Sunday, June 14, 2015

Miracles



1.

- My favorite rabbi wrote...
- I thought you don't like rabbis.
- I don't. This rabbi's interesting, and there's nothing wrong with that. He wrote that archaeological evidence makes clear the Jews probably never went to Egypt, not en mass, and never left in exodus. But maybe not a nation but a small group did go, and that is the basis of the whole story. Such kind of interpretation allows him to still say he believes the bible is the product of god.
- And you like that?
- The case can be made.
- How?
- The physicist Wigner* said that "it is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena," accurate "beyond all reasonable expectations." That "the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning." And "It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of laws of nature and of the human mind's capacity to divine them."
- And the connection to the bible?
- I am always looking for the unreasonable effectiveness of ideas, trying to discover laws that will provide unexpected, miraculous understanding. Today I've been reading Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,** looking for why private property came about that leads to slavery and class structure.
- What does he say?
- When men began high yield farming they became more important than women who were restricted in the confines of the home to the production of children.
- Why was high yield farming more important than raising children?
- Exactly.
- So, what did happen?
- Here's what the bible says. After the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden woman becomes the slave of man, and man has to work the fields with sweat of exhaustion and tears of pain. Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve, is a farmer, and his sacrifice is disdained in favor of the sacrifice of his younger brother Abel who keeps flocks. Slavery is associated with work which is associated with pain. Work is repetition in pain endured for the sake of a future reward. Foraging, and pasturing is not work in this sense: each time the search and wandering is different, is a one time activity. In farming what we do we have to keep doing, plowing one furrow after another, etc, waiting for the future reward while suffering the present pain of work
- Why is woman man's slave if both have to work?
- Woman is "farmed" by man to produce children. Farming is work. Herding sheep, a shepherd's life, not necessarily.
- At least the bible doesn't explicitly say it is work.***
- No. So Cain, after killing Abel, asks god, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
- It isn't his job, his work, keeping animals.
- Right. So put this together: Work, repetitive and painful. Managing a human being said to be a job. And slavery. A slave, a form of private property, is a human being worked upon, a thing repetitively, painfully managed by another human being. Slavery, and the class structures and hierarchies growing out of it, arises out of the repetitive, painful nature of work.
- And all this expressed in the bible in a few simple sentences.
- As Wigner said, it is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here.
___________________
* Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences
** Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State 
*** 'The presence of the Hebrew God is never more intense and visible than when his people are on the move, and when, in his people’s wanderings, in the movement that takes them from the town, the prairies, and pastures, he goes ahead and shows his people the direction they must follow. The Greek god, rather, appears on the walls to defend his town. The Hebrew God appears precisely when one is leaving the town, when one is leaving the city walls behind and taking the path across the prairies. “O God, when you set out at the head of your people,” say the Psalms...What is the shepherd? Is he someone whose strength strikes men’s eyes, like the sovereigns or gods, like the Greek gods, who essentially appear in their splendor? Not at all. The shepherd is someone who keeps watch.' (Michel Foucault, 'Security, Territory, Population'.  Foucault notes ‘the Mosaic theme of the good shepherd who accepts the sacrifice of his entire flock in order to save the single sheep at risk’. The shepherd can be seen as exercising care and attention rather than technical calculation.)


2.

From Aldous Huxley's Ends And Means (1937):

Real progress, in the words of Dr. R. R. Marett, 'is progress in charity, all other advances being secondary thereto'. In the course of recorded history real progress has been made by fits and starts. Periods of advance in charity have alternated with periods of regression. The eighteenth century was an epoch of real progress. So was most of the nineteenth, in spite of the horrors of industrialism, or rather because of the energetic way in which its men of good will tried to put a stop to those horrors. The present age is still humanitarian in spots; but where major political issues are concerned, it has witnessed a definite regression in charity. Thus, eighteenth-century thinkers were unanimous in condemning the use of torture by the State. Not only is torture freely used by the rulers of twentieth-century Europe; there are also theorists who are prepared to justify every form of State-organized atrocity, from flogging and branding to the wholesale massacre of minorities and general war. Another painfully significant symptom is the equanimity with which the twentieth-century public responds to written accounts and even to photographs and moving pictures of slaughter and atrocity. By way of excuse it may be urged that, during the last twenty years, people have supped so full of horrors, that horrors no longer excite either their pity for the victims or their indignation against the perpetrators. But the fact of indifference remains; and because nobody bothers about horrors, yet more horrors are perpetrated. Closely associated with the regression in charity is the decline in men's regard for truth. At no period of the world's history has organized lying been practiced so shamelessly or, thanks to modern technology, so efficiently or on so vast a scale as by the political and economic dictators of the present century. Most of this organized lying takes the form of propaganda, inculcating hatred and vanity, and preparing men's minds for war. The principal aim of the liars is the eradication of charitable feelings and behavior in the sphere of international politics. Another point; charity cannot progress towards universality unless the prevailing cosmology is either monotheistic or pantheistic, unless there is a general belief that all men are 'the sons of God or, in Indian phrase, that 'thou art that/ tat tvam asi. The last fifty years have witnessed a great retreat from monotheism towards idolatry. The worship of one God has been abandoned in favor of the worship of such local divinities as the nation, the class and even the deified individual. Such is the world in which we find ourselves, a world which, judged by the only acceptable criterion of progress, is manifestly in regression. Technological advance is rapid. But without progress in charity, technological advance is useless. Indeed, it is worse than useless. Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.
The economic reforms so dear to advanced thinkers are not in themselves sufficient to produce desirable changes in the character of society and of the individuals composing it. Unless carried out by the right sort of means and in the right sort of governmental, administrative and educational contexts, such reforms are either fruitless or actually fruitful of evil.

3.

- Do you know what I like best about talking with you?
- What?
- You're willing to go deep into difficulties. You're not afraid of getting lost.
- Afraid of appearing crazy.
- Sometimes it's too crazy for me. But this time, with this subject, I'd like to go further. Aldous Huxley was right. I'm convinced. The only real progress is progress in good will towards others, and acting on good will. With all our economic and technological progress, we clearly are going backwards in good will and good action. How else to explain, in our world of immense wealth, that approaching half of one percent of those alive now are slaves? When a child sex slave in Thailand is literally 1,000 times cheaper than an African slave at the time of the Civil War?* I know the argument, technology is behind this moral decline: modeling ourselves on the machine, forgetting the reasons we developed technology in the first place.
- Do you disagree?
- No. There's obviously a connection. But I want to know why we are vulnerable in the first place, why we're seduced so easily to going wrong. You said that slavery might have its origin in repetitive, painful work. And a while back** you said we didn't develop slavery until property was inherited. Is there a connection between repetitive work and inheritance?
- When we take a slave, we see another person as our work, to be managed through a technical act, a repeated act of management. When we foresee leaving our property not to the entire community, but only to our descendant, can we say that we are doing something similar?
- Making our descendant our slave?
- A slave to our imagination, in our imagination. When we performed the repeated acts with which our property was accumulated, we watched ourselves doing the repetition. Without the self observation it is just what we want to do at every moment. When we leave property to our descendant, do we imagine our descendant appreciating our power, impressed by our ability to perform the technical act of repetition behind the accumulation?
- The benefactor imagines he has a power of drawing the admiration of his beneficiary.
- Yes. He imagines being looked at by his beneficiary as he is in the habit of looking at himself.
- With admiration. Then you think that the habit of admiring your own technique of acquisition, this technical knowledge become conscious, is behind the wish to have property inherited. And from there it is a short step to seeing other people, those not your inheritors, as property to be worked upon, that is, potential slaves.
- What do you think?
- Let's go back to the Cain and Abel story. Small scale growing of vegetables doesn't stop people from living on an equal basis, nor does small scale care of animals. It is the pain involved that leads to trouble. The pain is not really physical, it is from our counting the repetitions, looking impatiently ahead to the reward. And it is our minds set on the coming reward that gives us the idea of our power to achieve that reward. That power we see in ourselves is what we imagine transferred to our descendants with our property. And this wish to transfer power after death, as if we were the same as our power and transferred along with it, is behind keeping our property private, and property kept from all but descendants is what is behind slavery?
- It's possible.
- Then to stop this from happening all we have to do is remember we acquire and use our technical knowledge for the sake of living better with each other.
- That's all. But we have to know it before we can remember it.
__________________
Kevin Bales, TED talk (total cost to end slavery: $10.8 Billion)
** Slavery On A Walk In Beverly Hills