Collected Thoughts

My social commentary. Quotes from great literature.

Which End Is Closer To God?

We have a way of discussing the world, when we talk of it at various hierarchies, or levels. Now I do not mean to be very precise, dividing the world into definite levels, but I will indicate, by describing a set of ideas, what I mean by hierarchies of ideas.

For example, at one end we have the fundamental laws of physics. Then we invent other terms for concepts which are approximate, which have, we believe, their ultimate explanation in terms of the fundamental laws. For instance, "heat". Heat is supposed to be jiggling, and the word for a hot thing is just the word for a mass of atoms which are jiggling. But for a while, if we are talking about heat, we sometimes forget about the atoms jiggling- just as when we talk about the glacier we do not always think of the hexgonal ice and the snowflakes which originally fell. Another example of the same thing is a salt crystal. Looked at fundamentally it is a lot of protons, neutrons, and electrons; but we have this concept of "salt crystal", which carries a whole pattern already of fundamental interactions. An idea like pressure is the same.

Now if we go higher up from this, in another level we have properties of substances- like "refractive index", how light is bent when it goes through something; or "surface tension", the fact that water tends to pull itself together, both of which are described by numbers. I remind you that we have to go through several laws down to find out that it is the pull of the atoms, and so on. But we still say "surface tension", and do not always worry, when discussing surface tension, about the inner workings.

On, up in the hierarchy. With the water we have waves, and we have a thing like a storm, the word "storm" which represents an enormous mass of phenomena, or a "sun spot", or "star", which is an accumulation of things. And it is not worthwhile always to think of it way back. In fact we cannot, because the higher up we go the more steps we have in between, each one of which is a little weak. We have not thought them all through yet.

As we go up in this hierarchy of complexity, we get to things like muscle twitch, or nerve impulse, which is an enormously complicated thing in the physical world, involving an organization of matter in a very elaborate complexity. Then come things like "frog".

And then we go on, and we come to words and concepts like "man", and "history", or "political expediency", and so forth, a series of concepts which we use to understand things at an ever higher level.

And going on, we come to things like evil, and beauty, and hope...

Which end is nearer to God, if I may use a religious metaphor, beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man's psychology, man's psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.

And I do not think either end is nearer to God. To stand at either end, and to walk off that end of the pier only, hoping that out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake. And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake. It is not sensible for the ones who specialize at the other end, to have such disregard for each other. (They don't actually, but people say they do.) The great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle, and in that way we are gradually understanding this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies.

-Richard Feynman
 The Character of Physical Law, Chapter 5

Time-Binding And Islamic Culture

[In an e-mail from July 2005 I respond to a friend's off-color joke.]

Recently I received a warning about the use of this politically incorrect term, so please note, we all need to be more sensitive in our choice of words.
I have been informed the Islamic terrorists, who hate our guts and want to kill us, do not like to be called "Towel Heads", since the item they wear on their heads is not actually a towel, but in fact, a small folded sheet.
Therefore, from this point forward, please refer to them as "Little Sheet Heads."  Thank you for your support and compliance on this delicate matter.
And, God Bless America.

Just so you know, I agree with what I see implied in this joke.  That a major dimension of today's problems go undiscussed because of political sensitivities.  We're so careful not to offend anyone that we avoid discussing the real issue.  This hyper-sensitivity to anything cultural bothered me to no end at [college] and still does today.  Believe me, I am no bleeding heart liberal.

The terrorism problem is cultural and religious regardless of whether the politicians are willing to say so.  I was discussing this recently with a [work] friend.  He found some amusement in his relatives relating insular church anecdotes when today's problems with terrorism and the Middle East are also due to insular church attitudes- Islamic medievalism.  We in the West are lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, all the great scientists and writers of our past, whereas those brought up in Islamic culture do not enjoy such advantages.  Their culture and religion has not yet found a way to live in the modern world mainly because they are not comfortable with science and free speech. In my mind, that is the real issue.  Also oil, in the sense that we subsidize corrupt Arab regimes and therefore buy social stagnation.  We give the Arab royals our money, they grant us oil rights.  Then they tell their Islamic clerics, "Look, we could make life for you and your followers miserable if we wanted to.  We hold all the money and power. But we won't- if you never say anything bad about our leadership.  We don't criticize your (medieval) religion, and you don't criticize our (profligate) lifestyle.  That's the bargain."  So we in the West are partially to blame.

After this conversation I dug up a quote from a scientist, Richard Feynman.  He was a brilliant, eccentric physicist.  He wanted to understand how the world worked, in all its dimensions.  I consider him a hero of mine.  The quote basically sums up my feelings of what is causing all our post Sept. 11th problems with Islam and terrorism.  Though I don't think the leadership of our country recognizes or is willing to discuss these issues.

What Is Science?

The question is: Is it possible to learn more rapidly what somebody learned from some accident than the rate at which the thing is being forgotten, either because of bad memory or because of the death of the learner or inventors?  So there came a time, perhaps, when for some species the rate at which learning was increased, reached such a pitch that suddenly a completely new thing happened; things could be learned by one individual animal, passed on to another, and another fast enough that it was not lost to the race.  Thus became possible an accumulation of knowledge of the race.

This has been called time-binding.  I don't know who first called it this.  At any rate, we have here some samples of those animals, sitting here trying to bind one experience to another, each one trying to learn from the other.  This phenomenon of having a memory for the race, of having an accumulated knowledge passable from one generation to another, was new in the world.  But it had a disease in it.  It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race.  The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.  So there came a time in which the ideas, although accumulated very slowly, were all accumulations not only of practical and useful things, but great accumulations of all types of prejudices, and strange and odd beliefs.

Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered.  This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out ab initio, again from experience, what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down.  And that is what science is; the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past.  I see it that way. That is my best definition.

-Richard Feynman

Islamic culture falls far short of this goal.  How many men or women raised in Islamic culture have gone on to win Nobel prizes in biology, chemistry, or physics?  Very few, if any.  Where is their equivalent of the Protestant Reformation?  In other words, where is the loosening of religious superstition to accommodate science and democracy?  I don't think it has occurred yet in the Islamic world.  So a culture and economy of One Idea (what the clerics allow) finds itself competing against the culture and economy of Many Ideas (the Bill of Rights, separation of church and state, the free press, respect for science).  It's an unfair fight.  That's what creates all the desperation, sense of humiliation, hatred, and ultimately, violence.  It's cultural, but we're too afraid to talk about it for fear of offending someone.

Well, that's my politics.

The Comforts Of Religion

A few months ago I received an e-mail from one of my best friends' mother, Helen. She has discovered the Internet in the past year and is at that early stage of online literacy where one forwards lots of e-mail. I'm on her mailing list.

Long before Helen got online, I decided that when I found anything offensive or intellectually lazy in forwarded e-mail, I would respond to everyone on the mailing list. An e-mail blast accomplishes two things:

  1. It lets people know that if they wish to engage me in a discussion they should expect a response. I will not remain silent when people talk nonsense.
  2. If the sender is embarrassed by my response- that is, embarrassed by the contrast between their hitting the forward button versus me composing original thoughts- they will remove me from their e-mail list. Eventually an equilibrium is reached where only people interested in serious discussion will ever bother me with these kinds of messages.

When I received the following message from Helen, I found myself in a real dilemma. I wanted to respond with a scathing criticism of the we are the chosen ones religious message found in the e-mail, but I did not want to upset my friend by hurting his mother's feelings. I thought it over for a long time and decided that I would respond. I found courage when I recalled a passage from a Richard Feynman lecture. In the lecture Feynman advocates engaging the "faith healer" mind as a way of combating the unscientific culture of the modern world.

First, the e-mail forwarded by Helen: 

It's very long so I'll summarize it as apple pie Americana, followed by a claim that the Americana somehow fostered innovative thinking, then a jarring segue into a religious message. Read the full message.

Next, the passage from Richard Feynman's lecture. This convinced me- excuse the delusion of grandeur- that it was my duty to respond. 

The remark which I read somewhere, that science is all right so long as it doesn't attack religion, was the clue that I needed to understand the problem. As long as it doesn't attack religion it need not be paid attention to and nobody has to learn anything. So it can be cut off from modern society except for its applications, and thus be isolated. And then we have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own point of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that we are too polite.

My response to Helen's e-mail: 

Regarding the sentiment in Jay Leno’s statement: You do realize that if you believe God protected those who survived all these hazards, then you have to believe that God wanted others to be harmed and to suffer? And this implies of course that they somehow deserved to suffer- a vicious thought. Doesn’t it make more sense to support the science that attempts to understand the causes of these natural phenomenon so we may protect people before they are harmed? Rather than explaining one’s safe passage as due to one’s favorable standing in the eyes of God. I mean such a belief may help our self esteem, but how is it going to protect children in a poorly constructed school when an earthquake hits? Did the Chinese worship the wrong God, or did they fail to develop and enforce adequate engineering standards?

And finally, a response to my message. This was written by a lady on the e-mail list I do not know personally. She provides the believer's point of view: 

You know, there is just no knowing the mind of God. We are all given free will. Bad things happen, and good things often grow out of those bad things. Whether it is the heart of another human who feels empathy for the injured and does something to help, or someone experiences the depth of their own humanity through the tragedy of their fellow human. Many of us have discovered that a deep faith in God has brought us comfort in troubling times that science and nature just cannot match. My heart goes out to all those who have never experienced the comfort of Faith.

As for science giving us the tools to understand nature so we can prevent natural disasters and protect people from harm; I just don't believe that is possible.

A very tender thought. I just don't understand what it has to do with belief in a Genesis theory, a divine will, or an afterlife. It is possible to empathize with your fellow man simply by being a good, kind, person. The believer may ask where this kindness comes from if not from God. And here's where we see the difference between the scientifically-minded and the religiously-minded: I don't need an answer to that question. I have learned to live with uncertainty and doubt. The believer, driven by the anxiety associated with ethical uncertainties, demands answers.

I saw my friend and his mother a few months later at my friend's wedding. Helen was very happy to see me and did not mention the e-mail exchange. Perhaps I underestimated her ability to separate intellectual criticism from personal criticism. Perhaps she figured "that's just Erik being Erik." All the same, it was a relief to find no hard feelings between us.

God Was Invented To Explain Mystery

I read an interesting article in the New York Times today. Titled Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad, the article reported on a recent speech given by the pope: 

"The world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions," [the pope] said. "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

"Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God's image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe," the pope said.

"Only this can free us from being afraid of God- which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism," he said. "Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life." 

I mostly agree with his assessment. That is, I agree that 1) religious cultures feel attacked by reason and 2) the peoples of these cultures respond by reaffirming their belief in God. I do not agree with his assessment that a fear of God is the root of modern atheism. On the contrary, I think it's the root of religious belief. I'll quote physicist Richard Feynman, who takes this thought further: 

God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time- life and death- stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don't think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.

Arguing Flying Saucers

[A colleague sent me an e-mail titled "911 video." His message contained no description, just this link. I responded without bothering to watch the video.]

I can't access the link here at [work]. Is this a conspiracy theory video? If it is I understand it's just a joke, but...

[Mutual friend] sent a link to a 9/11 conspiracy video a while ago. Out of simple curiosity I watched the whole thing. Entertaining. But the technique used by the filmmaker can be used to cast doubt on any subject. The film merely asked questions without bothering to attempt any answers. Nor did it examine the varying degrees of certainty of the claims made by its contributors. This is the same technique used by UFO aficionados.

Films like this sow doubt. But doubt is easy. It is the natural state of man. Certainty is difficult. To quote physicist Richard Feynman:

"I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in this: They keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not but whether it's going on or not."

I think the 9/11 conspiracy theories fall into this category.