Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 March 2015

The Explainers


[For a recent essay on what John Boehner, Bibi Netanyahu, Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Putin have in common, click here.]

In my graduate-school class in physics during the late 1960s, nearly everyone was a Jew or a Catholic. There were only a few foreigners among some thirty students. Nearly everyone was from the “mainstream” of white male Americans. And the overwhelming majority was Jewish or Catholic.

Now fast-forward to today. Our Supreme Court has only Catholics and Jews. Every single Justice is one or the other.

Is all this just a bizarre coincidence, a twitch of cosmic probability? I think not.

Physics tries to explain the most basic laws of nature. Our Supreme Court explains and applies the laws of the world’s only superpower. Could it be that Jews and Catholics have some special cultural affinity for law and rules? Read on.

Everyone knows that Jews “invented” monotheism—the worship of a single God. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” But it’s less well known that monotheism didn’t “take” right away.

Early in the millennium before Christ, ancient Israel was a motley collection of small, marginalized tribes subsisting in the no-man’s land between the great empires: Assyria, Babylonia, and Mesopotamia. When Israel’s priests preached monotheism, most people heard, yawned, and went back to worshiping their various idols. Found in profusion in archaeological digs, the little statues included a breasty fertility icon.

The real cultural change came after conquest of ancient Israel by a great empire, this time Babylonia. The invaders sacked the kingdom built by David and Solomon, destroyed the First Temple, and drove the Israelites into one of their many exiles, this one in Babylonia. There, far under the radar of the local authorities, they practiced and elaborated their faith.

What happened next was extraordinary. The priests of Israel convinced the people that their infidelity to the One God was the cause of their exile and suffering. They had broken Abraham’s Covenant with God by worshipping idols. And so their One God, who had been powerful enough to save them easily, had forsaken them.

Their own bad behavior had caused their downfall. As Israel slowly recollected itself back in its earlier location, a priest named Ezra drove this message home. This time, it took.

Cause and effect. Consequences. What concepts!

Imagine yourself living in the loose collection of tribes knows as “Israel” early in the millennium before Christ. Of course there is no radio, no TV, no telephone, and no Internet. There isn’t even a newspaper or a town crier. So you know nothing about the coming storm, army or horde of locusts until it actually runs over you and your crops.

Your life is the embodiment of that famous line from Carmina Burana: “similis sum folio, de quo ludunt venti” (“I’m like a leaf that the winds play with”). You know nothing. You see nothing. You predict nothing. You just suffer whatever comes along.

Your life, let alone your happiness, is entirely at the mercy of fate, from moment to moment, from day to day, and from year to year. You never know whether some mighty twitch of probability is going to fly over the low hills in the distance and kill you and your loved ones or set all your work at naught.

Now, suddenly, along come priests who tell you that this is not so. You can control things if you know and follow the rules. Believe in a single God, as Abraham’s Covenant requires. Then that God, who is all knowing and all powerful, will protect you.

Cause and effect. Consequences. If you know the rules, you can be in control. You might say that Reason—as distinguished from base cunning or what we Yanks call “street smarts”—began then and there.

Although it took almost a millennium, the Catholics did the Jews one better. Believe in Jesus, they said, and you can have eternal life. Even if your enemies kill you, you can live forever and dance with the angels, if only you believe.

What matters is not whether the Covenant and this promise were true. What matters is their effect on the people whose cultures internalized them. Jews and Catholics bring up their children to see themselves as special. Honor the Covenant of Abraham and believe in the One God, and He will protect you as one of The Chosen People. Believe in Jesus, and you will live forever.

Know the rules, and you will be in control. That’s the most basic message of both religions.

Sometimes reality and evidence contradicts the faith. So many Jewish diasporas: was the all-powerful One God asleep during each one? When Catholics die, their deaths look much like the deaths of the rest of us.

But what remains, always, is an underlying cultural certainty. If you know the rules, you can control.

No matter how strongly or weakly you believe in the Covenant or in eternal life, this notion can’t help but pique your curiosity. You ask, “What other rules, besides these Big Rules, are there, that may help me predict consequences and control cause and effect?”

And so before the promise of eternal life, but long after monotheism had taken hold in Israel, came Jesus of Nazareth. “Love thy enemy,” he told us. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If you smite your neighbor, he implied, your neighbor will smite you back. Here the Bible itself is Exhibit A: it retells a lot of smiting.

And if you extinguish your neighbor (commit genocide, in modern terms), as Rome did Carthage, maybe that custom will take hold. Maybe some great empire will do the same to you. Loving is likely to have more salubrious consequences.

Cause and effect. Consequences. Jesus implied, but did not make explicit, the natural consequences of the Code of Hammurabi. The next two millennia did make them plain, culminating in World War II, the Holocaust, and our species’ near self-extinction in October 1962.

Just a millennium and a half after Jesus, and two millennia after the Covenant took hold in Israel, came science. It perceives the natural world as having laws and rules just like the human world. Understand them, and you can control. If you understand them well enough, you can conquer disease, fly through the air like a bird, and build nuclear weapons to deter war.

The Covenant (for Jews) and the promise of eternal life (for Catholics) instilled in two cultures a thirst to know the rules. That, I think is the reason why nearly all my graduate-school physics class, and literally all our Supreme Court Justices, are Jews or Catholics. They believe in law, rules, and consequences. They credit cause and effect.

Senator Jim Inhofe—the snowball-throwing climate-change denier—is different. From his lofty perch as a 1944 graduate in economics from the University of Tulsa, he doesn’t see any force but God that can affect climate.

No matter that there are nearly seven billion of us now, and that each of us uses more energy in a daily drive across town than an ancient Israelite generated in his entire life. Jim would be happy, and intellectually quite at home, waiting with a motley crew of ancient Israelites for the next wave of storms, locusts or invaders to come flying over the local hills. He would be comfortable in that ancient time, before Jesus, before science, before electricity and controlled flight.

It’s all quite odd, isn’t it? So many of us are like Jim Inhofe. We don’t believe in religion. We don’t believe in much of anything, except maybe a fuzzy ideology, getting ahead and getting rich.

We don’t believe that there are rules governing human behavior, especially war. If we break them, we will continue to have wars until we wear ourselves out, extinguish ourselves, or somehow grow up. We don’t believe that there are physical rules, too, including the rules that keep our climate stable, pretty much as it was during out species’ long evolution. We don’t believe that, if we break those rules, we might destabilize our climate and make our planet hard to live on. Or at least not enough of us believe in rules and consequences to a make a difference.

Meanwhile, the people most interested in learning the rules and abiding by them are those who are supposed to believe things that are difficult for most modern people to accept literally: the Covenant of God with The Chosen People, and the promise of eternal life. That’s a paradox.

But unless we continue to find, explain and respect rules, two things will happen. First, we will continue to fight among ourselves and waste our species’ energy and promise as we do. Our social evolution will never overcome the tribalistic flaw in our biological evolution, and we will not progress as a species. Second, the rules of our physical world, if ignored, may cut us down to size—perhaps literally, in population.

So let’s give a cheer for our rule finders and explainers, whether or not we belong to their tribe, and whether or not we (or they!) believe everything they are supposed to believe. For it’s they who ultimately bring order into our chaotic lives and give us a chance, some day, for our species to grow up. Adults, after all, differ from children primarily in their ability to understand cause and effect and to foresee the consequences of their actions.

Footnote 1: A recent special edition of the science show Nova made this point, while collecting historic, archaeological and scientific evidence on how and when the Bible was written. Only after the great Babylonian Empire had conquered Israel, had destroyed the First Temple, and had dispersed the early Israelites did the presence of idolatrous statues in the archaeological strata decline. After Israel had recollected itself in its earlier location under the tutelage of Ezra, the idolatrous statues disappeared.

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