Monday, July 23, 2018

Must the News Be New? -- a modest journalistic proposal

It is a commonplace that, in order to boost circulation, the (so-called?) news media tend to emphasize cloud-pleasing stories which – given human nature? – tend to the violent and seamy. It has been suggested that an appropriate response would be to balance this reporting with positive news as well. As German economist Max Roser put it (here I am quoting from an article ["The Big Question," by Joshua Rothman, July 23, 2018, p. 27] that quotes a book [Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now] that cites Roser), a truly evenhanded newspaper “could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years."

However, I think this does not really redress the imbalance because even the bad news is distorted … and not nearly bad enough! So let me make a modest journalistic proposal (although this could also serve as a personal philosophical or ethical exercise): Each day (perhaps one week later in retrospect to allow for facts to develop and for some reflection first) select what seems (to the editor or to you or to whomever) to be the worst and the best news story of that day.

The basic idea is that in the new global village there is guaranteed to be something really awful and something really wonderful we could learn about every single day. Actually of course many things ... and different assessments (including opposite ones) by different people. So there need not be a single version of this blog or column or whatever form it takes. Everybody (who is sufficiently informed) could do their own. And then may the best blog win (judged by the readership, critics, oneself, Republicans, Democrats, whomever ... so of course there would be many blogs having the title "best" as well), but there could also be several favorites for anyone.

The point is twofold. On one hand, to make sure bad news, which is artificially emphasized by the media, is put into some balance with good. On other, to make sure the kind of bad and good news the media love is sidestepped in favor of more objectively chosen news items. (Of course even that "point" represents a subjective valuation of mine -- doubly so, in fact: as regards valuing objectivity, and as regards what counts as objective.)

It will also turn out that what is (the best or worst) news each day might not be new. Thus, somewhat mirroring Roser, I could see simply running the headline (that is, featuring as the worst news) BILLIONS OF INNOCENT SENTIENT BEINGS NEEDLESSLY CONFINED, TORTURED, AND SLAUGHTERED every day forever. 

But this does bring us to a point of paradox, namely, that what is most newsworthy may violate the very essence of what its name implies, and surely a basic human requirement – novelty. It is really no news that what is not new is not news at all. Ergo …? Don’t look to the news to find out what’s going on!

Monday, July 2, 2018

Side Effects

My doctor prescribed N for me to take when other drugs were proving ineffective against an ailment from which I suffer. However, when I filled the prescription and took a look at the fine print, I noticed that the drug is an anti-depressant. No way did I want to take an anti-depressant. Oh, I could probably use one; but it is a point of philosophic pride (and stupidity?) that I deal with my “mental” problems by means of reasoning alone. So I just put the bottle in my medicine chest and forgot about it.

After a while, the original ailment was bugging me ever more, and I remembered the bottle in the cabinet. I also called to mind the example of a colleague, who had been taking an anti-depressant and whom I had berated for doing so on the aforementioned philosophic grounds. He replied that a true philosopher would not be dogmatic and insist that there can be only one right way to do something. The temptation then became too strong to resist and I popped the pill.

Well, the drug – like all the others -- did not help with my ailment at all. However, I instantly noticed the most amazing thing … indeed, the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me! I lost my despair.

That is a story in itself, which I will someday tell at length. The point I want to make now in this brief essay is a general one about causation (though with far broader implications still). The drug N is in fact billed as an anti-depressant (or, in my case, an anti-desperant, as my cousin Pam coined it). But my doctor had prescribed it to me for an organic condition because he had tried so many other things without success and he thought it worth trying this one because it can have a side-effect that would be ameliorative to my condition.

As it turned out, its billed designation as an anti-depressant was what worked on me, but not the side effect. Indeed, it turned out to have another side effect – heartburn – that was so severe I had to stop taking it, alas. Ironically (now doubly so), my doctor had denied that N could have this side effect, and sent me to a specialist for the heartburn. The specialist also denied that heartburn could be a side effect of N and had me undergo an endoscopy! Finding nothing, he then prescribed a drug for me to take for the heartburn, which made me feel even worse. Finally, I took it upon myself to test my own hypothesis and stopped taking N. The heartburn vanished instantly!

What I conclude from this experience is that the designation “side effect” is purely relative to the intended use of a drug. In fact a drug has a global effect on a body or a person; and it is, in the abstract, arbitrary which component of that global effect is considered the therapeutic target and which others are, therefore, “side effects.”

My hypothesis about N in particular is that it works by slowing down (or whatever the physical equivalent of that is) the whole body, including the brain – that is its global effect. The drug is marketed as something that will treat depression by slowing down the cerebral/cognitive processes (obsessive thoughts) that make one feel depressed. But my doctor has prescribed it to me because he wanted to slow down another part of my body, which was causing me painful spasms. Meanwhile the drug slowed down my metabolism, thereby causing my heartburn.

The Real Meaning of Regret

The other day an old friend told me of her regret about the decision she had made in her early life to go to graduate school A rather than graduate school B, because it may have shut off some career opportunities. Philosopher that I am, I immediately dismissed her concern by pointing out that her beloved daughter would not even exist had my friend made a different decision. My friend did not at first see the connection, so I explained that I was referring to the utter contingency of which sperm meets which egg; so the slightest alteration of prior conditions would mean a different person, or no person, would have been born.

Although she then saw what I was getting at, this did not lift her regret. I chalked it up to the usual irrationality of nonphilosophers (which also includes all philosophers when they revert to being just plain people, which is really just about all of the time, even in their professional role).

But some musing on another subject has now given me a different understanding of what may be going on with my friend. I was listening to some gorgeous music on the car radio but noticed that my hearing was diminished by the congestion I’ve been having during this allergy season. This led to a reverie about going deaf. It then occurred to me that I am remarkably immune to regret about the loss of some things, which loss, when I am in their grip, would be almost unthinkable. Music is certainly a prime example. I am transported by countless different forms of music and individual compositions to a thousand different forms of ecstasy. And yet … although from time to time I feel a thirst to hear music … on the whole its general absence would not, I think, leave any big hole in my felt existence.

Then I thought about other kinds of pleasures. When I became a vegan I instantly gave up many foods I enjoy (and would still). I remember thinking on the very day I made the resolution: Why not at least finish off the final can of tuna fish in the cupboard? But I didn’t. (I gave it away so the tuna would not have died in vain.) And despite my love of tuna (the food), it was not at all difficult for me to go cold turkey (so to speak). After these many years I do find my diet boring (albeit only because I’m too lazy to cook); but I definitely do not go around pining for tuna fish etc. etc.
I also recall a particular episode of getting high (during my brief career as a young pot smoker), which filled me with sublime pleasure (music!) and also made me want to spread love (i.e., smoking pot) to the whole world. But as much as I wish I could recapture that experience, I have no yearning to reintroduce it into my life.

Similarly for meditating three times a day. I was able to drift through life in the most carefree way … so unlike my anxious existence ever since. But I gave it up when I saw the regime interfering too much with the spontaneity and responsibilities of daily life. (Now I mediate just once a day when I get up in the morning.) Wistful feelings when I happen to think of those days – but, again, no real regret.

The ultimate test could be sex. But I am now old enough to realize that this too is likely dispensable from the (or a) good life.

What, then, of my friend’s regret? It suddenly occurred to me that regret could serve some useful function after all: It may be a signal that one is unhappy and (therefore) may want to try to change one’s circumstances. For any or all of the losses I have mentioned in my own life that do not or would not (necessarily) bum me out, might very well do so if I were not otherwise content with my life. Thus, I surmise, my friend, although surely happy about her daughter (and other aspects of her life), must still experience some fundamental dissatisfaction with the way things are going for herself (or the world?).

This points up a subtle distinction. On its face, regret represents a dissatisfaction with the ways things have gone in one’s life. But what I am suggesting is that it’s deeper meaning is that one is dissatisfied with how things are now going in one’s life. For – judging by my own case – I could care less about the past decades of pain if right now (and for the foreseeable future) I feel OK. No regrets!

My formula for happiness (i.e., no regrets) is, of course, not quite so simple. For one thing there may not be any solution to one’s dissatisfaction, even if the real meaning of one’s regret has now been revealed to oneself. Thus, for example, there may be no way ever to be content or happy with life if one has lost a child (say, due to some otherwise seemingly innocent  decision one had made).

I don’t know if regret links up with what might be considered a pure moral concern. Thus, suppose one’s compassion for the bottomless suffering in the world made one immune to happiness. Would this make one perpetually liable to regret? My hunch is that the answer is No. For in addition to indicating that one is unhappy, regret seems also to signal that one is somehow responsible for whatever it is that is causing the unhappiness. But if you are, say, an earnest vegan and animal rights advocate who can never be truly happy because of your acute awareness of the unending holocaust of the animals, I’m not sure that, on that account, you would be feeling any regret if you knew you had been doing your best. (You would of course wish the world were different.)

But note also that I do not mean to suggest that the elimination of regret has to be linked to some action directed at the source of the regret. For instance, my friend’s regretted choice of grad school is based on her felt-hampered career prospects. However, it could be that something besides a better career could fill her life with sufficient joy to make her no longer care about her career that much. I would have thought the daughter could do the trick; but it could be that the career simply looms too large in my friend’s life aspirations to enable her to lose regret if her career never improves.

I would hope for one of two (logically) possible happy endings for her. (1) She discovers some change she can make in her life, whether or not having to do with her career, that makes her happy or (2) She recognizes that, whatever the function of regret properly understood, or however elusive happiness may be for oneself, regret remains something fundamentally irrational in that whatever has been, or is, could not have been otherwise – so why add to your sorrows pointlessly by dwelling on how things might have been?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

There Are Only Agnostics in Foxholes

Like most folks, I imagine, I have always believed there is some plausibility to the proposition that there are no atheists in foxholes. If the shells were raining down on you, and your buddies were dying left and right, wouldn’t you be praying?

As a bona fide atheist, I have no fear of death as such. Dying unpleasantly I dread, and also dying “prematurely,” although that term is relative to what one cares about and has accomplished or experienced. Being generally pleased with the latter in my own life, I fancy I am “ready to go” at any time because, at my age, the future is likely to go worse than better as a whole.

Nevertheless all bets are off when I’m in a foxhole, literally or figuratively.

So it came as a surprise to me just now when I had the sudden realization that one’s likely behavior and feelings in a foxhole testify not to one’s (however temporary) belief in God but, quite the contrary, to one’s loss of faith. For if one truly believed in God, and especially in the kind of God who would sympathetically listen to one’s prayers, then … why would you need to be so fervently praying? Wouldn’t the person of faith be confident, even in, perhaps especially in, the most trying circumstances, and hence not need to be “reminding” the All-Knowing that little old you is in desperate need of assistance?

Of course the whole thing is nonsense to begin with. Why would God want to reward a selfish bastard for praying that He save your hide while ignoring all the others being blasted to bits beside you? And why would a Merciful One be allowing all that stuff to be happening in the first place? If there were a God, would there be foxholes (for anyone but foxes)?

But even bracketing the Big Problem, I think it enlightening to realize that real faith does not consist in praying for special consideration. So those folks who are praying in foxholes? – they’re not absolutely certain that God exists, but they’re surely hoping He does. That makes them agnostics, wouldn’t you say?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Statins and Statistics

Guidelines for doctors recommend prescribing cholesterol medication for patients who show a ten percent (or even lower) chance of developing heart disease over the next ten years by the most recent approved measure. When I first heard about this it struck me as odd, even absurd: another case of a hammer seeing everything as a nail. For doctors, all of us are only varying degrees of sick, and hence in need of treatment, since we are never perfectly healthy, right? But how could 10 percent be something to worry about? Isn’t it intuitive that something is probable only if it's >50 percent? And 10 percent is so far below that that it seems downright improbable.

    But then I thought about it in a different way: Suppose someone handed you a revolver with ten chambers in the cylinder and a bullet in one of them. Would you be willing to play Russian roulette?

    Or suppose you were one of ten people in a room, one of whom was to be chosen at random to be killed (or be given a stroke, the way experimenters induce them in lab animals). Would you feel comfortable?

    I think those ways of thinking about it make ten percent appear to be far from negligible.

    Another way to enhance the impression is to imagine a room with 100 people in it. To be told that 10 of them would soon die seems significant indeed, doesn’t it?

    Or that of a crowd of 1000 people, 100 would be killed or severely injured. Begins to sound a lot like what just happened in Las Vegas, eh? (speaking of odds, aptly enough).

    Part of what is going on here with these Gestalt shifts of risk is that risk consists in not just probability but probability times magnitude of the outcome. In this case the outcome is heart attack, stroke, or death. If we were just talking about a ten percent chance of losing 5 cents, we would say the risk is negligible. But if the risk is losing your life (or lifestyle), then the same probability yields a much higher risk.

    So my initial impression of risk was based on a fallacious conflating of risk with just probability, discounting the magnitude of the outcome. In other words, I was considering only a number, a statistic, in the abstract, and not its concrete application, in this case, to heart disease.

    Of course, none of this predicts in the individual case. Also, there must be countless variables not taken into consideration. Consider also that any medication taken to ameliorate the condition brings its own bevy of risks. Finally, the drugs are hardly likely to guarantee their intended results, and may in fact be efficacious in only a small percentage of cases. (Thank you, Mitchell Silver, for that last point ... who also adds a further point: The severity of the heart disease in question needs to be specified, since in theory it could cover a range from severe to negligible.)

    This is why, in the end, treatment (if any) is what is commonly called a matter of judgment ... and also preferences. So presented with the facts as stated -- let's say, 10-percent of folks like you (in some but of course not all respects) will (untreated, I presume....?) likely develop heart disease of such-and-such range of severity in the next ten years, and Medication X has been shown to avert or at least ameliorate heart disease in n percent of such cases, but also poses such-and-such risk of so-and-so side effects -- should your doctor prescribe or should you take the med? I think there's no "should" about it. The only question is: What will you do once you have reflected on the relevant facts?

Addendum 1
Here's another way to think about the recommendation to take a statin if there is a ten percent chance you will develop heart disease in the next ten years. It is telling doctors to, in effect, shove pills down the throats of ninety percent of people fitting the profile even though they don't need it, and even though the pills will bring risks of their own, as well as various inconvenient and unpleasant side effects for many who take it (and not to mention that the pills will not be effective even for all of the ten percent who will develop heart disease if they take nothing). 

     The pro-pill folk can reply that there are many situations like this, for example, insurance, where the many subsidize the few since all are at risk but only an unknown few will actually be struck (by disease, fire, theft, accident, lawsuit, etc.). The anti-pill folk can reply that the "premium" in the case of statins may be too high for the individual (or even the society) to afford or be comfortable with (given its risks, possible incommodiousness, or cost), not to mention that the “insurance company” will “cover your loss” in only a percentage of the cases (since the drug is not 100 percent effective). The pro-pill folk can reply that the relatively high likelihood (ten percent for heart disease, as opposed to something minuscule for, say, your house burning down) justifies the (possibly) significant “premium.”

Addendum 2
A more expansive objection to taking a statin is that the drug is an arbitrary intervention. Given that life itself is fraught with every kind of risk, from choking on your food to being incinerated by an asteroid, and it just so happens (no, not “just so happens”; somebody saw the potential for financial profit in this) that people have found a way to ameliorate this particular one (risk of heart disease), we are now expected to avail ourselves of statins. But carried to the extreme, every aspect of our lives could become circumscribed by preventative measures. Indeed, this is already the case -- hence playgrounds with umpteen safety features and ringed by barbed wire with armed guards surrounding them. Thus, the quality of life suffers the more we orient to the avoidance of risk, to the point of absurdity.

            But the pro-statin contingent has an answer to this too. The above argument smacks of an archaic conservatism: “If man were meant to fly ….” Human beings have not lived in their “natural” state since forever. Today we live, on average, longer than ever. It is only natural, in an extended sense, therefore, that we may rely on artificial supplements to maintain our “unnatural” lifespan and good health. Granted, this can be taken to extremes; but so can anything. So here as everywhere, “All things in moderation.” It seems reasonable not to smoke, to wear a seatbelt, to make sure you get exercise regularly, to come inside if there is lightning, to get a flu shot, and so forth. Similarly for taking statins. It doesn’t mean you have to hide under the covers all the time (which would surely bring its own risks!). Judge each case on its merits.

Addendum 3.
Your move.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Pain as a Gestalt

You know the duck/rabbit phenomenon, where a drawing sometimes looks like a duck and sometimes like a rabbit, but never the two at once. This is known as a Gestalt shift, since the whole form (Gestalt) of the drawing changes from one (duck) to the other (rabbit), and each form is in some sense “greater than the sum of its parts,” which are the original lines and curves and their arrangement on the page, which constitute neither the image of a duck nor a rabbit but are ambiguous or just themselves.
            Another well-known example of Gestalt shift is the Necker cube, another drawing which presents itself to our vision in only one or the other of two distinct aspects – in this case, both times as a cube (and so again not merely the lines or their arrangement on the paper), but with front and back reversed.
            Well, the other day I was out for a walk. Of late I have been suffering from tendinitis, and so I am used to feeling pain at the back of my left foot with each step. But all of a sudden I noticed that the pain was gone. And yet, paradoxically, the feeling had not changed. At least, that is how I was compelled to describe the situation to myself.
            I know of other situations that are similar, where we might be tempted to say that we still feel pain but have ceased to suffer. (My late mentor Jerome Shaffer wrote about this distinction.) The wriggling of a loose tooth could be an example of this; being sedated during a medical procedure another. Masochism would be an extreme case. But what I was feeling on my walk seemed more definitely to be the disappearance of the pain itself. And yet, as I say, I was still feeling something, and the feeling struck me as indistinguishable from what a moment before I had experienced as pain.
            This leads me to an extraordinary hypothesis. Could pain be a Gestalt? And more specifically, could pain be liable to Gestalt shift? In other words, just as we can learn to adjust our vision to see whichever of the duck or rabbit we want to, or whichever orientation of the Necker cube we want to, might we be able to learn how to switch off a pain by experiencing it as a nonpainful sensation?
            I claim no more for this than its being, as I called it, an hypothesis. It is subject to further testing, but each of us can perform these experiments. I do in fact known someone who claims to be able to sit calmly through her dental appointments without anesthetic; I wonder if something like this is going on there. But in my tendinitis case, it is quite possible the pain had simply gone away, and my phenomenology (the way the event felt to me) was simply mistaken as an analysis of what was actually going on.
            If, however, the hypothesis has some merit, then it implies that the correct analysis of, say, tendinitis pain is that there are really three phenomena intimately linked, because both the pain and the nonpainful feeling would be aspects of a third thing, analogous to the lines on the page of the Gestalt drawings. So in neither case would I have been feeling what was “really there” – some yet more primitive sensation, I suppose – but only one Gestalt or the other.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Particular Focus, Con and Pro

We have heard much in recent times about the cognitive quirks of our mind. Reflective types have always noted these, but only in the last decades has science caught up to document them in exquisite and exhaustive detail. Witness the classic tome by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. And whereas Kahneman himself professes some optimism, I am more temperamentally aligned with the kind of conclusion drawn by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind, namely, that human beings are hopelessly irrational.
            One of these features of our thinking, which, like the rest, presumably arose from evolutionary pressures under very different conditions of living from modern society, is our focus on the particular. This explains why we are far more likely to have our heart strings strummed and our purse strings opened by appeals on behalf of a single young orphan than by news reports of a mass catastrophe. We spent most of our evolutionary history living in small groups, where we needed to respond to the plights of individuals in our midst, rather than to the starvation of thousands in a different part of the globe that we didn’t even know existed and which certainly had no bearing on our own immediate survival. As Stalin may (or may not) have said, “If you kill one man it’s murder; if you kill a million, it’s a statistic.” This is how all of our minds work, not just Stalin’s.
Stalin was smart enough to realize that and so be able to exploit it. But even aside from malign intent, this tendency of our mind has a bad odor, since it appears to make us ill-equipped to deal with the kinds of global threats that today genuinely threaten us all or at least are something we could help ameliorate if our motivation could be enlisted to do so.
That all sounds right to me. However, I have just had a thought about a silver lining. The sad fact is that human beings are not going to change their basic nature any time soon if ever. (And maybe even if or when we do someday engineer our minds to be more responsive to big numbers, the ability to save ourselves or others on massive scales might be inadequate.)
But the very same cognitive tendency that contributes to this woeful state of affairs might also give us the capacity to carry on. This was first brought to my awareness by Wayne Pacelle, the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, when I was interviewing him on radio station WNHU (88.7 FM, West Haven, CT) many years ago. I asked him how he could maintain his motivation and spirit in the face of the uncountable number of horrors his work brings him into continual encounter with. His answer was that he focuses on the day-to-day accomplishments, the individual victories.
What prompted me to put this together with the general cognitive issue was a communication from a friend who is just about to venture off to do volunteer work in some God-forsaken part of the world. He posed a similar question to some returnees who had related the awful conditions that await him:

“Did the volunteers think their service worthwhile? On the one hand, a nurse described her work as ‘spitting in the ocean to change the tide’. But the same nurse told of receiving an email from a student who had gone to a remote village to practice, and wrote excitedly because she recognized, and only because the volunteer had taught her to recognize it, that a village baby was suffering from a particular disease. That recognition may well lead to a different life course for that child. Many returned volunteers describe their service as both the most difficult and most gratifying year of their lives. I surmise that this program may do nothing for [Country X], but might do something for individual [X-ans].”

And, I would add, for the individual volunteers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando: Let Me Count the Ways

The people who were killed: May they rest in peace.

Their families and friends, and people who were wounded or otherwise terrorized: May they be healed.

The killer: May he rest in peace.

His family and friends: May they be healed.

The LGBT community: I have empathized with your suffering and persecution and advocated on your behalf for decades, been amazed and thrilled by the growth of tolerance in recent times, but recognize that you are still lightyears from being able simply to be yourselves almost anywhere in the world like everybody else would like to be. I see you as fellow Jews – the world’s pariah and whipping boy whenever any knucklehead wants to blow off some steam about anything whatever (including, apparently in this case, a gay who has been taught to hate himself for being gay).

Muslims: I just want to go out and say a kind word to any Muslim I meet today. There is absolutely nothing, no reason whatever, to single you out because of what some nuts do. It is beyond absurd (just as with gays and Jews and whoever else belongs to some supposed group that some people have irrational beliefs about) that Muslims in particular are any different from Christians, etc. (for better or worse). Again, as a Jew, I can particularly empathize with your situation. So I want you to know I am with you, 100 percent.

Gun advocates: Your right to own an AR-15 is based on absurd and macho motives having nothing to do with the pretexts you put out, such as for hunting and personal safety. You are either lying or utterly unaware of your own motives.

Malaria victims: 438.000 of you (mostly children) died last year. Where is the comparative attention and outrage?

Children: Last year almost 6 million of you died below the age of 5, almost all (99%) in low- and middle-income countries. Where is the comparative attention and outrage?

People who eat animals: You are perpetrating the most massive and horrific atrocity by far upon innocent sentient creatures, by the tens of billions. Where is the comparative attention and outrage?

Everyone: At any time a comet could be discovered that will hit the Earth (typically within nine months) and wipe us all out because we have not made the extensive preparations needed beforehand to deflect or destroy it. We are also currently vulnerable to largescale havoc from asteroid impacts and explosions, which we could relatively easily and inexpensively prevent if people knew and cared. Where is the sense of urgency?

Why can’t people simply be compassionate and rational?

Answer: Because we are the hodgepodge product of mindless cause-and-effect.

What to do: Strive to understand the causal mechanisms that inhibit or could enhance our compassion and rationality, and then apply these insights.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Technology and Inference

One can only be astounded by humanity’s ever-accelerating advances in technology … although I’m sure most of them have always taken place out of sight of the general populace. But every once in a while something hits the airwaves, and this latest leaves me feeling there are no limits whatever. Quoting one report (with my emphases) on the achievement:

On September 14, 2015, the two LIGO sites, in Louisiana and Washington State, independently detected a gravitational wave by measuring a discrepancy in the time the light rays took to reach a sensor at the ends of the tunnels. The precision of the measurement is simply astonishing. The difference in length that each light wave traveled corresponds to 1/1000th of the radius of a proton, a subatomic particle that is itself minuscule, with a size of about 10-12    meters. 

            But I am also astounded … and very pleased … that the real payoff of this technological feat must have come about by means of good ol’ rational inference and theory construction. For here (according to the same article) is what that blippiest of blips has revealed to us:

    The signal captured precise details about the two black holes that, within a fraction of a second, collided, coalesced, and produced the gravitational wave. Scientists determined that they were thirty-six and twenty-nine times the mass of our sun, with event horizons approximately ninety-three miles wide. They produced a single black hole sixty-two times the mass of the sun. The difference in mass of the black holes before and after the collision was converted into energy in the form of gravitational waves. This is an enormous amount of energy, more than that in the visible light of all the stars in the universe combinedScientists were also able to conclude that the black holes merged about 1.3 billion years agoand that these ripples that stretched and compressed space traveled unimpeded to earth.

Quotations from:
After Einstein: The Dark Mysteries

Time Is Running Out

The Baby Boomers -- my generation – have always fancied themselves something special. This was due not only to our economic privileges as the wealthiest (young) generation in history (albeit not uniformly distributed, of course!) but also our numbers. My own intimation of mortality came a decade or two ago when I suddenly realized that, say, the Beatles would fade into history, and probably rather rapidly, like everybody else. Except … that didn’t happen! So our collective ego has been reinforced by at least one succeeding generation … and no doubt abetted by the eternal presence of the recent past on the Internet.

            Of course ours was also the generation that grew up with the fear of nuclear world war, which certainly would have ended things right quickly, with no other generations to succeed our massive failure. But side by side with that were inspiring spectacles of a high order, surely the “highest” (for me anyway) being walking on the Moon. (Of course this was not accomplished by boomers.)

            But then was an odd period of hibernation, when even landing on the Moon became a thing of the past, and the students I taught in college learned about it in their history books. The music deteriorated, making money came back in style, women became sex objects again, and a general crassness and indifference took over. We wondered – just like our parents – what are these kids coming to? (“We” being a subset of the boomers, of course, possibly even a very small one. I’ve never been able to figure out how representative I am.) Then religion made a big comeback, and the latest is … racism and bigotry! Oy. (In reality they may never have “gone away,” or maybe their current “resurgence” is more media phenomenon than reality. Again, it’s hard to know what’s what, even in, or perhaps especially in, this age of infinite access to information.)

            The most recent phase of the boomer saga, though, is what I want to write about. (By the way, that there is yet another “phase” is itself an incredible phenomenon to me. I feel I for one have lived through many generations and even lives. I can’t believe I am still alive, and even youngish [by today’s standards]. Life is long, even though it’s just a blip.) For the boomers are suddenly taking over again …although in a backhanded way, since the actual individuals who are making this happen are probably our children and even grandchildren. But somehow it feels like “our” projects. (Perhaps that is just another boomer trait, to see everything else as an extension of oneself?)

            I am talking about the urge and surge to accomplish the ultimate projects, including not only “mundane” things like ending world poverty and diseases (although I think we’ve given up on ending war), but especially the cosmic things like immortality, reaching another star system (we have already reached Pluto and beyond!), and Contact (with ET). On the one hand there are intimations of mortality, such as when I realized the other day that NASA was already planning space missions that I would not live to see! On the other hand, genius scientists and engineers, superentrepreneurs, and billionaire investors are finding and funding marvels of every kind, allowing their science-fiction imaginations to run wild.

            Actually a lot of it is pure hype and wishful thinking and rich people’s fantasies and really no different from any other kind of salvational religion (except that the latter is traditionally the domain of the poor and the uneducated and of course focused on the supernatural). I have seen many of these people up close, and they remain human oh so human. Nevertheless they do have occasional remarkable successes, and the times they really are a-changin’.

But my main point is only that all the stops are being pulled out either directly by boomers or else in our time. It is an extraordinary effort being made to see it all, do it all – for apr├Ęs nous …? Actually, however, “after us” is inconceivable to the folks I’m talking about. They intend to stick around for all of it, forever. And yet, contradictorily, it is a desperate effort … for we will only be immortal if we achieve immortality now

Monday, May 23, 2016

Let Us Now Praise Dagwood

By Joel Marks

It is almost impossible to believe that the comic strip Blondie has been running continuously since 1930, because it is, to my taste, the best comic strip today. At least 50% of the time, seven days a week, it can be counted on to give a good laugh. Take the most recent daily episode. The first panel shows Blondie and Dagwood in bed with Dagwood looking concerned and Blondie peeved. She says, “The problem is … you never ask me how I’m feeling!” In the next panel Dagwood obligingly and earnestly asks, “How are you feeling?” In the final panel, Blondie replies, “Well if you have to ask, then we really have a problem!”

            This is not only funny. It is beautiful. Consider the perfect symmetry between “The problem is …” at the beginning and the “… have a problem” at the end. But there is also a special bang to the mirror-reply added by the word “really.” And of course topping it off is the hapless helpless husband looking straight at us from the page in a pictorial rendition of bada-bing.

            To be able to generate quality humor like that day after day for 86 years is a marvel to behold. And apparently it has been done by father and son: Chic Young, who died in 1973, and Dean Young. There have been, and are, other quality strips; Garfield gets my vote for Number Two, including nonpareil Sunday artwork and slapstick. But which can match that record? Some quit while they were ahead: Consider Calvin and Hobbes. Peanuts has just run repeats since the death of its creator. And some deteriorate, such as, alas, Beetle Bailey, although only recently.

            But record or not, Blondie today is an ongoing work of art. In my view – and I would be surprised to be contradicted – the comic strip is really about Dagwood, Blondie’s husband. Certainly Dagwood idolizes Blondie, who is a fine character in her own right, just the right combination of ditzy, level-headed, and knowing to continue to elicit old-time laughs that are acceptable to more modern sensibilities. But it is Dagwood whose personality generates most of the fun.

            What is so impressive about Dagwood is that he is both Everyman, or Every Suburban Middleclass Man, and utterly unique. This is the guy who kisses his wife goodbye and then goes to work in the office every morning. In the office he is always working on some contract or other, attending meetings, hanging out at the water cooler. He goes to lunch at the luncheonette or the diner. He comes home looking forward to a good dinner prepared by his wife and afterward parks himself in front of the TV. On weekends he just wants to rest, and he loves a long bath. Other times he would like to play golf or go bowling or watch a game on TV with his neighborhood buddy, Herb, but must often instead mow the lawn or fix something in the house.

            But this is also the man who wants nothing other than to sleep the day away in bed or on the couch or at his desk in the office. He is forever late getting up in the morning, keeps his carpool waiting, rushes out the front door like the whirlwind, and infuriates his boss, Mr. Dithers, with his inveterate tardiness, dozing off, goofing off, and, with all that, expectations of a raise. (One wonders why he is kept on at all, but Dithers’ affection for Blondie’s cooking may be the simple answer.) Perhaps most famously of all, this is the man who at any time of day or night is ready to eat, and eat prodigiously. He adores his wife’s cooking, but is himself adept at creating the ultimate culinary bomb, the Dagwood Sandwich. (My one personal dissatisfaction with the strip is Dagwood’s incorrigible carnivorism.) And of course this is the guy who has a single large button on his shirt, two giant cowlicks on his head, and the name “Dagwood Bumstead”!

            A close second to Dagwood’s own enduring personality is the hilarity generated by his interactions with an amazing array of characters (in both senses). Blondie is of course of first importance, but there is also a large contingent of wise guys. Neighbor Herb is forever “borrowing” Dagwood’s tools and otherwise stiffing him. The postman Mr. Beasley (and also any number of door-to-door salesmen) needles Dagwood at every opportunity. The plumber is more than happy to benefit from Dagwood’s dependence, as well as (understandably) be compensated for putting up with Dagwood’s kitchen quarterbacking. Department store clerks know their mark when they see him. Even his barber continually makes wise cracks at his expense.

            Then there are less snotty but still difficult denizens of Dagwood’s world, like Lou of Lou’s Diner, who caters to Dagwood’s catholic appetite but won’t hesitate to pull a fast one, and Elmo, the little boy neighbor who is up on all the latest but will never let Dagwood get some afternoon’s shuteye. Finally, there are entirely friendly but therefore bland characters who add the occasional mild laugh situation, chiefly Dagwood and Blondie’s own teen spinoffs, son Alexander and daughter Cookie, and of course dog Daisy, whose expressions serve as pictorial punctuation marks to whatever is going on.

Of course this bare description of the components of Blondie could only convey the genius of the strip to someone who was already acquainted with it. So if that is you, I hope you have enjoyed this opportunity for reverie. And if it is not you, then by all means give the strip a try! It might take time for you to be drawn into its world, naturally, but if you are, then, like me, you will reach a point where each of the endless recurrences of its stock situations fills you with joy … and perhaps amazement.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Putting 2 and 2 Together

by Joel Marks

Last night I glanced out my window before pulling down the shade and noticed a bright star. It was probably Jupiter. I am fairly knowledgeable about the nighttime sky, since I have been an amateur astronomer all my life. Nothing is more fascinating to me than the physical universe with its vastness and mystery. So as I gazed at the blazing planet I began to picture it as the immense and gorgeous globe it is, when I suddenly had a random thought: There could be artificial satellites orbiting that planet!

            Now this is hardly news for anybody. We have been sending probes to the planets and moon(s) for decades, indeed for over half a century; and I’ve been following them the whole time. But, dagnabbit, not once before had I ever put 2 and 2 together in my perceptual experience and felt their presence when I looked at the sky. Oh, plenty are the times I have gazed at the moon and practically swooned at the thought of human beings walking there, or hiking there with backpacks as I myself have done on this planet. But, for whatever reasons or causes, the particular thought of an unmanned space probe orbiting another celestial body had just never come to me when I was looking at one of them.

            I am musing now at several levels. I am as ever in awe of humanity’s reach into space. Last night was a moment of genuine splendor for me, to have that First Light dawn on me. But that soon led me to musing at a more abstract level about the “thickness” of the human “skull.” How could I have failed to unite my intellectual knowledge (and indeed passion) with my actual experience for half a century? Just dumb, I guess. Well, just human.

            So from now on when I gaze at the planets, I will experience them as accompanied by human artefacts. Of course the sky has already been filled with human artefacts, from kites to airplanes to Earth satellites to, soon, drones. But all of those are visible to the naked eye, whereas these others must be imagined because of their distance. Note also that I specifically say “planets,” by which I refer to the seven classical planets, or “wanderers” through the so-called fixed stars. So this means not only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, but also the sun and the moon. And we have or have had and surely will have probes circling them all. Isn’t that amazing? We are a truly space-faring species; we inhabit not only the Earth but the entire visible solar system (and of course the “invisible” one too, since we have also visited Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and several other “minor planets”; and some of these are sometimes visible to the naked eye as well).

            Again, no news here. Just … realization. And is it not preciously in consciousness that wonder resides?

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Tube

I had been preparing for months for a conference overseas and at long last was boarding the airplane. How much effort had gone into this, but now everything had been arranged and all that remained was to carry through with my well-designed plans. The main event was to be the presentation of a poster at the conference; this is a form of mini-paper that features a literal poster on a wall containing one’s main arguments. As I was approaching my economy seat in the rear section of the plane and getting ready to hoist my carry-ons into the overhead bin, I suddenly realized I was not carrying the tube containing the poster! I was later told by an onlooker that my pale face went absolutely white. I know from my own experience that my stomach dropped to the floor. In a panic I turned around and struggled through the line of people in the narrow aisle to the exit of the plane and explained my plight to the attendants. One of them accompanied me to the gate, where an official grudgingly gave us permission to return as far as the security entrance but no farther. Halfway there I recalled that I had definitely brought the tube through security, so my anxiety was partially relieved. And, sure enough, when we arrived there, my tube lay in a bin of lost-and-found items. The attendant told me that this was a rare case of discovering something that had gone missing in this manner. As relieved as I was, I never got over the shock. I am still wracked by the nightmare of: what if I had realized I didn’t have the poster just a few minutes later, as the plane was taxiing down the runway? It is as if it actually happened.
             This episode instances a general phenomenon. We have all had moments in which catastrophe was narrowly averted – near misses, close shaves, etc. Mine hardly represents the worst sort. For all I know the airplane I was on narrowly missed colliding with a meteor midway to our destination. Indeed every single moment of our lives is potentially like this and possibly even actually like this. The more general phenomenon is called (by philosophers anyway) contingency. Each and every thing that happens (not to mention what does not happen) is the product of a zillion factors, mostly unknown to us. And that goes of course for the catastrophes that do occur … and also all the wonderful things.
             I think that I have developed a particularly keen sensibility to contingency -- perhaps an occupational hazard of being a philosopher? Thus, I can honestly report that my journey overseas went fabulously well in all respects, both at the conference and on a little holiday excursion afterward. I returned home with a sense of great professional and personal satisfaction. And yet I vowed never to go on such a trip again if I could possibly avoid it.* Why? Because I was also acutely aware of a handful of salient near-misses during those 12 days in addition to the tube one. The trip contained other moments of high drama, which confirmed my sense that travel is not for the faint of heart. And even though everything turned out well, so that these events could just as well be celebrated with joy and relief, my final takeaway was almost terror. Their main message for me was that several such things would be likely to occur during any major undertaking in future; and so the chances were high that they would not all be near-misses but an occasional hit. So to embark on another adventure would be to court disaster (whether of a minor or major sort).
             I am not saying for a moment that my thinking here is truly rational or sound. I am simply trying to articulate the underlying logic of my feeling. Although there is certainly something to said for the line of reasoning therein, various counterarguments also readily suggest themselves. For example, as already noted, every single moment of our lives, and of my life in particular, is dependent on countless “accidents”; so even if I never set foot on an airplane again, indeed, even if I never left my house again, I would still be liable to catastrophes in abundance.
             Perhaps the most fundamental refutation of all is that the very same outlook that underlies our liability to contingency offers a perfectly countervailing consideration. For just as every moment of our lives is governed by this that and the other ultimately beyond our ken, every moment of our lives is, by the very same factor, guaranteed (or “determined,” as we philosophers say) to happen. Thus, since at least the Big Bang thirteen billion years ago, it was quite set that I would lose and find my tube; there was no real possibility that I would not have my poster at the conference. So how could such a thing, rightly conceived, possibly be a source of anxiety for me? Even if I also factor in my response to it all, including my philosophical anxiety, won’t my decision to travel again, or not to, as well as any resultant catastrophe, also be something that is carved in stone? 
             Thus the consolation of philosophy to counteract the anxiety of a philosopher. But now I philosophically wonder why we live at all, even why there is a universe at all. If each anxiety is matched by a “consolation” that wipes it out, wouldn’t everything have been quite simpler if none of it had happened in the first place? The same seems to be true of the entire physical universe: There is some kind of universal accounting that returns everything to zero in the end (don’t ask me to explain the technical details, which I couldn’t). Well, here too one can adopt an opposite attitude: Isn’t it grand that we can derive absolutely everything from nothing?
* Compare the thought of “good, but once is enough” in my previous post, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Clearly there is something about my personality, and not just abstract reasoning about objective facts, that motivates my philosophical ideas.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Won’t Get Fooled Again

I have often considered that some big philosophical questions lend themselves to sociological investigation – a simple poll, if such were possible. But two things stand in the way of this kind of poll. One is the sheer immensity and complexity of finding a sample that is truly representative of all of humanity (not to mention, humanity past and future). The other is what makes these truly philosophical questions, which is being sure the relevant concept has been analyzed and operationalized validly (it really does pick out the meaning of the concept) and reliably (all of those being polled really do share the same concept).
Perhaps the main example of this kind of question is this: Is (human) life worth living? I am suggesting that this question could be addressed in poll-like fashion by asking a suitable sample of humans if they find their own life to be worth living. Again, the practical implementation of this poll would be daunting. For instance, would we want to poll only elders who could view their life as a whole? But many people do not reach old age. Furthermore, elders’ views may be skewed by their temporally local circumstances as much as by their presumed panorama; they may be biased by their current ailments, or alternatively by their reduced need to struggle about so many things, supplemented by simply forgetting how difficult so much of their life had been at the time of those struggles.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus famously dubbed my question the one truly serious philosophical problem,” but he equated it to the question of whether to commit suicide. I have a different idea. I think the question of suicide is somewhat of a diversion since there can be all sorts of reasons to stay alive, once one is already alive, that have little to do with one’s overall assessment of life’s value … beginning with simple fear of death or dying, but including also obligations to or caring about others and, for many, insufficient pain or angst to want to bother ending it.
My thought is this, then: Simply ask yourself whether you would like to, or mind being, born again.
Ah, but this is not so simple either. I think I can make it reasonable enough, however, with a few clarifications. Thus, I am not asking the metaphysically fraught question, “Do you wish you had never been born?” Besides being difficult to wrap one’s mind around, the question is too particular to the circumstances of one’s own actual life, whereas I am looking for a broader assessment of human existence as a whole.
So in considering your attitude toward the prospect of rebirth, what I have in mind is this. You are to imagine that you might be reborn as anyone whomsoever, in any era, past or future (though you are also free to limit some of this vast scope as being simply beyond the realm of conceivability; so perhaps it would be better to say, anyone whomsoever in past or present and near-future, or even just present). You might be rich or poor, hale or sickly, generally happy or melancholy or tortured, English or Chinese, even male or female or hermaphroditic, etc.
(I am adapting a thought experiment used by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, but in such a way as to remove some of its problematic features. I admit, however, that my thought experiment still has problematic features of its own. For example, in what sense is it the same person, myself, if I would have no recollection of who I am in “this” life, and could be utterly different in the next one? Nevertheless, I find this no more problematic than deciding whether it is the same person after amnesia, or during dementia, or even between infancy and maturity, etc.)
Considered thus, I know that my own answer to the question, “Would you like to be reborn?” would be an emphatic “No!” My intuition is still no doubt heavily colored by my feelings about my own actual life. But it also seems to me as close to an objective assessment of human life as a whole that one would be able to make. Just considering the statistical odds of ending up in dire straits of one kind or another might be enough to reach this conclusion. But even assuming non-dire straits for the mass of humanity, I see little enough in human existence to entice me to go through it all over again. Just think about it!
Nietzsche posed a similar challenge with his eternal return. Meanwhile, the Buddha and most Buddhists – and unlike the typical New Ager -- agree with my assessment and seek precisely to avoid reincarnation (although there are Buddhist saints or bodhisattvas who put off Nirvana until they have helped everyone else reach that state of non-being). Nevertheless there are also people who say “Yes!” to life no matter what.

P.S. Already I begin to see further complications, but also interesting implications, of this thought experiment. For instance, there may be a contamination of the question by thinking of it as a case of being reborn. For suppose one’s attitude toward the value of living a human life were “It’s good, but once is enough”; then one might refuse the offer to be reborn, and yet this would not be an indicator that one did not think life worth living. On the other hand, there is paradox here, since even though reborn, one would experience life as if for the first time; so if one did truly find life worth living albeit only once, then why not be reborn into a new life that would seem to be one’s one and only life? I wonder also about how one’s answer to the question would stand up to one’s thoughts and feelings about having children. Suppose one decidedly rejected being reborn; would this mean one would reject bringing children into this world? I’m certain the answer is “No.” I doubt very much that our reason for bringing children into the world has much to do with a consideration of the value of life. People bring children into the world for themselves, not for the children! (Although once here, of course, we may devote ourselves to their welfare.) Indeed, I am sure many parents see children as a way to boost the value of their own life; certainly many of us would feel our life much diminished without children. But as for whether we have done them a favor by bringing them into being … well, that can now be seen not only to pose a question, but to raise a moral issue. There is also the question of to what degree in bringing a child into the world we are in a way being reborn ourselves, since childbearing is indeed our genome’s way of persisting; in which case, wanting children but not wanting to be reborn may appear paradoxical. So you can see that however philosophical this thought experiment may be, it would certainly make a good parlor game!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian

My previous post, "A Matter of Interpretation," alludes to the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end. A number of years ago I had occasion to write a sort of sermon on that parable after hearing someone else present an actual sermon on it. I think that episode is worth sharing now. -- Joel Marks

When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian

The Sheep and the Goats
 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Matthew 25 (New International Version),

When I heard this parable preached at a Lenten service, I was much gratified. What a beautiful testimony of ecumenism! There I was, a Jew by birth, an atheist by temperament, a Buddhist by conviction, listening to a passage from the New Testament to which I could nod in complete agreement. I did not for a moment take the story in any literal sense, but I also could not object if anybody else did. For the message was totally benign; and if I should one day wake up dead and witness the very spectacle with my own spiritual or physically reconstituted eyeballs, I would not be displeased.
            Imagine my surprise, then, when the lay preacher proceeded to parse the passage in a partisan way. He explained that the sheep were those who had accepted Jesus as Christ and the goats those who had not. I had to rub my mental eyeballs: Were we reading the same text? For I take it to be saying exactly the opposite, that even those who had not recognized “the King” in this life could be blessed.
It is true that all in the passage address the Son as “Lord,” but I imagine that would be the spontaneous form of address if you suddenly came upon a majestic figure seated on a heavenly throne. Sort of like being ushered before the person in the black robe seated behind a raised desk in a courtroom; we all know to address her as “Your Honor.”
The more significant point is that none of the people before him claimed to have “seen” him in their daily dealings down below. These are the people from “all the nations”; we may presume that includes Chinese, Indians, Iroquois, Israelites, you name it. There were no Christians when Jesus spoke, but throw them in too if you like since he was presumably talking about the End of Time. It does not change the import of the story one iota, for the question is whether the people, nominally Christian or not, were truly Christian in their treatment of other people.
What is it to be truly Christian? Analogous to my shock and disappointment upon hearing the lay speaker’s interpretation of this story is my continual amazement at how many Christians declare that the one and only litmus test is whether you believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That can certainly be given all sorts of symbolic meaning to inspire one’s life; but usually it is asserted literally. Christ is the One Way. If you don’t “get” that or “buy into” it hook line and sinker – virgin birth, walking on water, and all – then you aren’t a Christian. And if you do, you are.
Baloney. This very parable is the antidote to that way of thinking. What counts is the quality of your heart. Do you spontaneously and without thought of any reward, heavenly or otherwise, help the needy? If so, you are a Christian. If not, not. Indeed, what better “proof” could there be of the purity of one’s motive than precisely not to realize what eternal consequence may be awaiting you for the simple acts of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?
The theological heart of this message can be found elsewhere in Matthew (22):

36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37 Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

… and even more to the point in Galatians (5):

14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

This says nothing about obeisance to Christ as such. Indeed, it invites the atheist as well; for the crucial love in question is purely secular. The religious see such love as tantamount to love of God, but it need not be explicitly so. Is that not the most natural, plain reading of all of the passages of Scripture quoted above? Is that not the whole point of Jesus’s catholic teaching? Is it not the original defining feature of Christianity, namely, that it does not place emphasis on tribal loyalties and sectarian divides?
I have only one improvement to suggest on the parable, namely, that it explicitly include the most vulnerable and innocent population of all: other animals. Christianity has been notoriously lame about this (and despite its employment of animals in parables, stories, and metaphors – goats and sheep indeed!). This quotation from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper & Row, 1984) pretty much sums it up, I think:

"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it." (Part 7 ("Karenin's Smile”), Chapter 2, p. 289)

Let us all return to the Garden together. Amen.

P.S. I also see the parable of the sheep and the goats as implicit testimony to the idolatry of raising Jesus the human to Christ the god, indeed, God incarnate. Thus, the parable undercuts the mainstream interpretation of Christianity itself, and even brings the true Christianity into alignment with Buddhism (not to mention, Judaism and atheism). For this parable provides an exquisite way to understand one of Buddhism’s most characteristically paradoxical-seeming sayings: “When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Matter of Interpretation

by Joel Marks
December 31, 2015
In the infamous Red State /Blue State divide in the United States, the Red States are stereotyped as the patriotic and Christian types. But I wonder. In this increasingly polarized and surprising Twenty-first Century, I have become more and more profoundly disillusioned, and just plain puzzled, by self-proclaimed Christian Americans. Of course one cannot generalize to all Christian Americans, nor are the ones I have in mind found only in the geographic middle of the country. But those of whom I am speaking tend to hog the airways … much as “Islamic fundamentalists” make for better “news” than the presumably very different Islamic mainstream. And increasingly they are steering the country, as in our dysfunctional Congress and now in the Presidential race (at the moment, the Republican contest for the nomination). So the nonsense matters.
            9/11 was the pivotal event that brought all of this muck to the surface. What has disturbed me the most deeply (speaking now of the domestic scene and not even touching on the disastrous invasion of Iraq, although therein lie the true roots of the current events at home) are the overt acts of anti-Muslim sentiment. I am even unaware of vandalism of mosques for the most part, and insults and harassment suffered by individuals. But what catches the attention of a John Q. Public such as myself are naturally events that play out in the national media. Most prominently the attempt to block the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan, and, more recently, the attempt to block immigration by Syrian refugees. I feel humiliated to my American bones by the expressions of intolerance, not to mention abject fear (in this "home of the brave”), now on display by, for example, the majority of the governors of the country!
            But, as I noted at the outset, as much as and more than humiliated, I am just dumbfounded. How can people who are broadcasting their very Americanism be so blind to the blatant unAmericanism of what they are doing? What could be more essential to our national identity than our turning a blind eye to a person’s “race, creed, color, or national origin [etc.]”? Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the country – indeed, even freedom from religion for atheists like myself. The very same principle that ennobles, for example, the firefighting profession – of rushing into a burning building to rescue any person (and, increasingly, any living being, including pets) – is what fills my chest with pride when I think of the United States. What country did these anti-Muslim bigots grow up in, that they were taught something different, and most bizarrely, to call it “American”?
            But my astonishment does not end there. For the original diagnosis of the problem might seem to be that these supposed Americans are Christians who understand America as a nation founded by Christians and typified by Christian values. This is why they are wary of the Muslims. But, American ideals aside, what kind of Christianity is this? To me (a Jew, a Buddhist, and an atheist) the essence of the teachings of that great rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, are most succinctly conveyed by the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, thus:

 31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
 37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
 44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
 45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
 46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Matthew 25 (New International Version),

If this be Christianity, then I am happy to proclaim the United States a Christian nation. Now if only the self-proclaimed Christian Americans would see it the same way!