Imagination & Hope vs. Intelligence & Experience

I imagine that most readers, on their own, already have enough to worry about. But in case you need more, this week I offer some worries that might be able to disturb you as much as they do me. They deal with manipulations of people’s imaginations and hopes by clerics and politicians.

Aristotle said “hope is a waking dream” – and it’s stunning to realize how many people live in daydreams. As just a few examples, think of the boy practicing ball, dreaming of becoming a professional player; the girl playing with dolls, dreaming of becoming a wife and mother; the low-wage worker buying still more lottery tickets, dreaming about how to spend the winnings; the parents dreaming about the accomplishments of their children; Christians and Muslims dreaming about eternal bliss in paradise; and so on. You can easily imagine many more examples.

Hopes, of course, are also products of our imagination. And although some of our resulting hopes can be wonderful motivators in our lives, other hopes are terrible detractors from living. In large measure, wisdom (a practical combination of intelligence plus experience) is the capability to discern hopes that are profitably pursued from those that should be discarded. Stated differently, it’s wise to learn how to constrain one’s imagination.

Which reminds me of another of Einstein’s statements that has been horribly misrepresented by the clerics of the world, similar to the way they misrepresent his line: “The old one… [God] does not throw dice.” Einstein, who did not believe in a personal god, said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But he was referring to imagination constrained by reality. His complete statement was:
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
In particular, in formulating hypotheses to try to make progress in science, it’s critical to be able to imagine what new principle might be consistent with all available knowledge (e.g., in Einstein’s case, that it would be consistent with the new Michelson-Morley results and with known physics if time were not the absolute that Newton perceived it to be, flowing independently of all reference frames). In blatant contradiction to Einstein’s meaning, clerics promote their followers to dismiss knowledge, dismiss reality, and just imagine – and worse, just hope.

Anyway, that rant aside, my worries this week about imagination and hope started with my post last week dealing with Pope Benedict (in particular, my reading of his encyclical on hope) and this week’s Democratic primary (in which Pennsylvania voters deflated Senator Obama’s “Audacity of Hope”). My first thoughts turned to the common method by which most clerics and politicians pursue their common goal, which is to gain power. As the American lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster (1782–1852) said:
Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority… There are men [and women] in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.
Then I thought about the usual method by which both clerics and politicians attempt to gain power over people, namely, first to stimulate their imaginations and then to try to persuade them to adopt irrational or foolish (even stupid) hopes.

Some definitions seem appropriate. According to the dictionary that comes with this computer’s Mac OS-X: The line that divides boldness [or audacity] from foolishness or stupidity is often a fine one. In the case of hope, however, the line can be defined quite accurately. In particular, distinctions can be drawn between bold (or audacious) vs. foolish (or stupid) hopes by evaluating what are rational hopes. To see how to draw that line, consider the concept of ‘hope’.

According to my copy of Webster’s dictionary (named after not Daniel but Noah Webster, 1758–1843) ‘hope’ is a feeling that what is wanted will happen; desire accompanied by expectation. This definition succinctly combines the three key features of ‘hope’: it’s a feeling, related to some want, tempered by an estimate of the probability (or expectation) that the want will be realized.

Thus in general and rather amazingly, ‘hope’ is a feeling that our minds – or at least the minds of rational people – seem to be able to calculate by multiplying a measure of some want by the probability that it will be satisfied. As I describe in detail elsewhere, statisticians call the result “the expected value”, i.e., the value of something multiplied by its probability of realization; economists call the same thing “utility”; in engineering risk assessments, essentially the same is called “risk”; when the cost of the game is subtracted, gamblers call it “payback”. In particular, competent gamblers always place their bets on the choice with the largest potential payback = [return on the bet] x [the probability of winning the bet].

In “the game of life”, similarly, it’s wise to “place your bets” not based solely on your wants but on rationally evaluated hopes = [the value you place on each want] x [the probability that each want will be realized]. Rational people put their goals in priority established by such evaluations of hopes; foolish people pursue goals dominated by wants rather than rationally evaluated hopes; bold people pursue goals that may seem to have a low probability of being achieved but whose expected values are rationally estimated to be relatively large. With those ideas in mind, consider some hopes described by Pope Benedict and Senator Obama.

In his encyclical on hope and similar to all Christian, Muslim and Mormon clerics, Benedict promotes the hope of eternal life in some imagined Heaven. As with all hopes, this hope (of eternal life) can be expressed mathematically as the product of a want (for eternal life) multiplied by the probability that the want can be achieved. As I’ll illustrate below, it’s a foolish hope (or more accurately, a stupid hope), because neither the want nor the probability of achieving it can be rationally evaluated.

I would, however, give Benedict not an F (for “Foolish”!) on his encyclical on hope but a DD (for “Definitely Dumb”), because at least he saw that the want associated with the hope of eternal life is poorly conceived:
But then the question arises: do we really want this – to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever – endlessly – appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end – this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.
As Susan Ertz said: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do on a Sunday afternoon.”

I congratulate Benedict for admitting that the common concept of Heaven is a hoax – as is the similar Muslim stupidity about Paradise, especially if the correct translation is that each “martyr for the Jihad” will get not 72 virgins but 72 white raisins! Yet, Benedict's attempt to describe a more appealing Heaven (one of eternal joy) similarly fails. He posits the following.
We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith… leads us to expect.
But seeing that what he’s promoting (namely, eternal “joy” or happiness) appears to be astoundingly egotistical, Benedict quickly back pedals to insist that the greatest joy is in helping others. Then, however, he neglects to mention the obvious: that a Christian’s goal should then be to go to Hell, since that’s where there’s alleged to be the most opportunity to help others, alleviating their suffering, e.g., by using all that alleged heat to power some air conditioners!

But I give Benedict a failing grade for his encyclical on hope not because of his failure to adequately define his want (although he tried) but because he totally ignores the other part (and usually the much more difficult part) of rationally defining any hope, namely, estimating the probability of achieving whatever want that he might eventually identify! Of course, the essence of his answer would be something similar to how all clerics answer that question: “Just be good little boys and girls, pay your tithes, obey us, and your ticket to Heaven is guaranteed.” As someone else summarized: Pray, Pay, and Obey!

Those of us who have at least a flicker of rationality still burning, however, glimpse the ingredients of a con game. What evidence supports the claim that any cleric knows “the way”? All their “holy books” appear to be little more than product brochures, promoting their own con games. Shucks, even I can hawk something similar:
The other day, I had a chat with God, and He let me in on the real skinny. He told me that running the universe is not all that it’s cracked up to be, especially since the universe’s inflation has begun to accelerate. So, He’s looking for some help. He said He needs people who show initiative, who can think for themselves, who understand basic science, and who are committed to the scientific method. (I gather that He’s conducting some experiments to try to determine ways to stop the universe’s expansion, without it rebounding from the Big Bang into a Big Crunch.)

So, said He, what He did was set up a test, to winnow the wheat from the chaff. (He seems to like that phrase.) He said that all who fall for the balderdash written in all “holy books” and promoted by all clerics thereby fail the test; such people aren’t critical thinkers. Meanwhile, for candidates who reject such balderdash, who tell all clerics to “blow it out your ears”, who apply the only absolute moral code known (viz., to always use your brain as best you can) – and by the way, He specifically mentioned atheists and agnostics and specifically commended all scientific humanists – well, they’re given eternal life, to help Him make sure that the universe goes on and thereby, to help intelligent life to continue to evolve.
And what’s the probability that “my way” (as outlined above – as conveyed to me by no less than ruler of the universe!) is “the way”? Well, the obvious answer to that question is the same as the obvious answer to the same questions posed for all “the ways” promoted by all clerics, namely, not only totally unknown but completely unknowable. Thereby, the hope for “eternal bliss” in some fictitious heaven is a perfect example of a foolish (or stupid or irrational) hope, namely an indescribable want multiplied by an unknowable probability!

In contrast to the irrational hope of eternal life in some fictitious paradise, a bold (or even audacious) hope can be rational. For example, if the probability of wining a “long shot” is 1 chance in a 1000 but a $1 ticket pays $2,000, then the “payback” [or expected value = hope = (return) x (probability)] for each $1 bet would be ($2000 – $1) x (0.001) ≅ $2.00 . Meanwhile, if the probability that “the favorite” will win is 1 chance in 1.5 and a $1 ticket pays $2.50, then the payback would be only ($2.50 – $1.00) x (1/1.5) = $1.00 – so in this case, what appears to be a bold (or even “audacious”) bet (on the long shot) is actually twice as rational as betting on the favorite. Which then leads me to Barack Obama’s “audacious hope”.

Prior to the Pennsylvania Primary, Obama’s candidacy was proceeding well, by his promoting what he calls “audacious hope”, a phrase that he admitted he copped from his (former) pastor, Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. In his 1990 “Audacity to Hope” sermon, Wright promoted the irrational hope not necessarily for eternal life but as is common in America’s “feel-good Christianity”, for good things in this life (allegedly provided by God):
And that’s why I say to you, hope is what saves us. Keep on hoping; keep on praying. God does hear and answer prayer.
For some strange reason, clerics don’t need to provide evidence to support their audacious claims.

Subsequently, in his “Audacity of Hope” Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama appropriately redirected “the audacity of hope” from religion to politics. With substantial oratory skill (and some “oratorical license”) he commented on the “audacity” that a mixed African-American kid could make it so far: “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that American has a place for him, too.”

In reality, though, although Obama’s hope was bold (maybe even audacious), it obviously wasn’t foolish. His “want” or desire (to achieve success and maybe fame) was apparently large enough so that, with hard work, perseverance, and no doubt help from others, he managed to increase the probability that his “want” would be realized, sufficiently for his hope to materialize. And there’s no doubt that many of us listening to his speech took some pride in seeing such a “skinny kid with a funny name” achieve his dream, suggesting to us that “the dream” (or hope) of Martin Luther King, Jr. was materializing.

As for the other hopes that Obama has been promoting (such as universal health care, a quick end to the Iraq war, an end to “politics as usual”, and so on), I’ll leave it for political commentators to suggest which are audacious and which are foolish. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind readers of a quite famous quotation, which Loren Collins points out is of unknown authorship (although similar ideas were expressed by many people, including Plato and Madison):
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship…
Of course, the US wasn’t to be a democracy but a republic, governed by thoughtful and responsible representatives who would act in the best interest of the nation, rather than primarily pursue their own hopes to gain and maintain power. But if still another illustration were needed, the recent “Economic Stimulus Plan” (promoted by both Democrats and Republicans and signed into law by President Bush) illustrates that such “thoughtful and responsible representatives” are scarce. And worse: if we are going to collectively rob ourselves (or more accurately, rob those who pay the most taxes) of $150 billion (voting ourselves “largesse from the public treasury”), couldn’t we at least use the money to improve our infrastructure (bridges, roads, water systems, sewers…), develop our own energy resources (oil shale, nuclear, wind, solar…), improve education, and so on, rather than provide people with money to buy more consumer goods (made in China!)?

But returning to this week’s Pennsylvania Primary, I expect that one of the reasons Obama did poorly was because of his pastor’s teachings, from which Obama tried to distance himself in his “race speech”, entitled “A More Perfect Union.” I expect, however, that many voters are still concerned that for 20 years, Obama attended sermons by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who preached “Black Liberation Theology”.

Wright refers to a foundational book on his theology by Professor James Cone at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, which includes the following:
Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill all gods who do not belong to the black community. Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. [Italics added.] What we need is the divine love as expressed in black power which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.
Another name for “Black Theology” seems to be “Black Supremacism”, which unsurprisingly doesn’t play well among White voters.

I suspect that another reason that Obama did poorly in Pennsylvania is because, in an unguarded moment, he was caught talking about reality rather than his usual mantra of “hope and change”. As described by Allison Keyes of National Public Radio, two weeks ago when talking at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama described
… the difficulty his campaign faces wooing working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Obama explained that such voters fell through the economic cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations and that they are angry because of job losses dating back 25 years.

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter,” he said. “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Belatedly, in Indiana and after the excrement hit the rotary device, Obama attempted to show that he wasn’t expressing Black Supremacist views and, of course, that he wasn't disparaging "Whitey's" ways:
“I said something everybody knows is true,” he said, “which is there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania – in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois – who are bitter. They are angry. They feel like they’ve been left behind.”
Actually, I agree with both of Obama's statements, but I imagine that he would have helped his candidacy if, in the first place, he had stated that the consequences of such “bitterness” (namely, rifles, revolvers, racism, and religion) are the same for both Blacks and Whites. Yet, isn't the first rule of politics something close to: Whatever you do, don't say "something that everyone knows is true"?

If that rule were routinely violated, just imagine the consequences! Imagine if politicians routinely said something similar to:
People: stop hoping for political saviors. Stop blaming others for your failures. Enough with the victim and entitlement mentalities. For a change, think. Think about what Shakespeare said:

“The common curse of mankind – folly and ignorance”, and

“The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

If you want to get out of the rut you’re in, start digging, start thinking, start studying, start learning, start relying on your own best efforts – show the world what progress humans are able to achieve, stumbling forward, one step at a time.
And while you're at it, imagine if clerics routinely said something similar to:
People, stop hoping for supernatural saviors. Stop day dreaming your lives away. Remember what Shakespeare said:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”, and

“The miserable have no other medicine but… hope.”

To end your misery, pursue rational hopes. Study. Learn. Study science. Learn the truly awesome features of our universe that scientists have discovered, and in the process, learn enough so that you can use that knowledge to earn a living while helping intelligence go on.
But since my imagination and hopes are obviously launching me into unreality, I’ll end this post by summarizing what might be able to worry you, too.

Samuel Johnson (who in 1755 published “one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language”) famously and sarcastically said:
While first marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience.
I worry that I’m not being cynical but realistic when I think: as Samuel Johnson said about first marriages, organized religion is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, and as he said about second marriages, politics is the triumph of hope over experience.

Hey, by the way, notice that they finally freed Fouad!!

But it probably would be irrational to get your hopes up for freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. To help you return to reality, have a look at the most recent craziness from the Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid, warning that "freedom of speech might lead to freedom of belief", which (of course) would be totally unacceptable. That would mean the end of the Muslim clerics' monopoly: he and his fellow clerics would lose their job security. Next, there'd probably be a push for a free market in oil; just think of the horrors of that! So come on, people, get real.

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