Category Archives: Inspiration

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.

C.S. Lewis’s Truth-Loving Test

A few months ago, we heard this from Plato. It was his way of determining who loved truth and who didn’t.

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told.

Here’s another truth-loving test, from C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity. (In the book, he did not propose this as a truth-loving test, but I think it makes an excellent one.)

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

I read the quote over at Slacktivist’s blog. He had earlier treated the theme in a wonderful post called Jackie at the crossroads. In that story, a young woman named Jackie has claimed there are poisonous spiders in airport restrooms, former stow-aways on international flights. When she is shown that this is just an urban legend, she has a choice: she can double-down or laughingly admit her gullibility. Her choice is a very clear window on her character.

How about us? When we learn that the rumor we have spread about our political or religious adversaries is unfounded, is our first reaction to be relieved that they are not so bad after all? Or do we double down by finding another way they are so bad, or by calling the refutation “biased” even though it is our own bias that has just been exposed?

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


rsz_black-hole-milky-way

Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Living in the Questions

From the time I first heard the phrase as a young man, I have struggled to understand why “living in the questions” would appeal to anyone. Aren’t answers the entire point?

As I’ve written elsewhere, I derive much aesthetic satisfaction from my molecules having finally aligned themselves so that they have some clue of how the universe works. The answers — at last!

Or so I thought, until I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene speculates about nine plausible ways that parallel universes (“the multiverse“) might exist. In fact, most of them entail an infinite number of universes.

Just when you think you have one universe down pat, along come infinity more.

It’s unlikely that I will live to see any of those multiverse theories proven or disproven, but who knows — when my grandparents were born, the existence of other galaxies beyond our Milky Way was not even known. If our knowledge could expand from one galaxy to over 176 billion in less than a hundred years, maybe one additional universe will show up any day now.

We made this progress because we never stopped asking questions. When we found an answer, we said, “Fine. What’s next?”

What if we hadn’t done that? We would be living in the same misery as pre-scientific peoples throughout the world. Misery? Yes, misery: ravaged by disease, driven by superstition to sacrifice their own children, and orders of magnitude more likely to die in war.

So there’s a question for us to ponder, and then ponder more deeply: To what extent do we owe our happiness to ceaselessly asking questions about the world?

 

 

McDonald’s and the Act of Uniformity

Have you ever heard laments like these?

With Wal-Mart forcing the mom-and-pops out of business, the whole country is becoming the same. Soon there will be no such thing as regional character.

Exports from the American entertainment industry are slowly making the rest of the world just like us.

There are 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing! American culture is polluting the world.

(There’s even a word for that last one: McDonaldization!)

As communication and trade increase, it is inevitable that ideas and culture will diffuse like dye through water. It can seem that where we used to have enchanting red liquid over here and emerald green liquid over there, now we just have a brown puddle.

Not so fast. I suggest that this so-called homogenization is actually bringing us diversity, not uniformity.

The subject came to mind when a book called Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices happened to catch my eye this morning. I Googled around about its author, Thomas Brooks, and discovered that he was a “non-conformist” Puritan minister. What that means, among other things, was that he ran afoul of the Act of Uniformity passed by the English Parliament in 1662. Although he was a devout Christian, he apparently didn’t pray in the right way, or believe the right things, and he lost his job — he and about 2,000 others.

Combined with other Acts passed at about the same time, the Act of Uniformity not only  restricted church offices to conforming Anglicans, but likewise limited opportunities in the military and government.

I suppose that was better than a few years earlier, when people of the wrong Christian faith could be executed, but still…

Obviously the England of 1662 was still rife with in-tribe / out-tribe psychology. That’s hardly surprising: most people’s knowledge of Catholics, the French, and other out-tribers was limited to ugly rumor.

Today, thanks to the internet and the dreaded globalization, we are no longer as xenophobic. To be sure, we still trust our own kind more than outsiders, but the situation is not nearly as bad as it used to be. Dealing with people around the globe has taught many of us that people on the other side of the Earth can be good people, too. Beyond that, we are coming to appreciate and welcome each others’ cultures.

Last November, my software team in Massachusetts celebrated a small Thanksgiving feast over video-conference with the other half of our team, located in India. At Christmas, we exchanged gifts.

As people are being mixed together more, we’re also discovering that our old prejudices against foreigners, people of lower classes, people of higher classes, homosexuals, people with disabilities — really prejudices against anyone — just don’t make sense.

It’s hard to imagine, but just 100 years ago we had a president (Woodrow Wilson) who said, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the southern country.” And that was from a Northern progressive! He was one of the liberal ones!

How have we freed ourselves from such insanity? Only as commerce and the internet have thrown us together.

Perhaps the world is becoming more homogenized, but only in a coarse-grained way. At the fine-grained level where people live, we are more diverse than ever.

How I Missed a Total Eclipse while Standing Right Under It

When my children were younger, they often asked, “Daddy, tell us a story of when you were a little kid.” Here’s one I wish I had told more often.

When I was twelve years old, my grandparents took me to see a total eclipse of the sun (map here). It was a pretty big deal. Not only was there going to be an eclipse, but a rocket would be launched to study it. All this was to take place in the neighboring state of Delaware, so off we went.

A large crowd had gathered to see eclipse and rocket. The authorities gave everyone a small piece of dark plastic framed in white cardboard through which we could see the eclipse without being struck blind. (The danger of looking at the eclipse without eye protection was firmly impressed on me!)

Being a 12-year-old boy who grew up during the decade that saw the first man walk on the moon, I was just as interested in the rocket as in the eclipse. What’s more, I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was determined to capture the rocket and the eclipse on film.

I had my Kodak Instamatic and a plan. When the eclipse started, I would first wait for the rocket to launch, and get a picture of it. Second, I would put the plastic shield over my camera and photograph the eclipse. (If the shield was necessary for my eyes, it must be necessary for the camera, too, right?) Finally, I would look through the shield myself. My plan ensured that I would capture everything on film so I could enjoy it forever, as well as see the eclipse in person.

A long and agitated wait…

The sky darkened and I prepared my camera.

Everyone was looking through their plastic shields, but not me! I didn’t want to miss that rocket! I knew it would only be streaking skyward for a few seconds, so I kept my finger on the button of my camera and did not allow myself to be distracted by anything else.

It was growing darker by the second, but still no rocket. Evidently that rocket was not going up until the eclipse was total, but I continued to wait anxiously.

Finally, the rocket  launched. Snap! I got my picture. The eclipse was already a little more than half-way over, and I still had parts two and three of my plan ahead of me.

When you’re an excited, 12-year-old boy under time pressure at the event of a lifetime, it’s surprising how long it can take to position a one-inch-square piece of plastic in front of the tiny lens of a cheap camera and take a picture. Especially when you’re not sure just where to point your camera because said piece of plastic is supposed to be covering your eye as well as the camera. And especially when it’s hard to hold the plastic perfectly over the lens as you move the camera into its uncertain position. And most especially when you’re only going to get one chance.

After much fumbling around, I finally took what I thought might be a picture of the eclipse.

The eclipse had already been at its midpoint when the rocket had launched. By the time I got my picture of the eclipse, it was nearly over. When I finally put the camera down and looked through the plastic myself, it was over.

I had missed it!!

The weeping and gnashing of teeth that shall arise from people who have missed their chance to go to heaven will have nothing on the wailing that came from the 12-year-old boy who missed that eclipse. Theirs will supposedly be because they had been too focused on passing pleasures while neglecting their futures; mine was the opposite: I had been so focused on photographs for the future that I had missed the present.

When my pictures came back from the developer, the rocket was indistinct and the eclipse didn’t look like much at all. I had prepared and sacrificed for … nothing.

I don’t even remember when I threw the photos away.

Many people think that unless life goes on forever, it has no purpose and there’s no reason to enjoy it. Try telling that to a 12-year-old boy who missed the present because he was so obsessed with a future that never came.

After the eclipse, my grandfather told me that he had stolen a quick look at the sun with his naked eye.

He had not gone blind.

Due Process and Freedom of Thought

Here is a paradox that went undiscovered for all but the last hair’s breadth of human history: the innocent will never be safe unless the guilty are protected.

That’s due process of law. To ensure that as few people as possible are wrongly convicted, we trust a process that occasionally lets the guilty go free — sometimes people we know are guilty. Maybe all the evidence was there, but it was illegally obtained. Maybe the suspect was caught in the act, but was not read his Miranda rights. Maybe we know the suspect would collapse under questioning, but our constitution gives him the right to decline to testify.

It can be maddening to watch a trial play out this way, but those of us who are privileged to live in enlightened societies would not have it any other way.

We have learned that the process itself is far more important than any individual outcome. As much as we might long for an enlightened despot who could set injustice right with a wave of his scepter, we have learned at least one lesson of history: We would sooner trust our fate to millions of ignoramuses than to any one person. Even ourselves.

Freedom of thought goes hand-in-hand with due process. We have come a long way from the time when Jesus’s prosecutor shouted, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?” We recognize that people have a right to their opinions.

What does that mean? Does it only mean, “I disagree with you but uphold your right to think as you please?”

We do well if it means much more than that.

To grant someone the right to his opinion entails that we still regard him as a fellow human, fully worthy of compassion and respect, even if we think his opinion is wrong or immoral. The alternative — to regard him as less worthy than ourselves — is to annihilate his humanity. If we mentally grant someone a right to an opinion, but then mentally destroy his humanity, what progress have we made?

To properly value freedom of thought also means that we do not harbor any wish for scepter-waving. If you were sovereign over the world and could wave a magic scepter to make everyone agree with you, would you do it? I hope not. I hope you would use your superpower to cause everyone to engage in civilized but vigorous debate. The debate itself is more valuable than anyone’s opinion.

To echo the opening thought of this meditation, wisdom will be silent unless every fool is allowed to speak.

We freethinkers want people to grant us permission to pursue truth on our own terms. Due process demands that we grant the same freedom to them, from the bottom of our hearts. We must have the courage to maintain that stance even when we are convinced they are heading in the wrong direction.

recently I wrote about my admiration for Pope Francis. Some are surprised that I, an increasingly progressive atheist, could extol the head of one of the most reactionary religions on Earth. It’s easy. Although I disagree with him on many important issues, I admire the fact that he uses his scepter to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion. To me, that is even more important than his specific opinions. And once I allow that someone can differ from me and still be a human worthy of respect, I discover that Pope Francis qua human is a pretty good one.

Do you have someone in your life whose opinions bug you? If so, maybe valuing the debate and the person more than his opinions will make you happier.