The Other I

November 25, 2017

An original Thanksgiving gift

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:37 pm

Image result for cyber space

These days my friends and family are spread around the globe.  So our Thanksgiving thanks typically take the form of family phone calls held metaphorically around the turkey and pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving in our house this year, however, was quite different.  And unexpected.  For almost four days we were without internet access, and without telephone connection for three.

That’s when I learned quite specifically what Jack Ma, the founder and head of the Chinese on-line supplier comparable to Amazon, meant when he called for the importance of incorporating love into cyber world companies.  What he means by love isn’t sexy or even homey.  It is just as often service-oriented, an offer of a helping hand, or a friendly suggestion, easily from complete strangers.

On Tuesday our internet connection went down.  After checking that it was not a problem of a loose connection on our part, I phoned our internet provider, who eventually confirmed that the workmen had made an erroneous connection on the circuit board down the block.  They promised the fault would be corrected “within 1 to 5 days.”  This sounded ominous, so I phoned my sister in Chicago to tell her to contact me by phone if there was a family emergency, and to promise to join the family phone-in on Thursday.

But then I began to get phone calls for someone named “Morley.”  I began to suspect that, along with our internet connections, there was a problem with crossed telephone wires as well.  On the 4th call, I advised the caller that he had probably not dialed the wrong number.  On further exploration, we discovered we live in the same village, less than ten minutes walk apart.

Two hours later, our phone landline also went dead.  We were living in a world of communication not known in the Western world since the first decade of the 20th century.  I was worried for several nights that if there was a medical emergency or possibly a fire or burglar.  We do have cell phones but because of the church tower, we cannot receive a signal without going outside onto the street.  In the middle of the night in freezing temperatures this was not a comforting thought.

On Friday morning our neighbour whom I had just “met,” as a result of his attempted call to Morley knocked on our door.  He introduced himself and told me that the telephone and internet engineers were currently working on the circuit board, and that I might want to go up the road to make sure they were addressing our problem.  I did and by Friday afternoon we were back in the “real world” of 21st century cyber space.

I have since received an inquiry from our internet provider asking if I would give them feedback on my satisfaction with George, the person who had taken my original call telling them our internet connection had broken down.  I said I would be happy to do so.  George was a good listener as I explained the problem and my fruitless efforts to solve the problem myself.  I asked him on this call if a further problem developed I could contact him.  No, he said;  he was located close to a thousand miles away in Bavaria and so many different people manned the phones that it would be impossible to reach him.  In other words, he was limited in what help, or even support, he could give.

That was not George’s fault.  It is a result of the emphasis on the part of the company on organization and efficiency.  But it does not take into account the needs of their individual customers.

I read a book review recently by a woman working for one of the big cyber-net companies saying that, although they claim to be unprejudiced in terms of gender, the great majority of their employees are men, and the philosophies of the companies are very male-oriented.

I know now what she means.  George was not able to offer me further support in the event I needed it – which I did.  It was not his fault.  His limitations were built into the structure of the company’s organization arising from its emphasis on problem-solving for the company, not for the individual they are meant to serve.

But let me not carry this too far.  The real personal support I received was from our neighbour.  And he’s a man.



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

January 13, 2017

Bad or Beautiful?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:21 pm

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.
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

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.

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.

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


November 14, 2016

Front door dialogue

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 12:46 pm

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.


July 25, 2016

How much is 1+1?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:29 pm

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.

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.
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.
Don’t know what it’s going to be like when we wake up on Friday morning…
But at least there’s Andy Murray.

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.

December 5, 2015

Even at heaven’s gate

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:50 pm

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:
What two days of the week begin, with the letter T?
How many seconds are there in a year?
What is God’s first name?”
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,

St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates and said “Run, Forrest, run.”

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.


January 1, 2015

Thoughts on worms and pigs

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 10:05 pm

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 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 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.

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


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 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.



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!”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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

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.


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.

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.



December 21, 2012

“I’m not good enough” isn’t good enough

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

I’ve been reading a review of a recent biography of Mahatma Candhi which has given me a different slant on him.  I’ve known for some time that he was a man of iron will, a charismatic and highly effective political leader.  I was less acquainted with his impish wit and great warmth, and I didn’t know he was a superb mediator as well as fundraiser.  I was unaware that he was such an autocrat, or that his religious beliefs were such a hodge podge of Jain-inflected Hinduism and Victorian orthodoxy.

None of these revelations were much of a surprise.  What did astonish me, though, was discovering that he more or less believed that the caste system legitimately reflected the roles which we are meant to play in this life.  In other words, the caste system was not a result of prejudice, lack of opportunity, unfairness, or unjust discrimination.  We were born into the caste into which we are called and which is our mission to fulfill.

The second thing that astonished me is the depth of what to me can only be called a highly neurotic attitude toward sex.  It impresses me as extraordinarily immature, the view of an adolescent.  Sex, for Gandhi seems to have been solely an act of lust, not an act of love.  It seems to me to be quite similar to attitudes expressed by many of the Roman Catholic clergy today.

Like the demands made on the Roman Catholic priest, Gandhi demanded that even his married followers refrain from sex, on the grounds that it would drain their strength needed for the fight for freedom. In his mid-seventies, Gandhi slept with his great-niece.  I had been assured that it was to keep a frail and often-fasting man warm, but it seems to have been a test of his self-control.  A further manifestation of what seems an immature understanding of sex took place when Gandhi was in his mid-sixties when he endured an involuntary ejaculation.  He was so humiliated by this apparent transgression that he made a public confession of this terrible lapse.

Sex, then, was not seen as an act of love from which one may draw strength and determination and courage.  It was tantamount to gluttony.

In a paradoxical way, I find these revelations about Gandhi an encouraging relief.  He accomplished a great deal in his life time, and especially today, his message of how to fight for justice without violence is a lesson we in America need to learn.

But I’m glad to know that even imperfect, incomplete, and quite possibly downright seriously neurotic people can nonetheless make a difference – even a very big difference.

Like so many other people, I often feel helpless in the face of so many of the world’s problems.  I’m not strong enough, or smart enough, or courageous enough, or loving enough to make any difference.

But Gandhi suggests that one can be pretty screwed up on some fundamental issues related to human equality and mature sexual relationships, and still do a lot of good.  Sometimes one’s best might not be perfect.  But it’s still amazing.

December 17, 2012

Asperger’s Syndrome misunderstood

It is certainly understandable that so many people are trying to understand the gun spree during which Alan Lanza murdered twenty 6-and 7-year-old children and six women before turning the gun on himself.  But I have been appalled over recent days to see how many reputable sources are suggesting that Lanza suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome as if this explains his psychopathic behavior.

Albert Einstein probably suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

People suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome are not intrinsically psychopathic murderers.  Lanza may very well have been suffering from Asperger’s, but it is no more of an explanation of his behavior than it is to say that he was unusually intelligent, or that his parents had been divorced, or that he had brown hair.  Asperger’s is a learning disability in relation to understanding the feelings and thoughts of others.  It is not a mental illness.

The evidence available to the public at this point does suggest that Lanza was suffering from both Asperger’s Syndrome and mental illness.  But they are two completely different things.  Asperger’s is a relatively new diagnostic category and sometimes difficult to identify.  It is a terrible misunderstanding of those individuals who do suffer from this learning disability to shout “Asperger’s!” in relation to this tragic incident.

But even the diagnosis of mental illness is an incomplete explanation.  Psychiatrists and psychologists recognize that the form mental illness takes in an individual is shaped by the values of the culture in which it is manifest.  For a period of time in the 1950- and -60’s, an unusual number of Puerto Rican women living in New York were diagnosed as schizophrenic.  Diagnostic levels returned to normal with a better understanding that some manifestations manifestations of grief or anger were seen as quite normal and acceptable in some Hispanic communities and were not intrinsically pathological.

And so we individual Americans who would not ourselves in a million years walk into a class full of first graders and shoot them all can still ask if there are deeply held American values which are reflected in our recurring gun crime.  Our country was conquered by the gun.  Our heroes of the wild West ruled by the gun.  We shoved the Indians onto reservations at the point of a gun.  We finished World War II by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.

Why is gun crime so prevalent in America compared to other countries where just as many people have guns?  Do we think America is great because we have the biggest weapons?  Is someone an achiever because he has the fastest gun in town?  Are guns really our best protection?  Is this our strength?

Or also our weakness?

December 7, 2012

What’s in a whale?

A commenter on yesterday’s post said the whale’s spurt of air refracted by the sunlight looked like Einstein’s head — but that “I didn’t do well on Rorschachs.”

For those – possibly fortunate few –  unacquainted with the Rorschach Inkblot test, it is a series of ten cards which are used to assess a person’s emotional responses and thought processes.  For instance, what do you see in this inkblot?

Rorschach blot 03.jpg

A blood bath?  two lovers sharing a bowl of soup?  a couple playing a drum duet?

Or what about this one?

Rorschach blot 09.jpg

Two dragons surprised by each other as they jump out of the water?  a fire heating up a boiling pot of pasta?  two souls burning in hell?  or arriving in heaven?

You see the potential.  The theory is that answers to the ten different Rorschachs will form patterns which a competent therapist can recognize and interpret.  So a patient maybe diagnosed as exhibiting a sexual obsession or gender confusion, a fear of violence, various attitudes toward authority, a need to dominate, and so on.

The assumption is that the therapist’s interpretation is the valid one.  But the responses to the inkblots are themselves verbal Rorschachs, and might say as much about the therapist as about the patient.  So trust in the accuracy of the therapists’s analysis is somewhat akin to an act of faith.

In this faithless age of questioning, disbelief has even entered into the sanctity of the psychiatrist’s office.

You just can’t count on anything anymore these days.

December 6, 2012

From the belly of the whale?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:28 pm

Moby's trick: The humpback whale appears to spout a ball fire from its blowhole as it rises to the surface off the coast of Arkansas, Alaska

This is a photograph of a whale emerging from the water off the coast of Arkansas.

It looks as if the whale is spouting fire from its blowhole, but it’s an optical illusion.  What is really happening is that sunlight is being refracted through the jet of moist air.

Maybe seeing shouldn’t be believing.

But it’s amazing just the same.

November 4, 2012

The best and the worst on the water’s edge

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:38 pm

A friend who is a member of a hastily re-constituted help group initially set up on 9/11 is now working with families in the Brooklyn shelters set up for the homeless after Sandy.

I asked her what it was like close to the rock face.  I think she is seeing the best and the worst of the American spirit.  One wonders exactly what or who are the real Frankenstorms:

So many have nothing – I mean nothing.  In the shelter where I am there was no loss of human life but there are many kids traumatized to the core, parents too traumatized themselves to comfort and soothe as they have done in the past, and animals equally disoriented.

Someone left off a boatload of pumpkins.  So the children and I are carving pumpkins, making pies together, and roasting pumpkin seeds.  It gives them something to focus on and bind some of the anxiety so they can talk as we work.  Initially, I had some anxiety about their displacing anger as they were carving – but none of that – in fact they are overly careful.  Making and sharing food can often be so healing. – and what comes out is amazing – children holding children, and consoling each other.  Children who have not been displaced are coming to the shelter with toys – some even with their very best, most favourite toys.

Here in the shelter where I am now, Target (the retail stores) pulled up with a huge truck of supplies and has donated blankets, cots, towels, socks, sweaters, food, and almost anything else people could use.  Honestly if there were a way to contribute to Target directly, I would.  I shop there, though because they have a policy that on a daily basis they give 15% of their earnings to charity. 

Seeing what so many people who have lost everything are going through, it is totally draining for me and draining me of empathy for those who have their homes left and have not suffered loss of life but are complaining and pushing  people out of their way.  This is very different from 9/11.  Today folks are honking and screaming at each other on the roads – people cutting in front of each other in line for food and water, for gas or buses. Many people seem to be solely into their own well-being and comfort

Today when the Target truck was unloading supplies using a ramp from the truck to the shelter, a well-dressed women pushing a very expensive child’s trolley complained that the truck was blocking her way on the sidewalk.  I suggested she walk around the truck and offered to make sure no traffic was coming.  But she was furious that she was being asked to actually walk on the street.  “I don’t believe I’m hearing you,” I said.  “People inside have nothing left but the clothes they are wearing.  Nothing.  Take your $3,000 trolley and walk on the other side of the street.”  At this point a crowd had begun to gather, and as the woman walked to the sidewalk across the street, they cheered.

September 30, 2012

The duty of free speech

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:43 pm

I have recently been introduced to a blog debate about the NY subway posters attacking Islam, which have been in turn defaced, which has in turn led to the arrest of those accused of defacing them.  After all, this is a country where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution.  But should it be?  Should we all be allowed to say whatever we think, no matter how slanderous, as long as it is not patently, provably untrue?

When I was a young psychologist, Richard Hernstein, an eminent Harvard professor, published his research in which he concluded that Blacks are genetically less intelligent than white people.  I was asked to join a protest outside the university where Hernstein had been invited to give a speech on his  research.  I declined to join the protest.  Not because I agreed with Hernstein’s conclusions.  But because silencing his opinion would only push it underground.  What his ideas required was the fresh air of debate.  I thought then – and still do – that it is more important to examine the research and the validity of Hernstein’s conclusions.

This experience had a major influence on the direction of my professional life.  I was already focussed on the way intelligence develops from infancy.  I knew the issues, the factors that influence cognitive development, and I was a trained researcher.  I knew the questions to ask about the data and had the skills to do it.  Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily complex task, and it is easy to see why most people simply had to take Hernstein’s research on faith or reject it on faith.

This post is not a professional treatise on why I think Hernstein was wrong.  Suffice to say that I am convinced it is.  But not because it’s an uncomfortable conclusion.  Not because, having brought Blacks to America as slaves, it was a double insult to point out that they are less intelligent than their former white masters.  It is rather because I am convinced that the data simply does not support this conclusion.  I taught university courses in which students were asked to analyze the data themselves.  Their grades did not depend on their reaching a conclusion with which I agreed, but on their knowledge of the data and their ability to examine it forensically.  These students, at least, are not today walking around thinking that Blacks really are less intelligent, but that it is simply politically incorrect to say so.

STFU.jpgFrom everything I have read, the anti-Islamic posters in the NY subway are bigoted and nasty.  But if I were in a position to do so, I wouldn’t deface them, or pull them down.  I’d put up parallel posters to refute them.

In Germany it is against the law to deny that the Holocaust took place.  Here in Britain there is a law against racist speech and hate crimes.  I’m not campaigning for the laws to be abolished, but it’s a very tricky business.  Speech which many Britons have traditionally found acceptable, Muslims often find insulting.  One of the difficulties British soldiers in Afghanistan are having today is that they sometimes insult the Afghans with whom they are working without any intention of doing so.

I am reminded of Churchill’s comment about the then-prime minister Clement Atlee,  “An empty car drove up to Downing street, and Mr. Atlee got out.”  Atlee, as a matter of fact, was extremely astute. The remark did not require an apology.  It was okay to say it in that context.  Obviously, even Churchill would not have said it in many other contexts.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying that not everything that should not be said in the first place should also be against the law.

We in America pay a high price for our freedom of speech.  And perhaps we too often do not realize that with that right comes the duty of care, the duty of truth.

If you put them up, I’d like to talk to you about those anti-Islamic posters.  But I’d rather convince you to take them down yourself because they are untrue and destructive.

September 19, 2012


Filed under: Abuse,Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:56 pm

I’ve just finished the novel Look at Me Now by Thomas Hubschman.  It’s a story about victim-hood, though that’s not apparent at first since the novel begins with a women in her early forties finally gaining enough courage to leave her bullying husband of 25 years.  At first, I thought it was another story about women’s liberation after they throw off the yoke of a domineering male.  And in this story, the male was unquestionably a domineering egocentric bully.

But after she has left the relationship, Dierdre’s wounds gradually become apparent.  Although she is often insightful and sometimes generous and caring, she is also short-tempered and judgmental.  Having spent most of her life under the control of either her father or her husband, she’s a blamer, and often finds it difficult to take responsibility for her own decisions.  Which is why, perhaps, she is dangerously close to choosing another domineering partner after leaving her husband.  Like a child, she still seems to be tempted to want someone else to take responsibility for her.

This is not an And-they-lived-happily-ever-after story.  Hubschman’s stories never are.  They are inevitably a chapter in the unending process of a life, leaving the reader to decide how the protagonist will deal with the next challenge that emerges as he or she has dealt with the one in the story.

In Dierdre’s case, the reader is left asking whether she and her new lover can help each other.  Harry himself has struggled, with some insight, into his bullying past.  In my experience, couples like this can sometimes be immensely helpful to each other, able to forgive and encourage, understanding the complexity of a bullying/victim relationship.  Or they can continue to destroy each other.

Whatever else, Look At Me Now isn’t a story about being a victim – when a truly helpless person, often a child, is abused and does not have the means of stopping or escaping from the  abuse.  It’s much more about victim-hood, about abuse in which the abused subtly, though almost always unconsciously, cooperates in the abuse.  It’s an attitude of immaturity in which the victim is old enough and with sufficient resources to stand up to the abuser but fails to do so.

I know it well.  Look at Me Now is about a Jewish women in New York.  But her victim-hood is similar to the Catholic version, and the many varieties with which I am well acquainted.  I suspect it has a great deal in common with all the other versions around the world as well.  Victim-hood occurs more often among women, while the counterpart – bullying – occurs more often among males.  I think this is because, as research shows, young girls read social signals faster than young boys.  We learn more quickly what pleases and what displeases adults around us, so we are more successful at gaining praise and affection for responding to others’ wishes.

That’s fine in children.  It’s as it should be, and can develop into a valuable gift if the child is in a loving family where she can learn to use this sensitivity not only for her own ends but for understanding and supporting others.  But if we become adults and still feel guilty when someone we love is suffering through no fault of ours, something has gone wrong.   This makes it impossible to support the other person as he or she struggles to deal with something that is his or her challenge because the impetus is to take the problem away from him altogether and make it ones own instead.

The relationship really goes wrong if we are unfortunate enough to enter into a close relationship with a man who himself blames us for everything that happens to him that he doesn’t like.  If we cooperate, if, in order to avoid further assault, we silently ascent to his accusations that we are responsible for his temper tantrums, for his infidelities, for whatever has gone wrong, it becomes a terrible partnership.

Because each partner has found a way to avoid responsibility for his or her own choices. The man blames the woman, and the woman feels responsible and guilty – not for her own choices, but for her partner’s unhappiness.

Look At Me Now is great story.  But don’t look for any right answers.  Which, come to think of it, is one of the reasons why it’s a great story.

July 22, 2012

Why it’s harder to make a living in some places on earth

Economists have studied various economic and governmental institutions which either facilitate or retard development in a country.  They have identified some critical variables, but they are apt to miss some of the geographical variables that are equally important.

A look at a map of the globe in which the average incomes are displayed show that in both America and Africa, the countries at the northern and the southern tips of the continents have higher per capital incomes than countries in the middle.  This pattern holds even when government institutions are not ideal.  Why?

Because by and large, tropical climates tend to suffer from three significant geographical limitations that temperate climates often do not have to face.  These factors are disease, agricultural productivity of the land, and transportation.

Take disease.  Tropical diseases like elephantiasis or malaria are far more difficult to control than disease occurring in a temperate climate.  Partly this is because disease-causing microbes are not killed off each year by winter temperatures.  In tropical countries they continue to multiply year-round.  The problem is exacerbated when these microbes are carried by mosquitoes or ticks, which themselves multiply much faster in tropical climates.  Finally, the human workforce is itself debilitated both by disease and by the significantly higher number of children women bear, nurse and care for as insurance against the high death rate of children.

Disease, therefore is one factor which contributes to the second limitation of tropical zones which is lower agricultural productivity.  There are others.  First, plants that grow in temperate zones tend to store more energy in parts that are edible than plants that grow in tropical zones.  And disease also attacks plants in tropical zones more aggressively than in temperate zones, for the same reasons disease attacks humans more aggressively.  Fewer microbes are killed off by cooler weather.

Secondly, glaciers repeated advances and retreats in temperate climates have left the land nutrient-rich.  Tropical areas haven’t been enriched in this way.  Finally, because temperatures are higher in the tropics, organic matter is broken down faster by microbes.  This might sound like an advantage, but it isn’t because the nutrients produced by rotting matter is leached away more quickly than in temperate climates.  So by and large, soils in tropical climates are not as rich as they are in temperate zones.

The third factor which tends to favor temperate zones at the ends of the continents rather than in the middle is the availability of transportation, especially by sea.  It costs seven times more to ship goods by land than by sea.  This is one of the significant reasons why landlocked countries like Bolivia in South America, and the fifteen landlocked countries in Africa are among the poorest.

Geography isn’t everything, just as our genetic make-up is not a complete explanation for what any individual human becomes.

But geography hasn’t created a level playing field.  It’s a lot harder to make a living in some places than in others.

May 19, 2012

Let’s legalize prostitution

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 1:54 pm
Tags: ,

I have just read a heart-rending description of the lives of young girls trafficked for sex.  It is devastating.  The purpose of this post, however, is not convince anyone of the evils of trafficking.  It is rather to discuss how to deal with it.

A Maryknoll sister who has worked with women trafficked from Cambodia is convinced that both the supply side and the demand side of this problem must be tackled.  The demand side, of course, is composed of those willing to pay for sex, men mostly, living in developed countries.  Sister Helene and others working with trafficked women adamantly believe that until prostitution is criminalized and that the person paying for sex, rather than the person supplying it, is held accountable, that trafficking will continue.

I’m not so sure.  Yes, people trafficking young girls for sex treat them no less as a commodity than drug dealers treat drugs.  But criminalizing alcohol didn’t reduce alcoholism;  it drove it underground and contributed to thriving criminal organizations by those supplying it.  Criminalizing abortion doesn’t eliminate it:  it merely drives it into the back streets and makes it more dangerous.  Criminalizing drugs is not reducing its use, and there are those – including myself – who think we would be better making drugs legal so that they can be made safer.

Criminalizing prostitution – or enforcing the law against users as well as suppliers – isn’t going to stop it.  It’s simply going to drive it further underground, providing even less protection for trafficked and abused sex slaves.

I’d vote for legalizing prostitution and regulating it.  Many prostitutes, I know, are of this view as well.  They would prefer safer houses, better health checks, more sympathy from law enforcement officials when they are abused.

I know this sounds contradictory.  But I’d say let’s liberate women.  Let’s legalize prostitution.


May 8, 2012

Reflections on abortion

I am too old for the question of abortion to be one which I will face personally.  And the terminated pregnancies which I have experienced were not chosen.

However, in the face of the increasing number of states in America which are trying to outlaw abortion outright under any circumstances, I have been thinking about why I disagree  with what is essentially the Roman Catholic position that abortion is always murder, and therefore never justified.  Since murder is wrong, Catholics are taught that they have an obligation to stop what they see as the mass murders of abortion, whether or not the persons involved in the act believe it is.  The obligation is as great as it would be to stop the mass murders of Jews or the mentally retarded or ethnic groups who may be considered to be sub-human.

I’ve asked several people whose values I respect for their take on this question.  The answers I found most enlightening are from Tony Equale whose blog I also read regularly.  I don’t claim they are original, but these are the conclusions which I myself have now reached.

First of all, I think sex is not part of the natural order purely for the sake of procreation.  Nor is it purely for the sake of pleasure.  Some 2 million years ago, humans evolved in which it was no longer apparent when the female was fertile.  The result of this was greater equality between the sexes, less competition, and a more influential and long-term role for fathers during what became the long years of human childhood.  So in my opinion, natural law dictates that the purpose of human sexual intercourse is not simply procreation, but the maintenance of a loving,  stable relationship between the parents which greatly facilitates the raising their offspring. (Paradoxically, sexual relationships between people who have no intention of having children together is often a learning experience which leads to a maturity which is of great benefit to us all.  Even to those of us who are no longer children.)

So I don’t think we humans have evolved in such a way that we benefit from reducing sex to no more than a passing pleasure with no inter-personal consequences.  But sex isn’t just about having children either.

So what about abortion?  Catholics believe that what makes a human being a person is the addition of a spiritual soul to the material body.  It is the soul that makes the person and is put there by God in a deliberate act.  It is not clear to theologians when the soul is combined with the physical body, and so the church argues that we must assume it is from the very moment of conception.

But must we?  Does this make sense?  Let’s think about it.  The church teaches that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing.  Yet it also teaches that this God inserts a living soul into the body of human beings conceived under the most terrible circumstances.  Perhaps the woman was raped.  Perhaps it was a young girl impregnated by her father.  Perhaps the foetus will be born under circumstances where the child will be abandoned, starved, abused, severely deformed, in extreme pain.  Perhaps the pregnancy will kill the mother through no fault of her own, leaving other children motherless.  According to the church, this all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God going to make this egg which has been penetrated by a sperm a person, come hell or high water.

No.  I don’t believe it.  This is a contradiction in terms.  If a human being were to behave in such a fashion, would impose this kind of suffering on another human being when he had the knowledge and power not to do so, we would never call it loving.  We might even call it evil.  We certainly would not tell everyone to go and do likewise.

Roman Catholics believe that abortion must be treated as murder because it is the willful termination of the life of an innocent person.

I don’t think it necessarily is.  I don’t think we are dealing with a person in the early days of pregnancy.  It is a potential person, which is something entirely different. Just as an acorn is not an oak tree but a potential tree, just as a seed is not an apple but only carries that potential, the foetus is not a person with all the rights of personhood.

But there’s a second issue, and that revolves around the times when the church, and indeed society, condone the murder of persons.  We can kill another person in war, to protect our own lives or the life of someone else.  Sometimes we are faced with the terrible and difficult decision of having to choose who should die, rather than if anyone should die.  Even if one believes that abortion always results in the death of an innocent unborn foetus, there are conditions under which I believe it is justified.

Is abortion simple?  rarely.  Does it have consequences?  inevitably.  Do I think it should be treated as a birth control method when other methods are available?  no.

But there are times when abortion is the brave, the courageous, the moral choice.

September 18, 2011

Revolution Revisited

I doubt that Rome is tempted to self-doubt by this, but it is quite surprising to me to realize how many of the issues within Roman Catholicism these days are the very issues over which the Protestant Revolution was fought.

For example:  

  • the ordination of women
  • corruption and sexual abuse
  • the primacy of individual conscience
  • the tolerance of doctrinal diversity and the identification of faith with faithfulness rather than dogma
  • the role of the priest within the community
  • celibacy of the priesthood
  • papal infallibility
  • the belief that the minister should be chosen by the community to whom he or she belongs rather than appointed by the bishop
  • whether the primary commitment of the serving priest should be first to the community or to Rome
  • whether the celebration of the Eucharist was meant by Jesus at the Last Supper to be celebrated in his memory, or whether Jesus meant to bestow the power to transform the bread and wine literally into his real substantial body and blood.

There are other issues today which were not dealt with by the Protestants but which are still important.  The seemingly eternal discussion about the unknowable nature of God, the reality of the Trinity, of original sin, and of the existence of a supernatural world.

These issues are all interesting, but the  most critically important seems to me to be the difference between faithfulness and dogma.

I cannot be convinced that whether we believe in the virgin birth or papal infallibility or original sin is actually more important to true holiness or fulfillment than how we live and whether we love our fellow creatures.

September 13, 2011

Sitting vs fighting

After my post yesterday on the alternative responses to the terrorist attack on 9/11, I have returned to a question I have been asking myself for more than half my life:  when should we fight and when should we choose instead to sit quietly knowing that we are strong enough to endure without lashing out?

One of the reasons I feel so betrayed by the Iraq war is that it was justified as a response to liberate people being persecuted, imprisoned or displaced by a dictator whom they were impotent to fight.  As a child of World War II, I came to believe that sometimes one cannot say about injustice “it’s nothing to do with me.”  And so I thought the Iraqi war was a just war.

I believe now that it was wrong on two counts.

First, we had and still have no idea how to mend Iraq, and we should have known that before we went in.  George Bush said when he was running for the presidency that he was not into nation-building.  I wish he’d kept his word.  We have not built a nation, but America has lost huge prestige and moral leadership in the world.  I know because I live outside the United States and the press here is not beholden to Washington, and does not have to worry about alienating its American readers.

Second, the lies that the American people were told were culpable.  They weren’t mistakes.  They were lies.  The evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction was substantial before the war began.  What we really went in for was oil.  It’s why, in the end, we didn’t wait to build a coalition through the United Nations.  And why we didn’t listen to the nuclear inspectors who thought it was unlikely that the weapons were there.  And why we were told that Al Qaeda was there when they palpably were not.  Al Qaeda got in on the coat tails of the American military.

Once we were fighting the war, our methods of torture, of rendition, of indefinite detention in Guantanamo are violating our principles of justice and are in violation of international law and the Geneva Treaty of which we are signatories.

But I’m not sure that means we should never go to war, never be prepared to fight to the death.   It seems to me to be a very complex question fraught with terrible guilt.  The costs of war are so great that going to war in situations where we cannot win the peace seem to me to be immoral.  Obviously, going to war as a mere manifestation of power is wrong.  Going to war on false premises or even as a result of having failed to learn the full facts is wrong.  Going to war when one has not exhausted all the other means of re-establishing justice is wrong.

But when in those situations when we honestly believe we have exhausted all other alternatives?  Is there, in other words, really such a thing as a just war?

Should we sanction a non-violent approach like Gandhi’s in  a fight against a mad man like Hitler, for instance?  Or more recently, were we right to refuse to tolerate Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Albanians in Kosovo?  I think so.  Should we have intervened militarily in the slaughter in Rwanda?  Are we right to be supporting the Libyan rebels with NATO air strikes as we speak?

After 9/11, America really could have chosen to sit quietly for a little while instead of “kicking ass.”

But I’m not convinced that sitting quietly is always the right choice.

Although I do know that fighting is never the whole answer.  After the military were finished and World War II officially ended, America spent years helping to rebuild Europe and Japan.  At least we had learned the lesson of World War I that total military victory does not win the peace.

I hope that somehow we can remember that again.

September 12, 2011

God’s favourite

In his comment following yesterday post on 9/11, Tony Equale forcefully suggests that the response of “kicking ass,” (which as I recall was President Bush’s colloquial way of expressing a determination to go to war) was self-destructive.

Instead of sitting in quiet dignity, aware of our strength and self-worth, we went to wars that, even if they had been justified, we cannot win, and which, given Vietnam and the earlier  experiences of Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, we should have known we could not win.  As a psychologist, I’ve learned not to trust anger in either myself or others.  Far more often than not, it is a sign of weakness, not strength.  Often it is irrational.

The assertion that our angry irrational outrage against countries that had nothing at all to do with the 9/11 attack arose from an “ancient paranoid ethno-religious rage,” as Equale puts it, has made me wonder about this almost universal tendency for societies to declare themselves to be superior to everybody else.  Most often this takes the form of identifying ones community or society as “God’s chosen people”  (though there are variations on this theme, as the study of the history of non-Judeo-Christian cultures demonstrates).

This position as God’s favourite has huge advantages.  First, it helps cement a social identity and to enforce a cohesive set of laws and customs.  Of course, it makes us intrinsically superior to everybody else as well, without our having to do a single thing.  We have been chosen.  And anybody who attacks us is therefore not only in the wrong, but by that very fact become God’s enemies.

Given that Christianity is supposed to include all people everywhere, one would think that this might lead Christians to work for peace and justice and love on a global scale.  Unfortunately, a belief in our unassailable self-worth is not so easily achieved.  Religion is used as often as the justification for attacking our fellow-man as it is for caring for him.  And her.

Being God’s favourite, though, does, I think have potential.  Parents have favourites.  They will respond to something in one child that another child does not have.  But if they are good parents, each child is a favourite in a different way.

Personally, if one believes that God has Chosen People, I think the mature version must be to recognize that God has many favourites.  We are each Chosen.  We are each his Favourites.

So maybe I’d better be careful about beating you up.  God might not like it.


September 11, 2011

9/11: the best of us, the worst of us

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 1:30 pm

It seems almost disrespectful to write about anything except 9/11 today.  It is impossible to turn on the TV without remembering.  And wondering again with so many others if we could have done it differently.

With Tony’s Cochran’s Agnes – or more accurately with Anna Frank – I still believe that in spite of everything, people are really good at heart.


Or perhaps I would say that I still believe the universe is evolving as it must.

Because it seems to me that 9/11 called forth both the very best and the very worst of us.  The very best in the passengers on the plane brought down in a field in Pennsylvania by a team of men, husbands, brothers, sons and fathers who said they would rather die trying to stop it than to hope that somehow they would survive.  The very best in New York rescue services, especially the firemen who did not put their own safety first.  The very best in many of the survivors and families of victims who have taken their pain and are using it as a fulcrum to make the world a better place.

The very worst in our invasion of Iraq on the false pretense that the terrorists who had so damaged and humiliated us were thriving there, when the government knew this was not true.  The very worst in Abu Graib and Guantanamo which were as great a betrayal of what is the best of America as the planes crashing into iconic buildings were an attack on it.  The worst in the bigotry against Muslims in general, with a smug denial of the truth that Christians have engaged in attacks on innocent cities just as ferocious.

9/11, like so many tragedies, brought out the worst of us. But it also brought out the best.

The very best.

September 7, 2011

A closer look at the American disaster

Whether one listens to the anguish from the Left or the anger from the Right, it seems that the American dream is over.  I’m only hearing it from across the pond, but the sounds of despair that reach these shores, the pronouncements of utter gloom and impending and permanent disaster are sometimes so palpable that I am tempted to enter a cloister and stay there with the door permanently closed to any outside distraction.

Okay, I can see that this is a very bad patch.  9/11, our dubious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the credit crunch, the size of our public and private debts, and the spluttering economy cannot be dismissed as mere neurotic overblown anxieties.
But in the long-term, things might not be nearly as bad as the doomsayers predict.  The economist Irwin Seltzer writing in the London Times on Sunday suggests six significant reasons for optimism:

  • the American economy still produces more goods and services than the next three largest economies – Japan, China, and Germany – combined.  This pre-eminence is likely to last a long time.  Japan is still struggling with a decade of stagnation, China now has emerging problems which are getting bigger not smaller, and Germany is burdened by the fact that it is the only economy that might conceivably lever Europe out of the euro zone crisis now engulfing it.  And it still might fail.
  • America’s GDP per capital exceeds that of its supposed biggest rivals China by 10 times, and India by 50 times.
  • American’s demographic outlook is hugely optimistic.  The population is growing, which means that there is going to be an expanding internal market.  Even more significant, there will be a supply of new workers, new ideas.
  • That also means that a much larger work force will be less burdened by the needs of an aging population.  By 2050, 1 in 3 people in most developed countries in Europe and east Asia will be older than 65.  In America, only 1 in 5 will be over 65.   On average, the population will be  younger and more dynamic.  To some extent this dynamism already shows in the 2.3 million patents awarded to Americans in 2010.  Germany was in second place with 286,000 new patents.
  • America has its problems with corruption, with the influence of corporate money in Washington, with torture and the violation of human rights.  But it is still a far safer place for investors’ money and innovative skills than Brazil, Russia, India, or China.
  • And finally, America still has an abundance of natural resources.
Yes, it is a dark time for America with many of the problems of our own making.  For those who cannot get work because of the recession, it must feel like a pitch black darkness in a void without walls.
But I suspect that things are not necessarily nearly as terrible as many on the Left or the Right cry out that it is.
If we grasp the nettle, America is still a very very fortunate nation.  It can still be one of the best places on the planet to live.

July 3, 2011

What would Marshall McLuhan have said?

Marshall McLuhan is responsible for recognizing how much “the message is the medium.”  In other words, the medium we use for communicating is itself part of the message.  Information communicated through the written page is quite different from parallel information delivered in person and face-to-face.  Poetry is a different medium from sculpture, the book is different from television, and communicate a subtly different message.

McLuhan died recently, so we must elaborate his ideas on our own.  Which I have been doing as I ponder the fact that Google is trying to launch another social networking site, while the younger generation is proclaiming that the phone and email are “obsolete.”

If the email is obsolete, what words should we use to describe television?  or radio?  or the book?  What words should we use to describe something as ancient as talking to each other, or communicating by drum beat across the forest?

I think “obsolete” is an obfuscating description, and rather misses the point.

These various media operate in different ways and subtly communicate different kinds of information.  They also almost certainly influence the formation of our very thought processes differently.

For example, Twitter can sum up the pithy insight and send it around the world.  But by definition it does not support a complex argument or discussion.  To the extent that it is used that way, it will make our thinking superficial and subject to the deadening influence of soundbites.  Much as I resonated to Obama’s “Yes we can!” clarion call, it would be frightening if that sums up a successful campaign for the presidency of the United States.

Social networks are in some ways a cross between blogging and tweeting.  Communications might be long or short, pithy or pathetic, personal or objective.  But all three of these media have a one-way potential.  I put an idea out there for anybody to read and respond to, but it is for anybody.   That means it is not for you individually.  I have not crafted the message for you particularly to understand.  It’s a global message that anybody is supposed to be able to understand.

And that means it severely limits my learning to communicate with a unique individual.  I’m not speaking in a whisper on the internet.  I’m  addressing the world using a megaphone.  That is a talent.  But so is being able to understand the unique individual.   Internet communication gives me experience in addressing the public.  It doesn’t do as much for helping me learn how to talk to that child curled up in a corner in tears.  Or the desperate young man on the edge of the bridge threatening to jump.

Email and the phone have the limitation and the advantage of being between individuals or a small group.  They are instantaneous, which I think is both their advantage and disadvantage.  One does not have to wait for the boat to arrive for the next letter.  You don’t even have to wait to turn the page or for the tv program to resume.  But the downside of instantaneous is that we don’t have time to think about our response.  We don’t walk away and ponder it.  It’s said and off it goes irrevocably across the air waves.

As I reflect on changes that have occurred even in my own sense of self, I who grew up in a house without a television, and who was middle-age before email was invented.  Being able to access the outside world 24 hours a day seems too often to focus my attention on how others may respond to what I think rather than my evaluating my own thoughts and decisions and action for myself.

In other words, I worry that too much public exposure dilutes our grounding in ourselves.

And this would be a terrible loss.  It would make us far too dependent on what others think.

And so, much as I obviously love blogging and the internet in general, I profoundly hope that emails and phones are not obsolete.  I hope radio is not obsolete.  I desperately hope books are not obsolete.  Even if we might read them on a Kindle instead of paper.  I hope long conversations between just two people are not obsolete.

I even hope long periods of silence alone in which I ponder my own small thoughts are not obsolete and survive the arrival of yet another social network.

May 2, 2011

Be careful what we hate

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:15 pm

We were living in the Lake District of England.  It was late morning and we switched on the television to hear a speech to be given by Tony Blair.  Instead we turned on the Twin Towers.

We had lived in New York City and spent our professional lives there.  Friends and colleagues worked in the Twin Towers.  I barely moved from the chair the entire day, and lost my appetite and ability to sleep.  For days I walked around in a daze, feeling as if at any moment I was going to throw up.

That was just under ten years ago.

Now at last they have tracked down Bin Laden and killed him.

I knew people who died in the Twin Towers but I did not lose a husband, a father, a child, a loved one.  I cannot say that if I had I would not want to join those dancing in the streets today in my beloved New York.

But I do not feel like dancing.

I wonder if in some terrifying way, we have become too much like what we have hated.

Bin Laden believed that the West, and especially America, was responsible for the subjugation of Muslims around the world.  He believed he knew the judgement of God and had the mission to carry out God’s just punishment against those who betrayed his people.

But change the names in those beliefs.  Do we not have then many of our own views?  Bin Laden was no longer a significant terrorist threat.  But we feel that we have a legitimate right to bring about retribution for what he did.  Justice, we say, demands it, and it is our obligation to impose it.

Yes.  And has this made the world better?  or safer?  our leaders are already warning us that extra vigilance is required against those who are now going to try to exact retribution for Bin Laden’s death.   Have we shown anybody that anything but violence might be viable?  These are complex issues with huge areas of uncertainty.  I don’t pretend the right things to do are obvious or clear-cut

But do we really have to dance in the streets because we have finally killed him?

March 16, 2011

A longing for black and white

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

I remember as a young adolescent hearing the story about the mother of two young boys who were being trucked away by the Nazis.  “Please!,” she begged, “don’t take them!”  “All right,” the soldier at the back of the truck replied, “you can choose one.”

Simply remembering this story still has the capacity to seer.

It was when I first learned that sometimes there are no right and wrong answers.  They are all wrong.

What is happening in Japan right now is tragic.  But it does not pose a moral dilemma for me.  But what is happening in Libya does.

Should we impose a no-fly zone?  should we put boots on the ground?  if so, under what conditions?  And if Gaddafi does bomb the opposition into oblivion, what should we do?  should we keep buying Libyan oil, for instance?  can we impose sanctions?  should we?

If we don’t buy Libya’s oil, who will suffer?  I suspect the Chinese will buy the oil.  If it forces up the price of oil, who will get rich?  Gaddafi and his people.  Who will suffer?  those people too poor to afford to heat their homes and drive their cars.  Who will go hungry?  Not Gaddafi.  Probably the rebels and anybody remotely associated with them.

And yet if we impose a no-fly zone, will we get embroiled in Africa and the Middle East even further?  Haven’t we already demonstrated amply enough that we cannot march into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and impose peace, let alone support a functioning democratic and accountable government?

We will make a choice.  We must make a choice one way or other.  Even to do nothing is to choose.

But I think the choice is black and white only for those who cannot see the tortuous, complex reality as it truly is.  “Choose one,” feels like the offer from hell.

March 11, 2011

Can the state murder where the individual cannot not?

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:55 pm

This week, Illinois outlawed death penalty in the state.  Capital punishment is now illegal in 16 states:

Michigan since 1846

Wisconsin since 1853

Maine since 1887

Minnesota since 1911

Hawaii since 1948

Alaska since 1957

Vermont since 1964

Iowa since 1965

West Virginia since 1965

North Dakota since 1973

Rhode Island since 1984

Massachusetts since 1984

New Jersey since 2007

New York since 2007

New Mexico since 2009

Illinois since 2011

and the District of Columbia since 1981

I had no idea places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine had managed to remain civilized for more than a century without the aid of state-mandated killing.

Still, research does suggest that the implementation of the death penalty does not reduce the crime rate.  It’s that self-justifying need for vengeance, I think, that keeps the death penalty on the books.

March 1, 2011

Morality in the hands of government

I said in my post yesterday that I certainly would not want to hand over the power to dictate moral decisions to governments.  For thousands of years governments have hijacked God and tried to use religion to stay in power.

The struggle, unfortunately, continues even in America.  The South Dakota legislature are considering a bill that would legalize the killing of abortion doctors on the grounds that these doctors are endangering the lives of innocent victims.  The legislation proposes to change the definition of murder in the case of someone murdering a doctor who performs abortion.  Instead of calling it murder, killing abortion doctors would be categorized as justifiable homicide.

At least we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court.  I agree it is by no means a fail-safe way of keeping religion and state separate.  But it’s a lot better than nothing.

February 19, 2011

A small dispute about cannibalism

Cannibalism has appeared in the news several times recently.  First is the evidence that cannibalism may have been developed to a rather high art among humans in Britain about 15,000 years ago.

The second appearance is rather more recent.  The book just published about the 33 miners in Chile suggests that the idea of cannibalism had occurred to some of the men as they moved into their third week trapped underground.  The miners were reduced to a single spoonful of tuna every three days with no assurance yet that they would be found.  In the end, actual cannibalism did not become an issue before day 17 when the drill bit broke through.

I suggested to my husband that cannibalism, even when it was not motivated by outright starvation, was not necessarily dehumanizing.  I said I thought it quite possible that eating parts of another human being was a sacred ritual in which the survivors were symbolically incorporating the best of the deceased person into their own lives.  I pointed out that hunting societies frequently saw the killing and eating of animals as a sacred act, and that these activities were often accompanied by ritual.  Perhaps this also motivated a group of modern cannibals discovered some years ago in Papua New Guinea who ate the heart and the brain of the loved one in carefully prescribed rituals.   

My husband disagreed.  His view is that cannibalism is dehumanizing, and does not reflect some sense that we are all part of the same world.

Some time later I wondered if my Roman Catholic upbringing, in which I was taught that the bread and the wine consecrated during mass literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus, explained my sense that consuming the flesh of another human being could be a sacred act.

Not, of course, that I ever thought of receiving the Eucharist as cannibalism.

But then, my point is that I think cannibalism isn’t always cannibalism in the terms we in the modern world generally understand cannibalism.

February 3, 2011

How dark was Abraham Lincoln’s dark side?

This blog, if it stands for anything, stands for the idea that there is always another way of looking at things.  Most often I find alternative and unexpected interpretations liberating and exciting.  But that does not mean that I think all interpretations and explanations are equally convincing.  I don’t.  Some possibilities must be dismissed as wishful thinking at best, as wilful distortions at worst.

The BBC is airing a documentary that explores what it is calling “the darker side” of Abraham Lincoln.  I have not seen the programme yet, but the BBC  claims it explores evidence that Lincoln secretly planned to deport back to Africa the black slaves whom he had freed with the Proclamation of Emancipation.

I’m dubious but also disturbed.  I am aware that the new vogue among historians is to look at the evidence and to put together a different story than the one we have always told ourselves.  The newer or more radical the story, the more likely it is to be accepted for a Ph.D dissertation, a best-selling book, or the basis of a television series.

I can’t help but support the call to question whether our classical interpretations of the past are always right.  But as with all research, some results are more professionally rewarding than others.   Some results provide the author with greater prestige, greater financial reward, greater professional recognition.

We have seen, for instance, that  finding a statistically significant improvement among those who take new experimental (and expensive) Drug A compared to those who take an old (and usually much less expensive) Drug B is more apt to lead to more big funding than finding no important differences between Drugs A and B.

And I fear it is the same with history.  Some stories are more radical, more surprising, more innovative.  So they are much more apt to attract television audiences.

But I don’t necessarily trust all these new stories and the new evidence upon which they are purportedly based.

Just because they are on television doesn’t make them any more valid than the promises made by internet sources trying to sell cheap Viagra and other enhancing products.

There’s no way around the hard work of looking at the evidence.

And living with the knowledge that even then, one risks being absolutely wrong.

January 17, 2011

Ringing all dumbbells

I suppose it would be too simplistic to say that there really are only two kinds of older people – those who think the younger generation is getting smarter and those who think roughly the opposite.  Though it does seem to me most of us have our unscientific opinions on the subject.

I don’t think the younger generation is getting dumber, but I have often thought that television programmes are.

But I may be seriously wrong.  Tonight on prime time mainstream television, BBC is presenting an hour-long programme discussing whether reality is merely a philosophical construction.  It really would be a stretch to call that dumbing down.

So I am now going to watch it.

I decided more than half a life time ago that I was going to opt for the position that an objective reality actually exists independently of my observing it.

I’m curious to revisit the question.  I wonder if I’ve changed my mind.

January 13, 2011

Finding words that heal

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:09 pm

As I listened to President Obama address the nation after the Arizona massacre last night, I thought again how wonderful it is to share in dialogues with people who do not disrespect someone simply because they disagree.  Who do not argue by insult or try to convince by ridicule and threat.     

One of the delights of this blog for me  is that it has led to dialogues – here and on other blogs – that enable me to listen and to defend, to change and to become more convinced, to respect and be respected in good faith.  The benefits have been huge.  My ideas have broadened and clarified, in some cases they have even been revolutionized, and have changed the way I look at the world and my life in it.   Many of the words truly have been words that heal.

Indeed, there have been several times in my life when I have been immensely grateful for words that heal.

Yet, as I look at my angry, polarized country, I can only conclude that most other people have the same impulses I still sometimes have to resist.  Rather than explaining and in turn listening to someone who opposes my point of view, I often would rather not make the effort.  I’d rather dismiss them with some terse psychological diagnosis about fear or levels of intelligence.

I remember once getting an email from a colleague expressing a religious view with which I profoundly disagree.   I put it into the email delete box  seven different times.  I kept taking it back out, deciding to try to explain, and then changing my mind on the grounds that it was hopeless to try to deal with someone so stupidly rigid.

In the end, my better self did win and I answered his accusations with as much clarity and respect as I could.  I didn’t change his mind.  But we are still on speaking terms and I am glad neither of us retreated permanently to the Delete Box.

Despite their huge potential, words that heal, that bridge a gap rather than widen it, are so often so hard to find in ourselves.   I think that to swallow that anger, to replace that cutting sarcasm with words that try to reach across the chasm often demands a greatness of spirit both to utter and to hear.

Like defending freedom, letting others disagree with us with civility is a never-ending challenge.

Okay, this ends my Thought for the Day.  It’s just that I want to say Amen! to President Obama.  Even if he already said it so much better.

August 24, 2010

Some things never change

A report today in Britain revealed that the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, police in Northern Ireland, and the British government all participated in a cover up of the evidence that a Catholic priest had engineered an IRA bombing 40 years ago that killed 8 people, including both Catholics and Protestants, adults and children.  The priest was transferred to a parish in Donegal, and died 30 years ago.

The reason for the cover up was that the “Troubles” were at their height, and both the government and the church were concerned that an already highly volatile situation would explode into full-fledged civil war if a Roman Catholic priest were arrested as a terrorist.

The families of those who died were told today why no one was ever charged.  The priest wasn’t even interviewed by the police despite highly suggestive evidence.

What do you think the government,  the church and the police should have done?  My own feeling is that too often the RC church tries to solve its problems by covering them up.  And I dare say governments are not far off doing the same when they can get away with it.

I think the priest should have been arrested and charged if the evidence suggested his guilt.  (Instead, some of the records have disappeared.)

Also dealing with what appear to be unbridgeable and deadly religious divides, a friend just sent me a questionnaire about building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center:

How far from the wreckage of the World Trade Center is far enough away to build a mosque?

  • Allow space in the World Trade Center itself or within several blocks of the site:  Islam is basically a peaceful religion and the right to freedom of religion is a constitutional right.  Yes, it was a horrible mass murder by terrorists but terrorists come in many different religious guises (eg: the IRA) and we should not all be punished for the horrible murder committed by terrorists.
  • 10 blocks
  • 1 mile
  • 10 miles
  • not in NY City
  • not in NY State

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if New Yorkers could say “Islam has a constitutional right to build a mosque close to the World Trade Center and we will not betray our ideals by trying to stop it”?

And at the same time, if those wanting to build the mosque would say “yes, we know we have a constitutional right to build a mosque close to the World Trade Center, but it will cause a great deal of pain and offence if we did.  So we aren’t going to” ?

But I fear that if the mosque got built in proximity to the World Trade Center, it would be bombed.

August 1, 2010

My strangled objection

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:42 pm

I started to read the cover article in the Economist last week that discusses the extraordinary number of people the United States sends to prison.  No other developed country locks up so many of its citizens.  I don’t usually walk away from things like this, but I had to stop.  I couldn’t stand it.

There is something in the American psyche that thinks we can kick people into submission.  We have little insight and no mercy.

The only topic that makes me feel the same way is our attitude toward torture.   I think it comes from the same problem, the same inability to understand that punishment and torture does not achieve what we want it to.

From what I have read, though, the majority of Americans would agree that prison works.  And that torture is permissible under some circumstances when the torturer deems the security of America may be at risk.

So we inadvertently torture innocent people sometimes.

Is that okay?

I don’t think it is.  But quite possibly it’s because I think torture in the end is self-defeating.  It’s one reason why America’s standing in the world has nose-dived since Guantanamo and AbuGhaib.

June 16, 2010

The problem of evil doesn’t go away

I was quite young – well, young by my standards now – when I realized I had a problem with God because of the problem of evil.  It seemed to me that suffering and injustice suggested either that God was not as powerful as he was supposed to be, that he didn’t care, or that there wasn’t a God at all.

My problem now is that eliminating God from the equation doesn’t solve the problem of evil.  I still don’t know what to make of what looks like so much meaningless, unjustified destructive suffering.

Buddha said what looks like evil to us is really incompleteness – it is the manifestation of which is unfinished.

Another alternative is that suffering and injustice do not pose a problem because the universe simply follows the immutable laws of physics.  “Evil” is no more a problem than why ice melts or why apples fall off the tree.  The laws of nature are impersonal and inexorable and suffering results the way soft things are crushed beneath the weight of a heavy stone rolling down the mountain.

I do not know if I cannot accept this bleak alternative because I lack courage.  Or is it because my sense is based on some authentic insight that a place as incredible as the universe is not meaningless.

I am inclined to think, though, that it is we who must give it meaning.  It’s not just already out there ready made for us to somehow find.

June 9, 2010

New life in a petri dish

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 8:24 pm

About two weeks ago scientists made a mind-boggling announcement:

From its component chemicals, they have created a new living, self-sustaining organism.

I am not surprised that it is possible and that it has happened in my life time.  But that does not preclude my being awe-struck.

I think it is an event that in its potential import outstrips the splitting of the atom.  The scientists are trying to pretend that the implications are not almost incomprehensible, saying only that the potential for good is immense.

Yes, of course it is.  We may be able to generate bacteria that can reduce much of our self-created pollution of the environment.  We may be able to cure many diseases that are currently untreatable.  We may be able to solve our energy and food and clean water shortages.

But to the extent that we figure out how to do these things, we will also, per force, learn how to poison the environment, we will be able to develop deadlier weapons of war than anything we have conceived of so far, we will have the tools for spreading terror that may be unstoppable.

And then there is the inevitable danger of accidents.  Organisms can escape or mutate and spread beyond our control.

It can’t happen?

No, a nuclear accident like Chernobyl couldn’t happen either.

Neither could the oil “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico that may still be spewing not 5,00o barrels of oil a day but 100,000, and may make not only the Gulf a dead zone, but may spread up the US east coast and into the open seas.

So it’s marvellous, and it’s scary that we can now create new forms of life in the laboratory.

Yet in one way, things really aren’t so different from the way they have always been.  Only the nature of the danger changes, not the fact of danger.  I grew up in a generation that build nuclear bunkers in their back yards.  For millenia, people have lived in dread of starvation, of plagues and disease, natural disasters and climate change.

I wish I had something wiser to say about it than that.  But I don’t.

I’ll just keep hoping that our generosity and our ingenuity outstrips the stupidity of our mistakes, and a fear of our enemies that could destroy us all.

April 21, 2010

Advice about when to keep silent

I have a constant dialogue with myself.  But in truth I do not have anything to say to my audience.

Arvo Pärt, Estonian composer

OK, OK:  I’m considering it!

April 19, 2010

A testable possibility

In my post yesterday I suggested one of the issues frequently – though not always necessarily – dividing science and religion was the disagreement over the existence of a supernatural world whose inhabitants may intervene directly in the operations of the natural world.*

But there is a second assumption dividing scientific thought and religious belief which seems to me to be even more fundamental.  Not only does science accept only explanations which reflect natural processes and events, those explanations – that is theories – must be testable.

We’ve already seen that scientific proof is not absolute.  There is always the possibility that even the strongest, most broadly accepted theory, will be overthrown by new observations and new theories that explain what we observe more simply or with fewer contradictions.

Nonetheless, to be a workable scientific theory taken seriously by the scientific community, it must be testable.  That is, it must make predictions which scientists can then test.  The more predictions are validated, the stronger a theory becomes.  They are, essentially, the “proof” of the theory.

If a theory cannot be tested or if its predictions fail, it is not accepted as scientifically valid.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on faith, which by its very definition, cannot be tested the way a scientific theory must be.  Religious doctrine may make a lot of sense, may explain much of what we experience about the world and what we hope for the future.  But it is accepted for reasons that are beyond proof.

To many people, this sounds like an open and shut case demonstrating the superiority of science.

But I’m not so sure.

I personally cannot argue for the infallibility of any particular religious belief.  But I have difficulty accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding.  Why?

First of all, because there seem to be so many important things about which we must decide in life which are either in theory or in practice not subject to scientific or even full-scale rational scrutiny.  And some of these decisions are terribly important.  Like:  “will we be happy if I marry this person?”,  “what career path will I find fulfilling?”,  “will this investment make a profit?”  Admittedly, science can sometimes shed light on these questions, but it cannot answer them if only because in practice I cannot set up the required scientific observations.

And there are other questions which are simply beyond scientific testability.  Like “does my life have a purpose?” or “why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?”

Are the answers we give to questions sheer guess work?  or can we intuit some things, can we at least orient ourselves in the right direction?  Has, perhaps, evolution given us some wisdom to which we have access but which we do not fully understand about ourselves?  are even our scientific hypotheses based initially on intuitions which have a better chance of being validated than would mere guesswork?

And if we do possess some capacity for intuition, how do we use it? through poetry?  through music or literature?  from others? in our scientific endeavours?

If yes, how do we recognize it? can we validate these intuitions outside science in any way?  How do we distinguish between superstition and valid intuition? between wishful thinking and insight?  between fear-laden bigotry and a sixth sense that we might trust?

Given my background, I tend to approach these questions as a psychologist first, rather than in terms of theology or philosophy where I am a neophyte.

From that perspective, at this point, I don’t fully trust the announced intuitions of any one who seems to have a need for absolute certainty, who cannot consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  This is as true of scientific as religious thought.  I think it is an inescapable condition of being human that we must live with some level of uncertainty.  The decisions we make will always entail some risk that we are wrong.  That’s life.

But I also look for some coherence.  I can’t adopt a philosophy of life that broadly contradicts the assumptions and observations of modern science.  So I do not believe that the world was created in seven days some four thousand years ago, I don’t think homosexuality is intrinsically wrong or even immature, I’m open to the possibility that polygamy is a viable structure for some cultures, I don’t think any of us have a mission from God to either convert all non-believers or eliminate them from the face of the earth.

I do, on the other hand, have a sense of responsibility for earth and every one and everything in it, mainly because I can’t see any other alternative.

* There is a fuller and possibly more accurate exploration of the relationship between philosophy and religion by the author of the comment made in relation to my post yesterday.

March 3, 2010

Elegy on an English winter

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

I’m not talking to any of my friends anymore who live in the States about the weather.  We’re still hyperventilating from the worst winter Britain has had for 30 years, but I get no sympathy whatsoever.

We’ve had 8 inches of snow, and the electricity was cut off for two hours, I plead.  It’s not risen above 38 degrees fahrenheit for a week, I say, and I’m wearing two layers of wool sweaters sitting at my computer.

So what do I get?  This photograph from a friend in New York of the three feet of snow covering fallen trees on her road, and who has been without electricity for five days.  Whose gold-fish all died, and whose dogs have announced that they are emigrating to Africa.  She’s been flushing her loo with melted snow.  She did explain to me what she did about getting a shower.  I think it was to skip it and hope that brushing her teeth would be enough.

I just can’t get no respect these days.

February 12, 2010

Infinity might be hell

The concept of infinity – either the theological version used to describe God as basically indescribable, or the scientific version applied to time and space – has never overwhelmed me.

But I watched a BBC programme last night featuring some of today’s mathematical geniuses and I suddenly understood why science is so terrifying to so many people who believe in God.

These particular mathematicians see the entire universe in terms of mechanical probabilities.  That is in terms of random chance.  And they are brilliant.  They can think about numbers – huge vast numbers that lose all their intuitive meaning as they add on billions and billions of zeroes.  And they explain everything that has ever happened in the universe and everything that may evolve in this or other universes in terms of this stark probability.

It was the most ghastly view of the world that I have ever contemplated.   I guess contemplated is the operational word.  I am quite comfortable with the universe without any concept of God to which I have ever been introduced.  But I have always felt that there is some intrinsic meaning to existence.  It is certainly beyond my capacity to fully grasp, but I have always believed that life has meaning.

This view that all the universe is and will always be the result of random chance is utterly barren.  No wonder people who believe that the only other alternative to this bleak view is an autocratic God  choose to reject science.  It’s exactly why I think abused children so often become abusive parents – the alternative interpretation that they are not loved is even more terrifying than to accept that they deserved the punishments they received from a loving but stern father.

But I reject this view.

I don’t reject it because I believe in a supernatural force that is controlling what is happening in this natural world.

And I don’t – I think – reject it out of fear.

I don’t reject it because I have scientific proof to the contrary.  Although I do think there is a vector in the evolution of the universe that belies the view that everything happens randomly.

Ultimately I reject it because that isn’t what my experience seems to indicate.  Can I be wrong?  Of course.  But each of us looks at our lives and we must decide without conclusive evidence either way whether we think our lives in particular and all being in general has some meaning.

I know: maybe I think that because I have a goodly supply of those feel-good endorphins.  Or because I was loved as a child.  Or because I am loved as a woman.

But anyway, it’s my view.  And besides, not all mathematical geniuses take this bleak view.  So it’s not written in the numbers.

February 11, 2010

What do you think?

I have just begun to publish on my other blog The Big Bang to Now, a series I’m calling Questions Beyond Science.  They are Think About issues that developed from feedback to the first edition of my book on all of time.

The questions in general are not themselves scientific but are questions that people tend to ask in a world as science-oriented as the one we live in —  questions like Did God create the universe?  Are there different kinds of truth?  Is there a supernatural world controlling the natural universe?

I am looking for feedback from people with many different perspectives and beliefs.  This is not a poll to try to find out how many people take which position or an attempt to convince people that one answer is right and the others wrong.  What I would like to know, above all, is whether my presentations of the different sides of the questions seem fair and clear and respectful to people from many different points of view.

So often, it seems to me, we can’t listen to each other because our discussion is marred with sarcasm, distortion, and a lack of respect for someone who sees the world differently.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have views on most of these questions.  And there are times and places where sarcasm, distortion, or a lack of due respect are refreshingly funny and insightful, and positively valuable.

But there are other times when it is important to be able to listen without bias to views with which we may utterly disagree.   And I know how hard this can be.  Despite my commitment to respecting others, there are some views that make me so angry that I find it close to impossible to enter into a dialogue about them.

But if you are interested in these kinds of questions and if you have any thoughts on any of the posts, I would be very very glad to hear them.

The first Question Beyond Science is Did God create the Universe? You can see it on the blog The Big Bang to Now post for February 11, 2010, and some earlier comments on the post for the preceding day.

February 5, 2010

Better than nothing

The impulse in possibly every human society in the world is to try to curb undesirable behavior with punishment.  We spank, slap and beat children to try to make them be good.  Even the more enlightened send children to their rooms or withhold an allowance or privilege.  The punishments become more draconian as we get older – fines, prison sentences, getting fired, or being put on probation.

The debate among psychologists, among others, is whether reward for good behavior is more powerful and effective than punishment for bad.   The ideal rewards are those that are intrinsic – benefits not added on, but arising from the behavior itself.  The high from the endorphins released by exercise, for instance, or the sense of pride from an accomplishment one knows without being told is a good job.

There seems to be an experiment of sorts between these two approaches in India where bribery is a significant problem.

The Indian government tried to curb the practice by publishing on-line the names of officials facing trial for corruption.  It didn’t work.  Instead, people used it as a guide about who to bribe.

But several years ago, an Indian expatriate physics professor from the University of Maryland was travelling back home.  He became so exasperated with constant extortion demands that he printed up a bundle of Zero Rupee notes with Gandhi’s photograph.   Since then, a charity has distributed one million of such notes with quite astonishing success.

On official handed back all the bribes he received.  Another made a loan instead to the person he’d been trying to bribe so her granddaughter could pay her college tuition.

As the Economist says, these notes might be without value.

But they aren’t worthless.

January 29, 2010


I don’t know what other title to give to this post but Courage.   We’ve been watching the Chilcot Inquiry which is examining the process by which Britain became committed to the war in Iraq.

Up until now, the usual suspects have been interviewed, and have not said anything particularly new.  Most have been well-prepared and smooth, some alternately humorous, aggressive, evasive, and that old faithful standby, forgetful.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst was different.  She’d been one of the attorneys in the British foreign office asked to advise on the possible legality of a military invasion to unseat Saddam Hussein, and had been the only one to resign as a matter of principle:  she thought the war was illiegal.

At the time it looked like a self-defeating gesture.  None of the other 56 attorneys in the foreign office who also thought the war was illegal resigned.  Nor were they ethically required to do so.

But Elizabeth Wilmshurst could not be silent and if she did not resign, she was required to support government policy by keeping her personal views private.  She felt that under the circumstances she could not even appear to be supporting such a war.

Her testimonyto the Chilcot Inquiry was riveting.  It was quiet, understated, without rancor or hyperbole or accusation.  It was tremendously powerful.

When she stood up after completing hours of questioning by the committee and as she was gathering her papers, the “ordinary people” sitting in the public gallery broke out in spontaneous applause.  That has never happened before.  Admiration for a woman who stood her ground with such dignity and courage was universal.

I think the biggest challenges life offers most of us are like that.  The moment doesn’t come with a big sign saying “This is the Moment of Great Testing.”  If anybody is noticing at all, they very well may think one a fool or unnecessarily moralistic.

But every once in a while – maybe not more than once or twice in a lifetime – those moments come when one can either simply go with the flow, or stand up and say, whatever the cost, I will not be moved.

Tony Blair is testifying to the committee today.

January 21, 2010

An improved route to salvation

In my experience, people have often given up believing in God because of some misfortune that seems to make no sense.

St. Augustine of Hippo struggled with what philosophers call “the problem of evil,” and decided it must be our fault.  God Himself, he reasoned, could not revel in such mindless cruelty.  A thousand years later, the plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century undermined the authority of Roman Catholicism.  The plague took both the good and the bad, and there didn’t seem any advantages in following the strictures of this seemingly capricious God.  By the next century, Western Christianity was fractured.

So when I heard yesterday that a Voodoo priest was giving up his position to retrain as a Protestant minister, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

Still, it doesn’t make sense to me.  I’m sure Protestants were affected just as badly by the quake as followers of Voodoo.

Unless it is the Protestants who are handing out food and medicine.

January 16, 2010

The benefits of uncertainty

As the full dimensions of the Haiti disaster unfold, a friend directed me to a website where the tele-evangelist Pat Robertson explains why it happened and why we don’t have to feel sorry for the victims:  several hundred years ago their ancestors sold their souls to the devil in order to get rid of French rule.  Ever since, this bargain has returned to haunt them.  We can help by converting the Haitians to the true faith after which presumably they will take part in the prosperity enjoyed by the other half of their island in the Dominican Republic.

Muslim preachers said something similar after the Christmas tsunami which also killed hundreds of thousands of people:  the tsunami was an act of God wrought against the people who had not repented of their sins.

Okay, this is ignorant bigotry.  But it would be a mistake to smugly blame this on the religious fundamentalism of people too frightened to take responsibility for their own destinies.

First of all, one of the fundamental ways in which intelligence works is to see patterns in what we experience.  If we didn’t, we would be overwhelmed with new stimuli every minute of the day and would never learn.  But we do see patterns – this is an apple like the other apples I have eaten.  This is my mother who was here yesterday and is going to give me something to eat again the way she did yesterday.  We wouldn’t want to change this even if we could.

We also learn that the categories into which we fit something sometimes has to be adjusted or changed.  We learn that milk doesn’t taste the same as a pencil, that this face is to be trusted but another one isn’t.  We do this thousands of times  with thousands of our experiences.

As we get older, the patterns we see and the explanations we give for differences and similarities in our experiences becomes more advanced.  We learn scientific, cultural and religious explanations.  Many of these explanations are all-encompassing and we tend to hold onto them for long periods of time.

And there’s the rub.  If we hold onto those explanations too tenaciously, if our personal identity and/or world view depends on our holding onto them, then we will fit everything we see into the patterns and categories we hold dear.

And so religious fanatics will fit even natural disasters into their view that God personally reaches down from above to reward the good and punish the bad.

But this rigidity, this non-negotiable commitment to my ideas is not limited to religious bigots.  Scientists are just as capable of doing exactly the same thing in our own realm.  Scientific history is littered with scientists whose ideas were rejected by the scientific community because the observation or idea did not fit with the current scientific theories.  Rejections were based on the accusation that the observations must have been careless or flawed, or the theory simply outlandish.

The theory behind the trading that eventually led to the credit crunch and the near total collapse of the world-wide banking system rejected anyone who claimed that something dangerous was happening.  It couldn’t happen, they said:  our theory says it can’t.

Is there any way out of this cleft stick?  Is our intelligence such that we must inevitably misinterpret what is happening because we need to experience some kind of consistency?

I think there is.  I think the way out is to value uncertainty much more than we do.  If we are uncertain, we are more apt to listen, to look around, to learn.  We are less apt to be bigots or feel superior to others who make what we think are mistakes.

Yes, of course we must have some firm values and convictions, and yes, we must be willing to live and die for some  convictions .  But even these convictions hold a level of uncertainty:  perhaps I do not see the whole picture, perhaps I don’t understand or am misinformed.

Goldman Sachs is one of the few major banks that was not brought to the edge of the abyss last year.  Why?  because they were not absolutely certain that they were right.  They traded in sub-prime loans and CDO’s and all the other esoteric devices.  But they also hedged against them.  So when the crash came, they made gains as well as losses.

Uncertainty is scary, but in the end it might not be nearly as scary or dangerous as certainty.

Besides, it’s the way things are.  The future is unpredictable.  I might try to convince myself that my faith, my theory, my intelligence, my money, my social position will protect me.  But it won’t.

So my plan is to continue to live with a niggling doubt about my decisions.  About that, I’m pretty sure I’m right.

January 15, 2010

The flap of a butterfly’s wing

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 11:03 pm

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Margaret Mead

I’ve always been a little bit cynical about what looked to me to be a pretty naive statement by the anthropologist Margaret Mead.  History didn’t seem in my view of it to be filled with examples of overwhelming confirmation that our present world is formed by committed thoughtful citizens.

In fact, it looked to me as if small groups of thinkers have often changed the world for worst, and even more often, the world has changed with little intelligent input from anybody.

But last night I had a better look at Chaos Theory.  Until last night the nub of my understanding consisted of knowing that it had been devised initially by a mathematically gifted meteorologist who said that we would never be able to predict the weather with great accuracy because it was influenced by initial variables we could never possibly know with sufficient precision.

The flap of a butterfly’s wing, he said, in some far flung part of the world, could ultimately lead to a hurricane half way around the world.

I have just discovered how very much more there is to chaos theory.  The implications are fundamental and dramatic, and far wider than mere weather prediction.  What chaos theory says – and the scientific evidence now backing this up is prodigious – is that minute, even infinitesimally small, differences at the beginning of a cycle will become amplified as the cycle is repeated and feeds back on itself.

Observations of these minute differences becoming magnified in nature can explain such diverse occurences  as the cragginess of the shore line, the waves of sand in the desert,  population growth, the dynamics of neurons, even the development of complex life from a simple set of cells, the  dynamics of plate tectonics and economic collapses like credit crunches and the failure of financial systems.

So in terms of chaos theory, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Even a single thoughtful, committed citizen might make a difference.

Unfortunately, I guess an idiot could make a big difference as well.  I won’t make a list of potential candidates for this dubious distinction.

But maybe I won’t concentrate on making a big flap in my life time after all.

November 11, 2009

A racy question

Filed under: Husband,Two sides of the question,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:36 pm

I have – most uncharacteristically – been watching every episode of the tv series “In Treatment.”  Among other things, the (very good-looking) therapist finds himself in love with one of his patients who reciprocates his feelings, and at the same time, furious beyond words to discover that his wife has just had an affair.  He says he is acquainted with couples who have overcome the difficulty brought about by a partner’s affair, but he himself cannot imagine where the capacity might come from in himself.

I find it an interesting dilemma – although personally academic at this stage in my life.  I was twice madly attracted to someone  else after I was married.  I did not act on it, primarily because I knew it would break my husband’s heart.  But I also reached the conclusion that a monogamous marriage was qualitatively different from one in which there were other sexual partners involved.  And that there was a price to be paid to make a partnership that was mutually fulfilling, and not merely one that met all the paper demands of a marriage that appears to work but doesn’t.

But there were several occasions when I felt I could not be the kind of wife my husband wanted.  And then I would gladly have supported his having an affair with someone who could.  I knew he never would, but I felt it would not have destroyed our relationship.  I’m not so sure now I was right about that, since in the event, it was a possibility that was never tested.

But I am among those who can understand marriages that survive “infidelity.”

I wonder what it is that makes the difference?

October 14, 2009

Getting right smartly wrong

I’ve just read a story told about himself by Douglas Adams, one of the wonderfully crazy nuts who called themselves “Monty Phython”.

He arrived at a railway station early for his train, so he bought a newspaper, a cup of coffee with a packet of cookies and sat down at a table.  He folded his paper so he could do the crossword, leaving the cookies was in the middle of the table.

There was another man already at the table, and this man now leaned calmly across, tore open the packet of cookies and ate one.    Douglas went into a sort of state of shock but was determined not to show any reaction. Instead , he too calmly leaned forward and took a cookie. A few minutes later, the man took the third cookie.  Douglas, by then inwardly apoplectic, took the last cookie and tried not to glare at the brazen thief across the table.

Shortly, the thief stood up and wandered off as if nothing had happened.

At which point Douglas’s train was announced.  He hurriedly finished his coffee and picked up his paper.

Beneath it was the packet of cookies which he had bought for himself.

September 15, 2009

I’m glad you don’t agree

It occurred to me today that societies where everybody believes the same thing don’t seem to be any better than societies like ours where we disagree on just about everything you can think of.

And although we find disagreements sometimes difficult, disagreements are also immensely stimulating, and they provide a unparalled opportunity for learning and growing.  Whereas in monolithic societies – Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages, for instance, or Muslim countries like modern Saudia Arabia – you are pretected from even being exposed to alternative possibilities outside the party line.

But if by some chance one did manage to think a rebellious thought like “maybe there isn’t a god,” the sense of guilt must be terrible.  And should one be rebellious enough to voice an heretical possibility out loud, one would be faced with social disapproval at best and possibly ostracism and even execution.

So I’m glad for the friction caused by our differences.  It’s great to be preferred to the obliteration of individuality and the balm of conformation.

On the other hand, when I find a kindred spirit, it can be quite a joy.  Even if we’re only just rooting for the same cricket team.

July 15, 2009

The devil’s choice

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

I read a political analysis yesterday saying that if Obama wants to get his health insurance and the next economic stimulus as well as climate control legislation through Congress, he cannot afford to alienate Republicans in the Senate by subjecting the Bush administration to charges related to torture and similar constitutional questions.

My first thought was that this is the kind of dilemma which illustrates why I’m glad I’m not a politician.

But in a democracy, its not quite that easy to walk away from responsibility.

Because members of Congress who don’t want an investigation into dubious practices by the last administration are elected by the people.  It’s we the people who send a message to our representatives that we will – or won’t – support them.

So what is my choice?

If the choice really is between Obama’s program and bringing the Bush gang to book, then I think a greater good will be served by getting Obama’s legislation through Congress.

But oh boy, I won’t like it.  In fact, it makes me feel quite queasy.

But then, so do 40 million Americans without health insurance.

And so does the spectre of global warming and devastating effects that I think will come with it.

July 8, 2009

Living almost forever

Filed under: Growing Old,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 7:40 pm

A Cambridge geneticist recently announced his assessment that people alive today might live to be a thousand years old.  We  have learned so much about how to repair the cellular and molecular damage that is the ultimate cause of death, he says, that quite soon the average age at which people die might be several thousand years.

Oh God save us!

I like living very much.  I’m not looking forward to dying anytime soon.  But I do not,  do not want to live to be a thousand.

Apart from my personal preferences in the matter, can you imagine a world in which people live 20-30 times longer than we do now?  I’m almost aghast as I contemplate the possibility.

China already has a one-child policy.  Obviously, unless we find another planet on which to live, we would have to stop having children on a far more drastic scale than that.  Alternatively, the murder rate might increase dramatically as we fight for food and water.  Possibly even space to lie down.

And of course, the retirement age would have to be delayed somewhat.

No, it’s a terrible idea.  I’ve just read an article about the implications of the speed at which the global population is aging.   It’s enough already.

The end of my natural life will come sooner rather than later.  I might not greet death with delight.

But the alternative would be much much worse.

March 31, 2009

Why the existence of God isn’t a scientific question

An earlier comment suggested the possibility that if a god “turned up,”- i.e., appeared in some form that we humans could recognize, then it would be possible to determine using the scientific method to prove that he existed.  But it wouldn’t.  Because there are no forms under which a god could appear that we could be scientifically certain was divine.  Think about it:  how would God have to appear to convince scientists that it was a god and not a natural form?

In fact, millions of people believe that God has indeed already become manifest in several different ways.  The most obvious manifestation is creation itself.  Believers argue that everything has a cause, and if you keep going back, you ultimately have to reach a First Cause.  This First Cause, for many people, is God.  Many also believe that this God didn’t just create the universe, but continues to be involved in it, punishing and rewarding those who obey or disobey his commands.  Others  think that, having set the process of creation in motion, God now lets it proceed without further divine interference.  

The claim that there must be a first cause sounds like a rational argument.  Why isn’t it considered scientific? At the risk of doing violence to philosophical thought, one simple reason is that it is not based on empirical evidence.  Faced with our universe, the scientist does indeed ask “how did it get here?” and has provided one possible answer in the form of the Big Bang.  Some religious thinkers have argued that learning about the Big Bang is like seeing “the face of God.”

But the scientist doesn’t say it is God that has been found.  He and she instead asks questions like  “What caused the Big Bang?”,, “have Big Bangs happened before?  will they happen again?”   “what is the history before the Big Bang?”.  Scientists themselves may personally believe in a Creator God, but they do not use the scientific method to find him.  They use the scientific method to find causes which reflect the natural laws of the universe.  They are not looking for a divine First Cause outside the natural world.

Another significant manifestation of God for many is Jesus who they believe was indeed truly God in human form.  Throughout the last two millennia, millions of people have lived and died in the firm belief that this is so.  The problem, from the scientific point of view, is that there is no empirical way to determine whether or not Jesus was God’s son in a way that other humans are not.  Again, there are many scientists who are committed Christians.  But there are no scientists who can say that they believe in Christ because they have proved this to themselves through an application of the scientific method.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the scientific method doesn’t actually look for proof that something is true, but that it isn’t true.  It’s the principle of falsifiability that is based on what is called “the rejection of the null hypothesis.”  What this means in less fancy language is that science looks for evidence that proves that something can’t be true.  The conclusion that something must be true is based on the evidence that the opposite possibility has been proved to be wrong.

For example, a drug company wants to know if a particular medicine it wants to market will have undesirable side effects.  To test whether headache might be a side effect, the null hypothesis is “this medicine will not result in headaches.”  It gives the medicine to a selection of volunteers, and if it is followed by headaches, the company rejects the null hypothesis, and agrees to publish a warning that a side effect of the medicine may be headache.  If nobody gets headaches, the company can only say “we have found no evidence that it causes headaches.”  As we know, once a medicine is on the market, it is quite possible for evidence to emerge which does indeed result in the rejection of the null hypothesis which was that the drug has no known side effects

The problem with testing the hypothesis “There is no God” is that there are no conditions which we might observe which would prove that either that there must be a God, or alternatively there cannot be a God. Some people say that evil and suffering in the world is why they say there isn’t a God.  But other people look at the same evil and suffering and say that it is God’s punishment for our sinfulness, or that a greater good will come from the suffering, even if we don’t understand how.

In other words, there is nothing that might happen that would prove scientifically that God does or does not exist. 

And that is why the question of God is not a question that can be ever be answered by applying the scientific method.

It is a question of faith, not one for science.

March 30, 2009

My problem with the g-word

Ever since a friend sent me the book An Unknown God by Tony Equale, I’ve been pondering the problem of using the word “God” to describe – well, to describe God.

Theologians from almost every perspective are in unusual agreement that we humans cannot comprehend God.  Or at least the God which is given credit for creation and for what happens to us both here on earth and after we die.  God, they all agree, is an unfathomable mystery.

Despite this near theological unanimity, however, Western thought has managed to create an image of God which has the advantage of being eminently recognizable but unfortunately for me both unbelievable and not particularly admirable.  It seems to me to be a god with an outrageous, often uncontrolled temper, whose vindictiveness lasts for eternity, and who curses the offspring of those who displease him for unending generations.  To finish it off, it is a god who is finally appeased by the torture and murder of his only son by the very creatures who have so displeased him.

I appreciate that for many, my description is an unfair caricature.  But I am not trying to ridicule the beliefs of people who recognize this God as the one in whom they believe and which has helped them live more meaningful, fulfilled, loving lives.  For many years, it is an approximate description of a God in whom I believed and to whom I dedicated my life.

Although this approximation of God no longer inspires me to live a life of dedication and service, I cannot say accurately that I am an atheist or even an agnostic.  It is not that I don’t believe in God.  Rather, that I don’t believe in this God so often seen in Western thought as the only possible true God.

My problem when someone asks me if I believe in God is that neither “yes” or “no” exactly communicates what intuition of God I have.  Nor do I have a single neat word that encapsulates my thinking.  Yet at the heart of the universe I feel there is something profound, ineffable, even sacred, something ultimately beyond my capacity ever to know completely.

Sometimes I think all I am seeing is the universe as it exists in itself in all its mystery.  Other times I sense there is something deeper, something out of which meaning emerges, that makes being ultimately something good, rather than bad or merely neutral.

This sense of something “more than” gets stronger, although no less clear, as I grow older.  I would call it God if even I myself sometimes did not trip up with this image of an irascible being presiding over the universe which he created but which he now finds so disappoints all the hopes he had for it.  That God I do not think exists except in the minds of men.

But I believe there is another reality which I myself most often sense through people, in music, and in the explorations of science.  

It is what I would call god.  

If I didn’t have so much trouble with the g-word.

March 26, 2009

Beyond this blog

There are two comments following my post “The positive benefits of not being sure” on March 24th.  Each are by people who also have blogs with wordpress, and both are wrestling with questions that also fascinate me.  I find them intensely exciting.

If questions about the possible nature of a possible god, the relation between religious belief and scientific discovery, whether moral values are rooted in the natural world, what happens after we die, or what we should make of this amazing spectacular universe within which we find ourselves, I suggest taking a look.

Tony Equale’s blog belongs to the author of An Unknown God.   His grasp of the history of Christian thought, and particularly of the western concept of God at the core of modern Christianity is outstanding.  His view is that our modern Western idea of God has created an unnecessary and destructive rejection of the world of matter, seeing it as basically unholy if not actually evil, while elevating a separate world of “spirit” as pure.  He offers what is for me a liberating reuniting of the human species with the world within which we were created and of which we are intrinsically a part.

ThinkingMakesItSo is a blog by Chris Lawrence who, as I pointed out in an earlier post, is asking whether doubt is preferable to belief.  He begins with a case for doubt that suggests that belief in some circumstances is fundamentally immoral.  Don’t be put off.  It’s a convincing argument.  Right now he is exploring various books written in response to Dawkin’s The God Delusion.

Both blogs reflect a level of philosophical sophistication that is greater than mine, and although it is of great interest and value to me to write about these issues, I strongly suspect that the readers of this blog will find my amateur forays pretty boring. 

Which doesn’t mean I will refrain from ever waxing eloquent here.  I’m sure I’m incapable of keeping strict silence over issues that matter that much to me. 

But for a really informed debate, take a look at the other bloggers.

March 24, 2009

The positive benefits of not being sure

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

Someone recently stumbled onto this blog and as a result introduced me to his own blog (  It’s much more cerebral than mine, which is why I am reading it.  I’m starting at the beginning and planning on going to the end, but already I’m borrowing one of his ideas:  is doubt, he asks, better than certainty?

I’ve never asked that question before in quite such stark clarity.  Yes, I know that Luther said that doubt was an essential component of faith.  Yes, I know the very word “faith” makes it clear that beliefs arrived at through faith cannot, by definition, by proved.  Yes, I know that the very title of this blog suggests that I value looking at things from more than one point of view.  

And I know that for most of my life, as soon as someone tells me that something is absolutely positively non-negotiably true or proven, I immediately start looking for arguments that it might not be so.

But is doubt in some ways intrinsically better than certainty?  

Well, I suppose there are some things it is better to be certain about.  I think it’s better to be certain that genocide and child abuse and involuntary slavery and deliberate betrayal for personal gain are wrong.

But the list of things about which I am absolutely certain without any shadow of a doubt under all conditions is very short.  I’m not absolutely certain there is a God, I don’t think murder is never justified, I think loving someone isn’t always constructive, and that neither Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of relativity are exactly right.  

In fact, almost everything I think is subject to doubt.

This doesn’t make me uncomfortable.  What makes me uncomfortable is people who possess non-negotiable certainty and who are determined to force others to live by their principles.  This is often the attack levelled at people holding various religious convictions, but history doesn’t limit this kind of arrogant certainty to religious ideas.  The history of the 20th century is bloodied with theories which are explicitly atheist.  Religion doesn’t seem to me to be the problem.  The fear of doubt looks to me to be the more fundamental problem.

For me, doubt makes life much more interesting.It’s the impetus that keeps me learning.  And not being sure keeps me from being too insufferably arrogant.

And that, I am sure, is a relief to a lot of people who know me rather well.

March 22, 2009

English Mother’s Day

Filed under: Family,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Today is Mother’s Day in England, sometimes called “Mothering Day,” so as not to discriminate against those mothers who are not biologically-speaking a mother to the offspring in question.

It’s probably iconoclastic to recall today of all days my existential objection to motherbhood offered to the dinner table when I was about 12, but much to my surprise, I must admit that I quite possibly have been more of an iconoclast than a peacemaker most of my life.  

Anyway, at 12 my struggle with the meaning of life took the shape of the question  “Is that all there is to life?  you grow up, have children and die?”

As the undoubted beneficiary of someone who did indeed think that growing up, having children, and dying was sufficient meaning for her life, I have moderated my evaluation of motherhood somewhat.

But only somewhat.  I had hoped to have children, but lost the baby.   I was obviously disappointed, but in retrospect, I am not one of those women who, now that it is too late, wish I had had children.  I don’t.  

In fact, I still feel that, for me at least, to have dedicated my whole life to raising children without having any other serious goal or interests would have been suffocating.  And as I look around, it seems to me that for many – though not all – it is for other women too.  Women have minds and talents and insights that go beyond raising children.  And for many of them, not to use them is deadening.

What children need – indeed, what husbands and wives and families in general need – varies hugely.  What is right for one family isn’t right for another.  What is deadly for some women, some children, some husbands, is liberating for others.

I am someone who needed to work, to think, to worry about issues beyond my immediate family.  I needed that more than I needed children.  So I celebrate mother’s day with gratitude for those mothers who are truly mothers, but without regret that I’m not among them.

Even if it might not be exactly politically correct in every group to say so.  And I am terribly grateful that my own mother didn’t feel that way.

February 18, 2009

What bees can teach us

I have just read a review of research studying how bees find a new nesting site when their nest gets over-crowded. 

First, scouting bees leave the nest looking for new sites.  When each one finds a potential nest, it returns to the nest and communicates to the rest of the community through a waggle dance, indicating the scout’s opinion of the new possibility.  Then the scouts go out and inspect each other’s sites found and then again go back to the nest, where the assessments of the pros and cons of the site are communicated through a variety of waggles.  This process is repeated and eventually leads to a consensus among all the bees.  Then the swarm then moves home, leaving a smaller colony to continue residence in the original nest.

But does it work?  surprisingly, researchers have found that the best site is almost always the one that is selected – even when there have been only small differences between the “best” and the “almost best.”

The researchers also discovered that if a scout that is very good at finding nesting sites does not share its information with the bee community, the entire swam is at risk of becoming homeless and vulnerable.  

Conversely, if bees just follow a leader bee and do not check out the suggested new site themselves, the chances of choosing an inferior nesting site are greatly increased.  Following the party line is no better for the group than isolated independence.

In other words, the best option is to listen carefully to what other experts say, and then to check out the evidence for oneself before joining the group in reaching a consensus.

Apparently, when he was in the White House, George W Bush did not welcome the expression of opinions that he did not already share.  And several of the bankers whose banks are now more or less owned by the British taxpayer actually fired risk-assessors who told them the bank was taking risks that were dangerous.    

(So just in case the moral of the story isn’t embarrassingly obvious, it’s another reason why intolerance or refusing to listen to people who don’t already agree with us, is so risky.)

February 16, 2009

Getting a word in edgewise

A member of Parliament (equivalent to a senator in the US) for Holland was refused entry into Britain last week because he wanted to show a film he’d made.  In it, he is trying to demonstrate that the Koran encourages acts of terrorism, and splices quotes for the Koran with video clips of 9/11, the train explosion during rush hour in Madrid, and the 7/7 bombings in the London underground.

The British government argued that showing the film would encourage others to commit acts of violence and/or increase antagonism between British Muslims, Christians, and other assorted believers and non-believers.

The MP argued that he was not encouraging violence, merely stating his view that the Koran did so, and that he was being denied the right to freedom of speech.  If you disagree with me, he argued, let’s discuss it. 

The interesting thing is that many educated and informed Muslims agreed with him.  They would greatly have preferred to engage him in argument than to have his cause be given publicity without the opportunity to oppose him.

But the government won, and he was sent back on the next plane.

I remember a similar argument as a graduate student when students at UCLA in California picketed against the presentation of arguments that Blacks on the average had lower IQs than Whites.  They said the position was racist.  In that case, too, the Silencers won, and the speech was never made.

But the point was made.  All people read in the newspapers and saw on television was that an eminent Harvard psychologist had been prevented from presenting his case.  

I was against the students’ position then, and I’m against the government’s now.  

Far far better, I believe, to listen to these arguments, and have the chance to show why they don’t stand up.  You don’t convince people by saying that some idea is so bad that it cannot even be expressed in public.  People are convinced by what they see and hear.  Not by what they don’t.

Which is why, by the way, I also think that blocking sex education in schools leads to more sexual promiscuity and more children born out of wedlock.  Not less.

So tolerance might be risky.  But I think intolerance is much riskier.

February 11, 2009

How much do we need certainty?

Filed under: Growing Old,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:37 pm

Some people think tolerance means not having any deeply held convictions or values by which one lives and for which one would – hopefully – be willing to die.  

But tolerance based on not holding any beliefs with any depth or tenacity seems to me to be a wishy-washy kind of cop out.  Rather, real, mature, unthreatened  tolerance involves risk, the ability to accept the possibility that what we think is right isn’t necessarily so.  

I know a small number of people who believe and live by what look to me to be very high principles.  But they believe what they see is almost certainly not the whole picture.  They know that other people often draw different conclusions because they see the world differently.  They are even open to the possibility that they are completely on the wrong track.

But in the meantime, they are doing their best to live by the lights they have.

I guess I think being tolerant is often kind of scary.  Maybe it wouldn’t be if we didn’t have to make decisions about things that involve moral judgements and values.  But how can we live a life if we don’t?

Okay – enough of this navel gazing.  Tomorrow back to worrying about the world.  Or at least about what to cook for dinner.

February 10, 2009

The slim possibility that I could be wrong

Filed under: Growing Old,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 5:18 pm



I’ve just been told, not for the first time, that if I don’t repent, I will, unfortunately spend eternity in hell.  

Somehow this doesn’t bother me, as I am just as convinced that I am not on my way to hell.  One of us, of course, is wrong.  

Which reminds me once again that just being absolutely positive that I know for certain that I am right doesn’t make me right.  Nor do rock-solid convictions make other people right, whatever they think.

History supplies us with a superb array of examples of people who died for what they believed in.  But it’s obvious that everybody on every side of every fight and war and martyrdom and sacrifice could not possibly have been as right as they thought they were.  Even if they were willing to die for it.

 But I don’t have to go as far as history.  I can’t count the times I’ve been sure I’m right and been wrong.  But I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go to heaven if I have to hob nob with those righteous, frightened, neurotic, narrow-minded judgemental know-it-alls who think I shouldn’t be there.

But then, maybe I’m wrong about them.

February 9, 2009

The devil and Darwin’s theory

Filed under: Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 9:34 pm

In the process of looking for more current information on the condition of bees and their precarious state around the world, I stumbled on one of the articles about Darwin’s theory of evolution.  (Darwin was born 200 years ago this year, and published his ground-breaking theory “On the Origin of  Species” exactly 150 years ago, so there’s a lot being written about him just now.)

I was surprised to discover that as late as 2008, close to 40% of the people surveyed in the United States think that evolution is manifestly false.  Another 20% aren’t sure.

Why?  What is so much more terrifying about this theory than the rest of modern scientific thinking?   Concepts of radioactivity, relativity, quantum theory, the infinity of space, invisible atoms, and dark matter are not rejected on anything like this scale.  

Why do so many people believe that if Darwin is right, most religious beliefs must be wrong?

There are several hypotheses to explain this pattern of thinking.  

The problem is obvious for those who believe that Scripture (unlike poetry, Shakespeare, and the parables told by Jesus) must be read literally.  But that constitutes, at most, 25% of the American population.

Another hypothesis is that the theory of Darwin is misunderstood, that people think it necessarily leads to the conclusion that the world is meaningless and without purpose or direction.  This may be so, but it is not intrinsic to Darwin’s theory and not all scientists accept this view.  Some eminent theorists believe that evolution is not governed principally by accident but that there is an essential direction in the unfolding of life as we see it on Earth.

Another possible explanation is that a belief in a personal God involved in the minutiae of our individual lives helps people survive.  In countries where the struggle for security was felt to be the greatest, the acceptance of God and the rejection of evolution go hand in hand.  

In the United States, for instance, basic health care and housing are not assured by the state.  Is it a coincidence that religious belief and active church attendance are lower by a wide margin in Europe than in America?.  Only in Turkey, on the edge of Europe and where social welfare is more precarious, is rejection of Darwin’s theory greater than in America.

I myself find no contradiction between the possibility that there is a God and the theory of evolution.  

Which means that I seriously do not understand something significant about 60% of my fellow Americans.

January 23, 2009

Science Phobia Cure

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:38 pm

The headlines on the front page of The Times here in England announced hope that paralyzed adults might regain their movement as the result of stem cell research.  Upon reading the article, I was surprised to learn that it was about the policy change already put into action by President Obama to return federal support to stem cell research.

In fact, as Obama promised, he is restoring funding for many science research projects which have been blackballed by the Bush administration.

 Bush seems to have responded for years to the significant number of people who are truly terrified of science.  They don’t want to explore the unknown or have their Right Answers questioned by difficult findings.  They know everything they need to know already, and perceive knowledge as dangerous.  Best avoided when at all possible.

I find this scary on two counts.  One was that they were powerful enough to influence the decisions of the highest office in the country on this matter.

The second, even scarier count, is that they are still out there.  Still committed to imposing their version of truth on the rest of the world – whether we agree or not.  However much history would seem to suggest this is a destructive road to go down, we keep thinking that this time, this Truth, will be different.

But for now we have Obama and his Blackberry.

December 9, 2008

Listening is hard to do

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the day the United Nations declared that all human beings have the right to live in peace and dignity.  The right to escape the degradation and limitations of dire poverty has often been one of the high lights of these rights. 

I think the right to think and believe whatever one chooses is today also one of the most important rights we need to fight for.  Governments, communities, religious institutions, schools, friends and families all are capable of exerting degrading influence to prevent people from holding what are considered to be objectionable views and values.  Some  may indeed be degrading and destructive.   

Often they are not:  the ideas of others are merely threatening.  But whatever the case, refusing to listen to another point of view will not make it go away.  It will simply make it impossible to try to convince someone of another alternative.  Or to be convinced oneself.

One of the things I like best about President Obama is his capacity to listen to a lot of points of view he disagrees with.  If that weren’t true, he wouldn’t be appointing such a variety of dissenting opinions to positions in Washington.  Clearly he is not threatened by those who don’t necessarily agree with him – even on very important things.  And so I believe him when he says he is willing to talk to Iran or other countries whom President Bush has said have not met his preconditions for discussions.

For the last couple of months several people have objected most vociferously to my book “The Big Bang to Now” on the grounds that it is not grounded in Truth as it is revealed in scripture.  Obviously it is not a view I share, but it is a view that I am willing to discuss.  But a lot of people aren’t.   Either they want to declaim without listening, or simply don’t  want to get involved in controversy at all.  More than once, people have suggested that the topic simply be closed to further debate.

I won’t go so far as to say that silencing debate is equivalent to killing those who do not accept your particular beliefs, but I think it springs from the same fear.

But I also appreciate that discussion and debate on important issues is a lot harder than I thought it was when I was young.  And it’s dangerous.  Whether it’s religion or politics, families, friends, and communities all over the world have found that relationships can founder and be ripped apart when we disagree on issues that reflect our fundamental values. 

And yet one of the biggest challenges facing us on our planet today is to learn to live together.  All the Muslims are not going to convert all the Christians, all the fundamentalists are not going to become liberal, all the Palestinians are not going to become Israelis, of the Irish Catholics become Protestant.  We need to do something beside slam doors.

I recognize the impulse in myself not to talk to people who I think are somehow “beyond the pale,” and I fight it.  But sometimes I do not have the strength or the wisdom to carry on a dialogue that is constructive rather than alienating. 

I think sometimes that the challenges of global warming look simple compared to the challenge of accepting our differences.

December 1, 2008

Don’t follow your conscience

Greatly influenced by the government policies of the Nazis during WWII, my father taught us that it was a moral imperative to follow ones conscience, even at the cost of disobeying the law or those in rightful positions of authority.  The Nuremberg war trials seemed to support the validity of this advice, but that was what now seems a long long time ago.

Today, the principle of following ones conscience is far more relative.  There are times when we do our utmost to stop people from following their conscience, and other times when we imprison people for trying to do what they believe is right.

The problem is that conscience tells some people to commit what the rest of the world calls terrorist acts.  Or conscience tries to get the law changed so that everyone must follow the principles of morality which not everyone accepts.  So we have 9/11, and Mumbai, and the London bombings and more deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have people attacking abortion clinics, and trying to get the law changed so that it forbids all abortion.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes this problem with conscience.  It says we must follow our conscience, but they provide quite specific guidelines to determine if a conscience is “properly formed.”

I don’t agree with their definition of a “properly formed” conscience.  But they do have a point.

There are time when we ought to say “No, don’t follow your conscience.  It’s wrong!”

November 11, 2008

“Smart is just less dumb”*

Yesterday I confessed that I initially supported the Iraq war.  My confession today is a little more contemporary and comes with less rehabilitation:  I don’t think the credit crunch and our current global financial chaos is primarily a result of greed.  I think it was a failure of intelligence.

But first, let us remember that the results of the fancy credit packaging that ultimately led to this mess are not all bad.  This crisis has been more than thirty years in the making.  It began with the globalization of credit when governments removed controls on movements of money in and out of the country.  Suddenly, the options for credit and investment were magnified and big and little investors benefited hugely.  My husband and I purchased our first house with credit provided by this liberalization.  So did millions of others, including people who would otherwise never have been able to even dream of owning their own homes.  Only a minority of those are now facing losing their homes.  Many people are still poor, but the level of poverty in countries like India, Brazil, and China has been reduced at unprecedented rates because of a liberalized credit situation.

Yet there has been a failure too, a catastrophic failure.  “Greed!” cry all of us little guys who have lost more money than we can afford.  But I’ve been asking myself why the brilliantly intelligent people who devised more and more sophisticated methods of packaging credit would kill the golden goose that was making so many of them so fabulously wealthy.  They didn’t.  They thought – and so did most of the world’s banks and governments – that they had figured out a way to reduce the risk of credit.  They failed not because they were greedy, but because they were wrong. 

This is an important distinction, because if we think the solution is primarily to keep greed under control, we will demand that governments treat financial institutions quite differently than if we think it was the result of failing to assess risk adequately and to take sufficient precautions in safeguarding other people’s money, which after all is what credit is about.

The greed hypothesis will clamp down on financial institutions, perhaps even demand that governments take them over to be run “for the good of the people.”   I shutter at the mere thought of governments running our banks.  Financial institutions want to make money;  governments want to stay in power so their motives for short termism will be even greater than the motive of people who want to make money.

The hypothesis that says that banks took risks with other people’s money that were too great will insist on greater transparency and a larger capital base.  It will make regulation and oversight more effective and hopefully more intelligent, but it won’t tell bankers how to run their banks and won’t outlaw risk.

Was there greed in the financial halls and dealing rooms around the world for the last 30 years.  Of course.  Is there still greed?  Of course.   And it’s not limited to only those who make pots of money.  Poor people can be greedy too.  They just use a different rationalization to justify their behavior.  It is a human impulse to gather unto ourselves more than we need.  It’s not just squirrels who prepare for the winter that is coming.

I think the difference between what we call greed and stupidity is often determined by whether the scheme succeeds.  Success is smart, failure is moral punishment for greed.

*A truth stolen unrepentantly from

October 25, 2008

God on commercial terms

Along with advertisements for shampoo, theatres, and Big Macs, London buses have included God in their list of ads for some time now.  The ads are mostly one-liners that are familiar to anyone reading the signs outside many evangelical churches – Jesus loves you, Jesus saves, or urging repentance of those list of sins we all know we harbour.  Some ads include website addresses, some of which assure the hapless surfer that they are almost certainly on their way to hell if they go on as they are.

So London being London, and Londoners being Londoners, some of them have decided to buy bus advertising space for their own world vision.  Starting in January and running for as long as the money holds out, some buses will announce that “There probably isn’t a God:  so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Bus advertisements are not where I take counsel concerning either shampoo or God.  But if I did, that “probably” would cause me some worry.  Given the stakes involved, that there “probably” isn’t a God just doesn’t seem insurance enough to me.

September 24, 2008

Not knowing if I know

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 7:22 pm

“The world is governed more by appearances than realities, so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it.”
Daniel Webster

The truth is that I am rarely sure of the difference.  Even when I’m talking about myself, which might be why I girate regularly between certainty and doubt.  But I do spend most of my time on the doubt side of the swing.

Or do I mean teeter totter?

September 15, 2008

A good idea or a waste of time?

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 1:27 pm
Tags: ,

The Royal Society (a most prestigious scientific group) has just started an uproar here in England with its suggestion that creationism should be taught in schools along side evolutionary theory.  The Anglican Church, at almost the same time, has come out explicitly saying that evolution is not in contradiction with Christian doctrine.  I’m a little surprised by the depth of feeling on both sides, because I’d thought it was an issue more or less confined to the other side of the Atlantic.

Now, however, I am wondering – seriously – if there is a place for a book presenting a calm, reasonable comparison between creationism and scientific theory, and in particular evolutionary theory.  When my book, The Big Bang to Now, was first reviewed, I was a little taken aback by the breadth of response from people who thought that belief in God was in direct contradiction to acceptance of the Big Bang theory.  I even made some changes in the book’s introduction in response to this concern, but it was not the place to address the issue in full.

What I am observing now is that many people who favour creationism as a reasonable theory are not closed-minded or even totally-convinced fundamentalists who have already made up their minds.  And I know that sometimes I am able to explain both sides of contentious issues in a way that is not threatening to either side.

So is there a place to present creationism as reasonable, sincere people understand it, and to compare it with evolutionary theory?  to explore the areas where the two approaches are compatible and where they are not, to list those critical questions that each addresses and to explore the way in each position may answer them?

It would be an interesting challenge.  Any thoughts on the subject would be welcome.   And I would be immensely interested to know if anyone is acquainted with a book which already does what I am suggesting.  I’ve been through Amazon and there are hundreds of books on the question of creationism, and even more on evolution.  So far I’ve found more that either ignore the alternative position, or lambast it without sympathy, but none which takes the other on with serious respect.

If the past is a predictor of the future, I will live with this idea for a couple of weeks, by which time it will either have taken root or withered away.  I’m sort of intrigued by the possibility at the moment.

September 7, 2008

My Republican sympathies

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:22 pm

Although for the last eight years I have been unable to utter the word “Republican” unaccompanied by a sound resembling something between a gag and a snarl, I had, until then some sympathies with what was called the “moderate Republican.”  That is because I think that government solutions to our problems should be our last resort, not our first.  I think government should first do its best to remove obstacles that prevent us from making our own choices, rather than moving in like an over-solicitous mother promising to make everything better.

Like Thomas Jefferson, I recognize that in relation to some things, government is essential.  Some of these things, like national security, transportation, the protection of constitutional rights, some aspects of monetary and fiscal responsibility, are critically important.  But not everything that’s critically important can best be handled by government.   Good will and lots of money (which admittedly the Democrats seem to have more of many times than do Republicans) do not assure success.  In fact, they might assure spectacular failure.

Just to keep things in perspective for myself during this time when I am so repelled by what I see in the present Republican party,  I remind myself that it was a Democrat who ordered that atomic bombs should be dropped on two cities in Japan, it was a Republican who warned us about the military-industrial complex, a Democrat who got us into the Vietnam War, and a Republican who got us out.

Still, I don’t see either how one can argue that all life is sacred, but still believe in the death penalty.  Or shoot moose for the thrill of it.

September 5, 2008

If you think we’re on the road to hell

I have been battling a familiar fight with myself not to block out in a fury everything I hear from Republicans between now and November.  My unrealistic euphoria about an Obama presidency has been replaced by an acceptance that he is going to have to make compromises that I find difficult to accept.  He think he may even have trouble getting his own best policies through a Democratic Congress.  But the more I see of McCain & Palin, the more I am convinced not so much that the Democrats have to be voted in as that the Republicans must be voted out.

And then I face the horrible possibility that I will wake up on November 7th to a McCain-Palin victory.  Because the polls seriously suggest it could happen.  And then I start trying to understand the thinking that is propelling people to look at McCain & Palin and say “they are one of us,” and decide on the basis to vote for them.

I personally know people who are going to vote Republican because they believe (as I do) that free trade is the best way to alleviate global, drastic, morally-repugnant poverty.  Others will vote Republican because they think (as I don’t) that they will better protect the nation’s security against terrorism.  I may disagree, but the voters to whom I respond with furious incoherence are those who cast their vote for those who share their religious views, the religious fundamentalists and evangelicals who purportedly represent some 25% of the American electorate.

I too have religious views, but I don’t cast my vote on the grounds that a politician agrees with me on questions related to the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, abortion, homosexuality, or extra-marital sex.  I do ask if they are committed to the separation of Church and State, and to the free choice of all citizens in matters of religion.  I know Evangelicals think they are committed loyal Americans.  How then is it possible for us to be so radically opposed to each other on such fundamental issues?

I think I got a glimpse of the answer watching a tv interview last night with a western-educated Muslim cleric who has returned to the tribal regions of Pakistan.  Two women were recently stoned to death there in “honour killings” because they refused to marry the men chosen for them by their fathers.  The cleric argued in defense of honour killings, saying that we should not impose our Western values on them.  He pointed out some of the behaviors he had observed in Western women – drunkenness, prostitution, addictions, the neglect and abuse of children, sex in groups, among each other, or with men they had met just hours before.  Forbid honour killings, he said, and this is what you will get.

Well, I suspect I am as disturbed as this Muslim cleric by some of the behaviours I observe in the Western world.  I share his fear, his disgust, his strong desire not to see the disintegration of communities I love.  And I think that Evangelicals may have similar feelings.  Abortion on demand is frightening if it reflects an attitude that says one can get rid of the inconvience of a child merely by swallowing a pill.  Drug and alcohol addictions, lack of self-discipline or rejecting commitments to anything beyond ones own immediate pleasure, especially if they are taking place among hundreds of thousands of our young people, are terrifying.  I think many Evangelicals think that the only defense against this utter self-absorption is religion.  Their kind of religion.  Apart from religion, they know of no other reason for truthfulness and honesty and generosity and hard work.

What they don’t understand is that there are people who do not believe in God at all but who live moral lives of the highest order.  There are people who behave with honesty and generosity and who work with integrity for the benefit of themselves and others not just for money but because these things are of value in themselves.  Values like these aren’t for them the currency by which one gains access to rewards and avoids punishment after death.  They are their own reward.

I personally think that a person’s religious beliefs devalues truth and unselfishness and honesty if its followers cannot find any other justification for them than a fear of hell and hopes for a rung in heaven’s ladder.  But I guess I do have some sympathy with the Evangelical who fears the country is going to hell in a hand basket and wants to stop it. 

I just happen to think that their own world, in which only they are right and anyone who disagrees isn’t worthy of holding political office, is diabolical.

August 24, 2008

Maybe not as different as I thought

I like men, I like the challenge of interacting with men who see the world, in my experience, through slightly different lens than my own.  I’ve thought for a long time that was because there were subtle differences between male and female brains.  Research seemed to support this, showing in study after study among a large diversity of cultures and groups that on average* women are better at verbal and interpersonal skills, while men tend to do better at spatial and mathematical tasks. 

This idea fits in nicely with our sexual roles, giving women an edge in mothering and men an edge as protectors and providers.  There is even research suggesting that the formation of the brain leading to these average differences between the sexes is influenced by the level testosterone in the mother’s body during pregnancy.  Higher levels of the male hormone lead to more “male” brains.

However, I am now having to rethink this neat little package.  The European University Institute has recently published the results of a study that suggests these differences might be more the result of environmental influences than I thought.  Dr. Luigi Guiso examined results from the same maths and reading tests given to 276,000 students from 40 different countries.  He compared the results from different countries rated on the basis of economic, educational and political opportunities & cultural attitudes toward women.  Here is what he found:

  • the average math scores of women are lower than of men but that difference diminishes as equality between the sexes increases, and disappears altogether in countries where there is little evidence of differences in economic, educational, and political opportunities;
  • the difference in average reading increased between women and men in more equal societies, so that with equality, women excel even more in reading while catching up in mathematical skills;
  • except in geometry, where men remain on the whole better than women.  So they really can navigate better.  (However infuriating it might feel in the passenger seat when they refuse to stop and ask directions.  The humbling possibility is that they might actually know what they are doing.)

Now my question is just how many differences would disappear if boys and girls were raised with the same expectations.  Even in highly egalitarian cultures, boys and girls are treated differently, and their behavior interpreted stereotypically.  But by the same token, even in highly egalitarian cultures, girls are different from boys, and some of these differences are noticeable from birth.  Given the choice, for instance, baby girls spend more time looking at faces, while baby boys look at patterns.  By the time they are three or four, as many parents will attest, they are very different, and dramatic changes take place again at school age when boys become bigger and stronger, and again with adolescence.

Hmmm.  Well, however it happened, although my husband can cook better than me and knows more poetry than I do and isn’t as good at repairing things as I am, he’s different and he’s different partly because he’s a man and I’m not.

*It’s critically important, I think, to understand what “on average” means.  It does not mean there are not men who are brilliant in reading and interpersonal skills, or women who are not at the top of the curve in mathematical abilities.  “On average” is not a justification for putting men and women into firmly different categories forbidding either to enter into the domain of the other.  It just means that fewer of the very best mathematicians will be female, while women will more often show the very highest verbal and interpersonal abilities.  I know the President of Harvard University fundamentally lost his job for saying this, but the evidence is on his side, whether ardent feminists like it or not.

August 21, 2008

Safety first

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:10 pm

I don’t have a problem with people who are gay and I don’t think homosexuality is either a sin or unnatural.  It exists throughout the animal kingdom and has existed among humans for as far back as we can see.  I can’t see the damage it might cause, though I do see a great deal of pain caused by those who fear homosexuality.  People who are gay are often discriminated against in same way unwanted ethnic groups are treated, though frequently with even less protection in law.

Nonetheless I reacted with some ambivalence when I discovered that the Chicago Theological Seminary is offering a serious course entitled “Safe Texts:  An Exploration of Queer Theology.”  I do appreciate the play on words, and I am sympathetic to the attempt to give anti-discrimination a firm scriptural foundation.

But I object to a theology and a scriptural interpretation for gays, as if it is a different from theology for straights.  I don’t think there should be a special theology for women, either, or for Blacks, or for the Irish or Polish or for short people or for the elderly or for children or for dumb people and smart people. 

As St. Paul said “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female, for we are all one.”

Theology – and above all Christian theology – is for humans.  All of us the same.

August 15, 2008

The limits of feminism

Filed under: The English,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:57 pm

Girton College, which is part of Cambridge University, used to be an all-women’s college.  In those days it was called a “Hall” rather than a “College” because there were no men.  When Girton decided to become co-ed it became a “College,” but the head of the College, who is still a woman, is called a “Mistress.” 

A small problem is appearing as a distant cloud on the horizon.  Another college has recently appointed a woman as its head.  They’ve never had a woman head before, and decided that she should still be called a “Master,” as has been the wont of male colleges since Time Began, even though they now admit female students and have female faculty.

The Big Question is whether the head of Girton College will be called a Mistress should a new head ever be appointed who is male.  I’m not putting my money on it.

August 14, 2008

More angst about convictions and intolerance

Filed under: Two sides of the question,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

Teasosweet added a comment to yesterday’s post saying he or she thinks the real question about conviction versus intolerance is what good or bad is, that fundamentally it’s a question of morality. 

I disagree.  We humans are capable of having convictions and of being intolerant in other areas beside morality.  I’ve personally seen university professors fight tooth and nail about which theories are right or wrong with the same red-faced intolerant rage as bigots in any other field.  Differences of opinion about environmental change, not to mention politics have the capacity to engender similar levels of fury. The ability to accept that I might not be 100% right is not limited to religious issues.  The extraordinary thing is that intolerance seems to be greater in just those areas where, in fact, there is greatest disagreement often among thoughtful, intelligent, and caring people.

Nor do I think it is a matter of believing passionately that I am right.  I hope I would be willing to die for some of the things I believe in, and on some issues I would be willing to try to give those convictions the force of law so that other people are required to live by them as well.  Laws against incest would be an example, or sex with underage children, or discrimination based on skin colour.  I unequivocally support the right of an adult to choose his or her own marriage partner rather than a partner chosen by parental figures, and although it is universally not outlawed, I am absolutely against the death penalty.  But even on these issues, about which I feel very strongly, I might possibly not see the whole picture.  Maybe I am not 100% right.  And even if I am, unless we are talking about preserving the freedom of others to make their own free choices, what right do I have to impose my own values on others?

I have many convictions which, although I choose to live by them and think they are right, I would not impose on others.  I don’t think there should be laws forbidding abortion or homosexual relationships or divorce.  I don’t think there should be laws forcing people to vote or to stop smoking or swearing.  I think people who believe in creationism are wrong, but I don’t think there should be laws forbidding them to argue the toss. 

So I personally don’t think even very strong convictions necessarily lead to intolerance.  And I don’t think intolerance is limited to questions of morality.  Which is not to say that I don’t think there are a lot of situations out there when what is right and what is wrong is always that easy to decide.

August 13, 2008

Solving the world’s problems

I’m finding that family visits do not, somehow, become routine, although they are recognizable.  My brother Bob and his new partner Cathy have just left to return to the States after six rather intense days.  In between doing a lot of touristy things at Cathy’s requests, we had energetic discussions about the difference between conviction and intolerance.  Bob had already reached the same conclusion that I had that if one was unable to consider the possibility that one’s views were wrong, or incomplete, or at least discussable in the light of other alternatives, one should suspect intolerance and fear.  He reminded me of the quote from a someone whose name we couldn’t remember, but whose wisdom we nonetheless appreciated.  It was an appeal to Oliver Cromwell:  “I beg you to consider the possibility that you are wrong.”

We also agreed that certainty backed up by the claim that it is based on an irrefutable revelation from God is particularly suspect.  Not because God is involved, but because people shielding behind the certainty of God’s revelation have such a bad track record.  Being positive that one is absolutely unquestionably and totally right unfortunately doesn’t make it so.

Cromwell, among hundreds of other Certains, engaged in some ethnic cleansing whose effects are still being felt.  He was not only responsible for beheading the King of England in the 17th century, but he is the one who authorized the invasion of fundamentalist Protestants into Catholic Ireland, where he is profoundly hated to this day. 

On a more practical level, Bob also rehung several cupboards for us, tried to find the source of a pesky leak in our conservatory (it’s the kind that only leaks when it rains), and assured me that our rain gutters do indeed need cleaning.  He said I should finish the job of scraping the moss off our roof before it damages the tiles, and that the insulation I put down in our loft is fantastic. 

So all in all, we’ve solved most of the world’s problems.  We felt that someone else would have to find an alternative energy for oil, however, that being beyond even our combined and sustained capacities.

August 4, 2008

Intolerance vs conviction

Filed under: Two sides of the question,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

I’ve been talking to a friend about the thoughts in my July 29th post on the problem of religious coercion.  In particular, we’re trying to pin down the difference between convictions and intolerance.  It’s a distinction I’ve been trying to clarify for years, and I think recognizing the difference – especially in oneself – is tricky.

One question is whether we should be tolerant about everything about which we humans disagree.  What about Hitler’s view that Aryans are a superior race, and others, especially Jews, are intrinsically inferior.  So inferior that we should wipe them from the face of earth like a deadly virus.  This might seem like an easy question, since we fought a war with Hitler and have condemned absolutely the death camps we uncovered.  And we have continued to fight against so-called ethnic cleansing.  But it’s not so easy when you think that these beliefs are an extreme version of racism that is endemic throughout the world today.

So then we can ask if we should be tolerant of those who think Blacks are inferior?  Of course not.  Should women be forbidden to do what men can do only because they are women?  things like driving a car?  or being seen in public with their heads or even their faces uncovered?  To make matters even more opaque, these questions themselves slide easily into becoming religious questions.  How much should we tolerate the religious convictions of others?  Which values should be imposed on everyone in a society, whether or not they agree? 

Almost immediately we run into difficulty.  Look at something that at first seems like a universal value – the right to life.  But very few of us have accept this right without exception.  It’s wrong to murder, but one can take another person’s life in defense of one’s own.  It’s wrong to murder but some people think an unborn foetus is not yet a human life, while others believe it is.  It’s wrong to murder, but if your country sends you to war, even if you have reservations about it, you can kill the enemy. 

Should we just say to everybody “do your own thing:  that’s the only thing that’s important”?  Should we say “you must follow your own conscience, no matter what anybody else thinks?”  Should we say “What other people do is none of my business?” 

Well, I can’t say any of those things.  And yet I still think there is a difference between bigotry and prejudice on the one hand, and principle and conviction on the other.  But the difference isn’t always obvious.  For what it’s worth, here are the tell-tale signs I look for in myself and in others:

– If I can’t explain my point of view to someone who disagrees with me but is willing to listen to what I have to say, something is wrong.  Sometimes I find myself spluttering with outrage that someone can’t see the obvious, and yet I can’t explain or defend it.  Differences about the justification of war (eg:  in Iraq or Vietnam), or about God or abortion or politics often fall into this caldron of “I can’t explain, it’s so obvious, why can’t you see it, you stupid idiot?” category.

– Similarly, if I can’t listen to someone explain a position with which I fundamentally disagree, there might be a problem on my side.  If I can’t listen because I’ve heard the argument already and don’t need or want to go over old ground, that’s one thing.  But if I find myself livid with anger from the very beginning, that person has hit a vulnerable spot in me and I need to understand it.

– If I hold any conviction – and I mean any conviction – without being able to say about it that I might be wrong, or that it may be incomplete, or I might be applying it in the wrong way, or missing something, that conviction is suspect.  I don’t mean that I don’t have convictions that I hope I would be willing to die for.  I know I have principles by which I try to live.  But we all see through that mirror darkly.  I do not have complete clarity even about my most fundamental convictions.  For instance, I believe that I love many people, but how much of that is self-serving, I do not know.  I believe in truth, but perhaps what I actually mean sometimes is that I like being right.  I believe there is a God, but my idea of God may be a creation of my fear. 

– I’ve also discovered that one of our favourite tricks of self-deception is to cover up my own fear and resulting bigotry with a rational or religious facade.  Between religion and reason, one can make a case for a lot of positions, about which one might be right or wrong.  But I’ve discovered that the reasons I give to myself and others for some of my behaviors aren’t always the real reasons.  I find, for instance, that there are some people whom I dislike intensely, but I justify my anger with an apparently reasonable justification for why I disagree with them.  In situations like this, my problem isn’t really with their views but with my dislike for what I think is their pomposity or presumptuousness or cruelty.   Another example of this kind of self-deception is believing that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural when in fact, what someone is really afraid of is that they themselves might be homosexual. 

What I’m getting at in the end is that I think the difference between holding firm convictions and being intolerant is not in the content, but in the attitudes with which I hold them.  If I already think I – or someone else thinks they – have the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, on an issue, I strongly suspect Intolerance.  If, on the other hand, someone is able to say “I’ll live and die for this as I see it at the moment, but I also believe that there might be something further I could learn, and that could change or modify this view,” then perhaps it can be trusted as a conviction — even if it might not be right.

I can see that this post is now the equivalent of close to 4 typewritten pages.  If you have even bothered to keep reading this far, I can only image you are hugely relieved to have reached the end.

Thank you for listening.

August 3, 2008

Intrinsically of value

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:43 pm

One of the most breath taking statements I have ever heard about life came from someone who doesn’t believe in God, though he doesn’t vehemently not believe either.  He has spent most of his life in the service of others, but does not think the concept of God is particularly important one way or the other.

I asked him how he gave meaning to his life, and he said “Today is enough.”  Today, he said, has meaning in itself.  It has its own validity;  it does not need the future to give it meaning.

I asked him how he felt about having spent so much of his life sharing with others.  It is its own reward, he said.  He didn’t do it to earn a higher place in another life after this one.  He did it out of respect for the life he already had.

I don’t think I can say I am where he is yet.  But I think it’s a goal worth reaching for – to value my gift of life that much.

July 29, 2008

A problem of religious coercion

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:39 pm

I grew up during the cold war between America and Russia, and was taught that the worst thing about Communism was that people were persecuted for practicing their religion.  The possibility that a lack of freedom in general and overbearing state control of almost everything of any importance might be economically ineffective didn’t compare with the essential evil of forbidding people to believe in God and attend the church of their choice.

Once Russian Communism fell, I thought it was pretty much agreed everywhere in the world except for countries like China and Cuba still governed by Communist regimes that freedom of religious choice was a basic individual right, not a state choice.  It was something of a shock to realize recently that this is probably not even a majority opinion.  It is not just in Afghanistan where a man was sentenced to death by the current government (the one set up with American approval to establish democracy there) because he was found in possession of a Bible.  He managed to escape to Italy, but cases like his are not rare.  Many Muslim courts have ruled that someone born a Muslim cannot change religions.

This is not radically different from the Catholic view except that Catholics are no longer backed universally by their governments, and so cannot enforce adherence to the Catholic Faith by law.  Still, for Catholics, once you are baptized a Catholic, it is permanent.  Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics,” again.  They can only be “lapsed Catholics,” or “non-practicing Catholics.”

There are many many things I dislike intensely about many things done by the American government.  But I am grateful beyond words that I am free to choose to believe or not believe according to my own lights.  I think this is an essential human right as profound as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This is why I struggle so hard against intolerance.  In myself, and others.  I don’t think it is all right for religious bigots to believe that they are right and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is on the way to hell.  I think this attitude is both crippling and arrogant, and leaves the Righteous Believer poorer.  I believe their attitudes also do a lot of damage throughout the world. 

And so I do not benevolently tolerate their intolerance.  I do not think those who think that it is only they who possess the truth have a right to impose their views on others.  To put it in unvarnished terms, I believe intolerant zealotry – religious or political – is a plague, and it threatens the survival of the human species as fully as environmental change.

July 25, 2008

The intolerance of the supremely tolerant

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

The commenter to my July 18th post exploring the existence or otherwise of God suggests that in her experience, many of us fear not knowing or being able to control what is going to happen to us.  And so sometimes we decide that somebody – the medical profession, the government, the church, science, – or God – at least has things under control.  It’s too scary to believe that maybe nobody is around at all to keep us and the universe from descending into havoc.

But as I look at both myself and at society in general, the need for control doesn’t seem to be the only reason why we sometimes so desperately seek certainty, and why we are so threatened by people or events that suggest we might be wrong.  Academic faculties, for instance, are routinely fraught with opposing factions taking different scientific views.  And these factions are not friendly respectful disputes.  More often than not, the opposing sides despise each other, convinced that their opponents are arrogant cretins.  In my own time, a faculty member was arrested on the streets of New York City for threatening another faculty member with a gun.  I know of another professor who was terrorized with his family in his home by a fellow professor who came night after night, banging on the door or setting off the burglar alarm. 

Arguments exist in the political arena among socialists and communists, Democrats and Republicans, those for and those against the war, those marching for civil rights, those who believe in the death penalty, and those who don’t.  The appropriate roles of men and women can bring about literally murderous apoplexy against those who violate the given dictates of the culture.  I’m not talking about mere disagreements here or different preferences.  I’m talking about deep divisions over issues that can divide families, friends, and entire countries into camps that can barely speak to each other.  We even kill each other.  What is it about some things that touch us so deeply?

Along with the fear of losing control, I think some issues touch on our identity, our sense of who we are.  When  we are threatened, we throw up the barricades.  We have sensitivities about different topics, but almost all of us have our vulnerable spots

Many of us think of ourselves as tolerant liberals, but we are all, I am convinced, capable of this defensive intolerance under some conditions.  I was well into my late middle age before I realized this includes me.  That was when I began to examine which issues or people were red rags for me, what made me want to slam the door in the face of anybody who was too selfish or stupid or neurotic to see what I thought was so obvious.   A family members who preached a fundamentalist religious doctrine was at the top of my list.  I didn’t see a red flag, but my entire sky turned red.

I have profoundly changed my mind now about not talking to people who draw this response from me.  When I feel this intense irritation, I’ve discovered more than once that the intolerance is as much in me as in them.  Why, for instance, should someone not ask, in all reasonableness, what is wrong with a judge in an American court displaying the ten commandments on his wall?  Why should someone not suggest that homosexuality or abortion or capital punishment might be wrong?  Why shouldn’t someone believe passionately in a personal God who sent his son to redeem the world?  If I can’t explain my position clearly and calmly, then there is something missing in my own thinking not just theirs.

And besides that, I have often changed my mind when people have bothered to explain why they think the way they do.  Sometimes it has taken years, but I have remembered.

July 21, 2008

The Flat Earth Society Problem

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:11 pm

Several days ago I set out to present as fairly as I could the arguments supporting either side of many of today’s contentious issues.  I started out with a discussion of the existence – or not – of God and that is as far as I have progressed.  I’m stumped by what might be called the Flat Earth Problem. 

My Flat Earth problem is that, although I can present the arguments for a Flat Earth in words that are acceptable to that society, I think they are utterly ridiculous.  Or to put it more diplomatically, their arguments seem unconvincing.  And every time I look for an issue to explore “fairly,” I run up against the same problem.  Again and again, one side of the argument looks to me to be much more convincing that the other side.  At the very least, the distribution of reasonable evidence seems somewhat lopsided.

It’s not that on most issues I think there is absolute certainty.  There rarely is, though people who need to believe in absolute certainty pose several interesting psychological questions for me:  What are the factors that determine the levels of uncertainty in which individuals can exist comfortably?  What are the areas where we tend to seek certainty?  And finally, why do we so often insist that others agree with us?  Even when we are convinced we are right, why do we tend to denigrate those who disagree? 

But then, perhaps the world really is flat.  Going over the edge doesn’t actually seem all that far-fetched.

July 20, 2008

Not quite so important in the daylight

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

I’ve been writing this blog long enough, so I should have known better than to title my post yesterday “Good and Evil.”  It was not meant to be a vast ray of light in the great universe of darkness.  Just some late-night ruminations about the enigmatic, gifted, magnanimous, and sometime seemingly insane species to which I belong.

Anyway, the comments it attracted were not relevant, and I’ve changed the title with the hope that it may appear a little less pretentious.  I think I got a little carried away.

July 19, 2008

The good, the bad, and the misunderstood

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:23 pm
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The America I grew up in was greatly influenced by the aftermath of World War II.  The world was divided into two great powers – those countries defending democracy and freedom, and those countries locked beyind the Iron Curtain under the rule of Communism.  America, of course, belonged to the side defending Democracy and Freedom, and we were the good guys.  I remember frequent public urgings to “worship at the church or synagogue of your choice.”  We were tolerant, we were free, we respected the beliefs of other religions in America.

The Communists, on the other hand, were Evil.  Above all they were atheists who did not permit its citizens to practice freedom of religion.  People who believed in God in these countries were sent to Siberia, or executed, or forced to attend brain-washing sessions until they changed or went crazy.

This great divide ran deep in the American psyche, so that when Russian Communists were overthrown, part of America lost a foothold to one of its key definitions of its own identity.  There was no longer a Great Evil power to which we were opposed.

This is an over-simplification, of course, but I think there is a need for a black-and-white definition of Right and Wrong, Good and Evil in many Americans, so that since the fall of Russian Communism, many have been casting around for a clear personification of Evil.  President Bush may have tapped into that need when he identified the Axes of Evil, countries who he pronounced to be beyond the pale.  I think religious fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Islamic, or Jewish, also fulfils a need to define the world in clear unambiguous terms.

Many thinkers, looking at the world today as well as the causes of war for centuries, have concluded that war is caused by different religions, their different doctrines about God and moral behavior.  Their proposed cure for war is to get rid of institutionalized religion, or at least to demote it from the high position it holds in the lives of so many.  Among this group, atheism no longer is met with grasps of horror, but rather offered as a courageous alternative.  “Let us be responsible for ourselves,” they argue.  “Let us not blame everything on a fictitious God who relieves us of the heavy burden of taking care of ourselves.”

Many wars have been fought – and continue to be fought – under the banner of different religions.  The Crusades pitted Christians against Muslims, the religious wars in Europe beginning in the 16th century pitted Protestants against Catholics, and Protestants against each other.  Colonial powers were followed into Africa and the Americas by Christian missionaries who buttressed the belief of the invaders that they were superior to the nativee pagans who they had a duty to enlighten by converting them to Christianity.  Today, 35 years of the most recent bloodshed is only now being brought to an end between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland,  Jews and Muslims fight in Palestine, and a predominantly Christian developed world sees itself in a War on Terror primarily with people who espouse the Islamic faith.

Despite this evidence, I don’t think the problem is either God or different religious views.  I suspect the intolerance that often carries a religious flag is deeper than that.  I am beginning to think it is the manifestation of a deadly fear endemic to the human condition.

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