Who Are We? (Please read the brief Introduction before beginning the book)

Who are we?

We are people—human beings.

Are people all alike?

All humans' bodies are much alike. The most obvious mechanical differences between men's and women's bodies are because of the way new people—babies—are made and fed; other more subtle differences (such as differences in body chemistry) are still being studied.

Humans are currently believed to have originated about a million years ago [2014 update: now, about 1.8 million years ago]. Our particular species is believed to be about 150,000 years old (other species now being extinct)[2014 update: now, about 200,000 years old], so that everyone now alive would be the result of about 4500 [2014 update; now, 6000] generations of ancestors (calling 1/3 century a human generation) having been successful in producing viable offspring. Each of us has a strong ancestry in this sense.

Each person has a body that gets contributions from all of its ancestors (through genetic material contributed by birth parents) to how it looks and works at birth and aspects of how it will develop over its lifetime (heredity effects).

As people grow from babies to adults, details about their lives also affect their physical health, their skills, the way they interact with other people, and the way they think about the world (environment effects). A few examples:

family life—nurturing or neglectful parents;
what they eat—healthful food or junk food;
exercise they get—chores and sports, or couch-potatohood;
substances they use—vitamins, medications;
substances they abuse—steroids, coffee, alcohol, weed;
choices they make—profit from school or drop out;
medical attention they get—splints, vaccinations, tooth cleaning;
what they learn in school—how to think. learn, evaluate choices, and use the tools of thought and communication such as reading, writing, logic, calculation, and community engagement or how to become an orderly consumer;
work conditions—clean and safe or hazardous;
accidents—exposure to toxins, injuries;
quality of physical surroundings—safe housing, clean water, competent police or slums and danger
These examples are appropriate to much of the United States. In some parts of the world, living conditions are such that many people don't have access to a quality of life approaching that available in the U.S., and less familiar comparisons can become necessary, such as:
family life—access to family members or not;
what they eat—something or nearly nothing;
medical attention they get—some or none;
quality of physical surroundings—shelter or none
The mother's environment and health during pregnancy also have an environmental effect on the development and health of the resulting person. Appropriate medical care, proper diet, rest, and exercise—and the avoidance of substance abuse (or even the use of certain substances)—are currently identified as important in this respect.

Heredity effects and environment effects together help to make people the particular persons they become. Genetic mutation, a random effect independent of the biological make-up of one's ancestors, can have a bearing (usually small, but sometimes large) on an individual's ability to survive and to reproduce.

Heredity and the effects of mutations interact with effects of the environment to result in (large scale) natural selection: for their particular environment, some individuals are better able to survive and produce successful offspring than are other individuals.

Each person is born a distinct individual. Luck (always important, but especially so at birth), innate capacities, and choices lead to widely differing life circumstances among individuals. As differences among humans, such superficial ones as hair color, eye color, skin color, gender, Earth-region of birth, physical condition, sexual orientation, and level of affluence are not relevant. Further, personal preferences such as religion and political orientation are not relevant except to the extent that they can make the life of the individual and those he or she affects better or worse. Still, some of these incidental differences can have a profound effect on any individual's opportunity to reproduce and otherwise to be a contributor or a danger to civilization.

How are people different from other animals?

People and very many other species of animals share the Earth. Each species has particular needs that must be met in order for it to survive and to thrive. Species are interdependent, both as competitors and as co-operators, but this circumstance has come about through the evolutionary process of natural selection, not by conscious choices of these species (except for some recent human choices: the number of humans on Earth and the extended range of environmental impact of human activity has increased the level of risk to survival for many species, including humans).

People are animals characterized by having a backbone (they are vertebrates), by producing milk to feed their young (they are mammals), and by having a large and useful brain (they are called homo sapiens—wise man—as a tribute to brain function).

People are different from other animals in that they have the ability to speak, to write, and to develop extensive language and mathematical skills; they have a highly developed ability to make and use tools; they have a highly developed (relative to other Earth animals) capacity to think, learn, and form opinions about their lives and their relationship to the Universe and what is in it.

Do other animals have some of these abilities? It's hard to find out (partly because they can't tell us), but as far as we know now, no other animals have these abilities anywhere near so much as humans do. People who think about these things are very curious about how much certain animals (particularly animals such as dolphins, whales, and primates such as bonobos and chimpanzees) share some of these abilities. As we humans have studied animals more and more, we have found evidence that some animals other than humans experience emotions, use tools, can use symbolic communication, and seem to have some understanding of things we regard as abstract, such as fair treatment.

Walking "on our hind legs" (having upright posture), having an opposable thumb that lets our hands manipulate objects easily, and having a large brain are usually given considerable credit for the advantages humans have over other animals.

How do we humans live?

We live in shelters such as houses, apartments, tents, or caves that protect us from the sunlight, the snow, the wind, and the rain and that give us a place to socialize and to keep our possessions.

We wear clothing, which acts like a very small shelter that goes where we go and which also decorates us.

We eat food that gives us a part of the energy the Sun has earlier given to plants and, if we eat animals, that the plants have then given to animals.

We live in the countryside, in towns, and in cities of the Earth.

What is Earth?

Earth is a planet, a sphere in space, a satellite of a star we call the Sun. It has a solid crust (land) covered largely by water (oceans and lakes).

Some of Earth's land is useful to humans, to other animals, and to plants as living space. The water provides a home for many other kinds of plant and animal life. Animals (and to a much smaller extent plants) use other animals and plants for food.

Earth has an atmosphere—a very thin coat of a mixture of gases we call air (nitrogen, oxygen, argon; water, carbon dioxide, ozone, and several inert gases are also present; hydrogen and helium are present in very small amounts). We need this atmosphere to survive: we inhale the atmosphere, using its oxygen for our life process, and breathe out carbon dioxide, which plants use for theirs.

The atmosphere helps to shield us from meteors and from harmful radiation from the Sun and from space. It is also essential in processing seawater from oceans into fresh water (rain) that we can drink and use to water crops. It lets enough solar energy through to provide nearly all the energy that sustains life on Earth.

The Earth's magnetosphere—its space magnetic field—further helps to protect us from the energetic streams of electrically charged particles that come from the Sun and from space.

Some of the very important natural resources of Earth are air to breathe, soil suitable for planting crops, water to drink and to water crops, trees for building shelters and for making shade and oxygen, oil and gasoline for energy for machines, and minerals for manufacturing, not to mention the resources that other animals and the plants require for survival.

No matter how many people are alive at any one time, all of them have to live on Earth and be supported by its resources. This means that it matters very much how we manage these resources for our use and for their preservation. There is disagreement about what quantities remain of the resources of Earth and about the rate at which they will be used, but there is no disputing that many of the resources are not renewable and thus will sooner or later either be used up or no longer accessible.

Scientists believe that Earth is about 4,500,000,000 years old—roughly 4500 times as long as there have been humans—because of evidence provided by fossils, by radioactive dating of rocks, and by other observations. Earth's resources have developed over this time, forests relatively rapidly and underground oil and water resources relatively more gradually. The continents have very slowly shifted their locations and, in the process, their shapes, over this period through an ongoing process called plate tectonics.

The number of humans estimated to be living on Earth in 2004 was about 6,400,000,000. The number was half this size in about 1963 and is currently expected (U.S. Census Bureau) to reach 9,000,000,000 by about 2050.

Where is Earth?

Earth orbits the Sun once a year (this is how a year is defined), at an average distance of about 93,000,000 miles. The Sun is one of about 100,000,000,000 (a hundred billion) stars of the Milky Way Galaxy (our galaxy is shaped rather like a convex lens with a spherical "halo"). The Sun and all of its planets orbit the center of the Galaxy once in about 200,000,000 years. Our galaxy is one of tens-to-hundreds of billions of galaxies of the Universe, which itself is at present believed to be about 13.7 billion years old—about three times the age of Earth.

How do we get shelter, clothing, and food?

Some of us can build our own shelters out of mud, wood, straw, or rocks or out of human-made materials such as plastic, bricks, lumber, concrete, and metal beams—or dig a cave.

Some of us can make our own clothing from plant or animal parts or from human-made materials such as manufactured fibers and plastics.

Some of us can get our own food by growing it on farms and ranches or by hunting and gathering in wilder places.

Most of us get these things by bartering or by giving money, so that someone else will build or make or grow them for us.

What is bartering?

People learn how to work: to do useful tasks, to make or grow useful things, or to make beautiful things. They can trade (barter) these for food, clothing, and shelter—and for whatever else they might need or want—if they have enough time, energy, and skill to do this.

What is money?

Since it is not convenient to barter for everything we need (we may need something but have nothing the owner of that thing needs), we agree to use tokens that represent an amount of work or goods. Then we can give these tokens—called money—in exchange for what we need instead of bartering. Since we also get these tokens in exchange for work we do, we have to decide what the "token value" should be for all the different kinds of work.

Earlier, people made the tokens (commodity money) out of some commodity such as metal that itself had a market value; then exchanging tokens was exchanging valuable goods even if the participants had no immediate use for the metal itself. Now, money issued as paper or coins by a government (fiat money) has the value indicated because the government says so and because people agree to use it.

Further understanding of the nature of money requires study of the role of banks such as the Federal Reserve Bank.

Why do some of us live close together in towns and in cities?

People can enjoy both being alone or in small groups and being in larger groups. They make ways to be alone or in small groups even in towns and cities, especially by living in houses or apartments in family groups. The larger groups that make up towns and cities bring both conveniences and difficulties.

What are conveniences of living in larger groups?

If there is a threat to the safety of a group, its people can unite to protect one another; together they can have more strength than any one of them would have alone. Sometimes people arrange for special sub-groups to do protective work for them, such as an army or a navy or a police force.

People have different skills and talents for different kinds of work. When groups of people live close together, it is easier to provide and to get the kinds of goods and services everyone needs. Groups called trade unions help workers to get safe working conditions and fair pay. Co-operatives help people to buy things they need at a lower cost than would otherwise be possible by using the bargaining power of many people buying the same things. Businesses and corporations make and sell useful items; they also contribute to the general good by providing jobs for people who will pay taxes and, sometimes, by paying taxes themselves.

People enjoy being together to be entertained or informed by performances and other kinds of cultural, artistic, and athletic activities. Communities get a sense of unity from sharing such experiences.

Each person needs to learn enough to be able to do work to trade with others or to earn money in order to survive. When people live close enough together, they arrange for schools to help with this learning process and for libraries to store information that everyone can use.

Everyone becomes ill or injured at some time. When people live close enough together, they can arrange to build clinics and hospitals for everyone to use.

What are difficulties of living in larger groups?

When many people live close together, there is a large local effect on land and resources. Land that would be available for raising crops must be used for other purposes, such as houses, buildings for offices and shops, and roads.

A large amount of waste material accumulates in a small region (exhaust, dirty oil). Some of it comes from people's houses (trash and garbage) and cars. Some comes from businesses that make useful products but that may release waste as part of their manufacturing. Such waste often affects the quality of land, air, and water as well as requiring extra land for trash disposal.

Any disease that is present in the group can spread more rapidly from person to person.

When many people live close together, there are lots of chances for disagreement. People have to make a system to deal with disagreements so that they don't always just lead to fights. Such a system can take many forms, but in the United States we make rules called laws; these laws describe what people may or must do and what they are forbidden from doing.

How do rules and laws get made?

Sometimes a strong person can make the rules and force almost everyone to do what he or she wants them to do. Such a person is usually now called a dictator. Earlier, kings and queens could do this, but today kings and queens are usually not so powerful.

Sometimes a smaller group of people can be strong enough to make the rules and force almost everyone to do what it wants them to do. Examples of groups with this kind of power in some countries have been a family, an army, a trade union, a corporation, a religion, or a political party.

Sometimes people devise a system for making rules that originate with all the people—the citizens. Usually under such a system, some people's specific work is to suggest or to make the rules (legislators), some people's work is to help enforce the rules (police), some people's work is to test whether the rules are fair and whether people accused of breaking them actually did so (judges and lawyers), and some people's work is to run the system (executives or administrators). Police are usually hired by the executives.

In the United States the legislative, executive, and judicial systems make up the three branches of the federal government. These branches are defined in such a way as to provide checks and balances, which means that in principle no one branch can dominate the process of governance. Thus for example the legislature can enact a law, but its being put into effect depends upon its being signed by the executive; if it is not signed or if it is explicitly vetoed (another right of the executive), the law does not go into effect unless the legislature can re-pass the law (over-ride the veto) by a substantial pre-designated majority. If an enacted law is challenged in the courts, it may be found unconstitutional (more about a Constitution in the next section) by the judicial branch, in which case it is struck down.

States, counties, cities, and so on, are lower, local examples of government.

In a system where the citizens are in control of making laws, it is still possible for powerful people or groups to try to unbalance the system to their own advantage. One of the very important responsibilities of being a citizen is to help guard against this happening.

There are several ways to do this, depending on the seriousness of the threat to good government. If it is possible to insure that news media identify imbalances rapidly and accurately, there is a better chance of being able to take appropriate action in a timely way. Possible specific actions include replacing corrupt elected officials by electing other people to their offices; removing officials from office before the end of their term of service (recall or impeachment); enacting new laws to prevent actions that have been seen to produce dangerous imbalance; civil disobedience—intentionally breaking a law and getting arrested in order to draw public attention to the threat; revolution—forcing those causing the dangerous imbalance to stop doing the dangerous things; emigration—leaving the country and living in a different country. All of these forms of action have their costs, some of them quite high, but so does doing nothing.

There is a wide range of opinion about the role of a government—how much authority and what type of authority it should have. Some people believe a government's authority should be kept as small as possible, limited to protection of the citizens from external threat, the maintenance of civil order, and the providing of such minimal infrastructure as private citizens or businesses are not able to provide. Others believe that a government has a role in protecting citizens from one another in more elaborate ways: regulating commerce, guarding against a "tyranny of the majority," assuring separation of church and state, and in other ways. There are many different models for a government.

What parts of life do laws usually affect?

Laws can be about property: to whom it belongs and how it can be used. They can pertain to how transactions (buying and selling) are carried out. They can be about how people interact with one another, how people use the common property of the group, and in general about anything on which the citizens agree.

Crimes are what people decide are offenses "against the state"—against all citizens, for which the government prosecutes offenders. Examples are treason (betrayal of the group to an enemy), felonies (punishable by prison—typically for a year or more—or, in some states, death), and misdemeanors (punishable by lesser penalty such as prison for less than a year, a fine, and/or community service).

Torts are civil wrongs, the disregarding of legally protected interests (these can vary from one jurisdiction to another) such as the right to a good reputation, and can entail negligence (such as jaywalking), intentional misdeeds (such as assault), and liabilities (such as selling a defective product); contracts are agreements between people to do or not to do something (such as for a builder to remodel a house for a client). When there is disagreement about whether tort or contract law is being obeyed, it is up to the person who feels injured to sue the alleged lawbreaker. Some torts also qualify as crimes.

The most fundamental laws are those about the structure of governance: how the group (nation, state, county, city, town) is to be constituted, how its laws are to be made and changed, and how disagreements about these things are to be settled. For the U.S. this is done through the United States Constitution. Local governments have corresponding fundamental laws. It's a good idea to read and to try to understand the Constitution of the United States. Not only is one reading not enough, the debate about the meaning has been in progress since 1789 and will continue as long as the nation persists. This is because the world is always changing, and the authors of the Constitution were not able to foresee the future any better than we can.

At any particular time, as a citizen of the United States, one is subject to the Constitution and laws of the nation and of one's state of residence (and to ordinances and other regulations of one's county and city). When away from home, one is subject to laws of the locality in which one is present, including those of foreign countries and international laws. These laws are ideally designed to protect the citizen and the communities in which citizens exist and to enable their reasonable pursuit of legitimate interests. This design effort occurs in the context of tension resulting from the genetic and otherwise reinforced drive to compete for resources and power as part of the human struggle to survive and to reproduce successfully.

Civil and criminal law address components of this activity. Civil law structures the government, codifies the civil rights of citizens, and regulates civil interactions. Criminal law specifies what activities constitute crime (as described above) and what penalties attach to violations. Civil rights include (among others) those addressed in the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, limit the power of the federal government by protecting rights of citizens, residents, and visitors. They are worth quoting.

I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

II. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

III. No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

IV. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

V. No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

VI. In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

VII. In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

VIII. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

IX. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

X. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Just as for the original Constitution, the meaning of these and the other amendments is continually under debate both in public conversation and in courts of law (it is evident from these amendments that even the rules of punctuation and capitalization have changed in the last 230 years!). Nevertheless, the general drift of the meaning is clear and should be kept in mind as one forms an opinion about one's responsibilities and rights as a citizen.

How do people get the main jobs in the branches of government?

Legislative and executive jobs in the United States are normally filled by election. Police executives (chiefs, sheriffs) are usually chosen by a responsible executive or are elected.

Judges are appointed by a responsible executive (this usually needs agreement by a legislature) or are elected. Judges are persons, usually trained in the law, who are responsible for conducting trials, in some cases before a jury, to determine whether a violation has occurred and, except when local laws disrupt the process (determinate sentence laws), to use their judgment to decide what penalty, if any, should be imposed.

District Attorneys or Prosecuting Attorneys are usually elected. Their job is to propose and, when a special sort of jury called a grand jury decides there is enough evidence that a violation may have occurred and authorizes a formal acccusation called indictment, to supervise prosecution for potential violations of the law. In some jurisdictions, the Prosecuting Attorney is given the authority to indict.

Those in charge of the various branches of government and their agencies hire many additional people (such as technical assistants and consultants, clerks, police, and firefighters) who help do the work.

Who votes in elections?

For any election, anyone who is legally qualified can register and vote. Legal qualifications can include citizenship, age, living in an appropriate area (residency), membership in a particular political party (for primary elections), and possibly other criteria.

Laws determining these criteria can be changed. In recent United States history there have been several important changes, including the extension of the vote to women, African Americans, and younger people and the elimination of fees and tests formerly required for registering to vote.

Elections can also be used as an opportunity to ask citizens whether they approve or disapprove of laws proposed by the legislature or whomever is authorized to propose laws at the level at which the election is being held. This is called a referendum or a referral to the voters.

Anyone can propose a law by convincing a member of the legislature to introduce a bill proposing that law. Another method is called initiative. Here a citizen arranges to draft the proposed law and gets enough other citizens (a number specified by law) to sign a petition for the matter to be brought to an election without having to be considered by the legislature at all. The initiative process exists in some of the states of the United States, but is not used for national law making.

For election of the President of the United States, voters choose electors to become members of the Electoral College; electors subsequently elect the President. Each state has a number of electors equal to the total number of its members in Congress, that is, two for each state (as for Senators) and one for each Representative (the number for each state depends on its population at the last census). In dominant practice (in all states except Maine and Nebraska) all electors from a given state are expected to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their own state. This means that it can (and sometimes does) happen that the winner of the election (the electoral vote) and the person who receives the most votes from the citizens of the nation as a whole (the popular vote) are not the same person. The idea behind the Electoral College is to prevent dominance of the election by the most populous states and to force candidates to respond to the needs of the nation as a whole.

No one has to demonstrate any knowledge of the structure of government, of the duties of an office, of any issues attaching to a particular election, or of the qualifications of any of the candidates to be allowed to vote. It seems clear, though, that if elections are to produce desirable results, voters need to be informed about the qualifications of candidates and the effects of proposed laws.

How important is it for any particular person to vote?

Each person's vote is supposed to count with the same weight as any other person's vote. This is more or less true within any particular precinct (voting district). This equality can be (and sometimes has been) destroyed by various kinds of fraud, including the use of methods to discourage or prevent some part of the voters from voting, methods to make the voting process itself confusing or capable of being manipulated, and methods for intentionally miscounting the votes (manually or electronically).

Often in response to the question why one should vote, people cite some of the many examples of important elections that have been decided by a single vote. What really matters is that every citizen who cares at all about how the nation and its parts are governed needs to educate herself or himself about current issues, to evaluate candidates and proposed laws in terms not only of personal welfare and profit but in terms of the well-being of as much of humanity and as much of the Earth as the citizen is capable of considering, and to vote accordingly (called voting one's enlightened self-interest).

What kinds of responsibilities come with living in groups?

There is a need for solving problems of transportation, for the providing of utilities such as water, electric power, heating fuels, communications, and sewage, and for providing fire protection and infrastructure such as roads and bridges, public buildings, and the material support of the utilities (wires, piping, etc.).

There also needs to be a system for deciding how tasks are balanced between being done by all the citizens and their representatives or by people or groups acting on their own. Questions about this balance arise in connection with schools, the providing of utilities and infrastructure, the control of available resources, and in many other ways.

Who pays for special needs, and how do they do it?

The people have to find a way to decide what they need and how they will pay for it. Usually, for the things that are for the good of all the citizens, they try to make a way to share the cost fairly among themselves. This usually takes the form of taxes of one sort or another. People have invented quite a variety. The most common are taxes on money people earn (income tax), on certain kinds of owned property (property taxes), and on transactions (such as sales taxes). Sometimes fees are charged for the privilege of doing certain things that affect everyone, such as driving a car or building a store. Decisions about taxation seem to be among the more difficult decisions with which citizens are faced; at least, disagreement is widespread.

Do people also have non-material needs?

Humans have non-material needs as well as the material needs for food, shelter, and clothing.

These can include a need to try to understand their lives more broadly (to see if there is a non-obvious meaning to their being alive): to understand their relationships with other people; the nature of the Universe itself; the place of humans among the animals and plants; why we make rules for ourselves; why human behavior can vary so widely and often be so difficult to accept; why we make art; why we have religions; why we fight wars.

Encouraging your independent thinking about these things is a central goal of this book.

How are non-material needs met?

People have given much careful thought to this question. Ideas about it have led to the kinds of study now emphasized in colleges and universities and pursued as the life work of many people. Some of these studies are called religion, art, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, natural science, social science, and cognitive science.

Other studies that deal more directly with material needs are also found in some colleges and in universities and lead to personal careers; these are called business, journalism, medicine, architecture, law, pharmacy, and engineering.

This way of dividing studies into groups has been found to be convenient, but the borders between them are not always sharp.

Individuals hope to discover work that, in addition to providing income for themselves and their families, provides satisfaction in itself, thus meeting an important non-material need. Often such needs are further met through volunteering work for organizations or causes the individual identifies as valuable for society. Interaction with one's family members and friends can satisfy deep needs for love, affection, the need to nurture, and the need to rest and restore oneself. Physical labor and athletic activities of all kinds help to maintain or regain health and physical strength.

What don't we know?

There is much that we don't know about everything we can think about.

The things we seem to know least about are these:

How is there a Universe?
How are some parts of the Universe alive?
How can living things be aware of themselves?

Most people think about these questions, some casually and occasionally, some as their life work. There is a lot of disagreement about what is known or what can be known about the answers.

A few examples of unknowns in areas of partial progress:

We don't currently know enough about how the human body works; we don't know how to cure some of the diseases that humans get or how to prevent (if one could) some of the deterioration that accompanies getting old. We don't know what new diseases will arise (as have HIV/AIDS, SARS, West Nile Virus, avian flu, etc., in recent times).

We don't currently understand the workings of the Universe on the largest and smallest scales: what are the true fundamental particles out of which everything is made (if this is the right way to ask) and what is the nature of the presumed "dark energy" that powers the apparently accelerating expansion of our Universe?

We don't know how to decide or agree about what is fair in our use of resources and our dealings with other humans. We don't know how to settle differences between or among groups of people without sometimes using war as a tool.

What is religion?

The origin of the word religion seems to be uncertain. It is variously traced to words meaning "respect for sacred things," "to read again," "to bind together," and/or "careful." A religious viewpoint posits a kind of order in the Universe, having to do with the way(s) people ought to live, typically taken to be based in a power supposed higher than human reason.

Human thought in various parts of Earth has been shaped by the experiences of the people in their own communities over many generations. Different groups have come to different sets of ideas (with some identifiable common features) for their religions. Often there is focus on questions about how the Universe came to be, what its purpose might be, how we ought to live, what happens when we die (is death an absolute end or is it a transition to some other kind of existence?), and how we can feel confident that we have right ideas about these things.

Examples of some of the religions of the world (in likely order of decreasing numbers of adherents) are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Chinese traditional, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Judaism. Each of these has a number of branches, and there are many other religions with smaller numbers of adherents than these have. Each, in addition to the direct role it has in its adherents' lives, has been a major stimulus to the world's literature and art.

Religion is attractive to many people because it proposes answers to difficult questions about the nature of the Universe, usually in the form of stories that people either knowingly invent or believe they receive in a mysterious way called revelation; the written form of (especially, revealed) stories is called scripture.

Some of these stories center on the role of a "prophet" (such as Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammed) who may also be thought to have some qualities of divinity and who may further inform the world about a divine "supreme being" or "creator" for the Universe or otherwise offer rules for living. There are strong connections among some of these diverse religions.

Adherents of any particular religion need to decide whether to regard the texts of their religion as a guide, more like a collection of laws, or, as is the case for some religions, a literal report of the intent of their deity; in some cases the religion itself dictates their decision.

Some people are led to suppose there is a supreme being in part because of the things we do not know (as mentioned above). Some thoughtful people see the existence of the Universe as needing an explanation. Such an explanation can be regarded as trying to answer questions about why and how there is a Universe.

It has happened that how questions seem susceptible to answers based on science (more below), in which all conclusions are tentative and all claims about the answers depend on evidence. Within science, why questions have a way of turning into deeper how questions. As a truly simple example: "why is the sky blue?" becomes "how does the sky get its blue color?"; this in turn leads to "why does air scatter light the way it does?" becoming "how do the atoms and molecules of the atmosphere interact with photons?"; and so on. People who adopt this type of approach with the expectation that it will provide whatever answers can be found have put their faith in science.

Why questions that look for a purpose as part of their answer have led to answers based on religion, in which conclusions tend to be regarded as definitive (if not necessarily perfectly understood) and depend on scripture or personal revelation. People who have faith in religion are called believers; those who don't are non-believers, agnostics, and the like (or are simply uninterested in the topic).

Some people embrace both science and religion, taking the position that each answers certain kinds of questions. Some who embrace only science also think something like this: as long as we keep studying the Universe and its parts, we can expect to obtain new knowledge about it, but information about the nature of the Universe is effectively inexhaustible, so we should acknowledge some residual mystery. Or, as a practical matter, one's lifetime is not long enough to allow one to penetrate all of the existing mystery, so some humility in the face of ignorance is not inappropriate. Many such variations are possible.

Some people embrace only religion, but they usually pay close (if often casual) attention to information provided by the methods of science; not to do so would be pretty dangerous: fire, electricity, and gravity would cause them frequent injury, for example.

People can come to religion in many ways. Some are introduced to a specific religion by their culture or their families and are instructed from an early age in the tenets of the religion. If they find the religion satisfying and/or convincing, they may stay with it for a lifetime. Some people encounter religious ideas further along in life and find them helpful in dealing with life's problems or simply find them compelling—even irresistible. Others may adopt the religion of a spouse or a friend, being themselves disposed to be religious but not feeling strongly that the details of the specific religion matter.

A famous case was the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who (roughly stated) recommended that people be Christian believers because, if the claims of Christianity were valid, the rewards and punishments for believing or not believing would be profound, whereas if they were not true, the cost of having lived as if they were would not be too great.

A person interested in one or more religions is well advised to explore their details thoroughly. Pascal aside, the decision to base parts of one's life on something other than evidence is an important one, so it is a good idea to be clear about what one is expecting to get and what one is giving up.

What is science?

The word science comes from a word for "knowing." Science assumes that it is possible to come to know about the Universe and what happens in it. People engaged in science make simplified idea-models of some part of the Universe and try to use those models to predict what will happen under relevant conditions. They then try to observe what really happens under those conditions, and they compare what they see with what their models predict.

A model found to be effective and diverse in its descriptive power is called a theory. A model ultimately shown to be false must be improved or replaced, but may remain extremely useful under restricted circumstances (say, Newton's model of gravity). A candidate model that can never be shown to be false is not acceptable and so cannot become a theory. For example, a model of "stuff" that assumes there exist small particles that can never be detected but that nevertheless play some important role is not acceptable.

Sciences are currently called natural sciences and social sciences. A newer kind of study called cognitive science draws from both of these and from other areas of study.

Natural sciences include physics and chemistry (physical sciences), biology (life science), geology and oceanography and atmospheric science (earth and planetary sciences), and astronomy (space science).

The social sciences include political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, and psychology.

The cognitive sciences comprise contributions from philosophy, computer science, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, biology, and psychology.

Do religion and science provide complementary viewpoints?

As suggested above, some people think of religion and science as being complementary, religion talking about things unknowable (necessarily mysterious) and science talking about things knowable.

Religion offers consolation without explanation and science offers explanation (in the form of description) without consolation. It depends on what we are looking for whether or not we see them as complementary.

What is art?

The visual arts are "painting" (the making of pictures—using paint and other media), drawing, sculpture, photography, cinema, and architecture. Dance, theater, and music are sometimes called the lively arts. Some writers are regarded as artists, particularly writers of fiction, poetry, and drama, but the boundaries are not firm.

Art comprises artifacts and performances in these categories that enrich the experience of life, by entertaining and often by commenting on the human condition in a way that the beholder finds surprising, enlightening, moving, and/or beautiful.

It has been suggested by some that there would be merit in eliminating the conventional distinctions among fine arts, crafts, and labor (which might be characterized as arbitrary and inappropriate) and in coming to recognize and honor artistic qualities in good work of all sorts.

What is history?

We have records of the past through Earth artifacts, writings, pictures, memory, still photographs, voice recordings, films, and videos.

History is the story of humans (if we think of natural history as separate) as crafted from these records, from the view that some events are more important than others, that there is hope of figuring out why events happened as they did, and that there is value for understanding both the place of humans in the world and what is likely to happen in the future, based on understanding this record.

Perhaps history is tending toward becoming a social science; perhaps it is helping the social sciences define themselves better.

What is mathematics?

Mathematics has been called "whatever mathematicians do." More can be said. Mathematicians study systems defined in terms of invented collections of ideas called definitions and axioms (things taken as true without needing proof), trying to learn, using logical deduction, as much as they can about properties of these systems.

An example may be useful. Most people have at least some familiarity with ordinary numbers (called real numbers) and with arithmetic. Mathematicians in this case have developed ideas about underlying principles and have developed ways to generalize what they have learned so as to create (or discover?) yet more elaborate systems.

When we first think about numbers, we might think of the numbers we use for counting. Mathematicians have thought carefully about how to define counting numbers, but we won't need that much detail.

Is there a largest counting number? Evidently not, since we could always add a counting number to it and get a larger one. Are counting numbers the only numbers? Evidently they are not. We have invented the zero and the negatives of counting numbers as well, to give us the integers.

We use rational fractions (fractions that can be expressed as ratios of counting numbers and their negatives) like 2/3, -17/256, and so on. Are there fractions that can't be expressed as such ratios (irrational numbers)? It's pretty easy to show that the length of the diagonal of a square with edge length 1 (called "the square root of 2") is not rational, and rather more difficult (but possible) to show that the ratio of the circumference of every circle to its diameter (denoted as π, called pi) is not rational. The real numbers comprise all the positive and negative numbers (integers, rational numbers, and irrational numbers), and zero.

Mathematicians consider how these numbers combine under certain kinds of operations called addition and multiplication. And so on.

Sometimes the axioms are suggested by things in the "outside world" and sometimes by the wit of the mathematician. It is exciting that sometimes ideas originally apparently unconnected to the outside world turn out to be deeply connected to it. For example, the physicist Paul Dirac invented a mathematical technique to solve an equation he had invented, then found that his solution could be taken to suggest the existence of a never-before imagined kind of particle, the positron, the first-predicted anti-matter (in 1928). In 1933 Carl Anderson first observed a positron.

What is philosophy?

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is the study that tries to figure out how to ask questions that we don't really know how to ask. When philosophers begin to get the questions right, a new field of study is usually born.

Here are some examples of what usually happens. Natural philosophy was the collection of ideas about how the world is, in the sense of what it is made of and how it works; this led to the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and the like. Philosophy of mind and epistemology are the names for the studies that ask how our thinking processes can be understood and what it means to say that we can know something; these are becoming parts of cognitive science. Logic, the study of systematic thought process, is now part of mathematics.

Ethics (moral philosophy) seemed to be a permanent part of philosophy, but recently there have been strong arguments to support a scientific basis for ethics as well.

What is ethics?

People think about the meaning of the ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice, morality and immorality. These are called ethical problems.

Another way to say this: what does it mean to say that someone ought to do or not to do something?

Wrong acts would seem to include willfully causing needless pain or injury to humans or non-human animals and any intentional killing of another human being in a situation that does not require the action in order to protect innocent life.

Is it useful to refer to certain acts as good or evil? While these terms can lead to confusion (since some people think good and evil are things that exist as some sort of forces in the world rather than labels of behavior), they are in common use.

Some people think that there is or should be a supernatural basis for evaluating ideas about good and evil—more, that ethical questions are or should be religious questions. Others believe that a scientific basis for ethics is preferable and available. Each person must decide for herself or himself whether decisions about how to act should be based on careful thought, on religious rules, on laws, or on some combination of these.

What are basic rights of humans?

Some people believe that humans have certain rights just by being human and alive. Usually this idea comes from a religion, an ethics, or a political philosophy that imagines a special value in the Universe for humans, even beyond the natural regard and self-interest humans have for themselves.

Such an idea is expressed for example in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence of the United States:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
History and memory tell us that there are humans who will compete violently for control of resources and for other kinds of power and authority over others; who will enslave and torture others; who will ignore the pain, needs, and hopes of others. Presumably such behavior displays part of the genetic (plus cultural) heritage of humans, which seems to include a possibility for brutality and greed in each of us.

One may ask whether this should be taken as a fact to be accepted or as a problem to be solved.

Civilization and its laws are human-made agreements. We try to live together without unnecessary violence and pain. We give up a certain amount of the perceived freedom to damage or exploit others; others give up some of their corresponding freedom to damage or exploit us. Then we can all devote more energy to productive and enjoyable activity rather than to conflict.

As mentioned, some religions embrace the idea of revealed special human rights. Some ethical systems claim that thought alone can justify the notion that there are such rights.

If neither of those two views should be correct, the only basic rights of humans are "rights" that have been negotiated within and between groups of citizens; their usefulness depends entirely on how wisely people construct them and how vigorously people defend them. It would seem that rights such as those that have been negotiated under the U.S. Constitution would be worth defending with considerable vigor.

What is social science?

Social scientists study aspects of human society and how it evolves.

Both sociology and anthropology study human societies and institutions in order to understand better how they do or might work. Sociology tends to focus on groups and their organization and dynamics; anthropology focuses on comparison of cultures and their development. The distinctions between the two are still emerging.

Economists study the role of markets and their regulation (or lack thereof) to try to understand how buying and selling and the creation and management of assets work to affect human affairs.

Political science asks how the construction of governments and other means for negotiating outcomes of civil strife works.

Psychology is concerned with the behavior of humans and other animals.

What is cognitive science?

The question of how animals can be self-aware, think, and learn is being studied by specialists in biology, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, and computer science, using methods that often combine usual methods of several of these fields. The field of study that is emerging from this process is called cognitive science.

What is business?

People take on the task of providing goods (products like food, furniture, toys, cars, anything anyone seems likely to want to buy) and services (mowing lawns, delivering packages, teaching, practicing law, anything anyone wants or needs to have done by someone else). They charge money for these goods or services, often hiring others to help them and paying them wages for their work. They compete with others who are providing the same or similar goods or services, trying to convince customers that their product is as good as or better than that provided by their competitors, so the customer will pay them rather than their competitors.

These activities are businesses. In the United States a business normally has to get a license from the government under which it operates and to follow regulations established by the government (on behalf of all the people) to assure fair and safe practices.

Some businesses, called corporations, arrange to get the official status of a "person" in the sense that laws intended to protect people will also protect the business (incorporated literally means having a body). This has (through a curious history) resulted in the situation that corporations have been found by the U.S. Supreme Court to have the "freedom of speech" privileges (and other such) that people have. Recently this has been taken as allowing them to lie—just as private individuals are allowed to do—in certain circumstances.

Some corporations are public in the sense that they also get money by selling part of the business to the public in the form of stocks.

An important problem of the United States in the early twenty-first century is that people's ideas about how businesses should operate have not found a clear focus somewhere between the following two extremes:

One extreme sees a business as providing goods or services to the public while also providing jobs for U.S. citizens at wages that make it possible for employees to live with dignity, taking into account their need for access to health care and for the possibility of helping to provide for the future of their families; this model views employees as valued partners in an enterprise and encourages them to work hard for the success of the business. Such a business expects to pay taxes in much the same way as a private citizen would, viewing government as providing a framework for safe operation and an infrastructure to support it. It expects to earn a profit.

Another extreme sees a business as providing goods or services to the public in whatever manner generates the maximum profit for the owner or owners, including any stockholders of the business, by constantly seeking ways to make production more efficient and less expensive, including hiring workers at the lowest possible wage—even if that means using workers in countries where wages are lower than U.S. law allows for workers in the U.S.—and finding ways to minimize taxes paid to any government having any relation to the business.

The first of these extremes can be argued not to be profitable enough for the entrepreneur (who develops the business) and the stockholders (if any); the second can be argued to have dangerous effects on the availability of jobs in the U.S. and corresponding risks to family—and national—stability.

A difficult task for the U.S. government is to find a way to operate that lets businesses make money and provide jobs for U.S. residents, at the same time insisting that they treat their employees fairly. Current law requires corporations to give primacy to profit for the owners.

Doesn't free trade mean a better life for workers in other countries?

U.S. citizens have the good fortune to be guaranteed valuable civil rights and liberties by the Constitution as amended. Public interest in supporting strong educational institutions and in maintaining good infrastructure, together with the creation of trade unions and of certain institutions collectively referred to as safety-net, have contributed to the growth of a large middle class in the U.S. The standard of living has been relatively high, particularly in comparison with so-called third world countries.

On the other hand, U.S. consumption of resources has been out of proportion with the rest of the world. Perhaps people in the U.S. should consume less and others should have access to more; it doesn't appear that everyone could consume at the recent U.S. rate without an undue burden on Earth's resources.

It may be that the merits of fairer distribution of resources outweigh the problems created by the artificial shifting of employment through emphasizing corporate profits over employee welfare. Perhaps the creation of global markets will ultimately lead to a world where corporations will have to take the purchasing power of people everywhere into account and thus will have to find ways to assure that all people are well-enough paid to be able to have lives of decent quality. The recent abrupt transition to out-sourced jobs—jobs filled by people in other countries for lower wages in order to make profits of corporations larger—is nevertheless a serious issue for U.S. workers.

What is the practice of journalism?

Journalists are people whose work is to report to the citizens about events that are happening in the world or some part of it, either through writing in a newspaper or magazine or through a radio or television station's news broadcast. Recently such businesses (or non-profit organizations) have also maintained World Wide Web pages to supplement their regular publications and broadcasts.

The detailed reporting is done by reporters, who are supported by editors and directors. Often the editors and directors themselves provide evaluative or critical (editorial) commentary about these events, particularly those dealing with politics. Editors and directors can establish overall policy for their publications or broadcasts, with some amount of direction from the owners.

Citizens need to get enough high quality information to be able to understand and evaluate actions of government, to decide how to vote in elections, and to be aware of opportunities and possible problems for themselves and their region. This makes it very important to insist that journalists are able to remain independent of inappropriate influence—such as commercial, political, or religious influence—in their reporting.

It is one of the main responsibilities of a citizen always to insist on accurate information from news media and to resist anyone's attempt to distort information in order to manipulate citizens, for political or monetary gain or for any other reason.

What is the practice of medicine?

Doctors of medicine study the workings of the human body. Their job is to help healthy people stay healthy and to help people who are ill or injured become healthy again. They need to know about the kinds of illness a person can experience, both physical and mental, and to know enough about structure and function of the body to recognize when someone needs medical assistance.

Some of their methods include the use of diet, medication, surgery, manipulation of body parts (such as setting broken bones), and counseling. Various instruments have been invented to help physicians and their assistants in performing diagnosis, treatment, and therapy.

Many kinds of specialties exist in the medical field. Some physicians specialize in the care and treatment of particular body systems (as dentists specialize in the health of teeth and the mouth) or particular types of illness (as oncologists specialize in the treatment of cancer).

In some locations, physicians are allowed to aid persons who are terminally ill and in great pain to end their own lives: death with dignity. Some people think this is not a good idea, some because they believe a physician must always try to help any patient live, whatever the quality of the life, and some because national laws currently regulate the use of certain drugs that are commonly prescribed for the physician-assisted life termination.

One problem facing the United States is to provide an effective health care system. The problem has several components. Millions of Americans don't have easy direct access to affordable health care and must make use of free emergency care once serious medical problems face them. Prescription drugs can be more expensive than many people can afford. Physicians are less willing to serve all prospective patients or to practice certain kinds of medicine for fear of being sued for malpractice. Nurses believe they are underpaid for their work.

Health care in many other countries is as good as or better than in the United States, and it is a lot less expensive in some of them.

What is the practice of law?

Lawyers study and learn the laws of the geographical region in which they plan to work. Typically in the United States they must pass a state examination (called a bar examination) in order to be allowed to practice law.

Lawyers who practice criminal law are either defenders or prosecutors. Prosecutors work for the government unit that identifies possible criminal acts by people and brings action against them by obtaining a warrant for arrest from an appropriate agency, having them arrested by police, and bringing them to trial. Defenders are hired to help those accused of crimes establish their innocence; in the United States, those accused of crimes are to be presumed innocent unless and until they are found guilty through a trial. Thus the defender presents exculpatory evidence and oral arguments that are intended to make it difficult for the prosecutor to demonstrate guilt. Either a judge or a jury typically evaluates the contest and decides whether guilt has been proven "beyond a reasonable doubt." (Originally written pre-Military Commissions Act of October 2006)

Lawyers who practice other kinds of law are concerned with helping citizens on both sides of disagreements about contracts, torts, and other matters that may arise. In such cases, they are concerned to establish whether "a preponderance of the evidence" supports what is being contended—are arguments on one side or on the other apparently stronger?

Trials at law are public events. It is very informative and interesting to attend one or more trials in order to watch the justice system in operation. It is an experience worth seeking. Many people never witness a trial until called upon to serve on a jury. Jury duty is also informative, but there is some advantage to observing the workings of the justice system without having the immediate responsibility to do so.

What are the punishments for breaking the law?

When a person is found by a judge or by a jury to have broken a law, the punishment depends on the nature of the offense. The language of an enacted law includes a statement of the type of punishment that applies when it is broken.

Punishments for crimes include community service, money fines, restitution (paying back victims), spending time in prison, and, in some cases, death.

Imprisonment is for a specified period of time; in cases where there is not a determinate sentence law (a recently devised type of punishment), there is the possibility of this time being reduced later if the imprisoned person convinces a judge or a parole board by demonstrating responsible behavior that it is prudent to release him or her sooner than the sentence would require.

Death is today mostly administered by lethal injection. Still current methods include electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging, and the firing squad. Beheading, drawing-and-quartering, boiling in oil, and many other methods are now regarded as cruel, unreliable, or both (many nations of the world have discontinued use of the death penalty).

The possibility of making a mistake about guilt or innocence should make one wary of using death as a penalty (some people believe that using such a punishment is never appropriate—that people shouldn't kill other people when they can reasonably avoid doing so—but there is still disagreement about this).

Punishments for civil offense include fines, restitution, the award of a money payment for actual damages, and the award of a money payment as punishment.

Cities, counties, states, and the federal government operate jails and prisons. Recently some of these governmental units have hired corporations to do this work for them; this gives part of the population a financial incentive to prefer that many people are in prison at any given time.

In the past, people could be imprisoned for owing money, and people could be punished physically (whipped, etc.) for certain violations, but these punishments are no longer regarded as acceptable.

People are beginning to discuss ways of dealing with violations—particularly crimes—that try to prevent repeated criminal behavior by helping the criminal face the victim, make restitution, and try to deal with whatever prompted the criminal activity in the first place. This is sometimes called restorative justice. Part of the idea is that simply putting people in prison is not necessarily likely to make them better citizens. While it is not easy to create the conditions under which a victim and a perpetrator can face one another and try to understand one another, there is growing evidence that both perpetrators and victims have more satisfactory lives when this can happen.

What is the practice of pharmacy?

There are many substances that are useful in helping ill or injured persons feel better and get better. Some of these are chemicals or herbs, including some that have been used for a long time by people who have specialized in one or another form of medicine.

For many years, most people in the United States who are ill or injured have sought the help of physicians or have tried to treat themselves in the case of simple illness or injury. Drug stores (pharmacies) sell substances for this purpose. Pharmacists operate these stores. They are trained to do so, typically in a college or university.

In the United States, drugs are developed by pharmaceutical companies and are put into use under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration. Powerful drug manufacturers can influence the approval process to be too easy, and other powerful groups can influence it to be too restrictive. Some drugs can only be obtained legally with the use of a prescription written by the patient's physician. Other over the counter medications do not require a prescription.

A major problem facing the United States at the present time is the design and implementation of a program to provide prescription drugs to all who need them at a reasonable cost.

What are "drugs" when they are not medicine?

Substances that produce an altered physical or mental state and that have been used by people for recreation or for religious purposes are also called drugs.

Those legal for use in the United States for persons who are deemed old enough include tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. These are legal because of custom and popular demand. Further, tobacco has been an important money crop in some states that have strong influence with the United States Congress. An attempt to eliminate alcohol use by making it illegal (Prohibition, 1920-1933 in the U.S.) failed because of popular demand and because it caused a lot of criminal activity, just as does the fact that many drugs are illegal today.

Physicians also control pain through the use of some drugs that people use for recreational purposes. These include barbiturates and opiates. Currently these are only legally available by prescription. They may be obtained illegally without difficulty, but penalties for possession and use are often severe.

Other recreational drugs include marijuana, LSD, and psychoactive mushrooms of various kinds. These are also illegal to have, to sell, and to use except under prescription or authorized religious permit.

The illegality of these drugs, some of which have been legal at times in the past, has resulted from factors including social and religious attitudes and from confusion about certain tax laws originally intended to license their use. The resultant War on Drugs has been an expensive and ineffective attempt to curtail marketing and use of illegal drugs. It has resulted in huge increases in the number of citizens in prisons, massive gifts of money to foreign governments to encourage them to destroy various crops from which these drugs can be made, and a burden on the time and energy of police at all levels. Still, politicians find that supporting such a "war" makes them appear to be "tough on crime" and "supporting family values" in the minds of many voters.

Abuse of drugs is coming to be regarded as a medical problem. There is evidence that addiction is hereditary. Funds will sooner or later be made available to provide medical assistance to those whose lives are adversely affected. This will save taxpayers billions of dollars and will eliminate much of what is now classed as criminal activity by users and of what is now reasonably regarded as criminal activity on the part of vendors.

Addiction is the source of immense concern, whether or not we decide to treat addiction itself as a crime; the addict and everyone in close relationship with the addict can pay a heavy price involving great emotional and physical pain. Further, the expense of maintaining a substance addiction can lead to the addict's resorting to criminal activity to get needed money. The ability to reason clearly is overwhelmed by the felt need to feed the addiction.

Both methamphetamine addiction and athletes' use of steroids are relatively recent problems. They are beginning to get lots of public attention. In particular, the growing use of methamphetamines is resulting in much property theft and identity theft. We will need to agree on ways of dealing with these problems that protect both society and individuals' civil liberties.

What is the practice of engineering?

Engineers come in many varieties: mechanical, electrical, chemical, aeronautical, civil, biomedical, systems, and others. They provide services that result in or support the production of various products such as biomechanical aids, airplanes, automobiles, computers, etc., and of infrastructure such as roads, sewers, piping (for water, oil, gas, and other products), factories, airports, dams, and power plants.

Courses of study in colleges and universities provide the special training needed by engineers. Engineers who are allowed to approve construction to be used by the public are required to earn a Professional Engineer license.

What other kinds of employment are common?

Many people work in construction-related trades. These include architects, builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, bricklayers, heating and air conditioning specialists, landscapers, and concrete workers.

Salespersons work in retail and wholesale stores or travel to customers' locations to sell their products.

Teachers and school administrators and staffs operate the public and private elementary and secondary schools in which children are taught. Professors and college and university administrators and staffs operate institutions of higher learning.

Farmers and ranchers produce food products and sell them to people who transport and process them, then sell them to grocers who in turn sell them to the public. Some farmers sell directly to the public.

The hospitality industry includes all the varieties of food and beverage preparation and service and of lodging provision and maintenance.

All kinds of structures require maintenance; some require security services. Filling these two needs constitutes additional industries.

People in transportation-related industries operate airplanes, trucks, boats, buses, taxicabs, trains, subways, etc., to carry people and goods where they need to go.

People work in health-related industries as nurses, physician's assistants, radiologists, dental technicians, emergency medical technicians, veterinarians, and in other jobs. Those who provide exercise opportunities, such as health club workers, recreational sports coaches, and the like can be included in this category.

Veterinarians provide medical care for pets, farm animals, zoo animals, and occasionally wild animals.

The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard employ many people in a great variety of jobs related to national defense and to the pursuit of what the government regards as national interests.

Governments hire people to work as Foreign Service officers, police, firefighters, postal workers, schoolteachers, prison correctional officers, and persons who help maintain infrastructure such as roads and sewers.

Many people work for insurance companies. These companies are businesses that make their money by arranging for people and businesses to try to protect themselves from unexpected and unaffordable expenses by creating funds of money to share if needed. For example people who operate cars buy insurance that partly protects them from several kinds of expense: they can insure against damage to or loss of their own car, damage they cause to other people's cars, and damage they cause to other people and their property while using their cars. They pay money, and if they have no accidents or other need for these kinds of expense, they lose the money, but if they have big expenses, the insurance company pays. Many things can be insured: property, lives, health and long-term medical care, and other things.

Most kinds of businesses and public offices need clerical workers, administrative assistants, bookkeepers, delivery people, and computer specialists.

Funeral and mortuary businesses make money by disposing of dead human bodies, usually by direct burial or cremation, and by conducting some of the ceremonies people have developed for such occasions. Similar businesses exist for disposing of dead pets.

In the past many jobs in the United States entailed making products for sale, but now most of this work is done in other countries where salaries are lower; most jobs in the United States now concern the processing and providing of information or other services.

What difference does all this make?

Imagine that we hope to live together peacefully and productively. What would it take to achieve this goal?

Presumably we would need to be able to talk with one another in a way that facilitates clear communication, that allows us to express our own needs and others to express theirs, so that the general (or at least local) welfare can be taken into careful consideration at each exchange. A first step would consist in admitting this fact to ourselves.

How do we decide how to act in various circumstances? Do we need to have some guide other than the random impulse of the moment? This is a central question of moral philosophy or ethics. Some suggestions that people have found more or less compelling include the Golden Rule attributed to Jesus and the Categorical Imperative attributed to Immanuel Kant.

Paraphrasing each: the Golden Rule says one should treat other people as one would wish to be treated by them; the Categorical Imperative says one should act always in such a way that if one's action were taken as implying an explicit rule that everyone else was also required to follow, one would be content. These formulations evidently both rely heavily on the notion of reciprocity. Can you think of other or better ways to answer the question: how should we decide how to act?

What large questions remain to be considered?

Global climate changes and diminishing energy resources present pressing questions for our society and for people generally.

Another large issue concerns the appropriate role of such agencies as the United Nations in helping to resolve international problems. In order to develop effective world cooperation, individual nations need to acknowledge the need for limits on the freedom of any one nation to impose its will on the others.

Another is the need to resolve the tension between the thrust for multinational corporations to impose their will on nations and the desire of some citizens of the world to see individual nations, international regulatory agencies, a world government, or perhaps a combination of these have some regulatory authority over businesses.

In the United States, courts have ruled that laws protecting free speech also protect the right to spend money in support of political campaigns or election issues. This can mean that the person with the most money can have "the loudest voice," independent of any other facts such as qualifications of a candidate for office or merits of an issue on a ballot. Many people would like to change this.

At the time of writing, the balance of power sought by the U.S. Constitution among the three branches of government has become seriously undermined by the introduction of Presidential Signing Statements, the passage of a Military Commissions Act, partisan appointments to the Judiciary, and the neglect of required oversight functions by the Congress. At peril is nothing less than the Republic. Aware citizens, prepared to act, have never been in higher demand.

Where do we go from here?

If you have thought about the questions mentioned above, no doubt you have at some points thought that the discussion was going astray, was biased in some direction, or was just plain wrong. Maybe you found some things to think about that hadn't concerned you before. Maybe you expected to find some things that weren't mentioned at all (if so, try to let me know; e-mail me at reyn@reed.edu).

People of the world work hard to provide for their families; they strive to support their personal values and those of their nations. Often they disagree among themselves about the best way to further the interests of their nation. What basic form of government is best for them? How should money be provided for the tasks the nation tries to carry out (taxes)? What should be the relative roles of private citizens, of the military, of businesses, of concern for the environment, and of religions in setting the national agenda? What is the importance of protecting personal freedoms in the context of preventing crimes against humanity? How are citizens effectively assured that their voices are being heard and considered? How can they be confident that the information they get is reliable? How are national interests to be balanced against regional, international, and world interests?

I hope you will have decided that you must take your role as a citizen seriously. It is a responsibility and a gift from your society and your country. Read. Think. Discuss. Care. Act. Young men and women can begin to contribute to the common good and to practice participation in civic affairs in many active ways. These can include school club-based activities such as (taken from some school web listings) Amnesty International, Model United Nations, Conservative, Speech and Debate, Save Darfur, Multicultural, and Environmental clubs and community partnership activities such as community service clubs, neighborhood associations, Americorps volunteers, watershed research councils, and the like. Non-school related volunteerism can include faith-based and individual activities, including volunteering for associations that aid the elderly or the infirm, for political candidates, causes, and parties, and for organizations that promote the common welfare such as neighborhood clean-ups.

Your choices matter. The world is not something that just happens. Everything that gets done in the world is done by a person working to accomplish a chosen goal based on some person's (perhaps their own) idea, whether working alone or in cooperation with others. People who really want to help make their lives, their neighborhoods, or the world better can generally find ways to do it.

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© 2007 Robert E. Reynolds