(This blog entry is a bit different – I’m in an introspective mood today)
We live in a world. Everything about our existence says that every effect has a cause, everything has a beginning, and you can’t get something from nothing.
So why does a world exist? Why is there something and not nothing?
It seems that there should be no world, no existence. The existence of a world requires a contradiction. Somehow something came from nothing. If you posit a beginning or a cause from something else, you just push back the problem. If one says “God created the world,” then the question becomes “why is there a God rather than no God?”
If one posits the big bang as creating space-time, the current popular theory, then what came before the Big Bang?
Therein lies a hint of an answer. If the big bang marks the creation point of space-time then whatever “caused” the big bang or “came before” it must be outside space-time. Yet we are fundamentally unable to even imagine a world that is not predicated on space-time. Our minds can only think in terms of a progression of events, one thing causing another, with time marching only forward, the present ceasing to exist as it continually becomes the past.
Our minds think of material cause and effect. That limitation is the main reason we cannot answer the question why is there something and not nothing. In our space-time frame of reference this is a paradox, a contradiction. Existence should not exist.
Contradictions are funny things. Aristotle says that two sides of a contradiction cannot both be true. A house cannot be both white and not white. But it’s not so clear cut. Reality isn’t the same as our linguistic symbolic representations of reality. We can create statements that contradict each other, but those statements may be poor reflections of reality. The fact light is both a particle and a wave — a contradictory state of affairs that is nonetheless apparently true — doesn’t really violate a law of contradictions. Our language constructs a contradiction because it imprecisely describes reality. We don’t really understand the nature of light – either the photons or the waves.
Thus it is very possible for two contradictory statements to be true.
So the contradiction behind the notion that a world exists is really a paradox. There may be an explanation, but it is outside our ability to comprehend – it is outside of space/time.
Is this an argument for the existence of God? Well, some conceptions of God claim that God is incomprehensible, and certainly whatever is outside space/time is by definition incomprehensible for us beings trapped in this space-time universe. However particular God-stories (various world religions) are of little help. If the concept of God is broadened to mean whatever force can explain the existence of this space-time universe and its attributes, then we have a form of Deism. But we know nothing about this God.
More convincingly is an argument in favor of some kind of non-material or “spiritual” aspect of existence. Since existence itself rests on the necessity of both sides of a contradiction being true, it’s clear that the material world itself is limited in scope. Any meaning or purpose this world has cannot be determined by looking at science or the material attributes of this world. That will give us knowledge on how we experience the functioning of this world, but not any meaning.
Of course, it’s possible the world is meaningless – that whatever created space-time was a kind of accident, and as soon as this universe runs its course it will collapse on itself and space-time will be “forgotten.” Yet that seems a dubious proposition to hold on purely pragmatic grounds. If the universe is meaningless and yet we search for meaning, we haven’t lost anything – in fact, we can create our own meaning for the brief dance we have on this planet. If there is a deeper meaning, then searching for it may connect us at least intuitively with a better understanding of why we have physical lives, and how we should best handle this experience.
Moreover, psychologically it’s very easy for us to become “hypnotized” by the world in which we find ourselves. Hypnosis operates on suggestions, and our world hurls suggestions at us all day, coming from our culture, media, friends, etc. We can lose ourselves in the routine doing what we think must be done, taking time for a distraction now and then, but not really making our lives something we consciously shape, reflect upon, and experience as truly meaningful.
To me, that would be boring – sort of like going through life half asleep.
So why is there something and not nothing? I don’t know. But contemplating the question gives me a stronger sense that I should reflect on what my experience here means, and look inside myself as well as out into the world.
Rudy Giuliani’s absurd claim that “Obama doesn’t love America” underscores a weird but real meme that runs through the right wing media. Obama is somehow different, strange, “influenced by communism” (another Giuliani tidbit, that really shows his age!), or “raised differently.”
Despite his successful career culminating in being elected twice to the Presidency, some want to claim “he’s never worked” (huh?), or that he’s a horrible leader (though one who has managed to reshape American foreign policy, pass major legislation, and use his executive powers in a really effective manner). Now one expects the opposition to dislike the President — the left certainly skewered Bush — but the rants against Obama are over the top. They are irrational and even bizarre.
Part of it is generational. To some – especially older white males (my demographic so I’m not knocking the whole group) – Obama is just, well, strange. His name is Barack Hussein Obama. He was born in an interracial marriage back when those were even less accepted than gay marriage is now. His dad was from Africa, and his mom worked abroad and had a very progressive world view. Living abroad allowed him to expand his horizons at a young age.
To me, that’s positive – he grew learning how to adjust to other cultures and be open minded. I think a President should understand that the US perspective is not the only one, that makes him a better diplomat on the world stage. Yet Giuliani said “he didn’t grow up the same,” meaning that to Rudy, Obama’s unique upbringing somehow makes him foreign. He isn’t like past Presidents.
Obama personifies the cultural and demographic changes taking place in the US, as the country shifts away from the kind of Cold War America people like Giuliani grew up in. God and country is being replaced by social media and diversity. This transformation evokes fear in some who think America is being “lost” to some strange new way of thinking. Rather than admit that cultural change is real and inevitable, they focus on Obama as the culprit and even traitor to the American ideal. Get rid of Obama, and things will get back to “normal.”
But that is wishful thinking on the part of the reactionary right. The cultural transformation has a momentum all its own and will continue no matter who is elected President. This isn’t a threat to American values – Obama believes in freedom and democracy as much as Giuliani – but a sign that the US has to adapt to a world in transition.
If anything, Obama has strengthened the US image abroad. When President Bush tried to get the UN to approve his plans to invade Iraq, he was countered by an alliance of Germany, Russia and France – an unheard of audacious opposition to US policy! As the Iraq war went south, it became clear to the world that the US capacity to project military power to achieve political outcomes was weak, and the American public rebelled against the effort. Then in 2008 an economic collapse brought forth the worst crisis since the great depression. Obama inherited a country divided by war, weak on the world stage, with an economy in free fall.
The economy has turned around, and record deficits have been cut dramatically. While the world remains dangerous, the US is no longer involved in the wars Obama inherited, and new US military action is done in conjunction with other regional powers. Obama understands that if the US goes in and tries to take center stage the push back will be immense, as it was in Iraq. After all, ISIS began to form in the chaos the Iraq war created.
In short, President Obama is transitioning US foreign policy from being the leader of the West in the Cold War, to being able to partner with other states in a new multi-polar world with multiple threats. It’s the right strategy. On the domestic front, despite obstruction from Congress, the US is building a sustainable economy for a new era, with production finally going up. Much work still has to be done, but the US has turned the corner from the catastrophe of 2008.
President Obama will be remembered as one of America’s great Presidents. He is not letting the vitriol from the right get to him. He is a leader, he knows that he has to focus on what is right rather than appease the pundits.
After all, the irrational extremes of Obamaphobia would not exist if he were not effective. He would not have handily won two elections if Americans really thought him strange and different. He represents the new silent majority, people looking to the future rather than the past. The angry minority may rant and rave, but it’s a sign of their impotence in the face of a profound cultural transformation.
In 2008 the global economic crisis unmasked the structural weakness of the economies of southern Europe. Greece was by far in the worst shape. In 2010 the EU brokered a bailout deal for Greece, predicated on the country embracing a very painful austerity program. In 2012 Syriza campaigned against the cuts and urged Greeks to chart a course not dictated by the EU. Greek voters, skittish about loosening ties with Europe, said no, and Syriza won just 78 out of 300 seats. Three years of painful recession later and the Greeks have had enough – Syriza won 149 seats, just short of an absolute majority. The left wing party joined in a coalition with ANEL, a small right wing conservative party to form a government.
Greece has a debt of about $500 billion, 180% of it’s GDP. 60% of that debt is owed to the Eurozone, so a default would have serious, though not disastrous implications. Very little of that debt is held by Greece. After the election Greece’s 10 year treasury bond yield skyrocketed to over 10%, meaning rising the debt would be prohibitively costly.
Syriza’s leader, new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, vows to keep this campaign promises, all of which violate the conditions of the bailout. These include increasing the minimum wage, cutting property taxes, increasing pensions, rehiring fired public sector workers, and giving free electricity to those “suffering the most.” Since he doesn’t want more debt, the only way to do that is to print money – but Greece is in the Eurozone and monetary policy is controlled by the European Central Bank (ECB). So what next?
One might wonder if Tsipras is out of touch with reality, wanting to increase spending to get out of debt. But he makes a good point that austerity simply increased the scope and depth of the recession. The ‘bailout’ benefited Eurozone banks more than the Greek people. He believes his policies would stimulate the economy so that Greece will be able to pay back its debts and show itself to be solvent.
Unfortunately the Greek economy was built on sand – debt and public sector employment hid the fact the Greek economy is structurally flawed. Just ending austerity won’t change that, nor alter the dynamics that created the crisis in the first place.
Last week Tsipras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis visited European leaders to try to assure them that they weren’t going to rush out of the Eurozone, and to convince them to support a bridge loan to fund the government through September. On Sunday Tsipras said that the Euro was a “fragile house of cards” and if the Greek cards were pulled it would collapse. On Wednesday Eurozone finance ministers are meeting to discuss what to do next.
Tsipras is playing a game of chicken – pushing the EU to accept his policies and offer help in exchange for Greece holding on to the Euro. More importantly, if he were to leave the debt owned by Eurozone banks would become toxic, threatening a banking crisis.
Still, the threat to the Euro is much smaller than it was back in 2010, or even during the election of 2012. At that point high bond yields threatened a number of countries, especially Spain and Italy. Today Italy’s bond yield is 1.76%, while Spain’s is 1.38%. Those are below the US yield of 1.94%! This suggests the fears of contagion no longer exist and Greece is being treated as an isolated case. With 19 countries now using the Euro – Lithuania joined last month – it could withstand a Greek departure.
But the Prime Minister does not want to leave the Eurozone, and therein lies the rub. Greeks know that leaving the Eurozone would put them on a path towards increased isolation and continual crisis. He’s betting he can arrange a bridge loan through August, and that while Greek debt is high, the Greek economy is small. The cost to the EU member states would not be prohibitive.
While some European leaders are sounding cautiously optimistic about making a deal with Tsipras, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is having none of it. While not dismissing anything out of hand, she says it’s up to Greece to come up with a plan. Tsipras has said he’s working on further reforms designed to mollify EU critics, but it’s unlikely he’ll convince Merkel, who fears this will simply enable Greece to go back to its old ways.
1. Those predicting the end of the Euro will be disappointed. Countries are politically committed to monetary union as the best way to assure economic stability. Businesses and banks – the people who really run the show – are almost unanimously in favor of it. Now that Italy and Spain are no longer seen as “the next to go” if Greece leaves, the Euro is not in existential danger.
2. Tsipras and EU leaders, particularly German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande, will engage in tough negotiations, but are likely to reach a deal. It’s in their interest. The EU leaders do not want their banks to suffer due to the Greek debt they hold, nor do they want instability associated with the first departure from the Eurozone. Prime Minister Tsipras knows that the Greek economy would be severe crisis if he actually tried to go back to the drachma, perhaps worse than the last few years of recession.
3. The agreement might work. Merkel needs to be firm on the need of Greece not just to stimulate their economy, but to restructure it. Greece needs to develop a productive and sustainable economy. They do not have one now. Tsipras has to recognize that reality..
The telling point is that nobody involved wants Greece to leave the Eurozone. It is in their interest to maintain it, even strengthen it. It is in the EU’s interest to have Greece develop a sustainable, productive economy. The bailout and austerity program didn’t work – even though the Greek voters gave it a chance back in 2012. With some creative thinking, it may be that contrary to expectations, the victory of Syriza may end up being good for the EU.
When word came out that the footballs the Patriots used in the first half of the AFC Championship game were under-inflated by 2.0 psi, just about everyone assumed that the Patriots cheated. Then the wild media frenzy began. Former quarterbacks all said they didn’t believe Brady, and almost every sports columnist or pundit quickly labeled the Patriots as “cheaters.”
One opinion piece at CNN called for the Patriots to be booted out of the Superbowl, others said Brady and Belichick should not be allowed to play or coach in it – and many thought they should both be suspended for a year. The media lynching of the Patriots Head Coach and quarterback made it sound someone found a smoking gun. Anyone defending the Patriots was accused of endorsing cheating and not caring about the integrity of the game.
This appears to me a kind of cultural group think. People reinforce each other’s opinions, pontificate, and it becomes the conventional wisdom, what everyone accepts as true. The Patriots are cheaters, Brady did it, Belichick must have known, yada yada…
But what if they aren’t guilty. What if the quick bandwagon effect of assuming Brady “must have known” is wrong?
1. The lack of evidence. Yes, the balls were under-inflated. But there is no evidence that the Patriots did it. The balls are given to the refs, who test them, make sure they are legal, put them in a ball bag and take that bag out onto the field. The only time the balls are touched after that is when they enter or leave a game – and that is with 70,000 people and who knows how many cameras watching! Not only is there no evidence that the Patriots did it intentionally, it’s hard to imagine how they could do it at all!
2. The strange uniformity of the Psi. 11 of the balls were down exactly 2 psi from the 12.5 they were supposed to be down. That shows that it couldn’t be a “quick job” by a ball boy sticking in a needle as the balls were exchanged. If it were done that way, the balls would have varying psi, there would be no time to be precise (and again, all that in front of both fans and cameras). More likely there is a systemic explanation in the way the balls were handled, prepared or moved. Since the refs measured them before taking them to the field, it’s questionable whether the Patriots intentionally caused that systemic error.
On Saturday Bill Belichick explained the extensive study they used to try to figure out what happened with the balls. I did chuckle when at one point he said, “I’ve felt dozens of balls this week, and know the different textures…” But they noted that their preparation and rubdown raises the Psi by 1.0. They talked about the impact of different aspects of the ball preparation and conditions.
First, it’s clear this is more complex than just air and weather. While Belichick insisted they were not in a heated room or sauna, could there be something about the ball preparation – something completely legal – that caused 11 of the balls to be the same, low Psi? Those who want to hate the Pats will of course say that’s his game – shed doubt, don’t reveal anything, and the league can do nothing. Yet it could indeed be true.
3. Other oddities. Supposedly the Colts complained about the balls back in November. Why not check the balls at game time – if there were suspicions, the refs could have done spot tests during the first half. And if they had suspicions in November, why wait until the AFC Championship to do anything?
Perhaps the league investigation will yield a smoking gun – or at least some real evidence implicating Brady and Belichick – and penalties would be warranted. I suspect in the end the NFL will not give out any individual penalties because there will be no evidence any particular person did something wrong. Perhaps they’ll penalize the organization based on circumstantial evidence. The NFL needs to look at the rules, procedures, and methods of oversight involving game balls. This kind of thing shouldn’t have happened – and if it happened innocently, the Patriots and their fans are the victims.
For Patriot fans bummed that they joy of the Superbowl preparation is lost to this inane controversy: cheer up. I’m a Vikings fan. You’re going to the Superbowl while enduring a scandal. My team had a losing season while enduring a severe scandal. Believe me, I’d rather be in your shoes!
Living in New England 20 years I’ve never really become a big Patriots fan. But after all this media attack on the Pats, I’m starting to become one! This video – so New England in its humor – sums up a typical Patriot fan response:- ‘they hate us ’cause they ain’t us.’ (Warning, some graphic language in the video)
A day after a brutal attack on not only a French satirical newspaper but on the very notion of freedom of speech, it’s inevitable that haters will turn around and attack all of Islam. Islamophobes have more in common with Islamic extremists than with true lovers of freedom. There have been attacks on Mosques in France, and Muslims again find the neanderthals attacking their religion because a few extremists committed an atrocious attack.
Rather than argue about that, I think it’s important to recognize great Islam has a history that includes tolerance, openness and sophisticated philosophical thought. One of the greats is Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938.
Known primarily as a gifted poet, and knighted by King George V, Iqbar’s religious thinking is something that should be taken seriously in the Muslim world. Iqbar was shaped in part by his time. He lived in India under British rule (in the Punjab province, now part of Pakistan), and saw the exploitation and ruthlessness of colonial control. Yet he studied law in Great Britain and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in Germany.
His religious thinking centers around how to reconcile the religious traditions of Islam in a modern world increasingly dictated by western norms and power.
He held on to deep religious convictions. He believed in God, and felt that Muslims should have a community where religion is public – not a separation of church and state as in the West. That makes sense, given how community oriented Islam is. It is a religious of practice, not just faith. Yet he admired western tolerance, science, and open thought. He was heartened that the West adopted what he saw as Islamic values of freedom and equality.
At one point Muslims had seen Christian Europeans as barbaric and uncivilized. When the crusades took Jerusalem, Muslims were told “convert or die.” Christian Europe lacked the technology, science and sophisticated learning of the Islamic world. Yet by the 1700s that was all changing, and soon the West dominated.
Iqbal was the first to argue for a separate Muslim state in India. He assumed the Muslim state would be an ally of India, even helping protect it from invasion. As a deeply religious man, he believed that the spiritual core of Islam could lead the faithful to liberation and what one might call self-actualization. He believed in a global Ummah, or community of believers.
Yet there was no desire to see other religions as enemies. He accepted that there were other religions, even while believing in a conservative version of his own.
Iqbal is one of many Muslim thinkers who responded to the challenge of the West – how to maintain traditions in a new world, one now defined by globalization. Almost all the great Muslim thinkers refused to go the route of seeing the West as the enemy, the challenge to them was to not let their faith get stifled by modernization and secularism.
The terrorists and extremists are not at all indicative of Islamic traditions or thinking. They are reactionaries, hating the West and fearing change. Sometimes we in the West feed their fear by bigotry, attacks on their religion, or refusal to understand or assimilate. But what we need to do is help the vast majority of peaceful Muslims work through the challenge of adapting to modernism without sacrificing their spiritual faith.
Time is against the extremists. Almost all Muslims are against the extremists, and the nature of Islam and its teachings over the years contradict the extremists.
My blog output will remain low for awhile because I’m doing a lot of writing. Just not blog writing.
I hope within two years to publish a manuscript that will reflect my life’s work beyond just the focus on the European Union and Germany that has been my research specialization. It involves information far outside my discipline, connecting with history, psychology, philosophy, religion, and economics.
The argument is rather straight forward. Western enlightenment thought, while enabling massive material prosperity and progress, has a dark side. The West has also given us colonialism, destruction of cultures across the globe, environmental crises, the holocaust, communism, fascism, WWI and WWII, social darwinism, and nuclear weapons. There has never been a civilization as destructive, violent…yet progressive and successful…as the West.
The era of globalization will challenge western dominance, and if we don’t change how we think about the world, the “dark side” of the enlightenment will doom us to crisis and even collapse in the coming century.
So the research I’m doing has to deal with questions like – what is the “West” and how can we speak of “Western” civilization? What are the roots of how we think about the world, meaning to trace the development of western thought through its history really from Roman times, but definitely through the era from 1300 to the present, with a strong focus on how enlightenment values took root.
From there I work on distinguishing what about western thought spurred on the violence and exploitation, vs. what pushed for freedom, progress and human liberation. This involves a close look at the 20th Century crises of the West, in particular the first half century, but also the “hidden crises” 0f the last sixty years (environmental, economic exploitation of third world states, etc.)
Beyond that, I have to demonstrate how globalization is changing the nature of politics. For instance, most economic theory is based on state policies. The globalization of international capital makes traditional economic policy theory if not obsolete, at least in need of considerable reform. Connecting to the earlier argument, I make a case that unless we change how we think and act in the West, globalization means crises and perhaps collapse.
From there, working through what it is about this culture that has such a Jekyll and Hyde nature, I turn to the EU and ask whether the development of the EU in Europe – the place that give us the most violence in the early 20th Century – is a sign of how we could progress. This involves looking at the EU in historic, institutional and theoretical contexts, with an eye on the thinking behind it.
Then I’ll attempt to bring it all together. First, look at Eastern intellectual traditions, spiritual thought, and other ways of thinking out there that could be useful to consider. Then using the EU as a pragmatic starting point (they’ve started the journey to a new organization and way of thinking, even if it’s only been baby steps) start to chart how there might be a path forward, donning first a new way of conceptualizing politics and the world. The key is to show what the “new thinking” might look like, how it practically can manifest itself, and why it would lead to a more successful future.
Needless to say, this is not just another academic project. I’m at the stage in my career where I want to write something meaningful, reflecting my core values and beliefs. If it never gets published, that’s OK. I still need to write it. The work required on top of my normal work is daunting. But this is my focus now – and probably the next year or two. I’ve been reading and working on the ideas, but now I have to write, revise, rewrite, rethink, get feedback, and really throw myself into this (while trying to learn Italian on top of that!)
I’ll still blog – maybe about that writing, or if an issue comes up that I feel I need to write something about. For a break I might do something fun and continue my Quantum Life series now and then. But if you’re wondering why my output is down, well, I’m throwing myself into a project I believe in!
“But no president in our nation’s history has ever been castigated, condemned, mocked, insulted, derided, and degraded on a scale even close to the constantly ugly attacks on President Obama. From the day he assumed office — indeed, even before he assumed office — he was subjected to unprecedented insults in often the most hateful terms.
He has been accused of being born in Kenya, of being a “secret Muslim,” of being complicit with the Muslim Brotherhood, of wearing a ring bearing a secret verse from the Koran, of having once been a Black Panther, of refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance, of seeking to confiscate all guns, of lying about just about everything he has ever said, ranging from Benghazi to the Affordable Care Act to immigration, of faking bin Laden’s death, and of funding his campaigns with drug money. It goes on and on and on. Even the President’s family is treated by his political enemies with disrespect and disdain.” – Geoffrey Stone, in the Huffington Post
President Obama has been a successful President by almost every measure. The economy has moved from the deepest point in the recession to sustained job growth. He has legislative triumphs, foreign policy success, and a relatively scandal-free Presidency. He was elected twice by relatively large margins. Yes, his party lost the midterms twice, but this last time had voting turn out at only 36%, meaning probably about 19% voted for the Republicans, hardly enough to counter his victories with a much larger turnout.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to criticize him. The right certainly disagrees with him on many issues, and the left has been frustrated by his centrism unwillingness to really push on liberal causes. That goes with the territory of being a pragmatic centrist.
But given the clear racial divide still existing in the US, evidenced by the reaction to numerous cases of unarmed blacks being killed by police with no legal consequence, I believe the response to Obama is motivated in part by enduring racism.
That charge generates yelps of indignant “how dare you call me a racist” from Obama foes. No. You aren’t a racist if you oppose Obama. People left and right will oppose the “other side” all the time – that isn’t racism. What is racist is the way in which some critics of Obama attack his person, trying to denigrate the man, making it seem like he is unfit for the position he holds.
The causes of this are complex. To some it’s not overtly race, at least consciously. They see Obama as “different.” He’s not the kind of person we usually see as President. Not the wood splitting cowboy Ronald Reagan, or even the good old boy Bill Clinton. He’s urbane, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and doesn’t seem the type who would split wood or go to the corner bar to scream at the screen while watching football on a Sunday afternoon.
He’s also not a wealthy, respected businessman like Mitt Romney, nor is he even the southern moralist former Navy submarine commander like Jimmy Carter. He’s different. He’s black – but that isn’t all of it.
It is, however, part of it.
Obama symbolizes the changing nature of US politics and demographics. The future will have more Obamas and less Reagans. White males no longer determine who leads the country, or who sets its values. And just as many whites fear the rage from inner city youth and who thus try to blame the media and so-called ‘race baiters’ for the protests, they also fear the America that Obama symbolizes.
In many ways, Obama is like Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in baseball. He is doing a good job, but subject to unprecedented hate, vitriol and ridicule. He cannot respond in kind – that would be to play into the low level gutter politics of his opponents. He just has to do his job and let history make the call. And he is doing it very well.