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President's Corner (August 06 2022)

Welcome to another edition of The Conductor. Winter is rapidly turning into spring. By the time you read this, the semester will be almost over, and summer will be on the horizon. We are trying to ramp up our activity level following two years of sheltering, so stay tuned to and coming issues of this newsletter. I hope to see many of you at a Gentrain function soon.

As I looked at our class schedule for this final semester of our review of western culture, the first thing I noticed was that the last segment, post-World War II, is no longer the sprint to the end it once was. It is more like a marathon, in terms of both years (75) and cultural upheaval. The structure of society has undergone multiple changes. We have examined many of them and how they were displayed, celebrated, and criticized in art, music, literature, and philosophy as they took place as well as in retrospect. A recurrent theme throughout the period was the rejection of reason as the primary means of understanding society, and greater reliance on emotion. People collectively lost confidence in rational thought as the primary tool to understand and manage the disruption caused by political, religious, and economic changes.

I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago. I have forgotten the specific context, but a friend asked in astonishment if I based all my decisions on rational considerations, an idea quite alien to her. I was equally astonished and replied that I certainly tried to do so. As a young scientist, I rejected any other standard as either foolish or lazy. Time and experience have moderated my attitude significantly, to the point that I wonder if the human intellect is capable of synthesizing the complexity of the world. Is it shear hubris to suppose that anyone can rationally process the vastly different but interrelated factors that affect our lives? Is it even possible to rationally evaluate an unfolding process that we ourselves are part of? Maybe our emotions can process complex stimuli and respond appropriately more consistently than our reason.

I thought about this when I read an article in The Atlantic by Elliot Ackerman. In it he mentions Napoleon's aphorism, "In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one." meaning that morale and dedication to a cause can overcome a deficit of arms and armor. He relates a discussion he had with Andriy Zagorodnyuk, the former Ukrainian Defense Minister. In addition to touting the modernization of his country's military technology, Zagorodnyuk said, "Our motivation - it is the most important factor, more important than anything. We're fighting for the lives of our families, for our people, and for our homes. The Russians don't have any of that, and there's nowhere they can go to get it."

Does this reliance on emotional factors provide part of the key to maintaining hope for our future in the face of so many discouraging developments? What are the best tools to cope with the long list of overwhelming problems facing civilization? We are threatened by Covid, climate change, unstable economic, social, and government institutions, to name a few. I am sure that each of you can add others. How do you avoid despair without indulging in shear escapism or burying your head in the sand?

If you have thoughts about these questions, please contact any Board member. Contact information may be found on our website, (top of the page, "Contact Us") or on the back page of The Conductor. We hope to hear from you.

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