Certain Violence: Toward an Ethical Response to Extremism

The reason for this second series, Certain Violence, quite simply is to add my voice to debate. I see what I think is a danger of rash formulation of policy that can prove worse a solution than the problems we wish to resolve, coupled with a similarly worrisome and opposite tendency to play to the crowd and move nothing forward. I can easily fall prey to either myself, and may do so in these writings in ways I am too unconsciously biased or, frankly, ignorant to see.

So, rather than move directly to opinion on issues of the day, in spite of the great haste I feel in light of events, I will attempt to slowly build argument in four parts, focusing on mostly descriptive comments and some interpretation, and then only put forward recommendations in the last and fourth part of the series. The two steps in any search for a solution are first identifying the problem correctly, then finding best approximations to resolution. For debate, yes, but intended for sober action based on the consensus of reasonable men and women.

My hope is that there is some merit in the analyses offered, perhaps quite a bit less in policies, and separating them allows the reader to discriminate among the two so that any element of worth might be retained, and any poor derivations more easily rejected.

My lack of deep familiarity with the main religions will become obvious shortly, much to my chagrin. I beg your pardon in advance. However, the approach taken in this series will not depend on theological argument relating to a specific faith, even if some elements are highlighted. That would lead to a Gordian knot we best avoid. I am somewhat less cautious when assigning any praise, as the danger is principally to my reputation in exhibiting any blatant ignorance, not so much to the feelings of others.


It remains to mention that, especially in this and the next post, I am merely providing my spin on arguments made before. Because there are only so many ways in the end to say some things, I am a bit fearful some turn of phrase may come from dim memory and not be a creation of my own. So, generically, let me thank in advance all the fine men and women who have spoken before, recognize fully that even if not literally so, I repeat their thoughts when touching topics of their domains, adding only my own perspective. The qualities of this last you must be the judge of. Any and all mistakes, errors in reasoning, misstatements and poor prescriptions are mine alone.

Now having couched and positioned, let me add that I will attempt to not let my self-image stand in my way. The innocent are dying. When I sat down to write, I promised that would be foremost in my mind, in every article. I will attempt to use logic and reason, to the best of my ability, and neither thirst for excess nor shrink from duty to the innocent. Bit of a tight-rope walk for me. Wish me luck.

Note that this and the next post set the foundations for determining action, the third offers my diagnosis of the core problem, and the fourth, still a work in progress, the recommendations.

* * *

Part One: Drop Stones, Don’t Throw Them

There is a view that science is a matter of preference and perspective alone, that it is unrelated to truth. It is correct to state that most scientists feel very uncomfortable with a politically and socially laden word such as “truth,” and much prefer to focus on the idea of “current best explanations, subject to future refinement.” But truths there are. In science, these are called observations. Facts, for you and me. Facts do not change with fashion in theory, unless they were never really facts in the first place (the sun’s apparent orbit about the earth, for example), and are the fruit of previously unrefined observation.

I oversimplify, but this is basically how science works: by tweaking little facts into big ideas and then changing them as new facts come in, or are predicted and then found. Scientists are also increasingly aware of the role observers have on observation, nuances introduced by something called ceteris paribus (“all else being equal,” which can be deceptively hard to set up, depending on whom you ask), and the limits of precision using language. But none of these issues actually undermine the results of science; they reinforce its progress when dealt with.

Laws and Selfies

Now, here is a universal truth for you, one that mankind still struggles to fully grasp and interpret. Take a stone in hand, and then release it, letting it drop to the ground. Upon mere release, without any throw, it falls, like Newton’s apple. Any man or woman on the planet, without outside influence, can perform and observe this act, always with the same result, at any time in human history. It is, then, a universal truth, a law of nature. It matters little what your religious beliefs are, or if you attempt many incantations to avoid its fall. It drops, inexorably. (Spare me the tornado wind exceptions; that just adds math, and nobody wants more of that.)

These things we call natural laws need no enforcement from Man (i.e., men and women), and operate regardless of us. We are also free to attempt to break this law, and could try, but there is zero evidence this or other any laws similarly derived can ever be broken. They worked in our ancient past, and they continue to now. They are impervious to our preferences.

Yet, it is humankind who calls them “laws” in the first place. We did not get our notions from a Galactic Science User’s Guide. Somehow, we are always part of the picture, jumping into every cosmic selfie we can, by interpreting what we see. If you prefer, instead of “laws,” you can call them “observed unbroken consistencies or regularities.” It’s just that that is a mouthful.

Einstein Surfs

Of course, we speak of gravity. Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Einstein are most famous, but mankind has had many great thinkers wrestle with the nature and workings of gravity. It still intrigues us. In fact, it is marvelous to see how far we’ve come, as nowadays we await the collision of two black holes in a distant galaxy to see if that produces gravity waves. (It’s okay if you imagine Einstein on a surfboard in space when you hear that; I do, too!) We obviously are getting quite good at understanding gravity, as we can now land small objects on asteroids half-way across the solar system. In the vernacular, that’s called being precisely on the money.

But someone once forgot to change metric values to their American system equivalent, and that launch missed its target wildly. Oops! It seems the advance of knowledge has absolutely no effect on human fallibility. Knowledge and truth do not change this aspect of our nature. We misfire, we trip, we flub our words, we forget names, we fall off surfboards, we ignore a fact in a rush to judgment.

That’s a bit hard to take, isn’t it? No matter how much truth and knowledge you stuff into your head, you can still be a dummy; aka, be human. (My apologies for the tough love.) And in exercising ethics in action, very easy to be wrong in spite of intent.

But all this, and much, much more, from the dropping of a stone. And thinking about it. For centuries.

You Are Always in the Picture

In throwing a stone, of course, we still deal with gravity, but we introduce our own will and purpose into the equation (in the form of mechanical force), and observe a different trajectory. What we newly observe are the actions of man, not a change in the fundamental workings of nature.

Gravity, and truth, have not changed. And we should never make the mistake of thinking they have. The role of man in shaping the world around us permeates all. Our history, our stories, our ethical preferences all stem from adding something of ourselves to the mix.

Our role in shaping the world around us and giving it sense is undeniable. Take the old conundrum called Theseus’ paradox, “a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object which has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object,” in this case, the Ship of Theseus (quote from Wikipedia). We know for a fact that change is constant in the universe, the constant, really, so of course all things do change. We also place names on things and use them for convenience, until we decide not to. So, what makes an object the Ship of Theseus? We do. The Ship of Theseus shall be his, until we decide to call it something else.

There is a difference between what things are in purely physical terms, and the convenience of finding ways to refer to them. Try defining the precise difference between tree and bush, or glass and cup. Or try explaining why things so dissimilar as a redwood and a cedar are both called trees. It gets messy and abstract quickly, doesn’t it?

Notice in passing that social convention, the result of conscious or unconscious consensus, is the key.

Knowledge Is Partial and Evolves

Notice that the facts about gravity — “the little truths” — are always the same, throughout history. It is theory — good working approximations in science, not wild guesses — that develops, and we have a more sophisticated concept, perhaps noticing relations unseen before. Man’s understanding, and ability to perceive through new discoveries and in the light of changing perspectives, is constantly morphing, improving in resolution.

This is basically the case, with many caveats we’ve also developed, but these do not change the overall picture.

Yet, in spite of knowing where we’ve been, there is a needed degree of timidity that is lacking in our many proclamations, religious and otherwise. Man must recognize that his own words and thoughts can be his undoing, blind him. It happens to the very best of us. What happened to Einstein with the “God does not play with dice” statement, a story so well-known I shall not repeat it here, happens to everybody. We take time to assimilate new information, especially when that calls for abandoning secure notions that have served us well.

Caution and reticence born of the recognition of our human imperfections and limitations in knowledge should inform our decisions and judgments. Add your “ever so reliably fallible” nature to the mix, too. That’s more than half the problem, since that part is not at all self-adjusting over time, and improves only slightly with constant discipline. Worth remembering before you insist you are absolutely right. About anything.

Walk softly, and don’t throw stones, at least not when speaking of truth.

* * *

Conclusions to take forward:

  • Man is fallible, in spite of all knowledge
  • Man’s grasp of knowledge is never static, and never complete

Coming up next: Respect & the Inner Light

About This Series: “Certain Violence: Toward An Ethical Response To Extremism”

Please refer to the prior series, Foundational Postulates: Speaking With Faith and Reason, for more background on approach:

Part One: Speaking With Faith and Reason

Part Two: Seeking Solid Ground

Part Three: Does Consensus Open the Gates of Hell?

Part Four: Innate Moral Capacity

About the Author
Hi, my name is William. My professional background is in education and business, with a focus on innovation.
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