What a Difference a Year Makes


This evening is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, popularly known as the Jewish New Year.

It’s an important holiday for two reasons.

First, it falls in the Hebrew calendar’s month of Tishrei, commemorating God’s creation of the world.

Second, it challenges all of us in the coming year to re-create ourselves as better people.

In synagogue, the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) awakens us to examine ourselves and our conduct. The philosopher Moses Maimonides described its message:

“Awake, awake, 0 sleeper, from your sleep; 0 slumberers, arouse yourselves from your slumbers; examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness which neither profit nor save, look to your souls; improve your ways and works. Abandon, every one of you, his evil course and the thought that is not good.”

It’s interesting because if you think about it, Rosh Hashanah exists only in our minds and in our relationships with other people.

Time exists, sure. If there were no people, time would still exist.

But would minutes exist? Hours? Years? No, they wouldn’t. They are all conventional ways in which we organize the time of our lives. They are concepts that we superimpose on reality. The same applies to the calendar, and to Rosh Hashanah. Through time, we transform chaos into order.

That order has a purpose. It enables us to seek the truth, to do what’s right, and to love each other even when it’s difficult.

And where can we do those things?

They begin in the same place as Rosh Hashanah: in our minds and hearts. That is where they can start to make a difference.

Whatever it means, we want God to be proud of us. The coming year is our chance.

Resolve to make a new beginning. To do better. To be better. To act justly but with compassion. To help others. To improve ourselves and the world.

Let’s do it.

L’Shanah Tovah.

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Dialogue Is Not Harmful

“Listening to the Opposition Can Make Partisanship Even Worse.”

That was the discouraging message of an article last week in The Los Angeles Times.

And strictly speaking, it’s true: listening to the opposition can make partisanship worse.

But the message is misleading. “Can” doesn’t mean “must,” “always,” or even “usually.”

The article described a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study recruited Twitter users (901 Democrats and 751 Republicans) as test subjects. At the outset, researchers had the test subjects answer a 10-item questionnaire to identify their political views. Then, they exposed the test subjects to a month of retweets from supporters of the opposing political party.

At the end of the month, they had the test subjects re-take the questionnaire to determine if their political views had changed. The Democrats’ views had moved slightly to the left and the Republicans’ views had moved more to the right.

The flaws in the study are as plain as day.

Twitter? Really?

First, it’s based on Twitter. Twitter is not a platform where thoughtful discussions take place. People share articles, slogans, graphics, and memes. They say outrageous things to blow off steam or get attention. They engage in name-calling.

Nobody expects people on Twitter to change their minds about anything because of some tweets. Instead, you would expect exactly the kind of thing that the study found:

  • Twitter user Joe says X.
  • Twitter user Jane says that X is stupid.
  • Joe replies “Oh, yeah? So are you!”

The debate goes downhill from there. Joe and Jane both get angry, and they end up more rigidly dogmatic than they were at the outset.

I’ve had some very productive debates with people on social media. Often, we don’t end up agreeing, but we learn where and why we disagree. We sometimes learn what additional information would resolve the issue. That’s virtually impossible on Twitter, since tweets are limited to 280 characters; until last year, the limit was 140 characters. Twitter’s culture still reflects the 140-character limit. For comparison, this paragraph has 485 characters in it, far over the Twitter limit.

Any study of persuasion based on Twitter is doomed from the outset. It doesn’t matter how many test subjects the study has or what statistical tools it uses.

Blunt-instrument questionnaire

Second, there’s the questionnaire that the study used to determine people’s political views. It’s a blunt instrument, with simplistic questions about complex issues.

Neither the newspaper article nor the journal article lists all the questions. You have to read the study’s methodological appendix to find them, where they finally appear on page 19.

Questionnaires like this drive me nuts because there’s no way to answer the questions intelligently.

The study’s authors deserve credit for at least one improvement on the usual format. Instead of asking for binary “agree or disagree” answers, they let people rate their agreement on a scale from 1 to 7. But consider some of the questions:

“1. Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.”

Sometimes. Sometimes not. What laws and regulations? About what? Stricter than what?

“2. Government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest.”

Sometimes. Sometimes not. Even free-market icon Milton Friedman wasn’t against all regulations. Neither was Adam Smith.

“5. Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.”

Only the most extreme libertarians believe that. Everyone else disagrees. The question therefore does not distinguish between most left- and right-leaning people.

I submit that anyone who’s happy with those questions is unlikely to engage in thoughtful political discussions. That, combined with the questionnaire’s dubious reliability for identifying test subjects’ political views, makes it unwise to apply the study’s conclusions anywhere except on Twitter.

Political party ≠ worldview

Finally, the study conflates political tribe membership (Democrat, Republican) with political worldview (liberal, conservative). That’s a mistake. Both parties are divided between a more ideological faction (“the base”) and a wealthier, more self-interested faction that has little use for ideology except as rhetoric to get the base’s support.

In many ways, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney belong to the same “ideological party,” as do Jimmy Carter and Ron Paul. Fifty years ago, the study’s distinction by political party might have been more accurate, but it’s inaccurate in 2018.

Making arguments productive

If you want to share and improve your understanding of the world by arguing with people who disagree, there are some requirements.

First, everyone involved needs to be interested in finding out the truth. Some arguments are are more about aggression and bullying than truth. They’re not what we’re talking about here.

Second, everyone involved should share assumptions about what counts as evidence and what counts as an argument. “Only an awful person could believe X” is not a valid argument. “If Y were true, it might hurt someone’s feelings” is a reason to be careful about saying Y, but not a reason to reject it as false.

Third, people should realize that disagreement does not imply evil. Morally conscientious people often disagree. Calm, rational debate helps them see the underlying assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses of each person’s viewpoint. That helps everyone understand the issues better. It also helps them understand each other better. Screaming, hysteria, and emotional theatrics do not.

Fourth, people should realize that on some issues, agreement cannot be reached. Such issues turn on people’s fundamental world views and moral intuitions. When those differ, there are only two choices: figure out a way to live together peacefully, or fight until one person surrenders or dies.

The peaceful choice is better for everyone, but they must be willing to live and let live. That requires a certain amount of humility — an awareness that we might be wrong. Even if we aren’t wrong, we might not have the right to impose our beliefs and way of life on people who disagree with us.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill said that “he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” Disagreement can be immensely positive and helpful, but only if it’s done calmly, rationally, and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

You can do that online or in real life. But doing it 280 characters at a time will always be a bit of a stretch.

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Are People Basically Good?

Are people basically good?

Writer Dennis Prager argues that how we answer the question leads us to different political views:

“Earlier this year, I had a debate/dialogue with two left-wing students at the University of California, Berkeley … My final question to them was ‘Do you believe people are basically good?’ Without a moment’s pause, both students said yes.”

Prager thinks that people are not basically good. He thinks that the record of human history, including the Holocaust, conclusively disproves the idea. I agree.

But if people aren’t basically good, it doesn’t mean that they are basically bad.

I would argue, instead, that we are basically free. Normally, we can choose in any situation to be good or bad. The choice might be easier or harder, but it’s still our choice.

Of course, it’s important to define what it means for people to be good, bad, or free. Good people sometimes do bad things, and bad people sometimes do good things. As Alexander Pope observed in his Essay on Man (1734):

Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree.
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise,
And even the best by fits what they despise.

Good people are those who usually do the right thing. By learning and living, they’ve practiced “doing the right thing” until it became second nature to them. As a result, their habits and emotions automatically support that choice. They occasionally slip and do the wrong thing, but they recognize it as wrong. They feel guilty and try to make up for it.

basically good person would be a good person by default, “out of the box” with no assembly required. We don’t come like that.

Conversely, bad people are those who often do the wrong thing. They learned to behave immorally in the same way as good people learned to behave morally. When they do the wrong thing, their previous thoughts and emotions support their choice. They don’t feel guilty. They either don’t think about the people they hurt, or they see their victims as suckers who deserved what they got.

Free people are intelligent enough to understand life situations and the relevant moral principles. They can choose rationally between alternative courses of action. They are not compelled to make a particular choice, whether by external coercion, overwhelming emotion, or intellectual confusion.

If you’re not free, then you can be neither good nor bad because your choices are not your own. Someone or something else is making the choices for you. Your actions can still be good or bad, but your moral responsibility for them is reduced. It’s why insane people are not held criminally liable for crimes they commit as a result of their illness.

Four complications

Four factors complicate how we make moral decisions.

First, we have a dual nature. We are animals, but we’re also intelligent beings.

The animal side of our nature is amoral. It wants what it wants. Sometimes, our animal impulses are helpful. Normal people instinctively protect children and feel empathy for other people who are suffering. At other times, our natural impulses are harmful. Normal people instinctively react with hostility toward members of groups that compete with their own group. That can lead to social discord, racism, or war. Our moral choices emerge from the interplay between our impulses, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.

Second, people’s individual biology differs. Our natural impulses and abilities can make it more or less difficult for us to do the right thing. Our individual biology inclines us to be more or less aggressive, excitable, calm, or empathetic. Depending on the situation, those traits might or might not be helpful.

For example, as shown by the graph at the beginning of this article, about 16 percent of people have high levels of empathy. They are naturally inclined to care about the welfare of others. In peaceful situations, they find it relatively easy to be good. In dangerous or violent situations — which are all too common on earth — they find it much harder: it’s easy for them to care and hard for them to shoot. Conversely, about 16 percent of people have very low levels of empathy. They find it easy to shoot but hard to care. Most people (68 percent) are in the middle. They go whichever way they’re pushed.

Third, individual people’s experience and virtue differ. Like our biology, our life experience and past choices make it easier or harder for us to do the right thing. Trauma and suffering can make us bitter and angry, or noble and generous. As American writer Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

Fourth, people’s culture and moral expectations differ. Good people usually do “the right thing,” but only a few moral values are universal. For non-universal values, different societies define “the right thing” in different ways. We don’t automatically know what that is. We have to learn it.

With all those complications, it’s impossible for most people to be basically good. It depends on us as individuals, on our societies, and on our circumstances. The best general guide, albeit an imperfect one, is another quote from Hemingway:

“What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

Posted in Christianity, Judaism, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Do We Need Religion to be Good People?


Does being religious make someone a good person?

No. Being good is a choice that we can make or not make.

Some religious people are bad, and some non-religious people are good. That’s beyond dispute.

But I’d like to ask a different question:

Can religion help us to be good people?

I think that it can.

Obviously, a lot depends on the religion. And a lot depends on its clergy and members taking the religion seriously.

If we take them seriously, Judaism and Christianity help us in four ways to be good. With variations, other faiths can be similarly helpful.

First, stop and think

Judaism has 613 laws that govern every area of life. To 21st-century people, some of the laws seem arbitrary and pointless. But even the “pointless” laws have a hidden benefit.

Before taking any action of consequence, a serious Jew must first stop and think:

  • Which laws cover this situation?
  • What am I required to do?
  • What am I forbidden to do?

Regardless of what the laws say, they inhibit acting impulsively. People must think about what they’re planning to do. They must think about the consequences of their actions. If they do something, it must be with full awareness of what they’re doing. In Buddhism, that’s called “right mindfulness.”

Even good people sometimes do bad things because they act impulsively or aren’t paying attention. A religious “stop and think” requirement takes away that excuse.

Second, promote social harmony

A shared religion implies at least some shared moral beliefs and shared customs. Those help to promote social harmony in two ways:

  • They set expectations about how people will behave in certain situations. As a result, conflicts become less likely.
  • By following shared beliefs and customs, people show that they belong to the same in-group. As a result, they are inclined to trust, help, and cooperate with each other for the common good.

Third, do what’s worked

I admit that this one’s not always true, but it’s often true.

Religions usually claim that their moral rules came from God. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly true that their moral rules have been tested for centuries in various kinds of societies. The rules worked well enough for the societies to survive and often to prosper.

Some of the rules will be better than others. Most will have costs and benefits. But overall, they’re more likely to work than new and untested moral ideas made up by some academic theoretician who’s just trying to get tenure.

Fourth, remember the moral order

Serious Jews and Christians tend to pray a lot. Jews pray at least three times a day, and usually more often than that.

An important benefit of such prayer is to remind us of the moral order. In prayer, we remind ourselves that there’s a difference between right and wrong. We then re-commit ourselves to doing what’s right. Prayer reminds us that our actions matter, so we should make them count.

Sure: you can be a good person without doing any of those things. But they can help.

And when we hit life’s inevitable difficulties, we need all the help we can get.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Love is not the Answer

Coming up with some good “famous last words” is a real challenge.

For one thing, you’re working under pressure. You’re not sure when your final breath will come, and you want it to be worth taking.

For another thing, you’ve got a bunch of people standing around your bed, waiting for you to say something profound and then expire. Preferably in that order.

By the way, I’m not dying, lest I get a lot of worried emails.

It is true that the cashier at McDonalds this evening gave me a “senior discount” on my coffee, and I’m not sure if I should be insulted or just happy to have saved some money.

I’m going to go with “happy.” To an 18-year-old cashier, all people over 40 look like they have one foot in the grave. When I drew a secret-agent comic strip in high school, I made the main character 26 years old, which seemed middle-aged to me. It seems a lot younger now.

But “famous last words” are supposedly a clever way to get to my main topic: the limits of compassion. So please bear with me for another paragraph or two.

Ludwig Wittgenstein did pretty well with his famous last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!” James T. Kirk, not so well: If memory serves, his famous last words will be “Oh, my,” a phrase more commonly associated with Mr. Sulu.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous last words are in his Ninth Symphony, and they’re hard to beat even though he got them from Schiller:

“Joy, daughter of Elysium

Thy magic reunites those

Whom stern custom has parted;

All men will become brothers

Under thy gentle wing.”

Shakespeare’s version of King Henry IV did pretty well. Speaking to his son, Prince Hal, he said:

“How I came by the crown, may God forgive,

And grant that it may with thee in true peace live.”

However, it is the famous author Gertrude Stein who provides the segue to our main topic. When Ms. Stein lay dying, her companion Alice B. Toklas whispered to her:

“Gertrude. Gertrude. What is the answer? What is the answer?”

Ms. Stein opened her eyes and said: “What is the question?” And then she died.

So now, finally, we get to the point: Contrary to popular belief, love is not the answer: it’s the question.

“Do the loving thing” isn’t a helpful answer because it poses two further questions:

  • Why should we do the loving thing?
  • What is the loving thing to do in a particular situation?

Presumably, we should do the loving thing to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. That’s why.

But we’re not quite done yet. The what question depends on whose happiness and suffering we’re trying to affect.

If we can make some people happy without making anyone else suffer, then there’s no problem at all. Other things being equal, that’s the loving thing to do. It’s all good.

However, the opposite is more common: different people have different interests, desires, and moral values. If you help one group, you hurt others.

In those cases, you have to make some uncomfortable decisions. Who counts? Everyone? Then you’re in a bind:

  • If you do nothing, then you fail to increase the happiness of one group but don’t cause suffering to the other group.
  • If you do something, then you increase the happiness of one group by causing suffering to the other group.

How can you decide which alternative is better? There’s no provable answer.

Alternatively, you might decide that everyone doesn’t count. Some people are just so wicked that their happiness doesn’t deserve any consideration.

You might think that it’s a hard decision to make, but people make it all the time. The only thing that changes is the hated out-group whose suffering doesn’t matter. If you’re a thoughtful person, you need to be aware of issues like that. It won’t make the decisions for you, but at least you’ll know what you’re doing. You won’t be acting blindly.

Another problem with trying to do “the loving thing” is that it relies on our emotions. Propagandists know exactly how to bypass people’s cognitive faculties and inflame their emotions. When people’s emotions are aroused, they often can’t think clearly even if they try, which they usually don’t. It’s downright scary to see intelligent people reacting to images or memes just like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when they hear a bell.

If I had the solutions to these problems, I’d give them to you. I don’t. But I still think we’re better off being aware of the problems than if we’re totally clueless about them.

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How to Handle Talking About God

How can we talk about God?

For our distant ancestors, it was an easy question. They thought of God as being like a human, only bigger, more powerful, and immortal. He lived in the universe but hadn’t created it. He was finite. For them, talking about God was no more difficult than talking about Jeremiah or Sarah. They could attach a mental picture to the name “God.”

But for us, it’s not that easy. We think of God as being transcendent, infinite, and beyond our understanding. He does not have a physical body like we do. He’s not like anything we can know or understand.

So when we say “God exists” or “God is good,” what do we think we’re talking about? What meaning do we assign to the name “God”?

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers have grappled with the problem for over a thousand years. In Medieval times, Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides took a whack at it, as did Thomas Aquinas. In our own time, Alvin Plantinga and other philosophers of religion have tried as well.

There are a lot of unreasonable answers to the question. There are also two reasonable answers that complement each other.

Among the unreasonable answers is that we’re not talking about anything. We’re just uttering nonsense. Many 20th-century thinkers held that view. Philosopher A.J. Ayer gave its most notorious formulation in his book Language, Truth, and Logic:

“To say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”

By “literal” he means “empirically verifiable,” so in his own terms, Ayer isn’t completely wrong. But his view is unreasonable because statements about God influence everything from laws and social institutions to people’s behavior and their view of the universe. Its meaning might not be entirely clear, but it’s not nonsense.

As for the two reasonable answers, the first is that “God” means a Being (1) whose activities are described in the Bible and (2) whose attributes are discussed by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology. I omit other theistic faiths only because I don’t know their views about Divine transcendence.

Meaning typically connects one thing to another thing, neither of which has to be linguistic:

  • An old song reminds me of my college girlfriend and is thereby meaningful to me.
  • Dark clouds mean rain might be coming.
  • “Ich liebe dich” means “I love you,” which in turn means “je t’aime.”
  • The Bible says that God gave the Torah to Moses, so “God” means “the Being who gave the Torah to Moses.”
  • If God is the first Being and the first Being created the world, it means that God created the world.
  • If God is one, it means that God is not two or three.

Those are all statements that connect beliefs about God and thereby give meaning to the word “God” by the role the word has in the beliefs and in their connections.

The second reasonable answer is that “God” serves as a linguistic handle that connects our beliefs to other things. The other things might be known, unknown, or even unknowable.

Handles are words or phrases that let us think about complex subjects without needing to think of all their details. For example, “dog” lets you talk about dogs in general, without thinking about all the 330+ different breeds of dog. “The quadratic formula” lets you talk about a way to solve equations. You don’t need to know the formula to do it. You can talk about the formula as long as you know enough about it to use the phrase as a handle.

Likewise, we know or believe a few things about God: the Bible, theology, and so forth. That little bit of knowledge enables us to use the word “God” as a handle, connecting us both to things we can know and understand, as well as to things we can neither know nor understand (or even be sure that there’s anything to know).

Posted in Jewish Philosophy, Philosophy, The Jerusalem Post | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

You Can’t Prove God — and It Doesn’t Matter

You can’t logically prove God’s existence. And it doesn’t matter.

When people ask for a proof of God’s existence, they almost always want a logical proof. That kind of proof uses the laws of logic to go from premises to a conclusion.

The first-cause (“cosmological”) argument for God’s existence is an example:

  1. Everything has a cause.
  2. The world is a thing.
  3. Therefore, the world has a cause.

If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. You don’t even need to know what the argument is about. Any argument in that form has a true conclusion if its premises are true:

  1. Every A is B.
  2. X is an A.
  3. Therefore, X is B.

However, there are three problems with the first-cause argument.

The first problem is that nobody really believes in premise 1. People who make the first-cause argument say that God does not have a cause. But if God doesn’t have a cause, then it’s not true that everything has a cause. Instead of God, you could just as easily say that the universe itself doesn’t have a cause. And that ends the first-cause argument.

The second problem is that the first-cause argument doesn’t really stop with its conclusion that the world has a cause. It adds that the cause is God. Logic doesn’t support any addenda. The argument can prove that “X is B,” but it can’t also prove that “Oh, by the way, B is G” (i.e., the Biblical God).

The third problem afflicts all logical arguments for God’s existence, at least in Judaism and Christianity. Those faiths say that God transcends human understanding, so we can’t give any logical meaning to the word “God.” Therefore, any statement we make about God seems logically meaningless. It might refer to something — indeed, to something supremely important — but we literally don’t know what we’re talking about. We’re saying some words but we have no idea of what we’re saying. That’s not a proof, nor even an argument.

However, the basic error in making arguments for God’s existence is much simpler. It’s the assumption that logical arguments are the only way to prove things. They’re not.

Can you prove that the color red exists? Of course you can. You point to a red thing, and say “Look at that. It’s red.” If a person can see the color red, no other proof is necessary. If a person can’t see the color red, no other proof is reasonably possible. Pointing to things is called ostensive proof, as opposed to logical, discursive proof.

The only proof of God’s existence that’s really convincing is ostensive proof. Through prayer or meditation, we can try to open our minds to a reality beyond our ordinary experience. And most of us find something there, a feeling of transcendence. We don’t understand it and we can’t explain it. Theists call it God. Atheists call it natural law or the majesty of the universe. Each of us interprets it in terms of concepts and stories in which we already believe: the Bible, physics, or as we mathematicians sometimes say, “God is a mathematician.”

So you can’t prove God in a logical sense, simply because you can’t prove something you can’t define.

All you can really do is offer an ostensive argument: Open your mind and reach out to the transcendent. You’ll find something supremely good. Call it what you like. But call it. It will answer your call.

Posted in Epistemology, Jewish Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment