WHY, IN THE NAME OF EUCLID’S BRIDGE OF ASSES, DO WE HAVE TO STUDY NUMBERS THAT AREN’T EVEN REAL?
For as long as imaginary numbers have been taught in schools, frustrated math students around the world have asked the above question in some form or another. The creation (or was it a discovery?) of these imaginary mathematical constructs — a set of so-called “numbers” that could not possibly have any useful applications in the real, physical world — is surely an offense grave enough to warrant a life sentence at the very least. I mean, we’re talking torture here. Right?
Well, as a former math teacher, I am here to offer an apology for imaginary numbers on behalf of the entire mathematics community. But wait. I mean the word “apology” in the Classical sense, as Plato used it. It means “defense.”
Against whom (or what) do imaginary numbers need defending? Well . . . against you, if you are one of the many people who assume that because they are called “imaginary,” they are not real. Actually, it’s not you personally at which I’m taking aim, but rather this misguided and pernicious belief that appears to be holding your mind captive.
Allow me to set you free.
The words “imaginary number” constitute one of the greatest misnomers in all of history. The truth is that imaginary numbers are every bit as real as what we call the “real numbers” (which are also poorly named). This whole thing is really just a big misunderstanding, and we should all be blaming the idiot who named them “imaginary numbers.”*
First, imaginary numbers are, to use a technical term, freakin’ useful. Among other things, they crop up all the time in describing waves. Electrical engineers use them particularly frequently when working with oscillating currents and voltages.
Second, imaginary numbers are downright unavoidable in Quantum Mechanics, which is the fundamental theoretical framework underlying the fabric of our universe’s very existence (along with General Relativity and possibly some additional physical theories that will have to be developed to explain dark matter and dark energy, and perhaps a depressingly, even infinitely, large number of further theories to describe phenomena that we haven’t discovered yet — but never mind that).
Where was I? Oh, yes . . . The fact that imaginary numbers are unavoidable in Quantum Mechanics seems to imply that they are more than just useful concepts, but are actually an indispensable component of physical reality itself – in which case there’s no denying that they are real in every sense of the word.
This is borne out by the simple fact that i appears in Schrodinger’s equation, which is the centerpiece of Quantum Mechanics:
Obviously, the content of the above equation is so trivial that no explanation is needed.** So I will only point out that there is an i — that’s right, the ol’ square root of negative one — contained in it. And there’s no way to get rid of the i (short of renaming it, but that doesn’t count). I challenge anyone to reformulate Quantum Mechanics in a way that doesn’t necessitate the use of imaginary numbers. If you can do it, I’ll give you twenty bucks — which will be nothing compared to the Nobel Prize you’ll also receive. But you might as well try to cut down a tree with a herring, because it can’t be done.
Now let us seek further enlightenment by meditating on how certain other sets of numbers — with which you may be more familiar — were assimilated into our present system of mathematics, and how those sets of numbers came to be accepted as “real.”
First, note that numbers in general are not “real” things (or at least, the extent to which they are real is a matter of definitions and philosophical considerations). The “real numbers” themselves, and even the more fundamental set of “counting numbers” (positive integers) are just conceptual constructs that are useful for making both descriptive and prescriptive calculations about the world.
The utility of the counting numbers is obvious, because you can have 5 apples, for example. Rational numbers (fractions), too, are clearly applicable since you can divide an apple into, say, four quarters. And so it’s easy to see why these numbers are considered “real.”
Along these lines, the utility of imaginary numbers is not obvious. After all, you can’t have i apples (or can you?). But then, you can’t have negative two apples, either; and yet negative numbers are accepted as “real.” Let’s proceed by analogy.
A good analogue for imaginary numbers is the set of irrational numbers (yet another poorly named set). These are numbers that can’t be written as fractions of integers. The square root of two is a good example. Let’s take a moment to see why the square root of two can be argued to exist (i.e., be “real”).
Suppose you need to make a square with a certain area. Could you make a square with an area of 4? Yes. Just give each side a length of 2. How about an area of 1? Yes, with a side length of 1. It seems intuitively obvious that you should be able to make a square with any area between 1 and 4. Just choose an appropriate side length between 1 and 2.
Well, what if you want to make a square with an area of 2? You need a side length that, when squared, gives you 2. Unfortunately, such a number can’t be found among the “rational numbers.” It must exist, though — otherwise there could be no such thing as a square with an area of 2.
And so the set of irrational numbers is born.
Back when this was first done, people complained that such numbers didn’t make sense — which is why they were called “irrational” — and irrational numbers were initially treated with the same contempt that today’s math students direct at imaginary numbers. But the fact is, irrational numbers are just plain useful. And because of this usefulness, the set of irrational numbers joined the other sets in our system of numbers.***
Imaginary numbers come about when you go one step further and define numbers whose squares are negative. Just like irrational numbers, they are simply another set of numbers that have been added to the existing collection of sets. And just like irrational numbers, the reason they were added is that they have been proved to be useful in describing the physical world around us.
In other words, imaginary numbers are real.
END OF APOLOGY
*No, I’m not seriously calling him an idiot. And in fact, it’s not clear that he was the first person to call them imaginary. He did perpetuate the name, though.
**If you must know, the equation says that the rate at which a system changes over time is proportional to the energy of the system. Sort of. If you want a better explanation than that, I can only tell you that even Richard Feynman, a guy who won a Nobel Prize for his work in Quantum Mechanics, said that he didn’t understand Quantum Mechanics.
***Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that in a sense, irrationals are less ”real” than imaginary numbers because in real life, due to the uncertainty principle, physical quantities generally don’t have perfectly precise values, so most of those digits way out toward infinity are meaningless anyway. And while we’re on the topic of irrational numbers, I’d like to share that one of the most interesting facts that I’ve learned is that the vast majority of real numbers are not just irrational but uncomputable, which is a word with special mathematical meaning (see The Information by James Gleick).
I had the pleasure of attending the final round of the Van Cliburn piano competition this year, and the experience inspired me to sit down and write a little piece for the piano. The result, a fiery little ditty I’ve named “Palindrome” (due to its overall form; it is not a strict palindrome), is quite fun to play. My friend Saqib filmed me performing it, and we put together a pretty cool video. Click here (or on the picture above) to see it on YouTube.
If you’re interested in playing the piece yourself, click here to download the score in PDF form. If anyone actually does decide to play it, please let me know. It will make me happy. And if you send or post a recording of it, I’ll mail you a lollipop with my initials engraved on it. There could be no better treat than that.
Everyone knows that kids sometimes say stupid things because they don’t know any better. And comedians routinely say stupid things, even though they do know better (or ought to), just to make people laugh. So it should come as no surprise that putting kids and comedians together creates the potential for a double dose of stupidity. On October 16, this potential was fully realized on Jimmy Kimmel’s “Kids’ Table” segment.
I first learned about this from my wife. She heard that Chinese students at my university were protesting something, but she wasn’t sure what. We weren’t planning to investigate the matter any further, but a few days later she heard a more detailed rumor: Apparently, someone at ABC had said that “we” (meaning America) should “kill everyone in China.”
What? Surely not.
I found it hard to believe, not because I have any special regard for ABC, but because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to face the backlash that would result from publicly advocating genocide. Two possible explanations immediately came to mind: Either the statement had been made by some racist lunatic being interviewed by a reporter, or a talk show host had made a stupid, offhand, sarcastic comment that should never have aired.
Such was our understanding of the situation — a mixture of rumor, disbelief, and speculation — when my wife told me that a friend had invited her to join one of the protests in our area. She didn’t need my advice, but I gave it anyway: “Don’t attend any protests until you’ve seen the original video clip and understand the context of what was said.” If it turned out that a representative of ABC really had seriously advocated killing anyone, I would be protesting too. And so would most Americans, I hope. But before you go out and protest something a person said, you should probably track down the original quotation in context. God knows how easy it is for people to take words out of context. Just ask Obama about his Muslim faith.
Anyway, I found the video clip easily enough and watched it with my wife. It begins with Kimmel asking a group of kids what we should do about the fact that America owes China 1.3 trillion dollars. And then things go awry. The problem was immediately clear. As I already mentioned, the kindling was laid as soon as Kimmel was put in a room with kids. But the spark that actually ignited the fire was the “Yes, and . . .”.
In case you’re not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .”, let me explain it. It’s a way of responding to other people on stage that actors cultivate, especially in improvisational comedy. When another actor says or does something, no matter how ridiculous it is, you respond by accepting it. That’s the “yes” part. Then you add something to it (that’s the “and” part) to see where the idea takes you. The “Yes, and . . .” makes performances flow more smoothly and helps actors to be more creative. It also leads to some absurd performances, as it did in this case.
I was surprised to see that it was a little kid who actually made the statement in question. It was shocking (though somehow not surprising) to hear a kid collapse in a fit of giggles while suggesting that we kill a whole country full of people. And it was offensive, even though he clearly wasn’t serious. I’ve lived abroad in places where I was both a foreigner and a minority, and I’ve heard people say similarly horrible things about Americans. Those things made me feel uncomfortable even when they were said in jest. Genocide jokes just aren’t a good idea, and Kimmel would have been wise to say, “Whoa, let’s not go there.” But instead, he did what he was trained to do. He executed a “Yes, and . . .”.
“That’s an interesting idea,” he said.
Now, what did he mean by that? Actually, I might have said the same thing if I were in Kimmel’s shoes — not because I like what the kid said, but because “that’s interesting” is what you say to extricate yourself gracefully from an unpleasant conversation. And that’s exactly what Kimmel seemed to be doing. He turned to another kid and asked what he thought. So it really wasn’t a full “Yes, and . . .”. He moved on.
Or did he?
A minute later, Kimmel brought the offensive statement back up. Why? Because he thought it was a good idea worth pursuing? No. That same kid had also just said that America should be forced to pay its debt. Kimmel was pointing out the contradiction between the two things the kid had said. It’s possible that he was actually trying to get the kid to think and see where he was wrong, though he was more likely just hoping for further comedic material to come out of the kid’s attempted explanation.
Unfortunately, at this point Kimmel was apparently struck by a bolt of asininity, and he decided to ask the whole group, “Should we allow the Chinese to live?” His posing of this question, along with the other kids’ subsequent analysis of the pros and cons of destroying another country, constituted the full “Yes, and . . .” that never should have happened. Eventually, Kimmel apparently did see that things had gotten out of hand, and he cut off the discussion, declaring it to be “the Lord of the Flies edition” of the Kids’ Table. That comment demonstrates at least some awareness on Kimmel’s part of just how bad the conversation was, since the main theme of Lord of the Flies is that the darkest, most violent parts of human nature reside even in children.
So, what was my wife’s reaction to the clip? (Her opinion counts more than mine here, since she’s considerably more Chinese than I am.) She said, “Oh. It’s just stupid.” Was she offended? Yes. Should Kimmel apologize? Yes. (And he did.) But did she feel a need to join the protesters holding signs comparing Kimmel to Hitler and denouncing him for advocating genocide and manipulating children? No.
What Kimmel is guilty of here is stupidity, not advocating genocide. Nor was he manipulating children. He was using them, to be sure, to harvest absurd statements to get laughs on his show, but he wasn’t manipulating them, at least not in the sense of influencing their thoughts or behavior (though he definitely wasn’t being a good example). Inasmuch as the teaching and treatment of children are at issue here, perhaps it should be the kids’ parents who take the blame. Where else did the kids learn to talk like that? Who made the decision to put them at that table, and who’s really getting paid for putting them on TV and making a national spectacle of them?
The whole conversation was stupid (except perhaps for Kimmel’s response to the idea of building a wall in China), but the biggest stupidity of all was the decision to air the segment. Who was ultimately behind that decision? Jimmy Kimmel? ABC? Whoever it was, it serves them right to take some flak for it. And it’s good that they apologized. But no one was advocating genocide. Obviously, Kimmel didn’t realize how stupid it would be to do the old “Yes, and . . .” after a kid suggests that we kill people. But you can bet he realizes it now.
This is a review of the book God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens’ purpose in this book is to demonstrate that god (he denies the word the dignity of capitalization, even when using it as a proper noun), in any form, is manmade (hence the title of the book). Not only that, but religion (says Hitchens) has been the greatest source of evil in all of human history, and it would therefore be to our benefit to abandon it entirely. To Hitchens, science, free thinking, and reason are the only means by which progress can be made; and religion is the greatest inhibitor of these faculties.
Hitchens’ intelligence is unquestionable. His style is engaging and his arguments compelling. Believers who read this book will be challenged. Apologists stepping into the ring will find themselves facing all their familiar foes — evolution, violence incited by religious belief, historical (un)reliability of religious texts, the odiousness of certain doctrines, etc. Hitchens resurrects these Goliaths with new vigor and clothes them with fresh language, modern perspectives, and a lifetime of personal experience.
Some newer opponents are thrown in with the old, including some of Hitchens’ own theories as to the origins of certain religious beliefs and practices, which he presents as explanations that are more credible than divine revelation. Any believing reader who hopes to persist in faith must have reasonable answers to Hitchens’ arguments, or else abandon reason entirely; and one of the hardest questions to answer will be, “Why do religious apologists have to bend over backwards and work harder and harder to defend the reasonableness of faith, while atheists are finding that their pieces are fitting together more and more snugly, giving an ever more satisfying picture of reality?”
Stanch atheists reading this book are likely to jump up and beat the air with their fists when they come across a point well made, while devoted believers are likely to dismiss most of what Hitchens writes as lies, or at best, misunderstandings. But believers who are already troubled by doubts may well feel like walking away from their faith after reading this book.
Nevertheless, I believe that adherents to any faith ought to be exposed to the ideas in this book, if for no other reason than to come to terms with the ugliness that religion has undeniably wrought upon the face of history. If a religion is to survive as a positive contributor to humanity, its members must be willing to learn from the mistakes that have been made and evil deeds that have been committed not just by pretenders and hypocrites but even by people of genuine faith, and to invest serious thought into taking care that these demons, which have so impartially plagued all faiths, are put to death. And this book certainly brings the demons to light.
In his attacks on religion, Hitchens goes so far as to say that the problem is not simply that we haven’t gotten religion right yet, but rather that there is no right religion. Whereas most debates (in the U.S. at least) center on Christianity (and Judaism to the extent that they overlap), Hitchens goes after the whole shebang, attacking Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He even takes a few shocking swings at the Dalai Lama. Make no mistake: Hitchens will not settle for fixing religion, or for finding a benign one; he wants to see all religions dead.
However, by his own reasoning, the sudden collapse of faith that Hitchens seems to desire might turn out to be a terrible thing. He observes that some who lose their faith are perhaps more dangerous than any other kind of people; but he fails to note that it might therefore follow that the extinction of faith could leave us in a world filled with lost souls who are even more dangerous than the fanatics that abound already. And on sentimental grounds alone, even the average atheist might feel a sense of loss after the complete disappearance of faith. At the very least, religion has produced a plethora of customs and holidays that unbelievers enjoy as much as believers. The death of religion would rob these things of their meaning. It would leave behind a tremendous void. Intelligent and experienced Hitchens may be, but his hope that humanity might be saved by having its religion excised like a tumor is a bit naïve.
A theme Hitchens frequently returns to is the comparison of the development of religion to the evolution of species. In this analogy, society is the primordial ooze in which self-replicating spiritual ideas are formed. Fragile as life, most such movements die in their infancy; but a few take root, and when they do, they branch and flourish like the evolutionary tree, resulting in countless species of faiths. Slight changes in circumstances at critical points in history of this tree of religions might have resulted in an entirely different religious fossil record, just as the minutest of shifts early on in the growth of the biological tree might have yielded a spectrum of life entirely different from what we see today.
This perspective on the development of religion is reminiscent of Dawkins’ concept of the “meme,” a social or cultural analog of the gene, which is a model for a social norm or custom (or religious belief) that is passed on from one generation to the next, capable of mutating and evolving much faster than a biological gene. Hitchens mourns that religion has survived this process, and it is amusing to note that according to his model, it is the process of natural selection acting on memes of religion that is to blame for the resilience and ubiquity religion enjoys today. And so it turns out that one of Hitchens’ greatest allies (evolution) in his fight against faith has already been working against Hitchens’ cause for thousands of years.
If Hitchens expects the masses to hop on his bandwagon, he must be prepared to give them some sort of assurance that extinguishing religion would not result in hell on earth. After all, people are asking: Without religion, what will guide our morals? How could life have meaning? Hitchens tries to offer words of hope in the face of these two questions.
He contends that the true world (as opposed to the world as it is understood within various faiths) is far greater and more marvelous than any holy text or divine revelation has ever been able to conceive, and that humankind, though in fact being neither the ultimate culmination of creation nor the center of attention of a supernatural being, is still greater, nobler, and more full of potential than any religion has ever been able to suggest we are. Without religion, we will be able to understand, appreciate, and even enjoy our world better. And without religion, we will be able to realize the potential of humanity more fully. Faith impedes human progress more than anything else, and only once we have broken free from it (or at least pushed it into an irrelevant corner) will we be able to soar on the wings of reason with the freedom of open minds.
Thus saith Hitchens, at any rate. His reasoning is clear and his intent seems genuine, but he is still needlessly harsh. His writing is at least as caustic as that of Dawkins, and this book seems little different from so many impassioned speeches that have incited mobs to rioting. There seems to be an element of hypocrisy in the utter violence Hitchens and Dawkins would see done to religion when it is the violence allegedly committed by religion that they condemn.
Much of the evil Hitchens blames on religion cannot really in fairness be attributed to the faith itself. True, certain churches and religious officials and devout followers have carried out countless atrocities; but more often than not the perpetrators in these crimes were betraying the tenets of their faith rather than adhering to them. When it is certain people, rather than a faith itself, that deserve blame, Hitchens blames the faith anyway.
When arguing that morality can survive without religion, the basis of Hitchens’ argument seems to be that he and other atheists are, in his eyes, at least as moral as the next fellow. But here there is a missing link in Hitchens’ reasoning, because he is ignoring the fact that he and very likely the other atheists of whom he speaks were raised in religious environments. Indeed, Hitchens goes to great lengths at the beginning of the book to show that religion played an integral role in his childhood development. Even more important than this fact is that the moral environment in which Hitchens lives is one that developed over thousands of years in a religious world. It is ridiculous for Hitchens to pretend that his moral code could have been established apart from the influence of faith. Even if Hitchens claims that his conscience is purely biological, he ought to consider the possibility that the evolution of conscience may have been strongly influenced by social factors, including religion (memes acting on genes).
Throughout the book, Hitchens tries to emphasize our animal nature by repeatedly referring to humans as mammals. But he also exalts our faculty of reason, which sets us apart from other animals. The same thing could be said of conscience; animals may have some basic form of conscience, but certainly not as strong as humans. It seems a slight paradox for Hitchens to at once insist that we come to terms with our baseness as mere animals, all the while calling for us to take hold of reason and let it carry us to new heights. According to Hitchens, we are in an infant stage of humanity, an idea which suggests that we should expect eventually to grow into some sort of advanced stage. This expectation betrays Hitchens’ own desire to be more than a mammal — though I don’t suppose he would be bothered by the seeming contradiction.
I agree with Hitchens that religion has a tendency to keep people’s minds closed. This has bothered me to no end in my own faith, as I am not permitted to question, say, the divinity of Christ. Or if I am permitted to question it, it is only insomuch as the questioning leads to stronger certainty in my doctrine than I had to begin with. Faith does not permit me to truly consider the possibility that Christ might not be divine, for to do so would be to sin. But I am a truth-loving being; and I would want to know if I were being deceived by my faith. I would rather know the truth than live a lie. Like the apostle Paul, I would count myself among those who are to be most pitied if I am giving myself to the gospel of Christ when in fact there is no resurrection. It is ironic that the words of history’s most devout Christian should so resonate with a truth-loving skeptic.
It is these words of Paul that fan the spark of faith within me even as I face Hitchens’ powerful arguments. I cannot shake the accounts that Paul and many other followers of Christ—undeniably historical figures—died for what they believed to be true, when they had firsthand knowledge of what really happened. At the very least, I am convinced that they believed with all their minds that Christ was truly resurrected—else they would not have been willing martyrs. Hitchens seems not to believe that Christ even really existed; I, on the other hand, had been under the impression that most historians at least acknowledge his existence, regardless of how accurate the surviving accounts of his life may be.
Hitchens’ argument against the possibility of miracles seems to boil down to the observation that no miracles have been reliably verified. Here his logic is flawed because he seems to assume automatically that anyone who claims to have witnessed a miracle is delusional and cannot be believed. Furthermore, the scientific verification that Hitchens would require is impossible since miracles are by definition beyond the realm of science. Plainly, Hitchens has already accepted as an axiom that there is nothing supernatural. I support his right to do so, but it renders all of his arguments about miracles completely moot.
Ironically, this materialist view — i.e., accepting as an axiom that there is nothing supernatural — is in a way just as closed-minded and dogmatic as the religious views Hitchens condemns for their closed-mindedness. Hitchens claims that the real world is much greater than any religion has been able to envisage, but he disallows a further expanded worldview by setting this limit: There can be material, but nothing else. If Hitchens really wants to have an open and free mind, he ought not to close it with such finality against the possibility of the supermaterial or of God. And this, too, would be my advice to anyone who reads Hitchens’ book: However convincing Hitchens’ rhetoric may be, keep an open mind.
In the end, what has Hitchens accomplished? Undoubtedly he has widened the schism between atheists and people of faith. He has written a work that can stir up both camps simultaneously. Perhaps a few troubled believers will cast aside their already dying faith; but beyond that, Hitchens has probably only succeeded in inciting people who were already atheists to begin with to start lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks, while in the other camp writs of excommunication are being prepared. If anything, Hitchens has brought us closer to an Armageddon between atheism and religion. And that’s probably exactly what he wants.
[Note: I wrote this review back in 2008. I made a few minor modifications, the most significant of which was to change the statement that Hitchens is gentler than Dawkins. (After reading more of both of their works, I now feel that Dawkins is the gentler of the two.) The original version is on Amazon.com.]
(Continued from “My First Trip to a Shooting Range.”)
Two weeks later, my wife and I attended the concealed handgun course. Over twenty people had signed up for it, so the instructor held it in a motel conference room rather than in his home. The course was made slightly more interesting for us than it might otherwise have been by the fact that we were sitting next to a very spunky woman named Honor.
The class proved to be more political than I would have liked. At the very beginning, the instructor exhorted us all to join the NRA, saying that the NRA was “the only organization standing up for our rights and keeping Obama from instituting a tyrannical regime that would take away everybody’s guns.” He passed around a stack of membership applications, and I was very conscious of other people’s eyes on me when I passed the whole stack along without taking one.
The course consisted for the most part of PowerPoint presentations about gun laws and gun safety. For example, we learned what buildings you’re not allowed to carry a gun in (even if you have your license) and in what situations you have a legal right to use lethal force (i.e., shoot someone to death). And we watched videos of people accidentally shooting themselves (or getting shot by a child).
The most exciting part, of course, was the trip to the shooting range. Everyone was required to achieve a minimum score (by getting a certain number of shots within a certain distance of the bull’s eye), but I noticed that the instructor didn’t bother to actually add up anyone’s score. At the end of it all, I had shot a grand total of 100 rounds from a 9 mm handgun in my life. (In addition to that, I have fired a shotgun exactly once.)
We returned to the hotel to hear a presentation from an insurance agent who was also a Vietnam veteran. His company represents people who have brandished their guns or shot people (legally or not) and are being sued or charged with a crime. Finally, we took the written test, which was about 50 questions, most of which were true-or-false. At one point a student raised his hand during the test to ask a question.
“Is this a trick question?” he asked, pointing to a particular question on the test.
“There are no trick questions,” the instructor said. Then he read the question aloud for the whole class. “True or false: ‘An effective way to keep your gun out of the hands of children is to hide it in your house.’ What do you say, class?”
“False!” the whole class yelled.
A short time later, we each graded the paper of the person sitting next to us. Nobody failed, of course. Then we filled out the forms that would have to be submitted to the state with a fee to apply for our actual licenses. And that was it. My wife and I were officially qualified to carry guns around.
Now for some reflection.
I have to admit that the whole experience did make me into a temporary enthusiast. Shooting a gun was fun. I went home and watched YouTube videos about gun safety and gun handling. I read articles on the debate about whether it’s better to own a gun or not to own a gun.
A lot of the stuff out there is like this video, which takes an insulting tone and assumes incorrectly that gun control advocates would rather be armed with a phone than a gun if someone were to break into their homes to murder their families. (Note to the maker of the video: You’ve missed the point of gun control, which is to create a safer society by making it harder for bad guys to get their hands on guns.) Fortunately, there are other, more articulate gun advocates like this guy, who draws on some powerful personal experiences to argue in favor of gun ownership. I can imagine having a pleasant and enlightening conversation with him even if we end up agreeing to disagree.
The best-reasoned argument in favor of gun ownership that I found came from an unexpected source: Sam Harris, who is normally regarded as quite liberal. In his blog post titled “The Riddle of the Gun,” Harris offers good insight from the gun advocates’ perspective, and I think people on both sides of the issue would do well to understand his arguments. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think the nature of his discussion is productive.
Harris points out (quite correctly) that the oft-quoted statistics about the degree to which keeping a gun in your home increases your risk of becoming a victim of gun violence include cases of mental illness, drug abuse, spousal abuse, etc., and therefore cannot be meaningfully applied to a typical well-educated, mentally and socially healthy adult (such as Harris himself). Evidently, Harris is suggesting that prospective gun owners should be assessed by a reliable external agent and declared mentally and socially fit before they can buy a gun — i.e., we need stricter background checks that include a psychiatric evaluation. (One obvious problem, of course, is that people who are mentally stable to begin with can develop psychiatric issues later on. And then what? Whom do you send in to take away their guns?)
Harris also suggests that guns ultimately make the world a better place. This sentiment is reminiscent of the words of Winston Churchill: ”We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” I am deeply skeptical of this assertion and would be interested to read a more thorough argument. I myself find it hard to imagine that there was much rejoicing in heaven on the day that guns were invented. (In all seriousness, given that there is such a strong correlation between gun advocacy and conservative Christianity, I do wonder how most Christians imagine that God and all of his angels responded to the invention of the gun. Was there a chorus of hallelujahs?)
The point on which I agree most with Harris is that there are two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives here. On the one hand, it is undeniable that (all other things being equal) our murder rate would be much lower if there were fewer guns in America. On the other hand, given that guns are all around us, it is reasonable to argue that it’s a good idea for mentally stable adults to assume the slightly higher risk of keeping a gun in their home in order to have a greater chance of successfully defending their families against a violent attack, should such an attack occur.
Sam Harris is an interesting case because he is an advocate of gun ownership while also being an advocate of gun control. He believes that well-trained, responsible, mentally and socially healthy adults are making a wise decision when they choose to own a gun. And at the same time, he believes that effective measures need to be taken to make it very difficult for the wrong people to get their hands on guns. I wish more advocates of gun ownership thought this way.
That’s all well and good for the question of whether one should own a gun. But what about carrying a concealed gun?
Overall, what makes me uneasy about the concealed handgun culture is that it fosters a mindset wherein we are constantly thinking about the possibility of attack and of having to use a gun to defend ourselves with lethal force. Moreover, it is easy to find oneself fantasizing about stopping a shooter at a school, movie theater, or church. (Don’t believe me? Just browse YouTube videos about guns, alertness, and self-defense.)
It is certainly possible that such a mindset could save your life — and the lives of many others — in the unlikely event that you actually are attacked; but on the whole, I find this mindset extremely troubling. Why? Having such a mindset at all times can make you imagine threats where there are none; and I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone to be going about in a heightened state of alertness while carrying a gun. It is impossible to say for sure, but I would not be surprised if such a mindset were not ultimately behind George Zimmerman’s actions on the night that Trayvon Martin was killed. Zimmerman saw something that he perceived as a threat, and he tried to be a hero for his neighborhood — with terrible consequences.
Incidentally, I found Michel Martin’s essay (on Tell Me More) to be the most profound and productive reaction to the whole Zimmerman affair. Please go listen to it. Don’t just read it; it’s much more powerful when you hear it. Here are some of the most poignant words from her essay:
Think about the conversation we’d be having now if, instead of thinking, “These [punks] always get away,” a certain neighborhood watchman had stayed in his car with his gun tucked in his waistband, and asked a teenager visiting an unfamiliar subdivision, “Are you OK? Can I help?” Then he might have learned that a 17-year-old was trying to find his way back to his little brother, armed with skittles and iced tea. Instead of, well, you know the rest.
There is some logic behind the idea that would-be robbers might be deterred from committing crimes by the possibility that their potential victims could be carrying a gun. On the other hand, an awareness of that possibility seems to me more likely to make said criminals more careful and perhaps more violent when approaching their victims, in order to deny the victims any opportunity to use whatever weapons they might have. In any case, laws that enable the masses to go around carrying concealed guns appear to me to undo two hundred years of progress that we’ve made since the times of the Wild West, when men carried guns everywhere and you could get away with shooting someone as long as the other guy was the first to draw.
Let me close by saying that although I enjoyed my trips to the shooting range, I’m still not a fan of guns — particularly concealed handguns. When faced with the question of whether to carry or not to carry, perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves: WWJCD? That’s right: “What would Johnny Cash do?” To find the answer, go and listen to his song “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”