COMMENTARYBy George Templeton
If we aren’t careful we might get what we wish for!
The leaders we elect will become role models for our children. Ironically, we do not respect them. Our incivility does not help to motivate the best to go into public service. Is it more important to have a virtuous leader or one that is aggressive? Do we want more freedom or permissiveness? How will we balance respect for and fairness to the individual with the sacrifice and cooperation that is necessary for the common good?
The Way Things Were
David Mathews, a university president and authority on public policy served as Secretary of Health Education and Welfare in the Ford Administration. He wrote in his 1999 book, Politics for People, Finding a Responsible Public Voice, that dissatisfaction with politics stems from a sense of public powerlessness. He argued that this could be reduced by creating more avenues promoting in-depth public deliberation. Civic duty flourishes whenever public interests are emphasized over private ones. Meetings would become less like sales conventions. The focus would change to bi-partisan listening instead of persuading.
Dave explained that our public servants are the guardians of the common good and the judges, not the creators, of public controversy. He wrote, “As fair arbitrators, they must be above the fray”. He did not guess that we would support anti-government politicians who just tell the public that they disagree.
We can’t expect politicians to be experts, but we can ask them to illuminate and orchestrate. Dave wrote, “… that if citizens are to be self-governing, they are going to have to be sustained, encouraged, spoon-fed, and educated about public decisions by those who know what is going on”.
Would public dialogue only increase conflict? James Madison commented in the Federalist Papers 10 and 51 that politics brings out the worst in people. Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan, wrote about the public degenerating into a war of “each against each” and “each against all”. However, the famed ant scientist, E. O. Wilson, observed that within groups, selfish individuals win but when groups compete, altruistic ones succeed. Evolution has both an individual and collective force and mankind has a corresponding identity!
We can thank Jerry Falwell for uniting Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and Evangelicals in the 1980’s with his Moral Majority movement that brought together, under the banner of sacred conservative politics, groups that historically did not agree with each other because of significant theological differences. They would prioritize beliefs above facts. The deist Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire, could see it coming when he wrote, “… you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise”.
The reaction to the Pope’s recent visit inadvertently opened a window from which our dysfunction could be seen. The Pharisees and Sadducees of the Left and Right wasted no time in spinning the Pope’s words. They claimed that his visit was political. They verified precisely what he was talking about.
The Pope cautioned about a narrowing over-simplification of religion, politics, and economics and that every form of polarization that divides us should be confronted. He said, “The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
The Way Things Are
Carly Fiorina aroused public anger at the “debate”. She tried to upset those who were comfortable with stem cell research. Congress authorized it by a vote of ninety-three to four in 1993. Currently only two Planned Parenthood clinics donate fetal tissue and one collects nothing to reimburse its costs. There are alternatives to fetal tissue for scientific research, but scientists say that fetal tissue remains necessary to establish a base-line.
Carly referred to a fake tape, acquired by entrapment, and falsely claimed to be Planned Parenthood footage. The Center for Bioethical Reform produced its most recent portions. The nineteen hour tape used footage without the authorization of patients. It was heavily edited, multiply assembled, and deliberately annotated with “shock” footage of undefined source from the files of the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, found guilty in the past of showing miscarriages as abortions.
Carly refuses to retract what she said. She could be exemplifying the business ethos, that winning is all that matters. But this was only the first salvo of bombs.
Conservatives would solve the problems of poverty, woman’s health, and abortion by eliminating Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that helps 2.7 million people who are often in remote rural areas and have no other source of care. In 1955 we accepted death in childbirth and suicide motivated by shame. Now conservatives argue that personal welfare, when we give a quart of milk to the pregnant homeless lady outside the grocery store, is moral but when government helps out it is a wasteful enslaving conspiracy.
Old white men have a double standard. They have no personal experience with or sensitivity to female realities. They would shut down our government in order to get their way.
The recent House Oversight Committee inquiry was rude political theater. Paul Gosar, cosponsor of the Defund Planned Parenthood Act, accused Planned Parenthood as masquerading as a non-profit while making money by murdering babies. He achieved new heights of passionate disrespect when he cut-off president Cecile Richards before she could answer.
Government subsidies to social service organizations are commonplace. Organ transplants, covered by Medicare subsidized insurance companies, require someone to fly to the state where the death bed is located and wait. It is a business and there are costs, legalities, and situational moralities.
Numbers and graphs can lie, especially when only part of the data is presented and when the graph axis is distorted. Fundamentalist religion wants no cost-benefit analysis. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing organization combining politics, religion, and litigation is not a reliable source of truth. This is compounded by mathematical incompetence and a lack of interest in understanding data.
Math is the bridge between human reality, the glass that is half-full instead of half-empty, and non-human reality. It’s as old as the counting of gold by King Midas or finding the truth by means of thought. Math does not lie. It’s only when you try to apply it that the trouble begins. The comedian Lewis Black, in his routine, Old Yeller, Live at the Borgata, described math in a way that we all relate to.
“…You take a number and put it under a hut. Then you have to guess which number when divided into that number will be less than and not more than the @@ number. You go and you go, and you do all the math, and then you get to the end, @@@! I knew it should have been a 3! Then you go back and you do it again. And then you take the 3 and you start multiplying. Let’s say you get to a 7. It’s 21. Put the 1 there. Put the 1 there and then you have to carry the 2! Carry the @@ 2! That’s where things went wrong. Somebody forgot to carry the @@ 2.” It’s funny because all of us identify with learning long division.
Math is not just arithmetic. It has an interesting history and philosophy. Herman Weyl claimed that “Mathematics is not the rigid … schema that the layman thinks it is; rather in it we find ourselves at that meeting point of constraint and freedom that is the very essence of human nature.”
Faith in Uncertainty
In 1650, gambling was very popular in French high society. Personal honor and large amounts of money were at stake. Inevitably, it caught the interest of French mathematicians. The Jansenist Catholic scientist, Blaise Pascal became famous for developing the theory of probability and having the nerve to extend it beyond gambling to the existence of God.
Pascal showed that the capriciousness of nature is limited. It could be quantified enough to predict the future. Pascal’s mathematical way of thinking focused on outcomes, using a cost-benefit analysis, instead of the rigorous logic of Thomas Aquinas.
Pascal recognized the folly of trying to prove or disprove God’s existence. So, he gave that proposition equal odds, like the flip of a coin. There is no denying his math, but his arguments include values that not everyone shares. Debauchery is not the unavoidable consequence of uncertainty.
Pascal bumped up against the authority of the church when he explained how vacuum works. The church held that there was only existence and non-existence. There could be no such thing as empty space. Pascal found that there were other explanations; better ones than Aristotle’s 2000 year old idea that “nature abhors a vacuum”. Likewise, backwards reasoning, commonplace in politics, claims that when subsequent “B” is true, preceding “A” must have been the cause.
Stephen Unwin, a PHD physicist wrote, The probability of God, A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth. His book adds to Pascal’s argument and claims to calculate the likelihood of a personal God to high precision. He uses the Reverend Bayes’ equation, but he plays loosely with the completeness and independence of arbitrarily selected evidential variables that seem measured with a rubber ruler. He writes, “I for one feel no sense of freedom to decide”. The deeper reality is that quantification is impossible without clear definitions of the boxes that it will be put in.
Bayes’ theorem can calculate the intensity of personal conviction. It can even explain how Schrodinger’s cat, unseen and hidden in a box, was simultaneously dead and alive. That was just in our head and we would have narrowed our opinion had we heard the cat meow. Unfortunately, it can’t explain how a particle can be a wave and interfere with itself.
Kenneth Boa’s book, Twenty Compelling Evidences That God Exists, expands Unwin’s six, but argues false choices and slippery slopes. He presents evidences that cannot be pinned down in any definite way. Though he holds a PHD in philosophy from Oxford, he blurs philosophic doubt when he writes, “A belief should be embraced because it’s true, because it’s based on reality”. But rabbits were not intelligently designed with white tails so they would be easy to shoot.
In contrast, Christopher Isham and Andreas Doring use Topos Theory to argue that math and philosophic logic are illusions. They propose a logical “If A, maybe B”. Their math embraces the uncertainty needed to find solutions.
HopeHuman understanding requires the self-reference of gut feeling and seeing without vision. But understanding also requires the incompleteness of rationality and the comprehension that can only come from participation in life. A wise leader knows that the truth is never absolute, and that his decisions must come from both his mind and his heart. Hopefully, our future leaders will be like that.