Saturday, November 24, 2007

Science v. Faith?

Having just written on the problem of "first cause", I am surprised to find myself drawn right back into it by Paul Davies' op-ed in this past Saturday's New York Times. But having informally debated some number of people who told me that science and religion were both faith based endeavors, I was disappointed to read an article by a well known science guru seeming to argue the same point in the New York Times op-ed page.

Maybe I didn’t understand his article. I think I did. The link for the full Davies' article is: But, to make it easier, here’s my summary:

Religion rests on faith, but the scientific presumption that nature is rationally ordered is also based on faith, although so far, a justified one.

Scientists have to have faith in unchanging, absolute universal mathematical law and don’t seem to care where they come from. This is deeply irrational, even absurd.

Scientists are now coming to accept that laws may not be universal or absolute but that there may be a patch work of universes with their own natural by-laws.

Thus, both science and religion are faith based, one believing in an unexplained god, the other in unexplained laws. Both fail to come up with a “complete account of physical existence”. This is not a surprise as the idea of absolute and immutable laws is a doctrine that Newton borrowed from Christianity.

We will never explain the universe as it is unless we come up with “an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.” Specifics will come from future research. “But, until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”

Davies is an interesting science writer. I've read one book of his, The Matter Myth, where he tries to make physics understandable for us idiots. He concentrates on fundamental scientific ideas, physics and the relationship of God to the universe. He has the SETI (search for extraterrestrial life in the universe) chair at the Int’l Academy of Astronautics. I am sure he knows far more about science than I do (I’ve read him; he doesn’t read me). However, the approach he takes in this article, which is also a fair summary of his life’s work, is flawed in a number of ways, and common sense tells us so.

First, where are all these pigheaded scientists that he and many others seem to find who are so rigid in their beliefs? Because I never seem to read anything that remotely sounds like it came from one of these scientists. I’d like to see him present one of them who is as dogmatic as he claims. Although I do not mean to associate Mr. Davies with the conservative movement or assign him specific religious beliefs (I have no idea what his political or religious beliefs are), his article reminds me of the chapter on evolution in Ann Coulter’s liberal bashing Godless . It wasn’t her points about evolution that bothered me (she's absolutey correct that evolution is a theory, not a fact). It was her fashioning of a straw dog (liberal_ scientific community, forged from a few examples, which brooks no opposition, doesn’t understand what “theory” means, and thinks once an authority figure (e.g., Darwin) speaks, it becomes a matter of "faith" and there is no arguing with it.

I have no idea if Coulter knows anything about science, but Davies, a scientist and explainer of science, should know better, and not make the quantum leap from a few informal conversations he's had with other scientists, who possibly never gave a thought to the larger problems Davies cares about and may have given off-the-cuff answers, to a conclusion that there is some monolithic scientific community that cares not at all where natural laws come from.

Of course, Mr. Davies, science is based on assumptions, including that there is an order to the universe that can be uncovered. Each experiment or series of experiments cannot recreate the world. Without assumptions, there would be no way to propose theorems which scientists might then try to disprove with experimentation. Even basic geometry requires certain assumptions. Besides, if scientists were forced to only work on the mega-issues, like theories of everything, we would not have them working on the specific problems, usually highly defined and limited, from which slowly grows our body of knowledge.

On the other hand, the accomplishments of modern physics in a century and a half (in my subjective view starting with the Faraday/Kelvin/Maxwell era) have been extremely rapid, going from Faraday's field theories (1861) to an atomic bomb in just over 80 years (1945), and a rocket to the moon in a little over a hundred (1969). That's because the scientific method works.

While Davies' is certainly correct that science is based upon a presumption that there is a rational and ordered universe, this is not the same thing as beliefs as a matter of faith, such as “I believe that there is one God and Jesus or Jehovah or Allah is his name”. Presumptions underlying science need to be based on common sense and experience and must be reasonable. If they are not, the theory will fall apart and will not stand up to experimentation. Religious faith may have, but clearly does not require, those same elements. Many theologians and religious figures accept that, and even reject a rationale approach to theology or faith. To quote one of my favorite movie lines -- "Faith means believing when common sense tells you not to" (Miracle on 34th Street).

That’s why religious beliefs can inspire, but not build a space ship, or a television set, or an electronic grid, or find a polio prevention, and science can. It’s why oil companies use geologists and other scientists to locate oil fields and not ministers. It’s why weather forecasters and builders do the same. Because it is based, however imperfectly, on experimentation, reason and evidence, not religious belief. If we ever do understand how the universe was created, it will not be because we learn it from a religious tract.

As fellow blogger Bear commented upon my recent post(Turtles and other Puzzles – 11/13/07) there is no reason you can’t believe in science and God. I fully agree, even though I personally don’t believe in God. By "believe in science", I mean, and I think Bear means, believe that the scientific method is effective. My quarrel comes when religion is suggested as an equal method to obtain knowledge about the universe (for that matter, I feel the same way about political beliefs). Religion obviously has had and will continue to have a place in this world, but teaching us about the universe is not it.

It is also certainly true that the scientific method has not even begun to move towards an explanation of first cause or an explanation of where nature’s laws come from. It may be beyond the human mind to comprehend it (or not; we'll see). If we ever do approach such knowledge, it will likely be untestable and therefore, not scientific, in a certain sense of the world. It will be endlessly subject to attack as mere theory.

However, Davies article seems to go further, and “tends,” for lack of a perfect word, to indicate that religion and science are on the same playing field when it comes to obtaining knowledge of the universe - with both flawed - religion, because it looks to God to set the rules, and science, because it looks to external forces to do the same. If he doesn’t believe that, he should make it clearer, because once he says that they are faith based and nothing more, that conclusion will certainly be read into this article.

My thoughts on Coulter’s Godless was essentially this – she is both an educated and religious person who seems defensive that her many of her core beliefs are not based on evidence and wants to reduce science to the same level. Although Davies is definitively not advocating a religious solution, quite the contrary, his putting religion on the same level with science as a method to understand the universe is unrealistic.

Equally unrealistic, and almost unbelievable for a science writer, is his notion that there is an end game out there, where we will know everything, or substantially everything, if scientists only realized that knowing why the laws are the way they are is important too. That’s not happening. The more we learn about the universe through science the more we might realize what Socrates figured out without any science -- the only thing we can know for certain is that we know nothing. That might be an exaggeration of the truth, but certainly, we are on the bottom of a very tall barrel looking up.

We could go back only a couple hundred years to quote a guy who was no scientist or philosopher, but knew a thing or two. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson late in their lives (after a discussion of the physics of the day as he understood it and human limitations in understanding the universe): “Oh delightful Ignorance! When I arrive at a certainty that I am Ignorant, and that I always must be ignorant, while I live I am happy, for I know I can no longer be responsible.”

One day scientists will find that one last elusive elemental particle (the Higgs boson), figure out how all four forces (weak-strong-electromagnetic-gravity) are related and square quantum physics with relativity. They might even stumble into this black matter and energy they talk about (and which I admit, purely from an intuitive perspective, I have trouble believing in). Of course, having accomplished all that, when all this is accomplished, we will all act surprised that they have opened up more doors than they closed. It doesn’t mean that much knowledge will not have been gained in doing so, just that we will be no closer to an “end”.

Allow me one of my favorite Woody Allen quotes here to illustrate the point: “Man can fly to the moon, but put a cocktail waitress in a room with an 80 year old man and nothing happens, because the real problems never change”.

If I wanted to be snarky, and I might, I’d suggest that Mr. Davies read (because I’m guessing he has) the eccentric scientific genius, Richard Feyman’s famous lectures, where he deals with these issues straight away. He, along with Socrates, John Adams, Woody Allen and many other thinking people, knew that we are never getting to the bottom of it. To tell the truth, I’m pretty sure Mr. Davies knows this too. But you can’t tell from his article, and I'm hoping he would have made this plain had he added a paragraph or so. To make sure that I do not unfairly make an unrealistic monolith of "people of faith" as I think Davies has of scientists, I'll add that I believe many (but far from all) people of faith would agree with most of my points here.

I’m pretty sure we will never really know anything for certain, but we can know things well enough to rely upon things that may have seemed impossible a few years ago (like flying safely in airplanes, or living surrounded by huge amounts of electricity). To continue to do so we must rely on rationale beliefs based on reasonable presumptions, and leave faith to its proper purposes, which are cultural and personal. Call that a presumption, if you will. It’s reasonable.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Return to Desert Island

Our last visit to the desert island concerned what books we would like with us if stranded there forever (which makes this whole “return” premise a little inconsistent, but its not really the point). This time, we are going to decorate our hut with our favorite works of art.

Like last time, the rules are flexible, but there are some. We are only dealing with paintings. It also has to be something that would fit on a wall, so the Sistine Chapel ceiling is out of the question. However, I would not quibble if you want to take some individual panels from there. The list is is limited, as usual, to ten works, and no more than one work per artist.

In reverse order, here are my choices.

No. 10: The Kiss. I attended a Gustav Klimt show at the Neue Gallerie in New York recently. Although there was a fair representation of his work, I was surprised that there was not a single representation or mention of his quintessential painting – The Kiss. Artistic interpretation without some readily identifiable symbolism usually leaves me cold. It is more a creative exercise for the critics than reality based. I prefer art appreciation and history to art criticism anyway, although it is often hard to separate them. But people do debate what this striking idealized painting of this amorous couple means and I have my perspective.

Intuitively, I stand with those who see it as representing a couple completely comfortable with each other and either in love or lust, take your pick. Some apparently think the woman is indifferent or uncomfortable, which would make it a very atypical Klimt painting, who focused on women, not couples. I can’t recall many other men in Klimt’s portfolio, and this one does not have a face, or much form or flesh except for his hands. With her you see nothing but her hands and face. The rest is an all enveloping, almost shapeless, highly stylized golden robe. Its part of what makes the painting a little bit mysterious and fun. Above all, Klimt is about decoration, and The Kiss, a swirling design swimming in gold and tiny symbols, is as decorous as it gets.

To see this particular Klimt before I get it, you need to go to Vienna. I already loved it when I was there, but frankly, I can’t remember if I saw the original or not. Probably did, I just can't remember.

No. 9: I can’t quite go with Sister Wendy in suggesting that Diego Velazquez’ Juan Parera was possibly the greatest painting in the greatest museum in the world – New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art - but there is something special about it.

The subject is supposedly of North African descent, which might seem natural to a 17th century Spanish court painter amdist all those Moorish palaces and descendants.

There is nothing extraordinary about the subject himself in looks or clothing, certainly nothing that dazzles. Which makes it hard to explain why Sister Wendy and I are so taken by it. My adjective for it: arresting. I have spent more time staring at it than I have much more famous works. Those among you who have seen the Seinfeld episode where an elderly couple falls in love with a raffish portrait of Kramer, can readily identify my feelings when looking at it.
Sister Wendy might say it is “sacred,” her highest compliment. I don’t know what it is – but I have to have it for the island. You often can’t explain art. Sometimes you just have to appreciate it.

No. 8: Andrea Mantegna is not well known today outside of renaissance art buffs. His technical abilities were outstanding. He often painted in a style that appeared to be a bas relief, and looking at them, you feel that there might actually be depth to it.

Dead Christ is not unique for him in either topic or mood, but there is something in it that I relish, perhaps the subdued choice of colors and the celestial feeling the dim lighting brings it. Jesus’ lower ribcage and abdomen are typically Mantegnesqe (don’t look that word up – I just coined it). The solemnity of the picture is obvious, but I would call it sublime. Sister Wendy, whose PBS showcases I enjoyed immensely and recommend highly to anyone who wants an introduction to this world, might ask if it crossed into the sacred. It certainly transcends the feeling I get when looking at many other paintings of Christ, dead or not.

Also called Lamentation over the Dead Christ, it is found in the Pinocoteca di Brera, Milan, where, unfortunately, I had to see it while cramming all of Milan’s art (except The Last Supper) into a two hour window at a trot. I lingered the best I could but knew it had made "the list".

A 15th century Italian master, Mantegna has the distinction here of being related to another artist on my list, even if only by marriage. He was the brother-in-law of Giovanni Bellini.

No. 7: Giovanni’s Bellini, was the greatest of his famous family, in my humble and not very scholarly opinion. I have seen St. Francis in Ecstasy several times at the great Frick House, my favorite small museum, right down the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the spectacular collection found there, Bellini’s St. Francis is a true highlight. The pale green color and geometric shape of the rocks, the skull and book (Bible?) occupying the standing desk, the mule and peacock, the sparse and scraggly plant life breaking through the ground, the castle on the terraced hill in the background, and the pious St. Francis standing there in ecstasy just speak to me, man.

Even the great Caravaggio’s (see below) treatment of the same subject pales in comparison to Bellini’s effort. If there is ever a second home on this tiny desert island, Giovanni’s brother, Gentile’s, Procession in St. Mark’s Square might also make it into paradise.

No. 6: El Greco. His name itself conjures up imagery. He was a Cretan (from the Greek island; not an idiot) by the name of Domenikos Theotokopolous, who first spent time working in Italy and the settled in Spain. No one has ever painted like him unless they were copying him. Few try. He painted at a time that many of my favorite painters did – the middle of the 16th century to the early 17th. His typical subjects are religious, either Christ or saints, although he painted the usual portraits too. Although he could paint like a camera when he chose, he preferred weirdly elongated figures surrounded by what I can only think of as spiritual ectoplasm. Happily would I populate an entire building with his works. I need not bother, of course. I could just go back to Toledo, Spain, where there's a whole city filled with them. New York has more than a few between the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including perhaps his most famous painting View of Toledo), the Frick House and the often overlooked Hispanic Society of America.

Which to choose though? St. Jerome as Cardinal, and Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple are favorites. If I didn’t become religious after seeing his St. Francis paintings I’m not going to. But most treasured, and the largest painting I will own, is the Burial of Count Orgaz, now resting on the wall of Santo Tome, Toledo, from whence I must somehow free it from its shackles and bring it safely to the island. It’s one of his busier pictures between the many mourners and the heavenly figures above. You can even see El Greco staring blankly out at you amongst the mourners.

No. 5: Caravaggio (his real name was probably Michaelangelo Merisi; it’s not completely clear) is just enjoying a renewed appreciation these days, but there can be little doubt that he revolutionized painting by painting from live models with an astonishing eye for detail. His subjects were filled with wrinkles and dirt and expression in a way which earlier, and most later painters, could and can not conceive. Living in Italy roughly around the same time as El Greco painted in Spain (and Shakespeare was writing in England), he was violent, a killer (and possibly killed himself), moody, creative and a technical phenomena.

When you put his work next to the Michaelangelo (perhaps The Greatest artist), his predecessor’s humans look like cartoon characters. Decades before Rembrandt, Caravaggio perfected the use of light as a tool in capturing a moment (as did others)to such a degree that I have never understood why Rembrandt should get any credit. Such is evident in the chosen piece, The Denial of Peter. Peter's lit face is worth a hundred of other great paintings.

I could have as easily chosen his Calling of St. Matthew, my other favorite Caravaggio. That said, The Taking of Christ and The Crucifixion of St. Peter would look great in my desert island bedroom too. In fact, Caravaggio is one of three artists that I would happily display all throughout my home, desert island or not.

Art historians say that he was not truly appreciated until the last century, but that leaves no explanation for his many imitators throughout Europe in the coming centuries. Even now, until he becomes a household name, he's not famous enough.

No. 4: This is a personal favorite. Although much admired, Giovanni Pannini’s View of Ancient Rome is not considered one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. A framed print hangs in my living room (well, the print does – the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and more than one person has asked me for it. Pannini is an 18th century man, much more modern than his subjects. The gallery in the painting contains his exacting reproductions of great works including the exquisite Laocoon and The Farnese Hercules, on opposite front ends. He matched the work with his Gallery of Views of Modern Rome.

No. 3: I admit to not appreciating Van Gogh until a few years ago, and then bammo – I got it. Few nineteenth century painters interest me much – a smattering of impressionists, and Van Gogh’s friend, some pre-Raphaelites and Gauguin. Fewer twentieth century painters do. But Van Gogh, pretty much unrecognized and unloved in his lifetime, churned out (though he would choose a different verb) an impressive number of canvases which are original in style, I would say unique, and contain a very earthly yet strange beauty. Even a painting of a chair set in a bare room from his brush comes out familiar but sensational at the same time. If you get it, of course.

Choosing one was hard. Sunflowers does not do it for me, though it may still be the highest priced painting in the world. With much effort and joy (I own two volumes containing everyone of the paintings he made) I have narrowed it down to the quite famous Starry Night and to the much less well known but brilliant Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun (he was better at painting than naming). Since I can only have one on the island, I will go with Starry Night, because it is not only unique and mesmorizing, but is immediately recognizable. I may also change my mind when I actually have to bring it on the island.

No. 2: This one is a strange choice by me. It is painted by an abstract artist who I admit I don’t get at all (and that goes for pretty much all abstract artists). Although the figure in this painting is idealized, I don't consider it abstract. It is the only work by him I like, yet, it is also the first print I ever bought. It is nothing like the renaissance, mannerist or baroque paintings that mean the most to me. I find it opens a door on my medieval and mythological fantasies. I speak of Pablo Picasso’s Don Quixote.

I present it here with a twist - this picture shows it behind a very similarly shaped object. The figure in front of it is a little metal nuts and bolts figurine that appeared as a popular novelty in Europe before Picasso painted his masterpiece (see Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America [12.1 1992] for more information and a more charitable viewpoint). You can’t look at the two works and not believe that Picasso was “heavily influenced” by the earlier work.

Art critics do not like to accuse Picasso of plagiarism. He’s just too famous and creative. He is reknowned for taking
his inspiration from all kinds of things. Still, I can’t look at the figurine and the painting without saying "Oh, come on. It’s almost the same thing". At some point inspiration goes beyond adopting a style or working with the same materials or in the same genre – and some credit needs to be given. Even were credit given, there should be some significant time lapse between works of art before the term “inspired by” doesn’t just mean, at best, a “tribute to” and at worst, plagiarism. Of course, Picasso himself purportedly said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”.

Then again, I have no interest in having the metal figurine in my desert island home, and Picasso’s work made no. 2. So, he did improve it. I can only think of one painting I want more for my little hut.

No. 1: That one painting would be Pieter Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow, one of a quartet of great paintings showcasing the seasons that rings every bell in the art appreciation center of my brain. I look at it and I see a 15th century village, with friendly, hardworking hunters on their way home, where they will soon be ripping off pieces of a just killed and cooked fowl while they sit before the smoky fire place; one hand holding a leg or breast and the other preparing to down a tankard of ale; a glow on everyone’s face, and the hound dogs sleeping on some scraps of fur by the fire. Comfortable. I have already framed a print I bought, but will exchange it for the original.

Breugel (also Breughel) prefigured the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and so forth in the next century, not to mention his own son, a great landscape artist in his own right. I see more of him in Hals than the others (not surprisingly, I like Hals the best of the group, and he almost made the island). Breugel may have inspired the artist who draws Where’s Waldo, which you will understand if you take a look at some of Breugel's busier works.

Hunters may not mean as much to you. You can see it in the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Vienna with a bunch of Bruegel’s best and judge for yourself -- until I take it.

The availability of prints of these and other grreat works are wonderful, but seeing art in person makes a difference. I’ve been fortunate enough to see 7 of the 10 selections myself and maybe hope to see the others. The value of seeing the original first came to me in the 80s when I stood before Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. I realized my jaw dropped. Looking around, I wasn't the only one.

There is nothing more subjective than art and any list is just begging to be attacked for what it included and left out. It hurts to leave off Hieronymus Bosch’s Judgment Day, Franz Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, Michaelangelo's Sacred Family, and all those Caravaggio's, El Greco’s and Breugel's that didn't make the cut.

Having made the list myself, I am somehow surprised to find Van Gogh, Klimt and Picasso taking up nearly a third of it, as I would estimate that a list of 100 paintings would include few other post 18th century artists, if any, and very few post 17th century artists for that matter.

I have no problem leaving off the three most famous paintings in the world --Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and any part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling -- although I believe Da Vinci and Michaelangelo may be the greatest Western artists ever to wield a brush. Naturally, you should feel free to bring these pieces to your island.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Turtles and other puzzles

There are some things I will never understand.

For one thing, quantum mechanics. I have read about it a bit and think about it a lot. I really only understand it a little when I’m in the act of reading about it and only if the author is more of a writer than a scientist and goes easy on the math. Still, even when focusing on an excellent treatment of the subject, I find it baffling. Who doesn't?

In a nutshell (a really, really small nutshell), quantum mechanics is about how really, really small things work, like atomic particles. It is almost impossible to understand in terms of the physics we experience day to day, because the quantum particles behave in a way that makes physicists say things like – if you understand it, you probably don’t understand it. I made that one up, but they say things like that all the time. Even Einstein, on my short list of the twentieth century’s greatest people, was baffled by it, and intellectually stymied in trying to disprove some of the odder bits of it.

For years Einstein continued an ongoing friendly debate at scientific conferences with one of the other great scientists of the century, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen, who gave us the classical model of the atom -- electrons rotating around a nucleus. These discussions were not recorded, and it’s a shame, because they probably would rank with the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858 as the greatest debates in history.

Bohr insisted that all that underlay matter was uncertainty and randomness, which Einstein rejected. Some say that Einstein was, in spite of his thought provoking scientific breakthroughs, a materialist at heart (in the scientific sense), who could not fathom the idea that there was no order underlying reality. "Copenhagen School" scientists like Bohr had no problem with it, and, in fact, insisted upon it. His famous expression, which he delivered in different ways (so I’ll paraphrase) was “God does not play dice with the universe”. Of course, he also at least once said “Maybe God does play dice with the universe," but whose counting?

One of the weirdest things about quantum theory is the now scientifically proven (so they say) fact that quantum particles can affect each other instantaneously at any distance. This is called by various names like "quantum strangeness" or "quantum entanglement". For the observations to be correct, and experiment after experiment seems to prove it is, that means that two objects, if you can call a nuclear particle a thing, are communicating faster, maybe much faster, than the speed of light. If true, it would disprove one of the basic tenets of Einstein’s theories – that nothing can travel faster than light.

In fact, one group of scientists claims that they have made observations in an experiment where particles were caused to move faster than light. They claim that they can make a particle in a specially constructed environment go through a tube before it started. You don’t have to read that again. It makes no sense to us, and I have trouble believing it is not an experimental error or misreading of the data. But, the more you read about quantum physics, the easier it is to believe these things (or, the contrary, that these physicists have no clue themselves).

This all sounds very Star Trekish, although the current theory also holds that this faster than light or instantaneous transmission cannot work with classically sized objects or information, like a human body or an email, so no teleportation as tv shows would describe them would ever work.

However, these odd quantum characteristics may lead to something called quantum computers, which, though mostly in the theoretical stage, are being worked on by scientists around the world. When perfected, they will, arguably, be more far more powerful than conventional computers in the same proportion that a Stealth Fighter is more powerful than a paper airplane. I don’t understand how this would work either (no one does) but I would trade all my books for the name of the company which can produce the first working models at affordable prices.

How would we mortals understand this incomprehensible computor at the bottom of which there is supposedly no order? I'm not worried. Eventually, it will become user friendly. How many of us really understand how tv sets, airplanes and regular computers work? We can say things like, well, rays shoot through the air and make things happen, but you know, really . . . .

So, if you see me staring out in space, I am sometimes actually thinking about things like time, matter, energy and other things I don’t understand. I really do try and solve the puzzles of the universe on the back of envelopes with some neat little circles overlapping each other, even if its silly. I don’t think about gravity a lot, because in my personal quantum universe gravity is really just misunderstood . . . um . . . something else. Don’t stay up late waiting for the book. I’ll post my discoveries right here along with my theories about Christmas and other matters of national importance.

I never really understood the whole first cause thing either. First cause means explaining how there is something in the universe instead of nothing and, often, suggesting that there has to be something which always existed before everything else. Many people solve the problem by simply claiming that God caused the first thing (notice I use the capital G so as not to be too controversial). That naturally reminds me of the turtle story, which I’m hoping at least one person reading this hasn’t heard of yet.

It doesn’t seem like anyone can figure out where this story came from but there are often references to ancient India in the many versions, so possibly it started there and made its way around the world. This is my version.

A seeker of knowledge climbs Mount Everest to find the wisest man in the world. When he reaches the top the great one is sitting there in the lotus position. The seeker immediately asks him what the earth rests upon?

The wise one responds “The earth rest on the back of a turtle.”

“Okay” said the seeker of truth, “but what is that turtle standing on?”

“Another turtle.”

“And that turtle? What’s he supposed to be standing on?”

“Well, obviously, it is turtles all the way down.”

People interpret that joke in various ways too, but it usually means something like -- we can never know anything for certain, or however much you know, there’s always another question, and so forth.

Now, sometimes you may have had or overheard discussions with folks who advocate the God theory as the explanation for first cause. In fact, God would be synonymous with first cause. When asked, “If God created the universe, who created God?” the response is often “No one. He was always there”. That’s meant seriously, of course, and if you think you don’t know anyone who believes it, ask around. It’s really the same thing as the turtle story.

My answer to the puzzle of first cause? Hell if I know. This post is about things I don’t understand, although, I’ve always been romantically attached to the Indian philosophy that all existence is an illusion. Of course, then we get to the problem of who is having the illusion? Whatever the answer is, it must be some version of -- turtles all the way down.

A British philosopher by the name of George Berkeley had, as the center of his 18th century philosophy, the modern notion that we can’t experience reality directly; all we can know is what we perceive. Thus, we cannot know what underlies existence. Possibly the writers of the Matrix films read up upon him, because their almost incomprehensible plot has Berkeley’s theories at heart.

Berkely’s logic is actually hard to refute. But it was attempted by Dr. Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame, who simply kicked a rock and said “I refute it thus”. Of course, if seriously questioned about his knowledge of the object he was kicking, he would probably have to admit that he could only know what he perceived -- the sight and feeling of his foot kicking a rock. No matter how anyone can concoct an experiment to circumstantially or indirectly consider this problem, they seemingly cannot escape this paradox. You see, its turtles all the way down.

Last topic – rap and other “modern substitutes for music” (I stole that phrase from a legal newsletter, of all places). I just don’t get it, but in a different way than quantum physics or first cause.

Lots of old folks like me are unhappy with modern music, just as our parents were unhappy with ours. I am perfectly content with the concept that good, bad, worst, best are mostly all a matter of taste. And generally speaking, we are all probably attracted to music that we grew up with and less attracted to music the next generation grew up with (and there prediliction for ending sentences with prepositions). But there’s an exception for everything.

Here’s where I go out on a limb. I am willing to say, however foolishly, that the music of my generation (‘60s-‘80s) is simply better than the stuff on MTV right now. That’s right, I said better, and I mean by a conventional standard of why something is better than something else -- longevity. For that matter, the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky (just wanted to prove I could spell it), Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, and my personal favorite, Louis Prima, is better too.

My proof is anecdotal, of course. When I have asked young people, sometimes in groups, to name some of the older songs of the groups they like, many of them just stare blankly, and can only name songs from the last album that came out. Sometimes they can’t name any – any of the songs on the next to last album. Ask somebody my age to name songs of their favorite performers from thirty years ago, when they were growing up and see the difference.

In fact, if you think about really modern “music,” how long do they play these songs on the air? Not real long. And I don’t just mean rap or hip hop. We still playing Bach and Beethoven, Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen everywhere you can imagine. When is the next time you think you are likely to hear a Spice Girls song? With newer music, it is only the “newness” that seems to matter.

I’m sure this sounds very provincial. Okay, I’ll accept that it might be. I'm just an arrogant old man who likes what he likes. That doesn’t mean there is not some truth to it. I'll take the heat on this and say out loud what we are thinking. I'm happy to admit that there are a few rap songs I really like, that there are apt students of new music who know everything ever recorded, and that there are a lot of classical, jazz and rock pieces that I hate, even some by Bach, Presley, Armstrong, etc. Still, keeping an open mind doesn’t mean we can’t demand a melody or decent lyrics, which is really the whole difference. Say it with me.

Believe it or not, I have actually had some kids tell me that I’m right about this (not many) but that new music is not about being good or memorable, but about expressing despair and other emotions, style, as well as being in a format most kids can participate in (rapping is easier than carrying a tune). I don’t know how that would apply to Britney Spears music, but, if so, hurrah for them and nobody should try and stop it other than by closing their ears to it.

I heard Louis Armstrong, a god, say that there are but two types of music. Good music and bad music. I'm betting he's with me on this one. Take it, Louis.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Break my heart -- I need the money

There have definitely been improvements in sexual freedom the past century. Women who go to bars to meet men and unlucky enough to come under government scrutiny are no longer lobotomized (this was happening as recently as our Second World War). There are fairly settled rules about what is deemed obscene, and it is very hard to prove. The Supreme Court has decriminalized homosexual and probably many other sex acts when done in the privacy of the home.

I hope the trend towards more freedom of consensual sex continues. But some strange laws are still on the books in some states that need looking into.

Take this scenario. Mary and Mortimer are married. Along comes Nathan. He meets Mary, and they like each other. She divorces Mortimer for Nathan and they get married. Mortimer sues Nathan for damages.

Damages? For what, you might ask? Well, Mortimer says that as a result of Nathan’s actions, his wife’s affections were alienated, and he is entitled to be compensated for his loss. Not only that, he feels he should get punitive damages because the act was intentional. Punitive damages exist in law when a jury determines that the defendant deserves to be punished or made an example of (also called exemplary damages) for the heinous nature of the transgression. It is almost always for an intentional act.

If you think allowing damages in this situation is ridiculous in our divorce happy world, most states agree with you. What are sometimes called “heartbalm” laws no longer exist in most juisdictions, having been thrown out with such old fashioned ideas like dowery (payments associated with a marriage). These laws were originally based on a concept of the wife or daughter as a husband’s or father’s property. They took several forms. One even included a suit by a woman who compromised herself on the promise of a marriage that did not happen.

In our federal system, of course, states are entitled to have their own domestic laws (such as for crime or divorce) as long as they do not violate the federal constitution. So, you might, but shouldn’t, be surprised that seven states, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Hawaii, out West, Mississippi and North Carolina down South, and Illinois in the mid-West, all have this type of law. Damages are available there for winning over another man’s wife, even if there is a proper divorce and new marriage. The six above mentioned state may be mostly small (except for Illinois) but together hold around 35,000.000 people, so they make up more than ten percent of our country’s population.

As long as these laws apply equally to men and women (they were not written that way originally) they would likely be found constitutional. I can think of only a couple of legal theories under which it might be deemed that the law is unconstitutional, but I’m not going to go down that road here, and just deal with them as they exist by statute in these few states. The question here is, are these actually a reasonable idea. There is one relatively simple reason to argue that it is.

Marriage is, of course, a contract, albeit a very unique one, with many social and religious aspects. You could look at this from a purely legalistic and contractual viewpoint. If I deliberately induce someone to violate their contract in the commercial world, I would likely be liable for damages. So, you could argue that this is what has occurred in these heartbalm cases, and the fact that marriage is a unique type of contract doesn’t matter.

But you might also look at it in the same legalistic framework from the viewpoint that we are all entitled to compete for contracts, and the fact that someone wants to do business with us, instead of who they used to do business with, is just the loser’s tough luck, as with any other business.

Besides, particularly in a case where the married person determines to get divorced, have they not complied with the legal requirements to end the contract? Why should a new suitor get penalized for making a new contract with her - even if she leaves the first relationship for the new one?

I just left a cable company after hearing after being barraged by the telephone company’s advertisements of its telcom package because I was really angry at the cable company, which I thought did not treat me right (not that I’m dumb enough to think Verizon will be any better). Should Cablevision be allowed to sue Verizon? Of course not.

It also might seem strange that if Nathan just repeatedly slept with Mary, but she and Mortimer never got divorced, that Mortimer would have no claim for compensation. To do so would basically render his wife a prostitute sanctioned by the state. So, for not doing what society probably would want in this case – Mary and Mortimer to divorce, and Mary and Nathan to marry, Mortimer gets rewarded by not having a lawsuit against him.

Let me use an analogy here to show another reason why heartbalm laws are just a bad idea and should be eradicated everywhere. We are heavy into income redistribution in America, particularly with the personal injury system, which sometimes does act to compensate injured people, but often seems to be some type of institutionalized fraud. I don't have to explain it because everyone knows the way it works. We've seen the bumper stickers -- Hit me -- I need the money.

But as a way of handling the taking of money from one person to compensate a person they have (supposedly) injured, we have a system requiring car insurance in most states. Other liability insurance is almost de rigueur, such as homeowner’s insurance when there is a mortgage involved and many other instances.

So, the costs to a person in this situation are spread out among the rest of us by the insurance system. We each pay something to the insurance company, and they use the money to pay out the claims or verdicts against those who are sued. We even have a system to bail out insurance companies that go under. So, even when the suit is unfair and the plaintiff gets rewarded, society pays, not the individual. At least that is usually the way it works now.

This spreading of costs doesn’t exist in the heartbalm world. You can’t get insurance against liability for marrying someone else’s divorced wife if you are the reason she left. Thus, whether you collect anything, has much to do about whether you have a rich target or not. It’s not worth bringing one of these suits against someone without lots of money because there’s no insurance to pay off at the end of the day.

These awards, rare as they are now, seem to be more perfect vehicles for fraud than even personal injury actions, where there is at least some type of medical testimony, however phony it might be.

I am sure that some people would be devastated if they lost their wife (or husband), both emotionally and financially. But others would be overjoyed and possibly enjoy a savings. How do we tell the difference? Sometimes the person left behind, absolutely deserves to have been left. How would a jury ever know? Anybody can tell a sob story. People are excellent liars. The phrase, “Well, if he/she is lying, they are the best actor in the world” is just nonsense. People practice lying since they are little and get very good at it. In fact, a major concern here is that spouses will use the threat of a suit against the new boyfriend/girlfriend as a way to increase their share of the divorce proceeds.

Not surprisingly, some heartbalm awards have gone into the millions. One such recent case from Mississippi has been written up in the national media. A married woman took a job with a company owned by a millionaire, who was also married. They fell in love. They both got divorced before marrying. Now, the woman's ex-husband has successfully sued the new millionaire husband under the heartbalm statute. The Mississippi high court has refused to hear the case, so the defendants are trying to get to the Supreme Court of the United States. I very much doubt they will, unless the court is looking for something not so heavy to handle. It’s just not considered a matter of national importance at this time. So, the millionaire is probably stuck.

At some point in our lives we usually figure out that if we are not in a relationship ourselves it is very hard to judge what is going on there, and who, if anyone, is at fault. That’s one reason most states have taken the fault aspect out of divorces (although not in New York, where I live, unless it is by agreement of the parties). If fault is that difficult to figure out in a divorce, why would it be any different in a heartbalm situation? Neither judge nor jury is capable of determining why a couple split up with only the parties’ words to decide upon.

Moreover, all of the states have implemented a system to manage the financial issues in divorces, which try and be fair, at least in theory. This may not have been true a few decades ago, but it is now. Presumably, when the two Mississippi couples got divorced, they either settled on economic terms, or, a court made economic awards under their state laws. Why should the husband of the woman who legally left him get an advantage of payment from the new husband as well, even though fault is not allowed to be a factor in dividing up marital assets? Not only that but the millionaire’s ex-wife may not be able to sue her husband’s new wife with any good result either, despite the fact that she may be liable to the ex-wife, because she may not have the money to pay off a judgment (remember, no insurance). It begins to seem very unfair. Then, again, that’s law.

Some things just should not have legal remedies. Our country stopped prosecuting for adultery a long time ago in every state. I didn’t think there had been any such prosecutions for many years, until I saw a report of one in 2003 down South.
Hearbalm statutes should go the way of the dodo bird as, for example, did the law of criminal conversation (where even an unmarried person who sleeps with a married person has also committed a crime). Let’s hope that these moralistic will continue to be eradicated rather than proliferated, among all the states, along with many other consensual sex crimes.

Speaking of which, I was very happy to see that a young man, who had sex with his fifteen year old girlfriend when he was just seventeen himself, had his ten year sentence reduced to one year by the Georgia State Supreme Court, which found the penalty grossly disproportionate to the crime. At some ages, consensual sex laws protect children, but in many cases, it victimizes them, such as here. All this young man did was sleep with his girlfriend. Jail should not even have been an option here, if any penalty.

The Supreme Court of the United States has not recognized the disproportionality of a sentence as a valid reason to reduce it. This case might be appealed and the Supreme Court could decide the issue if they chose to. I hope not, because I am pretty sure this court would reverse it. Those guys don’t read my blog.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .