Monday, May 29, 2017

Love and Hate

Like many others, I am very disturbed by the divisiveness that now pervades American politics and characterizes America for many around the world. Sharp divisions also exist in academia where many artificial barriers have evolved that prevent academics from collaborating and learning from each other; even worse, these barriers result in superficial thinking about those not in one’s particular academic clique. Peter Goodyear has written about such barriers calling those barriers false dichotomies. 

I have wondered why they exist and persist in spite of evidence that suggests such arbitrary divisions are misleading or unjustified. My current thinking is that people have a natural tendency to simplify. There is probably some survival value in simplifying (as in, “Was that sound I heard in the bushes a bear or just the wind?” followed by a hasty retreat away from the bushes … just in case). Simplifying is a natural tendency because simplifying is linked to the notion of mental models and creating internal representations in order to understand new or unusual phenomena (such a noise coming from the bushes). A model – mental or otherwise – is necessarily a simplification of that which is modeled. A model – mental or otherwise – is not an exact replica. From the perspective of instruction, a model can help the person viewing the model focus on that which is most relevant to a particular task. From a learning perspective, a model also can be used to help a learner focus and interact with that which is most relevant to a learning task. As I have often said, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that we “picture facts to ourselves” (others call these mental models; see While Wittgenstein argued for a correspondence theory of truth in that book (aligning statements with observable facts), he failed to note that we also picture things that are not acts to ourselves. This latter tendency seems to be increasing and becoming more pervasive. 

A description of something is a kind of text-based model and is clearly not the same as that which is described. Wittgenstein’s later work (e.g., Philosophical Investigations) went beyond the strict confines of the Tractatus in part because he realized that people have another remarkable ability. In addition to being naturally able to create internal representations of things experienced, people have a natural tendency to talk about some of those internal representations. We engage in what Wittgenstein called language games (see Language games are rule-based and proceed based on the assumptions that those involved know and generally follow the rules and conventions associated with the language in that context, which is why Wittgenstein argued that it is the use of language in a context that provides the meaning. Then meaningful discourse can extend beyond the more narrow scientific structure presented in the Tractatus. The following remarks about love and hate fall into that extended territory opened up in Philosophical Investigations.

One of my philosophy professors at UT-Austin became an advisor and later a friend and colleague. We had  many discussions about all kinds of things ranging from Bob Dylan to lacrosse to religion. He was Presbyterian and knew I was Jewish. He knew my father was a Rabbi and often inquired about my religious views. On one occasion, he characterized the fundamental difference between Christians and Jews in the form of a single commandment. For Christians, the fundamental commandment was “thou shalt love” – no restrictions – everyone, at all times. He went on to argue that for Jews, the fundamental commandments was “thou shalt obey” – based on his having read that there were some 613 commandments in the Torah, which basically say that one should do that which God had prescribed in those 613 mitzvot (which refers to actions decreed by God but is used more commonly to simply refer to good deeds). 

While I recall the professor making that distinction, I do not recall all of the details of the subsequent discussion. I did take exception as I thought it was a misleading simplification for several reasons. First, I do not know anyone who loves all others at all times. I only learned what the emotion of hate was until years after that conversation, but I did know at the time that there were people whom I did not love and that there had been people whom I could not imagine loving. I also pointed out that one of those 613 commandments was essentially what Christians call the Golden Rule – it can be found in Leviticus (Vah-yik-rah)  19:18 – “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Rabbi Hillel’s version of that passage and related passages in Leviticus is simple – that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.
Then there is a question if a single statement or commandment can characterize an entire religious perspective. I learned both the power and the limitations of such a simplification. My professor said and believed that anyone who was not acting on any occasion or in any circumstance on the basis of love was not being Christian. He admitted that it was a goal (loving everyone at all times in any circumstance) that no human could attain while arguing that it was a worthwhile goal. I am not sure but I believe I argued that understanding what that meant required many examples and elaboration of cases, which is perhaps why there are 613 mitzvot. 

So much for George Miller’s 7 +/- 2 rule about the limits of short term memory. Even the basic 10 commandments exceed the memory capacity of most persons according to Miller’s memory research. Can you recall all 10? 

I recall one because the differences in translation are fascinating. It is the sixth commandment (Low Tirzach) – which in ancient Hebrew meant not to murder rather than not to kill, according to the modern English translation of that commandment. I used that distinction as my final rebuttal to my professor’s claim that loving vs. obeying was what differentiated Christians and Jews. I argued that for Christians, the challenge was never to kill anyone or anything at any time in any circumstance. However, for Jews the challenge was never to murder another person. He seemed to accept that differentiation, which is still an oversimplification. 

What brought back that conversation from more than 40 years ago was the divisiveness that is so deep and so persistent in America and other places. I recently had to admit to my kids – who are all adults now with graduate degrees – that I think things are more deeply divided now than they were when I, as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam conflict, refused to carry a gun when sent to an air base in Thailand. I recall battling bumper stickers from those days saying such things as “America: Love it or Leave” or “America: Change it or Lose it.” 

When one is overcome with hate, one loses oneself. My father taught me that. When a country is overcome with divisiveness, it loses itself. That is my worry in these troubling times.

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