November 12, 2014

Epistemic Roundabout II


A CRACK IN CHINA'S ATHEIST EDIFICE?

The best thing the Chinese government is doing is not cracking down on Christianity. Cracking down would tie Christianity to the struggle for freedom from state repression and thereby ennoble it, make it modern and "enlightened," and encourage its growth. Letting Christianity run its course should lead to its eventual fall from its tendency toward decadence and corruption and its vulnerability to a science-driven decrease in "gaps" for God to fill. Then it would be replaced by atheism as is happening in Europe. Or, it will morph into evangelical science and reason denialism and somehow be usurped by conservative politicians as we have seen happen in the US, for now but hopefully not forever. Enlightenment science, reason, and humanitarianism may be slow to spread and take root but they are proving to be highly potent in the long term. Let's hope the long term is long enough.


HOW AMERICA FAILED

This interview, especially the book How America Failed it focuses on, presents a serious challenge to freethinking humanism as received from the Enlightenment. Science, reason, and humanitarianism may, repeat may, be succeeding globally in the long term but they are clearly failing in the US. What, if anything, can be done when the best ideas and methods Western civilization has produced for governance and social life are willingly and knowingly rejected by the majority in the most powerful, wealthiest, and most highly "educated" country in history? I tend to agree with the book's author, Morris Berman. Nothing. We're screwed. The blind thundering herd of selfish greedy individuals is taking us all over the cliff and into the abyss. Not so, you say?  Please explain.



THE ELUSIVE ART OF INNER WHOLENESS AND HOW TO STOP HIDING OURSELVES

What the self-person-soul is in a material sense is an important subject for science. That it is an "illusion created by the brain" does not warrant declaring it useless and relegating it to a dead-end dustbin of woo. The brain creates it for practical purposes to allow us to integrate and make manageable and useful the complex amalgam of images, consciousness, and memory of our experience. It also has value in representing us in and connecting us to our world of others - past and present, locally and globally. It is a very useful, necessary, and real part of each of our lives. It is no mere illusion that is misleading us about what and who we "really" are. It is the most basic entity of our personal, social, cultural, historical, and evolved humanity. Discounting or discarding it reduces us to protoplasmic meat sans meaning, purpose, and humanness.

Below is a very good essay with good links within the text. The use and abuse of the self-person-soul in society and history is a great discussion topic. Here's an excerpt:

"Let me pause here to note that while I side with Sam Harris on matters of spirituality and find the notion of the eternal “soul” somewhat problematic as a delusory salve for our chronic dread of our own impermanence, I side most of all with Carl Sagan, who wrote in history’s most lucid treatise on science and spirituality: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.

"The point, of course, is that the mystery of what we call the “soul” — the stuff of Hannah Arendt’s elegant case for “unanswerable questions” — need not be resolved in order for the concept itself to be a useful one in advancing our understanding of and compassion for ourselves, right here and right now, in this blink of cosmic time that is our existence."



THE NEUROSCIENCE BUBBLE

Happy to see Patricia Churchland, a Canadian neurophilosopher (her term for a neuroscientist and philosopher) many describe as a strong materialist, post this cautionary article criticizing exaggerated and premature claims about neuroscience findings and their potential applications. I'm reading her latest book Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves which is a very good balance of objective descriptions of neuroscientific results, advocacy for pluralistic and multi-level analytics, and admonishment against exaggerated and premature neuroscientific claims and journalistic reporting. Her public-targeted book and the cautionary article below are examples of good descriptive science and are good for science. I recommend her book.



SECULAR HUMANISM IS A RELIGION, JUDGE RULES

If this judgment holds up, humanist orgs should logically expect tax exemptions akin to what religious orgs and churches get, no?



QUANTUM BIOLOGY

This essay makes me rethink much of the fundamental knowledge scientists have developed about biological life. There's much more to it at the quantum level - from the molecular, to the mind, to the evolutionary - that we know very little about. The scientific study of such is promising and encouraging.

A deep, detailed understanding of the quantum aspects of physics, chemistry, and biology, if one is every developed, will be revolutionary, to say the least. Such a thorough knowledge could answer most if not all our questions about matter and behavior in a unifying way that could leave us with little else to study. Or, the pursuit of such unifying knowledge could reveal the futility of our efforts to develop a complete, absolute understanding of the universe.

Given our cultural evolutionary history, we are certain to try and find out which it is. Imaging our humanity from that point onward, in either direction, I tend to want us to succeed in creating that deep knowledge and am hopeful we will be humane in our use of it. On the other hand, failure to develop such deep, unifying knowledge would not surprise me nor would a humane response to it. How we accommodate such ultimate knowledge or dead-end ignorance will surely redefine who we think we are and what our fate will be.



ARE WE FREE?

Of all the scientific and philosophical positions on free will and determinism I've come across, Daniel Dennett's view that a certain specifically defined free will is compatible with determinism remains most persuasive to me.

If it became a FF discussion topic notions of "free," "will," and "determinism" would have to first be clarified in a way to account for the range of definitions they have been given in the free will/determinism "dispute" context.  Notions of "self," "person," "mind," "consciousness," "context," and "illusion," plus perhaps a very few other terms, would also need a similar treatment. Then, I suspect, the discussants could arrange the various claims of whether we have free will or not on a a continuum from yes to no, based on how our terms of reference are defined. The discussants could then choose (freely?) which argument(s) they think best represent the human condition in nature, past and present. 

I am very doubtful that an absolute truth would emerge from this approach, that is, a settling of the matter once and for all. But it would provide a more accurate, "it depends," understanding of the issue and the scientific and philosophical arguments on each side. This would be preferable to the current dividing up into two camps, yes versus no, and stubbornly (me being among the most stubborn) arguing past each other using different terms of reference.

It would also provide the discussants with modest but effective understandings for evaluating new strident neuroscientific and journalistic pronouncements, and new dismissive or supportive philosophical arguments on both sides of the issue.

Looking for, through dividing up the leadership of the various sessions of the discussion, and perhaps arriving at an outline of such a provisional, conditional truth about the issue might be fun.

Discussing Alfred Mele's new book reviewed in the link below by Dennett (Mele's Templeton affiliation acknowledged), and Dennett's own book on the subject (Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting), among other books and essays, especially those by Sam Harris and Massimo Pigliucci, would be helpful.

An excerpt from Dennett: "What a coup it would be if your neuroscience experiment brought about the collapse of several millennia of inconclusive philosophising about free will! A curious fact about these forays into philosophy is that almost invariably the scientists concentrate on the least scientifically informed, most simplistic conceptions of free will, as if to say they can’t be bothered considering the subtleties of alternative views worked out by mere philosophers.
...
"In recent years a growing gang of cognitive neuroscientists have announced to the world that they have made discoveries that show that 'free will is an illusion.' ... Their ingenious experiments, while yielding some surprising results, don’t have the revolutionary implications often claimed."



ATTENTION

I think Desimone would benefit from spending some time across the MIT campus chatting with fellow scientist Alan Lightman....
"How does a gooey mass of blood, bones, and gelatinous tissue become a sentient being? How does it become aware of itself as a thing separate from its surroundings? How does it develop a self, an ego, an 'I'? Without hesitation, Desimone replied that the mystery of consciousness was overrated. 'As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of ‘What is consciousness?’ will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction,' he said. As (MIT neuroscientist Robert) Desimone sees it, consciousness is just a vague word for the mental experience of attending, which we are slowly dissecting in terms of the electrical and chemical activity of individual neurons."



RELIGIOUS BELIEF AND SOCIETAL HEALTH

Great article on religion being harmful to societies.



A THEORETICAL PHYSICIST EXPLAINS WHY SCIENCT IS NOT ABOUT CERTAINTY

Brilliant essay by a physicist (not a philosopher) on what science is and isn't....

"Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism."

October 27, 2014

Evil – A Supernatural Force Or Just A Label For The Very Bad Things We Think And Do?


“The Truth About Evil” by John Gray, The Guardian, October 21, 2014

Above is a link to an article on evil, that is, a force, idea, or action of highest compassionless cruelty. I find little to quibble with in Gray's notion that evil is part of the full range of potential human behavior - we've proven it over the millennia. His rebuke of some who paint as evil those who do not conform to Western liberal notions of the inevitability of Enlightened progress toward more widespread democracy, equality, and justice, also seems well founded. There is potential for evil thoughts and behavior in all of us. But there is insufficient reason or evidence to conclude that evil is an independent supernatural force or that as such it can “inhabit” a person or group.  Without human thought or action evil disappears along with all our other labelled categories for reality and human experience.

October 4, 2014

A Rite Of Passage And School Of Life For Adulthood – On Their Reinvention And Reestablishment

Photo by Amy Grubb, The Guardian

by Luke Cunard
The Guardian, October 3, 2014

The above-linked article about a young Englishwoman marrying herself grabbed my attention in an unusual way.  The subject of the article, Grace Gelder, regards the novel notion of self-marrying, which she undertook in March 2014, as a pact with herself.  That is, a promise to herself to strengthen her commitment to personal self-awareness and development, including improving her relations with others, then "somehow enacting that in how you live your life from that day on."

Such a crucial rite of passage for acknowledging personal growth and strengthening social well-being, though universal in ancient and likely prehistoric societies, is now not only sorely and almost totally lacking in the secular West, it is also gradually being given up elsewhere in the world. The current high level of personal discontent and social un- or dis-ease, in the West and increasingly elsewhere, warrant the reinvention and reintroduction of such a rite.

Such a renewed rite of passage with its attendant ceremonies and rituals would need to be voluntary.  How else could it be palatable to and binding upon the modern, Enlightened individual?  Successfully completing the rite would be contingent upon the initiand having undergone self- or institutional-instruction in such subjects as critical thinking and applied personal and moral philosophy, especially that found in Stoicism and Epicureanism.  It would also entail at least a minimal exposure to a significant portion of the world's other moral philosophies, including the moral teachings of the world’s religions. A tall order, you say?  Yes, but something this good could not and should not come easy.  Some would fail, others would succeed partially, and still others would succeed fully.  Still, this would be a great improvement over the current lack of such a rite and its attendant personal and societal discontent palpable in the ever-growing secular population of the world.

A public ceremony would give the rite social affirmation and validation. During this ceremony vows would be made based on a credo of humane personal virtues and moral principles the initiand would choose, write down, and commit to, and thereby be something to return to for guidance throughout his/her life.

September 10, 2014

Baseline Melancholia - Don't Worry Or Be Happy, Be Content


UPDATE - More on happiness....

An Equation That Predicts Happiness by Cari Romm, The Atlantic, August 6, 2014

Against Happiness: Why We Need a Philosophy of Failure by Andy Martin, Prospect, August 1, 2014

How to be Happy:  A Guide Through Ancient Philosophy

What Happiness Conceals by John Quiggin, Aeon, March 27, 2014

The Meanings of Life - Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning, by Roy F. Baumeister, Aeon, September 16, 2013

Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman on Happiness, Depression, and the Meaningful Life by Maria Papova, BrainPickings, June 28, 2012


ORIGINAL POST:

by
Yuval Noah Harari
The Guardian, September 5, 2014

I shouldn't be so cynical when it comes to essays about happiness, but I always am. Harari's essay, though, is a good one.

I tend to think less about my happiness and more of my qualia (inner, personal states) such as freedom from pain or fear, or the level of my general wellness. Pain, fear, and well being apply to the in-the-present condition of all sentient animal life forms. Happiness as humans define it seems to ask for too much. I can reasonably conclude that a chimp or goose, for example, is experiencing pain, fear, or well being based on its behavior. However, only humans, using language, tell each other or write, in excruciating detail, about their inner states. That is, to what degree they are experiencing or not experiencing pain, fear, and well being in terms of their happiness.

September 5, 2014

Epistemic Roundabout I


COSMOLOGY

"The Mathematical World" by James Franklin, April 7, 2014


I've read this essay once. My thinking the first time through kept me going to my effort some time back to understand the concept of time in a universe where humans did not exist -http://jameselassiter.blogspot.com/2011/05/time-does-not-objectively-exist.html?m=1 

On that occasion I felt somewhat comfortable that time is indeed an artifact with no objective existence prior to its invention by humans.

But the present essay has me fairly well convinced that mathematics, at least the natural shapes and processes it accurately accounts for, exists independent of humans inventing it. As I read with that notion under tow, I began to think that perhaps time might also exist independent of humans "discovering" it. The intervals between cosmic and quantum events are real. Call them time if we must.

I can ease my dilemma if I couch these notions in an explanation/understanding that acknowledges that both exist - objective mathematics and time on the one hand AND the artifactual constructs we create and use to think about and discuss them on the other. This seems to square with modern science - the objective existence of preexisting regularities (predictabilities) in the universe AND the formulation of laws, equations, and descriptions that represent and explain those conditions.

Then again, without our "mathematics" and "time" the universe would only be matter of various types, combinations, and shapes, in motion. Certain outcomes of this motion would repeat themselves (events we would describe as being in conformity with natural laws) and other motion outcomes would be novel or emergent. Period.

Let me read it once again....


EARTH

"Our Lonely Home in Nature" by Alan Lightman, May 2, 2014


"Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us."

Really?! Lightman does place human empowerment a far second from the power of nature. The problem with his conclusion is his, I think, unfounded assumption that nature can withstand whatever humans do.

July 9, 2014

Anti-Intellectualism In American Life - Excerpts And A Comment


The further I read in this great, Pulitzer Prize winning book the more amazed am I that the principles of the Enlightenment – the improvement of society through reason; the challenging of ideas grounded in tradition and faith; and the advancement of knowledge through skepticism, scientific method, and intellectual interchange - have not by now been completely rooted out and discarded by mainstream America and the politicians that prey upon, serve, and ultimately rule them. [Perhaps this is in fact the real American story, that Enlightenment principles remain in place at all.]

Maybe we are experiencing the last chapter in the current conservative, Christian, Republican effort at such an eradication and societal takeover.  For the holders of this vision seem to be ever-more numerous, determined, and entrenched in power. If they ultimately succeed, and current events in the US continue to strengthen my belief that they might, a new and much more brutal Dark Age will soon and surely follow.

June 8, 2014

Suffering And Injustice - Whose Awe, Truth, And Hope Will Prevail?



I am not angry at God and certainly do not fancy myself being him, as some I’m sure accuse me. In fact, I would never want to be God and have and use his imputed power and knowledge. Not even for a moment in which I might rid the world of, say, human suffering and injustice. The responsibility for such an act aside, removing suffering and injustice and all that causes, attends, and follows from them would be an unprecedented intervention in the unpredictability of the Cosmos. 

Eliminating any of the unpredictability of the Cosmos would forestall the possibility of certain serendipitous events taking place in the future. A look at the list of past serendipitous events and conditions that contributed to the origins of the Earth and life upon it, including our own, though a rare but not necessarily extraordinary occurrence in the vastness of the Cosmos, should make one, especially a God-for-the-moment human, hesitate to make any wholesale changes in how it all works. A cosmic intervention would also require certain violations of the predictable laws of the Universe that we are aware of - gravity, for example - and a number of others we so far have not discovered but would be briefly known to me, the God of the Moment, The Great Intervener. My mere tinkering, which is what it would be for such an omniscient and omnipotent one as me, would redefine every thing and every process, everywhere, forever.

May 19, 2014

Reason And Compassion - Hallmarks Of Human Nature



This new journal premiered in March 2014.  It describes its aims and purpose as follows:

Science, Religion, and Culture is an open access interdisciplinary journal focused on bringing together research and theoretical analysis from the physical, biological, and social sciences with ideas from philosophy, theology, and religious studies. It aims at exploring the unique relationship between science, religion, and culture, and it welcomes submissions from all perspectives and religious traditions—including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, secularism, humanism, and naturalism. Given that science and religion are two great manifestations of human culture, special focus is given to the various ways modern science—including the disciplines of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, sociology, and anthropology—support, oppose, inform, or are informed by religious, theological, and cultural perspectives. Additional focus is given to perspectives on science, religion, and culture from different geographical regions, cultures, religions, and historical epochs.

The articles in the first issue include:

Victor Stenger

Massimo Pigliucci

Robert E. Pollack

John Shook

Timothy Helton

The journal’s appearance prompted an online discussion between me and some of my local fellow freethinker friends (secular, freethinking, humanist, atheist/agnostics).  With reference to the first two articles by Victor Stenger and Massimo Pigliucci, one friend said that s/he had a low tolerance for faith-based ideas such as those of the Abrahamic religions and therefore sided with Stenger.  His/her implied assertion was that these religions, and other faith-based belief systems, have not made the world a better place.  Since it is impossible, his/her argument went, to know what the world would have become without the influences of religions, the assertion that the world is a better because of them is a non sequitur.  The following is my response, which I have expanded a bit since the discussion: