Archive for December, 2007

Living with Contradiction

Madeline L’Engle, in Two-Part Invention:  The Story of a Marriage, reminds us:

“The world of science lives fairly comfortably with paradox.  We know that light is a wave, and also that light is a particle.  The discoveries made in the infinitely small world of particle physics indicate randomness and chance, and I do not find it any more difficult to live with the paradox of a universe of randomness and chance and a universe of pattern and purpose than I do with light as a wave and light as a particle.   Living with contradiction is nothing new to the human being.”


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The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About

Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn, two well-known academic philosophers*, are engaged in a meaningless public feud, bringing further “glory” to a profession that has become largely irrelevant, thanks in part to the kind of philosophy pursued by the likes of Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn.  Stuart Jeffries reports in the Guardian that Honderich wrote a book on consciousness which apparently claims that consciousness is just the “external world.”  Whatever he took that to mean, McGinn, in a review published in the venerable Philosophical Review, wrote things like: “This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad.” And:  “It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.” And used words like: sly, woefully uninformed, preposterous, easily refuted, unsophisticated, uncomprehending, banal, pointless, excruciating.

Don’t hold back, Colin…what do you really think? 

Well anyway, for some reason, Honderich cares what McGinn thinks and is ticked off about it.  The two of them have gone back and forth about it in various venues.  Honderich might even want to sue Philosophical Review (!) (and Socrates rolls over…).

Jeffries wonders:

What will happen now? Will Honderich and McGinn kiss and make up? It seems unlikely. Not only is McGinn unrepentant about his review, but Honderich is demanding compensation from the Philosophical Review. “They should not have published it,” he says. “It makes them look ridiculous.” And then he adds something that, just possibly, is mollifying: “In a way, I’m glad it’s been published. My book is now getting the attention it deserves. The mighty little McGinn has done me a service.” 

So at least Honderich hits on a nugget of Wilde wisdom:  The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. 

*Note:  “well-known academic philosophers” means that they are well-known by other academic philosophers, but not in general; “well-known” means possessed of names recognizable to other academic philosophers, but not that their work is known or studied by any broad portion of academic philosophers; “academic philosophers” means, most of the time, academics in a department of “philosophy” but not philosophers.

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Who cares?

Galen Strawson has no future:

If, in any normal, non-depressed period of life, I ask myself whether I’d rather be alive than dead tomorrow morning, and completely put aside the fact that some people would be unhappy if I were dead, I find I have no preference either way. The fact that I’m trying to finish a book, or about to go on holiday, or happy, or in love, or looking forward to something, makes no difference. More specifically: when I put this question to myself and suppose that my death is going to be a matter of instant annihilation, completely unexperienced, completely unforeseen, it seems plain to me that I – the human being that I am now, GS – would lose nothing. My future life or experience doesn’t belong to me in such a way that it’s something that can be taken away from me. It can’t be thought of as possession in that way. To think that it’s something that can be taken away from me is like thinking that life could be deprived of life, or that something is taken away from an existing piece of string by the fact that it isn’t longer than it is. It’s just a mistake, like thinking that Paris is the capital of Argentina.

There’s more to his essay, but who cares?

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan again

New Perspectives Quarterly offers a point-counterpoint with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan on recent examples of “Islamic justice” (I’m never sure whether to put the scarequotes on “Islamic,” “justice,” or both in situations like these):  the rape victim who has to face the lash for “mingling;” the teacher who faces the lash for letting her young students (and I would bet that some of the little darlings are actually named Muhammad) name their teddy bear “Muhammad,” which is somehow blasphemous; and the writer and activist who is hounded wherever she goes simply because she advocates for democracy.  Hirsi Ali is angry because of the absence of the so-called Muslim moderates in condemning these travesties, and calls out Ramadan for his apparent “indifference.”  Ramadan responds by reminding Hirsi Ali (and the rest of us) that he has spoken out against all acts of manifest injustice carried out in the name of Islam, as well as against “defenders” of Islam who find criticism such as Hirsi Ali is leveling to be simply about the West’s disdain for Islam.  Ramadan’s argument with Hirsi Ali is more about tactics than Hirsi Ali admits.  The two are appalled by the same things, but Hirsi Ali–like a Dawkins or Sam Harris–won’t be satisfied until the religion itself is consigned to the dustbin of history.  Ramadan, not unlike (atheist) Jeffrey Stout in his American Academy of Religion presidential address, “The Folly of Secularism,” argues that religion is not going to go away, and that voices like Hirsi Ali’s will not be effectively heard in the Muslim world.  Ramadan dips to ad hominem when he insinuates that Hirsi Ali is merely trying to please the West, but that aside, his argument is the more persuasive in terms of how to proceed.  Nevertheless, we still need Ayaan Hirsi Ali to keep the West alert to the sickness in the Muslim culture, a sickness that Tariq Ramadan is hoping to treat for the good of all concerned, but especially for the good of Islam itself.

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Ode to Christmas

It would not be Christmas without Chuck Kraemer’s “Ode to Christmas.”  Watch it here (scroll to near the bottom of the page and look for the following picture).

Chuck Kraemer

You can also listen to him at NPR. 

Oh, Lord, what have we done to Christmas???

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The Science of Santa Claus

[DISCLAIMER:  These are not my calculations.  I am merely reporting in the interest of recognizing kill-joy science at its finest….]

What does SCIENCE have to say about Santa Claus?  Could he really do what he purports to do?  Some considerations:

1)  No known species of reindeer can fly.  BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2)  There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau.  At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.

3)  Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical).

This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.

Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound.  For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4)  The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.

On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine.

We need 214,200 reindeer.  This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5)  353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.  The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy.  Per second. Each.

In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second.

Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity.  A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion – If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

(an oldy-but-goody, this SCIENCE is available in one form or another at numerous sites around the web, thanks to some (at least to me) anonymous physicist(s) with way too much disposable time for calculating stuff…)

Merry Christmas to All!!

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God Rest Ye, Village Atheists

Sam Harris is taking time off from saying superficial (but highly lucrative) things about religion to saying less lucrative but equally superficial things about neuroscience.  Time reports his new paper

suggests that within the brain pan, at least, the distinction between objective and subjective is not so clear-cut. Although more complex assertions may get analyzed in so-called “higher” areas of the brain, all seem to get their final stamp of “belief” or disbelief in “primitive” locales traditionally associated with emotions or taste and odor. Even “2 + 2 = 4,” on some level, is a question of taste. Thus, the statement “that just doesn’t smell right to me” may be more literal than we thought.

Wow!  In 2007 we are learning that “the distinction between objective and subjective is not so clear cut.”  That smells about right to me.  

p.s. regarding why we should care: the Time story asks:

Is there a practical application here? He speculates that if belief brain scanning were sufficiently refined it could act as an accurate lie detector….

Naturally!  Sam Harris, scanning brains, rounding up the usual suspects.  If you don’t believe the right stuff, he’ll know.  Makes me want to shout: Totalitarians of the world, unite!

Most important:  the Time report comes complete with a picture of a brain scan.  And we know what that means….

Well, all right then, I give up:  count me in.  I’d like to analyze a scan of Richard Dawkins’ brain.  I’d like to know if he writes this stuff because he really believes it or because he is struggling not to believe something he actually does believe but is too appalled to admit.  Harris’ brain scanner should let us know once and for all about any sort of zealotry.

For instance, wouldn’t you want to see a scan of Richard’s brain when we writes this:

We’d have been intrigued if our scripture teachers had come clean and told us that Isaiah’s Hebrew for “young woman” was accidentally mistranslated as “virgin” in the Greek Septuagint (an easy mistake to make: think of the English word “maiden”). To say that this little error was to have repercussions out of all proportion would be putting it mildly.  From it flowed the whole Virgin Mary myth, the kitsch “Our Lady” of Catholic grotto-idolatry, the sub-paedophile spectacle of young girls in virginal white First Communion dresses, the goddess status of not just Mary herself but a pantheon of local “manifestations.”

Oh, sure, there’s a lot of valuable philological information here, but I am interested in “the sub-paedophile spectacle of young girls in virginal white….”  Whatcha thinking about, Rich?

Okay, I’m teasing.  But I’m as wary of street corner preachers as I am of lecture-circuit atheists.  Neither will rest until the rest of us see it their way–even if they have to use brain scans on us.

But Dawkins makes some good points in his piece, points a Christian could heartily endorse as well, and I want to give him credit.  He complains:

In some states of the US, public display of cribs and similar Christian symbols is outlawed for fear of offending Jews and others (not atheists). Seasonal marketing appetites are satisfied nationwide by a super-ecumenical “Holiday Season”, into which are commandeered the Jewish Hanukkah, Muslim Ramadan, and the gratuitously fabricated “Kwanzaa” (invented in 1966 so that African Americans could celebrate their very own winter solstice). Americans coyly wish each other “Happy Holiday Season” and spend vast amounts on “Holiday” presents. For all I know, they hang up a “Holiday stocking” and sing “Holiday carols” around the decorated “Holiday tree”. A red-coated “Father Holiday” has not so far been sighted, but this is surely only a matter of time.  For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I’d rather wish you “Happy Christmas” than “Happy Holiday Season.”

In Pittsburgh, where we used to live, they took to celebrating “Sparkle Season.”  I used to love to watch my up-chuck freeze on the sidewalk whenever I saw the downtown banners.

Also, Dawkins reminds us that Jesus’ birthday (whether it was or wasn’t when we celebrate it) is not the only birthday we can celebrate on December 25.  It is also

the birthday of one of the truly great men ever to walk the earth, Sir Isaac Newton. His achievements might justly be celebrated wherever his truths hold sway. And that means from one end of the universe to the other. Happy Newton Day!

Well, Newton’s birthday was on 25 December if you happen to be using the Julian calendar, and not the Gregorian calendar which we use today.  I guess it’s all relative, as they say.  And by the way, this is the same Newton who is reported to have said

“Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Anyway, Merry Christmas and Happy Newton Day, indeed!

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This is serious, by the way:  Apparently sh*t happens due to something like the darwinian “Origin of Feces“? 

Every now and then, science puts forth a theory that — at least on a bitterly cold December day, with a flu infection stirring fatigue in a certain science journalist — resonates with grand poetic truth. The theory: the incredible complexity of life on Earth, the myriad of forms and forms and functions, owes its existence to poop.

Fecal matters!  

Speaking of which, there are a couple of new-ish books on the subject:  What’s Your Poo Telling You? by M.D., Anish Sheth and Josh Richman helps you know how you’re doing by your doody.  And Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product by Dave Praeger, who sniffs out all things scatalogical on “your #1 source for your #2 business,”

There are some interesting resources on the web, of course, including this FAQ (“The Scoop on Poop”) and this one at MedFriendy.

I don’t mean to dump (ahem) all this on you, but if you google “poop” you will get about 1,300,000 returns.  If you google “science religion humanities,” you will get only 215,000 returns (but Metanexus will be #1, and that’s no #2!).  Apparently, we have more interest in poop than physics, philosophy, or Protestantism put together.  I’m sure there’s a reason.  I’d look into it further, but  I’m (…wait for it…..) pooped!

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Political Religion

Yesterday, Judith Warner posted an op-ed at the NYT, “Holier Than They,” that has drawn so far 108 comments.  Upon reading the piece and the comments, I came away with conflicting thoughts:  I agree completely, and this is all wrong.  In essence, Warner is challenging Christians–specifically “conservative” Christians–to reexamine the tenets of their faith to see if it really is all about “gays, abortion, and low taxes,” so to speak.  Of course it isn’t, and Warner is right to call out those who want to be seen publicly as committed Christians (and especially those who want to leverage the label for political gain) who cannot seem to commit to the teachings of Jesus.  So I agree completely–this is the right challenge.

But then the irritation sets in.  First, (and I am not finding fault with Warner in this case) what does the word “conservative” mean?  I know who Warner is identifying, so I think I know what she would mean by “conservative Christian.”  But it seems to me that the “conservative” in “conservative Christian” is more a political than a theological designation.  It seems to me, rather, that “conservative Christians” take a lot of liberties with their Christianity, picking and choosing interpretations of Scripture and tradition as it suits the “conservative” political position that appears to be of more ultimate concern.  And what counts as the “conservative” political position is murky, too.  How can libertarians and “social conservatives” both be seen in the same political territory?  They couldn’t agree less, except in the question of the size of the federal government–hardly a central theological concern, by the way.  Political theologies of any flavor are always more political than theological in the practical sense (although let’s not forget that theology, like metaphysics, is inescapable).  So Warner’s challenge is not to Christians per se, but some Christians who seem driven more by political values than theological ones.

Second irritation:  Warner uses rhetorical strategies that won’t help her case.  Here’s an example:

I’m thinking of the now entirely muted issue of whether the basic ethical foundations of Romney, Huckabee et al’s political views truly are “Christian” – in the good-neighborly sense of the word.

I am referring here to the sentiments that lie behind the candidates’ attitudes toward gays, which may have found their most honest and open expression in Huckabee’s recently resurrected 1992 suggestion that AIDS patients should be forcibly isolated. I am thinking too of Christian conservative opposition to progressive taxation, public spending for the needy and government “meddling” in such matters as anti-discrimination policies. And, of course, of the willingness to sacrifice women by genuflecting before a segment of the population that is scared witless by modernity and sugar-coats its fear and hate in the name of the sacred. (As governor, Huckabee, according to veteran Arkansas political journalist Max Brantley, once “stood in the hospital door, at least figuratively, to prevent state funding” for a mentally handicapped teenage girl who’d been raped by her stepfather and needed to have an abortion.)

Warner’s argument starts with the apparent propositions that gays = AIDS patients and that heavy progressive (meaningly progressively higher the richer you are) taxation will solve the problem of poverty.  I believe it is possible for an authentically committed Christian, for instance, to dispute both these views without thereby being a hypocrite. 

Warner’s argument then goes from bad to weird.  Apparently women were (well, okay, one woman was) “sacrificed” out of “hatred” and “fear” (of modernity, by the way), the “sacrifice” being that government funds were not used to pay for an abortion that was “needed” (are you absolutely sure about that?) because this woman was young, mentally handicapped, and a rape victim of her despicable (I added that ’cause it’s true) stepfather.  Should Warner really base her argument on this kind of “reasoning”?

Nevertheless, when Warner writes this:

These days, however, for all the talk of religion, there is little public soul-searching about the absence of care and compassion, love, acceptance and inclusion – the things that many consider to be the essence of Christianity – in the words of our purported Christian leaders.

…she is exactly right.  My point is that Warner is making the same kind of political move she is criticizing in her targets:  She is arguing that religious views necessarily require certain political positions.  “Conservative Christians” say “I am a Christian, so I believe in low taxes.”  Warner (and others who worry about this) say, “You are Christians.  Therefore, you are wrong to believe in low taxes…you should believe in high taxes.”  That’s poor thinking for the “conservative Christians” and it’s poor thinking for their critics.

The third sort of irritation comes from the overwhelming majority of the comments.  Mainly, the give evidence that they didn’t hear a word Warner was saying.  She’s saying (my criticisms on the way she says it aside…) that religious believers should revisit their faith and really ask themselves if their political positions are “walking the talk.”  Her essay is making me, for one, do exactly that.  But almost all her commentators responded more or less like this:  “Amen, Ms. Warner!  We agree!  Religion is evil!” 

But she said nothing of the kind.  She is saying the opposite:  that religion holds a wealth of resources for love, compassion, acceptance, self-sacrifice, and care for the other that are not being tapped in the political theologies of some (not all) religious believers.  She is right to challenge them.

Warner concludes:

It would be nice today to hear a candidate step up and oppose all that is “appalling, brutal and bigoted” in the limited religious views that substitute for spirituality in American politics today. Who knows — it might even be good politics.

It would work for me.  I would just add that opposition to all that is “appalling, brutal, and bigoted” might manifest itself in a variety of political positions and programs.  For us to figure out that, we’ll need political wisdom in addition to theological authenticity.

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“This is your brain on neurorealism…”

Eric Racine is a bioethicist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, and he noticed something interesting:  Include a picture of a brain scan or other neuro-imaging with whatever cognitive neuroscientific thesis you happen to want to advance, and people will be more likely to believe it.  Here’s part of the NYT report:

The way conclusions from cognitive neuroscience studies are reported in the popular press, “they don’t necessarily tell us anything we couldn’t have found out without using a brain scanner,” says Deena Weisberg, an author of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience paper. “It just looks more believable now that we have the pretty pictures.”

Racine says he is particularly troubled by the thought of crude or unscrupulous applications of this young science to the diagnosis of psychiatric conditions, the evaluation of educational programs and the assessment of defendants in criminal trials. Drawing inferences from the data requires several degrees of analysis and interpretation, he says, and treating neuroimaging as a mind-reading technique “would be adding extra scientific credibility that is not necessarily warranted.”


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