I don’t like the prodigal son

I’ve always had a problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a father with two sons, one of whom is well-behaved and does what he ought to do, whatever that might be.  The other is a wild child.  He goes out into the world, doing the local equivalent is of drinking, abusing drugs, partying, having lots of unprotected sex with people he barely knows, gambling, spending too much time playing computer games…that sort of stuff.  Eventually, so the story goes, the second son hits rock bottom, as one might expect, and loses everything.  Then he comes crawling back to his father, contrite, supposedly having learned the error of his ways.  The father, in response, throws a gigantic party, and everyone celebrates the return of the prodigal son.

The other son, understandably enough, is miffed by this.  He thinks it’s unfair that the return of the ne’er-do-well is greeted with a celebration, while he’s been there all along, doing sensible things, behaving good, being loyal, and there’s no party to celebrate him.  The father explains that basically he’s always happy about the good son’s presence, and that everything he has is his, but that the other son, who was as good as dead, is now back and it’s worth celebrating.

I’m really on the side of the good son here, precisely because the parable of the prodigal son is a good description of how we often behave toward our families, friends, and others. Continue reading “I don’t like the prodigal son”

I wish humans would stop acting toward each other like monkeys hurling feces.

I’ve expressed this general sentiment before, but it’s a problem that continues to muddle and befuddle the progress of humanity, and it seems to have done so for as long as civilization has existed—probably longer.  It also seems ever more salient, or at least more prominent in modern American political life, so I think it bears addressing again, and repeating ad nauseum if necessary. Continue reading “I wish humans would stop acting toward each other like monkeys hurling feces.”

Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria

Okay, well, as is obvious, I haven’t yet put into practice my proposal to stop using Tuesdays for writing IoZ posts; there are just too many subjects I want to address.  Skimming through my notes on those subjects this morning, as I considered writing something, I found so many of the ideas grabbing my attention that I had a hard time choosing what not to write.  Given that passion, I’ve succumbed to temptation and just picked a post.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Today I’ll address an issue of which the most irritating example (to me) occurs in a speech by Agent Smith in The Matrix.  In the film, Morpheus has been captured by the machines, and Agent Smith speaks to him while “interrogating” him to obtain the access codes for the Zion mainframe.  During that interaction, Agent Smith expresses a sentiment—shared by many environmentalists, and I suspect by many ordinary people who haven’t thought very deeply about the situation—that humans are like a virus, a disease of the ecosystem.  Whether or not it might be useful to characterize the global effects of humanity as such, one statement Smith makes during this speech is so fundamentally erroneous, and it represents such a common but uselessly misanthropic notion, that I absolutely must address it. Continue reading “Agent Smith and the fallacy of biological equilibria”

Vote Out the Incumbents!

It’s National Voter Registration Day here in the USA.  I’ll give a little commentary on that subject, since it’s extremely consequential and yet too few people take the time to think much about it.

In America, the approaching election is called a “mid-term” election, because it’s in the middle of the term of the current president.  It doesn’t have any direct effect on the presidential administration (though its indirect effects can be immense).  However, though the president wields tremendous power, more than any other individual in the nation at any given time, the collective power of the Senate and the House of Representatives—the Congress—is greater still, and more far-reaching.  Congress creates and modifies the laws that the Executive Branch is tasked with enforcing.  It is the Legislative Branch (Congress) that confirms the judiciary at the Federal level, that confirms the various other executive appointments, and that codifies the duties and activities of the regulatory agencies brought into existence by law.  And the record of the Legislative Branch—in the eyes of the citizenry they nominally serve—has been appalling for a very long time. Continue reading “Vote Out the Incumbents!”

Don’t text and drive, you moron!

“Don’t text and drive.  Be responsible.”

On I-95 in South Florida (and perhaps elsewhere), there are large LED signs stretching across the roadway that, when not providing traffic estimates, notices of lane closures, and “silver alerts”, display the above message, apparently as their default setting.

This seems entirely too tepid an exhortation given the subject matter.  In character, it’s a bit like a parent or teacher saying to two children engaged in a violent fistfight, “Come on now, guys, can’t we all just get along?”

I think it would be more appropriate if the sign read something along the lines of, “Don’t text and drive!  Don’t be a complete imbecile!”  Or perhaps even, “Don’t text and drive or we’ll kill you!” Continue reading “Don’t text and drive, you moron!”

Never hate your interlocutors

There’s a moment in “The Godfather: Part III” when Michael Corleone says to Vincent, Sonny Corleone’s hotheaded illegitimate son, “Never hate your enemies; it affects your judgment.”  These may be some of the most useful words in that whole excellent movie series, words that apply to the world and to human interaction generally, perhaps more than ever before in our modern world of politics and social media.

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on social media, at least when dealing with political and social issues, has seen the face of the problem this aphorism addresses.  Anyone who has followed politics has also seen it.  We tend to address our issues and disagreements in the real world as though they are zero-sum games—contests in which there can be only one winner and one loser, where any gain by the “other side” is a loss for “our side.”  Perhaps as an automatic defense against the distress of having to face our fellow humans in such a contest, we demonize our “enemies.”  Unfortunately, this approach quickly becomes counter-productive, because—as Michael Corleone rightly points out—to demonize others, to hate them, impairs our judgment.  If we see another person as inherently reprehensible, then to give him or her any ground, at any level, is to seem to reward what we perceive as evil and, given the zero-sum assumption, to penalize the good. Continue reading “Never hate your interlocutors”

The good/evil number line

During the last presidential election (some of you may remember it) occasional memes floated through social media making pronouncements to the effect that choosing the lesser of two evils (e.g. Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump in these memes’ cases) is still choosing evil.  These memes often came from first hopeful, then frustrated, Bernie Sanders supporters, but it’s a notion that’s by no means confined to such groups.  Ideologues of all stripes, from the religious, to the political, to the social-scientific and beyond, fall prey to the classic mental fallacy of the false dichotomy—the notion that the world is divided into two absolute, opposite natures, and that if their own ideas are pure and good (nearly everyone, on all sides, seems to believe this of themselves), then any choice other than the pure realization of their ideas in all forms is somehow a descent into evil.  Many people implicitly believe that even to choose the “lesser of two evils” is somehow to commit a moral betrayal that can be even worse than simply choosing evil for its own sake.

I hope to explode this notion as the destructive claptrap that it is. Continue reading “The good/evil number line”