Actual Reality Game
The game's afoot.
Actual Reality Game
The Value of Work
Until the recent minor downturn in the loan business (a few bankruptcies, a little panic by the lenders) one of the major tasks of that industry was to convince people to switch lenders. Also, to convince lenders to swap customers. So the whole effort of many loan workers consisted in zeroing out balances in one set of books and adding those amounts to another set. In some mysterious way, this activity is believed to keep the economy going.
When Comenius looked at careers in the 1600s, he pointed to a number of observations. He noted that people put in long hours and structured their whole lives around the demands of their employment. The work they did, like that of modern loan officers, often seemed to accomplish very little and not infrequently actually hurt the people that were involved in their work. On top of all that, the larger benefits which were claimed for all these occupations - claims at the level of "keeping the economy going" - couldn't be supported by the evidence.
Comenius had a strong pacifist streak, but his problems with the military weren't based entirely on theological grounds. He noticed that soldiers and sailors suffered a lot in their own lives and spent the rest of their time and attention in creating suffering for other people. All of which is bad enough, and reason enough to become anti-military. But, in addition, Comenius pointed out that military action wasn't very successful.
At the end of the Thirty Year's War (the period when Comenius was writing) nothing much had really changed, except perhaps an awareness that nothing much had changed and of course the decimation of the population. J.P. Somerville writes for a class at the University of Wisconsin: "The Peace of Westphalia did not involve any major territorial losses or gains. However, it entailed the Spanish conceding that they could never recapture the United Provinces, the Hapsburgs acknowledging that they would never be absolute rulers over a unified Germany, and Catholic admission that Protestantism was here to stay. The recognition of these obvious facts of life was very important to future peace and stability in Europe."
One has to laugh at the naivite of our grandparents for fighting a war to end all war, until you consider peace in our time, making the world safe for democracy, and winning the war on terror. It's still funny, but not quite as easy to laugh at.
When I go to work, all 25 hours a week, there is some consolation in knowing that I don't personally kill anyone, nor do I directly take their money. What I do, for the most part, is make it easier for my colleagues to direct our computers to churn health data to invent (or discover) problems for which other groups create expensive mailings for the post office to carry to physicians' offices where (we suspect) they are most frequently dropped into recycling bins for employees of other companies to cart away to paper companies to be churned (more literally this time) into new paper on which new letters can be written.
In the meantime, however, other employees of my employer are engaged in finding ways to prove that our letters improved the care of enough sick people that the health plans which pay for the care saved so much money that they should share some with the company that employs me and my colleagues. The money paid compensates my employer for having paid us and so justifies their insistence that we should churn the data in new ways so as to invent (or discover) still more health problems to be put into still more letters to keep the cycle going.
From the inside, it is harder to see how funny this is. Trying to be objective while working in the 21st century is a little bit like enjoying the performance of a juggler while serving as one of the balls the juggler is keeping in the air.
Poor John Rankin
It's sad that personal meetings with people who are employed solely to provide personal meetings is considered an incentive for donors to give money. I have to assume that the colleges are sufficiently professional as to have good evidence to support their belief that this really works. Someone, I hope, analyzed the increase in income when personal attention was made the order of the day and found, I hope, that the costs of hiring people to do nothing but talk to donors is swamped by the increment in receipts.
John is not at fault for trying to do his job but his job is entirely at odds with why I give money. "I don't want to sound like I'm putting you off," I told him, "but in reality I'm putting you off." That must seem bad enough, but last month I blew off an appointment with him because it was raining that day and I didn't feel like biking to the place we had agreed to meet.
So now he's worried. He's worried (a) that he has offended me by affecting this official and unreal friendship, (b) that I might not continue to support the college, and (c) that the loss of my support will reflect badly on himself.
The best thing to do, I suggested, would be to put my name on a list of donors who do not conform and then to call me when they figure out what to do with us. (I am arrogant enough to presume that I am like somebody else, that I am not completely outside the stream of humanity.)
I doubt that John will be the one to figure out what to do with me. They're looking for weaknesses to exploit. I surely must have some; one is probably that I like to deny that I can be suckered by playing on my weaknesses. John's problem is that my weaknesses are not on his standard list.
It is sad that good and charitable causes should feel compelled to exploit the weaknesses of those inclined to give them small gifts in order to obtain large gifts.
It is sad that small gifts of the size I offer are big enough to attract the attention of the people who are employed solely to provide personal meetings in the hope of obtaining larger gifts and paying their salaries with the increment.
In the worldview of capitalistic philanthropy, there has to be a return on every investment. For the college, the return is primarily financial with some admixture of "good will", as this intangible asset is called by the accountants. For the donor, however, the federal government called the rule "no reward". (The government is a player in every game.) This rule only means no direct financial reward: Nothing of value may be provided in return for my gift. The tax deduction provides a small economic return; it justifies the investment only if the deductions lower the effective tax rate. The personal attention from John returns something else, stroking the sense of self-importance in people who already believe they deserve the money they have.
In this regard, I think I agree with the US tax code: Nothing of value was provided in return for my gift.
We surely have a game here. Call it the Philanthropy Game. It is not Actual Reality. It is something else.
"We want," John said, "to give you the attention you deserve." He might believe that himself. I think that most donors with whom he works have never a second thought about that claim. But if they do think otherwise, they still feel they are getting the return they expect by playing this game with John.
The new and very Western form of geisha girls are former bankers on a fixed salary who play out with their rich clients the illusion of importance and goodness and so induce favors for their employer.
A high school marching band stirs the soul. That's what marching bands are designed to do, and there have been several centuries during which that ability has been honed. Military marching bands stir souls and by doing so are reported to have increased the fervor of citizens for killing. College marching bands take on an analogous challenge to increase the fervor of football fans. (That is significantly more benign task than the task of the military band, but conducted with an unfortunate similarity of vocabulary.)
But it is only high school marching bands that I want to consider.
I missed the West High School Homecoming Parade this year. They normally march around a couple of blocks up the street from the school -- pretty big blocks, so the parade route totals something over a mile. Truthfully, the parade is a pretty mild little affair, a few decorated vehicles, two or three police cars and fire trucks, a bit of candy thrown to the younger bystanders, a chance for the teenaged students to show themselves off (those that want to), and of course the marching band.
When I do see the Homecoming Parade I am always just a bit emotional about the fact the we adults are prepared to shut down the public streets and assign police officers and firefighters to the service of a few high school students. It's great that we do so. But it is only when the band begins to play that my soul gets stirred.
My dogs and cats have uniformly held a different opinion of the Homecoming Parade. It is, they insist, too LOUD, too BRIGHT, too CROWDED, and -- most of all -- too UNUSUAL. From this I conclude that high school marching bands are a peculiarly human phenomenon.
I missed West's parade, but I did get down to De Pere for the dedication of the new bridge.
When a major new public facility is built, and an entire city is disrupted for a year or two, we always delay the use of the new facility until a least one full day of gawking and speeches can be held.
I'm sure that is a strictly human phenomenon. Why, after waiting so long, do we delay still longer? It is to stir the soul, I guess, or at least to name the importance and impress that on the memory. For a cat, the nearest equivalent is bringing the mouse to show the master. The cat says, "Look at me! I caught a mouse." In human reality, "Look at us! We built a bridge."
The cat, however, would not arrange for a marching band. De Pere did.
Two, in fact; one from the east side high school ("De Pere") and one from the west side ("West De Pere"). One might suppose that the bands were there to symbolize the reuniting of the city, divided by the Fox River, except that the old bridge was first closed for this event. Or one might suppose that the bands were being called on to provide some pleasant entertainment for the crowd, if only the crowd was paying attention to the music. I think the bands were there strictly to stir the soul.
For myself, the West De Pere Phantoms accomplished their function admirably. The instruments flash, the uniform helmets glitter, the drums roll, the students march.
Still, it isn't only the flash and roll that affects me. Now that I am grown up I can be quite resistant to emotional manipulations, even musical ones. But these musicians are not intentional manipulators. They are teenagers; not wholly without guile but quite innocent of any social or political agenda. That is something which, in the context of stirring drums, quite breaks any barriers I might raise.
Their Sons Not Sparing
"And when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in ..."
While I was pruning the shrubbery in front of my house, the lines of that famous hymn began to run through my mind. And I thought, "We're missing something important if we emphasize that idea too much."
There are are in history stories of fathers with wealth and power, kings or criminals (too often there is little difference), who have sent less favored sons to their deaths. That makes that point that sending a son to die is not nearly so incomprehensible as those lines suggest, but we don't need to look to the extraordinary for examples of such willingness.
Plenty of very ordinary human fathers have sent their sons to die. Often they send their sons to die for rather ignoble causes: to kill other fathers' sons, to increase the stature of a nation, or even that of a capital-stock company.
People may be more willing to send other people's sons than their own, and yet they appear to be sufficiently content to send even their own sons to die.
When national leaders have determined on a course of war -- civil war, world war, foreign war, it doesn't seem to matter a great deal -- the typical strategy is to define the war as a noble cause. Why? Apparently fathers are more willing to send their sons to die for a noble cause than otherwise. Nobility seems to provide some excuse for their willingness.
The fact that any excuse is needed to justify an action so well attested in human life suggests that deep down we already know that there is no excuse for what we are really doing. Yet people have accepted these excuses for as long as we have history to testify about it. Under such pretences, many fathers have sent untold numbers of sons to die.
Just sending a son to die is not sufficiently unique that we should be in awe.
What if we were doing what we pretend? If the cause were truly as noble as we let ourselves be told it is, would fathers still send their sons to die?
If they would, how can God seem so inexplicable as stated in Stuart Hine's hymn?
What is inexplicable to us, most of the time, is not so much that God would send his son. Rather, what is inexplicable is that God would consider us to be a noble cause.
We know that God would not undertake an ignoble cause. We know that Jesus refused to be a party to killing other fathers' sons or adding to the glory of a nation. Yet he did come, and he did die, and what was the excuse that justified that mission?
There is no explanation unless we are a noble cause. That is what is so hard to take in.
Emergency Operations Center
Talking More Rationally
"That's one of the issues," my friend remarked, "that I wish we could talk about more calmly and rationally." Not that my friend is especially noted for calm discussions of major social and political topics; I suppose he was speaking to himself even though he was addressing another member of the group we were with.
The issue at hand was federal legislation pertaining to a children's health program. How can anyone be opposed to children's health? They can, however, be opposed to a specific program. On the one hand, the proponents argue that too many children are not receiving care (or, at least, not adequate care), that this program has been successful, and that therefore it should be expanded to make health care available to more of the children who are presently not receiving adequate care. The opponents argue that the program has been successful at helping the children whom it was intended to help, expansion would put the government in the position of being more nearly a univeral health plan (albeit only for children), that the cost in dollars is too high (especially at a time when they want to spend large amounts on a small war), and that the cost in dollars is swamped by secondary social costs such as the diminution of private health coverage among middle-class parents.
There. Isn't that a calm rational discussion?
The conversation is not so calm in actual reality as my presentation suggests that it could be. Why not?
First, because there are other issues involved. Side arguments are raging about the level of health care which is adequate and about the appropriate involvement of the government in providing health care to citizens. Political and social philosophies clash over the rights, responsibilities, and performance of private health insurers.
Second, because we don't have reliable, objective data to support any position, and we haven't perfected a technique to balance large uncertainties.
Start with the question of what constitutes an adequate level of health care. Not only do we not have agreement on what that level should be, we also do not have clear measurements of what level of care is currently being offered. (Consider the health care you receive yourself. On what basis do you decide that the care is or is not adequate? Is your decision based on an objective, rational, and comprehensive set of data? Probably not.)
What are the social costs of expanding the program, or of maintaining current eligibility standards, or of reducing it, eliminating it, or replacing it?
Nobody knows for sure. But everybody seems to have an opinion.
The problem is that our opinions are dependent on the social and economic models that we use. If our economic model is correct, and if we make the change that is proposed, then it is likely that we will see such and such an effect. But if an alternative model is correct, the effects may well be different. What, in reality, are the advantages and disadvantages of government-run health plans, government-sponsored health plans, employer-sponsored health plans, consumer-purchased health plans?
Nobody knows for sure. We can't conduct controlled experiments on entire national populations, experiences are not immediately tranferable between different nations, and our theoretical understanding is still uncertain.
The debate is cast in terms of the specific proposed change to the law, but the disagreement is over broad views about how the world actually works. The heat of the argument is disproportionate to the specific question being debated because the real issue is much larger and because our rational understanding is not adequate to resolve that larger issue.
Sociology and economics are rapidly moving beyond observation and theorizing to the realm of experimentation and verification. There is hope that some of these larger questions will become tractable to rational debate. That should help to make calm and rational debate more possible.
Even so, we will still be debating. If we truly knew the benefits and costs of a federal health plan for selected children, and those of various alternatives, we would still need to debate which set of benefits and costs are most desirable.
This is the largest issue of all: What is most to be desired? How will we learn to debate that question?
Authenticity, Brevity, and Challenge
Wouldn't it be great if there was a drink which would make people's minds more clear instead of more dull as they consumed? A converse to ethanol's depression of the central nervous system, something that would make gatherings of friends increasingly productive as the evening wore on.
But I assume too much.
I assume that some drug could be found which increases effective intelligence, which can easily pass the blood-brain barrier, which has side effects no more dangerous than those of ethanol, and preferably less, which could be packaged into socially and commercially viable beverages. This already strikes me as being implausible. Interfering with a functional system is as easy as increasing entropy. Making a working system more effective is a much more difficult proposition.
I also assume that people want to function intelligently. My idea depends on people choosing to consume this hypothetical substance, if it were available. This assumption may be even more problematic.
To me, a challenging verbal interchange is self-rewarding and any mental incapacity is aversive. Observing people gives some reason to suppose that others also find snappy repartee enjoyable, and many people express a fear of living with dementias such as Alzheimer's. I am not being unreasonable to think that I am not totally different from all other people.
Despite that, many people drink ethanol and claim they anticipate the resulting mental degeneracy with pleasure.
One time long ago I went with two colleagues to Jake's Pizza in Green Bay. There they imbibed ethanol at sufficient rates as to decrease their mental capacity visibly. I left them when I felt that they were no longer competent to carry on rational conversation. At the time I commented that because of this experience I better understood the pain of watching a friend become a victim of dementia.
My point here is that these reasonably intelligent people, both of whom participated in conversation with me, intentionally engaged in behavior which they knew would deprive them of the major portion of their rational abilities, and they supposed that I might enjoy the same experience.
Now, it might be that secondary effects of ethanol are the motivators behind this behavior. Disinhibition, for example, is frequently cited as a possibility for this role, along with the associated illusion of mental stimulation‡. Another suggestion is the illusion of physical warmth.
If they had the alternative of an evening during which their minds became sharper and the conversation ever more rational, would they have chosen that experience instead of the dullness of beverage ethanol?
Isn't it at least as plausible to suppose that many people actually do find intellectual dullness to be, in itself, a pleasurable reality and that they are freely and rationally choosing temporary mental incapacity?
‡ Science Is Fun website, University of Wisconsin - Madison. The text is mirrored on this site.
Four Cardinal Virtues
Plato identified the four chief virtues as courage (sometimes fortitude), prudence (or wisdom), temperance (moderation), and justice. The virtues in this list were later named the four "Cardinal" virtues, distinquishing them from the "theological" virtues of faith, hope, and love as named by Paul in his letter to Corinth. (See Thomas Aquinas.)
First, that those who have virtues are strong. Their virtues give them their strength. Some seem to have only the virtue of physical strength, while others are stronger by having developed prudence or the other virtues.
I feel some ownership in this discussion, if only by virtue of my name, and so I offer my modifications to the list.
Faithfulness is being about your work. In the face of danger, faithfulness becomes the equivalent of courage; the faithful person is working despite the danger. The one who endures ennui without ending the effort is faithful; as is the one distracted by enthusiasm who does not depart from the assignment. Being faithful may sometimes seem equivalent to living a life of tedius attention to the task, but that is an illusion that comes from looking at the basement as if it were the entire house. The foundation holds the kitchen and the dining room and so makes the banquest possible. Faithfulness is an attribute of God and is emulated by God's people.
Discernment is the attention and the effort given to identifying the scope and nature of that assignment. The word is sometimes used to name the understanding which results from the success of this effort, and a "discerning" individual may refer to one who is frequently able to achieve a clear understanding. But I want to emphasize the virtue of making the effort. How well you see depends on the quality of your eyes, on how diligently you use them, and on how well you consider the images your eyes observe. Discernment is the analogous process of spiritual insight, and depends on gifts of grace and on faithfulness in using the gifts you have received.
Proportionality has the beauty of carrying connotations from mathematics and poetry and ethics. Proportionality allows an unlimited response to a boundless love or a quiet answer to an insignificant affront. It carries no hint of conforming to some gray middle ground. Proportionality requires careful discernment of the size and weight and flavor of every stimulus, for the response must be measured against the incitement.
Righteousness means to be full of the Right, which is to say being full of God. The righteous person is zealous for doing God's justice, which we've sometimes noted varies a bit from merely human notions of fairness and equity.
Extreme Intellectual Sports
Extreme physical sports have some currency in this first part of the 21st Century. One source identifies the origin of the term with the merely dangerous activities of the 1980s: skydiving, scuba diving, surfing, rock climbing, snow skiing, water skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, mountaineering, cave exploration, storm chasing, hang gliding, and bungee jumping.
Very little attention seems to be given to extreme intellect, a failure which I would like to begin to redress.
Some extreme intellectual sports can be understood as simple extensions of common mental activities. For example, calculus is extreme addition. Multiplication is merely advanced addition; calculus is addition run amok.
Addition itself might be considered advanced counting. There are always gradations of extremity.
I realize that just saying "calculus is extreme addition" won't resonate with readers who have no clue about what calculus is. It is not the custom for essays about extreme sports to be addressed to anyone who is not already an initiate. (There being no actual initiation procedure, or any real secrets, this vagueness is the only method available to induce the illusion of caste.) Anyone initiated into the Newtonian and Leibnizian Mysteries would immediately recognize the allusion to areas under curves and volumes of rotation. (The initiates of the earlier Bhattran Mysteries may also recognize this extreme sport.)
Probability is extreme counting. Since I already said that addition is advanced counting, you might think that probability has to be another form of extreme addition, but that isn't really true. Probability branched directly off of counting and zoomed to the uttermost exremities of the Pascalian Mysteries without losing its basis in the mental activities of 5-year-olds. That doesn't preclude extreme counting from using techniques developed in other extreme games, including calculus.
Other extreme intellectual sports consist of combinations of simple games. Systems analysis is in large part extreme outlining. Many teenagers have learned to despise making outlines. Unfortunately, many analysts haven't learned to love them. But systems analysis is more than just outlining; it also contains an element of extreme sequencing, putting things in order. So systems analysis is an extreme combination of playing with hierarchy and order.
Full-blown scientific theories are much more complex. It is possible to look for the core games within scientific theories which have been raised to some extreme.
Special relativity, for example, may be thought of as being based on extreme rate problems even though one can find other extreme games within the theory.
Biological evolution is extreme breeding. That's great for farm children and FFA alumni. Evolution also involves the task of computing which family trees die out, something which might be described as extreme subtraction. And since the processes are thought to work on multiple populations and at multiple levels, evolutionary theory uses extreme analysis. An extreme of an extreme intellectual sport: No wonder biology has come to be considered the pinnacle of the sciences.
Extreme intellectual games do not, at present, have their own television network. They do have their own journals, however. Just as with physical sports, intellectual sports have magazines dedicated to each individual game and others (like Nature and Science) which attempt to cover the entire movement.
I'd love to see high schools teach students the extreme intellectual sports. But I suppose that would require that the schools hire extreme practitioners instead of education majors.
Power, Money, Generosity
I've noticed, in my actual life, that there is a difference in attitude when you have more than just enough money. It is no longer money you have, but power.
I've been told -- I don't know this on my own -- that generosity is much more common among the poor than among the middle class or wealthy. It seems likely, and especially so if what you mean by generosity is sharing food or access to shelter or cash, when it is available. When you are poor enough, family and friendship may be more enduring and reliable than are food, transportation, clothes, or shelter. If that is so, then generosity will inevitably take the form of sharing whatever of these things are available.
This a a natural and basic form of sharing, and there are many attempts to induce the not-poor to share in similar ways. One example is collections for the food pantries, which are always promoted as opportunities to share actual physical boxes and cans of food. Whether the poor share more readily overall, or more broadly among strangers and people who are only slightly connected would be a question for someone with actual facts to write about.
Among somewhat wealthier people, money takes on a different role. People with reliable and adequate incomes tend not to think in terms of food and shelter, but in terms of having enough money to be sure of being able to obtain whatever food, clothes, cars, and houses they may need as the need arises. Many of these people are also generous, but their generosity is more likely to be carried out and, importantly, to be understood in terms of money. Most charitable organizations solicit donations from this group of people, and they ask for money: "Your gift of $25, $30, even $50," they write in their form letters, going on to explain what wonderful work can be accomplished with those gifts.
Money is what these people believe that they have, and it is money that they do or do not share with others. Seen another way, however, it is not money itself but a confidence in the future that they try to share. There is a reason for the popularity of phrases like "safety net" when talking about charity; it is that the intended result of charitable giving is to give confidence to people who are at risk or (in the more popular phrase) "living on the edge".
At some point it is no longer money that we have, but power. I can already see the change in my own life. When I had enough money to live on, I gave money to churches and charities. As I moved beyond having enough money to live on to having enough money for the rest of my life, I found that instead of sharing money I was sharing my power.
When poor young adult friends come to me wanting to continue their education, they ask for money. What I give, however, is a demand to the school that they provide services to my friend. I say, "Here: You have the resources you need, let my friend go to school." And I address the school in my actions, or at least in my intentions, because I am exercising my power on behalf of my friends.
This is still generosity, but it has a different character. The poor share as equals; no one has much, and the one who is lucky shares with the one who is not. In the middle, the people with economic confidence share money in the hope of providing similar confidence to others, who are less certain about their future. For the economically powerful, sharing takes on a character of exerting power on behalf of others; there is some hint of patronage or chivalrous nobility, but in the example of paying tuition the long-term goal is clearly to ensure that the recipients will gain at least the power to become independent.
In the extreme, among the very wealthy, giving money can become a caricature of true generosity. Thus you see the Resch Center, the Resch Auditorium, the Resch Aquatic Center, and the Resch Family Trail. Not to put down Resch's public spirit, but he made millions overcharging churches for folding chairs and probably owes us the money. He does give away a lot of money to many worthy projects. It is the power that he isn't giving away.
The differences I've pointed to arise from the relative differences in wealth when the currency of sharing is material wealth. When the currency is something else, technical knowledge for example, the tables may be turned. The person who is poor in money may also be poor in technical knowledge, but that is not always so. Rich and poor may be equals in some other realm, and in that realm might share as equals; this is not a certainty, but it is possible.
In the massive virtual reality games run over the internet at this beginning of the 21st Century, a player deals with thousands of other players from around the world -- and with the game's administrators. Administrators can change the environment by, for example, introducing disease into the virtual world. (See "Playing With Epidemics", Science magazine, 18 May 2007, page 961.)
In the actual reality game, we have the Holy Spirit.
In actual reality we have the privilege of working in concert with the Spirit. First, the Holy Spirit has laid out the game's premises fairly transparently and provides the means by which we players, if we work together diligently, can discover the details of how the game works -- how real diseases arise and propagate, for example. In this way, the players can conform our actions to the actual reality of the world and thereby have much greater effects than we could otherwise. We can float logs downstream instead of hauling them over hill and dale.
Second, the Holy Spirit is eager to communicate individually with each player. I don't say that we can automatically obtain whatever information we ask for, but that we are offered specific information which is pertinent for living in concert with the direction of the overall game.
The Spirit may say to one person, "Hey, the progress of the world would really be better if you'd serve the meal at my table." This person, if responding affirmatively, would then become a minister of God. (This is traditionally described as a "call", and in fact some people only recognize this particular message under the heading of "call".) To become a minister at God's table often means adopting a professional occupation (the "ordained clergy") but there are also ministers who are not professional clergy, who serve the meal only to narrower subsets of the people, such as those physically unable to come to the table.
Or perhaps there is a farm worker up in Door County whose primary occupation is taking care of the animals and helping to prune the cherry trees. Suppose the Spirit said to this person, "I need someone to go down to the capitol in Madison and explain what I want done." This farmhand would then have been called to become a prophet.
Other people, not all farmhands, not all from Door County, and not all of them sent by God, will also speak at the capitol in Madison about what should be done. But they are not properly called prophets. That term is reserved for those stating the words of the Spirit.
A third example: Some people become teachers. There are people who have a full-time occupation working in schools with the formal title of teacher, there are teachers who work a few hours a week in the church schools, there are volunteer tutors, and there are those who travel to distant places to commit all of their time to teaching. Some teach through letters and conversations at opportune moments with no formal plan at all. Many of these people are called by the Spirit to take on the role of teacher. Others take on the role because they enjoy being in schools, or because they don't function well in most other settings, and some take the job because someone other than the Spirit asked them to do so.
In this comment, I am pointing only to those cases where the Administrator of the actual reality game speaks, calls, suggests, commands some individual to perform some particular role or task, and that individual accepts the call to function in concert with the Spirit to make a better game. These are the cases where the game's administrator knows the flow of the river and guides some of us to use that knowledge to move the timber more quickly, more easily, or - most importantly - to a more suitable destination.
The person who hears and heeds the urging of the actual reality game's Administrator will not have complete knowledge of the game, may not even be familiar with the destination, but nevertheless is permitted to assist in improving the game and the actual lives of the players in it.
"He must have drunk deeply from the fountain of dumbness," remarked my friend over a midafternoon meal. We were speaking, of course, about one member of the local City Council.
It is interesting to note that to be dumb once meant "to be unable to speak" but now it has come to mean "to speak or act far beyond one's actual ability".
Members of that Council, it should be explained, have recently gone to much trouble and some expense to place our fair city in the lists from which one may select appropriate objects for derision. Having learned that the Freedom_From_Religion_Foundation was daring to threaten a different city (some miles away) because it was willing to pay the electric bill for an illuminated nativity scene on public property -- having learned this, the elected officers of our City Council determined that our city, too, should be likewise threatened.
Being in the lists once meant "engaged in symbolic but still unsafe combat". This is precisely where the city will soon find itself. The term lists was used of the place of knightly combat. I suspect some deep longing to be banged on the head lies behind the current entrance into controversy.
It is not so much the lawsuit itself which matters. The city will surely lose the suit, if it comes to trial, since we had no regulations which would permit a display of a religious, political, social, or cultural nature to be carried up to the roof over the entranceway of our boxy City Hall.
What's more, when more than several religious, social, and satirical displays had been delivered to City Hall with the expectation of a similar accomodation, the City drank another draught and ordered all but the Council's President's display to be suppressed, thus providing all missing evidence needed by our putative plaintiffs to show egregious bias.
We the citizens will likely have to pay for the defense of this hopeless case (since the Council officers signify no glimmer of reasonability in the matter), but it is not so much the money wasted which matters. Besides, we have all drunk a bit from that same fountain of dumbness -- how else would these civic leaders have obtained their positions? -- and so we all deserve to share in some bit of the punishment.
It matters more that our City Council has decided to play the part scripted for them by their presumed adversaries. The Council's President, and the Vice President if I can trust reports from my usually reliable friend, have made public claims that they are intending to champion the freedoms of right-thinking Christians against the arguments of those godless atheists. (I don't recall whether the politicians made the redundancy quite so explicit.) The freedoms of left-thinking Christians, and especially those of straight-thinking Christians, have been entirely left aside.
But my point is that they are not doing what they say. What they are doing is handing publicity to an organization whose primary function is to seek publicity for their views. What they are doing is handing a public relations banquet to a foundation which feeds mainly on public relations.
That confusion of end results makes the City's official actions teleopathological (and well justifies publishing this comment on the website of the Wisconsin Institute of Teleopathy).
wisdom is not communicable
People are made to communicate, it would seem. We have brains so attuned to language that we hardly believe we are thinking without it. Our respiratory and gustatory equipages are modified (as contrasted to our animal friends) so as to favor speach even at the expense of an increased risk of choking to death.
In actual reality, one finds that such an idea requires, at a minumum, some qualification.
Yesterday I sent a message to a friend. This message seemed to me to be insightful if not quite profound, and probably useful besides. My friend returned a detailed criticism of my remarks which implied (in a quietly thundering way) that I had completely missed the entire truth of the matter, or if not all of the truth then certainly all of the essential part. That was disappointing. I couldn't help noticing that in my friend's point-by-point objection to my message, the concluding paragraph was omitted. The concluding paragraph, which I had thought communicated the essence of my wisdom, had been perceived by my friend as so insignificant as not to be given the attention of a rebuttal. That was almost unnerving.
Hesse's Siddartha says, "Wisdom is not communicable." [Hermann Hesse, Siddartha, translated by Hilda Rosner; New Directions, 1951; page 115.] And why? Because, explains Siddartha, "Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity."
Recently (I mean a few decades back; I am never truly up to date with trends in scholarship) the role of the audience was a major topic of consideration and research: What does the listener or reader bring to the content of a communicated message? How much of what is communicated is from the author and what part arises in the audience? It would appear that the role of the audience is even larger than a reasonably observant person might originally surmise.
That same friend I just mentioned, in that same rebuttal, told me, "For me, the word obviously - as the word mere - is a power word suggesting that anyone who has a different idea, opinion, or feeling is lesser and now one-down in the constant game of 'who is up and will do anything to stay in that position.'" Among my own acquaintances, "obviously" is more likely to be used in self-deprecation, as in the situation where the speaker is embarassed at not having observed a point that a colleague has just noted. (The words "anyone", "everyone", and "nobody" - especially in the phrase "nobody but you" - are the put-down words I have received more often. Though in writing this, I wonder that "nobody but you" was not heard as a compliment to my uniqueness.)
Given the personal histories of myself and my friend, I had expected that our acquaintances would have been more alike in their choice of words to misuse. The result was that my words failed badly to evoke the sense that I sent them off with; the baggage they departed with was not the baggage they carried with them on arrival.
The truth is that no thought is ever transferred entire and intact from author to audience. That can't be what communicate means, if it is to mean anything. What actually happens is that the author (the speaker, writer, composer, artist) manipulates words, silences, tones, colors - and whatever else is available - not to transfer a thought from my mind into yours but to evoke the thought anew.
Sometimes it works.
What is amazing is not that this process will sometimes fail, and sometimes fail miserably, but that in actual reality it sometimes works, and that it works well enough and often enough that we should keep trying.
And so we do.
Moral decision making
Current scientific research in psychology lists heavily toward the conclusion that decision making always precedes conscious rationality. As Jonathan Haidt put it in a recent review, "Moral reasoning, when it occurs, is usually a post-hoc process in which we search for evidence to support our initial intuitive reaction." [Science, 18 May 2007, page 998. Emphasis within quotations was added.]
Decision making may be rational, especially within its own defined context, but it seems to be done unconsciously. Anyone who can't step away from the intuitive idea that rationality is a manifestation of consciousness will misconstrue the scientific hypothesis as denying the rationality of decision making, but the essence of the claim is to deny the consciousness of decision making.
If this hypothesis is correct, all of our conscious explanations are the "rational tail" being wagged by the "affective dog". I like the canine metaphor, both for the allusion to Buddy and his ilk and for the sense of the rapid, pleasant, and seemingly useless effort of the wagging. (It would be pushing the research too far to claim that reasoned explanations are quick, pleasant, and apparently pointless, but it makes a nice esthetic argument.)
Within this paradigm, the rational descriptions of our judgements are an exercise in mythmaking, a conscious explanation of past experience. The utility of this making of explanations seems to be rooted in the social experience. "One thing that is always useful," Haidt says, "is an explanation of what you just did."
This hypothesis is likely to prove correct, I think, but clearly there is more to the story of moral judgement. "Affective reactions push, but they do not absolutely force," as Haidt says. There is objective evidence, some of which he cites in the review, that the emotional response can be overcome by conscious thought or social communication. ("We can use conscious verbal reasoning, such as considering the costs and benefits of each course of action. We can reframe a situation and see a new angle or consequence, thereby triggering a second flash of intuition that may compete with the first. And we can talk with people who raise new arguments, which then trigger in us new flashes of intuition followed by various kinds of reasoning.") All of these courses of action are rooted in social communication, leading to the subordinate hypothesis that moral reasoning is fundamentally a social phenomenon.
A second aspect of the psychological research is the identification of the basis for both the myths and their socially-mediated corrections. For example, our judgement may be based on the actual or expected harm to someone, or on our sense of fair play.
I recall the discussion among state civil service employees about legislative proposals to resume pay increases after what seemed (to us employees) as a long freeze. Those who were in the upper regions of the pay scale favored uniform percentage increases for all employees. "What could be more fair?" they asked. Those nearer the bottom of the pay scale favored uniform dollars increases for everyone. "What could be more fair?" they asked. My reaction was to attempt to represent the views of each group when conversing with the other; I'm not sure whether that did any good at the time, but I was participating in the social corrective process which Haidt's review summarizes.
I found particularly interesting Haidt's suggestion that modern Western cultures have focused moral decisions primarily in terms of harm and fairness, and that liberals do so more than conservatives. He says, "In my cross-cultural research, I have found that the moral domain of educated Westerners is narrower -- more focused on harm and fairness -- than it is elsewhere. ... In addition to the harm and fairness foundations, there are also widespread intuitions about ingroup-outgroup dynamics and the importance of loyalty; there are intuitions about authority and the importance of respect and obedience; and there are intuitions about bodily and spiritual purity and the importance of living in a sanctified rather than a carnal way."
Haidt's data on the narrower moral base of our western and liberal community suggests the need for some corrective to the methods of moral decision making we use. Our moral intuitions might be equally valid, but the conscious and social correction would appear to be less rich. That is, I think it is the rational tail that is not as fully wagged in the West.
If we make use of all five moral foundations identified by Haidt, would we not give ourselves more windows within which to reframe a situation, more conscious tools with which to consider and possibly modify a moral decision, more language by which we can hear the arguments of others on the question at hand? If so, then the new synthesis of moral psychology is offering a way to make our moral decisions more conscious, more thoroughly reviewed, and more broadly rational.
Chemical of the Week -- Ethanol