Einstein and you

A letter from Albert Einstein, written in 1951 when his fame and renown were established and without parallel, has been discovered in the safe of a small school, Colegio Anchieta in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Short, but deep, it will be the subject of much exegetical adventure. Perhaps it will bear this, but maybe instead its message is as clear as it is brief. I think it is one we all need to hear and be reminded of as our culture if not spinning out of control is spiraling downwards. Here is Einstein’s letter:

He who knows the joy of understanding has gained an infallible friend for life.

Thinking is to man what flying is to birds. Don’t follow the example of the chicken when you could be a lark.

Nut-jobs

Some people say we are actually winning the war against ISIS or  don’t think we are losing. This is like saying what?

The Chicago Cubs have won the last 106 World Series.

Harrison Ford has won an Oscar. Cors he has.

The sun circles round the earth.

No, No, it does! Because the earth is flat.

Smoking has nothing to do with causing cancer.

Dieticians and nutritionists really know what they are talking about.

Big business is corrupt. Big government isn’t.

America has zero racial problems.

The UN is the wisest deliberative body in the cosmos.

The cosmos is equivalent to a tiny site in Manhattan, NYC, USA.

Saudi Arabia is an excellent candidate to head up the UN human rights commission.

The Pope is actually a Unitarian.

Playing the Lotto is reasonable financial planning.

Jews are not argumentative.

The Irish are not argumentative.

All Jews are Irish.

Hey, saying these things, all or any one of these things, is nuts, but …. wait for it …. some people (Can you name one?) seem actually to believe the first one.

This list is not exhaustive. Have fun. Add your own.

Sea sickness

You perhaps have been unaware, if you live outside the UK, of the name Able Seaman William McNeilly.  Briefly, he is in the Royal Navy  and his job is engineering technician on nuclear submarines. Recently he was part of the crew of HMS Victorious one of the UK’s trident missile nuclear submarine fleet.

He has caused a stir by blowing the whistle on lax to non-existent security on HMS Victorious and, by implication, throughout the Trident fleet.

Most brazen of the many examples he provides is this instance:

He used a hotel key card instead of his RN security pass ID card to gain entrance to highly sensitive areas of the submarine.

He asserts that security is so lapse, especially when docked at its home base (Faslane in Scotland,) that the security alarms were turned off because they were going off all the time.

A.S. McNeilly’s concern is of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, not to be whisked away, but to be fired on the UK from the submarine itself.

You can read his story all across the internet. Here is an example from The Guardian.  His future is not bright. He will be facing discipline and probable dismissal from the Navy.

I mention this to raise the issue of free speech.

Clearly an employee of an organization (commercial, military, or otherwise) accepts as a consequence of employment certain conditions, requirements, and restrictions that may be placed on employees by the institution.

A dress code for work is an example. The Royal Navy requires certain dress while performing certain tasks. It seeks for a “uniform” look. Other enterprises (commercial) do the same, although the uniform in business has a broader and usually more flexible look. This year’s “power tie” may be gone next season, but the code remains as a code.

Language is another example. “This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Right. So, no matter how annoying you, the customer, may become during the call the business continues to expect a certain standard from the poor, harassed, and probably underpaid, call center employee. “Have a nice day, you rude, ignorant, son of a bitch,” however understandable a sign-off at call’s end, is not going to cut it with the company’s QA team.

I could go on, but these two illustrations are enough to illustrate the limits that employment in an organization can place on an individual. The individual accepts these as part of the terms of employment.

Two notes:

nobody can limit freedom of thought. (Not yet anyhow!) The call center employee can think I am an effing idiot when I speak, but simply may not say so or talk to me as if I were.

when the employee breaks one of the organization’s behavior codes, the invocation of otherwise applicable civil rights cannot be invoked in defense of the breach. Their applicability is part of the contract of employment, as it were.

Thus, whistle-blowing, while not in any sense a breach of civil rights, can and should expect to be regarded as a breach of contract with the full force of discipline of such an action.

Of more persistent challenge, I think, is the issue of freedom of listening.

I am not in the Royal Navy. I no more am required to dress like a sailor than I am to salute an admiral.  To me an admiral is just another dude in the crowd. (That may irk admirals, by the way, but so be it. Want your boots licked? Go back aboard!) So, what about listening to Able Seaman McNeilly?

I have a right to listen even as he has no right to be telling.

And so we confront the murky interface of rights and duties. It is an axiom of ethical theory that if I have a right to do such and so, then you have a duty to allow me to exercise that right. From this axiom flow the many forms of the social contract: civil, corporate, public, and private.

The many social contracts each of us live under every day (from within the family, to a club we freely choose to join, to our work place, to the market place and street) bump into one another with sometime startling consequences.

The case of Able Seaman McNeilly is simply one illustration of the choppy seas at these interface points.

Rot setting in

The Pew research poll on the state of Christianity in the USA came out the other day and caused a bit of a stir.

The poll shows the dramatic decline of support for Christianity, both institutionally and conceptually, in current US society. Especially alarming, it is claimed, is the level of decline amongst millennials.

The one group who were or should not be stunned by it are informed Christians!

They have seen the emptying pews, the budgets, the incarnational reality of the decline for decades. Some, alas, may have ignored it, but others, most, have seen it  …. the seeping away, the withering, the sheer aging of it all.

Catholic parishes in neighborhoods which once bustled as the centers of community identity and defined a population’s meaning and hope, lie empty, closed, abandoned. (This is merely one aspect of the devastation of industrial America.)

Entire rural counties can be found with no ecclesiastical structure in use any more. (This is merely one aspect of the devastation of rural America.)

How about suburbia? Forget about it.

Couple all this with the “war on Christianity” both global and national and the picture is one of a dim future.

You might think.

Globally Christianity is exploding. The US, to which we can add European, decline is only part of the portrait of Christianity in the world today. Christianity’s future is bright and strong. It just doesn’t have a white, European, North American face.

Two points:

1) For you western anti-Christians.

Do not be smug. Be cautious. Christians in your midst are, obviously, an easy target. So are you. The demise is not of  theism! Heavens. Wake up if you think that. The decline is at and of the roots of the civilization and culture that encourages your smug triumphalism. Guess who’s next? Once the roots are gone the entire plant will follow.

2) More importantly.

En garde. Penn Teller’s YouTube Penn Points is one of the best things on the internet, rigorous, enthusiastic, libertarian, and atheistic. And always intellectually honest, with a large volume of “adult vocabulary.” I loved the episode where he defended Sarah Silvermann’s right to make fun of the Judea-Christian God and not of Allah or Muhammad. I will not repeat his argument here. Watch and listen for yourselves. Just this: he compliments Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism for their response to being lambasted. In short, they do not cut off your head. As I say, en garde.

Lionel Messi

I watched a remarkable game of futbol (soccer) yesterday. Barcelona played Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. The game was in Barcelona. The second leg will be in Munich next week. The winner is the team with the most aggregate goals and in the event of a tie an away goal counts double. That word of explanation for those of you that “live on a different planet.”

Which brings me to my point. A casual observer, which will embrace millions of North Americans, with a modicum of sporting awareness may note that Barca won this particular match 3 – 0. Never has there been such a clear case, in my memory, where the final score fails to tell the story. Bear with me; I do have a point to make that has nothing to do with futbol.

From the kick-off the game was everything the non-futbol-aware  critic of the sport is looking for in a sporting encounter.

Thrilling pace, constant attack, end to end, shots, saves. Of course, no goals. Which the uninformed take to be the sole criterion of a good game; hence the boring slog of the unwatchable NBA. The saves last night were testimony to brilliant goalkeeping, an integral part of any game with a goal keeper. Half-time saw the teams go in with the score 0 –  0.

As the second half progressed with some tactical changes, but no lessening of the pace or intensity, the TV commentators started to speculate about the impact on the second game of a scoreless draw.  

Then came three minutes of astonishing, mind-boggling brilliance.

It was if he got fed up. Messi had been tearing around, playing brilliant defense, opening up players in attack, shooting when he had the chance. But in minute 77 he did something else. From a routine threat (in such a game threats had indeed become routine) he dashed to his left and launched a rocket just inside the post to beat Manuel Neuer to the keeper’s left whom many regard as the best goal-keeper in the world. Amazing. Here it is. But:

In minute 80 he made his previous goal look ordinary, although it is hard to imagine anyone else in futbol having been able to score like that. He made an utter fool of the Bayern defender, his run ending up with the poor guy falling backwards onto his butt (which has inspired countless gifs, you can easily find on the ‘net.) Then, rather than blast the ball at the net and keeper, Messi casually chipped the ball up and lazily over. Here it is.

2 – 0.

Later the Brazilian star, Neymar, would score, for a final score of 3 – 0.

Why am I writing all this? Apart from the fact I love futbol and this was a fabulous match, Messi is a joy and a privilege to watch. The best alive and probably the best ever.

But, and I come to my point, two separate commentators in the afterglow said that Messi “is from another planet,” one adding the word “literally” and the other “really.”

I mention this not to make a grammatical or linguistic quibble, which regular readers have come to expect. No, I want to use it to illustrate something else.

Our longings are for the transcendent.

We instinctively want and even expect an unworldly visitation.  This may well be because our world, this planet, seems caught in such a hellish grip of inhumanity and despair. Or, paradoxically, it may spring from the opposite, a bursting almost explosive joy at the wonder of it all.

Couple these inner inevitabilities, these essential constituents of the human condition, if I may put it that way, with the decades’ long decay and even collapse of religion and its institutional practices, which are after all intended to put us in touch with this transcendent longing, and the formula for Messi’s divination is clear. Not just Messi, of course; slip into that sentence the star, the celeb, the hero or heroine, the guru, the whatever and whomever, of your choosing.  

Messi is literally from another planet.

Our age’s cri de coeur?

Ends and means

I have been thinking about ethical theory the past few days, prompted by no complex situation I am facing as much as by a hypothetical I encountered the other day.

There are many contending theories; some finding the heart of goodness in some ontological absolute, others in the intent of the action, others in the integrity of the action as duty, still others in the notion of consequence, often in the form of utilitarianism, namely the good action creates the greatest good for the greatest number.  There are more.

Consequentialism, in the form of the end justifying the means, is the one with which I found myself dealing in my hypothetical encounter.

It seems a straightforward enough ethical theory embodying, as many of them do, a wispy kind of common sense.  For example: child misbehaves, doing again an undesired action often prohibited by the parent, writing with crayon on the living room wall, say. Child is given a time-out. Every parent has met this situation. No big deal. (I do not want to digress down a path leading to the vast, probably unending, maze in which to roam seeking a final solution to the notion of good parenting, a more contentious task than discussing ethical theory.) In essence the child’s freedom has been removed in order to coerce behavior, based on the notion, which the parent feels the child needs to learn, that “actions have consequences, buddy.”  Something inherently bad, the deprivation of freedom, is used to teach something inherently good, behavioral responsibility with which goes accountability.

Ethical theorists, alas, are quick to observe that rarely is it possible to do the one thing the theory demands, that is, adequately and completely to identify all the results of this action. In our parent-child illustration, how can the parent satisfy the requirements of the theory without being able to identify every single possible result of that particular time-out?  What, for example is the impact on the morality of the particular time-out in question on a child bursting with artistic genius which, as the child grows just a bit, manifests itself more and more and indeed becomes a source of pride to the parent and the very mode of the child’s identity. Thwarting and punishing the flow of spontaneous and irresistible longing, squashing the self in other words, cannot in any sense be a good thing. Worse if that particular time-out “finally worked,” as the parent might say, bragging that the little so-and-so never picked up a crayon again.

Thus, we can ask, is the end justifying the means argument ever a defensible notion?

Going back to the hypothetical example the child who is allowed unlicensed and totally unrestricted access to crayons and any bare walls in the house in order the better to self-express, is in for a rude awakening when finally crossing the threshold of home into the harsh realities of the big, bad world. This observation, however,  introduces a totally different dimension, does it not. The time-out is intended as more than a punishment for a particular act and now is understood as long-term training, which is a very different thing indeed. Its “end,” the general end of the action, is not identical with the immediate aim of getting the drawing on the walls to stop, the particular end.

Now I finally come to the heart of my point.

The particular end and the general end, while two different ends demanding two very different modes of assessment in terms of the end/means argument, must be related.

There has to be moral coherence between them lest ethical chaos result. Ethical chaos is the creating of more and more evil in order to attain a state of moral purity far off over the horizon of predictable experience. It is the splitting of the intellectual atom, as it were. Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” is a doctrine so full of presumption, mainly its theological rooting, that it cannot be used as a formula for behavior in any meaningful way without resulting in its inevitable consequence, the evaporation of morality as witnessed in strategic commitment to M.A. D. and the extermination of humanity that it envisions.

A parent giving a child a time-out, therefore, is to be judged on a wholly different timeline, the proximity of particular and general ends being far greater, than, say, politicians in office or candidates for office telling lies.

This last example would lead me to start outlining my hypothetical encounter and that would make this post unnecessarily long which, you may well think, it already is.

Learned helplessness

I subscribe to Veritasium on YouTube.

I recommend that you also do if you have any interest in or curiosity about the natural world or science in general at all. The videos are short, sharp, well done, and often outright brilliant.

The most recent video is slightly different.

Still short, sharp, and well done, it is a slight departure from the hard scientific norm.

It might even be described as reflective. 

But it is chock full of common sense, wisdom, insight, and encouragement.

That’s today’s post.

Watch Veritasium on “Learned helplessness.”