30 September 2011

The Next Christian Martyr?

The government of Iran is about to execute Youcef Nadarkharni for the crime of being a Christian Pastor in a Muslim country. If the mullahs go through with it, he will not be the first Christian martyr, not even in modern Iran, nor will he be the last. Unlike those jihadi-takfiris who murder themselves and as many others as they can find and pretend to be martyrs, we will witness Iranian clerics making a real martyr of a man for the simple reason that he is called to worship the same God as they, but in a different manner — the manner of a Christian.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is monitoring the case. You can click here to help.

Update 10/1/2011: The Iranian government is changing their story. Now they claim they are going to execute him for the "security-related" crimes of rape and extortion, rather than the crimes of "turning his back on Islam," and "converting Muslims to Christianity," which were the only crimes mentioned in the court documents from his so-called trial. We note here that Mr. Nadarkhani claimed he was never a Muslim before he became a Christian. Look, the bloody-minded mullahs of Iran just want to kill this guy, never mind the precise charges. Kind of reminds you of the Crucifixion, doesn't it?

Update 10/3/2011: Now the Iranian government has added the charge of being a Zionist, which makes him a traitor to the government, one of the most serious charges that can be made against a person in Iran. They are getting really serious about killing this person, this husband, this father. You can tell by the way they are trying to make themselves feel good about it. Where are the protests about this?

If the Iranian government executes Youcef Nararkhani, then they will be cursed by the Blind Chihuahua even more so than they already are. Feel free to tell them so.

24 September 2011

Happy New Year

This coming Thursday is Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the New Year 5772 of the Hebrew Calendar. Yes, Jews, although never particularly numerous in comparison to many other peoples, have been around as long as civilization. Religious Jews believe themselves chosen by God to live according to God's commandments. Such special election does not imply that Jews think themselves better than anyone else, or entitled to special considerations from anyone else. It implies that Jews believe themselves to exist to keep God's commandments, and that God's promise to them is that as long as they keep God's commandments, they will continue to exist as a distinct people.

Keeping God's commandments can get complicated, because many of them were written down thousands of years ago in circumstances that no longer exist in this world. Therefore, keeping the commandments has become a matter of interpretation and debate, which has lasted for nearly two thousand years. The Talmud records several centuries of detailed discussion and commentary regarding how one can best live in fulfillment of God's commandments in a changing world.

But one of the commandments is to live in accord with God's commandments joyfully. So, Happy New Year, Shana Tova, everyone!

20 September 2011

Should the UN recognize a Palestinian State?

How about a quid pro quo? How about requiring that the Palestinians and the other neighbors of Israel recognize Israel as a Jewish state? That is, until the Arab world recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, what is really being proposed is a "one state" solution...

19 September 2011

Theodicy Part 3: God is Better than Perfect

In parts 1 and 2 we established that the Universe is such that we are free to live our lives without God, and that the Universe is self-consistent. These two related properties combine to allow us to make our way in the world, and to frustrate us into doing so.

I use the word "frustrate" in a specific sense. The late psychologist Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the "good-enough" mother — the ordinary, devoted mother, who creates a secure enough environment for her child, yet is not "perfect" from her child's point of view, because she can not or will not satisfy the child's every wish. This "frustrates" the child enough to begin trying to do things for itself, and to establish its own identity apart from its mother. In this sense, "good enough" beats "perfect" hands down. A child with a good enough mother becomes a functioning adult. A child with a perfect mother remains dependent all its life.

Perhaps the entire question of theodicy stems from God being imperfect from our point of view. We want God to take care of our every want or need, to guard us from every harm. We might regard that as perfect, but we would be less than human. All we would be capable of is wanting and needing. Under such circumstances, who among us would be capable of doing or creating, and who would want to? Perhaps God is "good enough" to let us have a little space and time to become ourselves, which means that God better than perfect.

Yes, the Universe is a rough place. But within the constraints of freedom from God and self-consistency, could you come up with a better one? To quote Bob Dylan, "The answer, my friend, is blown' in the wind" — as God speaks it from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, chapters 38 and 39, of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

18 September 2011

Springtime for Cairo

A little ditty to commemorate the pogrom in Cairo, September 9, 2011:
Tune: Springtime for Hitler

The Arab Spring was having trouble, what a sad sad story
Needed some old scapegoats to bring it back to glory
Where, O where were they? And how to make them pay?
We looked around and then we found
The powers we must slay.
And now its ...

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli,
Tunis is happy and gay
We know now just how we cannot lose
Go out, and burn out those dirty Jews!

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli,
Winter for Jews and the West
Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Come on, Arabs, and give it your best

I was born in old Aswan, my hate for Jews goes on and on
Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Hamas party

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Burn the embassy of Israel today
Tanks rolling on the sands again
Egypt is in good hands again

Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Jew-hate is flaring once more
Springtime for Cairo and Tripoli
Means that soon we'll be going
We've got to be going
You know we'll be going to war!

If this offends anyone, all I can say is, "Es tut mir Leid," which is German for, "I'm sorry." I don't mean to criticize Arabs generally. I do mean to recommend that the Arab Spring achieve freedom and dignity for Arabs (both Muslims and non-Muslims) without diminishing the freedom and dignity of anyone else.

11 September 2011

Ten Years After

Ten years ago today I got a phone call from my niece. "Turn on your television!" she shouted. "Somebody flew jet planes into the World Trade Center!" I did as she said. The networks showed replays of the second plane impact. It looked like terrorism to me, and it looked like they had engineering help.

At that time, I was involved in scientific and engineering support of efforts to counter the spread and mitigate the consequences of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the terrorists had used WMD, my group might have been called. It was a relatively small step from what I had been doing to scientific and technological support of homeland security and counter-terrorism.

"I have to go to work," I said.

What else I thought that day and the day after, is in this blog.

Today, I just want to make a case for the superiority of the Western Way of Justice to that of Jihadi-Takfiris (aka Islamo-Fascist terrorists and their sympathizers) who think that it is justice to kill any Westerners in any numbers that they can, for whatever set of grievances on which they fixate on any given day. If we Westerners believed in a theory of justice like theirs, there wouldn't be any Muslims in the West. Our way is superior - case closed.

And it is therefore case closed that our way must prevail. We need to find a way to fight the war of the Civilized World against the Jihadi-Takfiris (or Islamo-Fascists) less expensively, so we can stay in it for as long as it takes. Decades, perhaps generations. Until all the world's people, especially women, are free to act, speak, and dress as they choose, until all the world's governments are answerable to their people, and until all the world accepts that it is just to punish people only for crimes that they themselves have actually committed.

I'm still at work, even though I've changed fields again. And I intend to keep on working on it, even after I officially retire.

05 September 2011

Theodicy Part 2. Self-Consistency is a Bitch

At the end of Part 1, we took it as a self-evident axiom that the Universe is such that we are free to live our lives without reference (or deference) to any concept of God, gods, or divinity. In practice this means that if God exists, God refrains from jumping in to fix the Universe every time it functions in some way that causes us suffering. It means that we are on our own, except possibly for events so rare that the vast majority of us remain free to live without God nearly all our lives. Miracles may happen, but not so often that many of us can count on them.

This would be a mess if the Universe were random and unpredictable. An animal presented with aversive stimuli at random intervals, independently of its own behavior, soon cowers in its cage, suffering from what Seligman called "learned helplessness." Fortunately, the Universe is predictable in the following sense: it is self-consistent. Another name for self-consistency is the law of cause and effect.

Self-consistency has a positive side. It allows the Universe to function according to rules that we have been able to discover and to use to our benefit. We have developed agriculture, heating and air conditioning, cures to diseases, antiseptics and anesthetics for surgery, and so on. We have grown in autonomy and power as we have grown in scientific and technological knowledge. Consequently, we have grown in our average material well-being, worldwide. And these gains can be preserved and enlarged, because the world population is stabilizing.

On the negative side, self-consistency makes the Universe a rough place. It turns out that gravity is probably a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and the existence of quantum fields like photons, leptons and baryons. In other words, if you want to have light to see by, a planet to stand on, and air to breathe, then self-consistency demands that the Universe be subject to the law of increasing entropy. Which means that things must run down. Which means that you (along with everything in the Universe, including the Universe itself) have to die someday.

To a religious person, it might seem as if we have been dumped into this Universe, where bad things happen, and where we do bad things to each other. God has dropped us from his embrace, kicked us out of Eden. This feels like a punishment, and theologians have rationalized that it happens because we deserve it. Or rather, our earliest ancestors did something to deserve it, which changed them in some way that we have inherited, which makes us deserve it also.

Any abandoned child will try to figure out what it did to cause its abandonment, so as to make amends and get its parent back. It is too threatening to think of the parent as bad, because the parent is the only one who can guarantee child's survival. So the child thinks that it must be bad, and that it must do something good to attract the parent to care for the child again. That, without commenting on its truth, is the level of explanation of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and why the doctrine has such mythic, psychological power.

The truth of the doctrine of Original Sin is as a primitive, or rather primal, descriptive psychology. We act like the Doctrine says we act. We often treat ourselves, each other, and the world around us and its inhabitants badly, and we live most aspects of our lives as if God does not exist. Even those of us who are regularly attend church, synagogue, or mosque.

If we are being punished for it, the punishment was around long before we were. The overwhelming weight of the evidence is that evolution is the response of populations of living things to suffering and death. We humans are one instance of that ongoing response. For a religious person, that means that God used suffering and death to create humans. The Human Condition is not so much a punishment as an opportunity.

And, as I argued in the third paragraph of this section, we have taken advantage of that opportunity, at least in a material sense. We are beginning to do very well indeed. We have gone from a population of perhaps a few tens to 7 billion in just 200,000 years by learning to use the self-consistency of the Universe to change our world in our favor. This has been devastating to the world's mega-fauna, including the other human species (e.g. the Neanderthals - perhaps playing the original role of Abel, with our ancestors as Cain) with which we once shared this planet, but I'll just chalk that up to Original Sin for now.

On to Part 3.