Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category

A Forgotten Battle

July 8, 2018

We ought to know history fairly well. While there may be all sorts of details to be filled in, the broad outlines of wars and revolutions, the rise and fall of empires, great migrations of peoples, etc, must surely be as well known as anything can be. Of course, our knowledge of history largely depends on written records and if no one thought an event was worth recording or if it occurred before the invention of writing, we may not know anything about it. For all we know, all sorts of things might have occurred before anyone was able to make written records. They may be whole cultures we know nothing of.

This article at Sciencemag.org about an forgotten battle in Bronze Age Northern Europe illustrates nicely how little we may actually know about our past.

About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten.

This epic battle was forgotten until the twentieth century.

n 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Now, after a series of excavations between 2009 and 2015, researchers have begun to understand the battle and its startling implications for Bronze Age society. Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists from the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation (MVDHP) and the University of Greifswald (UG) have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived

No one knows if the men who fought at this battle were good men or bad, or why they fought and died. Archaeologists can uncover the bare facts about the battle, how many fought and with what weapons, but they cannot tell us why they were fighting or what issues they thought were important. enough to fight and die over. If any bard composed epic poems celebrating these warriors, we will never hear it. Any oral tradition has not survived. I am not sure if these warriors are any relation to the people currently living in the region. I would guess probably not. No Homer was able to preserve any epic poetry by writing it down, since these people had no knowledge of writing.

On thing is clear, however. This was no mere skirmish between villages or wandering tribes. These were small armies made up of thousands of fighters, which implies a level of political sophistication unsuspected in that place and time.

Northern Europe in the Bronze Age was long dismissed as a backwater, overshadowed by more sophisticated civilizations in the Near East and Greece. Bronze itself, created in the Near East around 3200 B.C.E., took 1000 years to arrive here. But Tollense’s scale suggests more organization—and more violence—than once thought. “We had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,” says Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s (DAI’s) Eurasia Department in Berlin. The well-preserved bones and artifacts add detail to this picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. “This is not a bunch of local idiots,” says University of Mainz geneticist Joachim Burger. “It’s a highly diverse population.”

As University of Aarhus’s Vandkilde puts it: “It’s an army like the one described in Homeric epics, made up of smaller war bands that gathered to sack Troy”—an event thought to have happened fewer than 100 years later, in 1184 B.C.E. That suggests an unexpectedly widespread social organization, Jantzen says. “To organize a battle like this over tremendous distances and gather all these people in one place was a tremendous accomplishment,” he says.

There could have been whole kingdoms and empires in the northern Europe that we know nothing about, a whole undiscovered history. I wonder how much unknown history there remains to be discovered in other parts of the world where the people had not yet learned about writing. Perhaps we will never know.

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Humanzee

April 8, 2018

The mad dream of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov lives on! You may recall that Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was the Soviet mad scientist who sought to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid, or a humanzee, back in the 1920’s. Ivanov never came close to succeeding in part because the technology of the time was not advanced enough and also perhaps because the Soviet government never really gave Ivanov’s project the funding it needed. It seems that even the most ruthless and amoral ruling class in history, Stalin and the Bolsheviks, felt a bit queasy at the prospect. This unease has effectively prevented any further attempts at creating a humanzee and no one has even suggested such an experiment, until now.

David P. Barash, writing in Nautilus has proposed that making a humanzee might be a terrific idea.

 

It is a bit of a stretch, but by no means impossible or even unlikely that a hybrid or a chimera combining a human being and a chimpanzee could be produced in a laboratory. After all, human and chimp (or bonobo) share, by most estimates, roughly 99 percent of their nuclear DNA. Granted this 1 percent difference presumably involves some key alleles, the new gene-editing tool CRISPR offers the prospect (for some, the nightmare) of adding and deleting targeted genes as desired. As a result, it is not unreasonable to foresee the possibility—eventually, perhaps, the likelihood—of producing “humanzees” or “chimphumans.” Such an individual would not be an exact equal-parts-of-each combination, but would be neither human nor chimp: rather, something in between.

If that prospect isn’t shocking enough, here is an even more controversial suggestion: Doing so would be a terrific idea.

His reasoning:

Of course, all that we know of evolution (and by now, it’s a lot) demands otherwise, since evolution’s most fundamental take-home message is continuity. And it is in fact because of continuity—especially those shared genes—that humanzees or chimphumans could likely be produced. Moreover, I propose that the fundamental take-home message of such creation would be to drive a stake into the heart of that destructive disinformation campaign of discontinuity, of human hegemony over all other living things. There is an immense pile of evidence already demonstrating continuity, including but not limited to physiology, genetics, anatomy, embryology, and paleontology, but it is almost impossible to imagine how the most die-hard advocate of humans having a discontinuously unique biological status could continue to maintain this position if confronted with a real, functioning, human-chimp combination.1

It is also possible, however, that my suggestion is doubly fanciful, not only with respect to its biological feasibility, but also whether such a “creation” would have the impact that I propose—and hope. Thus, chimpanzees are widely known to be very similar to human beings: They make and use tools, engage in complex social behavior (including elaborate communication and long-lasting mother-offspring bonds), they laugh, grieve, and affirmatively reconcile after conflicts. They even look like us. Although such recognition has contributed to outrage about abusing chimps—as well as other primates in particular—in circus acts, laboratory experiments, and so forth, it has not generated notable resistance to hunting, imprisoning and eating other animal species, which, along with chimps themselves, are still considered by most people to be “other” and not aspects of “ourselves.” (Chimps, moreover, are enthusiastically consumed in parts of equatorial Africa, where they are a prized component of “bush meat.”)

Let’s stop right there. What Barash is saying is that there is no real distinction between humans and other animals. There is a continuity between human and animals and the difference in intelligence is a matter or degree and not of kind. In other words, we humans are no more than really intelligent animals.

This simply isn’t true. There is an actual discontinuity between human and animal cognition. Human beings are able to do things no other animal can do. This is not simply a matter of intelligence, There are some very intelligent animals and very stupid humans. This is a matter of a fundamental difference in mental ability. It is a difference of kind, not merely of degree. Every single human being, even the mentally handicapped,  has a special quality of mind that no other animal has and the advent of this quality of mind represented a quantum leap in evolution perhaps as great as the development of the central nervous system of the first vertebrates.

Barash disagrees. Very well, let him show me the ape Shakespeare or Homer. Let’s hear music composed by the primate Mozart or Beethoven. Let’s display paintings by the monkey Rembrandt.  No doubt there is a chimpanzee Edison somewhere making new inventions to benefit us all or a gorilla Einstein offering us new insights into time and space. For that matter, where is the ape Hitler. The special human quality can be used for evil as well as good. Chimpanzees have been observed to commit “genocide” against rival bands of chimps. There has been no chimpanzee Holocaust, however, because chimpanzees lack the ability to organize to commit such great evil. I’d even be satisfied if Barash can show us an ape that can read and write, tell stories, or create representational art as well as a child in kindergarten.

Would a humanzee have this special quality of mind? It is hard to say. I have a feeling that it might but not so much as a full human. The humanzee might be just intelligent enough to know it is lacking something. Such a being would probably not be as intelligent as a human being. It might also not be very intelligent by chimpanzee standards since it may lack the instincts that a chimpanzee has. The humanzee would be neither human nor animal, belonging to neither worlds. Chimpanzees would probably reject his society, probably violently. Humans would see him as a freak, a laboratory curiosity. Like a mule, the humanzee would be sterile, unable to bring forth more of his or her kind into the world. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the humanzee may have just cause to hate his creator for bringing him into a world in which he has no place.

Barash recognizes these possibilities, but then instantly dismisses them.

Neither fish nor fowl, wouldn’t they find themselves intolerably unspecified and inchoate, doomed to a living hell of biological and social indeterminacy? This is possible, but it is at least arguable that the ultimate benefit of teaching human beings their true nature would be worth the sacrifice paid by a few unfortunates. It is also arguable, moreover, that such individuals might not be so unfortunate at all. For every chimphuman or humanzee frustrated by her inability to write a poem or program a computer, there could equally be one delighted by her ability to do so while swinging from a tree branch.

What lesson would a humanzee teach human beings about their true nature? What great benefits might derive from such a creation?

ooking favorably on the prospect of a humanzee or chimphuman will likely be not only controversial, but to many people, downright immoral. But I propose that generating humanzees or chimphumans would be not only ethical, but profoundly so, even if there were no prospects of enhancing human welfare. How could even the most determinedly homo-centric, animal-denigrating religious fundamentalist maintain that God created us in his image and that we and we alone harbor a spark of the divine, distinct from all other life forms, once confronted with living beings that are indisputably intermediate between human and non-human?

In any event, the nonsensical insistence that human beings are uniquely created in God’s image and endowed with a soul, whereas other living things are mere brutes has not only permitted but encouraged an attitude toward the natural world in general and other animals in particular that has been at best indifferent and more often, downright antagonistic, jingoistic, and in many cases, intolerably cruel. It is only because of this self-serving myth that some people have been able to justify keeping other animals in such hideous conditions as factory farms in which they are literally unable to turn around, not to mention prevented from experiencing anything approaching a fulfilling life.

By establishing that we humans are nothing special, that we are simply animals like any other, albeit with more intelligence, Barash believes that we will come to treat animals more humanely. Notice how we use the word “humane”. People who argue against cruelty to animals believe in the humane treatment of animals. There is the Humane Society. Why do we use a word derived from the same source as “human”. Perhaps because humans are the only animal that has been observed consistently treating other species with some degree of kindness, as well as deliberate cruelty. The case against cruelty to animals is made precisely on the basis that we are ourselves, somehow more than animals and thus are obliged to exercise more responsibility in our treatment of other animals than they use in treating each other.

But, if we are nothing more than merely another species, simply a clever ape, then maybe we do not have that responsibility either to other animals or to our fellow human beings. If we are not created in the image of God, then maybe we have no inalienable rights given to us by our Creator, which we are required to respect. It is not really possible to raise animals to the status of human beings. It is possible to degrade human beings to the status of animals, and all too often in history groups of human beings have been regarded as less than human and treated accordingly. If we are regarded as nothing special, the result will not be that we will treat animals as though they are the same as humans. That really is not possible. The result will be that we will treat humans like animals, or worse. That is all too possible.

The creation of a human-chimpanzee hybrid is a truly terrible idea, proposed for the worst of motives. It is possible that such a thing could be done, though less easily than Mr. Barash believes. It is certain that it ought not to be done.

National Labor Relations Board Rules Damore Firing Legal

March 11, 2018

As far as I am concerned, Google’s firing of James Damore for expressing the politically incorrect memo about the role of biology concerning the gender gap in tech positions belongs in the category of things they had a right to do, but ought not to have done. As a general rule, I believe that companies ought to have a right to hire and fire whoever they please. I find, however, the reasoning used by the National Labor Relations Board in their ruling that Damore’s termination was legal to be somewhat alarming in its implications concerning the future of free speech and free thought in this country.

Before getting into that issue, I have to comment that the article about this that I read in Wired is as a good example of biased and frankly dishonest reporting that you may find anywhere.

GOOGLE DID NOT violate federal labor law when it fired James Damore, a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concluded in a lightly-redacted memo made public Thursday. The former senior software engineer was fired from Google in August after internally circulating a ten-page memo arguing in part that women are not as biologically suited for coding jobs as men.

I wonder whether Louise Matsakis, the author of the piece, is too lazy to actually read the memo, lacks fundamental reading comprehension skills, or is simply mendacious. Damore’s memo, which you can read here, does not state that women are not capable or suited for coding jobs. What Damore does argue is that there are real biological differences between men and women. Alongside the obvious physical differences, there are more subtle differences in emotional responses and cognition. Men and women do not necessarily want the same things out of life nor do they necessarily have the precise same skill sets. There may be some truth to the stereotype that boys are better at math while girls are better at language.

This means that the underrepresentation of women in tech fields may not be entirely due to sexism. It is possible, even probable that fewer women than men are interested in a career in STEM fields and that relatively fewer women possess the skills necessarily for success in such fields. This is not to say that women ought not to enter such fields or that girls who are interested shouldn’t be encouraged, but it may help explain why STEM fields continue to be male dominated and why programs to interest girls may not be as successful as one might hope.

Whether James Damore’s assertions are valid remains to be seen. The idea that men and women may have different interests and abilities ought not to be controversial though. It is remarkable that the same people who believe that there are fifty-seven genders cannot accept the idea that there might be real biological differences between the two real genders or that the people who worship at the altar of diversity balk at the notion of real diversity between groups of people.

As I mentioned the legal reasoning behind the National Labor Relations Board’s decision is disturbing.

The NLRB memo released Friday was written by attorney Jayme Sophir in January—less than ten days after Damore filed his lawsuit.

Sophir concluded that Damore’s memo contained both protected statements (like criticizing Google) and not protected statements (perpetuating stereotypes about women), and that Google ultimately fired Damore for things he said that were not protected under federal law. Sophir wrote in her memo that workplaces should have the ability to “‘nip in the bud’ the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a ‘hostile workplace.'”

She also said that Damore’s statements about women in his memo “were discriminatory and constituted sexual harassment, notwithstanding effort to cloak comments with ‘scientific’ references and analysis, and notwithstanding ‘not all women’ disclaimers. Moreover, those statements were likely to cause serious dissension and disruption in the workplace.” Sophir’s memo also cites two instances in which women withdrew their candidacy for engineering positions at Google after learning about the existence of Damore’s memo.

“We are gratified that the NLRB General Counsel found that Google acted lawfully in not allowing this employee to create a hostile work environment,” Cameron Fox and Al Latham, attorneys from the firm Paul Hastings, which represents Google, said in an emailed statement.

James Damore’s employee conduct was writing a memo which contained opinions that some of his co-workers did not like. He wrote the memo in a dry, scientific tone presenting the evidence for his positions in as unbiased and inoffensive manner as possible. He was not trying to offend anyone or cause dissention and disruption in his workplace. Has it become the obligation of employers to nip in the bud viewpoints that dissent from politically correct orthodoxy?

It is not really possible in this for progressives to use the government to impose censorship by means of hate speech laws as they have in other countries, because of that pesky first amendment. Instead they seem to be trying to impose ideological conformity by taking control of private institutions. They have already succeeded in turning many universities into mini-North Koreas, totalitarian enclaves where dissent is swiftly punished. Now they seem to be turning their efforts to employers and social media. If this trend is not checked, we could find ourselves in a country in which the first amendment has become a dead letter. We will still have a theoretical right to free speech, but persons who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy will be denied a platform and will find themselves unemployed and unemployable. This is actually a far more effective way to control dissent than the gulag. Throw a man in jail who speaking heresy and there is the risk that he may become a martyr, a hero to admire and emulate. Deny a man a job for speaking out and he is just an unemployed loser that no one has ever heard of.

With all the discussion of the hostile work environment caused by James Damore’s memo, one  question seems to be overlooked, are the assertions made in the memo true? It seems that the question of whether someone is offended or upset by Damore’s statements is far more important than whether his statement are actually true. If what Damore has to say is false, than it can be debunked. If it is true, than it calls into question a lot of policies meant to increase diversity in the tech industry. Either way, the fact that people are upset over Damore’s memo proves nothing. I cannot help but feel that it was no great loss to Google that the two women withdrew there applications for engineering positions. If they cannot handle facts and opinions that they disagree with, they have no place in a field as innovative as the tech industry. In fact, they have no place in the adult world at all and would best return to their safe spaces at kindergarten.

Silicon Valley has long been the most innovative center of the most innovative industry in the most innovative country in the world. I find it hard to believe that such innovation can continue in an industry, or country, in which feelings are prized above facts and dissenting opinions are viewed with hostility will continue to be innovative. It is not a good sign that Communist China might be a place more open to presenting controversial ideas than Silicon Valley and it would be unfortunate if repressive China takes the lead in developing new technologies over the formerly free United States. Perhaps, if Silicon Valley continues to be hostile to free speech and free thought, innovative people will decide to go elsewhere. Certainly if the United States becomes hostile to free speech and free thought, we will not continue to be the leader in science and technology.

Like Clockwork

February 18, 2018

It happens every time, like clockwork. There is a horrific mass shooting somewhere in America and right away the Democrats are exploiting the tragedy to promote “common sense” gun control.

Friend —

Yesterday afternoon, a 19-year-old with a weapon of war walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire, killing 17 people and injuring many others.

We have seen this happen too many times. This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is not inevitable. It’s long past time for our leaders to stop pretending we are helpless in the face of such tragedy.

Let’s be very clear about something. The vast majority of Americans support common-sense solutions to prevent this type of gun violence. But the special interests that stand against measures like universal background checks are ruthless — and they’re also better organized.

Each election cycle, the NRA spends tens of millions of dollars to defeat candidates who will stand against their extreme agenda — and as a result, many Republican elected officials owe their election in part to support from the gun lobby. So it’s no surprise why gun violence prevention legislation never makes any progress in Congress.

Enough is enough. What we’re letting happen right now in America is madness. Our children and our country deserve better.

We deserve a Congress that is willing to take up this debate. We deserve more than thoughts and prayers when these tragedies happen. We deserve leaders who understand the urgent need to take action on this issue.

Changing our gun laws won’t stop every mass shooting — but it will stop some of them. And we have to try.

There are solutions that can address our nation’s epidemic of gun violence — such as expanding background checks and closing the gun-show loophole. Now we just need to elect a Congress with the courage to stand up to the gun lobby.

We must not become numb to these horrendous mass shootings. We must keep fighting.

Tom

Tom Perez
Chair
Democratic National Committee

P.S. It is up to all of us to demand action on this issue. Add your name to tell Congress it’s past time to take action to address our country’s gun violence epidemic: https://my.democrats.org/Address-Gun-Violence

Before we have this discussion yet again, there are some questions that need to be answered.

First, why didn’t the Democrats enact “common sense” gun control during the first half of President Obama’s first term when they had control of both houses of Congress? For a short time, they even had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. They were able to get Obamacare through on a strict party line vote, why not the gun control they say they wanted? Probably because they had some idea of how unpopular such legislation would be in “Flyover Country”. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 may well have been a contributing factor in the Democrat’s loss of their majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.

Speaking of unpopular gun control measures, what about this idea that gun control is favored by a vast majority of Americans with only the nefarious NRA and their Big Money standing in the way, presumably because the NRA just loves to see people shot? Well, American public opinion on guns and gun control is complicated. Most Americans do indeed support some form of restrictions on gun ownership, in the abstract. When you ask about detailed proposals, though, opinion gets more polarized with less public support. And, how does the NRA have so much political clout and money? Could it possibly be because it has a large number of members and supporters who mostly agree with the NRA’s positions on gun control? Isn’t it possible that the NRA is less extreme and more mainstream than Tom Perez, at least outside the more liberal coasts and in rural areas?

What gun control legislation is actually likely to be effective? How effective are universal background checks, closing loopholes and the like actually going to be at preventing the next tragedy? This is not to say such legislation is not a good idea, it might or might not be, but will it really have much of an effect. And, how well are current laws to prevent people with mental illness or a criminal record being enforced? It is no good putting laws on the books if they are not enforced with some rigor. I think, that the only thing likely to really affect the level of gun violence in the United States would be to greatly curtail the private ownership of guns, even an outright ban on gun ownership. This is undesirable for many reasons and is politically impossible, at present. If the Democrats were honest, though, this would be what they would be proposing.

Would such extreme measures be necessary? Contrary to the impressions you might get from the media, crime rates have been declining in the United States for the last two decades. Mass shootings, while always tragic, comprise only a tiny minority of the crimes in this country. It is not clear whether the number of mass shootings has been rising in recent years. Everyone seems to have a different definition of what defines a mass shooting their particular agenda seems to affect the way they interpret the data. Mass shootings get a lot of attention, but they are not typical of the violent crimes committed in the United States.

One more question. Guns have been around for a long time. They were probably even more ubiquitous back when most Americans lived in rural areas. Why have we only seen mass shootings, especially in schools, in the last few decades? We didn’t have these shootings in the 1960’s, or the ’50’s or the ’40’s. Why not? Andrew Klavan has an answer that I mostly agree with, though the fact that violent crime has been decreasing might undermine his theory, and I am not sure I want to point the finger of partisan blame just now.

It was after a school shooting near Spokane last September that Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich addressed a clutch of reporters:

When I was in high school, every one of those rigs in the high school parking lot had a gun in the gun rack. Why? We went hunting on the way home. None of those guns ever walked into a school, none of those guns ever shot anybody… Did the gun change or did you as a society change? I’ll give you odds it was you as a society. Because you started glorifying cultures of violence. You glorified the gang culture, you glorified games that actually gave you points for raping and killing people. The gun didn’t change, we changed.

It seems clear to me the sheriff was speaking about rap music with its hateful, violent and misogynistic lyrics, and video games like Grand Theft Auto, where you can have sex with a prostitute then strangle her or pull an innocent person out of a car, beat him, then steal his vehicle.

I am a First Amendment purist and don’t want to see expression censored in any way. And I don’t argue that there’s a straight line between any specific cultural creation and bad acts. But surely, a culture in which those in authority approve of and argue for things like gangsta rap and GTA — and indeed for the use of violenceto silence speech that offends them — well, such a culture becomes a machine for transforming madness into murder.

For fifteen years and more, I have been complaining that the right is silenced in our culture — blacklisted and excluded and ignored in entertainment, mainstream news outlets, and the universities. But the flip side of that is this: the degradation of our culture is almost entirely a leftist achievement. Over the last fifty years, it’s the left that has assaulted every moral norm and disdained every religious and cultural restraint.

The left owns the dismal tide. They don’t like the results? They’re looking for someone or something to blame? Maybe they should start by hunting up a mirror.

Maybe the fault is not in the guns, but in ourselves.

The Nativity According to John

December 23, 2017

Like Mark, John does not include a narrative of the nativity. Instead, John chooses to go all the way back to the beginning.

 1.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life,and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-4)

“The Word” is the usual translation of the Greek word λογος (logos) but logos means more than just “word” Logos means something like speech or discourse or reason. Hence the word logic is derived from logos, as well as “ology” as in geology or biology. The Stoic philosophers used the word logos to refer to the divine Reason in their pantheistic belief system while the Hellenistic Jews identified logos with the wisdom or spirit of God. John follows the Jewish view by identifying the logos with God. Notice he also identifies light and life with God this is a theme found throughout his gospel and in the first letter of John.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

John the Baptist was not the Word. He was only a messenger.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-14)

The Word became flesh. But who was the Word or the Son.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:15-18)

The Word made flesh was Jesus Christ. Of the four gospels, John most emphasizes the divine nature of Jesus, even to the  point of omitting incidents that show any weakness on the part of Jesus. John does not mention Jesus’s temptation in the desert by the Devil after being baptized by John the Baptist nor does he show Jesus’s agony at the Garden of Gethsemane. There is no cry of despair from the cross. Jesus is alway shown as being calm and in control of events.

It may be that John wanted to emphasize the divinity of Jesus as a rebuttal to those who either believed that Jesus, while the Messiah was merely human and those who held that Jesus  was born human but had been adopted as the Son at his baptism or at some other time. John states that Jesus has existed since before time began as the eternal Word of God. At the same time, John firmly rejects the other extreme that Jesus did not really have a body made of matter but only seemed to be flesh. This idea was held by many Gnostics who taught that physical matter was an inferior substance to the spiritual realm, created by an inferior, and perhaps evil, deity. Jesus Christ, being a emissary from the higher God could not have a body made of mere flesh. John asserts that the the Word was made flesh and that really did have a body and really did eat and sleep.

It is curious that both these heresies are still found today, clothed in modern garb. Many liberal theologians cannot believe in the divinity of Jesus and insist that he was merely a great moral teacher. There are some Atheists who insist that Jesus never really existed in the physical realm but only as a myth. Maybe there really is nothing new under the Sun.

The Nativity According to Mark

December 21, 2017

The Gospel of Mark does not actually include a narrative of Jesus’s birth. Instead Mark gets right to business with John the Baptist.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,  as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

(Mark 1:1-8)

Then Jesus makes his first appearance, fully grown and ready to begin His public ministry.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

(Mark 1:9-15)

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark’s gospel was probably the first gospel written. It is the shortest of the four gospels and seems to have been intended as a sort of FAQ for Christians wanting to know more about the central figure of their faith. Mark doesn’t include a lot of details about Jesus’s life and teachings. He just gives the basic facts about Jesus’s ministry, his miracles and his death on the cross.

The earliest Christians weren’t really interested in the details of Jesus’s birth or His early life. Even His teachings were of secondary importance. For the early Christians, the most important fact about Jesus was that he was crucified, died, and them came back to life, defeating death and sin and redeeming the whole world. Paul, whose letters are some of the earliest Christian writings hardly mentions any details of Jesus’s life. He was surely not ignorant. Both he and the recipients of his letters already knew the information found in the Gospels. For both Paul and the people he wrote to, the most important thing was the death and resurrection. For the earliest Christians Easter, not Christmas, was the most important day of the year. Indeed, the birth of Christ may not have been celebrated by Christians until the third or fourth century.

There is a lot of talk, these days, about the War on Christmas by secular Grinches who are somehow offended when someone says “Merry Christmas”. As Christians, we should remember the importance of Christmas and should fight against the increasing marginalization of the Judeo-Christian worldview that this nation was founded upon. Still, we should also remember that Christ’s death and resurrection was the reason he came into the world. If Jesus is the reason for Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are the reason for Jesus. We should remember Christ on the cross as well as baby Jesus in the manger.

That Devastating Argument against Pro-Lifers

November 6, 2017

Patrick S. Tomlinson has come up with what he considers to be the argument that will silence the people who are against abortion once and for all. He puts forth his argument on Twitter, not, perhaps the best place to find reasoned debate, but here it is.

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the “Life begins at Conception” crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly. 1/

It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question. 2/

Here it is. You’re in a fertility clinic. Why isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. 3/

They’re in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one. 4/

Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will. 5/

They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.” A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically. 6/

This question absolutely evicerates their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true. No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child. That person does not exist. They are lying to you. 7/

They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency. No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who cliam to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women. 8/

Don’t let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don’t, slap that big ol’ Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them. The end. 9/9

I wonder just how many people on the pro-life side Tomlinson has actually talked to, because it seems to me that almost everyone would agree to save the five year old child. I don’t think that anyone would dispute that the life of a child who can think and feel pain is worth more than the life of an embryo who has not yet developed a nervous system. After all, everyone, no matter how strongly pro-life, agrees that abortion is permissible to save the life of the mother precisely because the life of an adult women is considered to be worth more than the life of an unborn embryo or fetus. A great majority of people who oppose abortion concede that abortion is acceptable is cases of rape or incest. This does not mean, however, that the life of an embryo is worth nothing at all or that it is acceptable to abort an unborn baby for trivial reasons or for no reason at all. Mr. Tomlinson actually addresses this in a follow up tweet.

Because a lot of people are missing the point, it is not being argued the embryos are not alive. Nor is it being argued they are without value. All that is being demonstrated is their value is not equal to that of a human child. That’s it. That’s the point.

Good, then we are in agreement. However, it does not follow that if an embryo is of lesser value than a child that it is acceptable to abort or destroy the embryo for any cause short of preserving the life of a more fully developed human being. Nor does it mean that somehow arguing against abortion is lying or being hypocritical. It is possible to concede the relative lesser worth of an embryo while still being concerned to protect the life of that embryo. Notice,also, that Tomlinson uses the adjective human to modify child but not embryo, a subtle  suggestion that the embryo is somehow not really human.

Tomlinson also misses, probably deliberately,  the distinction between a difficult decision between two evils and  decision to commit an overt act which may be considered evil. To illustrate the difference, consider these two scenarios.

First, suppose there is a mother at home with her five year child and their cat. Suddenly a fire breaks out and engulfs the house. The mother only has time to save either her child or her cat. She cannot save both. I think that everyone but the most fanatic animal rights lunatic would agree that she should save her child. Why? Because the life of a human child is worth more than the life of a cat. This does not mean, of course, that the life of the cat is not worth saving, or that the woman is lying when she expresses concern for the life and well being of her cat.

Now for the second scenario. Suppose that a mother is at home with her five year old child and their cat. The child tells his mother that he is bored so to amuse the child, the mother takes the cat outside, lights it on fire, and they both have a good laugh as the cat runs around the yard burning to death. I think everyone would agree that such behavior would be reprehensible. Why? Because even a person who is not sentimental about animals would recognise that torturing a living thing for no reason is an evil act.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both cases the cat suffers a painful death by being burned alive. The cat suffers the same level of pain in both scenarios. Does it make any difference? I think it does. The difference is between a regrettable choice and a deliberate act. In the first scenario the woman is blameless. In the second scenario the woman might be a psychopath. The end result is comparable, as far as the cat is concerned, but the motive is different and that is what makes the difference. It is one thing to allow an embryo or even a thousand embryos to perish while saving a child, it is quite another to deliberately destroy a human embryo who, if left alone, will develop into a human child

That is the core of the controversy about abortion, whether or not abortion is the destruction of a human being, the one thing that no one on the pro-choice side wants to discuss. They prefer to use euphemisms like “women’s health” or impugn the motives of pro-lifers by suggesting they are not interested in preserving life but oppressing women or establishing a Christian Theocratic patriarchy, anything to change the subject. My advice is don’t let them get away with it.

Punching Nazis

September 14, 2017

I have seen this chart here and there on the internet.

 

For those who are unfamiliar with Dungeons and Dragons, the descriptions at the bottom are the various alignments that a player can choose as the moral path for his character to live by. The system is actually a little shallow, since few people actually regard themselves as evil, and a stance of neutrality  between what one considers to be good and evil is, in itself an evil stance, but that is all beside the point. The idea expressed is that because Nazis are evil, it is a good thing to punch them, and being concerned about the Nazis civil rights or pointing out that one can be evil even while hating Nazis makes one evil.

I think I can simplify this chart a bit. If you believe that it is acceptable to “punch” Nazis or to make use of political violence for any reason, you are evil. I am not talking about using violence in self-defense or for the protection of someone’s life or property. If you see a Nazi hitting a Jew, it is perfectly acceptable to use force to protect yourself or a victim of an assault. What I am talking about is the idea of assaulting a person because you do not agree with his political or religious views. That is always unacceptable, even if his views are hateful.

I will repeat. If you believe that it is acceptable to physically attack someone for their political views, no matter how hateful they may seem, you are the one acting like a Nazi. If you believe that it is acceptable to get someone fired or endanger his livelihood for saying something “politically incorrect” than you are the one being evil. If you think that it is acceptable to harass someone over the internet or publish a person’s address in the hope that a mob will harass him, or if you are part of that mob, you are being the hateful bully. If you like the idea of mobs shouting down conservative speakers on college campuses, you are part of the problem., If you are “anti-fascist” while embracing the acceptability of political violence like the Fascists did in Germany and Italy,  you are not opposed to Fascism because you understand why it was evil. You oppose Fascism because it is the other team. You are nothing but a gangster opposing another set of gangsters, like the Crips and the Bloods.

It is important that we denounce political violence and intolerance where it occurs, even when it is against the most intolerant among us. Violence against Nazis or White Supremacists is still violence. Does this mean that we ought to tolerate people who are preaching intolerance and hatred?  Yes, it does. As long as the person does not initiate violence against another person, he can speak and think as he wishes. If we begin to punish people who say things we don’t like, there is no telling how far it may go. Nazis, or other extreme ideologies which preach hate are an tempting target for censorship, because they preach hate. But, human nature being what it is, there is always the temptation to label those we disagree with, even if they hold beliefs that are entirely mainstream, as haters to justify silencing them. You only have to look at our college campuses to find alarming examples of this trend. It is best to avoid the slippery slope altogether and practice tolerance.

We should tolerate the intolerant, not for the sake of the intolerant but because we want to remain tolerant. I do not want to live in a country in which political violence by mobs of thugs has become the norm. I do not want to live in a country in which I have to watch every word I say lest it be taken out of context and used against me. I certainly do not want to live in a country in which I have to worry that friends, co-workers, or strangers report me to the PC Police. I want to live in a free country. For that reason, I am willing support the right of people whose beliefs I find repugnant to have and share those beliefs. I only hope that the majority of my countrymen agree with me.

 

Sixteen Years

September 11, 2017

It has been sixteen years since 9/11. We said that we would never forget, but I am afraid we are already forgetting. They are even starting to teach in colleges that it was our fault.  A person turning eighteen this year, old enough to vote, was only four on that fateful day. I don’t imagine that they would have any clear personal memories of that day, unless they or someone close was personally affected. I am afraid that we are trying to forget the most important lesson of 9/11, that the world is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who would like to destroy us.

Well, I will never forget that dreadful day fifteen years ago, no matter how long I live. We will just have to keep telling the story to the younger generations so they will not have to experience any such attacks for themselves. With that in mind, I am going to copy what I wrote three years ago.

On that Tuesday morning, I was at work, driving from Madison to North Vernon when I got a call from my wife. She asked me if I were listening to the radio. I was not. She told me to turn it on because something terrible was happening. I turned my car radio on and listened to the coverage of the attack.

I went about my duties at the stores in North Vernon in a sort of state of shock.  The North Vernon WalMart and Jay C played continuing news coverage of the day’s events instead of the usual soothing Musak. Not too many people were working or shopping in the stores. They were mostly just listening.

I had to go to Seymour for a meeting that afternoon. On the way I noticed that some gas stations had raised the price of gasoline to a then unheard of price of $5 per gallon. At the meeting, no one wanted to discus the business at hand. Instead we talked about the terrorist attack. It seemed certain to us all that more attacks were on the way and that this time we couldn’t just launch a few missiles, blow up some tents, and then move on. We were in for a long fight.

I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I went home but I don’t remember much about it.

I was once in the World Trade Center. I was in New York with some friends as a sort of tourist and we took the elevator to the top floor of one of the twin towers. There was a gallery up there where you could look out over the city of New York. The day was foggy so I didn’t see anything. They had a gift shop in the center section of the floor. It sickens me to think that the people who worked there went to work one morning, and then had to choose between burning to death or jumping, Not to mention the tourists, who only wanted to look at the city.

It still sickens me to think about the people who were only doing their jobs having to lose their lives.

twin

 

Carl Albert

September 2, 2017

Carl Albert was a Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977. While the office of Speaker of the House is an important and prestigious position and Albert had played a key role in seeing that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s domestic agendas were passed and he chaired the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Carl Albert is not much remembered outside Oklahoma. Perhaps he did not play an especially memorable role in politics, yet the story of how he might have become president in 1973 is interesting and perhaps worth recalling.

Carl Albert

Richard Nixon’s first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, resigned on October 10, 1973 after being indicted on charges of bribery, extortion and tax evasion. While the constitution mandates that the Vice-President assumes the presidency upon the death, resignation or disability of the President, there was no requirement that the new president should appoint another Vice-President until the adoption of the twenty-fifth amendment in 1967. If the President died and was succeeded by the the Vice-President or the Vice-President died in office or resigned, the office of the Vice-President was vacant until the next election. This actually happened sixteen times, with such presidents as John Tyler and Andrew Johnson until the adoption of the twenty-fifth amendment, and would have happened in 1973 if the twenty-fifth amendment had not been ratified.

Following the terms of the twenty-fifth amendment, President Nixon nominated the Republican House Minority Leader Gerald Ford for the Vice-Presidency on October 12, but Ford was not confirmed by Congress until December 6, so for about seven weeks the Office of the Vice-Presidency was vacant. Now, by this time the Watergate scandal was unfolding and it was becoming increasingly likely that Nixon would be impeached, or forced to resign. If this occurred while the Vice-Presidency was vacant the new President who be the person next in the line of succession, none other that the Speaker of the House, Carl Albert.

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Carl Albert was responsible for scheduling the vote to confirm Ford in the House, as well as preparing articles of impeachment against the president. Albert could easily have postponed the confirmation of Ford indefinitely, as well as expediting articles of impeachment and perhaps forcing Nixon’s resignation. Albert could have maneuvered his way into the White House. He chose not to. Albert stated that he did not believe that as a Democrat he had the right to take a position that the people had chosen to give to a Republican in the previous election. Had he arranged to make himself President, the effort would have been tantamount to a coup. Moreover, He stated that had circumstances caused him to become president, he would have felt obliged to resign as soon as a Republican Vice-President was chosen.

I wonder what would happen if similar events occurred today. Suppose the Democrats sweep the midterm elections next year and gain comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress. Suppose further, that something happened to Vice-President Mike Pence, either he dies in office or resigns. Suppose also that the Democrats decide to impeach Donald Trump for the high crime and misdemeanor of being Donald Trump. When Trump nominates a successor to Vice-President Pence, would Speaker Nancy Pelosi schedule a vote to confirm the nominee, or would she delay it hoping that Trump is impeached and convicted, or resigns, making her the President?

I have a hard time believing that Pelosi, or any Democrat, or for that matter any Republican, would be as high minded as Carl Albert was under his circumstances. It seems to me that more and more the people we trust to lead this nation are less interested in following the rules and more interested simply in gaining and keeping power, whatever the cost to the country. Speaker Albert knew that he would not be entitled to make himself President and decided not to bend the rules to his advantage. I think all too many people in government today would have no trouble at all bending or even ignoring the rules. We seem to have declined somehow in the last decades, despite the advances we have made in technology and economically. Our culture has grown coarser. We seem increasingly less interested in playing by the rules or in adhering to the norms that allow a diverse people to live together in harmony.

A democratic government needs these kinds of rules and norms. People have to accept the results of an election, even when the candidate they don’t like wins. People have to support the rule of law, even the laws they don’t happen to like. People have to free expression, even of ideas they find repugnant. If we stop following these rules and norms, we cannot continue to be a free and democratic country. Maybe we can turn things around before it is too late. I hope it isn’t already too late.

 


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