‘Worst times since the Nazis’

Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’ | Society | The Guardian.

Not sure I linked this yet, but even if I have, it is worth a read. The Guardian, being Britain’s leading neo-Fabian daily, is not big on religion or a particular friend of Israel, so when it runs a post flagging how bad anti-Semitism is getting in Europe, it is time to pay attention.

Technology and Tikkun

In Silicon Valley, there is a sense that tech companies are doing God’s work. Software can solve the world’s biggest problems, many tech entrepreneurs believe, if only it is put to the right use.

via Can Technology Save the World? Experts Disagree – The New York Times.

My first reaction to this quote was “G-d’s work? Really? No arrogance or irony?”

And then I thought about my friends who work in the Valley, and realized that something else is happening. Amid all of the wealth, ambition, and engineering is a deep-seated need among many (but by no means all) in the Valley to find a higher meaning in what they are doing.

Is life aught more than the next line of code, the next reference design, the next product launch? Or is there, should there, be something more to what we are doing?

It is relatively easy for the great engineer-entrepreneur-philanthropists of technology to find a path to meaning: Bill and Melinda Gates, Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Marc Benioff and Lynn Krilich and others like them have placed their fortunes at the service of the greater good. But how does a system engineer or mid-level manager in a high-growth, high-pressure tech enterprise inject meaning into their lives?

Fact: there are apparently no synagogues within a decent walking or driving distance for anyone working in Mountain view, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Milpitas, and huge chunks of San Jose and Cupertino. And the problem is not that there are no Jews in those communities.

Food for Hebraic thought…

Anti-Semitism and Free Speech

Let’s be realistic: anti-Semitism is already being discussed on campus behind the thinning veil of”anti-Zionism.” It is time for us to flush the haters into the open, compel them to drop their pretense, and say what they really mean. Frankly, I’d rather be able to see my enemy in the clear than have him camouflaged behind the fig leaf of BDS or “Palestinian” nationalism.

If we are going to allow anti-Semitism (whether open or under the rubric of anti-Zionism) to enter the legitimate realm of campus discussion, we must also allow open and free criticism of Islam, Christianity, the Queen, radical feminism, and every other sacred cow on campus.

And while we are doing so, let us recommit ourself to free speech. Let’s stop protecting each other from hurt feelings and grow some thick skin. The existence of the university as something distinct from the fifth through eighth years of high school is the need to expose young adults to all kinds of ideas so that they can improve their critical reasoning. Otherwise college becomes like the Internet: four years of your life spent with a bunch of like-minded people.

Recognizing the Limits of Reason

Brooks may overpraise British Enlightenment thinkers—who include Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism and a thoroughgoing rationalist—but he is right in noting that the Enlightenment has not entirely neglected the limits of reason. Regarded by many as the supreme Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant was quite explicit in stating that there are questions that human reason cannot answer. One could go back further and note that Aristotle—commonly regarded as one of the greatest Western rationalists—insisted that virtuous conduct was a matter of habit and character just as much as rational deliberation.

John Gray
“Review: Mr. Brooks’ Miracle Elixir”
The National Interest

Prodded perhaps by its headlong rush to liquidate religion, modern science conveniently forgets that there are limits to the powers of reason and observation. That this truth is espoused by two of the Enlightenment’s shining stars can come as no comfort.

Whether Kant and Aristotle genuinely apprehended the possibility that there was in fact something higher than rationality, logic, and observation is hard to say. But they had the humility, imagination, and intellectual honesty to acknowledge that there were walls beyond which we cannot peer with the tools available to our limited intellects.

Rules and Virtue

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

via Garbage and Gravitas | The Nation.

This is a fascinating discussion, and I have quoted this article elsewhere. Accepting the author’s précis of Kant and Aristotle at face value, one must ask a question: how do we get to that virtuous behavior unless we have a guide to what that behavior is? And how do we practice that behavior consistently without a codex of rules?

Man is neither automatically virtuous nor automatically vicious. Both instincts are inexorably intertwined. The pathway to the better angels of our nature is not the only logical path, nor is it the easiest. We need more than the beauty of the mountains of virtue to attract us to climb their heights.

Church, State, and Faith in Education

I think we all can agree that there should be a separation of church and state. Where we might have a divergence of opinion is in someone – including the state – telling me what I can or cannot teach my child.

The community, via the state, can tell me that my child must learn about evolution in school. It cannot tell me what I can and cannot teach him in the privacy of our home or in the confines of our house of worship. While I am not a constitutional lawyer, it seems reasonable to me that trying to enforce such a restriction would be an outright violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

For the record, some of the best discussions we have in our house are about the apparent contradictions between Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the common English translations of Genesis, and how Jewish scholars (starting with Maimonedes) reconcile the two. But that’s another topic.

The Ambiguity of Science

If there are moral facts, the ethical ambiguity of science must be among the most important of them. It may be true that humans cannot flourish under tyranny, at least of a severe kind; but if the realistic alternative to such tyranny is anarchy, which also thwarts any prospect of human flourishing, there is a dilemma that no scientific advance can resolve.

John Gray
“Review: Mr. Brooks’ Miracle Elixir”
The National Interest

Afraid to be Right

But such confidence is not to our liking anymore. We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong. We prefer questions. And we like commentaries to be comments.

Leon Weiseltier
“Comes the Comer”
The Jewish Review of Books

Has our desire to avoid hurting people’s feelings made us afraid to be right, afraid to assert our convictions in the face of what we know to be wrong? And if we are, what does that make us?

Logic and Truth

In the course of an absolutely stunning deconstruction of Ayn Rand libertarianism, the Nation strikes a bone-deep blow to the corpus of several schools of ethics, not least utilitarianism, that contend that logic and reason are adequate paths to a functioning moral code. (Emphasis mine)

Rand also liked to cite Aristotle’s law of identity or noncontradiction—the notion that everything is identical to itself, captured by the shorthand “A is A”—as the basis of her defense of selfishness, the free market and the limited state. That particular transport sent Rand’s admirers into rapture and drove her critics, even the friendliest, to distraction. Several months before his death in 2002, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the most analytically sophisticated of twentieth-century libertarians, said that “the use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic…is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.” In 1961 Sidney Hook wrote in the New York Times,

Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth…. Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that “existence exists,” which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.

It goes without saying that this is also a gutting indictment of Objectivism.

On the Mideast and Betrayal

Iran Remains the Threat in the Middle East :: Middle East Forum.

A fascinating read generally by Professor Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. It is a short but poignant dip into understanding why focusing on ISIS as the main threat in the region may miss the real problem.

But apart from that, I read this passage with some fascination:

Moreover, many of the Arab states failed to modernize and deliver basic services, allowing for alternative Islamist structures to do a better job in providing education, medical and social work services to the impoverished masses.

If that sound familiar, the Palestinian Authority has been accused of the same. Inbar continues:

It is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood was established as early as 1928. Ever since, it has developed grassroots by trying to take care of the masses, while subverting the statist order in Muslim states with the goal of building a new Caliphate. Pan-Arabism – a popular ideological inclination among the Arab elites – also undermined the legitimacy of the statist order, reinforcing Pan-Islamist impulses.

All of this suggests something rather nefarious. It implies that there is an Arab elite that is cynically using the Arab refugees from Israel in an effort to drive the Jews out of the region, thus clearing the way for a Caliphate that includes Israeli territory. The Arab refugees (“Palestinians”) would get their own state for a brief moment, only to be absorbed into the new Caliphate, their rights forgotten.

That’s a nasty scenario, it borders on the aluminum-foil-yarmaluke-under-the-watch-cap paranoid, and I am not sure I buy it. But I will file it away, because it bears watching. As the region faces the triple threat of a resurgent Persian empire from Tehran, the scourge of ISIS, and the neo-Ataturkian ambitions of the Turks, I suspect fault lines long buried beneath a sea of anti-Zionism are about to rear their heads again.

 

Two Good Things from Religion

If you are a grateful graduate of Oxford University or Yale University, even if you are an atheist, thank G-d before you thank the alumni and teachers. Because if it were not for G-d and the faiths that worship him, your alma mater would not exist.

Have a nice 4th of July weekend, and a Good Shabbos

Faith and Markets

“The attempt to domesticate the uncertainties of the future by turning them into calculable risks was discredited by the crash. A mode of thinking that was supposed to be supremely rational has proved in practice to be little more than an exercise in harebrained cleverness.”

Review: Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir | The National Interest.

The next time a Bond Trader starts criticizing you about your faith, ask him to tell you what he thinks the cult of risk management is, if it is not a secular religion, complete with prophets, adherents, ritual, and holy wars.

 

Scientists and Scripture

Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science by Nathan Aviezer, Klav Publishing, November 30, 2002

Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible by Gerald Schroder, Bantam, November 30, 1991

I trust science and believe in (and trust) God, and the more I look around the more I find that I am not alone. Applied physicist Gerald Schroeder out of MIT and solid state physicist Nathan Aviezer from the University of Chicago (both now in Jerusalem) are two examples of observant Jewish scientists who feel the same way.

Each man explores the issues at the intersection of faith and science, taking a physicists’ look at what he sees are the essential compatibilities of the evolutionary narrative and the account of creation provided in the Torah. The cases they make are thought provoking, but will undoubtedly pose issues for both atheists and biblical literalists. Atheists will see their efforts as rationalizations after-the-fact, more elegantly and persuasively argued than the case for Intelligent Design, perhaps, but in the end no more convincing to skeptics. For their part, observant Jews and literalist scholars are likely to take issue with how both scientists reject the idea that the account in Genesis as literal history.

Yet I approach their efforts a bit differently. I believe that there is an answer to the apparent conflict between the scientific and scriptural accounts that legitimizes them both, and I see both Schroeder and Aviezar as laying the foundations for a theoretical and scholarly exploration of where that link might be. They are, like good scientists, putting forth hypotheses and rationales to support them. They are not declaring quod era demonstratum, but they are going beyond mere credo.

The open-minded among atheist, agnostics, and the faithful would do well to read through the explorations of these scientists. They provide a valuable starting point that, if nothing else, lays the groundwork to prevent extremists of both sides taking control of the agenda.