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Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope on the Mall



I was down at the Mall at the Climate Change Rally with our church to hear Pope Francis’ speech. It was wonderful for me to be with so many others, young and old. This gives me great hope that together we can make a difference. 

The article below captures some of his important lines; but to me the most important part of the speech is when he cited MLK, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as exemplars for the American Dream. 

In contradiction to the article below, he did not talk about or against same sex marriage—but the importance of the family. His example for reverencing life at all stages was a prelude to his urging to end the death penalty. (FOX News and pundits will not see it that way but I hope people watch this speech in its entirety). 

He talked FOR, not AGAINST. For life, for family, for community, for the earth. And for dialogue, over attack.. The only thing I heard him talk against was personal and social behavior that put economic gain, i.e.money, first. 

I see him teaming up explicitly with Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders to change the pernicious stories (the religious, economic, and ideological fundamentalisms) that are limiting our thinking and empathy.



The 10 Most Important Lines From Pope Francis' Historic Speech to Congress

In a powerful speech to a joint session of Congress Thursday morning, Pope Francis pushed the United States to confront several political issues that tend to divide Republicans and Democrats, including immigration, climate change, the Iran deal, Cuba, poverty, and the death penalty. His speech noted that politics "cannot be a slave to the economy and finance." He didn't chastise any political party, and he, not surprisingly, had a clear but brief reference to opposing abortion. But overall, his address had a progressive cast.

On climate change: "I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature." (Democrats stood to applaud the pope's remarks on climate change, while many Republicans remained seated. The pope's message was more muted than his remarks on the issue Wednesday when he spoke at the White House."

On abolishing the death penalty: "I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

On abortion: "The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." (This was his only direct reference to abortion in the speech.)

On same-sex marriage: The closest he came to addressing same-sex marriage was in a passage about the importance of family. "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life." (This did not appear to be an explicit denouncement of marriage equality.)

On Iran and Cuba: "When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue—a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons—new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

On the refugee crisis: "Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation."

On immigration: "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants...Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our 'neighbors' and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal solidarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this."

On poverty: "I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem."

On the arms trade: "Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade."

On religious fundamentalism: "We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners."


Monday, September 7, 2015

Fast and Slow Thinking

Cousin Vinnie needs to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. We all should.

The key distinction Kahneman makes is, as the title suggests, between thinking fast which is System 1 thinking or what he calls "intuition," and thinking slow which is more effortful and reasoned.

System 1 is a jump to conclusion based upon previous experience, judgments, and habits. It is very useful for driving a car, simple math, confronting a dangerous person, and lots of other situations requiring a snap decision. It sure helps System 1 thinking if we have been well prepared, broadly experienced, i.e. an expert. But even then we often make mistakes if we don't have time and energy for System 2 thinking.

System 2 is a reflection on the conclusion jumped to in System 1. It requires time, that is, attention, intention, retention, maybe even detention, but for sure tension with one's own judgments. It is what we often call critical thought and action.

System 1 relies on the habitual, the emotional, and the unconscious. It leads to stereotypes which are sometimes true but so often in error or what we call rash judgments or prejudice. The decisions of System 1 come out of implicit frames, narratives, and rules that we have imbibed often without recognizing them. Kahneman explores all the "heuristics," "biases," and "cognitive illusions" of System 1 thinking and they are legion. They lead us to faulty judgments and decisions in business, politics, and economics that often endanger our world and our species and are doing so today. The biggest failing is not to recognize and accept that these heuristics are always operating in our head. These lead to overconfidence, mob action, terror, cruelty, and self destruction. For example, by accepting that capitalism is a rational process creates the myth of the "Econs," those that think the market is rational and free with all people acting in their self interest.

System 2 is not necessarily a corrective. It can be industrious and so what we usually call "thoughtful" leading to the "examined life." But it is often quite lazy and simply labors to provide rationalizations to what we have already concluded in System 1. It goes for "cognitive ease" in which System 1 unconscious factors are not recognized, but merely confirmed.

By seeing it in Cousin Vinnie I hope to also recognize it in myself. Cousin Vinnie just passes out judgments, usually without fact-checking them, that confirm his already formed opinions. He does not recognize the racism that through our institutions shapes all of our decisions in the US especially, but perhaps everywhere with our fear of strangers and perceived need for classes lower than ourselves.

He bases his judgments on his own traumatic experiences. For example, he took over his fathers business and tried to expand rapidly by getting a huge government contract. And he failed to make a go of it for which he blamed the unions and government (even though there are many examples of entrepreneurs like Ross Perot and Mitt Romney getting superrich through government contracts). He is against Mexican immigration because he correlates the decline of his middle class with the influx of Mexican workers in California and because he saw some Mexicans trying to get benefits that he felt he didn't have. He certainly has not considered thoughtfully the role that immigrants play in revitalizing the American economy. He would rather rely on stereotypes which he gets by watching one source for news and reading only what fits with his already determined judgments.

A lazy System 2 engages in name, shame, and blame tactics which is typical of the unexamined life. But seeing the splinter in Cousin Vinnie's eye, am I neglecting the beam in my own? How do I make sure that I am questioning my judgments and am attentive to other ways of seeing the world?

I pose a question of Kahneman: Is there a System 3 Thinking?

I say, yes. If System 2 is reflection on what is being thought, System 3 is a reflection on reflection or what philosophers call "secondary reflection." It is what Kahneman is doing and what I am trying to do in these essays.

By probing further into the ways of thinking, by identifying the biases and illusions that influence us and make us think that we know, we are able to advance our thinking and action to new levels. This takes more than the attention, critique, and openness to change that System 2 makes possible. It takes an understanding of our understanding, a retreat into the solitude of meditation for creative daydreaming even sometimes into seemingly purposeless irrelevancies; and it takes study and experiment by putting our ideas out in action to be confronted by others. I argue that it also takes a sort of universal empathy in which all paths and viewpoints can be appreciated and integrated.


[BTW, some have asked me if Cousin Vinnie exists. Yes he does, but that is not his name. He is really a good guy; and he has taught me a lot.]

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Playing with Ideas

Theoretical astrophysicists just ended an international conference to solve the paradox of black holes.

But they didn't.

The problem is where does the information go as a black hole--like the one in the center of our galaxy--withers away. According to quantum theory which governs the smallest particles of matter, information cannot be lost. But according to general relativity laws which govern the largest bodies of matter, black holes are collapsing in upon themselves by their massive gravitational pull to become the smallest particles of matter while radiating out energy and so annihilating its information.

This discussion is important because it will help explain the origins of our universe in the Big Bang.

So scientists are trying to resolve the paradox by coming up with a super theory that covers quantum and general relative theories. Or something like that. Read the article.

Brian Green and many other string theorists think that the solution is in a theory that proposes a multiverse. That is, our universe may be just one universe among an infinite number of parallel or simultaneous universes. Listen here.

So does the collapsing black hole become a new quantum fluctuation into or big bang out to a new universe? Is every point, e.g. every bit of dark matter, in our universe connected to another universe? And so on ad infinitum?

Well, think about that. We occupy a small piece of geography on a very small planet revolving around a very small star far from the center of a galaxy of billions of stars that is just one galaxy in a million galaxies of a universe that may be just a point in another universe.

That's pretty humbling. Even more so when you compare our time and space with the times and spaces of all this universe and possibly many others.

And yet, any point on an infinite line, x, y, or z, or in any infinite sphere whether within or outside all other infinite spheres, is still at the center.

So I am and we are at the center of it all, expanding and contracting, reaching out and zeroing in, and can think about all this. Appreciate, celebrate, be grateful for this very tiny moment in which we big bang out to all in all. I am.