  I can positively agree with those who feel that her methods sometimes seemed to lack compassion.

But she was a legitimate leader of the country, re-elected prime minister three times.  The lack of restraint in relation to those who disagreed with her seem to me to show a lack of respect for the very political freedoms of Great Britain and of which she is so justly proud.

Besides that, Margaret Thatcher has been out of office for 23 years.  She leaves children and grandchildren and many voters who benefited hugely from her policies.  Many of the comments are cruel, mean, coarse, arrogant, and ignorant.

Not, of course, that we ever engage in behavior distantly resembling anything like that in the United States.

We’re a gun culture after all.  Guns are much more effective than words.

April 7, 2013

Is slowing down a good idea?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 9:16 pm
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Sometimes I find the economic naiveté combined with the self-righteous high-mindedness of the left-wing  irritating.  (You may have noticed.)

But yesterday I read a left-wing proposal suggesting that we re-instate the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit that struck me as eminently sensible.

  • Cars on average are about 25% more fuel-efficient at speeds below 55 mph.  So it would save drivers money at the pump.
  • There aren’t any upfront costs involved in implementing this policy.  Cars don’t need special adaptation, panels don’t have to be installed on our roofs, we don’t even have to lower our thermostats.  It wouldn’t involve any new taxes.
  • A new law doesn’t even have to go through Congress.  The Environmental Standards Agency could mandate it without further legislation.
  • By reducing America’s  oil consumption about 4%, it would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce pollution of the air we breathe.
  • A 55 mph speed limit might even save lives.

Unfortunately, upon further reading, I have discovered that  the arguments are not quite as convincing as I first thought.  For one thing, it’s not at all clear that cars are 25% more fuel-efficient at speeds between 45 and 55 mph.  So it might not save as much oil as proponents think.

And the number of lives that a reduced speed limit saves is also not quite as straight forward as the initial claims reported.

It might still be a good idea to reduce the speed limit.  But it might not be quite as obviously a good idea as I thought at first.

Darn.

 

April 4, 2013

A politically incorrect solution to global warming?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:44 pm
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I have just read an article by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known – some might even say infamous – author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.   He is one of the few people I have read who has presented some startling facts and figures about climate change that just might change my mind.

First, he says that almost certainly global warming is real, and almost certainly mostly man-made.  At that point, however, he parts company with the politically correct view.

First of all, he says, let us stop claiming that at this point, global warming is about to end human life as we know it.  Over the next century, more people will die from excessive heat, but an even greater number of people will not die from exposure to cold.   Global warming will reduce the yields on some crops but the higher levels of CO2 which acts as a fertilizer, will significantly increase yields on other crops.  Economists estimate that global warming will cost more than it saves beginning about 2070.   Assuming nothing else changes, global warming is predicted to cost about 1.5% of global GDP  in the next two centuries.  A problem to be solved, then, but not utter disaster.

So how should  we solve this problem?  Lomborg argues that the Kyoto agreement has had almost no impact whatsoever.  Countries like Britain which are producing less greenhouse gas have simply exported its production to countries like China.  So has Denmark.  So has much of the European Union.  America, as you may recall, declined to join the Kyoto agreement.

I’ve been reading for years that renewable energies simply were never going to be able to take the place of fossil fuels.  For one thing, we haven’t figured out how to get renewable energies to do a lot of the heavy-duty things fossil fuels do.  Secondly, even assuming we can and want to dedicate hundreds of square miles to solar panels and wind and wave farms, it is hugely expensive. Here is the central fact that the Green Lobby must address:

The cost of CO2 for the next 200 years is projected to average about £3.50 a ton – that’s about $5.  Reducing CO2 emissions through the use of renewables today costs £26 a ton in China, in Britain and much of the developed world it costs £81 a ton.

Okay, maybe this huge cost would be worth it if renewables could do the job.  But on current form, the most optimistic forecasts are that renewables can reduce the use of fossil fuels by about 8% total in  the next hundred years.

That’s just not going to solve the problem, is it?

Lomborg argues that rather than putting money into expanding our present-day renewables, we should instead invest much more in research and development to find ways of producing the energy we need that is both clean and affordable.

He gives some rather tantalizing analogies.  We did not, he said, get better computers by subsidizing the vacuum tubes on which early computers were based.  We didn’t get them by taxing typewriters either, or provide grants so that every home and school  had at least one computer.  We got better computers because IBM and Apple invested in human ingenuity – that is, in research and development that produced both better and cheaper computers.

Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed a potentially very serious problem.  If global temperatures rise by an average 4 degrees Celsius (about 8 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists simply don’t know how bad the flooding, the droughts, and extreme weather events will be.

But Lomborg also points out that research is showing that we have a little more time to deal with it than we thought just a few years ago.  Okay, he says, let’s take advantage of this.  Let’s learn from the mistakes we’ve made for the last 20 years.  Let’s plug in to that great reserve which has been our greatest force for the last two hundred thousand years – human creativity.

Will it work?

Well, one can’t be sure.  But the evidence is suggesting that what we’ve tried so far hasn’t succeeded and isn’t going to.

Personally, I’m inclined to bet on human creativity.  If we’re willing to put the money and effort into it, I think we have the brains to do it.  If we do, we could save the planet as well as ourselves.

 

March 29, 2013

Thought for the Day

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

 

 

The wife of President Calvin Coolidge once asked her husband after he’d come home from attending church services what the sermon had been about.

“Sin,” he replied.

“What about sin?” his wife asked.

“He’s against it,” replied the president.

March 25, 2013

Serving the poor might be a bad idea

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:42 pm
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The new Pope Francis said that he wanted to focus the church on service to the poor.  At first this sounds wonderful.  Which is why I’ve been trying to figure out why it is making me so uncomfortable.

First of all, I worry about defining the poor.  What qualifies someone as being poor enough to deserve service?  We are all poor in the sense that we all need each other.  We all need love and caring and forgiveness.  We all need to work with others – even when we work alone.  We need forgiveness, we need others to enjoy us, we need others to appreciate what we try to do for them.  We need them to remember us, we need them to share their insights and skills, we need support, even if it is to do no more than deliver our daily mail.  Or email and social network messages.  We all need that birthday card, that telephone call, that text message, that smile from a neighbor.

I also worry about this implication that I am a holier person, a better Christian, if I serve the poor.   Why?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am a creative physicist?  if I discover how to use electricity?  if I share a great musical talent?  or paint great pictures ?  if I develop a business that provides thousands of jobs?  If I am a dedicated teacher on a good salary?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am myself poor?  Is being poor intrinsically better than being middle class?  or even a rich philanthropist?  Is it better for me to be poor or to serve the poor than to use my particular talents which may, actually, make a lot of money?

I worry too about what serving the poor as a primary focus pushes out of first place.  I’m afraid that a goal like “serving the poor” still  leaves too much room for discrimination – in terms of gender, ethnicity, color, religion, age.  Of course I’m not against helping the poor.  And I’m glad if a focus on serving the poor means that the Roman Church will be less obsessed with doctrinal issues like gay marriage, consenting homosexual relationships, birth control, papal infallibility, and the plethora of beliefs which the church has insisted are necessary for salvation, beliefs that seem to the Vatican are more critical to true Christianity than loving our fellow creatures.

But I’ve been around a long time, and I’m afraid it might not mean any of these things.

I would feel less uneasy if the pope had made love his primary focus.  That would not have excluded giving a loaf of bread to someone in need, it would not have excluded teaching, or caring for the sick.  But it would have been a great deal less patronizing.  Which ones of us want to be “served” because we are poor?   Look at the expression on the face of the young man whose foot is being kissed by the pope.  Perhaps I am projecting, but what I see on that face is the expression of someone who is not at all sure he’s not being used.  There’s no way I would want someone kissing my foot on the grounds that I’m among the needy poor.  It’s demeaning.

Love, as a primary focus, instead of serving the poor, also would have made it much more obvious that discrimination in relation someone who is of a different religious, sexual, or ethnic persuasion is against the basic Christian commitment above all to love.  It would not have distinguished between the poor and those who aren’t poor.  It would not have suggested to the Christian who is “serving the poor” that he or she is in some way superior to those being served.

No matter what our talents, what our economic condition, what our social status, we all need to serve and to be served, we all need to be needed.  And so I don’t like this materialist division between the poor and those who supposedly aren’t.

We are all in this together.  We need each other.

We all need to love and to be loved.

 

 

 

 

March 19, 2013

Worrying out loud

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 9:41 pm
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Cyprus is on the edge of total bankruptcy.  The European Union has offered them a bail out but Cyprus has to come up with a contribution of their own in order to get the bailout, which the EU and the IMF have suggested come from a 10% tax on the savings deposited in the Cypriot banks.  The Cypriot parliament, in the face of mass demonstrations on the street, have just refused to authorize such a tax.  Right now the situation is in stale-mate.  The banks have been closed for the holiday, and now seem to be in lock down.  Once the cash in the cash machines runs out, people will be running out of money.

I see the Cyprus situation as quite grave – not just for Cyprus, not just for Europe, but for the world economy, with all the implications for war and strife that entails.  I cannot see a solution, but what is more worrying, no economists of almost any persuasion is offering one either.  They all do agree that the collapse of the euro could be close to catastrophic, and I’ve read a lot of analyses about what went wrong, but how to fix it feels like asking how to get somebody out who is fast sinking into quick sand.
 
The European Union began as a free trade union to bind Europe’s nations together so that something like WWII would never happen again.  But the currency union which came later was cobbled together by politicians against the advice of economists who said that it could not work unless participating nations were more fiscally united.  As it is, each country still runs its own budgets.  The Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, even France, continue to run up deficits that they used to deal with by devaluing their currencies, but which is not possible when they are tied to the euro.  Meanwhile, Germany has greatly increased its productivity, and benefited greatly from a euro that is undervalued relative to the strength of their economy.  Even with the re-integration of eastern Germany, they are now by far the strongest economy in Europe.  
 
The Germans do not want to see the euro destroyed — they have benefited from it too much, and will also be badly burned if it goes down. But they are not willing to bail out other countries who they see as having failed to grasp the nettle.  Meanwhile, countries that suffered under Germany during WWII are arguing that this is WWIII fought on the economic front, and Cyprus said in words of one syllable today that they would choose bankruptcy and bring Germany down with them rather than let Germany dictate a 10% tax on all their savings.
 
On the other hand, Cyprus is awash with billions of euros of corrupt money of Russians storing their ill-gotten gains in Cypriot banks.  They would be hit by the tax, which is why Putin called it unfair but might also be why Brussels as well as the IMF would be happy with it.  Unfortunately the Cypriot banks themselves are not being asked to pay the price;  their savers are.
 
There is a lot of blame – both in Brussels, and among individual national governments who have lied both about the size of the deficits they have run up and to the people who elected them. The people least responsible for the debacle, the working people, are the ones being asked to pay the highest price.
 
The problem, though, is that I don’t see a way to protect the average worker.  Period.
 
In some ways it’s just like Syria – hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions of people are now refugees.  But I have little hope that Muslim Brotherhood, or the Sunnis who are among the rebels, will be any better than Assad who is an Alawaite, a third Muslim group exiled to the mountains for years by the ruling Sunnis until Assad’s father got control.  The Sunnis and the Shias have been at each other’s throats since Mohammed died, and whether it’s Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., they view each other as heretics whom they have a God-given mission to wipe from the face of the earth.  It makes Northern Ireland look like a child’s sandbox.
Frankly, I’m glad I’m not running the world.
But I wish I thought the people who are were better at it than I would be.

 

March 18, 2013

Bombshell! Bigger isn’t always Better

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 5:19 pm
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In the face of little concrete evidence, it wasn’t  totally unreasonable to assume that the bigger the brain, the more intelligent the head that held it.

Gradually, though, doubts about that simple equation have begun to creep in.  The brains of Neanderthal man were larger than the brains of Homo sapiens.  Surely they couldn’t have been smarter than we are, could they?  And then we’ve been discovering that dumb animals can do all sorts of things that we can’t.  Birds can navigate half-way around the world without getting lost and without the help of even an old-fashioned compass.  Dogs can hear things we can’t, and bees can see colors we don’t.  Dolphins can communicate with each other.  So even can trees.  Then we discovered that some parrots can correctly use as many words as the average two-year old.

And now, using MRI scans, scientists have found that female brains are more efficient than male brains.  The brain of the average woman is 8% smaller than the average male brain.  But research isn’t suggesting that men are 8% smarter.  Research from both the Universities of California and Madrid have found that on the whole men have better spatial intelligence than women.  (So when they won’t stop and ask for directions, maybe they aren’t as lost as we women think they are.)  Women, however, outperform men in inductive reasoning, are better at keeping track of a changing situation and at some numerical tasks.

Ah, but not to worry:  Trevor Robbins, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University in England says that the finding was fascinating, but controversial.

 

February 28, 2013

Who is this speaking, please?

I felt a certain admiration for Pope Benedict as I listened to his final address to the public in St. Peter’s Square.  He seemed remarkably honest about the problems in the Vatican which he felt he no longer had the energy to deal with.  I’ve watched a lot of high-achievers unable to recognize that they have passed their peak, that it is time to step down, and I thought there was a courageous honesty in that shy smile.

At the same time, something else bothered me.  Benedict kept talking about his following the voice of God, and urging his listeners to do the same.

But the age-old question remained un-addressed.  The RC Church teaches that we must follow our conscience, no matter how isolated it may make us, no matter what authorities may say, no matter what the cost.  So it is no defense that some action may have been legal, if at the same time it was immoral.  It was not a defense to say that one was ordered to shove 14 million people into gas chambers during World War II.  Or ordered by one’s husband to beat one’s one child to death.  It is not a defense simply to follow custom, even if it is a religious custom.

The question, though, is how one knows if what one is listening to is the voice of God.  Cromwell was convinced he was listening to the voice of God.  The man who shot President Reagan believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to do it.  Men and women put to death by the Inquisition of the Church died because they believed they had heard the voice of God.  Today thousands of terrorists believe they are being called by God to be martyrs.  Our own military personnel often believe that they are doing the work of God.

I can understand saying that I hope I am responding to the voice of God.  But that’s not what the pope said.  He said he was responding to the voice of God.  That sounds like a kind of arrogance to me that makes me very nervous.

It’s that attitude that makes it possible for Church officials to exercise power by decreeing that disagreeing with them is to disagree with God.  It’s the grounds on which even today priests and nuns have been silenced or excommunicated for disagreeing with the Vatican about married priests, or the ordination of women, or the literal truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, or the right of divorced people who have remarried to receive the sacraments.

February 25, 2013

Applied tranquility vs transparency

It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t tranquil, and as usual most of the news was about something else that’s gone wrong.   But this morning news did result in a couple of block-busters resulting from media dissemination, and suggests that staying in contact with the news is perhaps worth the angst.

The first block-buster has created disarray in the British Liberal Democratic party.  Last week a television documentary revealed that in the last ten years or so, complaints by women of unacceptable sexual harassment by a leading member of the party had been brushed under the carpet. The party leader, Nick Clegg, said he didn’t know anything, a story gradually being adjusted as emails and female victims come forth indicating that not knowing anything is not quite synonymous with the truth.  His leadership position right now is under severe strain.

The second block-buster is that the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal O’Brien, has resigned with immediate effect, and is not, after all, going to join the College of Cardinals in Rome to elect the new pope.  O’Brien has been accused of “inappropriate sexual behaviors” by three priests and one former priest in his diocese, and their formal complaint to the Vatican has just been made public.

Who knows?  maybe we can stop the US policy of drone strikes too, if it gets enough publicity.  From what I’m reading, the number of deaths of innocent women and children is creating a ground swell of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Addendum:  What I find particularly interesting about all the emerging sex scandals in the RC Church is that if the Vatican were not so backward and frightened of sex, most of the scandals in relation to women and to homosexuality would be greatly reduced.  It’s the hypocrisy of so much of this behavior that is so despicable.   A less neurotic attitude toward sex might even have reduced the actual number of paedophilia attacks, since seminarians with a propensity for children might have been recognized earlier and many of the potential offenders might never have been ordained.  At least they would have been brought to book, treated and removed from temptation much earlier and more often.

February 16, 2013

The freedom of uncertainty

I was a young adolescent when I first learned that Luther had taught that doubt was an inevitable part of belief.  I wondered at the time if my father’s ancestors had been Lutheran rather than Roman Catholics, because it was my lawyer-father who first taught me to doubt.

But what my father did not teach me, and what has taken me a lifetime to learn is that there aren’t any Right Answers available to us humans either.  Whether I was discussing theology or cooking a chicken, I thought there was One Right Way.  I was usually open to exploring the possibility that my way wasn’t that Right Way, but I was always looking for it, I always thought it was there.

A graduate course on Immanuel Kant gave me my first glimmer into the realization that Right Answers might not be absolute.  And being married to someone from a different cultural and religious background (not to mention an opposite sex), was almost a daily reminder that my Right Answers were not quite as obvious as I thought.

In recent years I have found not looking for Right Answers is amazing fun.  Whether I’m putting supper together or planning a garden or even a book, it’s so freeing, so exciting to feel that the possibilities are endless.  There isn’t just one Right Way.  There isn’t even just one Best Way.

Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy showed conclusively that we cannot and never will be able to predict exactly what is going to happen on the level of quantum physics.  Yet many people clung to the idea that the world of our everyday lives is predictable.  Most recently, economists thought that they could develop statistic patterns that would predict the stock markets.  Despite their blatant failure and the crisis of 2008 whose fall-out remains with us, many people, economists and non-economists alike, still believe they know, they have the absolutely non-negotiable Right Answer, to how we should revive our economy.

Now I have just finished reading two books which are further undermining our hopes for certainty and for right answers.  Any surviving hopes among deterministic, mechanistic scientists for absolute predictability are dangerous and illusory.  The first book is by Nicholas Taleb, the New York trader who says that the crisis was an example of what he calls “a black swan event.”  A black swan event is extremely rare, and so extraordinarily difficult – in fact, ultimately impossible – to predict using the statistic tools of probability.  Taleb argues that not expecting the unexpected is the worst possible way to prepare for it.

The second book is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, the  New York Times guru who correctly predicted both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential election outcomes in 49 out of 50 states.  Despite this success, Silver says that prediction is getting less certain, partly because we know so much.  So much of the data is sheer noise, distraction from hearing the true signal.

In a way, in order to survive, we must live with the assumption that some things are going to happen.  We even need to plan them , and we need to believe that to some extent we can control those outcomes.  And to some extent we do.

But actually, we cannot predict even the next second with absolute certainty.  We can’t know for certain what we should do about anything.  We can plan for the future, we can put money into pensions, we can try to take care of our health, we can do our best to put effort into relationships that are significant, we can get an education, we can follow our dreams.  But we might be poor, we might die young, our relationships may not last, our dreams may shatter.

That’s a bit scary.

But it’s also the way it is.

And having spent many years in the cage of Right Answers, I also find it liberating.  What will be, will be.

 

February 15, 2013

Orbiting vocabulary

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 10:10 pm
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Yesterday a ten-ton meteor exploded above the Urals in Russia, injuring at least a thousand people, shattering windows, and even buildings.

Tonight scientists say that an asteroid missed crashing into Earth several hours ago by a mere 17,000 miles, eerily close by standards of spatial distances.

But what’s the difference between an asteroid that misses Earth and a meteor that comes crashing down?  And as long as we’re on the subject, is there a difference between an asteroid and a comet? or between a meteor and meteorite?  or a meteoroid?

The differences are not always clear-cut because their identities often change, so that an asteroid might not remain an asteroid,  or a meteor might become a meteorite.  I know these questions do not qualify among the great epistemological questions of the age, but here are the current definitions.  It helps organize one small corner of chaos anyway.

An asteroid in basically a planetoid made of rock and basic metals that orbits the Sun in the same way that Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun.

comet is different from an asteroid in that it is composed of dirt and ice.  When they are close to the Sun,  it is possible to see a comet’s tail of dust and gas.  Apart from that, a comet is pretty much like an asteroid, and it is sometimes hard to tell which is which.

A meteoroid is a small chunk from an asteroid or comet.  They also have their orbits around the Sun but are too small to be asteroids or comets.

meteor is a shooting star.  It’s a meteoroid that enters the atmosphere of another object – like Earth – and streaks through the sky as it burns up in the atmosphere of a planet like Earth.

meteorite is a meteoroid that survives its passage through Earth’s atmosphere and impacts an object like Earth.  They are the ones that create the most damage to life on Earth.  Historically, meteor strikes may have been responsible for some of the 54 major extinctions we know have taken place in the last 550 million years.  The dinosaurs may have been felled by the catastrophic destruction caused by a meteor strike.

Well you never know.  This is information that might be useful one day.

But come to think of it, I hope not any time soon anyway.

 

February 13, 2013

Chin up, it’s going to get worse

A British journalist yesterday was reporting on the economy.

The bad news, he said, is that this year is going to be worse than last year.

But the good news is that this year is going to be better than next year.

And he probably thinks he’s an optimist, as well.

 

February 12, 2013

That Tree of Knowledge

Another blogger writing a series of thoughts on biblical stories asked last week about those two famous trees in the garden of Eden – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Why weren’t they just called the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death?

That tree of knowledge caused me a certain amount of consternation in my earlier days.  It was suggested to me more than once that using my intelligence was a sign of hubris and unwillingness to serve others with humility.  And indeed, it did seem to me that the Genesis story did teach that the pursuit of knowledge is what began the cascade of good and evil which ultimately leads to death.

Obviously I don’t agree with that interpretation.  But I don’t think either that is what the original story in Genesis was meant to convey at all.  First of all, I think the word “knowledge” does not refer to information or intelligence, but to behavior.  I think it is used here with the same meaning often used in the bible to refer to carnal knowledge – to “know” one’s wife is to have sexual intercourse with her.  In this case, I think the “knowledge” of good and evil refers to engaging in behaviors that are destructive.  Like Cain murdering Abel.

I’m not convinced either that the Genesis story meant to suggest that before Adam and Eve human death did not exist.  The Hebrews do not seem to have preached this.

My own view is that what Genesis was saying is that there is a kind of alienation from life  which the human kind of knowledge seems uniquely capable of creating.  In our religious, philosophical, and scientific pursuits, we often set ourselves apart and above every other being in the universe.  We separate ourselves, we see ourselves as totally different.  In this isolation, our individual death really is the end of everything.  We do not see ourselves as part of a larger world, as participating in a process that is far greater than our few measured years.

We also often cut ourselves off from learning from other life forms which have not tasted of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  All living beings do not flee death in terror.  Although I am in good health, as I am getting older, I can even feel a potential letting go in myself.  I have had the privilege of being with animals and with some humans as they have reached the end of their lives.  In both, I have sometimes seen a deep, almost transcendent, sense that it is time to go.  There has not been a terrified struggle, but a peaceful letting go, a sense that this part of the story is finished.

I’m not talking about the frenzied rush which engulfs living things faced with premature death.  I saw it in the spider which managed to get into my shower at eleven o’clock last night.  I saw it on the face of a woman today who thought she had stepped into the path of an on-coming car.  It is something that most of us have experienced in the face of grave danger.

I’m talking about the general knowledge that we are going to die some day in the unspecified future.  I’m not convinced that the fear that engulfs many people as a result of simply knowing that at some point this life is going to end is intrinsically “natural.”  It is a fear that comes with the tree of Knowledge.  But it’s not a tree of true Knowledge.  It’s a tree of denial, of false superiority, of losing contact with what we really are, and where we truly belong.

That tree of knowledge of good and evil is the Genesis explanation of death because it is a tree of alienation.  Metaphorically, it is we who walked out of the Garden of Eden, and are now spinning around in ungrounded fear.

But I think we can go home again.  I think we can learn again to love what we are and our place in the universe – however mysterious that is.

February 11, 2013

The resignation of the pope

Benedict XVI announced today that he is resigning at the end of this month.  He said that he was too old to continue to do the job required of the pontiff.

If that is the real reason, I admire his capacity for self-knowledge.  It has seemed to me over the years that one of the great challenges of old age which too many of us fail is to recognize that we can’t do what we used to do.  We might have accomplished a great deal, we might have been great leaders in our fields of endeavour, our contributions may have been significant.

But no matter how large or small our achievements may have been, we do not stay at the top of our game.  Our physical and mental energies decrease.  We are not what we were.

And quite possibly, the higher up the tree one has climbed, the harder it is to recognize this.

So if Benedict has in truth been able to recognize that he simply no longer belongs in the position of leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, I think his decision is one that many of us need to emulate in our own small ways.

But of course in this age of lost innocence, one cannot help but wonder.  The popes have declared themselves infallible, but it has thus far been beyond even a pope to declare himself incorruptible, competent and wise.

Is there some scandal threatening to emerge, some new cover-up of hierarchical corruption, paedophilia, or hypocrisy that is what the pope really does not have the strength or courage to face?

I don’t know.  Obviously I don’t know.  I do hope this decision is one of humility and wisdom.  If it is, it may perhaps be one of the biggest benefits to the church of this pontiff’s reign.

February 10, 2013

The conundrum of freedom

In a recent post from the Writer’s Treehut, the author explores the question of free will.  He looks at how our ideas of free will have changed over time.  We no longer seriously accept “the devil made me do it,” as an explanation for behavior, for instance, and see “God told me to do it” as either unacceptable or insane.  Recent brain research, on the other hand, is suggesting that close to 90% of the activity of the brain does not reach consciousness.  Even more surprising is the discovery that most of the decisions which we think of as “conscious and deliberate” are accomplished in the brain before we are aware of it.

Much of modern thought on free will stands simultaneously on two opposing sides of the teeter totter.  With democracy, we defend the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility.  At the same time, we are faced with increasing evidence that we are not as in control of our own choices as we often think.

Almost everyone will agree that free will is not without its limits.  I cannot voluntarily kill myself by holding my breath.  I cannot jump out a fifth-floor window and fly safely to the ground.  I cannot survive without minimum amounts of food and drink.

But what about that huge grey area over which some people sometimes seem to be able to make choices and others cannot?  How long can I choose to stay awake?  What about the endless diets that are broken within days?  what about addictions to alcohol, caffeine, drugs?  What about breaking into a cold sweat in response to perceived danger?  Can we suppress that adrenalin rush supporting a flash of anger or sexual arousal?  Can I hide an embarrassing blush on my cheek?  or suppress an involuntary startle?

What about those responses which are learned from our culture?  What clothes I can remove in public without embarrassment is largely learned.  My sense of injustice is greatly influenced by religious and cultural values which I have been taught.  Food that I can eat without positively gagging is often determined by custom.  My beliefs about when I might legitimately kill another person, my response to rape, my evaluation even of the expression on a person’s face are learned.

And yet they all seem to become involuntary, beyond my conscious control and free will.

Since we are all different both in terms of our genetic inheritance, and our physical and social environmental histories, it seems to me it is simply impossible for us to judge just how responsible someone else is for their own behavior.  I don’t even know for sure just how free my own choices are in any particular circumstance.

Having said all that, I am not willing to make the jump made by so many liberal thinkers that we are all responsible for what happens to others.

It is not that I don’t think I could often live your life quite well enough.

But there is no way I want someone else to take responsibility for my choices.

Yes, I am grateful for advice.  Yes, I am hugely indebted to those in my lifetime who have given to me great gifts that I in no way deserved.  Yes, without the good fortune that has been granted me, I could be a far more vicious  self-serving, insensitive human being than in my worst moments I have perhaps sometimes been.

But you are not responsible for me.  And in the same sense, I am not responsible for you.

That does leave us a problem, though.  Societies cannot survive, human beings cannot live, without rather large swathes of behavior control.  Society must control the expression of some behaviors or cease to exist.

So do we hold those violators – mass murderers, for instance? – responsible?  Do we try to inhibit that kind of behavior through use of punishment?  Do we simply lock people up for their own and our safety, even if they are not “guilty” in the sense that they are not responsible for what they have, or might, do?

Personally, I think we each experience ourselves as making choices.  I think that experience is part of our survival mechanism.  But perhaps our free will is an illusion, in the same way our experience of  Earth as flat is an illusion.

Just how free we actually are is a fascinating question to which we haven’t a clear answer.  Maybe we don’t even have a clue.

February 6, 2013

Worry as an on-going process

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 5:33 pm
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In American, in the last thirty years or so, the purchasing power of the middle class has not increased;  it has not actually even kept up with inflation.  At the same time, the gap between the wealthiest in our society – the famous 1% – and everybody else has widened considerably.

I read an article today by the economist Paul Krugman that makes me fear that we have not begun to see the worst.  He points out that today jobs are returning to developed countries like the United States from the under-developed countries where they had migrated.  This is because wages in Asian countries have increased substantially, greatly reducing the cost savings, especially when you add in the difficulties of transportation, government regulations, and likelihood of lower energy costs in the homeland.

But there’s another big reason.  It is that  jobs done by workers are increasingly going to be done by robots.

That might not sound like a bad idea – it will reduce production costs even more, and might eliminate a lot of boring jobs.

But it’s going to eliminate a lot of jobs period.  By the hundreds of thousands.  Even a college education isn’t going to be that helpful.

Krugman points out that the implications of this development for the entire capitalist system are profound.  The people who will make money are the people who already have assets to develop in factories and their robots.  The “work hard and save for a better life” opportunities will continue to decrease for the vast majority.

Krugman doesn’t elaborate on the implications of these changes beyond pointing out that they could fundamentally change the way capitalism works, making the few even richer, and the many even poorer.

But as Henry Ford realized, if nobody can afford to buy the cars he was making, he wasn’t going to make a lot of money producing them.

Isn’t that what will happen if we continue to disenfranchise the middle class in our society?

Or will we have to develop a whole new economic system going beyond feudalism, beyond slavery, beyond Marxism, beyond capitalism?

I guess worry is an ongoing process.

But then, so is problem-solving.

I doubt I will be around to see the future, but it sure is going to be interesting.  Assuming, of course, that Homo sapiens survives at all.

February 4, 2013

Why I’m not a mystic

Filed under: Just Stuff,Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense — theotheri @ 3:57 pm

It suddenly occurred to me today why I’m not a mystic, and why I don’t even want to be one.  I don’t want to close my eyes to everything this world has to offer and retreat to some deep meditative practice, concentrating on finding the transcendent Truth deep within myself.

I am a thinking, sensing, living human being, and I find this world totally fascinating, exhilarating, energizing.  Yes, I also find it infuriating, exhausting, puzzling.

But I was born into this world with the body that I have, the needs and capacities that I have, and I have no desire whatsoever not to be what I am, and to use my abilities to the full.

No, I don’t want to drown in acquiring things, and I certainly do not want to be any kind of celebrity.  Too many things, too much celebrity only get in the way.

But I love this world and I want to drink it in in every possible way.  I love trying to solve problems.  I love discussions about the meaning of life, I love people who come up with new inventions, I love beautiful music.  I love those small acts of kindness or understanding one sees in ordinary exchanges in places as prosaic as the grocery store.

No I’m not a mystic.

And I don’t even ever want to be one.

January 31, 2013

Are we going to make it?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:54 pm
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On my bad days, I don’t see how Homo sapiens is going to survive the twin assaults of environmental pollution and militarism.  Each is destructive enough on its own, but my fear is that they are each escalating factors for the other.  As food, water, and oil become more scarce, we ratchet up our determination to get enough of what we want, whatever the cost.  If the cost is bombs from drones or on the backs of suicide bombers, whether its nuclear or germ warfare, if  survival is the issue, I fear the restraints on our assaults on others who have what we need or think we need will decrease exponentially.  Globalization exacerbates the problem as well.  We can no longer hide away or walk away from peoples who disagree with us, or who have what we want.

But I do have good days as well, when I still have some hope that a combination of altruism and ingenuity will pull us through this.  Every once in a while I see reason to hope that enough of us around the world will recognize our common humanity.  With that comes a recognition that we all have human rights that go beyond our religious and ethnic differences.

And there are times too when our capacity for ingenuity and creativity almost make me dance.  Maybe after all we can do it. Maybe we can figure out how to preserve our planet and each other at the same time.

What if, for instance, we could figure out how to run all our cars on water?  Well, the Japanese have done it.  They have produced a car that will run on water – any kind of water.  It will run on rain water, ocean water, drinking water, even tea.  It will run at 80 kilometers an hour (about 50 mph) for an hour on a litre (about a quart) of water.  A couple of quarts of water can be carried as back up, to run another hundred miles or so.  The car works by generating hydrogen from the water, which in turn runs the car.

It’s difficult to estimate just how much a car like this might reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming because although the number of cars  being driven worldwide is increasing every year, so too is the efficiency of the cars.  My best guess is that cars produce about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but don’t quote me.

The Japanese hope to start mass production.  No price has been set yet.

Wouldn’t you love to have one?

January 27, 2013

Not a difference deficit

During most of my career as a cognitive psychologist, I expressed grave doubts about the Western version of IQ or Intelligence Quotient, often simply called “general intelligence.”

Despite more than a century’s worth of testing, psychologists still cannot come up with a better definition of intelligence than “the ability to adapt.”  Given that this is the concept that lies at the core of intelligence, you would think that there would be greater reservations about more than a century’s worth of testing that reduces IQ to two fundamental abilities – verbal and mathematical.  Traditional IQ tests do not pay even lip service to musical, artistic, athletic, or inter-personal abilities.

In addition they are highly biased in terms of content with which a middle-class child is apt to be familiar.  Educators and psychologists agree that what they call intelligence is influenced by both genetics and environment, but the environment is not adjusted for in traditional intelligence tests.

As a result, IQ tests do a fairly good job at predicting who can succeed academically.  They do not predict who will make the most money, who will report as adults that they are happy, or the success of their family life.  And a recent study of  students in the Bronx has demonstrated that non-cognitive characteristics like grit, persistence, curiosity, and sheer character are absolutely necessary and themselves are highly predictive of success, even academically.  Exceptionally high intelligence and educational opportunities to develop it are not enough.

Traditional concepts of intelligence embed in many of us an assumption that if people aren’t like us, they are less intelligent.  If the elderly aren’t as good with modern technology as younger people, the assumption is that younger people are smarter.  Or possibly even that old people are dumber.  Ethnic minorities, people with physical deformities, or language difficulties are often discriminated against as being less intelligent.  A lack of proficiency in the dominant language of a country is often assumed to be because the person isn’t intelligent.  I have seen this dreadful misconception operate in relation to doctors, professors, engineers, and social workers who speak haltingly or with a heavy accent.

I’ve reached the conclusion that our traditional concept of intelligence is a chauvinist Western prejudice.  It’s a way of fooling ourselves into thinking that we are superior to the peoples we have colonized in the last 400 years.

The assumption is often made in all good faith.  But unfortunately,  it can be a way of staying stupid ourselves.

 

January 24, 2013

A gift of life?

I was aghast to read yesterday that a professor at Harvard’s Medical School is seeking a woman to carry the embryo of a Neanderthal baby.  George Church believes he can reconstruct the DNA of the Neanderthals, and is seeking a surrogate mother for our extinct human relative.

I am not aghast for religious reasons.  I am aghast because I think this reflects a terrifying lack of sensitivity and respect for life.  This is a human child Church wants to bring into life.  It is not a member of Homo Sapiens, but our cousin Homo Neanderthalis.  Folklore represents Neanderthal man rather like a club-wielding thug with limited intelligence.

But archaeology is rendering this characterization as a chauvinist assumption of Homo sapiens rather than the reality.  Neanderthalis was a species that buried its dead, made musical instruments, and we are now know interbred in some places with our own species.  Either they copied our tools or we copied theirs- probably both.  We were cousins.  Although we like to point out that the brain of Homo sapiens is bigger than any body else’s, Neanderthal’s brain was larger.  There isn’t a lot of evidence that he died out because he wasn’t intelligent enough.

So as a scientific experiment, geneticists are going to try to bring a child of this species to live on our planet.  Are there any plans for rearing this human child?  Any concerns about its potential isolation?  Will it be treated like a laboratory animal subject to experiments and tests all its life?  Will it be granted human rights?  And what about the “mother”?  Having born the child in her womb for presumably nine months, will she then pass it over to – to whom?  its presumed owners?

And what might be the benefits if such an experiment were to succeed?  Presumably Church believes he will earn a place in history, if not in infamy.  But apart from personal gain, are there great scientific benefits that might arise from this endeavour?  My own imagination fails to identify potential gains sufficient to justify the attempt.

I hope George Church fails comprehensively and utterly.

Unfortunately, if Church doesn’t do it, that doesn’t mean somebody else won’t.

 

 

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