Posts Tagged ‘Michael Shermer’

Shermer, Randi, Tom, Kitcher, Edis

February 28, 2012

More presentations on tap today in A&P, on Religion & Neuroscience and “Parenting Beyond Belief”  among others. More Blackford essays too:

Skeptic Michael Shermer’s Believing Brain lays out his own conversion and de-conversion stories at length. The short version is “Why I Am an Atheist,” and more nuance is introduced in “How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science.” He doesn’t much care for labels, but as a skeptic he “simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented.” So he’s ok with one label: Militant Agnostic (“I don’t know and you don’t either.)

He also does a fun spot with Mr. Deity…

and a snappy TED Talk.

Are science and religion compatible?’ It’s like asking: ‘Are science and plumbing compatible?’ They’re just two different things.

Shermer has interesting thoughts on the religious implications of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He’s skeptical. But I, like Sagan and Tyson and Jill Tarter, think ET’s worth looking for.

We, all of us, are what happens when a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from. –Jill Tarter

James Randi is “appalled” that so many of his contemporaries continue to credit religious mythology and to discredit evolution and withhold instruction in basic reproductive biology. Magician that he is, he still can’t make their superstitions disappear.

Emma Tom takes down the “devout bitch” who terrorized her in kindergarten with warnings of leprosy and hell. But she’s ready for her day of reckoning,  when she imagines “the rapturous sky will actually be full of big-hearted gays, compassionate abortionists, and inner city Wiccans.”

Philip Kitcher defends the pragmatic line on religion, from William James and John Dewey. Religious claims may be false, even “absurd,” while religion on the whole may yet be defensible for some on other grounds. He and they hold out for “a secular humanism that emphasizes the humanity as well as the secularism.”

Kitcher’s new book The Ethical Project is up our alley:

Instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as the discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years, as members of our species have worked out how to live together and prosper…

…an evolving ethics built around a few core principles—including justice and cooperation—but leaving room for a diversity of communities and modes of self-expression. Ethics emerges as a beautifully human phenomenon—permanently unfinished, collectively refined and distorted generation by generation. Our human values can be understood not as a final system but as a project—the ethical project—in which our species has engaged for most of its history, and which has been central to who we are.

Taner Edis (Science and Nonbelief) similarly denies “that the question of belief has a single answer true for everyone” and opts for pluralism. What is true and what we should believe, he thinks, may not always converge. I could be wrong, but I’ll bet that’s not going to fly in A&P. I think I prefer James’s own formulation on this point, perhaps (I confess) because it’s a little slipperier:

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart? Pragmatism

Respect, reasonable disagreements, divine evil…

February 14, 2012

Valentine’s Day, another day older (just another day, really), another round of provocative Antony essays in A&P.

  • Simon Blackburn (”Religion and Respect”)
  • Richard Feldman (“Reasonable Religious Disagreements”)
  • Elizabeth Anderson (”If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?”)
  • David Lewis (“Divine Evil”)
  • Georges  Rey (”Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”)

Blackburn wonders how much of an overt show of respect we owe others’ beliefs. David reminds us of Dawkins’ statement: ‘We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.’

Only a theory?

Blackburn’s worry is that “respect creep” begins with minimal expressions of personal respect, somehow transferring from persons to convictions. This question always arises for me at gatherings like the annual Thanksgiving feast, when the most obnoxious Christian pietiest in the house is invariably given the floor to bless the occasion. There’s never the first hint of acknowledgment that not all in attendance subscribe to the prayer-giver’s submissive deference to Our Heavenly Father, or that the sensibilities of such persons merit any consideration at all. I never make a squeak, but one of these days I may just have to counter-creep.

One of Jamie’s atheist friends

says frequently that he finds he can never get too upset for someone holding to a particular religion…  if he had been born in a different culture, or not had access to the right books and education, or had a different family life, or a million other things…. then he would probably still be just as firm a believer as anyone, in whatever religion happened to be local to the environs he came up in.

And that’s why Elizabeth Anderson is grateful to have been raised Unitarian.

Unitarianism is a church without a creed… religious doctrines never had a chance to insinuate themselves into my head as a child. So I have none by default or habit… To me, nothing is more obvious than that the evidence cited on behalf of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is of exactly the same type and quality as that cited on behalf of  [Mormons, Christian Scientists, Moonies, Scientologists], Zeus, Baal, Thor, and other long-abandoned gods, who are now considered ridiculous by nearly everyone.

So maybe I needn’t wonder, after all, what the Belmont Baptists found problematic about my own avowed Unitarianism. They assumed my head was too empty of doctrine. I coulda  said. honestly enough, that I was “raised Southern Baptist” and left it at that. But then, where would I be today?

And anyway, as Feldman points out, “open and honest discussion seems to have the puzzling effect of making reasonable disagreement impossible.” That sounds cynical, but Feldman concludes with a call for “humility in response to the hard questions” and a suspension of judgment… which sounds too tepid.

Before we conclude that unitarians and secularists are immune to religion’s pull, though, consider the puzzling case of Francis Collins. He converted to Christianity relatively late in life, up from secularism.

I’m grateful that the journey that brought me to my faith didn’t rest upon a heavy dose of childhood exposure to a particular religion. That has eased some of my doubts about whether this was my own decision or something culturally imposed.

Collins is quoted by Michael Shermer in The Believing Brainwhere he repeats his claim that smart people believe weird things because they’re so good at rationalizing their emotional commitments. We all are, to an extent. Is that something we should own and embrace, or try to correct?

Collins: “Maybe God gave us our moral nature through evolution.”

Shermer: “So it really does come down to some ultimate unknown?”

Collins: “Yes, it does.”

Enough said?Time to suspend judgment, or keep one’s judgment to oneself? Or, is this the point at which an aggressive critique of theistic evolution is called for?

The late David Lewis’s essay was put together posthumously by Philip Kitcher. Their concern is with what we might call tolerance-creep.  God is a perp, a source of “contagion” that spreads when nontheists shift their focus from the critique of objectionable theological views to the tolerant admiration of theists.

But Mel Gibson (et al) aside, isn’t it true that plenty of “grownup theists” have in fact moved on from cartoonish hellfire and brimstone? Don’t we whip a straw man if we target the cartoon for critique, instead of a “nice version of the story?”

Lewis & Kitcher picture the atheist philosophers’ afterlife as “an eternal seminar of astonishing brilliance.”  No thank you. I liked Furman Hall and enjoyed plenty of brilliance there, back in grad school,  but it’s not where I’d choose to spend eternity.

Rey’s “meta-atheist” thesis is that many theists (at least those with a modicum of science literacy) don’t really believe what they claim to believe. “Religious claims are so intensely familiar that we tend not to hear how truly bizarre and unbelievable they are.” Not hearing is prerequisite to “believing.”

This is what Julia Sweeney reports of her own awakening, in “Letting Go of God.” Raised Catholic, she thought the young Mormon missionaries at her door were spouting nonsense. They were, of course. Lehi? Lamanites? Joe’s gold plates? But then she really listened to the familiar tales of her own Sunday School indoctrination. And  the scales began to fall.

I just wanted to give these two boys some advice about their pitch. (Laughter) I wanted to say, “OK, don’t start with this story.” I mean, even the Scientologists know to start with a personality test before they start — (Applause) — telling people all about Xenu, the evil intergalactic overlord… I initially felt really superior to these boys, and smug in my more conventional faith.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I had to be honest with myself. If someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the very first time, and they said, “We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us — (Laughter) — and she had a baby, and that’s the son of God,” I mean, I would think that’s equally ridiculous. I’m just so used to that story.

We have just one more Antony essay in A&P, and a pot-luck next time: we’ll all find something of our own choosing to comment on, old or new. Hitch, anyone? Or Hitch? Or…? Or maybe some will just want to get a jump-start on our next read, Russell Blackford’s 50 Voices.

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

The Thursday afternoon tutorial on William James I’ve been doing with a couple of students got cancelled yesterday, so I was able to attend the weekly meeting of the new undergraduate Philosophy Club from the beginning. It’s a small but passionate bunch, excited about ideas and eclectic in conversational range. If you like that sort of thing, drop in at 5 pm on Thursdays (James Union Building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, roon 304).

Yesterday’s discussion began with the perennial free will debate but quickly moved on to the nature and existence of souls, the untapped potential of brains, Cartesian dualism, the possibility that we might be living in a “matrix,” collective dreaming, and on and on. Just a bit undisciplined, but what else would be the point and pleasure of an undergraduate philosophy club?

I would only remind them of Carl Sagan’s cautionary wisdom in Demon-haunted World. Asked for his gut feeling about UFOs and aliens he always responded:

I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.  Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

The gut has its place. It’s what I was “thinking” with all day yesterday under my “StL” hat, as if the latest fortunes of a professional sports franchise in my long-ago hometown should have anything at all to do with my outlook on the value of existence. It was my gut that felt annoyed when my colleague (a long-ago East Coaster), fully informed of the Red Sox collapse, admitted not knowing about the Cards’ historic comeback.

Gut-level emotive “thinking” is what childhood indoctrination is especially good at engendering and reinforcing. Baseball is St. Louis’s civic religion, at least since the St. Louis Hegelians folded their tent. They got me early. (I attended my first Cardinals game in about 1966, just before they opened the new stadium that they tore down in 2005.)

Baloney has its place, too. And so has critical thinking. As skeptic Michael Shermer notes, “when we’re growing up we tend to be pretty credulous.” We should all read his magazine.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a world of wonders we’re living in. Our existence is a natural miracle.  Here we are, in the face of “stupefying odds.” That’s worth talking about, every Thursday afternoon. And I’m even luckier, I get paid to do it every single day.

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior

“Our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone”

April 4, 2011

In chapter 3 of Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock calls efforts to stabilize CO2 and global temperature “no better than planetary alternative medicine.” He’s clearly no fan of alt-med. Lots of Gaians are, though, like our indigenous authors. How about it, class? Can a true Gaian be dismissive or contemptuous of holistic health in any form? [My favorite alt-med health care provider]

He reminds us that as oxygen-breathers, we and our domesticated pets contribute substantially to the world’s net supply of green house gases. Thank goodness we don’t have “great and powerful” leaders eager to fix that through subtraction. Or, don’t have more of them than we do.

Michael Shermer’s thoughts about false positives and negatives, and why people believe weird things, ring true enough. The former  are mostly harmless, while the latter can get you killed. Climate denialism might be the very best example. (“How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results“)

But, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean somebody’s not after you, and just because the mobile phone menace was suspected long before evidence could be produced doesn’t prove that it’s a phantom.

It’s our duty as a species to survive, so we may be obliged to pick up stakes and seek cooler climes. Will Gaia help us move? Lovelock says again and again that Gaia’s needs, expressing the interests of the many, outweigh those of the few. Guess which group we’re in?

Last time’s post touched on this: Lovelock has been accused of being a sentimentalizing anthropomorphizer, even after he clarified Gaia’s status as more metaphor than literal fact. And he is one, I think: he’s soft and sentimental for the non-human biosphere, more than for you and me. But he asks a fair question: if she’s not alive, how can she die? “And die she will when the sun’s heat becomes more than can be withstood.” OK, but I think we should revisit Dr. Flicker & Prof. Russell.

What alternative energy form has the best chance of helping offset climate change? Wind doesn’t blow in enough places, solar’s not yet scalable (not sure what that means). As of the writing of this book, Lovelock liked nukes. As for radiation? It’s “a natural and normal part of our environment.”

Right. That’s hollow reassurance these days, isn’t it? Did you hear “This American Life” last night? We owe it to ourselves and to Gaia to listen to those voices from Chernobyl.

Interesting Kuhnian point about scientists being “reticent” in the face of possible peer pressure and scorn, and about the old urban/wilderness schism within environmentalism. Maybe we just need to “queer” the old deal. (“HT Queer Ecology and the Environmental Movement“)

Not sure about his Silent Spring observation, though I guess it’s consistent of him to be unperturbed by free-range chemicals if he’s also down with radiation. Are we really being “hysterical” about the latest Japan crisis?

Did you notice, BP’s trying to drill in the same deep troubled Caribbean waters again. They apparently think nothing’s unseemly about that, less than a year after their own malodorous contribution to hysteria. It seems to me we’re collectively being pretty docile, not hysterical. End of the world? We feel fine.

“Coal is the truly dirty fuel.” And yet, Lovelock finds Mr. Rogers of Big Coal “as concerned with our future as I was.” Well, as long as the dirty energy guys are “concerned”…

How concerned should we all be?

Now, as a result of the crisis in Japan, the atomic simulations suggest that the number of serious accidents has suddenly doubled, with three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in some stage of meltdown. Even so, the public authorities have sought to avoid grim technical details that might trigger alarm or even panic.

“They don’t want to go there,” said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert who, from 1993 to 1999, was a policy adviser to the secretary of energy. “The spin is all about reassurance.” NYT

“Assessing the Radiation Danger” graphic

“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.” Atlantic

As the disaster in Japan illustrates, so starkly and so tragically, people have a hard time planning for events that they don’t want to imagine happening. But these are precisely the events that must be taken into account in a realistic assessment of risk. We’ve more or less pretended that our nuclear plants are safe, and so far we have got away with it. The Japanese have not. Elizabeth Kolbert

[Rousseau, Snow’s two cultures 50th anniversary, food, walking, Geoengineering, Gaian engineering]

Chapter Five concludes smartly:

Perhaps the greatest value of the Gaia concept lies in its metaphor of a living Earth, which reminds us that we are part of it and that our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone, but includes human obligations.

That, at least, sounds a lot like native wisdom. Now we just have to figure out how to apply it. What kind of energy do we need? How much? How quickly?


October 14, 2010

Are words powerful enough to carry us from verbal definitions to ultimate realities? Or are there ineffabilities beyond their reach, but within that of unreasoning faith? What is the sound of one hand clapping, and why do you ask? A few of the questions addressed in these slides:

William James once complained that it would be an awful universe if everything could be converted to “words words words…” He was frequently talked out but rarely at a loss for words. He’d have happily picked up the POV gun and replaced his “conceptual shotgun” with it. But like most of us, while he lived and breathed he never did stop talking.

We were talking about radiotelepathy in FoL class yesterday, wondering if Wittgenstein’s notion that language limits our worlds has implications for the possibility of inter/intra-species nonverbal/nonvisual communication (with or without a microwave boost). We can talk about that today too.

This is one of the trickier topics in my discipline, which does indeed live in words. If something’s ineffable, shouldn’t we really shut up about it? But try telling (or tele-telling) that to a philosopher. They’ll listen; but unlike the best  kabbalahists (not sure the guy in this video is one of the best) and sufis they’ll probably also respond.

Following up last class’s discussion of Aquinas‘s “Fifth Way” Design Argument: a good book-length critique is offered by Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

In his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion David Hume has a character he calls Philo say:

The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable than it does a watch or knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation.

The Dialogues express several objections to I.D., most prominently a rejection of the analogy in the first place.

Hume does not think that the universe resembles a complex machine at all. While the regularity of the laws of nature may superficially inspire the analogy, human artifacts are always clearly designed for a function. It often takes quite a bit of imagination to see what the purpose of some aspects of the universe really is. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane once answered a reporter who asked what his study of genetics told him about God: “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referring to the hundreds of thousands of species of these insects existing for no apparent purpose other than their own reproduction. M. Piggliucci

They’re colorful and abundant, and well accounted for by random variation and natural selection. But now, this would be interesting:


May 7, 2010

Yesterday’s A&S final exam (more about that in a moment) should have brought the curtain down on this semester, but last weekend’s precipitate “act of God” got Monday’s exam postponed. We’ll make it up today.

A year ago on the last day of class I recorded a half-hour radio interview with Gina Logue for our excellent campus station WMOT‘s “On the Record” program, and yesterday did it again. (Stay tuned for the air date.) Each show was devoted to new courses I’d developed for the coming Fall– “Happiness” then, “The Future of Life” now. Wonder what I’ll be pitching a year from now? (Nothing too esoteric,  Gina, I promise.)

Before our exam Kevin gave us his take on the convergence of ancient eastern mystical wisdom and modern-day western physics (and psychedelia), referencing The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Richard Alpert’s (aka Ram Dass) Be Here Now, and The Food of the Gods. Fungi from outer space? Not completely preposterous, he argued. This is of course what Michael Shermer infuriated Deepak Chopra by calling “Wu-Wu”… he also calls it “quantum quackery.” But he thinks he knows why people believe weird things. Smart people, especially.

Then, for our final pre-exam act, Garrett graced us with a song whose second chorus says a lot (if not literally “all”):

All I need is to think freely/I am a part of the world, that’s enough for me/My body is a carbon connection/It connects me to everything (plants, earth, trees, chairs, cheese…)

And fungi?

And then the exam, which included an extra credit question: “In 140 characters or less, summarize what you believe about atheism and spirituality.”

The responses were thoughtful, moving, eloquent, profound. But this was about the only one pithy enough to fit in the Twitter box:

A man without spirituality is already dead. A world without God isn’t.

Or– and this will be our benediction– as Jennifer Hecht said of Ecclesiastes:

We are back to the unanswered questions; the mystery of the world.

We do not have much understanding of how the whole thing actually transpires. Yet even if we knew the technical bits, it is still an example of staggering complexity and beauty.

We see, with beauty in mind, a world that may not have been designed with beauty in mind.

That is the meat of the mystery of the world: it is not a question of how it all works; rather, it is a wonder that it all is and that it strikes us as so splendid.

Enough said, as this morning’s sun just this moment slams into view? Enough for now. But there’s more day to dawn. It’s a wonder.

wisdom of Solomon

April 13, 2010

We finish Solomon’s Spirituality for the Skeptic today. I find much to admire in his approach, though I’m not so willing to spin “poor Nietzsche’s antipathy” as sympathetically as he. [reviewPigliucci]

“I am dynamite!” is more than simply the announcement of an audacious new brand of spirituality, it is the defensive ego-blast of a lonely, insecure hermetic misanthrope. But it’s still fun to read:

I am not a man, I am dynamite. And with it all there is nought of the founder of a religion in me. Religions are matters for the mob ; after coming in contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands; I require no “believers,” I am too full of malice to believe in even myself. I am horribly frightened that one day I shall be pronounced “holy.” I refuse to be a saint, I would rather be a clown. Maybe I am a clown… and the mouthpiece of truth. But my truth is terrible; for hitherto lies have been called the truth. The Transvaluation of all Values, this is my formula for mankind’s greatest step towards coming to its senses– a step which in me became flesh and genius. My destiny ordained that I should be the first decent human being… I was the first to discover truth… Ecce Homo

And the next thing we know, he’s hugging a horse and proclaiming himself Jesus and Alexander. You can call it spirituality if you like, I call it syphilitic madness. A fruitful madness, though, with plenty in it worth talking about. But this guy should be nobody’s role model, pasted on no disaffected teenager‘s bedroom wall.

Consider: as Nietzsche scratched out those lines in his Swiss garret, announcing his unique superiority to all other members of his species, James was wrapping up Principles of Psychology and delineating the common organic  threads that bind us all together. What a contrast. He writes:

The mood of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche, though often an ennobling sadness, is almost as often only peevishness running away with the bit between its teeth.  The sallies of the two German authors remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats.  They lack the purgatorial note which religious sadness gives forth.

And then James cites an extended passage in Genealogy of Morals, and then is moved to deplore "poor Nietzsche's antipathy." But he also adds: "but we know what he means," and acknowledges the seriousness of the issue at hand.
For Nietzsche the saint represents little but sneakingness and slavishness.  He is the sophisticated invalid, the degenerate par excellence, the man of insufficient vitality.  His prevalence would put the human type in danger... "The sick are the greatest danger for the well.  The weaker, not the stronger, are the strong's undoing. if health, success, strength, pride, and the sense of power were in themselves things vicious, for which one ought eventually to make bitter expiation.  Oh, how these people would themselves like to inflict the expiation, how they thirst to be the hangmen! And all the while their duplicity never confesses their hatred to be hatred." [VRE]
Solomon is spontaneously humane and compassionate, precisely where his hero is hard-hearted and insensitive and disgusted by "weakness." Nietzsche was not a great-souled man in the Aristotelian mold, nor is it clear how the "greatness" of wanting nothing different than it is can be distinguished from stoicism or resignation.

However, let us not get stuck in more small antipathies. His persevering embrace of hardship and the polemical energy of his pile-driver prose can be stirring. What I like about this book:

Following up the ch.4 aside about professional philosophers who are rational, reflective, and devoid of passion and spirituality, note my snarky invidious comparison the other day. For the record, and as James would say: I was probably missing the whole inward significance, for my classmate, of the epistemology enterprise. We don’t all wear our passions on our sleeves. Fair enough. But still, there are relatively passionless scholars out there. Lots of them, in fact, and most would happily renounce any interest in spirituality. Their perfect right.

Ch.5. Solomon says the naturalistic version of the problem of evil is marked by the insufferable “why me” whining of those who consider themselves entitled to the universe’s particular solicitude. Good point. But is it really true that there is no problem of evil at all for those who hold low or no expectations for the world’s goodness? Evil and suffering are existential problems for us all, and an added challenge for those meliorists who seek meaning and purpose in their progressive diminution.

Solomon likes James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and notes with approval its affinity for the Taoist quest to harmonize with (and as part of) nature.  Dawkins, we saw in Unweaving the Rainbow, considers the whole thing too New Agey, and now Lovelock apparently agrees with him. But isn’t there some sense in developing this metaphor, so long as we don’t imagine Mother Earth literally to have a mind of her own? Aren’t we it, in fact, the only developed consciousness on the planet? Earth has an ecological intelligence, we can say metaphorically. But we have the brains, and we’re the only ones with a vested stake in the continuance of human beings on this rock.

Nietzsche’s declaration that he was an “atheist by instinct” srikes an interesting contrast to those (like Michael Shermer in the Wall Street Journal last week) who contend that we’re hard-wired to seek God. There are instinctive atheists for whom the God hypothesis entirely fails to resonate, no? Whole cultures and traditions of them, in fact. Didn’t we learn that from Jennifer Hecht?

Time and space grow short. Some stubs:

Ch.6. Dennett, Vonnegut, determinism vs. fatalism, luck, chance, scientism, eternal recurrence… “People die before their time.”

Ch.7. Socrates hated life? Or was it Plato? In any event, Solomon is right (isn’t he?) to say that the meaning of death comes down to the meaning of life. That’s the better frame, as James and Spinoza would agree. And death indeed is not the end, if we can transcend our narrow little selves and identify with the species. Why can’t we?

Ch.8. Curiously, Hegel and Nietzsche are teamed to make a case for the wider self of “Geist, ” for a compassionate community of souls together breathing life into Spirit and the zeitgeist. Sure looks like Fritz is being bent over backward to fit the kinder, gentler dimensions of this program (caring, love, reverence, trust).

But if that’s what survives his dispatch of “soul atoms,” maybe it’s not so important whether he gets with the program in all its details. Or if his “hypersensitive nature” throws up a rhetorical smokescreen behind which lurks a hidden pussycat.  It’s too late, under the moving finger of fate, to worry much about Nietzsche’s status and legacy. The more pressing question: can you and I enjoy a naturalized spirituality as we live forward in our time, and cultivate a thoughtful love of life?

What have we got to lose by trying? The tremendous effort to discover or realize our better selves is what spirituality is all about. This naturalized notion of spirituality is, in this narcissistic and materialist age, something well worth striving for.

Superman, though, is not.

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.

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [What the [bleep’]The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

all fools

April 1, 2010

Would you believe (as Maxwell Smart would’ve put it) I designed our A&S syllabus to bring us to Dawkins’ discussion of “All Fools Day” precisely today?

If so, I’d be flattered. And you’d be gullible, in just the sense he’s about to explain.

But here we are in chapter six (“Hoodwink’d With Faery Fancy”) of Unweaving the Rainbow, back on one of his and one of my favorite themes, childhood indoctrination. I’ll bring baseball into it, if I get half a chance. [A prayer from Dawkins (!) for his daughterGod Delusion on ch’hd indoctrination]

On All Fools‘ Day one year, when my sister and I were children, our parents and our uncle and aunt played a simple trick on us…

The short version of this delightful recollection is that young Richard and his sister went for a blindfolded “aeroplane” flight, much as Red and Rover regularly do with eyes wide open. (American kids are more credulous, naturally.) Their father & uncle provided the sound-and-motion simulation to create a virtual experience they wouldn’t question, at that age. “We had simply been sitting on a garden seat… the tree branches brushing against us had been wielded by our mother and aunt… It had been fun while it lasted.”

Childhood is of course a time of natural credulity, hence vulnerability to nonsense. That’s good, because lots of childish nonsense is great fun. And it’s bad, because lots of childish nonsense paves the way for intransigent adult nonsense. “It never occurred to us to wonder why we must be blindfolded. Wouldn’t it have been natural to ask what was the point of going for a joyride if you couldn’t see anything?” No, not really. “We just didn’t have the sceptic’s turn of mind… such was our faith in our parents.”

That flight was on all fours with Santa, the tooth-fairy, angels, heaven, and so much more nonsense that adults in America don’t know how to question.

But there was a time in our species history when “an experimental and sceptical turn of mind” was more likely to get you get you dead. (Remember Douglas Adams’ whale?) Maybe that’s why so many of us continue to shun it, at our peril. But let’s admit: shunning skepticism is still more likely to get you invited to church and other modern forms of safe-haven inclusion. There’s a risk factor grown-ups (another name for skeptics) must swallow, to affirm their incredulity. Growing up is no bowl of petunias, as not only Dawkins’ pal Adams but also the author of Childhood’s End tried to tell us, but it’s crucial.  Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) won’t make the crate fly.

But there comes a time when we ought to notice, here on our pale blue dot (threw that in for you, James), that “the universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant,” less magical and far more wondrous. A spiritually-mature worldview (let’s say) “that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern sciednce might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Meanwhile, “human children have wide open ears and eyes, and gaping, trusting minds for sucking up language” and folk wisdom. “It must be so because Mummy and Daddy said it was.” How sobering is that, parents! “Trusting credulity may be normal and healthy in a child but it can become an unhealthy and reprehensible gullibility in an adult. Growing up… should include the cultivation of a healthy scepticism.”

Also worth noting in today’s reading: all that talk of barcodes, by which Dawkins means to symbolize “precise analysis” rooted in a pervasively-digitized information environment, brings us closer to what Michael Shermer has called the “soul of science” and an echo of the claim Sam Harris has been trumpeting lately that scientific precision should also help clarify our values. Shermer:

Morality and purpose are inextricably interdigitated — you cannot have one without the other. Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality and purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral purposes, and history brings us to a place where we can employ both for the enrichment of all.Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits, the realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and space elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility: a proud, albeit passing, act in the drama of the cosmos.

This suggests the next step on our evolutionary walk (or our next flight-destination), doesn’t it? Humility should make us more skeptical, less obstinately gullible, and a lot less stubbornly persistent in the delusions of childhood. But we’re going to have to stop giving our children away those first seven years.