Saturday, March 10, 2018

Guns

Making it legal to possess weapons that are either automatic (or can be made so) is absurd to the point of laughability, if it were not so tragic.  How can anyone defend the use of an automatic weapon for hunting?  How many bullets are needed to kill a deer?  And 30-shot magazines?  Are people actually shooting down entire herds?  But the guns are not root causes of the problem, although they make it easier to do more damage.

Why do we not give people the right to own other kinds of weapons capable of large-scale destruction?  Hand-grenades?  Flame-throwers?  Bazookas? (Although I have to admit that many times when driving on the highway I would love to have a roof-mounted bazooka.) 

There are only two reasons for defending the power for civilians to own automatic weapons:  to provide us the power to defend ourselves against a totalitarian government, e.g. to rebel, and to have the emotional satisfaction of owning a powerful weapon, which of course is most satisfying to the least powerful.  It is, in fact, the least empowered people, such as adolescents or adolescent-minded adults, who want the automatic weapons.

However, I think there is a deeper and more basic cause, and it is a cause that can't be addressed with simplistic solutions.  We are, as a nation, fascinated by guns and are in love with violence, in particular fantasies of "revenge" and "fighting back".  We are apparently terrified of being powerless, and concomitantly we are in love with the idea of personally having the power to hurt those who might hurt us.  We love movies and television about people who are victimized fighting back and victimizing others.

We have to be "ready" all the time.  We don't need the guns, but we want them desperately because of our fear of powerlessness.  Our culture is largely about violence.  Look at our tv shows, our books and comic books, our movies.  What percentage of them are violent?  As a nation, we won't give up our fantasies about having weapons of mass destruction, even if we kill each other to exercise the fantasy.

Children learn solutions to problems by watching adults.  What they see is that we kill people who cause problems for us.  They see other solutions as well, but the most dramatically satisfying and frequently observed are those in which we use weapons to blow apart our opponents.  Our movies, books and televisions have always relied on violence as a dramatic solution, but over the past 20 years or so the violence depicted is increasingly gory and detailed.  So violence becomes a solution, and one which they increasingly have the power to evoke.  This is especially convincing to them when they watch their parents treat each other with violence.  How do you deal with a frustrating person?  You kill them, and as many of them as possible.

I don't see any easy way to deal with this issue.  No law that can be passed (and we probably won't even do that) will solve the problem.  I have to admit reluctantly that I enjoy the same movies and the same television series.  I also note that after all the bad guys are killed, nobody seems to care.  The bodies disappear somewhere.  Nobody suffers.  Nobody mourns the loss of the dead.  The "heroes" of the shows don't regret the killings, apparently.  Death is basically trivialized.

Why would we think our kids would have any more respect for life and death than the heroes we give them to model themselves after?


Saturday, March 03, 2018

A talk with God

Mr. Smith is sitting alone in his office, looking at memos.  There is a tap on the door and it opens.  A middle-aged man of indeterminate race, wearing casual and unremarkable clothes, comes in.
Mr. Smith:  Hello, can I help you?
God:  I know you have been wanting to talk to me.  So, here I am.
(Sits in one of the office chairs)
Mr. Smith:  And who are you?
God:  The short version might as well be "God".
Mr. Smith:  (laughing) Thanks for dropping in.  Who put you up to this, and is this just a casual chat or do you have something specific in mind?  
God: Neither.  I'll explain later, if 'later' is a meaningful word.  I had considered My need for some time to get some things done, but then I realized that 'time' is something I'm in charge of, so I simply stopped it for ... (laughs) whatever we need.
Mr. Smith:  You've ... um... stopped time?  (looks around uneasily)
God: Yes.  Your phone won't ring.  Oh, do you have one of those smart phones? How sad! But it won't work either.  Don't panic, I'll restart... later (laughs).
Mr. Smith: (picks up phone, listens, shakes head, picks up smart phone, looks intently, tosses it back on desk, looks at watch).  I don't know how you did that!
God:  Of course you are aware that I must have the power to do that.  You just aren't prepared to believe it.  Look, I don't want to make this any more difficult than I have to. Why don't you just pretend that I'm telling the truth (as if I could lie) so we can have a little discussion?
Mr. Smith:  So for the sake of a little … discussion, you can be considered to be God?
God:  Yes.  Why not?  I need to explain some things, and you are as good a connection to the rest of humanity (and I use the term lightly) as I need.  You'll almost certainly... wait, it is, in fact, certain, that you will write this up on your blog thingie.  To make that a little easier for you, I'm putting a transcript of our conversation on your computer, so you won't forget anything important.  Actually, everything is important, so..
Mr. Smith:  I got that.  (looks at desk clock, then at wrist watch).  Umm... It's still 9:34!
God:  We’ve already covered that.  Can we move on?
Mr. Smith:  (laughing unbelievingly).  What’s the hurry?
God laughs.
Mr. Smith:  Does it matter that I don't believe in God?  umm.. in You?
God:  Not a bit.  A better question is, do I believe in you?  But you have interesting questions and a point of view that I want to address.
Mr. Smith:  Well, at least this begins to be a more realistic conversation.
God:  I’m nothing if not realistic.
Mr. Smith:  So.  You’re here to discuss some topics you want to make available to other people, do I understand You correctly?
God:  Yes.  Of course I already know your questions, but unless you ask them, they won’t show up on the computer transcript.  So, take your time.
Mr. Smith:  Since there appears to be no hurry… it’s still 9:34… I’ll take my time.  Is that all right?
God:  Hard to get you to listen, isn’t it?  Sure.  In fact, it’s not your time, it’s Mine, but I know what you mean.
Mr. Smith:  You look just like other people.  I would have thought you’d be more… imposing, you know, clouds, lightning, burning bushes, stuff like that.  (God laughs, shakes his head).  Instead, you look like a middle-class American male, about my age, not that old.  Why did You choose that stereotype?
God:  Pretty hard to have an intelligent discussion with lightning or a burning bush, not to speak of how it might affect you if I walked in here like that.  Back in the day, it was harder to get people to take me seriously.  So it had its uses.
Mr. Smith:  But not needed now?
God:  You’re taking me seriously, are you not?
Mr. Smith:  Umm… yes, I suppose I am.
God:  If you’re thinking that I’m showing sexual or racial bias by taking this particular form, and of course I know you would be thinking that, I picked a form in deference to your racial and sexual biases.  I Myself have little interest in your specifics, skin color, dangly bits, hair style and so on.  That stuff is important to you, of course.  I have a good idea, actually, a perfect idea, as to how this works.  And this isn’t my first time down here talking to one of you. That answer your question?
Mr. Smith:  Yes, at least, I guess so.  You had to pick someone to talk to.  So why me?
God:  Now there’s a question that’s been asked through the ages.  I’ve answered it many times, of course, but you humans don’t like the answer, so you forget it quickly.
Mr. Smith:  Umm… remind me, please.
God:  Why you?  Why not you?  There are so many of you, and there’s little to distinguish one of you from any others.  Right now, you’re handy. And you’ve been considering the questions I would like to deal with.  Saves me some time (smiles).
Mr. Smith:  I would have thought that anybody would be equally handy to God.
God:  True.
Mr. Smith:  So.  Why me?  Never mind, I got it.
God:  (laughs)
Mr. Smith:  The “why not you” answer raises an interesting question.
God:  I expected it to.
Mr. Smith:  You’re implying that, at least at times, what happens to a particular person is simply a matter of who’s handy to You at that moment?
God:  That’s correct.
Mr. Smith:  Not merit, reward, punishment, answering a prayer or…
God:  (says nothing, smiles)  Asked and answered.
Mr. Smith:  (after a moment of silence)  That implies there’s no real system of reward or punishment behind Your choices.
God:  Have you ever read the newspapers? Watched what you call ‘news’ on television?  Let Me ask you a question:  Do you see any system of reward and punishment?
Mr. Smith:  No!  But I always hoped that… that things somehow made sense, that I just couldn’t understand them.
God:  Nope.
Mr. Smith:  So things are just as irrational as they appear?  Bad things and good things happen to people without regard to their personal worth or accomplishments?
God:  You need to hear this, so I’ll say it again.  Yes, without regard to worth or merit.  Why don't I just go ahead and answer your next question: The universe is neither fair nor unfair.  It has its own rules, and it doesn’t operate on the basis of what you humans think are better rules, such as good and evil, kind and unkind.  You think The Rules should involve moral choices.  That’s a contradiction in terms. Rules eliminate choices, that’s why they’re Rules.  Duh.
Mr. Smith:  This implies that prayer, worship, things that are intended to communicate with You, are not of any use.
God:  Depends on what you mean by ‘use’.  If you mean, do I change the laws of the entire universe to grant a request from a particular person?  No, of course not.  I'm not Amazon or an on-line ordering catalog, and the universe doesn’t operate on the basis of your personal preferences or beliefs.  I do think that prayer improves your attitude toward the universe, it reminds you that you’re not in charge of anything, really.  Humility is good for you, at least to a degree.
Mr. Smith:  You don’t need or .. particularly value our worship?
God:  Being God does not require that I have needs for worship or even admiration.  So, no.  It is nice to be appreciated, of course, but not required.
Mr. Smith:  OK, another question. 
God:  What I’m here for. Go for it.
Mr. Smith:  Did you create the universe and the rules it apparently runs by?
God:  Short answer:  Yes. In a nutshell, I made the Rules and then I started this thingie, the universe, running.  It’s held together quite a long time, at least, long in your terms.  Of course, it’ll eventually stop, nothing lasts forever.  But it’s been pretty successful, for the most part.
Mr. Smith:  Have there been, will there be, other universes?
God:  Yes indeed.  I’ve been here a long time, although I know my answer is a little misleading.
Mr. Smith:  What’s the point of all these ... universes, if I can ask?
God:  I knew I picked the right connection! Good question!  Listen carefully.  The fact that I made the rules doesn’t mean I know how they will all develop over time.  The future of every universe is unpredictable, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Mr. Smith:  If it operates by rules, how can it come out different every time?
God:  Some of the fine details are a little ‘iffy’.  Ask one of your scientists about quantum physics.  (Laughs).  That’s an in joke, by the way, don’t worry about it.  Free will is a quantum phenomenon.  And free will means that different choices will have different outcomes.  So free choice means multiple outcomes, by their nature not predictable though they are determined by the Rules.
Mr. Smith:  OK.  That answers another question, about whether You have a sense of humor.
God:  What conclusion did you come to?  Like I don’t know.  A sense of humor is indispensable.
Mr. Smith:  (looking at watch) By the way, it’s still 9:34.
God:  You’re telling Me this as if it were news.  And yes, I suppose, in a certain way I do have a sense of humor, or at least of amusement.  In a shallow sense, the universe serves the same purpose for Me as a video game does for you.  It… passes the time in an interesting way.  By the way, that’s not a trivial answer, although it might seem like that to you.
Mr. Smith:  Jesus Christ!
God:  I wondered when that would come up.  Before you ask, I’ve visited here many times, I already told you that, trying to put you on a better path.  In past years, the computer wasn’t available to record things, so people with whom I spoke relied on their memory, or in at least one case, stone tablets.  Memory is extremely unreliable, of course, as you know.  I had to save some space in your little brains for a new idea or so, so memories get compacted and reorganized to suit you.  Takes up less space but introduces a bunch of errors.  Hey, nobody’s perfect!  Except me, and I’m not a person, strictly speaking.  It’s all I can do to fit inside this (points to self)
Mr. Smith:  (bitterly) I’m so glad we amuse You.
God:  You’re welcome.  Sometimes I wish your egos had not turned out to be so… touchy.  You have such a wide variety of amusing antics, you’re very inventive and find surprising, even to Me! ways to use the rules to create new things, new ideas.  Because of free will, you come up with amazing ideas, such as wars.  Your wars are always fun to watch, of course, and you all seem to like them too.  Even when you’re not actually having one, you make them up on your computers!  That almost surprised Me when it happened.  And the wide variety of things you’ve found to do with your bodies! Jumping, running, adventures… Amazing! I love being surprised.
Mr. Smith:  My opinion of You is getting lower and lower!  You find our sufferings ‘amusing’, you’ve designed a universe that is brutal and unkind.  You can dismiss my opinion as being worthless, which it is, of course.
God:  Of course.  You don’t like the way the machinery that I designed and brought into being works.  It’s (laughs) inhuman!  It’s unfair!  It’s unkind!  You don’t even understand the meaning of the word ‘unfair’!
Mr. Smith:  I understand it well enough. 
God: No, you don’t!  You only use that word when somebody other than you has something you want.  You use that word when what you really experience is not the need for justice but is simply envy.  If the world were fair, if the playing field were really level, you rich white guys would have far less than you have. You sit in a house that 99% of the population can hardly imagine, and think it’s unfair when the rich white guy next door has a nicer car.  If I had a somewhat different sense of humor, I’d make the world fair and then watch you whine and bitch.  You ought to be careful what you ask for, you know.  I’m too kind to give you what you deserve.
Mr. Smith:  Since for the sake of argument You created the universe, you had the power, you could have made the choice to make it both kind and fair.  I may be just an amusing bit of protoplasm, but You appear to be a cold-hearted bully, perhaps even a monster.  Maybe you’re the Devil, in fact.
God:  Oh yes, of course I am, and God as well.  You can’t really comprehend me, so you divide me up into smaller and more comprehensible pieces.  And you give them names.  You judge Me and the universe (and We’re kind of the same thing) by your personal values and preferences.  Does it occur to you that you judge from a very limited perspective? 
Mr. Smith:  I can only judge from my perspective.  A perspective that You created and limited.  And for that matter, so can You.  It’s a cheap answer to point out that Your motives must be incomprehensible to the likes of me.  I didn’t create my limits.  You did, and that makes You responsible for them.
God:  (laughs) That’s true.  It’s also true that My perspective is considerably larger than yours.  I don’t fault you for being limited, although I remind you, I am under absolutely no obligation to be ‘fair’.
Mr. Smith: (frowning, clenching fists) While of course it doesn’t matter, at least, not to You, I don’t like your values, your amusement at our suffering!  If you were human, I’d be shouting, ‘Who do You think You are?’
(God stands, sudden darkening, huge roll of thunder and a bolt of white light on the figure of God)
God:  (In a huge voice) Where were you when I created the universe? 
(Mr. Smith falls to the floor, covering his head with his hands.  Then normal light returns and God sits back down.  Mr. Smith gets slowly up off the floor and makes it back into his seat, shaking.)
God:  I thought it appropriate to remind you of who we are.
Mr. Smith:  I got that. (Takes a deep breath)  And frankly I think that was rather a cheaply theatrical way to win an argument.
God:  But it made the point.
Mr. Smith:  That my understanding is limited?  Of course it is.  You made it so.  You set the limits that I have to operate in.  I can only judge with the equipment I was given.  There might be a much broader set of values, but I don’t have them, which is, of course, on you.  By my values, which are all I have to go on, it seems to me we humans would be much better off without you, you and your amusing little games, your justification for unkindness, your randomly and uncaringly allowing terrible things to happen to innocent people.
God:  I might point out that not all “innocent people” are innocent, but clearly there are some that are. But that’s really irrelevant. The Rules that operate the universe don’t have the power to exercise judgment.  Gravity doesn’t decide who to let fall or fly. The Rules are in many ways mechanically fixed, they have no discretion in their operation.  When you humans set off an atomic bomb over a city, it killed without discretion or judgment, adults, animals and children, bacteria and lichen, plants and viruses.  That’s the way laws work.  They are by definition indiscriminate.  When a rock falls on your toe, the rock has no power to choose.  In that sense, the rock is innocent.  There would be no universe at all if there were not laws that govern its operation.  Can you even imagine a universe without rules?
Mr. Smith:  No, of course not.  Could you not imagine a universe whose rules, at least for sentient beings, require kindness?
God:  You want kindness by law? Without discrimination?  How kind is it to kill a cow or a carrot?  What would you eat?  Can you even walk without killing insects, bacteria or plant life?  But wait, there's more!  If you had no choice but to be kind, how would good and evil exist?  
Mr. Smith:  You're saying that good and evil only exist because they are voluntary?
God:  Of course.  You humans are the only creatures really capable of judgment, of having choice and discrimination, and how have you used that?  Did you become more tolerant, more kind, more honorable?  You did not! Why did you not?  I created a universe in which you had a choice, and we can both see how you have used it.  You blame Me for creating a universe in which you chose to be heartless, unkind and without compassion?  You did that yourselves.  You did that without instruction from Me. You exercised your free will, and you chose what you chose.
Mr. Smith:  I see.  If there is evil in this world, it isn’t Your fault, it’s ours, you're saying.
God:  I didn’t say anything about ‘fault’.  How can I take more responsibility than by acknowledging that I created this world?  Or at least, the rules by which it developed.  Those rules included free will for humans, and free will means the power to make choices, good choices and bad choices.  I don’t interfere with your choices. If I did, that would make your choices irrelevant and meaningless.  I have chosen that the world be free (at least in a limited way) to develop according to the choices you make.  That means you have the power to choose badly or heartlessly. That’s the way free will and choice work.
Mr. Smith:  We didn’t make the world.  We didn’t make ourselves.  You allow evil to exist. You created our brains, and you created the conditions under which we survive, including killing and eating. You can’t escape responsibility. If the buck stops anywhere, it must stop with You.
God:  You heard Me, but you just can’t make yourself believe I meant exactly what I said.  I created a universe that can unfold and develop unpredictably.  The rules are real, but the outcome of the operation of the rules is not entirely predictable, even by Me.  There has to be the possibility of evil for the choice of good to be meaningful.  If you had no freedom of choice, nothing new could exist.  The universe would be like a giant clock, totally predictable and equally trivial. 
Mr. Smith:  I forgot for a moment. We are here to be… amusing.
God:  That’s an oversimplification, of course.
Mr. Smith:  If I oversimplify, perhaps You should have created me in a more complex way.
God:  You have made that argument already. You're trying to make me responsible for your momentary mental laziness. When I used the word ‘amusing’, I had meanings for that word that the language we are using doesn’t have the words for.  You are more like an experiment than an amusement.  And before you get all bent out of ego-shape, as participants in this particular experiment you are free to make any choices you like.  I am not controlling you.  You use “amusing”  to convey a sort of contempt for the objects of My amusement.  That is simply untrue, but my ‘feelings’ are not the subject of this discussion, and in reality they are not even comprehensible to you.  Which, as you will point out, is not your fault, since I am your Creator.  You should get over the “fault” thing.
Mr. Smith:  So what is the point of this discussion?  You apparently have had this discussion, or something like it, many times in human history.  What are You trying to accomplish? What is it You want us to know?
God:  Good question, and in fact, the only question.  I want you to know you have choices, for good or for evil, for kindness or cruelty.  The fact that the universe itself is uncaring about humans or their values, does not excuse humans for being uncaring.  You blame Me for the unkindness of life, but you have the power to make life more kind, and you instead make it worse.  I can't foresee the outcome of the universe, but you have the power to change that outcome.  At this moment I’m not particularly optimistic about you humans.  It’s a good thing I have back-up plans.
Mr. Smith:  You mean, like if we don’t… work out?
God:  Exactly.  There are other species, even on this world, who may eventually develop choice and free will.  And if not on this world, then …
Mr. Smith:  You don’t seem to care personally, I notice.
God:  Of course I care.  I’ve put a lot of energy into this particular arrangement. I’m just not optimistic about you guys.
Mr. Smith:  What would a … a positive outcome look like?
God:  Oh, what an interesting question!  I didn’t foresee that one, so thanks!  I had this thought… the universe might be changed by you, by your decisions and choices, perhaps might even become sentient itself.  And at last I would have a companion!  But even if that doesn't happen, your freedom to choose means an interesting trip, at the very least|.
(A long silence ensues.)
Mr. Smith:  I don’t have any more questions.
God:  I know that.  Have you noticed the time?
Mr. Smith: (looks at watch)  It’s …
9:34.
God:  If you’re surprised at this point, you’ve missed a lot. By the way, in the heat of the discussion, you have forgotten one of the questions you have been thinking about a lot, over the last few years.  Shall I remind you?
Mr. Smith:  No.  How about you save us the energy?
God:  Reverence is certainly not one of your traits.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have chosen you if it were.  Your question is, in general, about life after death.
Mr. Smith:  That’s right.  Can You, will You tell me about it?
God:  Short answer, there is none.  Death is death.  It is the ending of your individual self, your awareness.  But there are lots of other 'selves' and awarenesses out there.
Mr. Smith:  I was afraid of that.
God: You needn’t be.  What was it like 200 years before you were born?  Rhetorical question, by the way.
Mr. Smith:  I wasn’t there.
God:  Correct.  You weren’t in existence.  There was no ‘you’.  You didn’t wait impatiently through the first 14 billion years of this universe, because there was no ‘you’ to wait.  The next 14 billion years  (and I pick this number randomly) will go the same way.  You just can’t imagine a universe without you in it, but believe me, the universe can and will go on without you.  It will be neither pleasant nor unpleasant.  There will be no 'you' to experience, feel or remember.
Mr. Smith:  That’s … depressing. 
God:  That’s one way to look at it.  Some people might consider sitting around with nothing to do for 14 billion years a little depressing.  You can choose to think of it another way.  And I think that brings our conversation to an end.  It’s 9:34, and getting late.  (laughs and gets up)
The text is on your computer.  You don’t have editing rights, by the way.
Mr. Smith:  What am I supposed to do with it?
God:  (goes to door and opens it, then laughs)  Why, anything you choose, of course!
(shuts door behind self)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ignoring the future

The real problem with legislators arises from the fact that they are elected for a specific limited period of time.  As a result, they are not particularly interested in the longer-term consequences of a current vote, when 'longer-term' is defined as 'not on my watch'.  Their concern is focused on their own term of office, and what serves them best over that range of time.

So when we see the huge and rapid increase in public debt, we see the direct consequences of being focused only on the current issues.  Legislators won't be around to take responsibility for the debts they have incurred.  Current needs are met.  The future can take care of itself, or at the least other people will take care of things.

Another example is the issue of global warming.  That's a future event, well after their current term of office.  Right now oil is profitable and reasonably available.
Who cares about the emissions?  I can't smell a thing.  Unless I go into a town.

The limits on this kind of spending and thinking, if we can call it thinking, were originally managed by keeping the dollar tied to the gold standard.  We couldn't print more money than we had gold to back it up.  It was harder for the country to go into debt.  Having the requirement to live within our current means limited our ability to incur debts.  There is no such limit now, of course, because otherwise we (as a nation) would have experienced great restrictions on our ability to spend money.  Money that we don't have.

We thought that in the future our increased prosperity, triggered by our ability to spend vast amounts of money we didn't have now, would generate the taxes that could be used to pay off our debts.  Kind of like spending money with a platinum card on the assumption that we would earn enough at some time in the future we could pay our debts.

Legislators aren't the only short-sighted people.  I am old enough that it's very clear to me that I have a relatively short number of years ahead of me.  I sometimes find myself thinking about such issues that they won't be my problem because I won't be around to deal with them.  So for those who are both elderly and legislators, the incentive to deal with future problems becomes rather weak.  Can we afford the luxury of short-sightedness?

A final note.  The voting population seems afflicted with the same disorder.  They (and I mean 'we') want what they want when they want it, which is now.  The hell with the future.  It will take care of itself.  We can indulge ourselves in what we want. Someone else will have to pay the credit card bill.