Which Values Are Most Important?

I don’t live in a bubble. I’m lucky to have friends, family members, and loved ones who disagree strongly with some of my beliefs. That gives me perspective.

Challenges to our beliefs help us in three ways:

  • They make us ask why other people believe the things that they do.
  • They make us ask why we believe the things that we do.
  • They make us work more carefully to find out what the the truth really is.

The latest challenge is over a cancelled visit to Israel by two far-left Democratic politicians. Israel’s government banned them from entering the country because they support the BDS movement that seeks to destroy the Jewish state. Israeli law explicitly allows such bans.

The politicians — Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — have made numerous anti-Semitic statements. Omar notoriously opined that American support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins (money)” and that Israel “hypnotized the world.” Tlaib opposes Israel’s existence and has accused American Jews of “dual loyalty” that puts Israel over the United States. That accusation is ironic since President Trump criticized Jewish Democrats for disloyalty to Israel by their support of Tlaib’s anti-Semitism. In any event, the Democratic Duo clearly meant their visit to generate propaganda against Israel. Hardly anyone disputes the facts involved.

In spite of that, thoughtful people disagree about the ban. Some see it as mere common sense: no country has a duty to allow entry by those who only want to cause trouble. As Ari Hoffman wrote in The Forward:

“It was the right call. Omar and Tlaib were visiting Israel to do it harm. Their visit was not one of critical engagement, and like the disastrous episode of the spies in the Hebrew Bible, they came not to strategize towards a better future but to wound.”

I agree with Hoffman. Other people see the ban as wrong on principle, and unjustifiably limiting freedom of expression. For example, last night one of my brothers said he wanted a t-shirt to proclaim himself a “disloyal Jew,” alluding to President Trump’s comment.

Both sides made rational arguments, but there’s also an irrelevant argument lurking in the background. Let’s get it out of the way.

Most opponents of the ban hate American President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Supporters of the ban probably feel the opposite way. To argue that a policy is bad because you hate people who support it, or good because you like people who support it, is obviously invalid.

Emotion often biases our judgment, but it has nothing to do with the merits of our beliefs. Let’s try to focus the merits.

Focusing on the merits doesn’t get us very far, but it does help explain the disagreement. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we make moral judgments based on five factors:

  • Care
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Sanctity

As shown in the graph at the beginning of this blog post, liberals base moral judgments mainly on concerns of caring and fairness. They reject the importance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Conversely, conservatives weight all five factors at about the same level.

Thus, left-leaning people tend to oppose the ban because they think it’s unfair. They might grant that loyalty is an issue, but they don’t think it’s important. Conversely, right-leaning people tend to support the ban because they prioritize loyalty and respect for authority. They might grant that fairness is an issue, but they think that the other factors outweigh it.

Who’s right?

There’s no way for either side to prove its case. As a result, there is no single “right answer.”

The best answer is to let each country decide for itself.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Believe in the Future

Many people dismiss faith as “believing what you know isn’t true.” But that’s wrong.

At its most helpful, faith is believing what might be true:

  • We will be alive tomorrow.
  • The future can be good.
  • Life has meaning and purpose.
  • There is a moral order in the universe.

You don’t know any of those things for sure. Neither do I. I certainly can’t prove them. But I urge you to believe them anyway.

They’re what the philosopher William James called “forced options.” They can neither be proven nor disproven. You cannot avoid making a choice about them. Even if you try not to make a choice, you’ve made your choice.

If you abstain from believing you’ll be alive tomorrow, then you’ll live as if you expect to be dead. If you abstain from believing that the future can be good, then you won’t do anything to help make it good.

The same applies to meaning, purpose, and moral order. Those things might not exist in any transcendent sense — but then again, they might.

If you don’t believe in them, you won’t look for them. If you don’t look for them, you won’t find them. And amazingly, you can find them even if they weren’t there before you looked. Your sincere efforts can bring them into existence.

But none of that will happen unless you first believe. Believe not just in what you can prove. Believe in a future that you can’t prove at all, and in a moral order that you can prove only by how you live.

Then work for that good future, and try to be living proof of that moral order.

American industrialist Henry Ford supposedly said that “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.”

You can.

Have faith. Make it happen.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Bulletproof Happiness: What You Control

You can achieve bulletproof happiness.

But you need to know something first: Bulletproof vests make you look fat.

In other words, there are trade offs.

And you need to know something else: Bulletproof vests don’t make you invulnerable.

In other words, there are limitations.

Happiness that is perfect and permanent exists only in Heaven — if Heaven itself exists. Here on earth, we make do with what we have.

Your goal should be something that’s possible, not dreamy and utopian. You want to be as happy as you can be, regardless of what’s going on in the world around you.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about how to achieve that goal.

Buckle up: rough road ahead

History is unpredictable. Social conflict, international politics, and economic turmoil make it even more unpredictable. We’re living in one of those unpredictable times.

I’m skeptical about the cyclical view of history in the book The Fourth Turning, published in 1997. However, its forecast about the early 21st century seems eerily accurate:

“The next Crisis era will most likely extend roughly from the middle Oh-Ohs to the middle 2020s. Its climax is not likely to occur before 2005 or later than 2025, given that thirty-two and fifty-two years are the shortest and longest time spans between any two climax moments in Anglo-American history.”

A lot has changed since 1997 in ways that the authors couldn’t possibly predict. You can make up your own mind about whether the changes were good or bad. But whatever they were, they were certainly cataclysmic.

Our “crisis era” might unfold peacefully or in ways that we’d rather not contemplate.

Durable happiness

You want happiness that can flourish in peaceful times and survive in crisis eras. The most important principle is also one of the simplest:

You can control some things, and you can’t control other things.

Most things that worry people are things they can’t control. You can save yourself from a lot of unhappiness if you worry only about things you can control. In fact, don’t even worry about them: do something about them. Then you won’t be tempted to worry.

As for things you can’t control, try to accept them as they are. If they’re relevant to your life, then pay attention and act appropriately, but don’t get emotional about them.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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What You Can Do About the World

The world can be a scary place. It is now. As one website commenter remarked:

“We wake up, have breakfast, send the kids to school, walk the dog, go to work, come home and everything seems just fine, and then we turn on the internet to find out we’re on the verge of civil war.”

What can you do about it? What should you do about it?

First, keep things in perspective. If you woke up, had breakfast, went to work, came home, and everything seemed fine, then you’re already better off than billions of other people in the world. Your problems seem bigger only because they’re yours.

Politicians spout hateful and inflammatory rhetoric because they think it motivates their supporters. News and entertainment media amplify the hate because it gets them clicks and ratings.

Say what you will about The New York Times, CNN, or Fox News, but they didn’t create the current media culture. They devote very little time to honest news reporting because there’s very little demand for it. More people want propaganda that supports “their side” of some bitterly-contested social or political dispute.

You don’t have to be one of those misguided people. You can avoid being manipulated. You can try to keep your wits about you.

You can stick to facts instead of resorting to innuendo and character assassination. You can try to make peace where it’s possible. You can reach out to people who disagree and, together, try to resolve your differences. You don’t have to agree. You just have to respect each other enough to live together without violence and acrimony.

Second, reflect for a moment about the things you can’t do and shouldn’t do:

  • Whether or not you believe in God, you’re not God.

You’re not responsible for everything that goes wrong (or right) in the world. Just as you can’t take credit for every good thing that happens, you’re not to blame for every bad thing that happens — and it’s not your job to fix it.

  • And whether or not you believe in God, you’re still not God.

You might have strong convictions about how people should live and how society should be organized. We all do. But have you ever been wrong about anything? We all have. We’re not God. We sometimes make mistakes. If the mistake affects only us, then the damage is limited. But if we try to impose our beliefs on everyone else, then our mistakes cause much more harm.

“Live and let live” isn’t just a practical maxim: It’s a prescription for social peace and personal happiness.

We don’t know what the future holds. Most of it is outside our control. But we can control how we act, how we think, and how we treat other people. At least in that limited area, we can make the best of whatever the future brings our way. The rest of the world will have to take care of itself.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Evolution and the X Factor

“Oh, God, not another argument about evolution.”

That’s how I reacted — somewhat unfairly — to a video posted last week by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank located at Stanford University.

The video is about “mathematical challenges to Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

It features an interview with three undeniably smart guys:

  • David Berlinski, a philosopher, mathematician, and biologist (kind of like yours truly) who’s taught at Stanford other prestigious universities;
  • Stephen Meyer, a philosopher of science who wrote the book Darwin’s Doubt; and
  • David Gelernter, a polymath computer science professor at Yale.

All of them think that evolution by natural selection can explain variation within species, such as different breeds of dogs. However, they doubt that natural selection accounts for the emergence of different biological species: humans, orangutans, whales, and so forth.

Meyer thinks that the explanation is “intelligent design” — i.e., some more or less philosophical interpretation of “God did it.”

Berlinski and Gelernter are more skeptical about intelligent design, but they think that it should be considered.1

The video is worth watching. However, I can give you the short version right here.

Their main argument is very similar to the one I made in my June 9th blog post, “History Bends Toward Chaos:”

  • There are many more ways for a complex system to be chaotic than for it to be organized in useful ways.
  • Therefore, it’s extremely improbable that the system will organize itself in useful ways.2
  • Biological systems are extremely complex. That applies especially to large molecules such as proteins.
  • Hence, the probability that biological systems evolved naturally3 is vanishingly small.
  • Therefore, something else must have brought them into existence.

How science works

That “something else” is an X Factor. They are very common in science:

  • We observe something that we don’t understand.
  • We think of possible explanations. Those are possible X Factors.
  • We test the different explanations to see if new facts support or disprove them.

A lot of scientific research is a search for X Factors. For example:

  • Disease: The X Factor was infection by microscopic organisms, not exposure to evil spirits or bad smells.
  • Wobbly orbits: The planets Uranus and Neptune wobbled in their orbits around the sun. The X Factor was the gravitational pull of an undiscovered planet, Pluto.4
  • Earth doesn’t move: The Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 seemed to show that the earth was not moving through space. The X Factor was a new explanation of space and time, given by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Explanations are stories

An explanation is a story in which the protagonist is the X Factor. The last line of the story is “Therefore, this happened.”

But notice something interesting about the debate over intelligent design:

  • Intelligent design says that no accurate, purely physical explanation exists for the emergence of biological species.
  • Opponents of intelligent design say that no accurate, non-physical explanation exists for the emergence of biological species.

Neither of those statements can be proven or even tested scientifically. They’re not scientific statements. They’re philosophical stories: “big picture” views of the world that shape all our other theories and judgments.

Footnotes

  1. Intelligent design is often confused with “creation science,” which is an entirely different thing. Creation science argues for the literal truth of the Biblical creation stories. Its supporters are mainly non-scientists and a few scientists with degrees in unrelated fields. Its flagship organization is the Institute for Creation Research. Intelligent design’s flagship organization is the Discovery Institute.
  2. That’s basically just the Second Law of Thermodynamics. However, it doesn’t always apply. Some systems do spontaneously self-organize. A free-market economy is an example: F.A. Hayek won a Nobel prize for his work on the issue.
  3. Through unguided physical processes.
  4. Astronomers can’t seem to make up their minds about whether or not Pluto is big enough to be considered a planet. Recently, they’ve been calling it a “dwarf planet.” The American Astronomical Society voted down a proposal to change the planet’s name to either Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, or Grumpy.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Wise Paths to Happiness

What’s the best way to find happiness in life?

In some ways, that’s a silly question. There are many ways to be happy in life. Or unhappy.

But despite individual differences, most people can find happiness in similar ways.

A lot depends on attitude. If you try to make the best of every situation, see obstacles as challenges to overcome, and see failures as opportunities to improve yourself, then you’re already halfway to your goal.

When I was growing up, my mentor Brand Blanshard gave me some good advice:

“It is important to happiness not to think too much about it. The person who continually asks himself if he is happy is apt to miss his end. For happiness is, as Aristotle thought, a by-product of healthful and successful activity … What is important is to find what one can do best (generally also the line most useful to others), and then to do it with all one’s might. Happiness will come unsought.”

Avoiding bad habits and forming good habits is also important:

“I should warn a young person I cared about to avoid bad habits by early and deliberate effort. Regular habits about going to bed, getting up, working, exercising, etc. are an immense advantage. They are not worth deciding anew every day.”

The most important thing is a commitment to rationality:

“The [person] who has the least to regret, who does most for the community, whose judgment carries the most weight and is the most trusted, is the [one] who is steadfastly and on principle reasonable. I do not mean the ‘intellectual’, who is often an impractical bore. I mean the person who, both in matters of belief and matters of action, takes as his principle: Adjust your belief or decision to the evidence.”

And what will your life finally mean?

“There is no one ‘meaning of life’ … It depends rather on finding who one is, i.e., what is one’s unique combination of powers, and then finding through experiment and reflection what course of life will fulfill those powers completely.”

In the end, it’s up to us. It’s up to each of us as individuals, and to all of us working together:

“If [people] generally are to achieve happiness, it must be by their own intelligence and effort, not by some transcendent governance of history.”


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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What We Are and What We Do

Would you like to join the Chess Club?

It’s for people who like chess, like to talk about it, and like to play it. It’s a human group.

You can be a member if you satisfy at least one of its admission rules:

  • You are the brother or sister of a club member.
  • You apply for membership and pay $5 to the club treasury.

Notice that you can be a member based either on:

  • What you are (a sibling of a club member), or
  • What you do (apply and pay $5).

Human populations always divide into groups. Whether we like it or not, it’s a fact. Pretending that it isn’t a fact doesn’t make it go away.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s often a good thing.

For example, most people aren’t interested in chess. If people who are interested have a group, they can enjoy chess with others who share their interest. And they don’t bother people who don’t care about it.

Members of the Chess Club usually have similar personalities, abilities, and interests. They tend to like each other. But that doesn’t mean they hate members of the Spanish Club.

The Chess Club is like many other human groups. Membership is based on what you are, on what you do, or on both. For example:

  • If a you’re a European who satisfies Japan’s strict immigration standards, you might eventually become a Japanese citizen. You will have the same legal rights as ethnic Japanese. Everyone will treat you with courtesy. But no matter what you do, you can never be Japanese. Even if you assimilate fully and speak the language perfectly,1 you will always be a gaijin. That’s what you are. If you get married to a Japanese, your children will be considered hāfu (half-Japanese) based on what they are.
  • If you’re a non-Catholic who finds spiritual truth in Catholicism, then you can convert. You’ll be just as Catholic as anyone who was born into the faith, because even their membership is based on what they do. If you get married, your children will not automatically be Catholic. Just like you, their membership depends on what they do.
  • If your mother is Jewish, you are automatically Jewish based on what you are. If you’re a non-Jew who converts to Judaism, you’re Jewish based on what you do. If you’re a Jewish woman who gets married, your children will automatically be Jewish based on what they are. If you’re a Jewish man who gets married to a non-Jew, your children can be Jewish but, at least officially, they’ll have to convert — becoming Jewish by what they do.

It gets confusing when those factors conflict.

If someone joins the chess club but doesn’t like chess, hates the other members, and constantly vilifies the club in public — well, you have to wonder why he or she joined the club in the first place.

Maybe it was in hope that one of the smart chess nerds would allow copying of his homework.

Footnote

  1. Watch the video. It’s hilarious.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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