Relative Moral Values
Years ago when I was living in Madison, a graduate student at the university took on a project to break the wings of ducks along Monroe Street. I hardly need to mention that there was something of a public outcry.
What surprised me at the time and continues to puzzle me today is that the student and his advisor apparently did not understand why quantification of mortality would not automatically trump all other esthetic and moral interests. The advisor was interviewed and argued that the actual mortality impact of flight disability was a quantity not yet known to science. Why would he suppose that this fact would be considered justification for maiming and endangering living beings?
Especially for living being enjoyed by a large population of politically savvy professional families?
In recent years, there have been continuing reports of animal rights extremists shooting at researchers and firebombing their family homes. These extremists declare that the scientists actually are animal murderers because they perform research on animals (although in some cases the activists are reported to be mistaken in their accusations). Why would these extremists suppose that research on animals, even if unjustified and inhumane, could in any way justify the murder of human beings and endangerment of their offspring?
One has to question whether either group of actors has the intellectual breadth to be considered fully competent to function in human society. But these people are not isolated loners holding no conversation with others. How is it that they were never brought up short by the opinions of other human beings that there may be other considerations? Have the rest of us failed to state the additional criteria?
Healthcare From the Table
Healthcare has been an area of interest for me, but recently I've had the occasion to view our current healthcare system from a different position. That is to say, from lying on my back. (I wrote the whole story in my travelogue for 2008.) Thinking about this experience, my list of top priorities for improving our healthcare system would start with the following 3 topics.
(1) Utilization. Had I been the objective observer or if I had been my own family member, I would almost certainly have supported all the medical decisions made about my care from calling 911 through the second CT scan to providing noon lunch as a clinical trial of my GI involvement. And yet, in retrospect, the only real difference between what actually happened and dropping me off at my own house is $9,000 of hospital charges, $940 in charges by the radiologist, and whatever the other doctors end up billing.
Doctors don't like to take risks, especially of the kind that open the door to malpractice liability; the only way to reduce these costs would be to improve their ability to diagnose. The greater cost of the CT is supposed to be justified for just that reason, but nothing in medicince is ever so simple. In my specific case, had X-rays never been discovered the doctors would have known just as much and kept me overnight just the same -- but we would have saved about half the cost.
So, do we structure healthcare payments to encourage the use of CT scans? Probably ... but from a public policy point of view we'd really like better data on how much their use improves care and (we hope) reduces the overall cost to society of providing quality care. Certainly, we need more justification than is given by my story.
My experience shows that you can't rely solely on anecdotes when adjusting the way we pay for healthcare.
(2) Patient access to information. Somewhat differently from HIPAA and s. 146.81 Wis. Stats., I define privacy of health information as the individual retaining ownership of the data even while a healthcare provider or payer has possession of it. I'm not sure that this point of view would make any difference in how my healthcare information was managed either during or after my hospital stay. I think it might have increased my presumed standing in conversations with the providers and data custodians.
After the fact, I've been able to obtain records of my stay at the hospital. Of course, I knew the system and some of the people at St V's. The Animal Control report was also easy to obtain, for 25 cents seems per page. The fire department records are somewhat more difficult.
During the event, my experience was more mixed. As the patient I already have the right to direct my own care, but exercising that right presupposes information about both the observations made and the decisions coming up. Nurses were generally very good at telling me what was happening at the moment, but I felt that I didn't have full confidence about the orders because I lacked full information. It's hard to fault anyone for this before 6:15 or so, since I was still not quite consistently forming reliable memories until then. (You can see that in my story when the hospital was being chosen.) After that, I would have preferred to be consulted about my course of treatment.
Would that have changed the course of my hospitalization or the costs? Most likely there would have been no practical changes over those 22 hours. So, speaking only from my one experience, I can't say that further reforms in this area would have any significant effect on healthcare costs or quality. Still, I have to wonder whether better conversation with the patient and family might not focus the care more appropriately to the specific needs of that patient.
(3) Family. Speaking of family -- when I was very young I had parents and siblings, plus grandparents, aunts, and cousins all living in Green Bay. That's the kind of ideal family situation that is recognized by the law. Today my nearest blood relative is a cousin living outside of Appleton. So when my friend Travis came into the ER, it was a little bit troubling to have his presence questioned. ("Is he just a friend?") Travis and his dad are the closest thing to family I have in Brown County. Shouldn't there be some way to designate intentional family with standing under the law? Somebody in the county should have some kind of presumptive right to come into the hospital and see me, even - no, especially - when I'm not completely in control.
Beyond the personal comfort of having friends available to a person in need, friends help the patient - me, to be specific - to think through my situation. That can help give both confidence and clarity to the patient's direction of his own health care. This connects the rights of intentional family with the points under item (1).
We do have the POA-Healthcare, but this addresses a different concern. It doesn't have any legal effect at all unless and until a person is designated as being incapacitated. And it grants more power than simply the right to be present with me in the hospital. A different status is needed for that purpose.
The reason that I don't jump on the healthcare bandwagon with more enthusiasm than I do -- I'm up there, but I keep wondering whether the band is playing too loudly -- is because my own observations raise a lot of questions that aren't being addressed by the proposed solutions. Let's go ahead with the proposals already on the table, recognizing that other concerns also exist and may also need legislative change as part of their solution.
Wisdom is not communicable according to Hesse's Siddartha. Perhaps that's simply because we humans have no means for sharing interior experiences. We can be in the same place at the same time and in that sense share exteriorly, but the effect these exterior experiences have on us and the thoughts that arise in us are not shared.
We do have language, which is a powerful tool through which we can evoke in each other some sense of the interior experience. The value of language should not be minimized. When well used, it can be powerful indeed (though, in truth, language is seldom used very well).
However, the proximate cause for this line of thought is specifically an experience of language. Part of John 3 was read in church this morning, and my experience of those words was shaped by my own language about that passage from last year. It occurred to me that the language that I've preached is a significant part of my experience which is not shared.
Who is going to share that experience? It is true that others besides myself have heard the words, but not over and other again as I have. A few, I suppose, may have read the text on the web, but they do not feel the words echoing in my body as they read. And none of the ancillary thoughts that passed through my mind as I wrote the message and discovered the meaning went through other people's minds this morning.
Even on the day that I preach a sermon, I know that other people don't hear what I heard as I spoke. I know this because some of them have told me what they heard. It is often interesting, what they do hear, and sometimes relevant to the topic I preach about.
When the passage is read again a year later, I think that I am very much alone in the gathering. I wonder what experience other people nearby may be having as the passage is read. But I cannot know.
This time around it is the Republicans who are engaging in Viagra politics. The party newly demoted to minority status responds by shouting We are not impotent at the top of their lungs.
Not necessarily literally. There is quite a variety of manner of making noise. Politicians know many ways of shouting, so only some of them are speaking loudly on the floor of Congress. Others make a lot of metaphoric noise rather quietly by focusing attention on the small and the trivial.
In physics and signal theory noise is the random fluctuation in the quantity you are measuring which (precisely because it is random variation) doesn't provide any useful information. In the current situation of bad economic times, the daily changes in the stock market averages are noise; the market going up and down throughout the day obscures the broader trend which will someday signal economic recovery. (Or so we hope.)
In our particular political world of the United States at the beginning of 2009, the reality is that the Democrats in general and the the Democratic President Obama in particular won a resounding victory by promoting bipartisanship. One can reasonably conclude that the citizens voted in favor of having politicians working together on the problems facing the nation.
In the reality of Viagra politics, the world looks different. To the Democrats, the will of the people seems clearly to be that the Republicans should work with the Democrats. It isn't quite so clear to them that Democrats should also work with Republicans. To the Republicans, meanwhile, it seems obvious that the people were willing to go with the Democrats in a risky gamble for short-term gains. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to the country that the alternative point of view (the one, single, and only possible alternative viewpoint, the Republicans' viewpoint) must be maintained as a distinct option for later adoption.
From this it follows that Republicans must show the nation that they are not impotent but rather a potent and viable alternative to the course approved in the most recent election.
From the broader view of actual reality, it may be thought that the party with recently reduced status might be acting less from a sense of protecting long-term alternatives and more from an immediate sense of loss of power. Grief over lost status, while not the most noble of human emotions, is a normal and natural part of political life. Not to mention a rather common aspect of political life.
Some, we think, may be inclined to accept the communal demotion and seek to blunt the excess euphoria of the victors by proposing reasonable policy choices which contrast favorably with some ideas of the new majority.
Others descend to the world of Viagra politics and desperately do anything they can imagine to prove that they haven't lost everything by losing the election.
I borrowed a book from the library. It is an engaging thriller, provided that you can skim over such implausibilities as a police crisis team turning over negotiations to a defense lawyer, an American police officer changing his family name twice while on a 2-day assignment in the Bahamas, and hostages being threatened with electrocution by a battery-powered generator.
"Write about what you know," they say, and I'm almost positive that the book's author has never known a battery-powered generator. Not that it is impossible of course, but surely improbable since such a device could only generate some fraction of the power in the battery.
In matters of religion, however, many people try to function with the spiritual equivalent of battery-powered generators. Many or, I would venture to think, all of us will at times try to generate spiritual electricity based on our internal store of spirituality.
The actual reality is much the same in both the physical and spiritual realms. We drain the battery and end up with less than what we had to begin with.
There must be something intrinsically appealing to us humans in the idea of being self-contained. We live our lives and write our books knowing that mind, spirit, and power can only continue when in relationship. And yet we live and write and dream about people and generators which are somehow self-contained.
We seem to think that reality would be more clean, more understandable, or perhaps more managable if only there were discrete boxes which functioned on their own. And perhaps this is the key: Our minds can give attention to only a few items at a time, but the number of relationships grows polynomially. (Tom, alone, has no relationships. Tom and Sarah have one relationship. Tom, Sarah, and Jordan have three. Tom, Sarah, Jordan, and Sydney have six. And after that it gets complicated.)
Deep down, we know the limitations we have in actual reality and do we not then try to compensate by inventing a new, simpler reality? Simpler, that is, for our brains to comprehend. But our goal is not to invent alternative realities. We play the actual reality game.
Quality Is a Social Activity
Quality is a recurrent theme of corporate identity. "Quality is our goal" they will say, or "quality moves us". I don't mean that this is actually true. It isn't true. In actual reality market share is our corporate goal and status is what motivates us individually. Never mind; quality is a desideratum of the paying public, and therefore quality is a tool of interest to the corporations, and therefore it remains a topic of recurrent concern.
One thing I've noticed in my sojourn as a corporate lackey is that the heat and noise given to the topic of quality doesn't seem to be proportionate to changes in actual quality. This has appeared to be true at least in my own area of speciality, computer programming.
I should add that saying actual quality in this context is a bit of a misnomer simply because it has been difficult to identify any observable quantity that reliably correlates with any agreed-upon quality of computer software. In other words, in actual practice we can't measure quality. This problem is somewhat less acute in manufacturing areas because there are measurable attributes of manufactured products (such as weight, content, flexural strength, and so on) which do in fact correlate, at least in part, with generally accepted concepts of quality.
Generally, in the computer programming area, quality has been addressed (with limited impact) by trying to get the company's programmers (i) to use the same coding style as used by some particular programmers at the same company or at the consulting company which was hired to "fix" the problem or at some other company with whom the consulting company has previously worked, and (ii) by putting all the resulting code through various kinds of reviews in which some second person (who has their own work to do) might possibly spot some flaw in the programmer's code.
I've pointed out in the past (with limited impact) that the biggest advantage of performing reviews is that it forces the original programmer to organize the work more carefully and to think it through well enough that it can be shown to someone else. The second biggest advantage of the reviews can be a sharing of knowledge and experience.
The biggest actual impact of most reviews is to take people away from useful work to sit in meetings; the second largest impact is often to discourage innovation, creativity, and any technique which isn't immediately obvious. This may have the benefit of reducing wildly unexpected failures by at the cost of precluding dramatic successes. The typical result is uniformly low quality programs.
Now the question is why this should be the case. Why don't these measures actually increase quality? There are many reasons, but I only want to comment on the one that I finally recognized this week.
Increasing quality is a social process. This was already implicit in my earlier observations, but it wasn't explicitly conscious in my statement of them. Having your work visible to other people automatically makes the entire development process a social process. It is this social aspect that drives you to do a better job, so that these other people will approve of your work. This is why I would say that it isn't what happens in the review itself that is so important, but rather the fact that the review will happen.
If we can go beyond that to initiate a real conversation among the developers, that very sharing of knowledge and experience which I mentioned in my earlier observations, then we have advanced the sociality of quality even more. In the first level, there was observation and approval (or, of course, the danger of condemnation). In the next level, there is a back-and-forth exchange of ideas. Such a conversation can be continued and expanded, at least in principle, beyond the immediate group of colleagues to encompass sharing among larger groups.
This seldom happens. Why? In large part, I think, because the people charged with quality improvement have no special competence in the area of social interactions. They don't know how to initiate or maintain such wide-ranging conversations. Instead, the corporate managers assign quality improvement to highly technical people who seldom engage in broad conversation. Or the task is assigned to outsiders, either consultants or recent MS grads, who don't have a good grasp of the existing social structures. In either case, the actual reality is that social networks are damped rather than cultivated.
But increasing quality is a social process and if the social networks are diminished it follows that quality is very likely to diminish as well. From this point of view, it may be only the remarkable resiliance of workplace social relationships which prevents the total collapse of software quality in the face of a new corporate quality initiative.
How Many Empiricists Can Dance On the Nub of an Argument?
Seldom do I take a monograph on theories of epistemology as my bedtime reading. So far, indeed, only about once in 50 years. Then again Susan Haack only wrote Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology one time, in 1993.
In actual reality a monograph of over 200 pages in not written in a year, not even 1993. Haack herself admits to "about a decade" and explains, "The book draws upon, develops, substantially revises, and in some case repudiates, earlier published work." [Preface.] That's a nice bit of honesty and characteristic enough of the author's general tone.
The book reads like a series of informal lectures to a group of avid graduate students in philosophy. They are avid not only because of their interest in the topic but also because of their confidence in the lecturer. She's someone they expect to be able to learn from, someone who has studied the issues of epistemology and has the intelligence to say something worth hearing. And she, at the podium, is confident and careful; she knows that what she says is worth listening to.
Besides that, she likes those avid grad students and enjoys being with them, and apparently she is willing to enjoy being with the rest of us, if only through the indirection of authorship.
Haack writes with a balance of erudition and good humor. She tells us, for example, that "while pondering the futility of trying to commensurate incommensuable discourses may have convinced some to abandon epistemology, it leads me to suspect that the tautological is being transmuted into the tendentious: e.g., that we judge by the standards by which we judge, into, it makes no sense to ask what the basis of our standards might be; or: that we can't describe anything except in language, into, there is nothing outside language for our descriptions to represent accurately or inaccurately." [Page 185.]
No one ever said that the well-informed must write only in succinct sentences. The key is not in brevity but in value, and a sentence that blends serious philosophical criticism with literate alliteration and spices the whole with a dash of sarcasm is richer than any other sentence that you are likely to have read today.
That is to suggest that in the actual reality game reading such books adds value, enriches you, while avoiding them impoverishes. Not everyone needs epistemological monographs at bedtime, but what did you do at bedtime that helped you in this game? I read Susan Haack. Once in 50 years.
A Modern Tea Party
It is always good to see people of differing views get together. Just yesterday, a group of twelve hundred people, or possibly 500, depending on which television station you watched, joined in what they called a "Taxpayer Tea Party" in reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Fortunately, this group didn't dress up as Arabs or Iraqis and throw barrels of oil into the harbor. (We still have quite enough pollution in the harbor as it is.) They did, however, talk with television reporters and from the resulting reports I garnered these impressions:
- Some of the people who gathered seemed to be protesting against the 2009 federal budget bill (which is still pending although we are well into March).
- Some seemed to be supporting the philosophy, at least, behind the recently enacted economic stimulus bill.
- A repeated theme seemed to be support for economic self-reliance. From TV reports alone I wasn't able to determine what these people meant by "self-reliance" in the inherently social context of economics.
- Others appeared to be arguing for an extension of special tax advantages, presumably benefiting themselves.
Although the group gathered in a public area near the harbor, they marched away from the river into an older neighborhood at the transition between residential and commercial areas. There they chanted in front of a closed office and demonstrated that, taken as a group, they had no clear agreement about what to do next.
Whether the participants recognized that they hold differing views was not quite clear from the available reports and video clips. Several people were speaking in the first-person plural, which might have suggested a unanimity that wasn't visible when comparing quotations of various participants.
It is always good to see people of differing views get together. Perhaps the participants weren't clear about their level of agreement, but the event itself proves that people of differing views can accomplish something together -- even if that common task is shouting at an empty office.
Sometimes the actual reality is the symbolism, not the content.
At last! I have finally learned why people stand around with cups of hot coffee before meetings. Science has come to my rescue with evidence "that mere tactile experiences of physical warmth" actually "activate concepts or feelings of interpersonal warmth". (This quotation is from Lawrence E. Williams and John Bargh, "Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth", Science 24 October 2008, page 606. The authors, I might add, are from the School of Business.)
In other words, if your hands are warm you behave more warmly towards other people, who are also standing around holding cups of hot coffee and feeling warm towards you. You also rate them as being more warm toward you, even before they pick up their own cups of coffee.
All of this hot-handedness is facilitated, it seems, by the fact that the same portion of the brain which responds to warm hands is integral to the assesment of warm hearts. So it isn't just an idiom to speak of warm friendships; it is neurology as well.
All of this makes subjective sense to me. I can easily imagine relaxing into the warm feelings of warm hands and warm conversation. Hot coffee, or hot cocoa, or hot cider served as we gather together, fostering a sense of kindred and mutuality before the business of the day begins.
Objectively, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. My actual experience of standing around in a group holding a cup of hot liquid doesn't match this picture well. When the cup is just warm enough, I remember myself retreating into the sense of physical warmth as an escape from the pressures of social contact. When the cup is too hot, it was a constant distraction. Should I have the temerity to put the hot liquid to my lips, nothing mattered to me but the confusion in my mind about why anyone, let alone the others in the room around me, would consider trying to drink hot fluids as anything other than a minor torture utterly without redeeming benefits.
The experimental science is all very interesting. I enjoy reading such reports and speculating on their import. No doubt such experimentation leads us a step forward in understanding the psychology of our species. The difference in attitude engendered by the hot coffee was a shift of about 8%, from an average rating of 4.25 on a scale of 1 to 7 to an average rating of 4.71. That's a big enough shift to be important, on average.
Our actual reality is made of the experiences of individual human beings, in each of whom a multitude of conflicting reactions play against each other. In my unaveraged experience of hot cocoa at a meeting these additional responses may easily swamp the effects of tactile warmth and keep my life, for the present, less predictable to the business psychologists.
The practice of stonewalling has been omnipresent in American public life since at least the days of Thomas Jonathan Jackson during the Civil War. However, in actual reality there are a variety of expressions and styles and classifications, of which I wish to elucidate 2.
First is the dressed stone wall in which stones are quarried out of the bedrock and shaped so that they can be laid in regular courses. The advantage of dressed blocks is that the resulting wall is more solid. A solid wall repells more types of infiltration more successfully over more time which makes such a wall more valuable if (as one would usually suppose) the intent of the builder is to exclude outside influences. The compensating cost is the need to quarry and dress the stone.
Second is the field stone wall in which stones are assembled in the state in which they occur in nature: rough and rounded. Such a wall is considerably more porous than the dressed block wall; it can only be made solid with the liberal use of mortar (which is itself porous and weak in comparison to the dressed blocks above). The raw material for the field stone wall is frequently available at little or no cost, especially in glaciated areas. The deficiency of a field stone wall is that it may fail to exclude water, snakes, rodents, and other outside influences. These not only may pass through the barrier, limiting its effectiveness, in the end they actively destabilize the wall's structural integrity.
One should not assume that in actual reality the field stone wall is chosen only when one is too impoverished or too cheap to pay for the quality of dressed stones. In some cases, the qualities of porosity and impermanance may be precisely the qualities desired in a stone wall.
I leave to the reader the question of whether it is ever wise to build a wall with the intent of allowing the snakes to get through. Consider this excerpt from an actual stonewalling email: "Given that this approval just happened last week, we have not posted information on our website, but we will do so. The questions that you are asking are important and quite frankly are some of the reasons why this alternative is being pursued. ... I anticipate that there will be meetings within the community on this idea." [Greg Maass, 4/13/2009] There is no hint here of actually providing any information. I would paraphrase it thus: (1) we haven't provided anything to you, although we may later, and (2) everything you've said is something.
That's a stone wall. But it is field stone. There are tons of holes in this message. The author didn't invest the time, effort, or skill required to create an impermeable barrier. Why not?
In the actual reality of public agencies in the United States, a truly impenetrable stone wall would be subjected to a frontal assault in the press and likely the courts, in addition to resistance by an aroused civil population and sapper attacks from all sides. The wall would almost certainly fall to the attackers and likely take its defenders with it.
The field stone wall, unmortared and only a few courses high, is less likely to incite such a dramatic defensive response. Stonewallers seem often to underestimate the disgust their efforts engender but they are correct in observing that a neighborly stone fence is less of an offense in most citizens' eyes than a tall battlement. The less threatening wall may last longer and be more protective than would an obviously better wall which attracts a stronger attack.
That's the actual reality of stonewalling today.
Growing up, in actual reality, is all about mixed messages. On the one hand, you are supposed to think for yourself and make your own decisions. On the other hand, your decisions are usually wrong and your explanations unacceptable.
Suppose (as really happened) you are a young boy and you know a friendly neighborhood dog. You and your friends have often visited the dog and one of your friends has been known to climb into the dog's doghouse. This afternoon, as you are walking past, you see the dog outside in his yard. Why wouldn't you walk over to him and say hello?
This is what grown-up people do in actual reality. They take the best information we have, make a judgement, and then act on their judgement. If you are going to become a grown-up, this is what you need to do.
Unexpectedly, the dog jumps up and hits you in the mouth. Your gum is cut open (right where a new tooth is coming in). Of course, you run home to your parents and are taken care of.
In the actual reality game the parents always have the advantage. The boy is wrong; the parents have warned him; they told him the rules; he didn't follow instructions. The injury is proof enough that the boy did something wrong. How can you argue with that?
Then too the boy offers his explanation for why this good dog misbehaved on this particular occasion. The boy compares everything he remembers about past visits with the recent circumstances and explains the different behavior as being the result of the different circumstances.
In actual reality this is how human beings play the game. Creating explanations is what we do; it is what makes us human. Our explanations aren't always accurate, often because our memory is less than accurate (or at least less than complete). If you are going to be a scientist or a detective, you need to take additional steps to test your explanation. But first you need to find an explanation to test.
Of course, the boy's explanation is wrong. At least his father says that he's wrong. Neither one of them can prove their theory.
If what the boy has done is to be human, if his thinking shows that he is playing the actual reality game the way that all human beings play the game, why then is his father so upset with him? That's easy: Because the play the boy made resulted in an injury.
Being an adult, in actual reality, is also about mixed messages. On the one hand, you are supposed to encourage your child to be more and more grown-up, to think for himself and make decisions based on the best information available. On the other hand, you are supposed to keep him safe.
In the actual reality game, the rules aren't always entirely consistent. But the mized messages are part of the game and one of the challenges is how to rationalize the contradictions.
Economists have become fond of lamenting irrational behavior, by which they refer to actions in actual reality which do not conform to to their models of optimal profitability.
For example, economists have done studies quantifying how much people overbid at auctions. By overbidding, the economists mean that people pay more to buy objects at auction than the amount their mathematical models say would result in the greatest cumulative profit.
Let us suppose that I wish to own object 'A' and that I am willing to pay as much as $100 to obtain it. Now at auction I may bid $80 to get object 'A'. The economic model may say, however, that I should bid $50 because if I bid $50 consistently I will get the $100 objects often enough to maximize my net value. Since I bid $80 rather than $50, I must be overbidding, or so the economic model would seem to show.
But why would paying 80% of an object's worth ever be irrational? What's wrong with this model?
Actual reality is more complex than the economic models. Remember the first supposition of my example: I wish to own object 'A'. For this imaginary me, the goal is not to buy and sell but rather to own. I value (for reasons not stated) possessing object 'A'; my story does not make the assumption that owning multiple objects 'A' will have a greater value. In my personal reality, in fact, duplicated objects are often just so much junk and have negative value. In addition, there may be a negative value attached to being without object 'A' between now and the next opportunity to bid.
I suspect that people typically do act rationally within their complete system of valuation and subject to the limitations of their current knowledge. As economists turn more to "behaviorial" economics, the study of how people actually behave rather than how they "ought" to behave, I expect that this rationality is what they will discover in our activity.
On the other hand, our current knowledge is subject to both ignorance and illusion. The recent economic downtown of 2008-2009 appears to illustrate this kind of irrationality in fairly clear terms.
A major part of the problem seems to have been risky mortgages which were resold without full information on the risk. One may think that loan officers were being deliberately ignorant of the risks they were undertaking, but they may also have quite rationally ignored risks which others were quite willing to assume. The issuers of the loans were under the illusion that they undertook no significant risk once the loan was sold. The loan purchasers were under the illusion that their individual risk was low because the overall risk was diluted among a large number of investors. In both cases, the specific behavior was rational in context. The problem was not irrationality but an illusion resulting from an oversimplification of the risk calculation which appeared rational in the absence of a comparison with a complex, difficult, and costly analysis.
Other illusions were also a part of the problem, such as the illusion that what is going up must continue up and (months later) that what is going down will fall forever. Some of these illusions arise naturally from the way our brains are constructed, which only means we should take extra care to avoid them.
Behavior which is based on reasonable errors in valuation or on unavoidable ignorance is not truly "irrational" behavior. Yet it is not fully rational, either; it is rational only within the illusory context.
Playing the actual reality game rationally requires both rational decisions and good knowledge of the actual reality within which we make our plays.
There are certain people I see along the bike trails (mostly males) who strongly conform to the rules of bicycle clothing style. They wear bicycle shorts and bicycle shirts and bicycle shoes and bicycle gloves and they ride cool bicycles along the bicycle trail.
What interests me is that people who adhere so closely to these rules of appearence frequently do not feel bound to follow other rules such as the bicycle laws for signalling and stopping. I'll grant than many of these rules are silly (and some which aren't still seem silly at first thought). But so are the unwritten rules of bicycle style.
My curiosity is why these riders choose one set of rules to follow closely and another category to ignore. To play the actual reality game you must at least take into account all of the actual rules. I suggest that when you select rules by broad category you are playing in imaginary reality.
I myself ignore most rules of style and minimally accept a few which have broader social implications. I obey most of the rules of the road carefully and the rest I obey sloppily. I like to think that I make rationally justifiable decisions about my level of conformity although I suspect that this is less than completely true.
Different rules may contradict each other, or function at cross purposes, or at the least they may lead to differing tactics. One of the key elements of playing in actual reality is finding ways to balance competing interests and so as to make plays which are successful. It's a rule that riding straight through at best speed produces a better bicycle high for the rider. It's another rule that everyone riding predictably (in accodance with the law, for example) improves the overall safety and flow of traffic. The one rule might lead you to speed through crossings while the other leads to a lot of starts and reacceleration.
It will not be possible to follow all the rules in their most simplistic formulations. The challenge in actual reality is to create or discover ways to reconcile the competing objectives behind the rules. In effect, and perhaps in practice, the player must use higher-level rules to determine how the low-level rules are applied in specific circumstances.
Those bicyclers I saw along the bike trails appeared to apply a very simple meta-rule: Follow rules of style; ignore rules of the road. Either I am underestimating them, or they are underestimating the complexity of the game.
Let's face it. In reality everything a President does is theater. Recently Barack Obama went around the office taking orders for take-out, then drove to the Five Guys hamburger shop to buy lunch for everyone, which he brought back in a couple grocery bags. Pretty normal stuff in the early 21st Century, except:
- Barack Obama is President of the United States.
- His office is the West Wing of the White House.
- He didn't drive himself to the hamburger place.
- His car had red and blue lights flashing throughout the trip.
- There were 2 other cars driving with him (one in front and another behind) filled with Secret Service agents.
- We know about this trip because it was all recorded by the cameras of the NBC Television Network.
You can truly say that there was nothing normal, typical or average about the entire event. President Obama was only acting like a normal boss in a typical office on an average work day doing a normal thing.
But - and this is important - this bit of theater was chosen and performed specifically to portray a normal scene. The play is a work of imagination, a bit of gaming, but the decisions about what to portray and how to portray it are aspects of reality. President Obama was deliberately acting like a normal boss in a typical office on an average work day doing a normal thing. Barack Obama chose to portray a typical office vignette and to place himself in the lead role.
Theater is real, even though what it portrays is imaginary. Good theater communicates opinions and insights about the reality which currently exists and helps to create a reality which is as yet imagined. Obama's lunchtime theater identifies the mundane take-out run as being significant to the self-identity of the United States. The President elevated the commonplace to be a symbol of an ideal of interpersonal relations toward which we ought to strive and, by casting himself in the lead role, claimed leadership in pursuing this specific ideal.
Should all of us place ourselves into roles in this same theater, the play becomes reality. That's the game.
Compare the Presidential theater of 2 other Presidents: Richard Nixon and George Washington. Nixon chose a theater of personal distinction, power, and status. It is almost inconceivable that President Nixon would have taken lunch orders from his staff, let alone go himself for take-out. He emphasized the pomp which distinguishes and distances the President from the populace. The distancing is real enough; the theater lies in whether the distance is displayed or hidden. Nixon, however, was not able to carry it off. He did not look the part (he was about as unregal as they come), he was not fully committed to the role he tried to play, and the play itself ran counter to the mood of the nation.
Washington was prosperous, married into money, was accomplished as General and adulated as a hero of the revolution, and is reputed to have had a personal presence which set him apart from the crowd wherever he went. When he became the first President under the Constitution, Washington deliberately chose to play a man of the people and to eschew the ceremony that could have made the Presidency into a mirror of European royalty. Washington's theater helped to shape the reality of the Presidency and to make possible Obama's theater of the normal.
"All the world's a stage," says Shakespeare's Jacques, "And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts," and nowhere is this more true than in the theater of the President of the United States. But perhaps Jacques misspeaks to say we are "merely" players, for in the actual reality game theatrical imagination is the parent of the next reality -- and every play is a move in the game.
Fearing the future, Fearing the past
Liberals mostly come from that group of people who ought to be excited about new possibilities and who should be looking forward to social progress. Instead, liberals are often consumed by such guilt that their obsession is to avoid repeating past errors.
Conservatives have a tendency to fear the future, and especially any change the future might bring, when they ought to be basking in the successes of the past and reminding the rest of us of how much good has already been accomplished.
What's wrong with this picture? The people attuned to the future are focused on the past and those naturally comfortable with the past are giving their attention to the future. No wonder everyone uncomfortable with politicians! But if we have correctly diagnosed the situation we have also defined the tactics to deal with it.
I propose that one should turn the conversation toward the future whenever one is dealing with a liberal, and not just being vaguely forward-looking but asking specifically what we can do better, who can benefit, and how this improvement can be achieved. Liberals are humans like the rest of us and usually will appreciate being asked for expert advice.
When dealing with a conservative, I suggest that one should look for a more evaluative stance, asking for help in recognizing more clearly what past successes are essential for building the future. Conservatives are human like the rest of us and usually appreciate being sought out for their insight.
The actual reality is that conservatives are afraid of the future and liberals are afraid of the past. My proposed tactics attempt to game the converse by playing on their strengths instead of their fears.
Good and Evil
What does it mean that we are "like gods, knowing good and evil"?
The phrase is a self-defining construct. It says that to be a divine being, like a god, is the same as to know the categories "good" and "evil". And this is true of us.
I think it would be wrong to expand this clause so as to say that we know whether a person or thing is a good person or an evil thing. The evidence, I think, shows that we humans are not particularly adept at making assignments into these categories.
But we do know the categories themselves; we are familiar with the terms and we have some grasp of the power of the concept. Indeed, we overuse the categories "good" and "evil". Often we declare something to be good when all we really mean is that it is efficacious. Or we categorize as evil everyone who thwarts our quest for some transient benefit.
God -- the real one, the one who is not merely "like" a god -- we understand to be not only the true arbiter between good and evil but even the definition of good: God alone is good. Those who are with God and supporting the purposes of God are classifiable as good. Those who oppose God are classifiable as evil. (You see why we are not so adept at classification. We do not really understand God very well.)
My cat and dog, wonderful as they are, show no sign of grasping the categories "good" and "evil". They understand "warm" and "powerful" and "edible" (although the dog is overly expansive in his interpretation of "edible"). The cat and dog are sometimes surprisingly like humans, but they not like gods.
Humans are sometimes like cats and dogs; sometimes too much so. But we are also "like gods" because we know "good" and "evil".
Our block's actual reality could probably serve as the content of a modern American novel.
We have the old couple who has lived on the block forever -- yes, and the other one and the other one, too. There are the older folks who walk every day and are always willing to say hello, and otherwise never say anything except in complaint. The old man who sits on his porch (in nice weather) and pets every dog who walks by.
We have young boys and martial arts in a bathrobe. A super-sized insect cuticula left on the trunk of the maple tree in the terrace outside their house. The many adventures and one misadventure with the dog.
We have an ongoing neighborhood feud which includes video tapes and a visit from the police.
We had a drug arrest once, although the canine unit stayed in the car. And there was a terrific and fatal automobile crash at the end of the block, which fortunately didn't involve any of our residents.
There would be no trick in filling up the novel. The trick would be finding an author who can write well enough to do us justice and will live here long enough to learn the stories. I can't do it. I have doubts about my writing but it is in talking with the neighbors long enough that I am certain to fail the assignment.
No, it would have to be somebody else, somebody with a gift for words, an appreciation for actual reality, and the willingness to let us out spin the tales that are to be woven into the plot.
And what would be the result of that play, if we found the player to make it?
When my interlibrary loan arrived, I found a warning inscribed in pencil on one of the first pages of Mendeleyev's Dream: The Qeust for the Elements by Paul Strathern.
"This is a very shallow book," it said.
Horrors! My first thought on seeing this message was to wonder why anyone would do this to a book? I mean, write in it. Even in pencil. What a travasty! How insulting to the next reader! This penciler may have felt a civic duty to warn all subsequent readers about the depth of authorship; clearly, in this person's mind, none of us will be able to make a correct judgement on the quality of the work without prompting.
My second thought is that this penciler must be a very shallow reviewer. The book isn't shallow. No, it is a pleasant stroll through history with a docent who is very well informed and sometimes amusingly opinionated. This is a walk worth taking.
we should bear in mind that a pleasant stroll differs from wind sprints and from marathons. The book is not an extreme intellectual sport. It doesn't make a career or even clean the house; maybe it opens a few windows to the autumn air. The scope of the book is broad rather than deep, so I suppose that in a literal sense I should accept the judgement of shallowness, but I would argue differently. I would argue that a judgement of shallowness implies that a book does not reach to an appropriate depth for its purpose and audience. On the other hand, if the quantity of detail is chosen intelligently and matched to the purpose, then I think "shallow" is a poor description.
Indeed, a stroll through history encumbered by excessive argument and weight of detail would cease to be so pleasant a walk. More to the point, a book carrying such baggage would fail in its purpose of communicating a broad view of the development of modern chemistry; the broad view would be lost in the plethora of narrow observations and interpretations.
What I am proposing is this: Intellectual depth is best measured by reference to the objective of the work. When the objective is to establish the truth of some particular assertion, we can demand detailed observations and close reasoning. When the objective is to offer a different view over the existing body of knowledge, we ought to look for that kind of simplification which highlights the relationships which the author proposes to be most significant, coupled with coherence with established facts (which do not need to be reestablished in this work).
To review a book justly, whether in pencil or otherwise, requires that the reviewer correctly identify the objective and fairly assess whether the scope and presentation are effective in moving the reader toward that objective.
My cat was just the beneficiary of an extraspecific intervention. I don't mean to be overly mysterious; Wheatley was outside on a rope which he had literally tied in knots (or hitches, still more precisely). His owner and benefactor untied the knot and allowed Wheatley to roam with a renewed measure of liberty.
I, the owner, am not of the same species as Wheatley, the cat.
Species do exist, I claim with some rational justification. Species are a creation of human imagination, I believe equally. The qualitative differences between me and my cat are easy to identify. The problem comes with determining which of those differences are significant enough to be discriminants of kind. (I've read that a serious debate about whether species is a meaningful concept for plants has now been largely settled by a statistical argument in favor of the existence of plant species.)
One of the more stark differences between humans and cats is that cats would never delimit another creature's liberty by means of a rope. Therefore, there would never be cause for a cat to untangle another's rope. Indeed, my cats never showed the slightest propensity for confining the distal range of another carnivore. At first meeting, they did show remarkably strong inclinations to restrict each other's proximal range by means of hissing, scratching, posturing, and malodorous secretion. Contrariwise, the cats showed little inclination to restrict the proximal range and some inclination to limit the distal liberty of small rodents and some birds.
Which returns me to the topic of extraspecific interventions, not all of which are beneficent from the recipient's viewpoint. I've seen several extraspecific interventions conducted by the cat which the mouse perceived as malevolent. The cat, I believe, thought of the same intervention as beneficent, but with itself as the beneficiary.
It is unlikely that the cat, or the mouse, has a "theory of mind" (the technical term for the ability to put yourself in another's place). So I overstate the case when I said the mouse perceived the cat's act as "malevolent"; only I, as a human, would so qualify the cat's mind.
The cat himself is unlikely to feel in any way malevolent -- or beneficent, either. But there are occasions when he does appear to find himself at peace with his own nature and with the environment in which he is living at the moment. Such moments, however they may be perceived internally by the cat, transcend the barriers of kind. Then I may become the beneficiary of an extraspecific intervention by my cat, who "comes between" my awareness of my self and my awareness of discordant aspects of my understanding of the world.
In actual reality the game involves plays by non-human players
In teh actual reality game many plays are made by fully conscious human players and may even be based on largely rational choices.
And then there are other plays.
For myself, there are times when under emotional stress I find myself obsessing on a single word or phrase. The classic case for me is the word "green" (as in "Green Bay", or so I have always supposed). I can remembering walking into West High School focused intensely on the word "green" as if somehow that would justify, if not my entire existence, at least my presence at that particular doorway.
Yesterday morning I woke up with a sore shoulder, a tense body, and thoughts of my brother and sister running through my head (54 years after their deaths). Thus I was not completely astonished to discover that a certain pointless phrase was running over and over through my head.
But why "Thorstein Veblen"?
The choice to devote any significant portion of my intellectual resources to repeating the name of this early commentator on the game was neither rational nor conscious. (Nor, so far as I have noticed, was it a particularly productive move.) But it was another play in the game and it has implications and impacts on subsequent plays. On the one hand, the obsessiveness itself precluded me from making some other plays at the time; on the other hand the unexpected appearence of this name has shifted my attention. Not only did I take time to look Veblen up (then then also his hometown of Cato) but some of Veblen's commentary on the actual reality game casts a slightly altered light over other matters which have been on my mind over the past day.
My playing of the game is thus affected as if there were a second player in my mind, a player whose playing of the game is not clearly rational but who still affects my playing. There is, so to speak, a new piece on the board: Thorstein Veblen has reappeared within the space where I am making my moves. What is more, Thorstein Veblen's old moves in the game are made relevant by the play of my unconscious mind.
Why "Thorstein Veblen"? I have no clue. But here is Veblen, dead since 1929, effectively back in play in the actual reality game of 2009.
In my office, it seems that projects are more and more communicated in monotones, without the richness of true interpersonal contact. A task comes down with the informative value of someone saying, "here is what i want now you do it."
Once upon a time, in a different place and with different people, a task was typically placed into context. Is this an experimental thrust, subject to evaluation, regrouping, and change of direction? Is this a suggested approach to meeting some larger goal? Who really cares about the result? Who cares about the method?
One thing which is different from those other times and places is the sheer size of the corporation within which we find ourselves. Often the identity of the true champion of an idea is lost in a series of requests from unit to unit long before we are involved. Besides, the form of the requests in a large organization is stilted to fit within standard formats mandated by other corporate units which are not involved in any way with the current project.
Another difference is the physical distance from the deciders, which results in most communication being technologically filtered through telephone (audio only) or email (text only) and filtered also into discreet and temporally separated snippets, losing continuity.
Of course, the appearence of difference may be partly due to my status as a part-time employee. It seems that the more one is able to remove oneself from the day-to-day routines of the office the less those routines seem to be normal. But I think this is less significant for me than it might me, inasmuch as I remember classifying much that went on in my first jobs as being delusional in quite the same sense as what I am describing here.
What I beleive to be different is the level of engagement between the staff where I work and the people they are trying to serve. In the actual reality game engagement is always in play. Do you engage the other person, and how deeply? (My inclination is always against engaging and toward being engaged. But that's a dichotomy for another essay.) For a highly skilled player the level of engagement is strategic; for any skillful player engagement is played tactically.
Many of us engage others ad hoc and based mostly on personal relationships. (I like to talk to so-and-so, and so I do, even though she doesn't have any real stake in this particular project.) To play this way, however is to build up a virtual reality and move into it.
Here I was, having a pleasant, middle-of-the-night dream in conversation with a woman I had just met at the conference when word arrived that the great man wanted us all to meet. This great man, nameless, was a film producer and slightly older than I. We gathered in some sort of general-purpose space on folding chairs arranged in some approximation of a circle. And there were hand-outs.
When I arrived, my new friend was already seated -- not on one of the folding chairs, but on a small bench which had been pulled up to the circle as a consequence of a shortage in the number of chairs. Indeed, it appeared that the last spot available for me was the other end of that same small bench (which made me feel that I was perhaps seeming to dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to being in the company of this particular woman).
I sat down, received the hand-out, listened in on some of the conversation. From my left, there appeared a colleague from my employment (both of whom shall remain nameless in this essay). He was uncharacteristically dressed in a suit and tie; he chided me on appearing before the great man in jeans and a T-shirt (even though the T-shirt was absolutely brand new and we had only just been summoned at short notice). He chided me on this presumed lack of respect as he himself was walking out of the gathering to go elsewhere.
The group, although I characterized them all as analysts, was actually quite diverse. To my right, for example, there was a college professor sharing stories about his students.
The great producer arrived, sat down, shared some introductory small talk, and then got to business. It seems that he was searching for someone to take charge of a portion of his assets. The hand-out included questions about our background, interests, and experiences with the implication that one of us might be his choice for this position. I had made some notes on my paper but the sense of the group was to collect all our information into a master list for the great man to look at.
One of the men from around the circle (I don't know who he was, although he was obviously a professional person with whom I was acquainted) brought this master copy of the hand-out to me, assuring me that he had already added most of my information. I was surprised, and a little insulted, to discover that he had taken some light conversation about movies to be representative of my history and interest in film. I felt the need to begin adding the titles of some of the much greater films which I had also watched, mostly in my living room on DVD.
As for my ideas for the producer's financial assets, I had written on my hand-out the observation that all he wanted was a standard service of all the banks. I tried to copy my comment to the master list, revising the wording a bit to have less chance of seeming insulting.
As I wrote on the paper, I realized that the great man had little interest in what I was offering. Certainly I have some interest in movies and a little experience in dealing with banks, but in neither area could I be considered much of an expert. Nor could any of the others in that circle. Why would he be offering us this opportunity to become his investment coordinator? And why would he be asking potential investment coordinators about their history with film?
Clearly, this film producer in my dream was not so much interested in investment strategy. What he was looking for was someone with whom he could converse, someone to whom he could relate. One might even say that he was hoping to hire a professional friend, in a sense.
I woke up with a strong sense of dissonance. Even though this producer seemed to be a reasonably normal person (at least for one in his profession), I had no desire to be his hired confidant either in film or in finance. I have no particular reason to take on that role and it isn't a strong fit with my natural interests.
In the dream, the film producer was hoping to cast a part which he had written. And so it is in actual reality as well. We often try to cast others in roles we ourselves invent, and sometimes they agree to play that part for some time. But they have their own lives and aspirations to write their own plays, and they leave us. The only lasting dramas are those rare true collaborations in which we write our own and each others' parts in concert.
I have a friend with kids in school who sees high school primarily as an obstacle course on the path to life. (His attitude is colored by the obstacles his oldest son is experiencing.) I accused him of not being clear on what goal of life the realities of high school are obstacles to reaching.
If your goal is to get out of a burning room, all the tables and chairs are merely obstacles. But if the goal is to cooperate in planning a project, the tables and chairs are tools that help accomplish that. Same tables, chairs, and room; different obstacles.
If you want to avoid mathematics for the rest of your life, then algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus are all obstacles standing in your way. But if you want to be an engineer or a physicist, those studies are necessary building blocks. And for those whose desire is to be educated people, those courses can be tools to achieve breadth of vision and a clearer perception of the power of the human mind.
All well and good, but that doesn't mean that there are no obstacles to overcome. High school courses are taught in the most implausible situations. (Consider only the 53-minute schedule for example. How can teenagers be settled, informed, exercised, and evaluated within such a ridiculously short span of time?) High school textbooks often seem to be evaluated primarily by weight and sometimes by the use of colored inks; seldom do they exhibit either clarity or depth. High school teachers are notoriously shallow in subject knowledge and narrow in their approach to teaching; even partial exceptions may become recipients of public adulation if they are identified.
When we play the game without any strategy, every adverse event will seem to be nothing other than an obstacle. In actual reality most of us play that way much of the time; our only strategy is to be happy someday, somehow. "I want to pass high school Spanish so that I can get a college degree that has enough prestige to make enough money so that I don't have any obstacles to being happy." So we try to get past the stones on which we are constantly stubbing our toes and don't evaluate whether those stones might be the raw material of our success.
In contrast, a person might choose to learn Spanish strategically. "I want to speak Spanish because I want to market products to Mexico." Or, "I want to read Spanish so that I can enjoy Cervantes or perhaps Ortega y Gasset in their original form." Or, "I want to learn Spanish to broaden my understanding of human communication." Or, as my father said of learning calculus, "just for the sheer beauty of it."
There is something of a minor movement afoot among computer junkies who seem to want to give something back to society -- on their own terms. It is called GiveCamp and has been showing up in metro centers around the United States. They are bringing together a bunch of contractor types, beverages, and Xbox gaming systems and claiming a social conscience because they're going to give away some newly minted code to a non-profit organization.
The techies are getting a weekend of activities they enjoy doing with a group of people who have similar tastes. (Writing computer code and playing Xbox games would not be a fun weekend for everybody, but it is what these folks would be doing with or without the GiveCamp organization.) The more important question is, What are they actually donating?
They have pre-defined the scope of their gift to be limited to the design and construction of stand-alone software. The project requirements must already be defined for them. The project is all done over a single weekend, so testing will be limited. And they offer no maintenance or support.
It is, therefore, a self-centered kind of altruism and a solution in search of a problem. "Let's all get together for a weekend, have some fun, and salve our consciences by leaving something useful behind." These techies are making an immature play in the Actual Reality Game.
If I were running a non-profit, I'd turn them down. Even shrink-wrapped software has some support, however minimal, and there are usually other non-profits you can turn to with questions. Museums and churches, for example, typically buy sector-standard software (PastPerfect for museums, any of several products for churches); they get training, support, and a large user community. Perhaps that's why the Twin Cities group had a problem finding a customer.
And yet -- there is still something positive here. They are willing to benefit society, to make a play which utilizes their skills to create a broader benefit than just beverages and computer gaming. What they lack is experienced and insightful leadership, people who know how to match the actual reality of ability with the actual reality of need.
In recent years I've been reading a lot about the need to cultivate leaders in business, engineering, churches, even computers. My sense is that little is done which would actually encourage, support, or train people with the capacity to provide the kind of leadership so lacking among these computer junkies.
And yet -- there must already be leaders. Who initiated the GiveCamp concept? Who spread the idea, created the websites, contacted the non-profits in a (nearly fruitless) search for a customer? If there were no people serving in leadership roles, the idea would never have gotten beyond a late night conversation with friends over beverages and Xbox games.
What, then, must our conclusion be? First, these techies already have a willingness to contribute more for the benefit other people than merely playing games and drinking beer. Second, there are leaders among them who are able to draw a group together to pursue a common purpose. Third, these leaders among the computer gamers are still naifs in the actual reality game. Therefore, we must conclude that computer junkies are a potentially powerful resource awaiting a more skillful player, a leader of leaders, who will play them effectively.
Power is a measure of the work done in a given amount of time. In physics, that's the change in the energy of the system, without regard for what is being accomplished, but in human life we may prefer to consider only useful work. In other words, power in human society is referenced against human goals; if you are going to play a power game in human society you need to know what work you want accomplished.
It occurred to me the other day that in actual reality we spent too little time thinking in terms of power. Power, I suspect, may have gotten a bad connotation, perhaps because the idea has been overplayed by some people. In particular, people with whom many of us would prefer not to have play have played power games disproportionately. Often, those who overemphasize a particular play do not make that kind of play particularly well. So our negative reaction to power may credit them with more than their actions warrant. Even if they make power plays successfully, unless they do so in a way which constitutes a successful play in the actual reality game it is of little import to us.
Why do we want to consider power in making our plays? This follows from the fact that we want to accomplish our goals, to do useful work, which is the very definition of power.
The matter arose in my mind while I was considering the attitude of several computer programmers to a suggestion for changes that should be made to certain computer code. Two objections to making the change were raised. The first was that it would be a lot of work and take up a lot of time (which presumably could be used for other purposes). The second was that we could get by without making the change, that the cost of doing nothing would be small.
The first objection is clearly a question of power. How much work can be done in a given amount of time is a question of how much power you have. I was frustrated by the objection because, as computer people, we have at our fingertips the power of computerization. We could -- and I did -- make the complete set of changes in a very small amount of time by applying the power of automation. My frustration lies in the fact that these computer programmers were not thinking in terms of the power available.
The second objection is also a question of power. To see this, you need to recognize that there is a cost to doing nothing: You save the cost of the change, but this is offset by the cost of the lost opportunity. If we do not make this change, future changes will cost more. We'll still do the same work, eventually, but more of the work will be spread over a longer period of time: less power.
The application of more power is not inevitably a better decision. There can be reasons to use less power, that is to spread the work (and therefore the cost) over a longer time. For example, if the resources are limited, you can choose to apply them to multiple efforts (at lower power) or to a single effort (at higher power). If the system were completely efficient, the total cost would be the same whichever choice we make. But actual reality is not completely efficient and the cost is always higher for work delayed.
In actual reality, if you want to play the game well, you have to be willing to balance present and future costs. And that means you need to think about power.
The central tenet of theodicy is that there is a problem of evil. More technically, theodicy exists because people find a logical inconsistency between their idea of a good and powerful God and their ideal universe and they wish to remove this inconsistency.
Here is a version of the "logical problem of evil" which I copied from Wikipedia. 1. God exists. 2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. 3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils. 4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence. 5. An omnipotent being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence. 6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil. 7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists. 8. Evil exists (a logical contradiction).
There is an unacknowledged assumption hidden amongst these propositions, the assumption that "I know what a good God would want to do". How do you know this? From personal experience?
Revelation, as represented by the Hebrew scripture, doesn't support the premises of this logical problem. The Bible declares that God is good and also that creation is good. If the world is good, then there really isn't a problem of evil which one would need to resolve.
Actually, Genesis leaves open the possibility that creation was good but is not so very good any more. The story of the garden (known as the story of The Fall among many theodicists) suggests that evil only appeared when humankind ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Many say that the eating of the fruit was the Original Sin which brought evil into a world which was previously good. It isn't clear to me how evil is the consequence of this act, since it would seem that the act which brings evil into the world must itself be evil, and also the desire which led to the overt act, and so on backward into the good time in the garden, but let us leave that question to the side.
My own interpretation would be that evil was not a defined category until human beings, reaching beyond their animal nature (to become "like gods" as the story says), created for themselves the categories of "good" and "evil", "us" and "them", "lawful" and "unlawful", "my idea" and "mistaken". It is not unreasonable to suppose that the problem of evil might be a categorization error.
Taking that point of view, one can go a bit farther and claim that the problem of evil, and therefore also theodicy, is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Judging by some recently popular books, we're still eating it up.
The revelation of the Christian scriptures adds another point, which is that God suffers. What is more, God chooses to suffer. I asked before, how do you know what a good and omnipotent God would want to do? According to revealed truth, a good and omnipotent God would -- and in actual reality did -- choose to suffer.
One needs to be careful when expressing the truth in this way, because it is all too easy to twist this thought into justification for making someone else suffer, which isn't the point at all. Or it can be twisted into a glorification of self-inflicted pain, medieval European self-flagellation being the type specimen for that error.
According to the Christian story, God's choices do not easily map into our human ideal of a good universe. God surprises us. We may not understand what a good and omnipotent God would want. In humility, we should assume that we do not know.
A Peace of History
The latest issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History arrived recently with an article which is primarily about Women for a Peaceful Christmas, a Madison-based organization active until the end of the Viet Nam war.
It is interesting to find events of your high school and college years becoming the subject of articles in history magazines. I think there is some sort of phase transition involved there; once past the first half century of life you enter a new state of matter. How can Women for a Peaceful Christmas be history? How can any issue which remains pertinent to daily life and culturally unresolved be treated as history? The questions they raised about peace, environmental destruction, and excessive consumerism are completely relevant to the news of the day. Test me on this: at Reuters today I see these stories:
"The United States aims to get all new troops pledged by allies into Afghanistan in the first half of 2010 and wants the Netherlands and Canada to 'stay with us' despite withdrawal plans, a Pentagon official said on Monday."
"Cash-strapped Americans are spending less this year on holiday shopping, and are waiting until the very last minute to reap the maximum bargains -- wreaking havok upon retailers who desperately need a good Christmas season."
"Washington took a step on Monday toward curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, aiding the first day of the biggest climate talks in history where 190 nations are seeking a deal to curb global warming."
Now, are the issues peace, consumption, and the environment? Are the issues still peace, consumption, environment? This isn't history; this is long-playing current events! At least, so it appears to those of us who have lived these same issues in actual reality for half a century and more.
That may be the point.
I am undecided whether to be comforted or frustrated. On the one hand, it is frustrating to realize that issues of war and peace, of exploitation and relationship, of waste and sustainability are so deeply unresolved after four decades of attention (although, in actual reality, it has been much longer). On the other hand, it is comforting to be sure that the we identified issues which are truly fundamental. We are aiming at the right target, at least in some sense, given that the same issues remain at the core of social controversy after 40 years.
We have, based on the turn of history, the right questions. It still seems to us that we have the same right answers. We can make the same plays in the actual reality game that we made 40 years ago and perhaps get the same results. But I am uneasy with mere repetition. In terms of playing this game, have we learned anything?
Yesterday worship began with a jazz trio, later augmented with 2 additional players. The music seemed so true, so perfect, that when it paused I could only think That was reality. But if it is the music which was most true, what is this where we live after it stops?
Of course, no musical performance is perfect. One could reasonably say that music isn't even real because it is entirely ephemeral and the reality it has can only be ascertained indirectly. Yet there is the sense that in the music I have contact with a reality which exceeds normal experience.
Possibly that sense is only an illusion, but I think not. Sensory illusion may well have a part in what I feel, but I believe that sense is pointing to truth. The phenomenon of music emerges out of the complexity of actual existence. It is, in the technical jargon of modern science, an emergent phenomenon, something truly different from the breath and fingering and resonances which underlie the making of music. I offer the opinion that music which touches the soul does very literally, and very scientifically, point to a higher-order reality which our selves can touch but in which our consciousness cannot live.
The question I want to ask is, Why can't we live there all the time? But I think the question I've left lying has been, How can it be that we are able to touch this reality even for the few moments that the music plays? How is it that we are ever invited into this realm?
If this supra-actual reality is more than my imagination, more than only sensory illusion, then perhaps it exists all the time. Perhaps there is a "music" playing, an emergent phenomenon existing, which I do not hear except when the jazz trio makes a connection to it with their playing.