An uplifting news item, poem, thought or quotation each day.
Archive of past entries

27 February 2005

Evolution has crafted human nature for the facilitation of communal life.  Our very reality is socially defined.  Trust is a foundation of our condition.

This context establishes a perilous vulnerability.  To lie for short-term advantage is especially tempting for those in power, precisely because they command so much trust.  To fabricate an entire reality that pervades the social consciousness is less difficult than it may seem.

Political history has not been kind to regimes that pursue this expedient.  Oppressive leadership may persist for centuries, as people willingly sacrifice their personal condition for what they perceive as the social good.  But regimes built on lies self-destruct within a single generation. There is no more powerful law of history than the tautology that reality will assert itself.

-Josh Mitteldorf 

26 February 2005

In 1953, as the Korean War was coming to a close, Daniel Seeger applied for an exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector.  The law specified that purely personal convictions were not sufficient for an exemption, but only a conviction that  derives from "religious training and belief".  Nevertheless, Seeger left blank the yes/no question about belief in a Supreme Being, and wrote,

It is our moral responsibility to search for a way to maintain the recognition of the dignity and worth of the individual.  I cannot participate in actions which betray the cause of freedom and humanity.  War, with its indiscriminate crushing of human personality, cannot preserve moral values.  To resort to immoral means is not to preserve or vindicate moral values, but only to become collaborators in destroying all moral life among men.

The lower court denied his exemption, but the Court of Appeals held that "Today, a pervading commitment to a moral ideal is for many the equivalent of what was historically considered the response to divine commands.  For many, the stern and moral voice of conscience occupies that hallowed place in the hearts and minds of men which was traditionally reserved for the commandments of God."

In 1975, the draft was suspended, but not abolished.

25 February 2005

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead, filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .
I am the stone step, the latch, and the working hinge. . . .
I am there in the basket of fruit presented to the widow. . . .

I am the one whose love overcomes you,
already with you when you think to call my name. . . .

- Jane Kenyon

24 February 2005

The Unity of Mathematics

All of mathematics is just as tightly connected as it can be, in the sense that all true mathematical statements stand or fall together. An elementary theorem from symbolic logic tells us this:

If you could ever find a mathematical statement that is both provably true and provably false...
then every other mathematical statement could also be proven both true and false.

It's the ultimate house of cards, and it's still standing.

23 February 2005

"Do you wish to free yourself of mental and emotional knots and become one with the Tao? There are two paths available to you. The first is the path of acceptance: Affirm everyone and everything. Freely extend your goodwill in every direction and you embrace all things as part of the Harmonious Oneness. The second path is that of denial: Recognize that all you see and think is a falsehood, a veil over the truth. Peel away the veil and the Oneness shines forth. Though these paths take you in opposite directions, yet they will deliver you to the same place.

Remember: it isn't necessary to struggle."

Lao Tse, Hua Hu Jing
translation by Brian Walker

22 February 2005

Deep thinkers inhabit a world of their own creation; but if their thought is sufficiently powerful, it will eventually pull us all in to join them.

"A harmless hilarity and a buoyant cheerfulness are not infrequent concomitants of genius; and we are never more deceived than when we mistake gravity for greatness, solemnity for science, and pomposity for erudition."
-Charles Caleb Colton (1730-1832)

21 February 2005

Arguments from free will are used to disprove the possibility of time travel. Suppose you could go back to a time before you were born, so the argument goes, and shoot your grandmother in her crib. You would prevent your subsequent birth; but then who was it that went back and murdered your grandmother?

There is a new twist to this argument, as the physics of black holes provides ways in which it might be possible, in principle, to travel back in time. Such schemes are very far from being practicable, but their possibility, even in principle, bumps head-on into the grandmother paradox. Both lines of reasoning are based on thought rather than real experiments, and they relate to the framework with which we conceive of our world.

The only way I can see to resolve this paradox is to grant that free will is an illusion. Perhaps the contingency of the future is also merely a part of our perception, and reality occupies a solid block of time as well as space.

Imagine all of history, past and future, laid out as a panorama of space and time. This is all there is: no becoming, no uncertainty, no freedom. In some ways this is a deeply comforting view of the universe. It’s a vision that transcends death in the sense that ‘you and I will never not be’. It elicits a sense of destiny: ‘Que sera, sera.’ But in other respects it is terrifying. It negates all hope and it robs us of our freedom. In theory

"The future is as irrevocable and inflexible as yesterday."
~ Jorge Luis Borges