December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays And Prosperous New Year!


Like many of my American friends who have lived and worked among the various gracious peoples of Africa, especially in the rural areas of that great continent, I have been the grateful recipient of more fresh gift chickens than I can count.  All of them cage-free, free-roaming, bug-eating, and delicious, of course.  This one is a Holiday Gift for all of my friends and family in Africa, America and 'round the world.  He's a fresh Ugandan bird wrapped in banana leaves with a plastic bag 'round his rear to keep your place clean until you are ready for him....  Happy Holidays and Prosperous New Year!

December 12, 2011

Neuroeconomics? - Neuroscience No Panacea For Understanding Humankind

UPDATE
How Reliable Are The Social Sciences? by Gary Gutting, The New York Times, The Opinionator, May 17, 2012
The Value of Social Science by Elizabeth Clark-Polner and Margaret Clark, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, May 18, 2012
Overcoming "Physics Envy" by Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, March 30, 2012

The Neuroeconomics Revolution by Robert J. Shiller, Project Syndicate - A World of Ideas, November 21, 2011

From Konrad Lorenz's ethology of the 1950s to the sociobiology of the 1970s to the "new" neurosciences beginning in the 1990s there seems to be no end to the desire to link societal functions and their underlying cultural beliefs and values to the anatomy and physiology of the human brain and/or the biochemistry of our DNA.  Here's an incomplete but representative list of assertions made over the past two decades giving clear evidence that behavioral science explanations of human behavior and societal functioning are being passed over in favor of a reductionist, deterministic neuroscience and genetics that explain by describing neuronal or chromosomal locations and activities:

The Y chromosome causes violence to be higher in males than females.
Homosexuality has a genetic basis.
There's a gene that predisposes us to a belief in God.
Brain activity shows we make decisions before we are conscious of them.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, when the new behavioral sciences, beginning with Freud in psychology, Durkheim in sociology and Boas in anthropology and others in these disciplines, had taken human social and cultural behavior from 19th century armchair speculation and placed it in the labs, couches, and ethnographic present of science and thereby encumbered the study of Humankind with the scientific method of objective, testable, and replicable observation and experiment, expectations within the academy and society at large went sky high.

Surely, academics thought, we will one day have a physics and chemistry of human behavior, an anthropology in the strictest sense of the term.  Meanwhile, humanists in the arts and literature, including humanistically-inclined thinkers in the behavioral sciences, continued on in a tradition begun during The Renaissance and extended during The Enlightenment by practitioners of what later became known as the academic disciplines of history, modern philosophy, art, literature and music.  Their conviction was and remains that human psychic, cultural, and social life can be adequately described, portrayed, and explained holistically without deterministically reducing it to physics and chemistry.

Scientifically-inclined behavioral scientists on the other hand, suffering from what a friend of mine calls "physics envy" or perhaps finding the pursuit of another grand theory such as Darwin's irresistible, embarked on a search for experimental and observational data that would reveal the "laws" of human behavior.  Scientific theories of mind, society and culture began to abound.  Some were grand theories purporting to explain all, others proffered more modest models and descriptions of specific aspects of how we think, how we organize and behave as groups, and how we learn, use and change the various beliefs and values that make up cultures.

November 20, 2011

Free Will - Why Do Many Neuroscientists Say There Is No Such Thing?


UPDATE
Brain Might Not Stand in the Way of Free Will by Anil Ananthaswamy, New Scientist, August 8, 2012

Free Will and "Free Will": How My View Differs from Daniel Dennett's by Sam Harris, The Blog, April 5, 2012

The Illusion of Free Will by Sam Harris, Excerpt from Free Will, February 12, 2012

ORIGINAL POST
Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?  by Eddy Nahmias, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 13, 2011

I have never accepted neuroscientist Sam Harris' claim in his books and on his blog that free will is an illusion. I knew there was something wrong in his extrapolation from neuroscience to how we make decisions: the brain processes information subconsciously; this subconscious activity has been shown to be the precursor to decision making; this in turn makes conscious consideration of information a mere after the fact reflection or projection of such decisions. It seems to me Harris is using neuroscience to beat the dead horse of dualism: brain=subconscious decision-maker=no role for the conscious mind=to think mind is free to or has a role in making decisions is an illusion.

I've been puzzling for some time on how to articulate my objections to Harris regarding free will but have been unable to put my thoughts together as well as philosopher Eddy Nahmias has in this link. I am a monist. Brain, decision-making and mind are one. But I reject Harris' idea that all we need to really understand is a detailed understanding of the neurology of decision-making; that a belief that our conscious mind is involved in decision making is a illusion, or more accurately a delusion or self-deception. Nahmias' article expresses my objections to Harris' and other so inclined much better than I ever could.

The implications for the value of human freedom and, conversely, absolving the individual of moral and legal responsibility if Harris' and other like-minded scientists prevail in such reductionism are staggering.  I can also see how religious fundamentalists could latch on to Harris' idea and impute God's will into the neurology of the brain - after all, God made our brains and knows our thoughts and decisions before we think about them or make them.

For more on "free will" see my previous post:  Free Will:  Of course we have it!  Don't we?

November 18, 2011

A Taste Of African Food And Culture

Here are three very different presentations that have one thing in common - a love of Africa, its people, and all Humanity.  Enjoy!


Bagisu women prepare matooke for steaming

1.  The first is a post on the "Elgon Pearls - A Ugandan Journey" blog:  Traditional Ugandan Food In Pictures by Immy Rose Namutosi Lassiter, Elgon Pearls, November 8, 2011.  The owner of the blog and author of the post is my wife and best friend, Immy Rose Namutosi Lassiter, from Mbale in eastern Uganda.  Her post is about traditional Ugandan food with an emphasis on the specialities of her ethnic group, the Bagisu, also known as the Bamasaba.  The photographs were taken mostly by Immy Rose and me.  There are other very interesting posts on this blog about life in Uganda.

The Gisu are linguistically classified as Bantu-speakers.  Their homeland is located on the very fertile western slopes of the dormant though still beautiful volcano Mt. Elgon in eastern Uganda, on the Uganda-Kenya border.  Most Bagisu in their homeland, which is known as Bugisu, are small-scale farmers and coffee growers.  The city of Mbale is the commercial center of Bugisu and the administrative capital of Mbale District.  Other Gisu and other ethnic groups very closely related to them live in Kenya on the eastern and southeastern slopes of Mt. Elgon.

Enjoy the post!  Make your next vacation destination Uganda to taste these delicious foods and meet some very friendly, gracious people!

2.  "Wanahamuna," A song by Immy Rose and Jim Lassiter, Sung to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," November 17, 2011


The song is about Wanahamuna, a squirrel known among the Bagisu for his clever, tricky and humorous ways.  Here are the lyrics:

Wanahamuna – by Immy Rose and Jim Lassiter.  Sung to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight – G C G D

Tsya iyoyo, tsya iyoyo, tsye yoyoyo
Tsya iyoyo, tsya iyoyo, tsye yoyoyo

Chorus
Wanahamuna, wanahamuna, wanahamuna, wanahamuna
Wanahamuna, wanahamuna, wanahamuna, wanahamuna

V1
In Mbale, upon Wanale
A squirrel makes his home
In Mbale, upon Wanale
A squirrel makes his home

V2
In a village, a Gishu village
The squirrel steals g-nuts
In a village, a Gishu village
The squirrel steals g-nuts – Chorus

V3
Nyondo farmers, they chase the squirrel
To save their g-nut crops
Nyondo farmers, they chase the squirrel
To save their g-nut crops

V4
But the squirrel, the naughty squirrel
He laughs and runs away
He’s not worried, no he’s not worried
He’ll come another day – Chorus

Tsya iyoyo, tsya iyoyo, tsye yoyoyo
Tsya iyoyo, tsya iyoyo, tsye yoyoyo

3.  Finally, a link to a YouTube post of Lost in Africa - Episode 6.


This is a wonderful portrayal of remote village life in Kenya, specifically that of the Pokot people.  American Kevin A. Urban and his Kenyan friend and collaborator Hosea Azere travel throughout Kenya to meet members of the country's various ethnic groups and share their experience with the rest of us via YouTube.  Kevin and Hosea possess a great appreciation and respect for the people they visit which is reflected in the humanistic way they interact with, photograph and interview them.  After viewing Episode 6 take a look at the previous five episodes of Lost in Africa on YouTube for a candid, down-to-earth and therefore realistic portrayal of this part of Africa.  You'll be glad you did!

November 17, 2011

Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army - The Facts vs. Rush Limbaugh's Lunacy

The Lord's Resistance Army: End Game?, The International Crisis Group, November 17, 2011
Lord's Resistance Army News, The New York Times, Commentary and Archival Articles
Heartbreaking: Former Abductee Responds to Rush Limbaugh's LRA Comments, Mediaite, October 19, 2011
Limbaugh Defends Lord's Resistance Army by Robert Mackey, The New York Times, News, October 17, 2011
Lord's Resistance Army, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, REFWORLD
Lord's Resistance Army, Human Rights Watch

November 2, 2011

Neuroscience And Darwinism Rule! - "Curb Your Enthusiasm" Says Knowledgeable Briton, Raymond Tallis


A knowledgeable curmudgeon, Raymond Tallis, pokes neuroscience and Darwinism in their respective, metaphorical eyes.  See Raymond Tallis Takes Out the 'Neurotrash' by Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 9, 2011.  Perhaps both endeavors need such doses of skepticism and critique to help curb the public's and some scientists' enthusiasm (and worry) that these current paradigms that dominate the scientific study of our species can and will explain it all.

Seems to me there's something in all this about our species' apparent insecurity with the incomplete and provisional nature of science on the one had; and yet on the other a counter-current fear that science will expose our precious selves and take our individual uniqueness and privacy away.

Many of us who reject the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions regarding the nature of the Universe and Humankind, really would like to see secular science keep trying to explain it all.  I am one though as I have written elsewhere on this blog, scientific knowledge will never be complete.  Maybe science will eventually explain a significantly greater portion of the "All" than it can at present.  But not so fast, says atheist Tallis. 

I welcome Tallis' critique as a dose of needed humility for secularists at large, and as a cautionary antidote for the possible emergence of scientific absolutism.  His criticism is good for the growth of scientific knowledge.

Tallis' recently published book might be worth a read:  Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

FURTHER READING ON NEUROSCIENCE

Decoding the Brain's Cacophany, Profiles in Science - Michael S. Gazzaniga, by Benedict Carey, The New York Times, Science, October 31, 2011

October 24, 2011

Vatican Seeks A Global Ethic And Universal Common Good - What Do They Mean By "Ethical" And "Good"?

Vatican Calls For Radical Economic Reform Of World's Financial Systems by Victor R. Simpson, Huffington Post, October 24, 2011

Let me see if I have this right. The headquarters of the world's most dominant bastion of supernaturalism is calling for a new world economic order based on "ethics and the 'achievement of a universal common good.'" The above report goes on to say: "The (Vatican) proposal acknowledges, however, that a 'long road still needs to be traveled before arriving at the creation of a public authority with universal jurisdiction' and suggests the reform process begin with the United Nations as a point of reference." Finally, Huffington says the Catholic pronouncement "also attacked 'utilitarian thinking,' saying what is useful to the individual does not always favor the common good."

What kind of global ethic, common good, and public authority would the leaders of Catholicism support? What kind of "utilitarian thinking" are they referring to as not good for the common good? Here's a stab at some answers: Behave ethically/morally because if you don't God will be angry at you and punish you and not let you have ever-lasting life. Humankind's "common good" is one where all of us are best served by believing in a supernatural father-deity that we can pray to to guide us individually and collectively. Finally, do not engage in "utilitarian" thinking, that is thinking that is practically useful, here and now, and based on reason and evidence, for this will undermine achieving an ethic and common good as defined above.

The Vatican's idea of the UN as a starting point for a process to develop a "public authority with a universal jurisdiction" is noble and one with which I agree with them. Pluralism is needed in this. However, let's keep a close eye on these folks and be careful in letting them get their nose under the metaphorical tent of Humankind’s on-going efforts at creating a secular global morality and civilization. They are as clever at manipulating language and ideas for their sole benefit as are the lawyers of the world's nationalist governments who monopolize power and the financiers who control the planet's wealth.

October 10, 2011

The US Social Welfare System – What Is Its Real Purpose? Is It Moral To Force Citizens To Fund It With Their Tax Payments?


I am not an economist, sociologist or political scientist.  I therefore do not know the past and current literature and statistics in these fields.  What follows is my opinion as it is informed by my understanding of culture, human nature, my general education, and my life experience in the US and elsewhere.

I am not aware that the American social welfare system has failed to fulfill its promise, as many claim.  The argument that the $16 trillion spent on this system between 1965 and 2008 has led to a society where 1 out of 6 currently live below the poverty line and that 1 in 4 children live in households that depend on the government for food is an indicator that social welfare has failed, is a misplacement of cause and effect.  The fact that we have poverty and hunger in the US is not causally connected to our national expenditure on the welfare system.  Many on the right seem to be saying that $16 trillion should have pretty much bought us out of poverty and filled most of the stomachs of the poor.

The real problem with this reasoning is that money spent on the welfare system is not spent with the intention of eradicating poverty, hunger and their causes.  It is intended to be a stopgap response to help avert the utter degradation and destruction of human lives and families, and forestall damage that such fearful and desperate citizens might do to the fabric and well-being of society.

Those who wish to abolish or reform welfare often assert that it diminishes the self-esteem of the recipient and makes him a ward of the state, and thereby strips him of his aspiration to be productive and independent.  Though this is an accurate description of too many individuals on US welfare roles, past and present, the fact that such conditions exist is far from a proven indictment of the entire social welfare system.

I do not believe the social welfare system of the US has failed and is in need of replacement as many Libertarians, Republicans and conservatives claim.  I agree with those who believe it needs, as a friend has said, to be “reformed gradually and with great care.”

October 7, 2011

Perilous Times For Science

"We live today in perilous times for science: conflicts of interest that taint research; pressures on scientists to cut corners to get fast results; a public culture that alternates between hostility to science and irrational expectations of what science can provide. If we as scientists want to preserve our freedom (and the welfare of others), now more than ever we have a responsibility.  And that responsibility is to bring our science to the public arena and to speak out as forcefully as we can against even the most cherished beliefs that reflect unsubstantiated myths." - Elizabeth Loftus

The Classsic, Beautiful and Controversial Books That Changed Science Forever by Tanya Lewis, Wired Science, July 5, 2012
Why We Don't Believe In Science by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, Frontal Cortex, June 7, 2012
We Live in Perilous Times for Science by Elizabeth Loftus, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, May/June 2011
Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and Decline of Public Intellectuals by Massimo Pigliucci, eSkeptic, October 19, 2011
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010, an excerpt on eSkeptic, October 19, 2011
The Un-American War On Science by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Huffington Post, October 28, 2011

October 3, 2011

Secular Truth And Morality - New Kindle Book on Amazon.com


Now expanded and available as a Kindle book at Amazon.com.  You don't have to own a Kindle reader to purchase and read the book.  If you open an account with them, Amazon offers a free downloadable Kindle book reader software for PCs:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=kcp_pc_mkt_lnd?docId=1000426311

Click here or below for the book:


From the Amazon.com book description:

In this book, his first, American anthropologist James E Lassiter offers an alternative to the absolute truths of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – for understanding our place in Nature and how we might behave more humanely and responsibly toward each other and the planet.  He describes scientific truth, upon which secularism is founded, in comparison to religion, as a far more apt corollary to and explanation of the evolution of the Universe and Life itself.

Both, the practice of science and the evolution of Nature, he argues, are ever provisional, invested in objective realities and natural laws, yet undetermined and ultimately unpredictable.  Both are remarkable undertakings that occasionally bring into existence fortuitous opportunities and options, some of which have been favorable for Humankind.

On a more personal level, the book offers a secular path to a more humanistic and rationally moral way of life - a morality that, the author argues, arose from our mammalian evolutionary past yet must be continually re-created in the present by each of us based on personal experience and evidence.

This book should be of interest to secularists, believers as well as those who are searching for a more embraceable worldview.  In his chapter entitled “The Present and Future of Secular Morality” the author reviews the works of a selection of prominent contemporary thinkers who recommend various approaches to secular truth and morality as means of living well without God and religion.  The works reviewed also provide guidance for establishing an emergent global morality as an ethical basis for a global civilization.

Finally, in his concluding chapter the author offers a favorable outlook for the future of Humankind.  He foresees the successful emergence of a secular global morality based on pluralism, a global civilization based on transnational law and covenants; and the development of a pluralistic world organization for settling disputes, safeguarding human dignity and equality, and providing effective and sustainable human stewardship of Earth.

About the author:  James E. Lassiter is a privately practicing anthropologist who resides in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.  He received his PhD (1983) and MS (1975) degrees in anthropology at the University of Oregon, and his BA (1974) honors degree in anthropology and evolutionary biology at California State University, Sacramento.  James has over thirty years of experience studying African societies and cultures, implementing U.S. Government humanitarian foreign policy in Africa, and living and working on the continent.  He served as Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher in Swaziland, Southern Africa from 1980-1983.  He is currently writing his second book entitled From the Unknown Into Uncertainty:  The Past, Present and Future of Humankind.

September 24, 2011

From the Unknown Into Uncertainty - "Introduction"

From the Unknown Into Uncertainty:  The Origin, Evolution and Future of Humankind

by

James E Lassiter

© 2011

The nature of the All moved to make the universe.  But now either everything that takes place comes by way of consequences or continuity; or even the chief things toward which the ruling power of the universe directs its own movement are governed by no rational principle.  If this is remembered it will make you more tranquil in many things.
– Marcus Aurelius (121-189AD)

Introduction

The above quotation is the last entry in Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Part VII.  Though a believer in the Roman gods and that humans possessed souls contained within yet distinct from their bodies, Marcus Aurelius presents in this brief passage a secular view of the origin and evolution of our Universe.  He describes that which gave rise to our Universe as an “All,” defined only as something possessing in its very nature the ability to make a universe.  It is from this source and this point in space and time that the inherent characteristic of the “All,” “moved” to form our Universe.  The analogy well fits the explosion of a very tiny, very dense speck of proto-matter, an event we today call the Big Bang.

Marcus describes all else that followed – all subsequent entities and processes - as either the “consequence” and “continuity” of the making of the universe, or as occurrences that were acted upon by the “ruling power of the universe,” the All, in a manner ungoverned by rational principles.

Most puzzling to me is Marcus’s final statement in this entry.  He advises that we shall be more at peace in our thoughts and behaviors if we remember a certain “this.”  “This” could refer to all the things that came into being and events that occurred since the making of the Universe as a direct consequence or continuation of this initial “movement,” as well as those entities that appeared and events that occurred that are beyond reason and rational explanation.

But in referring to “this” is Marcus giving us a choice?  Is it ours to choose between the two to be tranquil about:  1) the continuation and consequences of the universe’s origin or 2) the things that have occurred since then that are beyond reason?  Either we can focus our attention on the consequences of the origin of the universe or accept that they are beyond our reasoning ability.  Is our comfort or tranquility to come from keeping in mind one or the other positions – the first position being that of focusing on what happened after the Big Bang whereas the latter position being these occurrences are beyond our reasoning power?

I see no comfort in this either/or offering nor do I understand Marcus to be taking a stand in favor of either position.  Surely this last sentence in the quote is not referring only to the second position that being certain events in the evolution of the universe are governed by no rational principle.  For this would be contrary to the rationalism and practicality inherent in the Stoicism of his time and, of which Marcus was a follower and by which he lived, and his belief in a daimon, the conscience and reason the Stoics believed were inherent in all humans.

Therefore, Marcus must be saying that much can be understood about the evolution of the Universe by studying the continuation and consequences of the Big Bang and that we are advised not to be perturbed by the fact that much of these occurrences are beyond reason.

Rather than interpret this statement as meaning the events of the universe are beyond our reasoning ability, I think there is good reason to think that his intent was that there are events in the evolution of the Universe that happen without reason such as accidents and serendipitous, unanticipated consequences in the continuation of events that followed the Big Bang.  Thus there are events that occurred after the initial making of the Universe that are direct and expected continuations and consequences of that origin event; and there are also post-origin occurrences that are unexpected and contingent in the sense of coming about by chance or due to unforeseen causes and therefore are irrational continuations and consequences.

These are the fundamental principles I try to describe in this book – the continuation, consequences, and accidents in the evolution of the Universe that have defined and continue to define the settings, contingencies and unpredictable occurrences in which Life on Earth arose, and which influenced the evolution, history and future of Humankind.

In more practical and familiar terms, there is in Marcus Aurelius’s entry and in the title of this book a process that has the most profound consequences. A process that gave rise to contexts and constraints in and under which the Universe evolved, Life originated and human beings emerged, survived and came to be the most powerful living force on Earth.  It is a universal and natural phenomenon that underlies and courses through not only our individual and collective lives, but also influences all of our most important truths and morals.  That process is what we call change over time, something we for the most part take for granted and think little about in our day-to-day lives. Something we at times welcome and at other times fear or dread yet know is as inevitable as the movement of the Earth, the Sun and all the galaxies.

Without change over time there would be no Universe, no Earth, no Life.  Nor would there be any questions to answer or problems to solve for the Universe would have never come into being or if it had it would be static and dead, not dynamic and evolving.  Change over time is the most basic of all processes in the Universe, including Earth, and it is that which has brought into being all that we are and know, and all that we must contend with.  Attempting to accept and understand this universal and natural process is the key to understanding ourselves and possibly ensuring our survival as a species.  The hip admonition “evolve or die” is more profound than a mere secular jab in the eye of creationist absolutists.

This is a story of more than why there is something rather than nothing in the Universe and on Earth – one of science’s many as of yet unanswered questions.  It is an account of that something’s most fundamental characteristic - change over time, and the contexts, opportunities, challenges and consequences it has provided and continues to provide Humankind, and how our species has responded.  Many of these contexts, opportunities and challenges are understandable and in fact probabilistically predictable based on what is known of the laws of Nature.  Other contexts, opportunities and challenges arose completely unexpectedly by chance, a significant number of which allowed for the emergence of Life and the survival of a particular primate, Homo sapiens. 

The origin, evolution and future of our species are part of this process of change over time in the Universe, one of millions of stories of matter and energy in motion - ever changing, ever responding, often unpredictable, sometimes successfully adaptive.  Sometimes not.  That matter and energy are in motion establishes physical, chemical, biological and social contexts that provide at least three options:  action, inaction, accident.  The entire evolutionary history of Homo sapiens has been impacted by and will continue to be impacted by all three.  Each successive “wave” or "phase" of action, inaction and accident in the Universe has driven and provided opportunities for or against successive actions, inactions and accidents.  Most important in this flow of the Universe’s “time” and matter, especially the accidents that have occurred, has been the introduction of “emergence” and “agency”.

This fundamental property of change, its origins presumably in the origin and transformation of matter, energy and space, provisionally postulated but ultimately unknown, and the direction, content and outcome of change being likewise provisionally postulated but ultimately unknown, defines and circumscribes certain contexts and options for all matter, including Life.  The evolved contexts and options currently facing human beings arose from the origin and transformation of the Universe and the evolutionary history of Earth.

Ours is a story of where our ancestors came from, what they are made of, what has happened to them, and what their responses have been to those contexts and occurrences.  It is a story of the “emergence” of novel entities and processes including “agency” without which there would have been no Life.  And without which there would be no possibility of Humankind having any control over the morality, direction and fate of human civilization.  It is also a description of the implications of these contexts and options that the Universe, including Earth, has presented, and our responses, for our present and future survival or extinction.

Our story is one of a deep and long connection with the Universe, including Earth. Our understandings, interpretations, and depictions of that story have come and continue to come in many versions – mythic and secular, absolute and provisional, closed and open.  Some versions of the story of Humankind, more so than others, are more consistent with and truthful to the contexts and options we arose from and those we now face, and more useful for the contexts and options we may face in the future.

What follows is a case for one version of Humankind’s past, present and future – a truth that continues to evolve and increase in its explanatory power.  A provisional truth that provides the foundation for what I and many others believe to have the greatest probability of finding a sustainable path toward a viable, prosperous and survivable future.  That truth is provided by scientific secularism.

September 18, 2011

The American Religious Fundamentalist and Political Conservative Assault on Science, Intellectuals and Democracy

SUGGESTED READING:

The Right-Wing Media's Discipline Machine by Ben Adler, The Columbia Journalism Review, February 15, 2012
White House's Budget Gets Down To Earth by Allen Boyle, Cosmic Log on MSNBC, February 13, 2012
The Legacy of 9/11 and the War on Intellectuals by Stephen Zunes, truthout, September 10, 2011
The Years of Shame by Paul Krugman, CommonDreams.org, September 11, 2011
It's Long Past Time to Get Over 9-11 by Mark Karlin, Buzzflash, September 11, 2011
War: The Fiscal Stimulus of Last Resort by Ellen Brown, truthout, Sepember 12, 2011
Disbelief Is Not A Choice by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, September 12, 2011
The Terrorism Issue That Wasn't Discussed by Gareth Porter, Commondreams.org, September 12, 2011
Why The Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous by Adam Lee, AlterNet, September 8, 2011
A Fundamental Republican Problem by Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, August 22, 2011
A Teacher on the Frontline as Faith and Science Clash by Amy Harmon, The New York Times, Education, August 23, 2008
The Fall of the United States by John Atcheson, Commondreams.org, September 15, 2011
The Phony Solyndra Solar Scandal by Dave Johnson, truthout, September 15, 2011
Between Race and Reason:  Anti-Intellectualism in Americam Life by Susan Searls Giroux, from her book of the same name, September 16, 2011
What If The Tea Party Wins? by Ian Millhiser, Center for American Progress, September 16, 2011
A Point of View: The Revolution of Capitalism by John Gray, BBC News Magazine, September 3, 2011
The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux by Noam Chomsky, Boston Review, September/October 2011
Free to Die by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, September 15, 2011
The Unseen Influence of the Religious Right by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, July 11, 2011
As Religion Fades, Will Atheism Be Enough? by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, July 21, 2011
Concerns About the Religious Right Are Not Overblown by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, August 23, 2011
The Truth About Class Warfare in America by Richard Wolff, Commondreams.org, September 20, 2011
Let's Explore the History of "Class Warfare" by Myles Spicer, The Minneapolis StarTribune, September 24, 2011
Notes on Class Warfare by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion, September 20, 2011
9 Policies Conservatives Were For Before They Were Against Them by Joshua Holland, Alternet, September 21, 2011
Conservatives Say It Out Loud: They Hate Democracy by Dave Johnson, Campaign for America's Future, September 23, 2011
The Social Contract by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, September 20, 2011
Denialist Demogogues and the Threat to Science by Donald R. Prothero, a review of The Inquisition of Climate Science by James L. Powell, eSkeptic, September 28, 2011
Government Neutrality is Not "Anti-Religion" by Dave Niose, Psychology Today, October 3, 2011
How the Oligarchs Took America
We Live in Perilous Times for Science by Elizabeth Loftus, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, May/June 2011
Conservatism: Screwing the Poor, Elderly, Sick and Disabled by Al Stefanelli, examiner, October 7, 2011
The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, November 2011
Punching a Hole in Bubbles of Denial and Addiction: Late Capitalism and Its Discontents of the American Autumn by Phil Rockstoth, Common Dreams, October 13, 2011
Religion in the Affairs of Man: Mixing Theology and Politics by Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post, January 22, 2010
Seven Republican Economic Lies
Twilight of the GOP Foreign Policy Wise Man by Jacob Heilbrunn, Foreign Policy Magazine, October 12, 2011
Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and Decline of Public Intellectuals by Massimo Pigliucci, eSkeptic, October 19, 2011
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci, 2010, an excerpt on eSkeptic, October 19, 2011
The Evangelical Rejection of Reason by Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, October 17, 2011
Can Science and Faith Exist Together?, Letters, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, October 24, 2011
The Un-American War On Science by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Huffington Post, October 28, 2011

September 17, 2011

"Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life Confirmed!" - How Would You Respond? How Would Humankind?

UPDATE

What Do You Say To An Alien?, by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, February 11, 2012

ORIGINAL POST

Imagine the profound implications of scientists conclusively finding life on another planet or celestial body!  Beyond its significant contribution to our scientific knowledge, it would have an immense personal, philosophical and religious impact on the lives of many of us.  It could influence the future survival or extinction of Humankind.

Consider the various personal transformations human individuals would very likely undergo if life beyond Earth is discovered.  For most secularists it would be neither a surprise nor upsetting to their personal concepts of self, their daily life or their worldview.  If anything such a finding would be a boost to secularist confidence in science's methods and perhaps a cause for comfort and celebration on learning of our affiliation with at least one other life form in the Universe.

For some agnostics it would be the clinching piece of evidence that forces them to give up their belief in the possibility of the existence of an Abrahamic God.  Or it might be so terrifying a discovery that in their inability to accept it they were driven into a complete denial of science and toward the open arms of absolute theism.

For believers it would depend on the strength of their commitment to their faith in Abrahamic theology and cosmology.  Some Abrahamic believers, particularly fundamentalists and radicals, would willingly and calmly accept the discovery as further proof of God's will, and celebrate their expanded understanding of God's infinite powers.  Moderate believers, known by some as mainstream people of faith, would likely be either unmoved or driven toward the extremes of fundamentalism or agnosticism.

September 11, 2011

"Today I Weep For My Country"

"Today I weep for my country...." by US Senator Robert Byrd, a speech delivered on the floor of the US Senate, March 19, 2003, 3:45PM.  An excerpt:
 
“(T)his Administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the twin towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But, he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war.”
Today, millions of other patriotic Americans and I painfully mourn those innocents killed on September 11, 2001 at the hands of religious fundamentalists, and those others who died the same day in their efforts to save lives.

It would be wrong, however, to reflect only on the tragedy of 9/11.  It is fitting today to also remember the tens of thousands of lives, American, Iraqi and others, that have been lost in Iraq since March 19, 2003 due to our national leaders' misdirected response to our 9/11 attackers.  May these victims also be remembered and mourned, and their families and friends consoled.

September 7, 2011

What Is Anthropology? Notes On My Incomplete, Provisional Answer

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It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known. Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. - Charles Darwin (1809-1882)


The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. - Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

The task of the anthropologist is to get as near as possible to what actually happens, but to place it and to think about it in a context of humanity in general. - Meyer Fortes (1906-1983), Introduction to the Segmentary Lineage System Reconsidered

We're getting closer to our nature. - Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

What is Anthropology?
A basic definition of anthropology.

Brand Anthropology:  New and Improved, With Extra Diversity! by Greg Downey, Neuroanthropology:  Understanding the Encultured Brain and Body, January 28, 2011:  "Anthropologists need to invest more in getting our version of what we do before the public eye rather than let ourselves be defined by others. If we look closer, what we find in a lot of the critiques are caricatures of us put forward by other people: indigenous ‘advocates’ who attack anthropologists, cultural studies scholars who try to make game of us, and the out-of-touch who assume that, if they don’t know what’s happening, there must not be anything happening in our field.  We often don’t take strong stands against these caricatures, or we take nuanced opposition to them that doesn’t do much to abate the more powerful rhetorical thrust of the criticism."

Anthropology and Publicity by Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology, December 30, 2010:  "To have a public voice, anthropologists must respond to public debates. We have to engage what people are talking about, and make ourselves part of that conversation."

Culture

A basic definition of "culture," the core concept of anthropology.

Our Place In Nature


Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe:, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. - Carl Sagan

O Nature:  From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return. - Marcus Aurelius (121-189AD)

September 5, 2011

The Kingdom Of Swaziland - Deeply Rooted In Africa's Past Yet In Need Of Space For Its New Democratic Roots

Why Protests Will Not Unseat Swaziland's King Mswati, BBC, September 5, 2011
Swaziland:  A Kingdom In Crisis, BBC, July 12, 2011

From 1980-1983 I served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher in the Kingdom of Swaziland, Southern Africa, a land-locked country about the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey.  It was my first time living and working Africa.  The Ministry of Education posted me to a rural government high school in the geographic transition zone between the high and middle veld regions.  The school, comprised of half boarders and half day scholars totaling six hundred students, was located on a steep hillside facing east, overlooking the Usutfu River flood plain.  Sunrises were spectacular and thunderstorms literally hair-raising.  I loved my job and got to know my community by visiting the homesteads of my students and meeting their parents.  This also facilitated my learning the Swazi language, Siswati, and the subtleties of Swazi culture.

Some of the Swazi friends I made, including some of the teachers at the school, would occasionally comment on the lack of democracy and corruption among the royal family and its government, but did so only with great discretion and never in the company of each other.

The difficulties Swaziland faces today - 25% HIV infection rate, two-thirds living in abject poverty - are much worse than they were when I lived there.  Also, my view of the country at that time was that of an outsider who was not confronted with the everyday social and economic challenges of my Swazi teacher colleagues.  I was very much enthralled by the richness of Swazi culture, past and present.  I therefore found it difficult to understand that, to many Swazis, democracy and civil liberties such as free speech, public assembly, and unions were so important.  That, in fact, the seriousness of their plight would one day lead them to speak out against the monarchy, the very institution that embodied the beliefs, values and spirit of what it means to be Swazi, an institution they had been willing for centuries to support and abide by despite the price they had to pay in terms of their freedoms.

The time has come when many Swazis, though their love of and devotion to their culture and history remains unwavering, have determined that the efforts of King Mswati III, son of King Sobhuza II who ruled from 1921-1981, to be the standard bearer of their culture and way of life and lead them into the 21st century have failed.  The lack of civil liberties and need for effective action to address the country's many problems have come to outweigh their willingness to put up with the excesses of Swazi royalty and its sycophants in government for the sake of showing respect for and loyalty to their history and culture.

August 27, 2011

Celebrate Your Inner Mammal! - New Evidence and a Comment on American Fundamentalist Politics


Fossil Redefines Mammal History
Mammals' Large Brains Evolved for Smell
Dinosaur Demise Allowed Mammals to "Go Nuts"

The relationship between humans and other animals is too often ignored or downplayed.  Many focus on our species' accomplishments in art, music, literature, philosophy, and architecture and conclude that such feats are far beyond the capability of nonhuman animals.  Therefore, they say, these abilities make us very different from other animals - a difference of kind rather than degree.

Creationists, particularly those who follow the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, likewise claim we are very special and therefore must be of supernatural origins.  Contemporary American politicians such as Texas governor Rick Perry bolster their fundamentalist followers' supernatural beliefs by expressing the view that evolution is "only a theory with many gaps" and that "God put us here."  (See "Rick Perry, Evangelicals and Evolution As a 'Theory's That's Out There'." See also "Republicans Against Science." by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, August 28, 2011.)

What does Perry know about evolution, the foundation of biological science, and what convinces him that God put us here?  A. Apparently little and B. Faith in the two thousand-year-old beliefs of a Bronze Age, Middle Eastern sheep-herding tribe.


Either Perry is profoundly ignorant about science and has special knowledge of our origins from God, or he is knowledgeable about science, including the evolutionary history of our planet, and is nevertheless deceitfully pandering for votes among Christian fundamentalists.  More worrisome, maybe he really believes evolution to be unproven and that there is an all-powerful and all-knowing supernatural being (akin to a human-like male) who created all and is watching over us on this very, very tiny speck of matter we call Earth.  I am shocked that we would for an instant tolerate such a man asking the American people to allow him to occupy the most powerful office on Earth, and fear that we just might vote him in.


Scientists and scientific free-thinkers are often criticized as being arrogant for their evidence-based extrapolated postulate of the Big Bang origin of the Universe, and their evidence-based acceptance of the emergence and evolution of Life on Earth.  The truth is such thinkers go to great lengths to acknowledge the limits of their provisional knowledge.  Likewise, they almost never assume expertise in areas outside their evidence-based knowledge.  Skepticism and agnosticism are among their virtues.  Perry, in commenting on something he obviously knows very little about (evolution) and his refusal to acknowledge that he really has no way of knowing for certain if in fact God placed us here on earth, proves himself and his ilk to be those who are arrogant in these matters.

Scientific secularists, on the other hand look at human physical and behavioral characteristics and see great similarities between us and other living organisms on Earth, the mammals being the group with which we have the most in common.  These characteristics include: cellular makeup, tissues and organs, bilateral anatomical symmetry, four-limb body structure, homeothermy, body hair, nervous and skeletal systems, cardio-vascular blood system, the five senses, respiration, movement, and sexual reproduction via live birth by means a uterus and placenta, to mention only a few of the most basic traits.  There are many more characteristics we have in common with other mammals, including genetic material, chemical composition and physiological functioning.

August 16, 2011

Global Cultural Tectonics

NEW ON JIM'S BLOG: GLOBAL CULTURAL TECTONICS

I have begun a list of recent links exploring the on-going evolution of our species' most powerful invention and adaptive strategy - culture. Our use of language, symbols, beliefs and values is not changing.  What is changing is the scale and speed at which certain values and beliefs - democracy, equality, justice - are finding adherents in nations and societies that otherwise have little in common.  I have also included related links in this list.  See below.

We are "grinding" the cultural "plates" of Humankind - the values and beliefs within politics, economics, philosophy, etc. - against each other along ancient fault lines, with greater and greater intensity.

This is not a revisitation of early 20th century superorganic (mostly American anthropological) approaches to "culture."  Rather, it is a consideration of how certain ideas and values have found common ground and traction globally, how they are transforming societies, and how they are underscoring the emergence of a new world order that transcends nationality, politics and economics.  I do not believe that cultures have a life of their own.  However, current world events do provide examples of how "culture," especially beliefs and values about democracy, equality, freedom, wealth distribution, and humanism, are motivating individuals and groups to lash out at and, I think, demand a transformation in the structures and functions of the respective societies they live in.  More broadly yet equally importantly, these actions are furthering the ongoing emergence of a new global worldview, morality and civilization.

This clash between beliefs and values is exposing patterns of extreme and widespread discontent, especially among the world's young and poor, all focusing on the same issues - inequality, hopelessness, inhumanity. An indicator of the seriousness and the depth of this frustration is that it is more and more often being expressed violently throughout the world.

In 1919, Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, a non-theist, speculated that "The Second Coming" was at hand. He wrote not of Jesus's return rather asked "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" Elsewhere he explained the new impending 2000 year cycle as follows: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating heterogeneous civilisation belongs to the outward gyre (of history) and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash ... of the civilisation that must slowly take its place."

The Driving Forces Of Human Evolution - A Reading List

The following is a selection of readings on the key events and circumstances that have influenced the origin and evolution of Homo sapiens.  It is an incomplete and non-comprehensive list.  However, it nevertheless covers many of the topics having to do with the emergence of the human lineage from mammalian primate origins, and that distinguish the evolutionary history of our species in terms of our social and cultural abilities and material and technological achievements.  I will be adding to it from time to time and drawing from it while writing my book From the Unknown Into Uncertainty:  The Origin, Evolution and Future of Humankind.  I hope you find the readings useful and I welcome any comments you may have on them.

Archive for "Being Human"