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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Trump's tweets mean nothing at all

  GEORGE TEMPLETON   

    COMMENTARY    

The Conscience of Reason
By George Templeton
Gazette Columnist
“What’s it all about, Alfie?  Is it just for the moment we live?  What’s it all about – when you sort it out, Alfie?  Are we meant to take more than we give?  Or are we meant to be kind?  And if only fools are kind, Alfie, Then I guess it is wise to be cruel.  And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie, What will you lend on an old golden rule?”  From the 1966 movie “Alfie”.
Jan Markell, of Olive Tree Ministries, argues that Trump is “trying to stop the runaway freight train of evil that has existed emanating out of Washington and the Democratic Party.”  She maintains “The left is mesmerized by issues that tear down and grieve the heart of God.”  But evil can come from unsuspecting people who believe they are fulfilling a sacred duty.  Albert Speer, Hitler’s principal architect, said, “It is hard to know the devil when his hand is on your shoulder.”
Is there any such thing as evil?  It could be just the privation of the good that would otherwise fill our lives.  Are all actions moral unless they are done with hateful intent?  Is our malice toward our fellow man something that evolved from our primitive ancestors, or is it an essential part of what it means to be civilized?  Does it come from the fall in the Garden of Eden, something planned in advance by God, or something that is crafted by a demoniac outside of us?  Is it a rebellion that is a necessary part of growing up?  Is it mundane, good guys and bad guys, or more than “law and order”?  Given that evil exists, how should we live? 
Evil has abstract dimensions in our minds, and concrete dimensions in the world.  Jan does not capture the depth, breadth, and history of evil’s cunning deception.  Perhaps evil is not realized until we personally experience its pain and surprise.
Irrational Religion
The camera panned across the mega-prosperity pastor, Joel Osteen’s entranced 52,000 person audience.  So many people listen to him.  His message must be right.   But Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Joel has not made Jimmy Carter’s mistake.  Carter cautioned, “… too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.  We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”  The rejection of President Carter foretold the role of television, big money, influence, and materialism in American politics and life.
The reverend Hagee preaches to his 20,000 member congregation and to millions more on television.  God directly controls everything, even breaking his own laws.  Stopping the sun’s motion around the earth as a one-time publicity stunt for Joshua at the battle of Jericho violates the most central idea in physics, that energy is conserved.  It would drastically change everything that we know to be real.
Fragile Knowledge
Everyone has the capacity to be rational.  Democracy depends on the well-informed.  Belief absent of skepticism demonstrates how little reason means.  It is possible to have the right reasons, but the wrong conclusion.  Logic won’t change our life experiences, values, and biases.  It helps us identify improper forms of reasoning and make better decisions. 
There are two kinds of reasoning, inductive and deductive.  The former goes from the specific to the general, for example:  The economy will improve because of me.  There is a difference between taking credit and being responsible.  The future is uncertain and the economy might not continue to grow.  There could be reasons other than “me” for economic growth.  Deductive reasoning goes from the general to the specific, for example:  The law and its particular violation.  We can confidently determine what is true or false only in deductive reasoning.
We have a feeling of awe when we stand at the base of the pyramids because we easily identify with the toil and ingenuity of the ancient civilizations that built them.  In contrast, there is very little that can be intuitively grasped about the contributions of people like Fermi, Dirac, Shockley, and Noyce, yet they were the creators of the electronic age.  Before them, we went to the grocery store to test and purchase replacement vacuum tubes for the ones that frequently failed in our TV sets.  Their replacement with solid state devices would eventually create millions of jobs, revolutionize the lives of everyone, and raise the world-wide standard of living.
Priorities
What is most important, religion, science, or rationality?  Religions recognize that there are things that matter more than the self, but their absolutism leads to intolerance.  Science can solve many of humankind’s problems, but shortcomings in our understanding of how to use it can destroy us.  Logic concerns how we evaluate arguments, but it seems that fantasy, and feelings have become the smarter, better message.  There is a difference between thinking and reasoning.
Logical Fallacies
Beliefs are rational when there are good reasons that support an argument’s conclusion.  Fallacies are the tools that give propaganda its persuasive force.  We believe that we are rational.  Voting in elections, serving on a jury, and making deals in the marketplace are examples.  But people knowingly make the wrong decision in order to agree with their group, avoid embarrassment, and not draw unwanted attention.  Sometimes it is to get along, and sometimes it is because they lack confidence in themselves.  The power of the group lies in the fact that that it requires consensus for its existence.  Once we become a member we are identified as a “subscriber” and we often go to ridiculous extremes rather than admit an error.
Truth 
Can self-driving cars distinguish between right and wrong?
Tests of intelligence include:  Can the machine fool a person into thinking it is a human?  Can the machine identify incongruence, such as a man floating in the air in a pastoral country scene?  Can it pass the exams given to school children?  Does the machine have an “attitude”?  Can the machine appreciate art and music?  How will the computer make moral decisions?  Can it decipher inexact language, for example when “they” or “it” possibly refers to more than one thing?
Philosophers have struggled with argumentation and the determination of the truth for thousands of years.  The truth is often incomplete, not necessarily so, or only what could be.
The unity of knowledge brought philosophy and applied science together.  Electronics has combinatorial and sequential true-false logic, but it does not treat the vagueness of words and confusing relationships in and between sentences.  Now we have “fuzzy logic” with potentially infinite shades of truth, but that does not excuse us from trying to reduce ambiguity and complexity into discrete true-false parts.
Human intelligence has feelings, wants, and needs.  It was forged in the fires of evolution.   It has great difficulty with uncertainty, responsibility, and rationality.  Our brains are wired for survival.  When our ancestors on the Serengeti Plain saw movement in the grass they ran.  Their judgment, that it was a tiger, was wrong more often than right.  Will our car’s computers make better decisions than us?
Rescued by Authority
Strong leaders liberate us from the burden of responsibility and the choir of critical thinking.  Adolf Eichmann claimed that it was his duty to order the deaths of millions of Jews.  The 1978 Jonestown massacre was made possible by a charismatic religious leader.  
We think that conspicuous success in any arena identifies a person as competent, even in things they know nothing about.  Candidates for political office tell us that they should be chosen because of their complete lack of experience.  The more ignorant they are, the more likely we believe that they can do the things they know nothing about.  Hoping to find a savior, we demand amateurishness and demote those who have learned through their mistakes.   The unwitting manager acts quickly without the constraints of doubt, rewarding himself as a strong leader and a man of action.  He makes the same or even worse mistakes than the misunderstood statesman who sacrifices himself for the public good.  When strength is confused with personal power instead of public service America loses.
Political candidates like to claim that their business experience qualifies them for office, but the goal of business is to make money.  Success in public office needs more than that.  Public servants need a sophisticated moral philosophy and empathy.  The leader who joins the fray, who engages in personal attacks, cannot lead all the people.  The man at the top sets the quality of his organization.  Consensus building is his most important duty.  You can’t force everyone to agree with you.  A complicated project will not be successful with only majority support.
Functions of a Variable
Functions of a variable are the scientific version of philosophies’ “If A therefore B”.   Logicians call it modus ponens.  A mathematical function acts on an input to result in an output.  When there are few variables, understanding comes most easily.  But when variables interact and proliferate, complexity explodes.  It is important to study the variables that matter most and ignore the others that obscure the underlying reality.  But this is not the dumbing down of America that comes from tweeting.  Far from being the center of attention, its fans never find the solitude needed to get in touch with themselves.
Modus ponens is hard to find in the tweet-o-sphere, but not false witness and extortion coming from the highest levels of our government.  Our President’s tweets are showing up in our language.  Many find them sufficient.  But subjects cannot be learned and novels cannot be enjoyed by only reading the last chapter.
Fahrenheit 451 was a 1953 novel concerning a future where books were outlawed.  It was about mankind’s urge to suppress what it does not understand.  The fire department’s role was not to extinguish fires.   It was to burn every book found!  The smart phone is the friend of that fire department.   
To be logical, you have to think and write in complete sentences.  Tweets have no need for that.  As a result, they mean whatever you want them to.  Consequently, they mean nothing at all.   The news unwittingly confirmed this when they explained that nothing sticks because this is the new Teflon normal.  Rudeness is O.K. as long as you attack your enemy.
It’s Not Even Wrong
The function of social conflict has been debated for many decades.  Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “The clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity.” Sixty years would elapse before the electronics that put the encyclopedia and world at our fingertips would split us apart and dehumanize us.  Perhaps Karl Marx was right when he wrote “It is the bad side that produces the movement that makes history by providing a struggle.”

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