Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why I Don't Play Golf

This is the time of the year when Sunday evening's TV programming is dependent upon how long it takes the golfers to come up with a winner. It doesn't matter how long a period the network allows in the schedule – it is going to take an extra half hour or so to complete the rounds.

I have been asked so often why I do not play golf, that I finally decided to write the true story of my brief career in the game.

There is a saying that only a thin line separates comedy from tragedy. The way I played golf could be classified as either one depending upon your point of view. Be that as it may, I believe the way my golfing career ended is a good example of the close relationship between the two.
About 1960, at the urging of some of my fellow employees, I decided to try my hand at golf, so I bought a cheap set of clubs and went out each Saturday to develop my game. At first I thought my terrible playing was simply because I was a beginner, but as time went on and I showed little improvement, it gradually dawned on me that I would never be a Bobby Jones or a Gene Sarazen. I must admire the loyalty and fortitude of those friends who continued to include me in their foursome.
The normal golf course is 5,000 to 6,000 yards long. I probably averaged about a 10,000 to 12,000 yard hike as I zigzagged from the left rough to the right rough and back again. I recall one day in particular when I started out really hot. I completed the front nine in only 59 strokes, and I thought I was at last getting the hang of the game. Of course I couldn’t keep up this torrid pace, and on the back nine my game fell apart. I finished at 155, which I believe was fairly close to my average.
However, because of the beautiful scenery, friendship (though somewhat strained), fresh air and exercise, I persevered.
One day I came home from a round and discovered that while I was playing, Marilyn Monroe had committed suicide. Although there was, of course, no connection between her death and my game, the fact that this event occurred while I was playing could have been an omen foretelling the tragedy that ended my golfing career.
Finally, out of either pity or sheer desperation, someone gave me a certificate that entitled me to ten golf lessons at a nearby country club. For several weeks I went out there every Thursday evening and perfected all my hooks and slices.
I received my sixth lesson the day before I gave up golf forever. It was a late summer evening; the temperature, although still warm, held just a hint of fall’s cooler weather, the sky was deep blue with just enough high clouds in the west to present a gorgeous sunset, the scent of the flowers in the club gardens was in the air, and the fairways and greens were just beautiful. With all that beauty, plus the outdoor exercise received from hitting hook after slice after hook, I went home feeling great. I slept well that night.
The next morning at breakfast I opened the newspaper to the sports page and the headline leaped out at me, Golf Pro Commits Suicide!” After my lesson my golf guru had hanged himself in the basement of his home! Oh, the paper cited personal and financial problems, but I knew what the straw was that broke that particular camel’s back. I gave the clubs away and never played again.
This happened many years ago, and since that time I have almost convinced myself that my abysmal showing had nothing to do with that poor man’s demise. And yet . . .
My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Family Planning and the Bishops

     I realize that the matter of Obama and the Catholic Bishops has been overworked lately, but I can't help weighing in with some thoughts on the subject.
     In the first place, I can see both sides of the argument: freedom of religion vs. insurance-paid family planning.
     But some columnists have been throwing around assumptions that appear to me to be a misuse of the English language. Recently I have read several columns in which the government, President Obama in particular, was accused of requiring the church to go against its “conscience.”
     I do not believe that the Catholic Church or a corporation or a high school class or any other organized set of people can have a conscience, Organizations are groups of human beings; each member of the group has a unique conscience. There may be an average of individual consciences of the members, but such an average is as different from a true conscience as an average bird is from an ostrich. Calling an organization's teachings, rules, bylaws, etc. a conscience is like calling the rules of grammar creative writing.
     A fundamental principle of Catholic morality is that you must follow your conscience, however, a well-formed conscience will never contradict the objective(?) moral law, as taught by Christ and his Church. In other words, if one's conscience does not agree with the rules of the Church, it is not a “well-formed” conscience. It reminds me of the Sunday School teacher who stated, “Today we are going to have an open, honest discussion of the world's religions, and discover that Christianity is the best.”
     Recent polls suggest that a majority of Catholic women do not have a “well-formed” conscience with regard to birth control, and I believe that is what has always had the hierarchy so gravely concerned. If an individual has to depend upon an organization's oversight to see that his or her conscience is being followed, then that conscience is useless. Shades of 1984; the church is doing Big Brother's work.
     If each individual in the flock believed in following the rules, the Bishops should have no hesitation in allowing their employees to choose for themselves whether or not they want their health insurance to cover family planning. Possibly allowing each employee to opt in or out of the requirement would be a reasonable compromise, reasonable, that is, for everyone but the Bishops.
     Much has also been made of the requirement that uninsured individuals must purchase health insurance or face a fine. There is nothing new about this; for example, drivers are required to purchase liability insurance or else provide proof of financial responsibility. In order to protect innocent accident victims from liability, the insurance must contain certain minimum provisions as specified by law.
     The healthcare insurance requirement does not sound much different from the accident insurance requirement. Substitute “the public” for “innocent accident victims,” and there is no difference.
     But in the real world, I fully expect the Supreme Court to declare the insurance requirement of the Healthcare Act to be unconstitutional.
     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Determinism vs. Free Will

      The discussion of determinism vs. free will has been going on since the days of the Greek philosophers, and will probably never be settled. Is it possible that both views are correct? How could that be true?
Before I get into the various arguments, I want to set up the following assumptions:

(a) There is a one-to-one correspondence between the state of the brain and the subjective experience occurring at any given time
(b) Since the brain is not an isolated system, it must be part of a larger system – the body, sense organs, the body’s immediate surroundings, etc. - which obeys certain deterministic laws.

According to determinists, every move we make is dictated by our previous experiences, situations, conditions, etc. – everything which has gone before. The feeling that we select courses of action in response to immediate circumstances is an illusion. The subject can no more change the decision than a planet can change its orbit. If all our decisions are no more than the transmission of the push of the past, what becomes of responsibility? The criminal does not deserve punishment, nor does the hero deserve commendation. We are left in a world of moral chaos.
On the other hand, champions of free will also have a problem. Suppose a decision was made which was a complete break with the past. Somewhere in the brain a connection was made that led to the new decision. Some errant neuron, some straying chemical or electrical connection, some chance quantum deviation, or perhaps some creative tendency in the brain flipped the connections into a new path. But if so, is that better? the decision was determined by chance! This is even further from what we mean by free will. It is as if every decision were made by the flip of a coin.
How does the feeling of free will arise? Throughout our lives there are situations where we can exert some control over our environment, and thus achieve a desired result. We decide upon a course of action, and meeting no obstacles, we attain our goal. In other situations, some intervening event causes us to fail. We soon learn to classify all situations as one of these two types. Therefore we are free to the extent that whenever we are confronted with a situation that enables us to realize our goal, we succeed.
Free will proponents feel that this is not truly the genuine article. They are sure that true free will has no room for the assumptions as stated above. I believe this is because they perform a thought experiment and misinterpret the results. For example:

Suppose you select steak from the menu in a restaurant. After you eat your steak, you recall the experience and say to yourself, “I could have selected chicken. But instead I chose steak. Therefore, since I could have chosen chicken and decided to have steak instead, my will is free.”
Of course, it is immediately obvious that the final sentence begs the question; there is an a priori presumption of free will built into your reasoning.
Free will believers will point out that my original assumptions have not been proven. This is correct, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that they are true. The dependence of thinking and behavior upon brain physiology is shown by the effects of drugs, alcohol, sleep deprivation experiments or Alzheimer’s disease, among others.
Free will advocates also disbelieve the contribution of quantum deviations. After all, the experienced world is based upon an average of billions of such deviations; one deviation could not possibly lead to a macro effect. Consider another thought experiment:

A plane carrying a hydrogen bomb is flying across a highly developed continent. The bomb will be deployed at the first click of a Geiger counter. The click is completely dependent upon a chance quantum deviation, so it is obvious that such a deviation can have macro effects under the right conditions.

It does not help the free will argument to posit a supernatural cause for the altered brain state which leads to a free decision. If the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is omniscient, does He not know every detail of the future? And if God has such knowledge, are not our decisions determined? And if our wills are not free, how can God hold us morally responsible? On the other hand, if our actions are unpredictable, then God cannot be all-knowing. In addition, if our decisions are caused by random events, how can God hold us morally responsible?
In the first thought experiment, when you chose steak instead of chicken, the decision was indeed yours, in the sense that it came from inside your head. But was the state of your brain determined, was it the result of an internal event, or was it influenced by some outside event? Another thought experiment:

A toy turtle crawls over the floor because of the action of an internal spring; another is pulled by a child on a string. Does the one with the spring have free will because its actions are controlled from the inside, while the one pulled by the child is deterministic because its actions are controlled by an outside source?

      I contend that both arguments are correct as defined above. The vast majority of decisions are determined, but occasionally a creative tendency causes a change in the brain path. Whenever that happens, something new – an idea, feeling or insight – has been born.
      I have just a few words to say about moral responsibility. Along with many others, Clarence Darrow was a great believer in determinism. He contended that criminals should not be held responsible for their acts because they had no control over them. But he failed to consider that neither did those who punish them – policemen, attorneys, judges and the rest of the criminal justice system.
      My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

Monday, February 6, 2012

It's Gotta Be This Or That – Or Does It?

     One of the oldest truisms(?) about old age is, “Old age is the time when your broad mind and narrow waist change places.” While it may be true in some cases, for me it's more like, “Old age is the time when your broad mind and narrow waist get closer together.” My problem is that the older I get, the more I can see both sides of many controversies; as a result, I have trouble deciding which side I agree with.
     Two examples from this past week come to mind. The first is the Healthcare Act's requirement that all employers who offer health care insurance to their employees must include contraception costs for those who request it. At first reading this sounds OK to me; not surprisingly, the Catholic church disagrees, to the extent that many Catholic organizations are planning to discontinue coverage rather than comply.
     Because the Catholic church is not a government organization, it seems to me that Catholic institutions have the right to do what they please with their money.
     But what about non-catholic employees of those institutions, such as nurses aides and maintenance people in Catholic hospitals, teachers and others in parochial schools, and professors in Catholic colleges – why should they be denied the employer-paid coverage enjoyed by those who hold similar positions in non-catholic institutions? And because Catholic hospitals and colleges do receive government money for various purposes, should not the government have some say over how it is spent?
     I am sure the question will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court, and if it comes up before the current court, the church is almost a sure winner. But whichever way it is decided, I, along with many other people, will think it is partly right and partly wrong. So much for the wisdom of aging.
     The second recent example is the flap over the Komen Foundation's “off again on again” decision about contributing funds to the Planned Parenthood organization. Ostensibly because Planned Parenthood funds abortions, the Foundation first decided to cut off their funding for breast cancer examinations. Planned Parenthood does not do such examinations, but does refer clients to facilities that do, and also provides payment for women who cannot afford them. When the decision went viral over the internet, the Foundation reversed the decision.
     Again, I believe that as a private entity, the Foundation has the right to determine how its funds should be used. But as a matter of principle, cutting off funds for breast cancer examinations because of performing legal abortions sounds like extortion.
     The Foundation first claimed that it has a policy of not contributing to any organization that is under investigation. In this case, one Congressman is asking that a non-criminal investigation be conducted to assure that none of the funds provided to Planned Parenthood by the government are used for abortions. Not a Senate committee nor the FBI nor the IRS – just a request from one pro-life Congressman! Give me a break!
     I am quite sure this issue is not over, and again I am ambivalent toward it. It ain't easy getting old.
     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.