29 Nov 2016

Halacha and Chess

‘Halacha’ is ‘the way’ of Judaism, based on millenia old oral tradition, translated into many forms:  stories, law, traditions, values, arguments, responsa, and a general ‘language game’ or ‘way of life’

More narrowly conceived, it refers to ‘piskei halacha’ – the end of halacha – or its practical ramifications as expressed in various law codes such as Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura.  It is the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of a life that attempts to be lived in the presence of G-d.  It is the rules ones abides by when trying to be part of the game.

Some people – left and right religiously – often talk about a halachic framework

Those on the right often use it to forbid. Flexibility is only allowed within ‘the framework’ of halacha.  There is  a sausage machine out of which comes ‘the rules’ [as they currently are] and such a framework will produce rules that are good to follow. Codification is not an output of history, question and response, debate or a way of living; but its input.  It is not just the rules that are prescriptive (with the codification describing those prescriptions as they stand) but the codification is itself prescriptive.

Those on the left believe there are values which ones seeks to achieve, but as one is a religious Jew, one [is limited to?][aided by?] doing it within the framework. There are no fixed boundaries and no sausage machine.  Rather as a ‘framework’; it provide a general way a Jew does things. Rather than forbidding, one navigates the form and technicalities of the game to do something new.

I find this way of talking about things odd though – talking about the game from the outside-in.  It is as if I was a ‘right wing’ chess player I were to unprompted say:

  • “I am going to moving my bishop and I am doing so within the framework of the game of chess”  [Well, duh, we are in the middle of a chess game, so “I am moving the bishop” will suffice were it be necessary to comment at all]
  • “By applying the rules in the rulebook to the pieces on the board, I should move my bishop diagonally – that is a good move.” [No doubt I am following the rules of chess, but that doesn’t require any view of its necessity or extrinsic goodness of the move considered outside of what I am trying to achieve in so moving]

Or, if I were a ‘left-wing’ chess player:

  • “Check-mating the opponent is a good thing to do but because I’m bought into the rules of chess, I’m limited to achieving that through traditional chess moves, such as the diagonal bishop-move” [Do you think the end-state of chess is completely stateable outside the rules of chess, which are just aids or impediments to that goal?  I’d probably think you weren’t actually that interested in chess itself] 
  •  The framework of chess has had different rules for bishops that have changed over time – so I’m going to play a move codified in 13th century Italy” [Quite possibly that is within the framework of chess, but you if you moved your piece in that way, you may find yourself playing a different game to your opponent]

It is not that either is wrong – just weird.

From the outside one might want to write a philosophy of chess, a love poem to chess, a history of chess, a political analysis of chess within authoritarian regimes.  A meta-chess analysis if you will.  All useful endeavours.

However, if someone challenges you to a game of chess, you may not want to play a game within the framework of chess, you may just want to play chess.

7 Nov 2016

Theodicy and the ‘Above Average Effect’

I have had occasion to think on the ‘problem of evil’ recently as there have been circumstances that are genuinely distressing for me and my family – albeit on a personal rather than global level.

I have thought about protesting in serious complaint (and have done so mildly) about ‘why bad things happen to good people’. 

On reflection though, my overriding thought when people talk about bad things happening to good people: the goodness of the people is rather overstated in this equation.  Yes, the bad things are bad, and the people are not people one ought judge as bad.  But – speaking for myself – my righteousness is rather limited.

One of the classic things you learn at the beginning of a psychology degree is around the ‘Above Average Effect’ (or Illusory Superiority).  If peoples’ self assessments were to be believed on things they or others value, most people would be ‘above average’.
For example, as this article explains

Since psychological studies first began, people have given themselves top marks for most positive traits. While most people do well at assessing others, they are wildly positive about their own abilities…

In studies, most people overestimate their IQ. For instance, in a classic 1977 study, 94 percent of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers. …

Drivers consistently rate themselves as better than average — even when a test of their hazard perception reveals them to be below par

This is no less true in the moral world.  Forget the fact that on the theological plane: who could meet up the infinite demands of an infinite being?  On a bog standard ethical plane – charity, for instance – we are just not as good as we think ourselves to be.

Bad things are bad – and the problem is a real one - but the problem would be better stated as “Why do bad things happen to average people?”

4 Nov 2016

Credo 6


It is absolutely imperative to acknowledge one's ignorance: both what one does not know and one cannot know

30 Oct 2016

The ill effects of Brexit… and why it should happen

The pound has tanked since the Brexit vote, which is irksome for those looking to go on foreign holidays, but overall people haven’t felt too many ill effects.  The FTSE (mainly on the back of listed foreign companies benefitting from the fall in the pound) has gone up.

That said, it is a little irksome – my word of the day – when pro-Brexit politicians and newspapers point to this to show that ‘Project Fear’ was misguided, and that Brexit wasn’t as bad as people feared.  The key point, however, is that: Brexit hasn’t happened yet. 

All that has happened is a vote on Brexit – and everyone (including the Market) realises that there is no point panicking yet for something that is so far away in the future.  However, the view that overall Brexit will be bad for the economy is as strong as ever.

I am no fan of European institution, but I voted to Remain, and if I had the chance to do so again, would vote in the same way.

That said the Democratic will of the people decided otherwise.  The manoeuvres of Labour politicians, and various pressure and lobby groups (and ex-prime ministers) is very disturbing – or at least irksome.  Democracy isn’t democracy if those at the top can just overturn a vote if they don’t like the outcome.

Equally, the view that we were ‘lied’ to – or that new information has come to light -is irrelevant.  It was clear at the time that the claims were lies – and it was pointed out by the Remain campaign.  There isn’t really any new information that people were not being told.

Of course, democracy requires an element of trust in the electorate, and their collective rationality or sense.  It means you buy into the fact that a few people cannot – in a paternalistic fashion – know ‘what is best’ for people – against their explicitly stated point of view.  Sometimes that trust isn’t founded or rewarded.

However, in the long run, playing fast and loose with democracy will be more than irksome.

28 Oct 2016

Credo 5

There is no 'real me' or 'true self'.  The statements may have rhetorical force and metaphorical uses, but do not denote a true state of affairs

16 Oct 2016

Jeremy Corbyn: Likes, Dislikes, Indifferences and Ambivalences: Nuclear Weapons

Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, an unacceptable force in British politics.  … It is also true that not everything he says is or will be bad or wrong… See full intro here

This one - Nuclear Weapons - was a toss up between a like and an ambivalence - which I suppose must, therefore, make it an ambivalence.

Let's start with a clear thing that I agree with:  There is absolutely no situation in which I would press the nuclear button.  None. Whatsoever.  Causing the loss of so many lives, taking the innocent along with the guilty, is unthinkable.

Let us also all be absolutely scared of the prospect of Donald Trump having his finger on that button!  Not to mention, Iran! Or, North Korea! It would be much

This brings me on to one of the reasons for ambivalence. One of Jeremy Corbyn's main focus areas in this regard is not Iran or North Korea.  As part of the campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the Middle East, his main target is, of course, Israel.  The fact that his main interest lies with Britain and Israel - countries who are least likely to use it.

This in turn leads to another ambivalence.  While people that might actually use it, have it:  the illusion that a Western Power might use I on them, acts as a deterrent.  However, Jeremy Corbyn is (and I am) much to honest to foster such an illusion - because an illusion is all it is.  Even in the event of an evil attack by such a country, there would be zero benefit in retaliating with nuclear weapons.

What is more, it is an extremely expensive illusion which could be spend on better things.  It would be much better if the illusion could be the whole hog - we pretend to have the weapon, which we pretend to spend a ludicrous amount of money, which we pretend we might actually use - but which doesn't in fact exist.


14 Oct 2016

Credo 4

Taken as a whole some religions are better than others and some lifestyles are better than others (more moral, more truthful, more consistent, more achievable)

Taken individually some beliefs are true and some are false; some actions are right and others can be wrong.