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Jonathan Sacks on Rediscovering Our Moral Purpose

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, this year’s winner of Great Britain’s distinguished Templeton Prize, delivered an exceptional acceptance speech on “Rediscovering Our Moral Purpose”. He begins with the concept of outsourcing, of all things, tracing its development in history and in the progress of the West in particular. And then contrasts this outsourcing with a necessary spiritual Korrektiv, insourcing.

Here is an excerpt; read the whole thing here.

Our computers and smartphones have developed larger and larger memories, from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes, while our memories, and those of our children have got smaller and smaller. In fact, why bother to remember anything these days if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia?

But here, I think, we made a mistake. We confused history and memory, which are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, “What happened?” Memory is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” History is about facts, memory is about identity. History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity. And without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity.

Lacking memory we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian but it is this: a free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

That is what Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with licence, the freedom to do what we want. It’s what Adam Smith signalled when, before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s what Washington meant when he said, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” And Benjamin Franklin when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And Jefferson when he said, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”

Kevin Drum on Assisted Suicide

It would be unfair to call this “banging on”, but Kevin Drum of Mother Jones has written a very sad story backed up with all sorts of facts and figures, as well as charts to help marshal those facts and figures as a buttress for his argument in favor of assisted suicide.

Daniel Payne (I presume that last name is pronounced just like the word “pain”, with whatever association you’d care to make) has written a reply without as many facts or figures, let alone as much emotional punch, but with a whole lot of sound reasoning. Here’s a bolus:

It is a ghastly future in which people take their own lives to the gentle and smiling encouragement of their loved ones.
It is a ghastly future in which people take their own lives to the gentle and smiling encouragement of their loved ones who would rather just get the whole thing over with and move on.

I will pray for Drum, and you should, too. Pray his cancer disappears and he lives to be a grumpy, curmudgeonly old liberal geezer still talking nonsense about gun control and other progressive ballyhoos.

If his cancer should return, however, I pray he does not take the easier way out. I pray he gives his wife and his loved ones a final, priceless, and irreplaceable gift, a gift of himself that only he can give: the gift of needing their love, their attention, and their full and unconditional care in the twilight moments of his precious life.

“Slouching toward Mecca”

Mark Lilla has written a great article on Michel Houellebecq’s new novel in last month’s New York Review of Books.

The bestselling novel in Europe today, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission, is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities., is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities.

… Houellebecq had gotten into trouble a decade ago for telling an interviewer that whoever created monotheistic religion was a “cretin” and that of all the faiths Islam was “the dumbest.” The normally measured editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, declared five days before Soumission appeared that Houellebecq was “keeping a place warm for Marine Le Pen at the Café de Flore.” The reliably dogmatic Edwy Plenel, a former Trotskyist who runs the news site Mediapart, went on television to call on his colleagues, in the name of democracy, to stop writing news articles on Houellebecq—France’s most important contemporary novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt—effectively erasing him from the picture, Soviet style. Ordinary readers could not get their hands on the book until January 7, the official publication date. I was probably not the only one who bought it that morning and was reading it when the news broke that two French-born Muslim terrorists had just killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Soumission will be published in English this fall, so maybe we can start a group reading after the Percy conference.

Mind & Brain III: What is so special about the human brain?

Also related to Rufus’ Field Notes and the Philosophy of Mind is an article that has popped up on Facebook is Captain Paul Watson’s “social media” article, The Cetacean Brain and Hominid Perceptions of Cetacean Intelligence. Writing about comparisons of intelligence, Watson writes:

Interspecies comparisons focus on the extent of lamination, the total cortical area, and the number and depth of neocortex convolutions. In addition, primary sensory processing relative to problem solving is a significant indicator; this can be described as associative ability. The association or connecting of ideas is a measurable skill: a rat’s associative skill is measured at nine to one. This means that 90 percent of the brain is devoted to primary sensory projection, leaving only 10 percent for associative skills. A cat is one to one, meaning that half the brain is available for associative ability. A chimpanzee is one to three, and a human being is one to nine. We humans need only utilize 10 percent of our brains to operate our sensory organs. Thus the associative abilities of a cat are measurably greater than a rat but less than a chimp, and humans are the highest of all.

Not exactly. The cetacean brain averages one to twenty-five and can range upward to one to forty. The reason for this is that the much larger supralimbic lobe is primarily association cortex. Unlike humans, in cetaceans sensory and motor function control is spread outside the supralimbic, leaving more brain area for associative purposes.

At the top of Watson’s article is this picture of a human brain and a dolphin brain side by side. Besides the fact that the dolphin brain appears to be somewhat larger, what is to be made of the the wider gap between the two lobes, the more complex squiggly things (sulci, I think) and the much bigger cerebellum (it looks like a third lobe beneath the two upper hemispheres).

Photo-B

I know all this might seem a little ridiculous, but there’s no question that various animals certainly do have capabilities far in advance of humans—dogs and hearing, for example, or elephants and memory. And then there is the subject of elephant death rituals.

So what is it that sets the human brain apart from all other animals? That human beings have crossed the symbolic threshold is the ready answer, certainly, but how exactly did that happen? Girard has some interesting thoughts on the subject of course, as does his student, Eric Gans. Sticking with the brain for the moment, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel says that a lot of it boils down to cooking. Yes, cooking:

Best Interview You’ll Read All Day

Maybe all week, all year … maybe your whole life.

In keeping to the old prisoner/work relief thread running through this blog, I refer you to theThe Marshall Project’s interview with Anthony Ray Hinton, convicted of murdering two fast food managers in Birmingham in 1985. 29 years old at the time, Hinton was sent to death row. He was released last week after spending 30 years there, much of it in solitary confinement.

In solitary confinement, a lot of people break up. They lose their mind, they give up, they commit suicide. Tell me about your experience. How you were able to hold onto yourself?

I come from a Christian background. My mom was strict. She always would instill in us that we don’t need anybody to actually play with. Get outside and play by yourself. She taught me to lean on Jesus and no one else. And when I got to death row, believe it or not, I witnessed people hanging. I seen people cut their wrist. I seen blood leaking from under the cell. I seen men who hung themselves. And so I became a person that got wrapped up in my sense of humor, and I tried to make everybody that I came in contact with — from prison guard to the wardens to the inmates — I tried to make everybody laugh. I would see a guard come by and I would say, “Hey officer.” He’d say, “Yeah Anthony, what can I do for you?” I’d say, “I need to run to the house for about an hour, and I’m gonna need to use your car. I’ll bring it right back, but I need to go.” And they would laugh.

You have to understand something: These crooked D.A.s and police officers and racist people had lied on me and convicted me of a horrible crime for something I didn’t do. They stole my 30s, they stole my 40s, they stole my 50s. I could not afford to give them my soul. I couldn’t give them me. I had to hold onto that, and the only thing that kept me from losing my mind was my sense of humor. There’s no man who’s able to go in a cell by yourself, and you’re there for 23, sometimes 24 hours a day, and you don’t come out. There’s not a human being that can withstand that pressure unless there’s something greater inside of him. And the spirit was in me where I didn’t have to worry about killing myself.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Satan didn’t come up on me and tell me, Well you ain’t never gonna get out of here. When I saw people going to be executed, every man in there would tell you he questions himself — is that ever going to happen to me? And when that little voice comes and says, Well they’re going to get you the next time, I would immediately tell him to get thee behind me, and I would turn on that switch of laughter. And I didn’t ever turn it off. To this day, even though I’m free, I still haven’t turned that sense of humor off. If you could have seen me in those 30 years, you would have said this guy can’t be human. This guy is crazy. This guy laughs and plays like he ain’t on death row. I didn’t accept the death penalty. You can’t make me take the death penalty. You can give it to me, but you can’t make me take it in my heart.

There’s a whole lot more—about the day his mom died, about what it was like to use a fork for the first time in three decades, and the importance of Mark 11:24. Which you don’t have to be in prison to appreciate. It’s there for everybody, and it’s there for you, too.

ht:klo

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Risen Indeed!

… like a bat outta …

However appropriate, I suppose this metaphor might seem a little confusing, given the season.

Still, the point is, they made it!!!

Congratulations to Matthew & Mark and everybody involved with the project. We’re looking forward to the first episode!

Lollyblogging

I’ve been laid up with a relapse of bronchitis (it’s a seasonal thing with me, so I should start giving them names, like hurricanes) … so … because bronchial infection Barry has laid me low for the last three days, I’ve been doing a lot more lollyblogging of late.

Here are some of the things that caught my attention …

I watched the documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone the other night, about Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean who was actually born into a prison camp and therefore grew up there. Witnessed his first public execution at age four … it’s an appalling story, but one that more people around the world should know. Jay Nordlinger, of National Review, often writes about tyrannies around the world and the political prisoners who live there. Or just ordinary citizens … he has an article about Yeon-Mi Park, another North Korean defector. Her story is also, of course, appalling, but especially inspiring. She has adapted to life in South Korea very quickly, and extremely well, and she is now using her newfound celebrity status (she has a television show, a website, TED talks) to do what she can to take down the Kim regime back in her native country. Nordlinger’s article requires a subscription, but you can watch her tell her own story at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which is even better. I know I’ll never see the movie Titanic in the same light again. The whole story is pretty surreal, and the drama I see unfolding over the next few years could be amazing, like watching Sailor Moon take down the Dark Kingdom. I say that in awe of the young woman, by the way.

In talking about the black market in Korea, Park makes a pretty incredible statement, “Once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself.” I tend to focus on the dark side of desire, maybe even the seamy underbelly, but the statement harkens back to my Libertarian upbringing.

That got me thinking about Adam Smith and his metaphor about the Invisible Hand. That was the context in which I first read him—a high school economics class taught by Howard E. Schmidt. Schmidt had us reading von Mises, Rothbard, Hayek. I’ve forgotten most of it, but one thing that was drilled into me especially deep was the Adam Smith’s paradox of value, which led to the subjective theory of value (von Mises, I’m pretty sure). I say all this because I think it was that emphasis on subjectivity drew me just a little closer to the rabbit hole that is Kierkegaard, which is why writers such as Auden and of course Percy had so much appeal for me in college.

Thinking about the libertarians got me thinking about Charles Murray, most notorious for The Bell Curve, but also the author of Human Accomplishment, in which he uses statistical analysis to determine who were the most important people in the arts (which strikes me as laughable, but I haven’t read the book). Anyway, I saw him on a rerun of C-Span, talking about his book Coming Apart, which includes this analysis of “Belmont & Fishtown“, two real places that he uses as paradigms for upper middle class white folk and working class white folk, respectively. Fairly damning stuff, in what it says about the way we as a country are losing virtues that were once common to both classes.

Betcha knew that already, didn’t you?

YouKnowHe'sRight

https://korrektivpress.com/2014/10/27605/

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The Walker Percy, Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs Connection

As usual Cosmos the in Lost is way out ahead of us on the Walker Percy six-month-old news front. This year mark’s the 25th anniversary of Walker Percy’s Jefferson Lecture. By design or lucky chance, this year’s Jefferson lecturer, Walter Isaacson, happens to have a very interesting Percy connection. Isaacson, the author of the much-acclaimed biography of Steve Jobs, is a friend of Percy’s nephew, and grew up knowing of Percy as “Uncle Walker.” His lecture on the intersection of science and the humanities, references “Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Ada Lovelace, Walker Percy, and Edwin Land and others who fused humanistic thought with scientific discovery.”