Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

How to become a Nazi

July 9, 2018

You’re a nurse, and a doctor instructs you, by phone, to give his patient 20 Mg of a certain drug. The bottle clearly says 10 Mg is the maximum allowable daily dose. Would you administer the 20 Mg? Asked this hypothetical question, nearly all nurses say no. But when the experiment was actually run, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the doctor’s orders, despite knowing it was wrong.

Then there was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were directed to administer escalating electric shocks to other test subjects for incorrect answers. Most people did as instructed, even when the shocks elicited screams of pain; even when the victims apparently lost consciousness. (They were actors and not actually shocked.)

These experiments are noted in Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, in a chapter about the Nazis. Shermer argues that in the big picture we are morally progressing. But here he examines how it can go wrong, trying to understand how people became Nazis.

Normal people have strong, deeply embedded moral scruples. But they are very situation-oriented. Look at the famous “runaway trolley” hypothetical. Most people express willingness to pull a switch to detour the trolley to kill one person to prevent its killing five. But if you have to physically push the one to his death — even though the moral calculus would seem equivalent — most people balk.

So it always depends on the circumstances. In the nurse experiment, when it came down to it, the nurses were unwilling to go against the doctor. Likewise in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority of the white-coated supervisor that made people obey his order to give shocks, even while most felt very queasy about it.

Nazis too often explained themselves saying, “I was only following orders.” And, to be fair, the penalty for disobeying was often severe. But that was hardly the whole story. In fact, the main thing was the societal normalization of Nazism. When your entire community, from top to bottom, is besotted with an idea, it’s very hard not to be sucked in.

Even if it is, well, crazy. Nazi swaggering might actually not have been delusional if confined to the European theatre. They overran a lot of countries. But then unbridled megalomania led them to take on, as well, Russia — and America. This doomed insanity they pursued to the bitter end.

Yet they didn’t see it that way. The power of groupthink.

And what about the idea of exterminating Jews? They didn’t come to it all at once, but in incremental steps. They actually started with killing “substandard” Germans — mentally or physically handicapped, the blind, the deaf — tens of thousands. With the Jews they began with social ostracizing and increasing curtailment of rights.

This was accompanied by dehumanization and demonization. Jews were not just called inferior, genetically and morally, but blamed for a host of ills, including causing WWI, and causing Germany’s defeat. Thusly Germans convinced themselves the Jews deserved whatever they got, had “brought it on themselves.” These ideas were in the very air Germans breathed.

Part of this was what Shermer calls “pluralistic ignorance” — taking on false beliefs because you imagine everyone holds them. Like college students who’ve been shown to have very exaggerated ideas of their peers’ sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse, causing them to conform to those supposed norms. Germans similarly believed negative stereotypes about Jews because they thought most fellow Germans held such views. Actually many did not, but kept that hidden, for obvious reasons. There was no debate about it.

Of course it was all factually nonsense. An insult to intelligence, to anyone who knew anything about anything. Yet Germany — seemingly the most culturally advanced society on Earth, the epicenter of learning, philosophy, the arts — fell completely for this nonsense and wound up murdering six million in its name.*

Which brings me to Trumpism. (You knew it would.) Am I equating it with Nazism? No. Not yet. But the pathology has disturbing parallels. The tribalism, the groupthink, the us-versus-them, nationalism, racism, and contempt for other peoples. The demonization of immigrants, falsely blaming them for all sorts of ills, to justify horrible mistreatment like taking children from parents — even saying, “they brought it on themselves.” And especially the suspension of critical faculties to follow blindly a very bad leader and swallow bushels of lies.

I might once have said “it can’t happen here” because of our strong democratic culture. Today I’m not so sure. Culture can change. That within the Republican party certainly has. Not so long ago the prevailing national attitude toward politicians was “I’m from Missouri,” and “they’re all crooks and liars.” Too cynical perhaps but the skepticism was healthy, and it meant that being caught in a lie (or even flip-flopping) was devastating for a politician. Contrast Republicans’ attitude toward Trump (a politician after all). Not only a real crook and constant flip-flopper, but a Brobdingnagian liar. That 40% of Americans line up in lockstep behind this is frightening. And as for our democratic culture, the sad truth is that too few still understand its principles and values. Germans in their time were the apogee of civilization, and then they became Nazis.

Shermer quotes Hitler saying, “Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again.” Fortunately Trump will have only four — let’s hope. But America is already becoming unrecognizable.

* My grandfather was a good patriotic German who’d even taken a bullet for his country in WWI. But that didn’t matter; he was Jewish. Fortunately he, with wife and daughter, got out alive. His mother did not.


(Part II) Conservative or Republican?

July 4, 2018


The political philosophy called “liberal” originated in 19th century Britain, with thinkers like John Stuart Mill; it stood for individual human flourishing free from undue constraints — especially imposed by the state. Then the word “liberal” got hijacked, in America, to mean virtually the opposite — social engineering by big government.

Conservatives opposed this; that’s what the Republican party basically represented. (Indeed, its philosophy was classical liberalism.) But now, just like the word “liberal” got perverted, so too “conservative.” David Brooks says that “Today, you can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both.”


In a recent column, he approaches the matter from first principles. Thomas Hobbes posited the idea of the social contract. Free people get together and agree to exchange some of their liberty — basically, the liberty to prey upon others — for freedom from predation. It’s not a literal contract, but an implicit one; it’s why we have governments and obey their laws.

But, says Brooks, individuals do not come to this self-formed. Instead we are shaped by family, religion, local community, local culture, arts, schools, literature, manners, etc. All of which he calls collectively a “sacred space,”  which traditional conservatism venerated (to promote the kind of human flourishing Mill sought). In contrast, ideologies like communism, fascism, socialism, and (American) liberalism all, to a greater or lesser degree, sought to supplant those “sacred space” societal structures with the state.

But today, says Brooks, “the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.” It’s the “evil twin” of community feeling. Grounded not in the positive, cooperative, humanistic vibe that community feeling should ideally propagate but, rather, in “hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust.”

This ain’t your daddy’s conservatism (that I identified with for 50+ years). Brooks calls it “an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.”

A previous Brooks column spotlighted just what this means in practice. Conservatives always used to argue that statism tended “to become brutalist and inhumane . . . caus[ing] horrific suffering because in the mind of the statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.”

That’s a good description of a communist system. Likewise Trump administration immigration policies. This so-called “conservative” regime has “become exactly the kind of monster that conservatism has always warned against,” writes Brooks.

Separating children from asylum-seeking parents is an inhuman moral obscenity.* Mocking the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty and in the Declaration of Independence. These latter-day “conservatives” have lost the thread of what America means; of what conservatism means; what it’s all about; what it is for.

It goes beyond even what Brooks talked about. It’s across the board — from fiscal irresponsibility to trade war to undermining our institutions of rule of law, cozying up to dictators, excusing personal vileness, and abetting racism. And all of it shot through with pervasive lying. Trumpism is a grotesque perversion of what conservatism used to be.

But in truth philosophy or principles have nothing to do with this. It’s tribal behavior run amok. These Republican so-called “conservatives” back their tribe; nothing else matters. Not truth, not principle, not basic human decency. It’s Lord of the Flies time. “Conservative” is just a word, a label, a tribal signifier like a team name emblazoned on their jerseys.

Or their red hats, displaying just as big a lie.

* Ordered by a court to reunite those families, the administration is charging them for the airfare to do so.

Luck and life

June 29, 2018

I’m a very lucky man, having (at 70) health, wealth, love, and wisdom.

WAMC radio’s Joe Donahue interviewed Janice Kaplan about her book, How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love, and Life. The word “luck” connotes randomness, what the ancients called “fate,” which many believed governs one’s life. Many still do; some cultures actually promote a philosophy of fatalism. It’s captured by the saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” In other words, don’t even bother.

Kaplan’s message is the opposite. While she recognizes the obvious, that random factors affect us — like accidents, illness, etc. — what we do, and our choices, are more important in how our lives go.

In short, we make our luck. In the main, good and bad things don’t just happen, they are consequences of our actions, which in turn are largely within our control. Kaplan discussed various ways in which how we act shapes our “luck.” One big factor is, plain and simple, hard work.

To be sure, virtue is not always rewarded, and crime often pays. Justice is not one of the principles governing the Universe. But still, our actions have consequences, for good or ill, and a lot of what happens to us does happen for reasons.

Lotteries epitomize the fatalist paradigm. Here people pin future hopes on literal randomness. Kaplan takes a dim view. And not just because of the astronomical odds against winning.* It’s even worse than that: most lottery “winners” wind up no happier, and often less happy, than before. Better to invest in productive efforts than lottery tickets.

Hearing Kaplan, naturally I reflected on my own life. Her thesis applies to all my “luck.” Meeting my wife illustrates this perfectly. It was supremely lucky our paths crossed on May 2, 1988, at SUNY Alumni House. But why was I there? Because, not content to just wait for luck, I was assiduously seeking it. That quest dragged me out of a sickbed to attend that singles event.

Having (what I think is) wisdom didn’t just happen either. One day my wife had casually suggested I write for our daughter everything I wanted her to know. Well, the project grew into an active exploration of everything I wanted myself to understand (and resulted in two books).

All the foregoing may sound self-congratulatory. I do feel I’ve earned my blessings through my efforts, and a character and personality that propelled those efforts. Yet whence came that character and personality? Did I create them myself out of some primordial personal virtue?

I’ve written before about the philosopher John Rawls and his book, A Theory of Justice. The essence of justice would seem to be people getting what they deserve. But the word “deserve” can be tricky. Regarding how one fares in life — mainly wealth versus poverty — Rawls doubts that that results from deservingness in any true sense, as opposed to luck. Even if someone gains wealth through perspicacity and hard work, aren’t those attributable to character traits they are lucky to possess? Handed to them by the great cosmic lottery rather than, again, created themselves out of some pre-existing virtue?

I am very cognizant that all my fortunate characteristics, which have been rewarded, were indeed handed to me by luck. I am the product of having been born into the circumstances I was born into, and feel grateful. Of course, many people born in favorable circumstances squander them through fecklessness. However, isn’t that very fecklessness itself part of their inheritance? So they really weren’t handed a golden chalice after all?

Yet I am no Rawlsian — no fatalist. The essence of my rational optimism is the belief that we can use our rationality to improve and advance ourselves. How we fare in the game of life does depend greatly on the cards we’re dealt — but how we play them matters too.

This begs the issue of free will, which I’ve written about as well. In a nutshell, yes, we are creatures of determinism, to a considerable extent; and the idea that there is a unitary “self” that controls the thoughts we have and the decisions and choices we make is very problematical. Yet our conscious minds are not nonexistent fictions. We not only have thoughts, we can think about our thoughts. We have impulses, deterministically instantiated, but can control them; we do it constantly. Nothing is more deterministic than a smoker’s impulse to light up. Yet smokers quit.

Kaplan was asked specifically about the notion of “lucky in love.” Her response was interesting, and wholly consistent with her basic theme that it’s always up to us and how we run our lives. People think “lucky in love” means finding the right partner. But Kaplan insisted that that actually isn’t so important. What matters more is the investment one makes in a relationship (not financial, of course, but psychic and emotional). Too many people are imbued with the romance of romance, expecting it to be magical. But “magic” is an illusion.

In line with this, the Chinese government — whose former one-child policy has created a worker shortage — now urges people to be less picky about marriage partners, and to settle for someone “more or less OK.” I myself — when single at forty — would have thusly settled. But I was lucky to find the perfect partner.

I also thought about the decade I spent investing with a previous partner, trying to make that relationship work. But that gal was meanwhile engaged in a different effort: escape. She ultimately succeeded.

Lucky for us both.

* It’s been said a lottery is a tax on those who don’t understand math.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

June 10, 2018

Envy is something deeply embedded in the human condition. It comes from the kinds of minds evolution endowed us with. Alone among animals, we are able to contemplate hypotheticals — “what ifs” — and imagine non-existent things. We are also capable of modeling, in our minds, what goes on in other minds, and to project ourselves into them. It’s great for helping us negotiate life among other people. But it also creates the substrate for feelings of envy.

I make it a principle in my own life to envy no one; and when other (good) people enjoy successes, to be glad for them. It’s actually easy for me, because I’m very lucky to have a great life. When someone else has something I might wish for, I remind myself that other parts of their life I’d feel differently about. Would I trade mine for theirs? The answer is always no.

Then there was Anthony Bourdain.

Appropriately enough, we only ever caught his show, “Parts Unknown,” while traveling ourselves; in hotel rooms we’d turn on CNN, and there was always Anthony Bourdain. Now here was a guy who really seemed to be having a great life. If I had to switch with anyone, what better candidate? Tall, handsome, going on cool adventures in exotic places. The food was fantastic! And the human connections were integral; Anthony Bourdain brought people together and made the world more intimate. For doing all this, he got paid handsomely! And had a beautiful girlfriend besides.

Then he hanged himself.

His show’s title, “Parts Unknown,” may have had a double meaning — with parts of Anthony Bourdain himself unknown to viewers. What we didn’t see on TV was his history of out of control alcohol and drug use; and he was broken up over a past marital break-up. Anthony Bourdain shows us that a human life has many sides; the human heart and soul are very deep.

Envy no one.

Stories we tell ourselves

May 14, 2018

Why do people accept little pieces of paper in exchange for goods and services? The paper has no intrinsic value. U.S. currency used to carry a government promise of redemption in gold or silver, but no longer. Yet we still accept it because we know everyone else does. It’s that shared belief that creates its value — from nothing, as it were.

It’s just a human mental construct. If people stop believing a currency has value, it will have none. That’s happened in various times and places.

A lot about human civilization works this way, as historian Yuval Noah Harari argues. Money’s value is a story we tell ourselves; it has no independent reality apart from that storytelling. The same applies, Harari says, to things like the European Union, or Apple Corporation, which exist only as mental constructs — stories.

That may be going too far. I’m writing this on a device produced by Apple which seems pretty solid. Though bought not even with pieces of paper but with electronic pulses representing them — meta-storytelling!

Nevertheless, Harari is right that storytelling has always played a key role in how people understand, relate to, and function in the world. It’s how we organize information, and respond appropriately to it. In fact, the meaning of our lives, our very sense of self, really are stories we tell ourselves.

World War II involved a story we told ourselves (and still continue retelling). Meanwhile the Germans were telling themselves the story with a slightly different take. In both cases the storytelling gave people a way to understand their world and their role in it — having great impact on how they lived their lives (or lost them).

The foregoing points up that insofar as storytelling aims at understanding, it helps for it to be reality-based. But beliefs — stories we cherish — can produce a powerful reality-distortion effect. As in the case of WWII Germans (at least from the victors’ perspective). I have written of what I call my own “ideology of reality.” The stories we tell ourselves should be shaped by reality, as best we can perceive it — rather than the realities we imagine we perceive being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

When someone is alone in telling themselves a story at odds with reality, we call that madness. When a lot of people do, we call it culture (or religion).

Harari (in his book Homo Deus) talks of the 12th century’s Third Crusade, to retake Jerusalem from the “infidel” Muslims, and “John,” a hypothetical young English nobleman who joins it. John believes he’s going for the glory of God, killing infidels will be heroic, and if he falls in battle, he will be met by angels’ trumpets escorting him through golden gates into an eternal paradise. John actually, truly, literally believes this. It is the story he tells himself — because it’s the story he’s been told, throughout his life, by everyone around him (as Harari details at length). The result is that for John the story’s falsity is inconceivable. (Even though the Muslims believe essentially the same story).

Of course there’s much more to Christianity’s story. Adam disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge, and that “original sin” tainted all of Adam’s descendants, barring them from Heaven until Jesus came and accepted his own death to redeem humanity. Though Jesus actually cheated death and got resurrected. I think that’s more or less the story. It sure is a good one. A real whopper.

Politics too is all about telling ourselves stories. Communism, for example, was obviously grounded in an elaborate story believers told themselves, about capitalism’s development, how the economy and society work, relationships between workers and owners, and how the future might unfold for good or ill. A story gotten from the pages of Marx. It may actually have had some explanatory power when Marx wrote in the 1800s, but communism as practiced by his disciples is quite another story.

Harari’s book gave me added insight into Trump supporters. The tale of Crusader John seems very pertinent. Trumpism entails a potent witch’s brew of stories, which of course he himself assiduously stirs.

Combining religious and political stories

Those stories dictate the reality his supporters perceive. That America needs making great again. That we’ve been schnooks victimized by other countries. That immigrants are mostly bad people, bad for America. Maybe most non-white people are. Like Obama who was born in Africa and was very bad. That Hillary was a monstrous criminal too. That mainstream press lies, while Trump tells it like it is. That he’s a sort of crusader himself, working hard to drain the swamp, a white knight battling against all those nefarious forces and a deep-state political conspiracy of evil liberals and infidels intent on bringing him down with phony allegations.

It’s not only Trump himself, and his voters, telling themselves this story. It’s his government officials, spokespeople, and most Republican politicians too, convincing themselves of it (or most of it). Just listen to them. Like Crusader John, they’ve so brainwashed themselves that they actually, truly, literally believe it.

Even though, like John’s story, it’s all false. And, like John, they worship a false god.

The War Between the Scouts

May 9, 2018

Poor Boy Scouts. First they struggled over whether to allow gays in. Now they’re allowing girls too, and changing their name, from Boy Scouts of America to Scouting BSA. (And what, pray tell, does “BSA” stand for?)

Predictably, this has provoked howls of outrage, at what’s seen as yet another too-politically-correct feminist liberal assault upon America’s hallowed traditions. Fox’s Tucker Carlson called it “the criminalization of masculinity!” But commentator Aisha Sultan writes that that anger is misdirected. “Rather than jumping on this as a chance to bash women, girls and political opponents,” Sultan concludes, “‘those so outraged should turn their anger to the men in charge” of the Boy Scouts.

Huh?? Really? What crime, exactly, have those men committed?

As Sultan’s piece explains, no outsiders were pressuring the Boy Scouts to change. What drove them was falling membership — unsurprising in the age of smartphones. How many boys today are into woodsmanship? They want to earn not merit badges but Instagram “likes” and high scores on Castle Crashers. So no longer could the Scouts afford to exclude half the potential membership pool (i.e, girls).

The (former) Boy Scouts plan to still keep genders pretty much separate. But allowing girls to participate seems a no-brainer in this enlightened 21st century. And who is hurt by it?

The Girl Scouts.

Those champions of girls are not applauding the Boy Scouts’ pro-girl initiative. Because, already faced with their own similar existential challenges, the Girl Scouts see the Boy Scouts’ move as a mortal threat, poaching some likely recruits. So the Girl Scouts have declared war, “gearing up an aggressive campaign” to defend their turf, Sultan writes. She quotes Girl Scouts CEO Bonnie Barczynkowski: “No matter how the Boy Scouts may try to restructure their programming to include girls,” the Girl Scouts don’t merely include girls, they’re specifically geared “to meet the unique needs, learning styles and interests of girls.”

Here we see the primordial feminist schizophrenia: arguing that females are no different from males and must be treated the same — and that they’re different and the differences must be honored. (Thus feminists hounded Lawrence Summers out of Harvard’s presidency for suggesting women might be underrepresented in the sciences because their brains work differently, while a group of Harvard feminists published Women’s Ways of Knowing, maintaining that female brains do work differently, hailed as a feminist manifesto.)

Are they really made from Girl Scouts?

Anyway, how far will the war between the scouts go? Will the Boy Scouts carry the battle into enemy territory (like Lee attacking Gettysburg) by inaugurating Boy Scout cookies? And the obvious logical counterpunch for the Girl Scouts would be to admit boys, and change their name too. Then the two organizations can fight it out on equal terms, scrapping over a shrinking pool of potential recruits of whatever gender.

Or . . . why not simply merge?

In any case, let’s hope the cookies do not become casualties of the war.

Good and evil — Khizr Khan’s book

May 6, 2018

Good and evil. Such black-and-white Manichaeanism is so unfashionable. Isn’t everything shades of grey — the color of sophisticated thinking?

Not always.

This is prompted by reading Khizr Khan’s book, An American Family. Previously I’d written of a radio interview I’d found deeply moving. Then one of my book groups chose Khan’s book.

Khan was the Muslim-American who spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention. His soldier son Humayun had been killed in Iraq. He spoke of the American values his son had died for — values being trashed by Trump’s campaign. Khan doubted Trump had ever even read the U.S. Constitution — and offered to lend him his own well-thumbed pocket copy, holding it up.

In response, true to form, Trump slimed Khan and his family.

Khan’s book tells his life story. Born in Pakistan (not the best of countries), he was inspired by reading in school America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. “I was like a lonesome islander,” he writes, “who’d found a bottle washed up on the beach, a secret script tucked inside that told of a wonderland, a fantastical place that existed, improbably and perhaps impossibly, far across the ocean.” Yet he actually never dreamed of coming here. A succession of serendipitous jobs (Khan trained as a lawyer) landed him in America. He long imagined he’d return to Pakistan, where he’d be a big man; but finally decided he’d rather be a free man here. By then, he felt he and his family belonged here — a place “more compassionate, more welcoming, more tolerant than the places we had left. Than anywhere else we’d ever been.”


Khan does love the Constitution, that he held up in his speech. Especially the Fourteenth Amendment (my favorite part too, as I’ve written) with its guarantee of equal protection of the law. Khan recognizes we still have far to go to fully realize this ideal. But to him the ideal means everything — coming as he did from a society where such ideals really meant nothing. And having come to America with nothing (except his talents), he really does feel the country lived up to its ideals in his own case, opening its arms in welcome, raising him up in human dignity, at every stage of his life here.

Khan quotes President Reagan’s farewell address, to which he’d listened raptly. Reagan once more invoked the “shining city upon a hill” metaphor, from Pilgrim leader John Winthrop. “I’ve spoken,” Reagan said, “of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw . . . in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than the oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Khan remarks: “Such a beautiful vision.” And what a contrast against the blighted vision of Reagan’s current unworthy successor. “Trump’s city,” Khan writes, is “a frightened isolated fortress, walled off from Mexicans and Muslims, from all the others . . . . crumbling and weak, a dreary landscape implicit in his slogan: to make America great again, one had to assume that it was not in fact great now.”

One expects a father to write glowingly of his lost son. But the Humanyun who comes through in these pages was surely a great credit to his adopted homeland. One day in Iraq a cab drove into Humayun’s compound. Likely a suicide bomber; best to assume so and open fire. But Humayun insisted on making sure it wasn’t just innocent people who’d gotten lost. He took ten steps toward the cab. It blew up and killed him.

Those ten steps, Khizr Khan writes, were where all the American values, which had been instilled in Humayun, came together. “Not religious values — human values.”

Have we forgotten them? How could we have elected a vile creep who, Khan writes, is “loosing a wildness upon the land, stirring the worst of human nature.” Eviscerating America’s fundamental values, that Khan so eloquently writes about.

It’s good versus evil. No grey.

“Without God everything is permitted”

April 20, 2018

My wife and I have been reading, aloud to each other, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel. A key motif is whether “without God everything is permitted.” That’s become a major talking point against atheism; the notion that atheists have no reason to be moral. Indeed, the idea’s societal reverberations may well be traceable back to Karamazov.

It was written when atheism was beginning to be important. Nietzsche soon declared, “God is dead.” Dostoevsky was himself deeply religious, yet in Karamazov he does not cavalierly dismiss the opposing point of view. Rather, he wrestles with the moral implications.

I have previously discussed morality without God. If we need him for morality, we’d be in trouble, because of course he’s a fiction. But in truth, whatever moral codes religions prescribe, they are merely a reflection of our pre-existing moral intuitions, rooted in evolution. Our ancestors lived in groups wherein cooperation, morality, and even altruism aided survival. People with tendencies toward those virtues lived to pass along their genes. These norms became further embedded through culture; religions are cultural inventions and again merely incorporate the moral ideas already a part of a given culture.

Further, each of us figures out, using common sense and our rational minds, how to live. Most of us do what’s right because it feels right. Our empathy for others dissuades us from actions harming them. And we realize it’s better to live in a society where people treat each other decently than in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” None of this requires a God.

In Karamazov, Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil. And in it, the Devil makes this remarkable speech — imagining what he thinks Ivan himself would say:

“Once every member of the human race discards the idea of God (and I believe that such an era will come, like some new geological age), the old world-view will collapse by itself without recourse to cannibalism . . . . Men will unite in their efforts to get everything out of life that it can offer them, but only for joy and happiness in this world. Man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride and the man-god will come into being. Extending his conquest over nature beyond all bounds through his will and his science, man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal, and will accept his death with calm and dignity, like a god. He will understand, out of sheer pride, that there is no point in protesting that life lasts only a fleeting moment, and he will love his brother man without expecting any reward for it. Love will satisfy only a moment in life, but the very awareness of its momentary nature will concentrate its flames, which before were diffused and made pale by the anticipation of eternal life beyond the grave . . . And so on and so forth. Very sweet!”

The Devil is being sardonic, as the final words show. He’s mocking Ivan. And yet this speech — put in the Devil’s mouth by the very religious author — actually expresses pretty well my own humanist ethos.

In the next passage the Devil invokes twice the “everything is permitted” trope — the new “man-god” can “jump without scruple over every barrier of the old moral code devised for the man-slave.”

Yet scruples are integral to our essential human nature. Our morality, which is self-built, does not enslave us, but liberates us, to live good lives, despite lacking ennoblement conferred by a god.

Christ is risen

April 1, 2018

Stephen Hawking

March 28, 2018

Stephen Hawking had a horrible illness, given only a few years to live.

He lived them, and then fifty more. He had ALS (motor neuron disease) which destroys muscle control. There is no cure or treatment.

You know that sci-fi trope of the disembodied brain in a vat? That was Stephen Hawking, more or less, because his body was so ruined he might as well have had none. All he had was his brain. But what a brain.

So despite losing virtually everything else, against all odds his brain kept him going for over half a century. To me, this is the Stephen Hawking story. I’m unable to appreciate fully his scientific achievement. But I’m awed by its being achieved in the face of adversity that also defies my comprehension. Stephen Hawking represents the godlikeness of the human mind.

Another awesome thing about humanity is the ability to adapt. That’s why our species thrives from the Gobi Desert to the Arctic tundra. And as individuals we often make truly heroic adaptations to what life throws at us. Viktor Frankl wrote (in Man’s Search for Meaning) about accommodating oneself psychologically to surviving in a concentration camp. Stephen Hawking too adapted to horrible circumstances. Perhaps he did not curse the fates for that, instead thanking them for vouchsafing his mind. Which, undaunted, he employed to get on with his life and his calling.

That included authoring the least read best-selling book ever, A Brief History of Time. I actually did read it, and was on board till the last chapter, which kind of baffled me.

A character conspicuous by his absence in that book was God. We have trouble wrapping our heads around how the cosmos can have come into existence without him. Of course, that merely begs the question of where he came from. But Hawking’s scientific work (as partly embodied in his book), while not dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in explaining the existence of existence, did carry us closer to that ultimate understanding. He didn’t conclusively disprove God — but did make that superstition harder to sustain. (And why would God create ALS?)

Hawking was a scientist, but not a “hands-on” scientist, because he soon lost use of his hands, could not even write. Communicating became increasingly difficult. Only thanks to advanced computer technology was he able to produce that familiar mechanized voice — in the end, only by twitching a muscle on his cheek. This too a triumph of mind over matter.

And so it was literally only within the confines of his brain that he worked, probing at the profoundest mysteries of the Universe by pure thought alone. (That was true of Einstein as well.) Of course, lots of other people do likewise and produce moonshine. Hawking (like Einstein) produced deep wisdom, expanding our understanding of the reality we inhabit. An existence upon which his own frail purchase was so tenuous.

An existence that’s poorer without him.