Archive for the ‘science’ Category

A fun Day 1!

January 18, 2013

Day 1 was fun, with all those introductions and not so much “explanation” from me. Teachers need to remember: students are people too. They deserve to be met and heard, not just lectured at.

So, I’ll put away the Opening Day necktie (I wonder if my footballers and cheerleaders noticed the themetie?) ’til next Fall, roll up my sleeves, and get down to trying to explain a bit more on Tuesday.

As my first class concluded and disbanded yesterday in Room 204, students crowded in for Professor M’s to follow. I made a prediction to them: Professor M will write a long and somewhat difficult quote from the philosopher Peirce on the board. Let me know next time if I’m not correct. (After so many years we can all mime not only our own opening acts but also those of our colleagues,  to a point. I threw a curve this year, though.)

Then I headed back upstairs to my office, sat down at my desk, looked up and across the hall into 304, and what did I see? The confirming remnant of Professor M’s just-concluded previous class:


It’s the very statement I’d just forecast downstairs,  a quote from C.S. Peirce, contending that philosophy is a branch of science.

It’s decidedly not my view. I see science as a branch of philosophy, not the other way around. Some religion, too. It all begins in wonder, curiosity, and plurality. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that, this semester.

But I’m also sure that Professor M will teach a great Intro to Philosophy course. There’s no single royal road to wisdom, no exclusive source and sustainer of wonder.

That’s why we’re co-philosophizing in my classes. It’s gonna be a lot of fun, especially if the theists hang in there with me. I came out of the closet: I’m a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, and when push comes to shove, an atheist. Some also call me an accomodationist. If more ‘ists are really needed, though, I prefer “pluralistic meliorist.”

That should be enough fog to hold off the positivist reductionists, no?

But it also presses the next inescapable question, the one D&D will be taking up with me in our late-Thursday afternoon independent readings course on Religion, Rationality, & Science: are science and religion compatible? Really compatible, not just in the way marriage and infidelity can be (as David astutely noted), but more like salt and pepper?

Or like humans and chimps, perhaps? Evolutionists are often asked, by deeply-confused fundamentalists: why are there still monkeys? Just as you could also ask, more than a century and a half after Darwin, why  there are still theists. Or: why tolerate religion?

My working hypothesis is that there are still theists for the same reason there are still other kinds of primate: common descent, shared ancestry, developmental divergence from the same tree of life. It’s all related, we’re all related, theists and atheists, philosophers and scientists, believers and skeptics.  Same tree, same source, different branches.

I suggested that we preface next week’s discussion of Stephen Jay Gould’s notorious “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) proposal with a peek at Evolution.

This really is going to be a fun semester.

Keep going, keep moving forward

August 1, 2012

The sun at dawn this morning is a fireball mounting the treetops, seeming to shout “get up , get moving!”

Yesterday we got up and hit the road at dawn for yet another distant college campus tour. Kayla in Chattanooga is our favorite student guide so far. “I love my school!” She really sold it. But Older Daughter’s decided she doesn’t like “sprawly” campuses. So far as I’m concerned, they’re the best kind. And we haven’t begun to see “sprawly,” anyway. But, I must remind myself, I’m just the driver.

In our absence the mailman delivered a treat, a “classic reprint” of Dr. Curtis’s Science and Human Affairs from the Viewpoint of Biology (1922). Reading it, I know exactly why he was invited to Dayton to defend the humanity of science and the science of humanity: he was the Carl Sagan of his day.

The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile.

The Cosmos we know today is unbelievably complex and more is being disclosed. Things undreamed of in our philosophy continually appear… The biological discovery of man’s place in nature did more than change traditional beliefs; it gave a point of departure  into a future, unknown but fraught with possibilities.

What science intends, both for the immediate and the remote future, is to keep going. The scientist believes that his rationalistic method offers a means of moving forward… The future is bright with a promise that stands at the threshold of realization.

There you go again, Dr. C., pulling dollars from my ear. It’s a trick that never gets old. The secret? Keep moving.


I believe in magic

June 23, 2012

I do believe, I do, I do! I believe in natural magic, the magic of reality. Don’t read Rowling without it.

…the magic of a thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, of the Milky Way on a cloudless night far from light pollution or of a scanning electron micrograph of an ant’s face. Or, for that matter, the magic of a lover’s kiss. Fairy-tale spells, miracles and myths — they make good stories. But the truth — science — is more magical, in the best and most thrilling sense of the word, than any myth or made-up miracle. Richard Dawkins

The magic even works in Kentucky.

Who knows what great magic may lie ahead, as reality unfolds? As Arthur C. Clarke put it,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God–but to create him.”


“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

And finally:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”

The G-spot

March 1, 2012

Steven & Ben did an interesting report last time in A&P on neuroscience and religion. Is there a “God Spot,” and if so does it strengthen or deconstruct the credibility of religious experience? Is it a transmission receiver? Or is it all in our heads? “Does it mean that God created our brains, or that our brains created God?”

Results so far are inconclusive. One thing we can say is that human brains are capable of transcendence, and in some cases are positively addicted to it. That’s a good thing, though many forms of natural transcendence end badly (in alcoholism and other deleterious addictions, for instance: “sobriety diminishes… drunkenness expands“). But whatever else you want to say about it, you have to admit that our God talk is firmly planted in our species nature. For some, it casts a natural spell that some others would like to break.

Next question: what good is it, all the god talk? And there’s where the conversation gets even more interesting. David says

If you accept that religion has outlived it’s usefulness, and is on balance a negative, then yes it is better to believe religion “too silly, wrong, and dangerous to be counted as anything but humanity’s enemy.” The good done in the name of religion is more of an indication that humanism has progressed despite being held back by religious thought. People often do good despite the history (or even current status) of the tenets of their particular religion.

I’m all for an ever-more-humanistic world, but am still questioning the premise that all religion has outlived its usefulness for all practitioners. I confess I do resonate to John Lennon’s invitation to “imagine no religion,” but also have a hard time fathoming how the most estimable and inspired religionists will replace their moribund pieties with humanism. That sensibility works for many of us, but can it work for everyone?

And, my Jamesian scruples are finally just too uncomfortable with the presumption of prescribing my own conception of the good for others, not trusting them to fashion their own for themselves. “Hands off,” wrote the illuminator of “A Certain Blindness“: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.”

Beyond all that, I’m also still wondering if the ultimate goal of neuroscientific explanation should be the explaining away of “folk wisdom” (including religion and other colloquial forms of discourse) or simply the addition of another descriptive vocabulary – another tool for the toolkit, but not an exclusive one. And I still wonder if the “god helmet” and other experiential catalysts (including drugs and exercise, and the morning coffee I’m tripping on right now) are “artificial” in any definite and useful sense?

So “what does research into our brain indicate about religious and spiritual experiences?” Maybe they know over at the BBC. Or the HBP. Or TED. “How can we best engage our brains to help us better understand big ideas?” Let me know.

What do humans want?

July 8, 2010

“What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish. The fashionable way of doing this is not to blame the Universe– which seems truly pointless– but rather to blame the means by which we know the Universe, namely science.” Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

(Sagan’s text + video from Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe and Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System. The music is Jack’s Theme from the Lost soundtrack.)

summer snapshot

June 26, 2010

Here’s a mental picture of summer, from yesterday, I want to recall when old December’s darkness falls:

It’s early afternoon of another scorching June day, Younger Daughter and I are lounging on floats at the uncrowded Westside pool, she’s giving me detailed instructions on precisely when and how I should deploy the torpedo “bombs” that she will then repeatedly dive in her personal submarine (“which is really just my body”) to recover and disarm, Ira Flatow is speaking from the little Sony I’ve perched at  poolside about artificial lungs and climate change and how warm beverages mirror warm hearts. The clouds drift and gather and separate, the trees across the way at Warner Park loom, the sung whangs down, a train roars past. And it feels like we have all the time in the world to just keep doing nothing. Everything.

Now, consider the misanthropic mind of Ian McEwan’s anti-hero in Solar. He’s a guy with not enough invested in the future. His is the wrong kind of long-term thinking.

A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism. The earth could do without [him]. And if it shrugged off all the other humans, the biosphere would soldier on, and in a mere ten million years, teem with strange new forms, perhaps none of them clever in an apish way. Then who would regret that no one remembered Shakespeare, Bach, Einstein…?

Ask the guy on the float.


May 25, 2010

I got hooked on The West Wing, having scrupulously ignored it for the seven years of its network TV run, when I tuned in to the final episode a few years ago. (It was in May of 2006, says Wikipedia. Four more years?!)

Sunday night I did it again, with Lost. Turns out the show’s creators have an affinity for the late novelist Walker Percy (says my former student), about whom I recently posted.  (Teahouse)

I don’t share Percy’s religion, but I love his books– even the one that slams Carl Sagan (Lost in the Cosmos). As I commented at Will’s site,

Learning of the Percy connection makes me want to watch the whole thing from the beginning… even though I find Percy’s religious worldview constricted even in comparison to his own broader Existential concerns. But so what, there’s just not that much intelligence on display on TV. We shouldn’t take any of it for granted!

One viewer over at salon didn’t care for the show’s “spiritual” dimension, but the Twitter traffic (#lost) has been immense.  USA Today’s reviewer liked it a lot, pointing out a message I can get behind:

“Ultimately, for individuals, saving the world only delays the inevitable. We all die.”

We do, as individuals. And ultimately we do as a species, a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos. Nobody ever really gets off the island.

But while we’re here we can expect to find the most meaning, the most life satisfaction, when we come to realize that we need one another. We don’t need to go it alone, and we shouldn’t want to.

There was a very smart Lost discussion at “On Point” Monday.

Is all this hoopla another indication of the appetite among ordinary folk for more Big Question-type conversation in the culture than TV normally engenders? I don’t know. Could be.

I do know it was nearly inevitable that I would eventually have to watch a show featuring characters with names like Locke, Hume, Bentham etc.

Looks like I’ll be revising my Netflix queue.

Why do you find it so hard to believe? Why do you find it so easy?! The perennial debate. My view: you can’t be lost, on the island, if the island is home-sweet-home. Look at that dot: that’s here, that’s home.

growing the tribe

April 17, 2010

What fun! Scott Pratt‘s Lyceum lecture at our department yesterday (“Creation and Liberation: The Ontology of American Indian Origins”), a spirited defense of Native American traditions and their significant but overlooked contribution to the pluralism of classical American philosophy, gave us lots to think and talk (and later drink and talk) about. If we want to save ourselves from ourselves, he suggested, we have something to learn about our place in nature from our predecessors on this continent.

Scott teaches at the University of Oregon, a beautiful campus I fondly recall visiting for a philosophy conference in February 1999. It was grey and dreary when I left Tennessee, but green and cheery when I de-planed in Eugene. He’s the author of the important Native Pragmatism: rethinking the roots of American Philosophy.

I’m not prepared to endorse his suggestion that native creation myths constitute any kind of “knowledge,” but maybe some of them do embody (as he said) a “disposition” to wisdom that can coexist peaceably and fruitfully alongside so-called western ways of knowing.

In any case, my reading-and-reflecting list is longer this morning, and that’s good. In particular, Scott mentioned George Tinker (American Indian Liberation)and Daniel Wildcat (Red Alert) as essential.

My concern is that we not settle for a kind of pluralism that treats all identity as local and tribal, and thus reduces our best way of knowing, science, to just one more tribe among all the others.  We should grow the tribe, expand our sense of who we are to the species level and beyond. If “indigenous” just means “of a place,” it is crucial to our survival that we understand ourselves as all belonging to the same place, the same nature, planet, cosmos. As Anthony Appiah has written, we must be cosmopolitan, not narrowly parochial and tribal. In that context nature and culture can coexist, and pluralism becomes potentially liberating, not stifling.

(So, I’m inspired to wonder, how about this for a new course idea: Experimental ethics, native wisdom, and environmental responsibility?)

wider than the sky

April 6, 2010

Let’s begin at the end. The epigraph for Unweaving the Rainbow‘s final chapter is a clever thought from Marian Diamond: The brain is a three pound mass you can hold in your hand that can conceive of a universe a hundred billion light-years across. Just like that Contact opening sequence. And as Carl says in “Glorious Dawn“:

I believe our future depends powerfully
On how well we understand this cosmos
In which we float like a mote of dust
In the morning sky

But the brain does much more than just recollect
It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes
it generates abstractions

The simplest thought like the concept of the number one
Has an elaborate logical underpinning
The brain has it’s own language
For testing the structure and consistency of the world

But Emily Dickinson’s brain poem, which (among other enduring words) you can find chiseled in stone next time you amble past Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall— would’ve worked even  better to convey the staggering range of evolved, embodied mind.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky— For—put them side by side— The one the other will contain With ease—and You—beside—

Dawkins: We can get outside our universe, via the models in our brains. And, quoting the Medawar brothers: Only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on. This reminds me so much (as so much does, I admit!) of John Dewey’s continuous human community, but with a truly cosmic spin. I never tire of repeating it, as some of you know too well:

The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.

But what’s cosmic about brain modeling? The opportunity to survey and prepare possible futures for the links further on. When we adopt a truly cosmopolitan sensibility, and see ourselves as short-term residents but long-term investors in an unfolding epic of  human evolution and cosmic development (a distinction Dawkins drew back in ch.8), the sting of mortality desists. We begin to get the message: every improvement has to come about thru the individual’s dying. For this we get to live, for this we should even be grateful. Loyal Rue: “to the extent that I cherish my life, I have reason to be profoundly grateful for my death.” But maybe we don’t have to go that far, if we can begin simply not to resent the brevity of our time above ground.

We get to transmit our genes and our memes on down the line “more solid and secure,” and can take the most profound satisfaction– for some of us this will register as “spiritual”– in contemplating “links” we’ll never touch personally.

I’ve wrestled a lot with the meme question (see “A Pragmatic Perspective on Evolution and Culture“), and am still bothered by some of Dawkin’s formulations on this pregnant topic. I’ll give him the “selfish co-operators” tag and concede their full “futility” by analogy to those annoying, pointless replicators that lay us low and try to murder our joi de vivre.  And ok, a selfish geneplex does not a selfish person make, I get that.  But a selfish memeplex is something else, no?

Isn’t the point here to grab our memes by the short-hairs when we can and prune out as many selfish-inclining ones as we can? Agreed, “memes versus us” is misconceived. Not all memes are hostile (or annoying) viral invaders. Could some actually be our friends, allies, or (at least) tools for forging stronger links and transmitting a more solid legacy?

And: shouldn’t we resist thinking of them as more “fundamental to life” than organisms and persons? The subjective “I,” the person is no more an illusion than any other brain-modeled picture, and it’s one we have good reason– relating  to some treasured old memes about liberty and action– to retain.

But anyway, self-feeding co-evolution is promising. Bombs, books, critical mass, and off we go. The more you have, the more you get. Let’s get more of the good stuff, the compassion and intelligence and personal selflessness so lacking at this end of the chain of life.

So, the big question: What feeds our species-self’s evolution, and our cosmic development? Or, in terms of another analogy: what are the software innovations that might have launched a self-feeding spiral of hardware/software co-evolution to account for the inflation of the human brain? And what’s the best tool in our chest for hooking up those spiraling continuous links to the future of life?

Besides memes, Dawkins considers the very closely related advent of language, map reading, throwing (I love it, in the afterglow of Opening Day! He’s thinking of cricket but it works better with baseball: Could throwing have been the forerunner of foresight? Was the first word a mouth missile?),  sexual selection, and, naturally, poetry.

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meanings in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold into a co-evolutionary spiral?

For once, I don’t doubt. I pick all of the above, and some others we haven’t thought of yet. But we’d better keep on cranking out the metered lines. Emily agrees, though she paradoxically speaks of singing without words:

“Hope” is that thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tunes without the words — And never stops — at all —

And that would be a great place to pause, not stop, but this was only the end of the end. Also worth noting in this chapter, the disquieting observation about co-evolution and children’s brains as natural seed-fields of memetic infection. We simply have got to teach our children well, and stop indoctrinating them.

And, I wonder: Is it reliably true that great ideas in philosophy survive in the meme pool for the best of reasons. Is it plausible that the Internet is the first meme-built vehicle of selfish-cooperative transmission? Is the iPad an example of hardware/software co-evolution? Are genes and memes?

In the penultimate chapter: Bongo Java’s notorious nun bun is back! It illustrates our indecent eagerness to see faces. He wrote that way before Facebook. Talk about foresight. And there’s more: I detect ’90s foreshadowings in these pages of Google Earth, game avatars, and the latest in Virtual Reality (with a shout-out to Jaron Lanier, whose new book we’ll read in “Future of Life” this Fall). Dawkins wrote nothing less than a stunning Book of Revelations. Poke yourself in the eyeball, Richard.

The inverted Einstein face is creepy but cool. We see what our brains have modeled and thus anticipate, we don’t see what they haven’t and won’t. Have you seen the basketball gorilla? They didn’t either. (Oops, neither do I. Looks like I mis-remembered the contents of this Shermer TED Talk, which is nonetheless very relevant to our theme today. Here, though, is a shorter ursine version of the phenomenon. I’m thinking the gorilla display was in a Dennett TED Talk, but I can’t find it.  Did find Dennett on memes, though.)

Here’s the clincher: we all have built-in VR software that more than accounts for our species’ tendency to swallow hallucinations, voices, visions, angels, divine visitations…  The models we build of our place in the cosmos, God-centered or not, are part of the environment in which our genes [and memes] are naturally selected.  “Be suspicious?” I’ll say.

And beware the lurking phantasmal homunculus [scroll down].

A few items from the middle of the book we’ve not talked about but should notice:

Ch.7: James on worms and risk assessment; miscalibrated coincidences that (for instance) turn some parents, even Protestants, into anxious pedophile-fearing basket cases; Oliver Cromwell’s bladder…

Ch.8: Tielhard de Chardin’s “tipsy, euphoristic” talk of mystical energy and strange vibrations, and others on quantum healing, the caring universe, etc. Deepak Chopra stands on the shoulders of giants.

Ch.9: Gaia, and rejecting “combat versus cooperation.”

And one more thing: the law of large numbers. Michael Shermer‘s very good at explaining this. [SciAm via Austin’s Atheism Blog] Here’s Shermer on ABC 20/20 a few days ago, valiantly trying to clean up a miracle mess the producers spend most of the segment making. “Miracles” happen all the time, it’s statistically inescapable and naturally explainable. But is anyone listening? Nowadays most of us build our brain models in collaboration with the mass viewing audience, not around the campfire but around our electronic hearths. Michael needs to revive his own tee-vee show.

If we continue to let our brains model intercessory prayers and supernatural miracles, that’s what we”ll see. We’ll flat miss the gorilla. (Wherever he is!)

Next up: Spirituality for the Skeptic redux, on passion and cosmic trust. (We’re trailing the syllabus by a class.) Good excuse to look at this again, and underscore my claim that we can’t abandon our commitment to persons. “We should never let ourselves off, never see ourselves as just the victims of various forces.” We, not our memes, decide who we are.

NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: be prepared to talk a lot in class, I find myself with very little voice today.

rainbow warrior

March 30, 2010

When we left Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow he’d just quoted William Blake at us (“What do you mean, William  Blake? I mean William Blake!” –Annie Savoy, in “Bull Durham”) in an attempt to open our eyes to the natural splendors of scientific curiosity…

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
Which reminds me of one of my favorite public-art installations, a sculpture in a window-display at Vanderbilt’s Stevenson Science Center that lauds the scientific endeavor: “From atoms to cosmos, reaching ever into mystery…”
This is just the tone Dawkins is reaching for in this book. He is not disenchanted by the progressive scientific elaboration of nature, and he burns with a passionate intensity to communicate the wonders of that quest. It’s not the passion of the antichrist, but of the humble researcher reaching for the stars. His vaunted arrogance is at least half a yearning to enlist us all in a cause he’s sure we’ll be ennobled by.  “We need to reclaim for real science that style of awed wonder that moved mystics like Blake.” If you like Blake and Keats and Wordsworth and Milton (and Kirk and Spock and Picard and Data), you should love Einstein and Hawking and Feynman et al.
But Keats got it wrong, Newton did not destroy all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to its prismatic elements. He (like Alan Sokal) may have winged some of the pseudo-poetry of academic obscurantism, but real  mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Flowers smell sweeter the deeper you delve. (What Keats got right: negative capability.)
NOTE TO DEEPAK: it may be that nobody really understands quantum theory… natural selection shaped our brains to survive in a world of large, slow things, not miniscule quanta. But, beware those who tell you in advance what study will never reveal. As Darwin said, it’s typically those who know little who are so often convinced that we cannot learn more.  They’re typically wrong.
For instance, we know now in some detail how the eye informs the brain about the wavelengths of light. Dawkins is very good on this in his new book. PBS was very good on it in Evolution.
Next time you find yourself on the physician’s table just remember: unweaving the rainbow underlies Magnetic Resonance Imaging and so many other ingenious life-saving interventions. Thank goodness.
But we still need our poets  too. An event that has no before, like the pre-Bang universe (or whatever you’d call it), terrifies our poor reason. Maybe we can appreciate it only through poetry. Maybe we can appreciate science itself and the phenomena it describes, the setting sun and the shifting clouds etc. etc., only through poetry.
So maybe our academic bureau-makers are onto something, with their plan to harness the arts and the sciences in tandem.
A world in a grain of sand, a universe in a little girl’s eye… the stuff of poetry, and of science too.