What’s the point?

I just read this editorial in Scientific America this afternoon: “Learning to Live in Steven Weinberg’s Pointless Universe“.

Steven Weinberg’s statement—“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”—could lead to nihilistic despair, but I was struck by two things.

First, the author, Dan Falk, says “For thousands of years, people had assumed just the opposite”–that people saw what they took to be the hand of God. that god’s purpose or “the point” all around them. Then he quotes several moments when people ascribe what they saw to the divine.

Here, he is revisiting the argument that people created a god because they could not explain the world without its presence–the god of the gaps. Since science can explain the material world almost completely now without that god, many people do not think it is necessary any longer.

Later, he talks about his interview with Weinberg:

“I get a number of negative reactions to that statement,” [Weinberg] said. “… people say, ‘Well, this is outside the province of science, to decide whether it has a point or not.’ I agree with that. I don’t think that science can decide that there is no point; but it can certainly testify that it has failed to find one.”

The physicist himself says, essentially, that if a god (or in his words “a point” but I consider them to be the same thing because there is no overriding “point” to the universe if there is no one person (e.g. God) that the gives the “point” some meaning) is something we have to be able to explain using logic, to measure using the tools we have, whose actions we can observe the direct effects of, then the methods of science haven’t found that god, that point.

And he says “I don’t think that science can decide that there is no point”.

This is fascinating to me because I see in the West (I don’t say “post-enlightenment” since this is something that has existed in the West since at least the end of the first millennium … see this section of Wikipedia on Transubstantiation for an example) a consistent tendency to say that we can reach God with reason, that God is somehow circumscribed by the universe that God created.

But he isn’t. The creator of the universe, the Logos that gave birth to reason, is not subject to it.

And here is a Nobel laureate physicist—one who said “the universe… seems pointless”—saying that this isn’t something that science can actually decide.

Photo is CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from Ohm17.

The party of the people

Sometimes, I think I should use my weblog as a place to aggregate my writing. Not that I write a lot, but if I answer a question or write a letter, I should post a copy here if it is public enough. In that vein, I’m posting this letter to the editor of my local paper that I wrote this past Sunday.

I was struck by Chris DelVecchio’s statements in the front page article “Trump to remain key figure”. Mr. DelVecchio said “The Republican Party is becoming the party of the people” which sounds strange to me.

He is saying that the party that put up a national candidate that didn’t get a majority of the vote and lost the election is the people’s party?

Someone should tell the people that.

He also pointed to the rise of younger representatives like Matt Gaetz and said it was part of a generational shift in the Republican party. I suppose he thinks this is going to help attract younger voters. Reading exit polls may be a pass-time of the elites, but DelVecchio should at least glance at exit polls like NBC’s which showed that Biden won the majority of all age groups younger than 50 years of age.

But, sure, maybe their political leaning will change when the turn 50 and grow up a little.

While party members like DelVecchio may be enamored with Trump’s populism and think it is a sign that he listens to the people, I think the real story is the record turn-out for this past election—over 66% of the eligible population, the highest in the past 120 years—and that the majority voted to remove Trump from office.

Finally, I hope the events of January 6th will provide compelling evidence for those of us who love law and order that populism and firebrands are a dangerous combination.


Photo is CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from peacearena on Flickr.

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Ensuring people cannot complain about voting security

A couple of weeks ago, my cousin wrote up a blog post about “Fraud-Free Electronic Voting” where he described a system that would let people vote online in such a way that would “prevent the issues we currently see with accusations of voter fraud and inaccurate counting”. He flattered me by asking for my opinion so I thought I would deign to give mine.

(But I should point out that my opinion here is worth about as much as the paper it is printed on. So you, dear reader, can determine its value by printing it on pricey paper on not.)

The statement “prevent the issues we currently see with accusations of voter fraud and inaccurate counting” is not practical. There were a number of audits and recounts in various states during this past election. The audits and recounts did not find any instances of widespread (defined as affecting 1000s of ballots) fraud.

As long as there are winners and losers, especially sore losers, there will always be people questioning the results of elections. — LittleAncestor

There were individual instances of misrepresentation, double-voting, and other forms of voter fraud, but nothing that could be called widespread.

Which leave us with the claims of fraud that people insisted had happened despite these audits and recounts. They are claims being made in bad faith or in response to claims by bad actors. There isn’t anything you can do that will keep a bad actor from claiming fraud in the face of the evidence.

If you have someone who has managed to gather a bunch of hangers-on who has a deep-seated need to avoid any hint of loss, then, when that person loses, they will cast about for anything to blame for their loss.

No system, no matter how rationally constructed, is going to get around that problem.

Humans are driven, not by facts or rational argument, but by emotion.

As long as we inform our emotion with rational thought and are humble enough to admit we can be wrong, this is how things should be.

Of course, many of us are not humble and do not inform our emotion with rational thought. And some of us are narcissists who have managed to exploit the emotional drive of those around us.

Photo source: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte/Public Affairs Specialist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The single issue voter

I remember sitting in a journalism class at the University of New Orleans almost 30 years ago listening to an old hand from the Times Picayune regaling us with stories about his work at the paper. One that stood out to me was how the church excommunicated a politician for their stance on integration (and then physically blocked him from entering the church for his daughter’s wedding).

The exact details of what he said escape me and so I’m probably wrong on parts, but looking at Wikipedia, I think he may have been talking about the excommunication (and later, after a public retraction, reinstatement) of Leander Perez in 1962 who was the secretary of the Citizens Council of South Louisiana for aggressively opposing the integration of Catholic schools.

I mention this because I was reminded about this when reading the letters to the editor for my local paper. There seems to be some confusion about Biden, the Catholic running for president of these United States. Many people have written into the local paper over the last month and pointed to a single issue—abortion—as a reason no Christian should vote for Biden.

Biden certainly has his faults. A reader was gracious enough to give us a few of them in the Letters page recently. She isn’t wrong.

But as she said, Biden has had 47 years in politics and the issues she managed to find were a molehill compared with the mountain Trump has managed to accumulate during just four (4!) years in political office.

One question—why are some good Catholics willing to support Biden?—really got me to write.

Abortion is a real issue, but no matter if you think it should be outlawed or kept legal, it should not be the only reason a Christian uses to pick a candidate for president.

It is a fact that Biden supports abortion and the Catholic church is against abortion. But, thinking Catholics might also recall that in 2018 the Church reinforced its Culture of Life when it updated the catechism to include these words from a speech Pope Francis made: “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person“.

This thinking Catholic might also remember that, in 1989, Trump paid $85,000 for a full page ad in four New York papers calling for a return of the death penalty—something that just happened to coincide with the trial of the Central Park Five, black men who were ultimately exonerated despite Trump’s best efforts.

Thinking Catholics might also recall that the catechism of the Church says “Every form of social or cultural discrimination … on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated…”.

Then they may remember that Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times was on the front page in October 16, 1973 under the headline “Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack bias in City”.

Christians should use their faith to help them make decisions, but we would be wrong to dictate who any Christian (Catholic or otherwise) should vote for.

Photo: Choices are hard (Public Domain image from Commons)

Thoughts on “The Geography of Thought”

First things first: I wanted to read this book because my wife is Vietnamese. I’ve spent 20 years married to Alexis and had time to observe how she handles things and I handle things. This puts me at a disadvantage. When she moved from Vietnam to New Orleans, she was five or six, so she has a good 14 or 15 years on me in observing differences and navigating her way in a culture that is different than the one she experiences with her immediate family. I wanted to do a little catch up.

She summed it up nicely when I asked if she wanted to read the book: “I’m sure it won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

The book’s shortcomings are apparent almost immediately:

I believed all human groups perceive and reason in the same way. … [I wrote a book] titled Human Inference. Not Western Inference (and certainly not American college student inference!), but human inference. The book characterized what I took to the inferential rules that people everywhere use to understand the world…

I’m a little more than a little surprised that someone could become an academic in human psychology and not understand that people from different cultures see the world in remarkably different ways.

Now, that aside, the book does have the some great insights that come from research the author and others have performed.

If you want a 30-second (or less) synopsis of the book, here it is:

People in the West see the world consisting of various parts. Understand how an individual thing acts and you’ll be able to make reliable predictions about how it will act in any situation.

Meanwhile, people in the East see the world more like an interdependent system. Making predictions based on how you’ve seen something (or someone!) act in isolation is foolish since context is the determining factor in what will happen now.

Of course, when you divide the world up this way, you run into the problem of over-simplification. And, as he makes apparent by comparing populations, the Eastern and Western modes of thought are not a binary system. Asian-Americans, people from Hong Kong and sometimes Germans regularly straddle the East/West divide.

The people who are the penultimate Westerners are Americans, followed by Canadians and the British. Meanwhile, Easterners start with the Chinese and Japanese and move from there.

In the first part of the book, he talks about Aristotle and Confucius and how they created two different systems of thought. The origins of these two modes of thinking, then, are presented as Greek vs Chinese.

What interested me was that Western thought later became more clearly Protestant thought – the connection to Greece was in its generation, but not the “best” modern form. In fact, a lot of my exposure to Orthodox thought has shown that there are sometimes more similarities with Eastern religion than with American Christianity.

Overall, even though this book provided some good food for thought and the studies performed were useful, I was put off by the author’s acknowledgement that he was relatively unaware of thse differences until relatively late in his career.

Brief review of Farewell to Alms

Since all I can manage are brief reviews with a pointer to the quotes I excerpted to Twitter, here is my take on Farewell to Alms:

I loved it. At least, it made me feel like I was getting enough out of it to keep on reading.  It also helped me get a better view on our modern world and how new it really is.  That, and I gained a much better understanding of how little transport is when it comes to the total cost of goods.  Why does “Made in America” not matter?  Because the real cost to ship to America is practically nothing.

(P.S. I should mention that I read this because Dan Lyke recommended it when I saw him in SF last January.  See? It only took me a year!)