Thursday, December 23, 2010

Impact vs Fame

I recently discovered a delightful blog by a young man named Jason Summers. Jason creates software, majors in physics at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and spends a lot of his leisure time philosophizing and studying “visual spatial cognition.” He says, “My goal in life is to understand what space and time really are, and how the virtual reality within our brains differs from the real world we live in.

But in a recent blogpost, Jason says he doesn’t pursue his interests for “honors and fame,” and he laments the facts that too many people these days want to reap the fortune or at least the fame of being “the next guru or sage” and that the brightest young people going into science don’t want to do “observations and grunt work which needs to be done,” but desire, instead, “to be the next Einstein.” Jason concludes by saying, “I believe that the men and women who have the greatest impact on the world for the better are unknown and do good deeds without asking for any recognition.

Here is the comment (slightly modified here) I posted to his blog in response:

Jason, while I agree that doing good deeds without expectation of rewarding recognition is laudable, I question your assertion that those who've had the greatest impact on the world are unknown. For instance, Jesus, for better or worse, has arguably had the greatest impact ever, and there's probably no one more famous.

It stands to reason that those who've had the greatest impact in religion, science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, technology, and other fields of endeavor are precisely those who have garnered the most fame for their accomplishments, whether or not they sought it.

Also, I can't say that I blame the brightest people for eschewing the laboratory for the chalkboard, figuratively or literally speaking. It seems to me that it would be an awful waste for a "monster mind" like Ed Witten to spend a great deal of time running mundane experiments designed to confirm other people's results. His singular talents are much better deployed, at least most of the time, in Einsteins' old office.

This was Jason’s thoughtful reply:

Hi Steve. You bring up some good points. While I for the most part agree with you, in some respects I also disagree. Though the pursuit of truth is admirable, I feel it’s just as important to work on projects and inventions which relieve human suffering. I suppose you never know what abstract research may eventually lead to, but even so, it’s very important that scientific research efforts work on the mundane aspects of life, improving the everyday lives of people on this planet. Einstein’s work is certainly valuable, but I think other unknown scientists in various fields are the ones responsible for the majority of my own happiness. Scientists at Intel designed my computer. Scientists from Sony designed this computer monitor. Scientists designed my stereo system, the navigation system in my car, my home’s heating and air conditioning systems, and the list goes on. None of these people are known yet they are responsible for most of what I value in life. I don’t feel it’s beneath a genius to work for a company and design a city’s plumbing and sewage systems. I think this is what my professor was trying to tell me.
What do you think. Do you think unsung heroes have had the greatest impact on our lives, or has it been famous people? And do you think the brightest of us should toil away at mundane labors in laboratories and “drafting boards,” or should they be applying their prodigious intellectual gifts to a “higher” or at least more intellectual calling?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Martin Luther King to President Obama

"Cowardice asks the question- Is it safe? Expediency asks the question- Is it politic? Vanity asks the question- Is it popular? But conscience asks the question- Is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.
--Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Health Care For All is Not an Entitlement, It's a Necessity

Here is most of a comment I posted yesterday to a Facebook discussion of the recent federal court decision ruling that some parts of the new health care coverage bill are unconstitutional:

You're absolutely right. Health care coverage for all should NOT be viewed as a "handout" or "entitlement" for those unable to acquire it otherwise but as every bit as much if not more of a necessity for the "pursuit of happiness" as is police protection, military defense, and public education, to name just a few of the public services we legitimately look to government to provide.

We don't require people to have jobs providing coverage for these public services at reduced cost or to pay exorbitant fees out of their own pockets for privately obtained coverage for these public services, so why should we require this for health care coverage?

We don't deny coverage to people with "pre-existing" vulnerabilities to having to use these public services or to those who have reached a utilization "ceiling" for these public services, so why should we do this for health care coverage?

And if those opposed to so-called "Obamacare" don't like the fact that it requires everyone to purchase health insurance from private insurers, then let's just tax everyone and provide "Medicare for all" via the "public option," which is what we should have been doing all along anyway, with those who want something more and "better" and who can afford it paying extra to get it.

What I find so disturbing in this debate is that people who oppose the new health care law seem so callous to the suffering of the ill and injured and their families and to the concerns of growing multitudes unable to obtain adequate health care coverage or who are afraid of losing it if they lose their jobs or become sick enough or injured badly enough to exhaust their "caps."

These uncaring individuals talk as though this is unimportant and that we either don't need to do anything about it or we'll solve the problem simply by allowing more "competition" between the insurers and paltry tax breaks to consumers. Clearly more than this needs to be done, but I don't see any viable solutions from those opposed to "Obamacare." I just see a sneering dismissal of those who are trying to do something effective to provide everyone with coverage, and I find this disgusting.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why Shouldn't There be Something Rather Than Nothing?

"This model is different, because the universe never collapses." (Roger Penrose)

This morning, I read this brief article outlining a theory advanced by the genius mathematician-cosmologist Roger Penrose that the universe existed BEFORE the Big Bang. I don't pretend to understand the sketchy explanation offered by the article or even the somewhat more expansive, if less detailed, one Penrose himself serves up in the interview below, but I'm intrigued by the notion of a cyclical universe that may have had no beginning and may have no end. This inspired me to post the following "note" to my Facebook page this morning:

I used to buy into the popular belief that nothingness is necessarily the "default position" of reality and that we need to explain the appearance of the universe out of original nothingness, which, of course, theists do by insisting that only God, by whatever name, could be responsible. But lately I've come to question this prevailing assumption. I've begun to think that, given the presence of something rather than nothing, which seems awfully difficult to explain in terms of something originating from nothing, perhaps the real default position of reality is somethingness. In other words, perhaps the universe has always existed and has, as Penrose might be taken to imply, cycled through an eternity of eons.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sci-Fi Justice

Take away a man’s life, memory, payment for his’s still not enough. Where does revenge end and justice begin?” --Captain Sheridan, Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is one of the finest sci-fi shows to ever grace television. It originally aired in the mid-to-late 90’s. It takes place 250 years in the future mostly on a giant space station named Babylon 5 that began as a kind of galactic UN but later became the base of operations for the good guys versus the malevolent Shadows and their alien allies in the great war to end all great wars.

Spoiler alert

I’ve been re-watching this wonderful series from the beginning on Instant Netflix for over a month and have worked my way into the early part of Season 3. Last night, I watched one of the most provocative and poignant episodes of the entire series. Titled Passing Through Gethsemane, it focuses on a remarkably devoted and endearing Catholic monk (played by the always mesmerizing Brad Dourif) named Brother Edward who painfully discovers that he isn’t who he thought he was.

For “Br. Edward” had previously been a psychopathic serial killer of women who was caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “death of personality” for his crimes. That is, his memories were wiped clean by a telepathic process, and he was given false memories of his past and turned into a very different person bent on selflessly serving others for the rest of his life as a Christian monk. He did this beautifully for eight years until his past caught up with him when family members of some of his victims found him on Babylon 5 and enacted their revenge after restoring his memories of his previous crimes.

Early in the episode, before Br. Edward made his shattering discovery, he was asked what he regarded as the emotional core of his Christian faith and he replied that it was when Jesus stood in the Garden of Gethsemane contemplating his fate and fearfully wondering, in a moment of human weakness, whether he could and should go through with it as planned. Br. Edward confided that he too wondered whether he, if he ever found himself in his own Gethsemane moment, would have the courage to do what needed to be done. And, as you might suspect, he learned the answer to that nagging question.

This episode raises the vexing issue of the nature of justice. As I’ve written many times in this blog, I don’t believe in free will, so I’m not sure what justice entails. That is, if a person’s nature--shaped by an almost infinitely complex set of interconnected physical, biological, psychological, and social factors--at the time he commits a crime causes him to commit that crime, what is the just response to his crime. Should justice consist of punishment even if the person to be punished is blameless? Should it consist of retribution? Reparation? Rehabilitation?

“Death of personality” seems, on the surface, like an ideal form of justice. Out with the old criminal personality or nature and in with a new and benevolent one. The person isn’t punished for crimes his previous nature made him commit; he’s rehabilitated or given a new nature that causes him to behave in a very different manner that enables him to at least begin to make reparations to the community he harmed before.

But one problem is that the survivors of the people he harmed didn’t feel in their hearts that justice was served, and I think there’s something to be said, unfortunate as it may be, for the human need to see a person suffer for his crimes whether he could help committing those crimes or not.

Another, perhaps more theological, problem is that suppose Br. Edward is right when he says, “How can I confess my sins to God if I don’t even know what they are. The mind forgets, but the stain remains with the soul.” In other words, if the soul and sin are not Christian fabrications, what would happen to a soul that can’t confess because the mind that overlays it doesn’t remember what it needs to confess?

"Passing Through Gethsemane" is a fascinating and powerful episode well worth watching, which you can do by clicking on here.