30 September 2008

Mine, all Mine

Nessa, our 160 pound Great Dane, is sleeping on the chair (and ottoman) formerly owned by Pongo. "Mine," she seems to be thinking, "it's mine now. All mine. This chair. This house. This yard. These people. Mine."

She seems a bit subdued, it's true. But also self-satisfied.

Nobody Believes in Rationalism

The fact is that if you are a thoroughgoing rationalist there is no way anyone can prove to you that it is worth getting up in the morning. The purely rational conclusion is that life is not worth living, so why go on? And yet, the rationalist does get up, driven by non-rational urges to get dressed, to get breakfast, and to start another day. Because, deep down, the rationalist does not entirely believe in rationalism.

Let us therefore admit that rationalism speaks to the "how" and "what" of existence, but not the "why" of it. The why of it is the crisis of our age - the crisis of meaning.

In order to live, we must satisfy our non-rational urge to live meaningful lives. To find meaning, we must (and do) ultimately turn to faith. So, the question is not whether we can have faith. We all of us already have faith to some extent, because we simply must. The question is how can we live simultaneously with the faith we need, and with the scientific rationalism we have fought so hard to achieve?

The necessary synthesis begins by realizing that faith and rationalism begin helping each other by placing limitations on each other. I cannot believe things I can prove false, but I know some things to be true that I cannot prove.

29 September 2008

Remembering Pongo

On this Michaelmas and Eve of Rosh Hashanah, we sent our German Shorthaired Pointer Pongo's little soul to walk with our Master. He was almost fifteen. He had had a long struggle with nasal disease, kidney disease, and bowel disease. In his time he overcame epilepsy and two cancers. What we know of his lifetime trophies include two squirrels, two birds, and a vole. It is impossible to tell of his victories over gophers, because we never saw evidence of any in our backyard during his lifetime. He also successfully hunted and destroyed two sprinkler systems (until we learned not to use impact heads), two screen doors (one wood, one metal), two sets of interior wooden shutters, and part of a wooden deck. In his prime, he was known for his speed, his daring, and his obliviousness to the numerous athletic injuries he incurred by doing things like running through barbed wire fences, and pawing at the neighbor's Rottweiler.

He was originally brought in to our pack to take the pressure that our first Great Dane Maya, then a puppy, was putting on our first dog, the then aging Samwise. This he did admirably. When we would come home from work, Maya would stagger in, look at us as if to say, "Take the child," and collapse with exhaustion. Maya could outrun him on the straight stretches, but Pongo could out maneuver her in the corners. The would run back and forth in our yard until Maya had raspberries on both sides of her butt from colliding with the fences. Then they would cuddle together as if they were mother and son.

After Maya passed, Pongo went into emotional decline and tore off his second screen door. We then brought our second Great Dane, Nessa into the pack. Pongo brightened considerably, and did his best to move up to Top Dog, but it was not to be. When your girlfriend grows to outweigh you by a factor of three, you are going to have to learn to toe her line. Still they played together energetically, running at each other from two corners of our yard and colliding in the middle. This lasted until Pongo's back began going out, after which they switched from the equivalent of tackle to touch.

Pongo had a long prime, keeping most of his speed, enthusiasm for life, and strength until the past year. His strength of will never left him. Although he was not intellectual, he had strong opinions, which he advanced with cunning and patience. He seduced our late mother-in-law into letting him cuddle against her legs while she sat in a favorite chair. Over two months he used techniques of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and desensitization to move from floor to lap, and from lap to chair, conquering our prohibition concerning pets on furniture and making the chair his own.

Really his own. It smells like him, even to a human. We had fantasies of putting his corpse in the chair, and the chair on a wooden barge on a lake, and burning the lot together in a Viking style funeral. As it is, we will probably get it reupholstered and keep it in memory of him. He is pictured above, having gone from 65 to 46 pounds because of his illnesses, in the chair that he prized so much.

Farewell, little fella. May you be as blessed in the next world as you were a blessing to us in this one.

For those of you in similar need, here is a link to a canine funeral service.

Note added 9/30: And then there was the time he ate the car. For some forgotten reason we had to leave him unattended in our vehicle for a few minutes. He chewed the steering wheel, ate the ends off the gear shift and emergency brake levers, and completely severed a seat belt. Fortunately, we were thinking of trading in the car anyway. Pongo just accelerated the process by a few months.

Nancy Pelosi Proves Herself Unfit to Lead

Get a load of this. Instead of rising to lead the US House of Representatives to a historic vote to shore up the international financial system, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi abused the occasion to do partisan grandstanding. Here is a video.

Look, Ms. Speaker. You are not just the leader of the Democratic Party in the House. You are the leader of the whole House of Representatives. Even if what you said were factually correct (which is debatable), using this moment of international crisis for partisan political grandstanding is inappropriate and inexcusable. It may have resulted in the deal not going through today. Which tables action until Thursday at the earliest, because of the Jewish Holiday of Rosh HaShanah (new year). Two more days for the worldwide financial panic to worsen. You stood up and trashed the deal you yourself negotiated. As far as I'm concerned, you personally owe all of us the fraction of our wealth that is going to disappear over the next two days. And quite frankly, for this wholly inappropriate performance, you owe us your resignation as Speaker. You have proven yourself unable to rise above partisanship in a crisis. You have proven yourself unfit to lead. And by that I mean both the House and the nation as a whole, since your position as Speaker puts you third in line for the Presidency.

If this were a parliamentary system, I would vote NO CONFIDENCE in Speaker Pelosi.

26 September 2008

More from the Book of Mormon

Tonight may be the night of the McCain-Obama so-called debate ( I prefer to call it a joint interview), but I need a break, and perhaps you do, too. So, last night I finished reading the Book of Mormon, and I'm going to write about that.

The final editors and writers, Mormon and his son Moroni, mention that the language they are writing in is "Reformed Egyptian," because it is more compact than Hebrew. It must be quite reformed indeed, since Hebrew omits all its vowels, and considerably more compact than standard Egyptian, whose sounds are represented by pictographs rather than more compact alphabetic characters. They also discuss their own ability to express themselves in writing, stating that in their culture people are inspired to speak, not to write. The Lord assures them that despite their weakness in writing compared to speaking, people will still read and believe. This reminds me of the Gospel of Mark, which reads well in translation, but was written badly in Greek.

But who is the audience for their work? Mormon and Moroni witness the complete destruction of their culture and their people. There is literally nothing and no one left when Moroni finally signs out. Yet they write in faith that God will bring out their work to a far future people.

And indeed, looking ahead to Doctrine and Covenants, that far future people consists of Joseph Smith, his companions, and the Church they found, or rather restore upon the earth. This is why Mormons do not subscribe to the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed. These creeds specifically claim apostolic succession for the Christian Church - direct connection of the church leadership from Jesus, Peter and the Apostles in the Holy Land to the present day.

In contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church) does not claim this apostolic succession. Rather, church leadership passed from fathers to sons and disciples from 600 years before the coming of Christ, through his birth, life, crucifixion, death, resurrection, his post-resurrection appearances in the New World, to the annihilation of the Nephites after they had finally fallen away from the true faith. When Jesus appeared to the Nephites, he appointed twelve Apostles to carry the Church forward among the Nephites (paralleling the twelve Apostles appointed in the Land of Israel). Hence the LDS Church is the original Christian Church of the Nephites restored after a hiatus of some 1400 years.

And not just restored, but personally handed off by Moroni, appearing as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith and giving him the engraved plates and the means to translate them. That is to say, the person-to-person connection is unbroken, even though a gap of 14 centuries has passed. The LDS church does not subscribe to the standard creeds because it participates in a parallel kind of Apostolic succession, independent of the rest of the Christian Church, and connected to it only through the person of Jesus Christ himself.

That said, there is still the question of what Mormons believe that is different from the rest of the Christian Church. For one thing, the designation "Son of God," is ambiguous in the New Testament. (And I continue to await the fourth volume of A Marginal Jew for an explication and exegesis of it.) In the Book of Mormon, however, it is quite clear. Jesus is God's Son in the same literal sense that I am the son of my human father.

There is also very specific soteriology (theology of salvation) in the Book of Mormon. The sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ opens the door of salvation, but it is up to the individual to walk through it. This is also the soteriology of much of the Christian Church, but not all of it. In Catholic soteriology, you must partake of the sacraments of the Church. In mainline Protestant soteriology, God calls you to salvation personally and specifically (God elects you) and you respond because God enables you to do so. Your own will is corrupted and unable to comply without God's help. That is to say, through Jesus Christ, God does all the work of salvation, and you do none.

Thus, the LDS ordinances (similar to sacraments) are administered only to those who have shown themselves worthy. In contrast, the individual is assumed to be unworthy in mainline Protestant soteriology, and thus the sacraments are administered because they have the power to make the recipient worthy. In the Catholic church, the sacraments must be administered by a priest, in the Protestant church the sacraments are believed effective regardless of who administers them. In the LDS church, every male adult is a member of the priesthood and can administer certain ordinances.

However, there are levels or orders of priesthood in the LDS church, such as the Aaronic priesthood, and the order of Melchizidek. These orders may have knowledge that is not published to the LDS Church as a whole, much less to the entire world. For example, I note that in the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ designates that three of the Nephite Apostles he appoints should "tarry," as the "Apostle whom Jesus loved," in the New Testament Gospel of John (presumably John, himself) should tarry. Again, the word "tarry" is an ambiguous concept in the New Testament. In the Book of Mormon it is quite specific - these three and John will remain alive on this earth until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory to end the world and judge the living and the dead.Perhaps there is some order of LDS priesthood that knows who they are.

Likewise the unnamed brother of Jared. The Jaredites were a separate people from the Nephites, whose records came into possession of the line of Nephite prophets and were translated by them and abridged by Mormon. The brother of Jared received great prophecies that are alluded to but not revealed in the Book of Mormon. Perhaps some order of LDS priesthood knows the name of the brother of Jared and something of his prophecies.

Finally, I note that according to the Book of Mormon, there is some kind of post-death conscious existence until the day of the Resurrection, when all, saved and sinner alike, are miraculously reunited with their bodies to stand before the judgement seat of Christ. The rest of the Church has varied opinions on what the post-death experience is like, because the description of it in the Bible is so sketchy.

Well, that's it for now. If I have erred it is because I am being lazy and am writing from memory, rather than doing the diligent thing and looking everything up, chapter and verse, in the Book of Mormon. Neither do I see it as my place to opine here on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. As the Book of Mormon implies, that is between the reader and God. I merely wanted to mention a few things that jumped out at me as theological differences between the LDS Church and the rest of the Christian Church. The differences are not so great, but differences there are.

Now, on to Doctrine and Covenants...

24 September 2008

More on Market Instability

Wall Street as we knew it vanished over the weekend. All the investment banks have been bought by banks, or have become banks. The difference? Banks are more strictly regulated than investments banks. But more importantly, banks can value assets based on expected discounted cash flow. By law, Investment banks must use the fair market price of the asset.

Fair market price sounds reasonable, but it makes for instability. In a rising market, your asset will be over-valued, and you can borrow against that asset to buy more over-valued assets, creating a bubble, which could burst. Then, in a falling market, your assets will be undervalued, forcing you to write them off and possibly go into bankruptcy.

All the while, the real value of your asset remains unchanged. The real value is the discounted cash flow you can expect from the asset. To make it concrete, supposed you owned a rental property. It's real value to you is the value of the rent you are receiving discounted by the inflation rate over the years you plan to own it, minus the money you can expect to pay for maintenance, etc.

The discounted cash flow valuation encourages buy-and-hold market behavior - and the market stability that goes with it.

In the meantime, our regulators (including Congress and the Bush administration, now that they are jumping into the act) are proceeding without a coherent theory of market stability. Let's hope they are not proceeding without a clue.

But what will really be intolerable is if any of these clowns hits the campaign trail without doing anything at all.

23 September 2008

Blame and Fixin's for the Financial Meltdown

An old Soviet joke goes like this.

Upon becoming Premier of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev finds two envelopes on top of his new desk. The handwriting on them is from his immediate predecessor, Krushchev. On the outside, one envelope says, "Open me during your first crisis." The other says, "OPen me during your second crisis."

In due time, Brezhnev faces his first crisis, opens the first envelope, and unfolds the paper inside. It reads simply, "Blame me." Naturally, Brezhnev takes the advice and weathers the crisis.

When his second crisis occurs, Brezhnev consults the second envelope. Inside it reads, "Prepare two envelopes..."

So now the world is in a deep financial crisis. There is plenty of blame to go around, and I'll let the usual pundits spread it. Here I note that quite a few physicists and mathematicians have got into analyzing the financial markets. They are the ones who invented all kinds of fancy and obscure classes of "derivative" investments, which are a big part of the current mess. They did it because they were being paid by investment houses to figure out how to make more money for them.

But there is something very big and very obvious (to a physicist) that they failed to do. I can prove it to you very simply. All you need do is go to Amazon.com and search inside the contents of Johannes Voit's The Statistical Mechanics of Financial Markets for the word, "stability."

You won't find it, because it's not there. Physicists, the people who can spend lifetimes studying the stability or instability of dynamical systems when perturbed by physical influences large and small, have largely neglected the stability or instability of financial systems.

Why? Because they were paid by investors, not regulators. All the while the investment houses were developing more intricate investments, the regulators were asleep at the wheel.

There are many things that must be done to stabilize the financial markets. Nationalizing parts of them and creating a US sovereign wealth fund may or may not be one of them. But surely, one of those things is for the regulators to hire physicists and mathematicians to understand what makes markets stable or unstable, and to help craft regulations to stabilize them.

Neurobiology of Atheism

I ran into Bernie (not his real name) this weekend. Our talk turned quickly to politics, Sarah Palin, and the evils of religion. I mentioned that politics, not religion, is the opposite of science.

Bernie wasn't convinced. He brought up Creationism as an example of religion directly opposed to science, and of science being obviously right and religion being obviously wrong. I pointed out that the Creation story in Genesis is what a loving God would tell to a wandering semi-civilized people who began to ask 2800 years ago, "Where did we come from?" It is true at the level of explanation that a loving parent would give to a five-year-old child who asks where babies come from. It would be pointless and possibly cruel to burden a child with the mechanical details of human sexuality. It would have been equally pointless and cruel for God to say, "Well you have forty years of wandering to do..., let's start learning calculus, differential equations, and quantum mechanics." The Creationists mistake is to demand that we accept the five-year-old level of explanation as a mature explanation. In so doing, they generate an obvious falsehood and demand that we believe it along with the Gospel, which brings discredit to themselves and also to the Gospel.

Again, Bernie was skeptical. I get the sense that Bernie harbors a permanent anger toward religion, possibly to his having suffered some cruelty in its name. Or maybe simply because Bernie is a scientist, and is simply offended by biblical Literalism.

He began bringing up some of the recent research in neurobiology. "Indeed," I said, "there seems to be a neurobiological basis for religious experience." He gleefully agreed.

"But then you realize that elevates atheism to the level of color-blindness," I added.

16 September 2008

RIck Ratowsky

I remember to you my friend and colleague, Rick Ratowsky, who died of cancer this weekend. I remember him as a talented and thorough physicist, insightful and inspired, and a gentle soul. The world is the poorer for his having passed from it so young.

12 September 2008

Why America?

On this day after the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, too many Americans are unclear about why America exists and why they live here. Forthwith, a short refresher:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This quote from the US Declaration of Independence serves to point out that the founders of this country believed that Human Rights are not endowed by government - any government. Human Rights are endowed by our unspecified Creator, meaning that Human Rights are an integral, inseparable part of being a Human Person. It means that people set up governments to protect their rights. It means that Human Rights precede any government, including democratic government. You still have Rights even if a majority of the people vote to deny them to you.

In other words, the power of legitimate governments over people is limited. There are certain things a legitimate government is simply not allowed to do to you. And whenever this is not the case, the government in question is not legitimate.

It is the furtherance of this idea of limited government (classic liberalism) that is the stated reason the United States exists, and the assent and commitment to this idea is the reason to live in America and to be and American.

Ah, but there is the question of implementation.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The preamble to the US Constitution is a one-sentence mission statement for a government of a whole nation, for all time. It's drafters intended to found a Republic, a form of representative democracy, in which one's Human Rights were simply assumed. Wise objections soon arose that Human Rights do not "go without saying." In order to secure them, the Founders listed the limitations on the power of the new government over individuals and groups. These are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Not only do we have Representative Democracy, we have Constitutional Liberal Representative Democracy.

At least, that's how we try to have the benefits of government, while limiting the power of government to coerce or harm us. There may be other ways. But legitimate government is limited government, maintained by consent of the people governed. Any other government is, to an American, not legitimate. At least, not for the indefinite future.

Does the rest of the world go along with us on that? Even the enemies of democracy pay lip-service to democracy by using the word in the names they give themselves, like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). The liberal democratic movement has its enemies, but it has been gradually catching on since 1776, when there was only one such government. Now there are many.

America's mission in the world is to lead, foster, and foment this movement. And to defend it against all enemies.

What the debate in America should be about is how to lead, foster, foment, and defend the spread of liberal democracy. Not whether to do it.

11 September 2008

If you put lipstick on a politician...

This is a watershed year for the Republican party and most people don't get it. So I'll lay it out for you quick and plain. Mike Huckabee is not the Republican nominee for President of the United States. I think we can all take this as evidence that the Religious Right can no longer muster a majority in the Republican party. But they are still probably the Republicans' largest minority.

The majority of Republicans chose John McCain, whom the Religious Right and other Social Conservatives consider to be practically a Democrat. By himself, he would be unelectable because the majority of Republicans are not passionate enough to put up signs, make cold calls, raise money, and drive people to the polls on election day. To get elected, he would need to get the Religious Right and other Social Conservatives fired up, because they will do all those things. So he picked Sarah Palin to get the Republican "base" to work for the ticket.

Barack Obama, of course, has the Democratic party "base" fired up all by himself. The most organized part of that base consists of trade unions, who can be quite disciplined about doing what it takes to win elections.

My prediction: it will be close. And no system of voting produces satisfactory results when it's close. Half the country will be jubilant, half the country will be appalled.

And once again we'll muddle through.

More than Just your Money's Worth

My Letter to Bishop Finn
contributed by Kay Goodnow

A company has no limbic structure predisposing it to recognize its own as intrinsically valuable. People who extend fidelity and fealty to a corporate entity - legally a person and biologically a phantom - have been duped into a perilously unilateral contract. — Lewis, Amini and Lannon, A General Theory of Love, p215, 2000

Dear Bishop Finn:

Please know that you have made my life much easier.

My education in understanding the church is complete.

  • I understand that victims are business deals.
  • I understand that bishops are corporate executives in an institutional church.
  • I understand that the institutional church is not a church.
  • I understand that the institutional church has no God other than money.
  • I understand that the institutional church has policies and procedures.
  • I understand that the policies and procedure are more important than people.
  • As a victim (business deal) I understand that the policy and procedures used against me as a business deal means that Bishop O’Hara, the corporate executive of the institutional church in the corporate archdiocese of Kansas City / St Joseph in 1954, was doing his job when he transferred a priest who made a “mistake.”
I understand that the priest who made a mistake [that is, seduced me when I was a child] made other mistakes.

I understand that the value of the life of a child is significantly unimportant as respects the monetary values of the corporate institution known as the church.

I understand that the most important interest of the corporate institution is to ban abortion because doing so might prevent other business deals.

I understand that social justice, women’s rights, discrimination and truth are political terms that are not relevant to the corporate institution.

I understand that those Catholics who are interested in moving the corporate institution to parallel the message brought by Christ are to be silenced and or fired by the corporation.

I understand that “Freedom of Religion” does not mean “Freedom FROM Religion.”

I understand that politics are ploys utilized by the corporate institution to enhance benefits paid as “perks” to its stockholders.

I understand that the officers and shareholders have profited financially by removing a god that they have carefully crafted for centuries.

I understand that from pulpits all over the corporate institution known as the Diocese of Kansas City /St. Joseph we business deals were labeled liars in order to protect the value of the corporation.

I understand that your promise to defrock “mistakes” has been withdrawn due to the age and health of those “mistakes.”

I understand why you chose to ignore the business deals from the corporate institutional diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, as it would not be proper policy.

I understand that your corporate promise to apologize to KC business deals in person was a promise you had no intention of keeping.

I understand that you have now said that you will write a letter of apology, on behalf of the corporate institution, to any business deal who ASKS (begs) for an apology and explain corporate mistakes. I will apologize to my entire family for considering that proposal. I am an “old business deal.”
Thank you but no, I am not interested in duplicity at this time.

I will always remember you as one of the corporate officers who could have made a difference.
You chose NOT to make the difference so needed to salvage a bleeding church.

And so, with pleasure, I ban you from my world.

In Kay Goodnow's opinion, Bishop Finn "finked out" on the non-monetary commitments of the Settlement Agreement between the Diocese of Kansas City / St. Joseph and the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by diocesan clergy. In this letter she expresses her anger.

Apparently, she had hoped that representatives of the Church would follow up the money settlement by dealing with the victims face-to-face, soul-to-soul, even though doing so would cost them the personal sacrifice of experiencing the victims' pain and resentment.

Here she expresses her disillusionment over the Church behaving like a corporation, rather than like the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of God. She is saying to the Church, "God calls you to be worth more than just your money."

Her deposition before the mediator of the settlement is here.