Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Self-Referential Paradox

This post may be one of mine most likely to fit Virginia Woolf's description of "the masturbations of a pimply-faced amateur." While I sometimes write with the audience in mind, I often, as I do here, write for the purpose of clarifying and refining my own thinking, which the process of writing and, hopefully, receiving criticism, helps immensely with. 

The item on my mind since a 1:00 AM tiny flash of insight last night (after several hours spent traversing the mountains of Skyrim in search of dragons to be slain, and consuming their souls to enhance my Thu'um) is in relation to something touched on in the previous post. In that post, I mentioned the work of one Kurt Godel, Austrian logician and mathematician. The idea which made him famous, published at a mere 25 years old, was his Incompleteness Theorem. There is insufficient room in this post, and I am unfit for the task besides, to explain the theorem in any detail here. I have read it, maybe 8-10 years ago, and at the time felt like I could follow it, up to a point at least, enough to bear witness to its irrefutably as well as its logical beauty. Either way, my meager understanding aside, it has stood for 80+ years, and I know of no serious candidate to disprove it. 

Reading Godel was, for me, on par with reading the Bible, through, for the first time, or reaching the closing of Ulysses (the actual target of Woolf's [jealous] disdain), ..."yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes," in that you feel as if you will never be able to look at the world in quite the same way again. (There are others, of course, Dawkins, Hawking, etc., who ultimately had more of an impact on me, but I digress...) Before I try to explain why I see Godel in this light, let me at least copy/paste the Wikipedia version of his Theorem here. 

What Godel showed was that for any mathematical system complex enough to include the arithmetic of the natural numbers (i.e. complex enough to include 2+2 and 124,678 x 567,678,432) was that:

             1. If the system is consistent, it cannot be complete.
             2. The consistency of the axioms cannot be proven within the system. 

To prove this, he constructed a formula that claims that it is unprovable in a given formal system. If it were provable, it would be false, which is in contradiction to the requirement that in a formal system provable statements are always true. Thus there will always be at least one true but unprovable statement. 

Sound familiar? It isn't all that different than the Epimenides paradox, the statement by Epimenides, a Cretan, that "All Cretans are liars." If it's true it's false, if it's false it's true. (Actually, there is a little bit of wiggle room there, but the more refined version, "This statement is false," is essentially irresolvable.) This is more broadly known as the Self Referential Paradox, and Godel essentially, simply, showed that it was an inescapable aspect of math and logic as well. 

But Oh My God Who Cares, right? Granted, for most of us, most of the time, this isn't something that is going to keep us up at night. (It may be one of my own personal not-at-all-sober experiences where I spent several hours trapped in the thought process of thinking about how I couldn't stop thinking about how I couldn't stop thinking about how I couldn't stop thinking about the logical loop I was trapped in of not being able to stop thinking about how I couldn't stop thinking about how I couldn't stop thinking about... that makes it a bit more upsetting for me.)

So people have been pointing out for centuries, from the ancient Greeks to 20th century logicians, that when a system becomes self-referential it often, almost always, runs into the problem of being either incomplete or inconsistent. I think this matters, because I think it applies to a great many more systems of belief than people often recognize.

I pointed out in A Relative Contradiction that I see the same internal contradiction in the moral relativism that is often associated with Western liberalism: That what is "good" is relative to someone's time and culture, except the Western liberal ideal of "tolerance" for other people's relative "goods," which is, they seem to claim, universal.

In a somewhat similar way, I pointed out in Pascal Was a Sissy that one starts to see a lot of cracks in the foundations of Christianity when you try to hold it up to the same standards it purports to advance. In the philosophy of religion this type of internal contradiction also crops up in the Problem of Evil.

I also tried to point out, in Freedom Worth Wanting that I think there are certain internal inconsistencies in application of belief systems that offer to "free" you of "desire" and offer that as the greatest freedom of all.

And I think that the same can be demonstrated for a great many sets of beliefs. I hope a few more examples will make my point sufficiently clear. Admittedly, I will be painting with some pretty broad strokes here, so some may have quibbles with my framing of certain beliefs, but I think that the point I make holds true nonetheless...

Take for example, the current American brand of Libertarianism. While I believe this political viewpoint, though far from perfect, has much to recommend it, it isn't hard to show that it suffers from its own internal contradiction. Libertarianism purports to advance the greatest degree of individual freedom. It argues that the overwhelming majority of political, economic and, to some extent, moral, decisions should be left up to the individual. Well, this is all well and good until those individuals decide they are willing to forgo a degree of that freedom in exchange for, say, socialized medicine. Well, no then, you don't have the freedom to make that choice. That choice is out of bounds. Libertarianism offers you a great many freedoms, but not the freedom to reject aspects of Libertarianism. 

(This isn't all that different from the dilemma the US fears when trying to advance democracy in other countries that may then end up voting, through a democratic process, to forgo democracy in favor of, say, an Islamic theocracy. What is "truer" to the cause of democracy: trying to force people to accept it when they wish to throw it away, or allowing them to do so, since that is "the will of the people?")

A similar internal contradiction can be shown, I think, in post-modern "discourse." While post-modern "theory" consists of many different threads; structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, marxism, deconstructionism, queer theory, etc., they all attempt to do the same thing: to read the world as a "text" and take apart the reigning narratives that are being forced upon us hapless, naive dimwits by whatever bogeyman that particular thread is going after- the patriarchy, the capitalists, the straights, the ideals of science and materialism, etc. 

One of the features of post-modern theory that is consistent across each of these threads is the denial that there are ultimately "facts on the ground," as I like to say, that we can never reach an objective reality, and that our view of the world is always colored by the "narrative" we inhabit, a narrative foisted on us by the "dominant hegemony" (that pointless redundancy right there is a great example of how post-modern "discourse" attempts to bludgeon you into mental submission with top-heavy language instruments). 

While, again, there are some positive things to be said for attempts to understand and explain the unequal distributions of power in human society, there is an immediate and obvious flaw in any system that denies any kind of objective reality: if there is no escape from these "cultural narratives" then aren't "post-modern discourse" and even the idea that power should be distributed more evenly just subjective preferences of a particular "cultural narrative?" If that is the case, then who is to say that power shouldn't be exclusively in the hands of straight-white-male-Western-capitalists? (Obviously, I am not saying it should, I'm just pointing out that without any kind of narrative-free reality, there is no reason for preferring any one particular distribution of power over any other.) According to the very tenets of post-modernism, the "imbalances" that post-modernism tries to correct are just another piece of our cultural narrative, and they may not really be imbalances at all. If you follow post-modern discourse to its logical conclusion, if you make it self-referential, then  it runs into the same internal contradiction as so many other systems of belief. 

One more example. I took a philosophy course in college and in one particular class the prof was trying to offer a rebuttal of reductionism. (Reductionism is the belief that all that can really be said to exist are the most basic, fundamental material aspects of being, i.e. the fundamental particles of physics. ) He began by defining the existence of physical reality by stipulating that two things can only be said to exist if a relationship between them can be described, such as distance. In other words, you can measure the difference in position between your house and the one across the street, but not between your house and God, so He is out of the picture for this discussion. He then went on to ask, "Well, what is a 'car?' Is it just a bunch of constituent parts, mufflers, spark plugs, tires, which are themselves reducible to their component parts, ad infinitum?" (This is essentially the position of reductionism, that yes, that really is all you can say with confidence.) He argued that No, if a car is made up of n parts then the "car" is n+1, that is something else "arises" out of this conglomeration of parts that is "car."

I raised my hand and pointed out, "Okay, so if you admit that the only things which can truly be said to exist are things which can be described in relation to something else, such as a relation in space, then what is the distance from the muffler to the "car?"

Reductionism isn't slain so easily.

Unsurprisingly, he didn't have an answer to that, except to brush off the question. 

Which is essentially the response of most systems of belief when asked to justify themselves according to their own rules. 

Okay, wow, so what the hell is your point, Rob, with all the quasi-philosophical bullshit? I should stress that my point is not, as it may have seemed, to show that any of the systems of belief mentioned above, or any others, are automatically, inherently and completely wrong once one can identify an internal contradiction. My point, I guess, is the same as Godel's: that any system that is complex enough to reference itself is almost always* liable to run into internal contradiction. No system of human thought is ever* going to be 100% complete and consistent, every time, all the time.

And this is why Doubt is so Great.^ Because it reminds us of our imperfections, our fallibility. Because whether you believe we have been struck from perfection by Original Sin, or you acknowledge that we are just crafty monkeys, we have to remember, we are not gods. 

________________________________________________

* Just want to point out that even this statement, which attempts to be universal, could probably be shown to be inconsistent, if someone had more mental energy than I have left at the moment.

^ Similarly, even Doubt, or science, or whatever you want to call it, needs to be aware of its own propensity for internal contradiction- "What if I doubt the utility of Doubt? Maybe it is not necessary to always be skeptical. Maybe I can just make up whatever I want and swear by it..."

Unlikely. You still can't just say "tangerine." :)




Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Yes, But It's Not Tangerine


 A lot of my reading for the past week or so seems to have been nudging my thoughts in a particular direction, the result of which is, hopefully, enough clarity in my own thinking to be able to elucidate and distill these varied sources into a coherent post. Each of these bits of reading, despite the varied sources, have all touched on the same theme- the limits of human knowledge.

I've been working my way, for a few weeks now, through James Gleick's The Information, which is on the history of, well, information, but more specifically how our understanding of information, how it is quantified and how it is transmitted, has changed through the centuries. But as he moves into the previous century, he touches on, and reminded me of, the work of a pair of thinkers, Godel and Turing, who demonstrated, definitively, that there are indeed upper limits to what we can possibly know, at least in the realms of mathematics and algorithms (and if there are limits there, what, indeed, could be free of limits?)

Then, I ran across an article in this month's Harper's by Alan Lightman, physicist at MIT, writing about the fundamental shift taking place in theoretical physics, from expecting, as they did a few decades ago, to ultimately be able to distill the physical laws of the universe to a single theory, to recognizing, as they do now, that the most fundamental laws of the universe, or rather, the multiverse (which is half the problem), may be irretrievably beyond our reach.  

These extended readings, plus a splash of thought here and there, an article or two in Scientific American, a friend's blog post, a late night "discussion" (okay, argument) with an acquaintance, have all been stirring my mind on this topic. And, for whatever reason, it seemed the best way for me to explain my thinking was with a parable. I've never tried my hand at parable writing before, so bear with me...

The Climb

A young woman lived in a village at the foot of a tall, tall mountain. So far as she knew, despite many attempts by villagers and outsiders, no one had ever reached the summit. One day, she decided she would try. Before she set out, she sought the advice of one of the elders of the village, one who had been witness to many attempts to scale the mountain. She asked the man, "Why has no one been able to scale the mountain?" He replied, "Because a pack of ferocious werewolves inhabit the caves just where the mountain grows steep, and they have torn to shreds anyone who has attempted the climb. You will never reach the peak."

Since she had never seen a werewolf in all her life, she set out anyway, despite the dire warning. She climbed and she climbed, until she reached the place where the mountain grows steep, yet she saw no werewolves, despite seeing a number of caves. However, before long, the climb became impossible, because an incredibly slick ice covered the trail. So she turned around and walked back to the village.

She went directly to the trading post and bought a pair of crampons. When the trader asked what she needed them for, she told him she intended to climb the mountain. Shocked, he said, "But you'll never make it! Just above the tree line live terrible mountain trolls who will eat your flesh. You will never reach the peak."

Since she had never seen a mountain troll in all her life, she set out anyway, despite the dire warning. She passed the slick ice which had stopped her before, and continued her climb. She reached the tree line, but saw no mountain trolls. However, she realized that without trees to grab onto, even the crampons were not enough. So she turned around and walked back to the village.

She went directly to her uncle's house and asked to borrow the ice pick she knew he had in his shed. When her uncle asked what she needed it for, she told him she intended to climb the mountain. Astonished, he said,  "But you'll never make it! Where the glacier begins live frost giants who will pulverize you with their fists. You will never reach the peak"

Since she had never seen a frost giant in all her life, she set out anyway, despite the dire warning. She passed the slick ice and then the tree line and came to the foot of the glacier, but saw no frost giants. However, she realized that even with the ice pick and crampons, the glacier was too slick to climb, for one slip would be certain death. So she turned around and walked back to the village.

She went directly to a friend who kept horses and asked to borrow a length of rope. When her friend asked what she needed it for, she told her that she intended to climb the mountain. Terrified, her friend said, "But you'll never make it! The sky god forbids anyone from climbing to the peak, for that is his realm. He will strike you down with lighting for climbing so high. You will never reach the peak."

Since she had never seen a god in all her life, she set out anyway, despite the dire warning. She climbed past every point which she had been told she would never pass, and began to climb the glacier. With the help of the crampons, ice pick and rope, she climbed very far, and climbed for a very long time, but she never saw a sky god, heard no thunder, nor saw any lightning. However, she eventually reached a wall of ice many hundreds of feet high, much farther than her rope was long, and certainly farther than she could ever hope to toss one anyway.

Saddened by her realization that she would never reach the peak, she began the long climb down. Turning, she looked out across the vast landscape beneath her, and up into the stars above, and realized that very few had seen the world from this vantage. She let the sight take her breath for a moment, and then retraced her steps to the village.

Since she had been gone much longer than any of her previous excursions, some of the villagers had set out in search of her, though they did not have to go far because she met them just outside the gates of the village. Among them were the elder, the trader, her uncle and her friend. When they asked her, "Did you reach the peak?" she quietly shook her head.

"See?" they said. "We told you you'd never reach the peak. We were right all along."

______________________________________


There are fundamental limits to human knowledge. Kurt Godel showed that any mathematics which is sufficiently complex to include arithmetic is fundamentally inconsistent or incomplete. Alan Turing showed that the same was true of algorithms, i.e. computers. Werner Heisenberg showed that we cannot know both a particles position and momentum simultaneously. Modern physics is learning that we may very well live in one universe among an infinity of universes, and the laws governing that multiverse will forever remain unknowable to us.

But does this mean that anything goes? Can we thus be intellectually and morally sound if we populate our mountain with monsters and deities? Just because there are things that we can't know, does that mean we know nothing?

There is nothing more important to a seeker of knowledge than the wisdom and humility to say, when necessary, "I don't know." This is what set Socrates and Siddhartha Gautama leagues ahead of their contemporaries, and worlds ahead of religious demagogues, prophets and other liars. But pretending that the limit of our knowledge is just beyond the point from which we begin is foolishness and cowardice.

Perhaps one more example will make this clearer. The number pi, 3.1415926535897932384626 4338327950288... which is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, is an infinite string of random digits. Despite having been calculated to tens of trillions of decimal places, no repetition, recurring sequence or end is in sight.

So if someone asked you, "What do you think the trillionth trillionth trillionth digit of pi is?" you could go with "7" or "4" or "0." But, since no one actually knows what that digit is, since no one could possibly know what that digit would be, would you be remiss to say "tangerine"?

I think you would be. Just because we don't know the exact answer to many, many questions, and we never will know the answer to some of them, does not mean that we can't eliminate some, often many, possibilities.

Many people wish to reserve the right to say "tangerine," or "God" or "magic" or "miracle" or "fairies" or "mystical energies" whenever they are faced with a question they don't know the answer to or, more often these days, don't wish to know the answer to. Ironically, I think this stems primarily from our arrogant assumption that we have a right to know everything there is to know. It is in our nature to be terrified of doubt and skepticism, because they represent the unknown, the shadowy stalker just outside the firelight that kept our ancestors awake at night. Answers are comforting. They make us feel powerful and special. (Especially when those answers tell us we are special.)

But we are fooling ourselves. There is much we don't know, and never will. Still though, there is a lot more wisdom, when faced with a devilish mathematician, to say, "I don't know what the umpteenth digit of pi is, but I bet it is somewhere between zero and nine," than settling, smugly, on "Tangerine."

Monday, December 19, 2011

99% Royal Fantasy


Why do we romanticize the past? This question has often been on my mind, cropping up regularly in my life; after a friend's nostalgic comment, after reading some Luddite/ Green argument for slowing down the pace of economic expansion or innovation, or other such rubbish, or while watching people get wrapped up in agrarian fantasies of life on a quiet plot of land with a big garden and a few chickens and goats, and just “what we need.”

I think there are many reasons for this, for the human tendency to always imagine that the past held some Golden Age that we are slipping away from, never to be recaptured, only poorly imitated. There is the very human tendency to fear change, to fear the unknown, and to run, blindly, in the opposite direction. Then, as I have noted many times before, there is people's appalling ignorance of historical fact. There are surely many others. But there is another, a literary reason, that I don't think gets discussed very much, that I would like to point out here.

The very first civilization in the world, the Sumerians, were already writing about their lost innocence, lost happiness, in the world's very first surviving work of literature, Gilgamesh. In Gilgamesh, the subjects of the “hero” of the story, King Gilgamesh, the king who drove his people like slaves to construct the walls around his capital, Uruk, called upon the gods to send someone to stop him. The gods send Enkinu, a wild man, who allegorically represents life outside the city walls, life “the old way.” Ultimately, Enkinu and Gilgamesh battle to stalemate and become friends, then set out on god-flouting adventures which ultimately get Enkidu killed, settling the wild man/ civilized man question once and for all.

Classical scholars may disagree with my interpretation, but one point here I think is inarguable: by the 7th century BCE, 2,700 years ago, people were already complaining about “modern” life and all the changes that came with it.

So the question is: was there ever really a time when people really were satisfied with their present, and acknowledged that life really was as good now, or better, than it has ever been? No, probably not. Because, in some ways, evolution has designed us to be jealous, ungrateful and selfish A-holes. And since we have no possible experience of the future to be jealous of, we get jealous for the past. So does that mean the past was always better? Well, I don't really see how it could be, if every single generation for the last three millenia thought the ones before them had it better. So even if there was a time when things were really swell, the people who lived it didn't seem to notice.

I think literature has a role to play here. One, as in the example of Gilgamesh cited above, it can remind us that people have always pined for the past. The examples are too numerous to count, so hopefully one more will suffice. The Homeric Greeks pined for their lost Golden Age, idealizing the manly and womanly virtues of their forebearers in The Iliad and The Odyssey, completely believing that never again would roam the world men so brave as Ajax, so fierce as Achilles, so honorable as Hector, so cunning as Odysseus, so loyal as Telemachus, or so faithful as Penelope. With the passing of this Golden Age, men and women, and their lives, are but mere shadows of their former glory.

Yawn.

Look. I love great literature, as Homer certainly is. But really? Have some self-respect, for god's sake.

But I think literature has an even more insidious role to play here than just glorifying the exploits of men and women in days gone by. And I think it has a lot to do with the history of literature, the history of economics and the history of culture.

Think about your favorite work of classic literature, if, hopefully, you have one. Now think about the hero, and the cast of characters. Now, raise your hand if the hero of the story is a king. A queen? A princess? A prince? A noble warrior? A witch or wizard? Not many poor farmers, poor laborers, slaves, serfs or peasants in there, are there?

The history of literature is, mainly, the history of the 1%. Now project yourself, as most likely a member of the other 99% back in time. Do you think that, if you were living in 5th century Britain in Arthur's Camelot, that your meals would consist of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh baked bread, fresh venison, quail and boar, good wine and mead, like they feast on at The Round Table? Uh, no. Depending on the time of year, you may have had some fresh vegetables, the one's grown on your lord's land, of which you turned over 2/3 to him. But through the winter and into spring, you would have had to make do with an ever diminishing supply of the same few root vegetables, or at least what hadn't rotten to mush or been snagged by rats. Your bread was usually eaten black with mold and hard enough to break teeth. Meat was a rarity, and usually only enjoyed on feast days. And, in all likelihood, you had never travelled more than a mile or two from the place you were born and would die. At age 30. If you were lucky. And honestly, you could kinda hope for a violent death, as at least that would be faster than many of the wasting plagues and diseases that took most people's lives. Well, that and childbirth, of course.

So why do we have such a romantic idea of the Middle Ages, or any other time? I think the reason, or at least one of them, is that most people's perception of the past comes from literature. And, as I pointed out, the subject of the overwhelming majority of literature is the lives of the 1%. Think about the heroes and heroines of just the works that many of the more enduring works of Western Lit. Homer- kings and princes. Greek Drama- kings and princes. Virgil- a prince of Troy. Dante- himself, then kings, princes, poets, philosophers. Shakespeare- Lear: king, Hamlet: prince, Caesar: general, Romeo: rich brat, etc. Tolstoy- a count himself, writing about aristocrats. The Brontes- many aristocratic heroes. And on and on.

Of course, there are counter examples. Chaucer wrote of men and women from all walks of life, but in doing so, he was centuries ahead of his time. Shakespeare had lower-class characters (the middle class was just becoming established) but rarely were their concerns the subject matter of the play. Dostoyevsky was primarily concerned with common folk, but then still, the uncommon among them. It isn't until we get to Dickens, and the Brontes to some extent, that the lower and middle classes, all of us, folks, are the regular subject matter of great literature. And still, Dickens himself has a fair number of 1%ers in his work. And of course, there is lots of great literature aside from those listed, or not considered “canonical” (I just started there for simplicities sake- arguments about the cannon are not the point here), but they are all writing in the same tradition, and were influenced by, many of the works listed here.

Let's just talk statistics. What would it mean to be born into the 99% at various points in literary history? If you were born in the 20s, you would not be Gatsby, or Daisy, living it up at high society galas. You'd be George, the car mechanic, living in one room of a tenement building with little heat, a common bathroom shared with twenty other units, a raging toothache that you'd had for years, a son with polio, two children dead from small pox or the Spanish Flu, and wife who'd died giving birth to your 4th. That may be a tad extreme, but it is far more likely than the common fantasy.

If you were born into a Bronte novel, you would not sit around in luxurious dresses giggling with sisters and friends about which lord or count fancied you that week. You would be one of the servant girls, getting one half day off every two weeks, eating leftovers from your master's table and subject to any fixation of passion that may strike him.

Tolstoy? Not having a fun, sexy society affair like Anna Karenina. No, more likely Sonya, the virtuous young woman forced into prostitution by her poverty in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Shakespeare? Not Hamlet, but probably the grave digger.

Homer? Not Achilles, Ajax, Helen or Priam. No, rather, one of the thousands slaughtered by the sword or burnt by the fire of Greek princes settling a squabble over the rights to a single woman.

I'm not trying to argue that there was no happiness in past centuries. What I am trying to say is that when we take our view of the past from literature and art, which we largely do, we end up with a very, very distorted picture of what every day life was like for the common person. We tend to forget that those lavish feasts, balls and celebrations enjoyed by the 1% were built on the backs of the sweat, toil and death of the other 99.

If you are a middle class Westerner alive right now, you enjoy more luxury than any of the people mentioned above, princes or commoners. You eat better than King Lear, or Louis XIV, for that matter. You've likely seen more of the world, or could, than Caesar. You have access to more information, and are likely better read, since you can actually afford to buy dozens and dozens books of your own, than Chaucer, or any of his pilgrims. You sleep in a better bed than Anna Karenina, in a better heated room, and with lovers who probably have more teeth and less BO. And, unlike Penelope, rather than fending of aggressive, drunken suitors for two decades while you wait for news of your husband's fate, you can just Skype him while he's on a business trip, seeing and conversing in real time.

It's not that I think the past is all bad, not at all. I think there is a ton we can, and should, learn from the past. We are fools if we ignore the wisdom and experience of our ancestors. But at the same time, we should not ignore which past, whose past, we are nostalgic for. And we should not forget that we are certainly not the first generation, nor will we be the last, to pine for a “better time gone by.” And we would not be the first generation to wish for something that never existed, not for most, in the first place.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thoughts on a Year of Blogging

Well, here we are. Three weeks left in the year, and two blog entries to go to round out the year at an even 52, for a one-per-week average. I have a sizable folder in my email and on my phone's to-do list of half-hatched ideas that I send myself, some of which mature into something interesting enough to bother writing about, while others never grow beyond a single sentence.

Reading through them, I realized that none seemed fitting for wrapping up the year, even though there have been several things pressing on my mind of late; the unfolding fiasco with MERS and its role in the housing crisis in the US (see this months Harper's for a great article), the role of “the frontier” in both natural evolution and human innovation, the hints of the Higgs boson that have been all over the news and just how big a deal that really is, etc. Those things, and hopefully many more, still require more time and thought before I know what I think I think.

But what did seem appropriate to wrap up a year of blogging was a bit of reflection on the practice itself. This year has been very, very interesting and informative for me in more ways than I can probably squeeze into a single post, but I think it is worth the time to sit back and reflect on the big ones.

The first thing I learned, and this continues to shock me to this day, is that some people are actually interested in reading what I write. This strikes me for several reasons. One, it is simply flattering on a personal level. But, what I am more surprised by is that there is enough interest in the subject matter to generate several dozen hits on any given post. Now, that isn't a tremendous number by successful blog standards, but given how little pushing I have done, I'm still always surprised at the spikes on the readership graph.

Why would I doubt that anyone would be interested in reading my thoughts, or anyone's thoughts, on these subjects? Well, I am not ignorant of the fact that some of my posts could be read as highly offensive to people who take matters such as faith very seriously. I have never offered any apology for my disdain for that mode of thinking, though I would apologize if it has ever caused anyone offense. So I do find it intriguing that despite the number of people who have communicated disagreement with me on that stance, many still seem to continue to follow the conversation.

Secondly, as someone said when I started writing this, “Yes, but people don't care if what they believe is true, so long as it makes them happy.” Now, I don't pretend to have access to any “truth” that others don't, that would be antithetical to the entire point of the blog, but I have made it a point to call out claims to the “truth” that I see as fundamentally flawed. At the same time, people's preference for happiness over truth is an incredibly hard concept for me to understand, but I have had people state this to me, about themselves, in so many words. So although it is a well-known fact of human psychology that our brains will consistently make this choice whenever possible, it is most astonishing to me when someone is insightful enough to articulate this choice to themselves and others, yet makes it anyway. I simply can't get with that. If I had one magic-lamp wish, it would be an easy choice- to be able to know the truth of everything there is to know. No more, no less.

Lastly, I am surprised, although I shouldn't be, at the continuous readership precisely because it has spurred almost no conversation outside of the blog itself. Essentially, people are curious to read about things that they aren't generally interested in talking about in person. I get it, and I don't have an issue with it, but still, it is amusing. At the same time, some of that is on me; I write the blog with the understanding that there are people who I know personally who aren't interested in hearing me hold forth on these topics, and I take that into consideration. I'm generally willing to talk to anyone, anytime about anything I find interesting, but I'm not interested in shoving my agenda down their throats.
 

Meanwhile, writing the blog, and reading the comments of readers, has been a great reminder of why I have friendships with the people I do. My oldest friend has been a regular commenter on here, while also occasionally taking up similar issues on his own blog, and this back-and-forth has been a poignant reminder of why that friendship has endured. Other friends and family have contributed in thoughtful ways, and each of these has reminded me just why I like each of those people so much. And lastly, perhaps the most unexpected, yet pleasant, surprise, the blog has led to new friendships, some with people who are close enough that I have gotten to know them in person, and others which have turned into a great web-relationship. (There has got to be a better way to say that. Anyone? “webship?” God, that's awful. ) I would not have anticipated any of that, particularly the last, but have been very pleased with that outcome. So thank you to everyone who has been a part of that. And I suppose I owe a special thank you to Adam, who has done more to garner new readers than I ever have.

I have also experienced a bit of what I am going to call, henceforth, “the Rome effect.” No, not that Rome, through which the Tiber runs. I'm talking about Jim Rome, sports radio talk-show host. For those of you who aren't Clones, or who live outside the US, a little Rome-primer might help. Besides doing sports interviews and talking smack with callers, Rome often devotes segments of his show to detailing the over-the-top obsessions of certain “Guys;” Softball Guy, Bowling Guy, Fantasy Football Guy, 40-year-old Video Game Guy, Star Wars Guy, DnD Guy, etc. And, as he often points out, whenever he decided to poke fun at a new “Guy” he invariably gets a call from said Guy, saying, “I've always loved your show Rome, but I just can't believe what you said about X, cause I am that Guy and I am offended.” Basically, it's okay to make fun of everyone else, just not me.

For instance, there are many people who were raised in dementedly religious households, who now have a very negative view of established religion. These people will generally cheer along anything they see which takes shots at that monolithic nightmare. But at the same time, many of these people, and this continues to baffle me, will leave established religion only to pick up any number of woo-woo beliefs which suffer from the same lack-of-evidence and internal-contradiction attacks that can be leveled at religion. And then, when someone points out that what they now believe is no different, in principle, than the religion they so despise, they bristle, and call you close-minded, a slave to reason and evidence (I'll accept that charge any day, by the way), and say that they “just know” or that they “don't need proof” that what they have come to believe is true.

Although I could have explained why this is before, the first hand experience I have gotten writing the blog has really helped me understand it more fully. All of us, myself included, are desperately attached to what we believe, what we value. I work hard to remain conscious of this, which is one reason I always find Rome's takes on “Guys” that I personally am so darned funny. And thus I recognize that fewer things get me more riled up than the charge that “Well, you just have faith in science and reason.” Because while even though I logically appreciate that people who say this don't truly understand what “faith” means, or how science works, and how incompatible these ideas are, and I appreciate that they have made a semantic and logical misstep, I continue to take it somewhat personally. I'm working on that.

I guess what I am saying is that I have come to realize that there are two types of ex-religious folks. There are those who left religion because they had a negative experience with religion itself, either through the people in their lives who practiced that religion, or through the experiences that were forced upon them as members of the faith. And then there are those, like myself, who had generally positive experiences with religion, in fact too positive from the faith's point of view because we got into it too much, asked too many questions, pushed too hard, only to find that the man behind the curtain is just a conjurer from Kansas. Those who leave for the first reason generally leave with a sense of “good riddance” and may or may not feel the need to replace that piece of their life with something else. Some turn to other, more accepting religions, others woo-woo or just a vague spiritualism. Or they struggle to find anything that fits in that place. ('Cause only Jesus can fill a Jesus-shaped hole, right?) Those of us who leave because we discover it simply doesn't work usually go reluctantly, often maintaing some vague belief in an uninvolved deity who still exists out there somewhere and has some purpose for all of this. But after years of living without the comforting thought of a Supreme Being who very much cares if you get that job you applied for, even that tenuous grasp slips away, and we realize that anything we know so little about, can know so little about, doesn't really matter very much.

I have also realized that there are more of us out there than I ever thought. This has been the most important thing, for me, that the blog has accomplished. It has helped me, and I hope some others, recognize that they aren't alone in this world simply because they don't believe in magic. And while we are still vastly outnumbered, we need to start standing up and making it known that we are here and we're not going anywhere. There are three openly gay US Congressman. There is one openly atheist US Congressmen. Americans trust atheistsas much as they trust rapists. Rapists. Rapists. Like, people who rape other people. But while this level of ignorance is frankly appalling, it isn't all that surprising. In fact, it may be built into our brains. (I'll get to that in a later post.)

So if you're one of those non-believers raised in a religious household and about to be dragged through the tedium of the religious holiday season, or if you live deep in the Red State Sea and often feel like you may very well be the only rational person for a thousand miles, or if you weren't raised religious at all and don't really get what these people get so worked up about, but know that they still outnumber you 10-1, so you manage to keep your mouth shut, I hope this blog has been a useful place for you to go. And I hope that you will keep coming back, because I enjoy writing it, but that process is much more enjoyable when I know that someone else is reading it.

And if you are religious, or are woo-woo, or anyone else I may have offended along the way, but you keep coming back anyway, well, I think I may appreciate that even more. It certainly helps me keep my aggression in check and try to approach these questions from a civilized perspective, as best I can.

So anyway, fifty-one down, one to go. Hopefully soon. And that one will mark another personal milestone.

Thanks for reading, and have a great new year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

No, Virginia


I hate to be a humbug. No, really, I do. And I really have nothing against Christmas, insofar as we are talking about values of giving, kindness and love. Obviously, I have no use whatsoever for the mythology surrounding it, but the holiday itself is responsible for many of my fondest memories as a child, and I would never wish to deny my family the same, simply because I think the manger empty.

However, there is an issue I take with Christmas, and that is Santa Claus. And no, this won't be the trite, anti-commercialist drivel that passes for original, provocative thinking these days. I don't have a problem with people spending money at the holidays, even on trunk-loads of mass-produced crap from the mall, if that is what makes them happy. (I have never been too thrilled with the notion of obligatory gift-giving, as I think it cheapens the whole notion of generosity, but that is another matter entirely.)

No, my problem with ole' St. Nick is the way that myth is used as a warm-up indoctrination of sorts for introducing children to the most critical aspects of religious faith. There a countless examples of this in the popular culture surrounding Christmas, but there is one in particular that I think of as ideal example. My daughter has recently been watching a cartoon version of the “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” story, and while this particular cartoon does not enjoy the popularity of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Polar Express or It's a Wonderful Life, most people should be familiar enough with the story to not require too much exposition.

The premise is simple: A young girl, Virginia, who is very much in love with the idea of Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas, has her faith in Him challenged by a snotty, stuck-up, elitist little brat, Charlotte. Charlotte does this by pointing out the obvious, those things all of us raised in a Christmas-celebrating household had to come to terms with at some point in our childhood: how could one man make it around the world in a single night, how could he know whether you'd been bad or good, reindeer don't fly, fat men don't fit in chimneys, etc. Virginia has her faith shaken, and ultimately decides to write a letter to The Sun, the city paper, to ask the editor if Santa is real, because, as she has been taught, “If you See it in the Sun, it's So.” After much wrangling over the consequences of Truth vs. Hope, the editor does the “right” thing and publishes what is now a famous response that begins, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

It would be difficult, even in the course of the remainder of this post, to fully explain just how much is wrong with this little narrative. And everything that will be said, applies in equal measure to most of the rest of those timeless Christmas classics listed above. (Except Rudolph, which is more about individuality and finding your own way in the world, which makes it far and away the best of the bunch.)

The problem, of course, is that as adults, we know that every single person in this show is lying to Virginia. Everyone except Charlotte, of course, as there actually is no Santa Claus. The warmth and coziness of an idea is no testament to its veracity. Here is the world the show attests to: People who accept belief in things, even if they know they are not true, make the world a better, kinder place, and people who point out the obvious truth, or even question the accepted mass illusion are cynical, mean and selfish.

And this is essentially how Christmas, and particularly the Santa Claus myth, have come to stand in, and serve as an indoctrination to, the larger Christian mythology. A quiz might help here:

Who am I?
I see everything that happens.
I reward the good and punish the wicked.
I am immortal.
I am able to defy the natural laws of physics and biology.
I often send “helpers” to take of business for me, or send reminders.
I live way up high.
I am often depicted as an old man with a white beard.
Who am I?

A. Santa Claus
B. God

While many have pointed out what I just did, the obvious parallels between God and Santa Claus, few have examined this from a psychological, historical or ethical perspective. First, the psychological.

What can we learn from the pervasiveness of the Santa Claus myth in our culture? Well, first and foremost, children will believe absolutely anything you tell them, no matter how absurd, if it is repeated often, and with conviction. My daughter, who is amazingly sharp for her almost 4 years, absolutely accepts that every night immediately after dinner, but never before, Santa's elves sneak into our dining room where she was just sitting and put a chocolate in the appropriate door of our Christmas countdown train, just for her. She believes that because her mommy and daddy, whom she trusts more than anyone else in the world, tell her it is so.

If there is any parent out there who is in a similar situation with their own children, and has any doubt at all about just why they themselves remain so firmly convinced in the truths about God that their parents told them, I have to say that I do not believe they are being completely honest with themselves. Because while what our parents told us does nothing to prove or disprove the realities of the world, including the existence of god, it should illuminate for us where much of our conviction comes from. This is not an easy thing to do. Examining the “why” of our convictions is a monumental mental task, and requires a level of self-examination and truth-seeking that many people are simply not up for. We all have ideals and beliefs that we are desperate to protect, and honestly challenging those is a Herculean effort on most occasions.

But even more interesting, I think, is looking at this connection from a historical perspective. The modern Santa Claus myth, with a man who lived at the North Pole delivering gifts with the help of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh, dates to roughly the 1820s. According to Wikipedia, it was the 1934 song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that popularized the more contemporary version of Santa Claus, adding a list of “naughty or nice” children, elves, etc.

What social and cultural changes have occurred since the early 19th century that might have precipitated the increasing popularity of the Santa Claus myth? I think three are the most relevant; the rise of modern consumerism, the rise of science, and with it, decreasing child mortality. While much could be said (indeed has been said), concerning the relationship between Christmas and commercialization, as I said above, that is not really my concern here, even though the relationship is certainly very strong. At the same time, very little has been said concerning the relationship between Santa Claus and the latter two sociological changes. So I intend to address them here.

You may very well be asking, “What does the rise of science, or decrease in child mortality, have to do with Santa Claus?” Quite a bit, I would argue. In the 1700s, doubting the existence of God, or at least the Christian version of God, was mainly left to philosophers, scientists and the founders of the United States. Newton had only penned the Principia at the end of the last century, and new ideas were still relatively slow to spread. But by the 1800s, questioning Christian doctrine was much more commonplace, even among the middle-class. When Darwin dropped the Origin of Species bomb in 1859, scientists had been looking for a naturalistic explanation for the story of life for decades. Within a few decades, it was not at all unreasonable for a person to state that they did not accept any version of natural history that included miracles, or required faith to accept.

Another half a century later, and the new twin pillars of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, brought about a rethinking of the origins of the cosmos themselves. In 1931, Georges Lemaitre (a physicist and Roman Catholic priest) suggested the hypothesis now known as the Big Bang Theory, which, although incomplete, served as the first naturalistic and rational explanation for the origin of all things.

With the origins of life and the origins of the cosmos themselves explained without any recourse to miracles or magic, many people, quite understandably, began to question where exactly God fit in at all.

Meanwhile, child mortality was dropping like a bag of hammers. A few hundred years ago, a woman could expect to give birth four or five times if she wished to see one child live to adulthood. (That is assuming, of course, she survived each of the pregnancies.) But by the 1930s in the West, modern sanitation, medical care and vaccinations had dramatically reduced the number of childhood deaths. It was, for the first time in human history, more reasonable to expect your infant to grow up than it was to expect them to die before puberty.

Considered all together, we have this: More and more children being born whose parents can reasonably expect to live to the age of mental maturity. These children are increasingly being born into a world that does not logically require them to believe the same things that their parents, or their parents, believed. If a parent wishes to pass on their beliefs to their children, as all parents assuredly do, at least to some extent, it is no longer possible to just wait and see which children will live to maturity and then indoctrinate them, no questions asked, into the local mythos, since they had no reasonable alternative anyway. Now, it can be safely assumed that the majority of children will survive to the age where they are able to think for themselves... unless they are taught, explicitly and repeatedly, to do otherwise.

Children are natural scientists. They ask a million questions, the most notorious, and most beautiful, being “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” If left to their own devices, they will explore every inch of their surroundings, put many things into their mouth, pull the dogs tail, and generally try just about every dangerous thing they can think of just to see what happens. This is the foundation of science: trial and error, experimentation. And when they can't discern the cause themselves, they inevitably turn to those whom they trust above all else, their parents.

This puts parents in a critical position. We have a sacred trust. We can either encourage and foster this natural, empowering inquisitiveness, or we can squelch it by teaching our children that it is a virtue to simply believe what everyone else around you does, and accept their beliefs without question.

At some point, the cracks in the Santa narrative narrative become apparent to all children. They will begin to ask questions, to point out what they have deduced and most parents will tell them, “Santa only comes to those who believe.” For many children, they will swallow this for a few more Decembers, figuring a booty of presents under the tree is not worth trading for something as ephemeral as truth. But inevitability, the blatant impossibility of the Santa myth becomes clear, and children lose their faith.

But the work, or the damage, depending on your perspective, has already been done. These youngsters have been taught that laying aside their natural doubt of all things that seem to defy the laws of every other phenomenon they have ever witnessed is not a sign of mental incapacity, but is rather a virtue. And that doing so for the sake of a future reward makes you wise and good. This is a travesty.

Any parent or educator can attest to this: children need both positive and negative reinforcement from time to time. And they will also attest that this outcome can not be set too far in the future. When a child is young, parents will start reminding their offspring of Santa's watchful eye sometime around Thanksgiving. Then, as the child matures, the reminders slink further back in the calendar, and children learn that Santa watches them all year. And then the sleigh crashes and the myth can no longer be sustained. (Un)Fortunately, there is another, nearly identical, waiting to take its place, with the rewards and punishments a little bit further out, and a tad harder to disprove.

So you may ask why, after all this ranting about the mentally debilitating and indoctrinating effects of Santa Claus on a young child, I would still tolerate it in my own home. Well, admittedly I am torn. And I certainly won't deceive her when she comes to me with questions, guilty as I am of being a part of the initial deception. But fundamentally, as much as I rail against faith, there can be some tolerance for it when it brings such an immense amount of joy to a child's life. 

Faith is relatively harmless in the hands of a child. Because after all, they are not charged with running the world. We are.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Can't Tori Read?

The Problem with Reading            

            I spend a lot of time thinking about reading and writing. That is, after all, my job, was the center of my college education, and is one of my favorite pastimes. And more and more, I am realizing how much of the confusion, miscommunication and general shouting past one another that goes on in our discourse stems not from an intractability in people's divergent viewpoints, but instead from many people's overestimation of their skill as a reader.

            I always considered myself a good reader... well, not always, I was in the lowest reading group through 2nd or 3rd grade, but then something clicked and by sixth grade I was doing book reports on Moby Dick and by 8th had finished the King James Bible, and generally was pretty confident in my ability to decipher text. Then, in my junior year of college I took a class on critical theory- structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, marxist readings, feminist readings, queer readings, all that academic BS. At the start of the class, the prof said, "This will be the hardest class you ever take." Well, I scoffed at that, did all the required reading, wrote my first paper, turned it in... and got a C-. And that was on the upper end of the curve. 

             What had gone wrong? Well, I had basically completely inverted the author's meaning (I think it was Saussure.) I had read the text with the rigor I had used for other non-fiction, but in this case it wasn't good enough. I realized then that I wasn't nearly as good a reader as I thought I was, and for the first time in a long time, actually had to think about the act of reading itself while engaged in it- monitoring my own comprehension, making and confirming predictions, mentally summarizing what was just read and then rereading to ensure accuracy, reading with a dictionary handy, etc.

              (As an aside, the above is why, even though I think most of the "theory" one learns as a philosophy or English major is total crap, the education itself is useful, because it teaches very high-level reading and critical thinking skills. Almost like Mr. Miyagi's "wax-on-wax-off," while the connection to reality might not seem apparent at first, practice in that skill does pay off.)

            As an English as a New Language teacher, these are the skills I am trying to impart into my students every day. And since most of my students come from a background of illiteracy, (people often talk about a student being the first in their family to go to college- many of my students are the first in their family to learn how to read) it can be quite a challenge. And what I witness, on an almost minute-ly basis, are students who are able to move their eyes over a text, are able to shape their lips and tongue to form the words- but have absolutely no idea what those words mean. They can say the words almost as well as you or I, and they can tell you what almost all of them mean individually, but they struggle immensely to extrapolate from those smaller units of meaning to sentences and paragraphs.

             But what makes this even more challenging is that they are convinced, absolutely convinced, that they are "reading." What else is there, besides moving your eyes over the text and saying the words, either aloud or in your head? Well, if you are reading this blog, you must be a fairly competent reader (more on that in a moment.) So you know that there is much more to reading than the mechanics of it.

               But my question is this: At what point do the rest of us run into texts that we are "reading" but not comprehending? I have often noticed in my own writing, this blog, emails, facebook arguments, that when people respond to it, there are a great many times where I can quickly see that our disagreement is not simply ideological, but is often more due to the reader's lack of careful attention to the meaning of the writing. And I am guilty of this as well- over the last year or two, I proofread a friend's work on Buddhism and Stoicism, not light stuff, and we spent many months going back and forth on things we essentially agreed on, but were having trouble reconciling because I wasn't fully understanding his intended meaning. Sometimes that was on him as a writer (which is why you have proofreaders) but it was more often on me for not reading carefully enough.

            Just last night, I sent a lengthy email to a friend of mine on a subject that was highly emotional for both of us. This person is the vice-president of a national company, and travels all over the US giving trainings and lectures. In other words, a highly successful and intelligent person. When he responded, he had read my email to have exactly the opposite meaning of what I had intended. Now, blog readers, I know I can be obtuse, and I do like to frig with the language to keep myself from getting bored, but I think, I hope, that when I wish to be clear, I can do so. I feel this email was pretty clear. But he had keyed in on one particular sentence (which, unsurprisingly, happened to be what he expected me to say), took it out of context and read the entire email in that light.

              At the same time, I got into an ideological discussion on religion and faith on google+ with a friend of mine who is a lawyer. She and I agree on many things, but disagree very strongly on a number of things as well. However, as I said to my wife this morning, no matter what the subject, or whether or not we leave the discussion agreeing to disagree, as we usually do, I always enjoy exchanging ideas with her because she reads everything I write very carefully. There is an actual discussion, and an actual exchange of ideas, not just two people presuming to know what the other person intends to say and responding right past them. So say what you will about lawyers, at least they have that going for them.

               These two diametrically opposed experiences trying to communicate myself through writing made me curious, from a personal perspective, about the semantic difficulty of my own writing. One tool we use as educators when selecting texts for our students is "lexile level." This is a measure established by a private company that measures the difficulty in reading a text. It does not take content into account, just the rarity of the vocabulary, the semantics of the sentences, and some other things (you can go look, I'm too lazy). The scale is from 200-2000, with each hundred (very) roughly corresponding to grade-level reading. (400-500 texts would be appropriate for 4th graders, very roughly speaking.) Anyway, I took the first 1,000 words of this post and fed it into Lexile's analyzer. The lexile of this post is 1470, which makes the challenge of reading it equivalent to John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, and more challenging than the GMATs and the CPA exam. The New York Times is around a 1380. Now, I was as surprised as you probably are by this, but recall that Lexile only takes certain aspects of a text into account. For example, no specialized knowledge is required to read this post, whereas you certainly  would need some specialized knowledge to understand, let alone pass, the GMATs or CPA exam.

             I guess the point of that, besides satisfying my own curiosity, was to show that even when we are reading the writing of a friend's blog, or an email they sent us, there is a lot more room for error than most of us realize. Because most people do not read comfortably beyond around 1300, which is where 12th grade texts leave off, and let's be honest, most people, sadly, stop reading for knowledge after they no longer have teachers telling them to do so. Harry Potter is not exactly making you a better reader, or raising your IQ. (As a further point of reference, The Sorcerer's Stone- L880, The Deathly Hallows- L980, and much of that relatively high score for a YA novel comes from the made-up words, not the rigor of the language.)

Yes, yes, but what does this have to do with Dungeons and Dragons?

             I'll answer that in a second...

            There is a greater point here, and it does have to do with intelligence, in a broad sense. Part of my job is to attend school administration meetings, and every time I have to go to one of these, I sit in shock and awe (although I shouldn't at this point) at people's utter inability to actually hear what other people, who are sitting right across the table from them, looking them right in the face, are saying. Obviously, some of this has to do with people's egotism and love of their own voice, tuning other's out until they get their turn to talk. But I think it also has to do with intelligence. And this is why Dungeons and Dragons is so instructive.

             For those of you whose lives were not fortunate enough to spend at least a spell as a role-playing geek, in DnD (and numerous other RPG games) you create a character who you "role-play," speaking and making all decisions for them in a fictitious world. The game attempts to quantify your character's attributes, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma by assigning them numbers 1-20. Now, for the physical stats, the first three, it is relatively easy to imagine yourself as a character who is stronger or weaker than you, quicker or slower than you, or healthier or sicklier than you. And for the mental stats, it is not that much more challenging to role-play a character who is stupider than you, more foolish than you, or who lacks your social graces. 

            However, it is nearly impossible to accurately role-play a character who is smarter than you, wiser, or more charming (social intelligence). We find it nearly impossible to genuinely put ourselves into the head of someone who is smarter than us. How could we? If we had access to that degree of intelligence, we would, by necessity, actually be that intelligent. A computer can be programmed to run a simulation of a slower machine, but it can't be programmed to run a simulation of a faster one.

              The next part of this is going to sound wretchedly, horribly conceited. Please forgive me that, because I think the point is relevant, worth stating, and may help others who find themselves in a similar position. (Which is probably most of the people I know who read this blog.) I have noticed, increasingly over the past few years, that I am often frustrated with people I am not intimate with, co-workers,  store clerks, etc. for the same recurring reason. I will often find myself in a position where I have asked a question or made a statement and their response is infuriatingly not a direct response to what I said. I repeat myself, then restate it, then explain it six more ways to no avail; I keep getting the same irrelevant answer. And then I realize- they are answering not based on what I am saying, but on the highest level of conception of the topic at hand that they can muster. For whatever reason, they cannot conceive of what I am saying, and so are resorting to what they know about the subject, in the best way they understand it.

             Yes, I know that is wicked arrogant. But before you get truly disgusted, consider two things. One, why is it that intelligence is the one human trait that we can't bear to hear that some people might posses more of than others? Most of us have no problem admitting when someone is faster than us, stronger than us, funnier than us, nicer than us or even better looking. I can, off the top of my head, think of at least half a dozen people in each of those categories who I know personally that posses those traits to a greater degree than I do. But we get really squeamish when we start talking about intelligence. True, intelligence is harder to quantify than some of those other traits- it's pretty hard to argue you are faster than someone who consistently beats you in a foot race. And it is also true that we consider intelligence to be the quality the draws the sharpest distinction between us and any other animals- it is the most "human" trait. But I think the attachment is still more emotional than rational.

             And further- Why is it that intelligence is one of the few traits that we feel it okay to despise the lack of in someone else? In general, most everyone else will consider you quite the prick if you openly despise people who are slower than you, get sick more often than you, or are not as good-looking as you. But we all love to complain about how "stupid" people are. There are traits worth being disgusted with in other people- lack of self control, lack of moral standards, lack of kindness, but it is odd that people so often accept intelligence as one of them. (Myself included.)

             So I'll be blunt. Using one measure of intelligence, IQ, I happen to posses a trait to a degree which separates me more from the "average" person than the average person is separated from Forrest Gump. (Try to think of this objectively.) In other words, as frustrated as the average person would be trying to communicate a complex idea to Gump, people with significantly above average IQ experience the same frustration when trying to communicate an idea to the average person. This revelation, rather than making me more cock-sure and conceited than I already am, actually has helped me be much less of a dick (I think) when I am trying to explain something to someone and they just aren't freakin' gettin' it! And as I said, most people that I know who would be reading this are probably in a similar position, and I hope that even a quiet acknowledgment that some people simply possess more intelligence than others makes people less inclined to treat others with disrespect when they are "being stupid."

Who Cares, Rob?

            We live in a golden age of communication. The increasing ubiquity of the internet has democratized and spread interpersonal communication to aspects of our lives that previous generations could scarcely conceive of. You can read dozens of viewer-reviews of a movie you are about to stream on Netflix, or consumer-reviews of a product you are going to buy on Amazon, you can read friend's blogs, try to interpret their cryptic tweets and texts, or get yourself embroiled in a shouting match in the comments section on The Huffington Post or Fox News. We spend a tremendous amount of time these days trying to convey ourselves to fewer and fewer people we actually know, whose quirks, backgrounds and manners of speaking are familiar to us, and more and more time trying to convey ourselves and understand people who are increasingly geographically and culturally removed from us. 

             The old rule of thumb used to be, "You don't discuss sex, religion or politics in polite company." Their may be a new rule, "No sane person reads the comments section on a news article discussing sex, religion or politics." If you ever have, and we all have, you should recall that the most infuriating part is not humanity's bottomless stupidity, but rather the way someone will post a smug rebuttal to someone else's comment and it has nothing to do with what the first person was saying. 

              Technology is only going to increase the degree to which we rely on communication and discourse from people we do not know to makes decisions that greatly affect our lives. Lest intelligent discourse succumb to that cacophony of stupidity, as individuals we each need to take two active steps. One- Recognize our own limitations as readers and thinkers and work diligently to correct them and make up for them. Two- Recognize the limitations of others, and when the mistake is one of communication, work patiently to correct it, and when the failure is one of deeper understanding work hard to attempt to see how they understand the topic at hand, so that you can help them bridge the gap to your way of understanding, so that both positions can be judged on their merits, not on how close to home they originated.



            

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy and the Tea Party


       There are a lot of angry people in this country, and although I generally try to avoid that emotion when making decisions, I can’t really say I blame most of them. Although I truly believe America is a great country and will continue to be so for a long time, there are, without a doubt, some things fundamentally wrong with the way things are right now.

            The point of this post is not to go into the details of what those things are, but a single example will help put things in perspective. Today’s top hedge fund managers, such as John Paulson, are bringing home annual salaries in the billions of dollars. In 2010, Paulson’s $5 billion dollar salary set a new record. Now, compare this single-year salary to the single-year salary of the typical, working class American family of $50,000. Given the roundness of both numbers, the math here is a simple matter of moving the decimal point over a few spaces and we can see that Paulson’s salary is 100,000 times that of the typical working class family.

            But money is an abstract concept, really, and a difficult thing for people to value accurately. $2 to a child, or a Ugandan, has different value than it does to a middle-class American adult. And many people will say, when presented with this discrepancy, “Well, he earned it. It’s his money, he didn’t do anything illegal to get it, so what’s the problem?” Point conceded (although some arguments could be made on the last point, but that is outside the scope here.)

            But money really isn’t the best way to measure value; time is. Whereas a given amount of money can have significantly different valuation for different people, at different times, in different places, it is not hard to see that an hour’s worth of one person’s time is, in the abstract, equal in value to an hour of anyone else’s time. So looking at our example above we can see that for a typical American family, let’s say of a self-employed carpenter and a school teacher, they would have had to begin working 100,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, right around when modern humans began migrating out of Africa and displacing earlier homo species, if they wanted to accumulate the wealth that Paulson acquired between the time the Yankees won the world series in 2009 and when the Giants won it in 2010. (Of course, if you are a Bible-literalist, this wouldn’t even be possible, since God wouldn’t get around to creating the universe until about 10,000 years ago, or a few millennia after the Sumerians started brewing beer.)

            How is it possible that the work-hour-value of someone who builds residences to keep people sheltered from the elements plus the work-hour-value of someone who teachers other people’s children how to read and write is worth so much less, 100,000 times less, than the work-hour-value of someone who moves electrons around in a computer? When you additionally consider that Paulson’s wealth comes from short-selling subprime mortgages- i.e. he profits when the house that our middle-class family lives in goes into foreclosure because our teacher has been laid off due to drastic state-spending cuts, and our carpenter can’t find work because the housing market is bunk- then the picture is even bleaker.

            It is easy, and tempting, for some, to look at this scenario, well, reality, really, and fall into the warm, comfortable trap of thinking that we should just have someone assign value to different tasks in our society. Sounds great, except time and time again it has proven to be an absolute, unmitigated disaster. Communism is the ultimate fail. The only way value can possibly be assigned is by the market itself, because it is simply the height of human arrogance to assume that any one person, or any group of people, could possibly have the wit and wisdom to perceive and predict the complex interactions of 7 billion individuals. Only the market can do this.

            But, as we saw above, the market can clearly become distorted. There are several reasons for this. But the major one is that people don’t understand that there is a fundamental difference between markets in goods and services and markets in assets and capital. Ideologues on the right look at how brainless bureaucratic interference in goods and services markets stifle innovation and wealth creation and wrongly assume that this analogy holds true in all markets and so they push for deregulation in all markets. Ideologues on the left see how deregulation in assets and capital markets leads to endless cycles of boom (for some) and busts (for the rest) and want to throw the baby out with the bath water and do away with capitalism altogether. Both of these positions are moronic.

            And right now the extreme voices of both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements are presenting this as an either/ or choice. Now, before we go any further, I should make it clear that I have deep sympathies with some aspects of both of these movements. Every time I see an “End the Fed” T-shirt at a Tea Party rally, or a “Bring back Glass-Steagal” placard at OWS, I feel optimistic about the future of our country. But what truly dismays me, what makes me slightly less than optimistic, is that these two movements seem utterly incapable of recognizing that they are two sides of the same coin.

            I think an analogy would be helpful here. Imagine you live in a city with a fair amount of mafia or gang influence and an equal amount of corruption in law-enforcement, the legal system and politics. Now let’s say it comes out that the mob has been getting away with all sorts of shady semi-legal dealings for the past few decades, racketeering, election-rigging, monopolizing local markets in goods and services… the usual. Now, both parties, the mob-bosses and their bought and sold political lackeys, are profiting handsomely at the expense of the hard-working citizens of this once great city. Who’s to blame?

            If we were to apply the arguments of Tea Party and OWS to this scenario, each would yield a different answer. According to the Tea Party, the political establishment, and only the political establishment, would be at fault. After all, if the mob can buy politicians, and get them to bend the rules in their favor, why shouldn’t they? This is America, baby! This is capitalism! On the other hand, if we listen to OWS, we should blame this primarily on the greedy mob for not having the self-restraint to stop themselves from getting away with something that was all-too-easy to pull off. Our spineless, gutless politicians had little to do with it.

            Now, I recognize that this is an over-simplification. There are many Tea Party supporters who recognize the role of corporations and finance in producing our current economic situation. And there are, I think, an even larger number of Occupiers who recognize the extent to which they were sold out by the people they put in office, including, perhaps especially, our current president. But what I am saying is that I think, on a fundamental level, Tea Partiers tend to think that corporations and banks, left entirely to their own devices, will do little but good, while Occupiers think that if it weren’t for those same corporations, our politicians could get back to the business of governing justly and fairly.

            It just ain’t so, folks. Money and politics go together like ham and cheese. They always have and they always will. The market for political influence is as old and pervasive as the market for sex, and it is unlikely either will disappear anytime soon. History is the story of the struggle of the few to dominate the many. And if we were to tally up a score at the end of each year, since the beginning of recorded history in about 3,000 BCE, it would be roughly 5,000-to-zip. Of course, there have been times where things were better than others. At the founding of this Republic people were hopeful, having shaken off the tyranny of the Church and the inherited aristocracy, that a new day of justice and equality was dawning- while meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Africans were held in slavery. The middle decades of this century saw a historically unprecedented distribution of wealth, the greatest realization of power the middle class has ever seen- and meanwhile the ancestors of those slaves couldn’t be served at a lunch counter in much of the country.

            There will always be battles to fight, injustices to correct. And the energy of both these movements is a potent and necessary thing. But we can’t lose sight of reality. There are some fundamental truths we must maintain a hold of.

            One, we must recognize that just because something has been made “legal” that doesn’t make it right, or the way things should be, or, to put that on more concrete footing, the way we, in a democratic society, want things to be. If a group of pedophiles raised a billion dollars and lobbied Congress to make kiddie-porn legal, they would almost surely succeed. (Do you really doubt that a billion dollars couldn’t buy you anything in Washington?) But would that make kiddie-porn right? Of course not. So just because banks can use predatory lending practices, mislead their investors, and bet against their own customers, it doesn’t mean they should, or that we, as citizens of the Republic, should accept that as the way things are, simply because they are still following the letter of the law (the letter of the law that they essentially wrote.)

            Two, we must recognize our own role in this. It is facile to say that “our society has become” lazy, indolent and complacent. No. People are lazy, indolent and complacent, when they lack the motivation to be otherwise. Let’s face it, folks, while it is pathetic to see a politician sell a multi-million dollar tax break for a kickback of a few tens of thousands of dollars, we citizens have let it all happen for a ticket to a 3D movie, the power to text-vote on American Karaoke, and a new Mrs. Fields at the mall (cause actually chewing a chocolate-chip cookie is now too much work.) Just as most of us find it shocking that on our grandparent’s watch people of color still had to fight to be served a grilled cheese at a white diner, our grandchildren will be shocked when they learn of the injustices that we tolerated on ours.

            Third, and finally, we must recognize that no single “fix” is going to make things right, forever and all time, or even a short while. Not neutering the federal government or reigning in greedy corporations. Getting some 300,000,000 mammals to share a finite number of resources without killing each other is a messy business. There probably isn’t a single other one (species of mammal, I mean) that could even hope to pull it off. There will always be cheats trying to game the system, and they will often end up with the reins of power. Those of us who want to live a simple, quiet, peaceful life, who have no interest in benefiting from the pain and misery of others, must be constantly vigilant, always ready to knock them off the cart.

            As Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party seem ready to do.
            Now, if they just recognized their enemy, our enemy, was one and the same, that would be a force to be reckoned with.
             And then those in power might realize that we're on to them this time around, and that we're not likely to keep playing a rigged game.