December 28, 2012

Human Exploration: A Look At Our Genetic Capacity To Imagine And Explore

Photo:  Michael Nichols

Restless Genes by Daniel Dobbs, National Geographic, January 2013

Here’s a great article on why humans are exploratory. Note that the author and most of the scientists cited take a pluralistic, multiple level of analysis approach to the question. They, the journalist and most of the scientists, eschew a reductionistic, deterministic, single level approach such that the possession of a single gene or set of genes explains all. This is an example of good science and good science writing. It offers a template for evaluating the explanatory validity of other scientific inquiries and science reporting, especially in the currently popular and highly reductionistic fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and genetics.

Crazy Far by Tim Folger, National Geographic, January 2013

November 26, 2012

Explanatory Pluralism Ignored By Many Neuroscientists And Journalists

Here's a must read for scientific secular thinkers confident that neuroscience is our best hope for developing a comprehensive, ultimate understanding of human behavior: Psychological Concepts and Biological Psychiatry: A Philosophical Analysis (2000) by Peter Zachar.  From the text (128-134):

"The most obvious response to someone who wants to talk about psychology only in terms of neurophysiology is the infinite regress critique; i.e., if psychology is really the activity of the nervous system, then neurophysiology is really the result of biochemical interactions, which in turn are really the activity of subatomic particles.  If sensations are 'really' brain processes, then brain processes are 'really' actualized genetic programs, which are 'really' incredibly complex arrangements of atomic particles.  Ultimate, everything will have to be eliminated in favor of subatomic physics.  Scientistic thinkers (followers of strong scientism) are most vulnerable to this regress because physics is presumably more scientific and therefore more real than biology or psychology.

"The regress is such a ridiculous consequence that eliminativists (deterministic reductionists) have to admit multiple levels of analysis.  They merely want to make separate levels more consistent with each other, their famous unity of science goal.
"Endorsing what he calls 'explanatory pluralism,' McCauley (1996) suggests that different levels of analysis make separate explanatory contributions, with each level having its own internally consistent legitimacy.  Part of this legitimacy involves a unique research tradition, with research techniques, and specific kinds of professional problems to solve.
"Modern day eliminativists think that higher level neuroscience can move into the level of analysis now occupied by psychology, but still be called neuroscience.  If I am correct, once neuroscience gets to the psychological level, new and complex problems endemic to that level will emerge.  These include perennial problems indigenous to psychology that no comprehensive model at that level of analysis can escape."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * **
Therefore, strong deterministic, reductionistic scientism ignores or downplays various levels of analysis of emergent phenomena beyond the nervous system, and descends into an infinite regress to the concepts, theories and methods of subatomic physics that simply cannot explain higher level phenomena.  The problem here does not lie only with journalistic license.  Neuroscience practitioners such as Sam Harris and many others seldom if at all acknowledge the need for explanatory pluralism encompassing numerous levels of analysis above the nervous system.  Neuroscientific reductionism and determinism are not enough.  Research efforts at all levels are needed.  Such a pluralistic approach is discouraged by journalistic and neuroscientific pseudo-comprehensive claims that free will and the self are illusions, intuition and psycho-evolutionary moral foundations in our brains are the real drivers of political behavior, and that there are economic marketplaces and value computing neurons in our brains.

Zachar's book is a good place to start thinking pluralistically about human behavior and skeptically about neuroscientific reductionism-determinism.

Further Reading

The Science of Bad Neuroscience by Dorothy Bishop, Oxford neuroscientist, a video of a 2011 talk
Neuroscience: Under Attack by Alissa Quart, The New York Times, November 23, 2012
Neuroscience Fiction by Gary Marcus, The New Yorker, December 2, 2012
BishopBlog, blog of Dorothy Bishop
Mind Hacks
The Neurocritic

September 27, 2012

Neuroscience And Genetics - Their Potential Impact On Human Cultural Evolution

The Marketplace In Your Brain: Neuroscientists have found brain cells that compute value.  Why are economists ignoring them? by Josh Fischman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, September 24, 2012

Never mind the fallacious language about economic markets existing in your cranium and the neuron-machine comparison in the above linked title and leader.  The article has much that is useful to say about the relationship between neuroscience findings and how they are responded to within the social sciences, in particular, economics.

I have been skeptical for some time about how journalists, writers, reporters, as well as many neuroscientists, academics, and other professionals, too often exaggerate the findings of neuroscience research.  More disturbing is their insistence that the reductionistic and deterministic approaches of neuroscience research will surely give rise to a biology of all human behavior based on genetics and brain structures and functions.  This would be a sociobiology (Wilson) that trumps the social sciences and humanities and makes them obsolete, subordinate, or relatively weak in terms of their explanatory-predictive power regarding human behavior.  See Ray Tallis for an excellent treatment of such exaggerations and misplaced confidence.

Though extremely skeptical, I can't help but wonder what "new world" awaits Humankind if the natural science of human behavior many neuroscientists and geneticists seek is realized.  What will it mean to have a irrefutable sociobiological, neuro-genetic understanding of human nature expressed in terms of laws, theories, and models equivalent to those in physics, chemistry, and biology?

I hope I live long enough to see a synthesis of neuroscience and social science that produces reliably predictive laws and models of human behavior, if in fact such a natural science of Humankind is possible.  If such laws and models are produced an unprecedented upheaval in the cultural evolution of our species must surely ensue.

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that the greatest challenge facing Humankind is successfully making whatever efforts necessary to bring about a binding global morality and civilization, and an effective human stewardship of Earth - Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing a Unified Worldview.  Will a natural science of human behavior as envisioned by many neuroscientists and geneticists, if it comes into being, enhance or hinder our on-going efforts to realize this vital second phase of Humankind's evolution?

Much if not all of what we accept as being our human nature and what we accept as moral behavior is founded on the principle of individual intentionality, agency, and rationality.  If neuroscience and genetics unequivocally establish that we have have no free will, intentionality, or agency, that our behavior is intuitive, instinctive, and pre-determined and/or otherwise controlled by our genes and brains, the life of the individual within a local and global community of minds will no longer be the reference point for what it means to be human.  The structures and functions of our genes and brain cells will become that which "contains" what it means to be human.

New beliefs and values regarding what we are and how we should relate to each other will need to be created. Our notions of the intentionality and agency of the self and person, our personal obligations and responsibilities to each other, our moral and legal culpability, our notions of human freedom and human rights, our humaneness, our understandings of just warfare, and all other personal, social, and global aspects of who and what we are must be changed.

My worry is who or what will make these changes - competing nation-state governments, religious leaders, scientists, global fora such as the UN, or our brains and genes themselves? How will they go about it? What will the new beliefs and values be? How will we use them?

I am skeptical that such predictive theories and models will ever materialize. If they do they will likely be more probabilistic than predictive. Still, such a future neuro-social science dominated paradigm would be fraught with great risks, many of which would have direct implications for Humankind's survival and Earth's continued life sustaining capability.

What are we to do as individuals, as societies? Remain skeptical. Trust, exercise, and vigorously defend individual intentionality, agency, and rationality. Behave compassionately toward all.

Whatever neuroscience and genetics ultimately reveal about human nature, our future will be an unimaginable journey well worth taking - if we and the planet survive it.

September 9, 2012

Critique - "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt

[The following are notes used by the author for a presentation at a meeting of the Blue Moon Group of freethinkers in Peachtree City, Georgia on September 9, 2012.  The author was invited by the leaders and organizers of the group to give a critique of Haidt’s book. Author's comments after extracts from Haidt are in italics.]

March 23, 2019
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt on politics, morality, and the coddling of the American mind.
Brian Gallagher
March 7, 2019

Above is an interview of Jonathan Haidt. It’s pretty good on some things like his latest book The Coddling of the American Mind. I think he may be better on this topic than “human nature” and things such as the evolutionary emergence of human morality, values he contends we are hard-wired and therefore compelled to express. 

The following excerpted statement of his from the interview caught my attention in that it is revealing in terms of my critique of his book, The Righteous Mind. He’s asked to account for the now Trumpian Republican Party. Haidt’s response raises this question: If his moral foundation theory is as powerful and useful as he leads us to believe in his book, how could one election and one president, Trump, in effect debunk it?

JH: “Trump has shifted a lot of things around. The Republican Party is no longer the social conservative party. I believe, in other research I’ve published with Karen Stenner, a political scientist in Australia, Trump is appealing to more authoritarian tendencies. It’s very hard to see how Donald Trump is a conservative. So the psychology that I just described a moment ago [moral foundation theory] no longer quite applies. [Italics mine.] The Republican Party, I don’t know what’s happening to it [shouldn’t his moral foundation theory provide some answers?], but it is bringing in elements that are overtly racist. It is bringing in desires for rapid change, which is not a conservative virtue, generally.”

Haidt hitching his moral foundation theory to evolutionary human nature remains a problem for me. 

Equally unsatisfactory is his claim in his The Righteous Mind that Democrats are less loyal and less patriotic than Republicans just doesn’t hold water. Since Trump’s election who, really, is proving to be the greater patriot, Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell?

I think a good theory of cultural evolution, one I’m working on, would tell us a lot more about how humans became what we are and why we behave as we do than Haidt’s moral foundation theory.



Professor Jonathan Haidt is a self-described moral psychologist.  I am neither a psychologist nor a neuroscientist.  As for being a moralist, no, I don’t teach morality but I am, regrettably, prone to moralizing.

Professor Haidt took approximately five years to research and write The Righteous Mind.  To conduct a thorough analysis of his work and the references he cites would take at least half that long.  I haven’t done that.  I have read the book twice and found certain methods and conclusions he has come to objectionable either due to his failure to use the best or most appropriate way to understand human behavior, or because of the language and argumentation he employs is a misleading or incorrect portrayal of Humankind.

Before I turn to that, let me say up front that I am a strong agnostic.  That is to say, if you drew a line in the sand and told me I had to stand on one side or the other, with either the religious believers or the atheists, I would unhesitatingly place myself among the latter.  I am also a secular humanist. 

I am not a Cartesian dualist.  Although I consider consciousness, mind, and self to be emergent properties of the various processes of the brain interacting with the environment via the five senses, I feel reasonably certain that when the body/brain dies, consciousness, mind, and person cease to directly exist.  I will address matters of the self, free will, and person later, in more detail.

As for science, it is not perfect in its knowledge or methods, nor is it immune from political manipulation or inhumane use.  Science produces a provisional truth that encourages skepticism and invites challenge.  A full, over-arching, grand theory or understanding of Life and Humankind cannot be derived from reducing all human behavior to physical and chemical determinism.  Given the complexity of human social and cultural life, past and present, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a theory of human behavior based on our history, and expressed in terms of future probabilities, not certainties or laws.  I’m reminded of the science fiction notion of “psychohistory” developed by Isaac Asimov’s character, Hari Seldon, in the Foundation novels.  Maybe we’ll live long enough to see such a theory and methodology become a reality.  Maybe.

Human language-based cultural behavior is an emergent property of mammalian, primate evolutionary history.   Our high symbolic communication and cumulative culture provide a domain of human expression that transcends (goes beyond) our genes, neural wiring and brain chemistry.  I am therefore fairly certain that the social and behavioral sciences of anthropology, psychology and sociology, or philosophy, will not be replaced by a science of humankind based exclusively on physics, chemistry and neurology.

Finally, I do not regard reductionism and determinism, that is, in the strict materialistic sense that is practiced in most quarters of the natural sciences, as the only valid and therefore best approach for understanding and explaining human behavior.  The nature of Humankind, that which unequivocally distinguishes us as Homo sapiens among all other animals, is most apparent from and best understood by examining and considering the interaction between the conscious, language and culture-bearing human person, and the social and physical worlds.

The work of neuroscience and evolutionary biology is providing important insights.  However, a complete understanding of the nature of Humankind is not solely or ultimately to be found in the brain, its circuits or nerve cells, or in our genome.  To argue that it is or will be, is scientism.  Strong scientism produces dogma.  Dogma is an absolute, inviolable truth and is often associated with supernaturalism and totalitarianism.  It is the antithesis of the provisional truth of science.

Among the numerous unequivocally distinguishing characteristics of our species is human morality.  Let me now turn to Haidt’s book where morality is the major topic.

My goal in this critique is to persuade you to consider that a biologistic, reductionistic, and deterministic approach to morality and other complex human beliefs and behaviors, as Haidt offers, is not, by itself, sufficient.  Haidt believes it is.

I hope to persuade you that insisting on the primacy of such an approach, one that minimizes the influence of self, agency, free will, and the local and global community of minds, past and present, is inappropriate, dehumanizing, and dangerous.

I want to talk about four areas of method and findings in Haidt’s book that are inappropriate or unproductive ways for understanding and explaining human behavior.  These areas are:

I.          The Nature of Humankind
II.         The Biologism of Intuition and Reason
III.       Moral Foundations Theory
IV.       A Better Approach For Understanding Mind And Humankind

August 25, 2012

Brain, Self, World - Being Human Is More Than A Reduction To Physics And Chemistry

Art by Mark David Dietz, used with permission

Is Reductionism Wrong? A Philosopher Weighs In by Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True blog, August 20, 2012
Reality Is Flat. (Or, Is It?) by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinionator, August 16, 2012
Anything But Human by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinionator, August 5, 2012
Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis And The Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis, 2011

Professor Jerry Coyne’s definition of “emergence” in the link above is the most narrow and incomplete I’ve come across. Emergent properties need not be consistent with (the same as) and therefore reducible to lower-level properties. Emergent entities and processes are dependent upon lower-level properties but they, in some important way, transcend them. See Stuart A. Kauffman, 2008, page 5 and "emergence."

Implying that Professor Polt is some kind of dualist is a diversionary accusation. Accusing Polt of denigrating science when he is in fact focusing his criticism on scientism, not science, is hyperbole. Calling Polt antiscientific, antimaterialist, and antinaturalistic is almost as shrill as the hue and cry of Christians when religion is criticized by agnostics and atheists. We are discussing science and its provisional knowledge, not religion and its dogma that the faithful consider to be unassailable.

It is true that the reductionistic analysis of volition, emotions, and other mental phenomena has begun to link these cognitive states to locations and circuitry in the brain. There is no question that these anatomical locations and their neural circuits produce these states, and that they cease to exist when the brain ceases functioning. However, the physio-chemical, developmental, and causal pathways between genes, brain matter, and cognitive states have not been mapped, even in rough form. Nor have neuroscientists produced an unequivocal, testable, and verifiable model of the mind and consciousness.  The likely reason neuroscientists have not is they deny intentionality and human agency, and see the mind entirely as a function of a material brain evolved from material processes.

More broadly, neuroscience has not definitvely linked genes and brain matter to ever more complex human thoughts such as ideologies and scientific theories, or complex activities such the social interactions between individuals and the interactions between variously defined groups, over time.

I do not share Professor Coyne’s optimism that the work of sociobiologists and neuroscientists will eventually lead to a detailed account of such causal pathways and maps for human individual cognition, or their vastly more complex ideas, or social interactions over time. Imagine, for example, charting or modeling the trillions of complex beliefs, values, and individual and collective interactions that preceded and resulted in the Allied victory over Germany and Japan in WWII, or those that led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991 being reduced to genetic chemistry, neural matter, and brain circuitry. I find such an accomplishment inconceivable despite my love of and confidence in science, and my usually boundless imagination.

August 8, 2012

Anything But Human - Genes And Brains Don't Behave, Humans Do

Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?) by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 16, 2012.  Polt's rejoinder to comments he has received on the article below.

Anything But Human by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 5, 2012

Thank you, Professor Polt, for some clarity in the ever-intoxicating Nature-Nuture paradigm that is becoming increasingly dominated by sociobiology and neuroscience, especially in the minds of the American public.  I am beginning to think that philosophers are better at understanding and accepting the findings of paleoanthropologists than are biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists.  Perhaps it is what they choose to look at and emphasize when they seek understandings of Humankind’s physical and behavioral repertoire.  Looking at genes and brains links these to behavior.  Looking at ideas, beliefs, and values links these to behavior.  Humans behave.  Genes contain codes for building anatomical structures and processes, including neurons and brain circuits.  These, in turn, produce behavior.  What the genes and neurons do is not the behavior.  What humans do is the behavior.

The "nature" of Humankind is a story of our early ancestors' and modern humans’ ability to beat the poor survival odds our relatively feeble hominid anatomy gave and still gives us.  How? We beat the odds by exploiting language-based culture and sociality to a degree that allowed minimal dependence on our inherited primate anatomy and instincts.  Ultimately, this and the subsequent cultural and technological innovations that followed allowed us to move into, survive, and increase in numbers in environments far more arduous than the Pleistocene woodlands of East and Southern Africa. Grasslands, deserts, oceanic islands, tundra, snow and ice, all became habitable.  Why, because we carried behaviors out of the African woodlands, into the grasslands, then on throughout the rest of the world as soft- or hard-wire encoded scripts in our genes?  Because of neuronal and brain configurations and behaviors our genes orchestrated?  These arguments have not been proven to a degree that merits abandoning the cultural evolutionary model.

The emergence of a sophisticated linguistic-cultural adaptation among the hominids, one far more successful at diverse environmental adaptation and exploitation than the quasi-cultural adaptations of all other animals that have evolved with us, and all that it has led to since that emergence, is the crux of the story of Humankind during our brief time on Earth.  Reducing this unique achievement relative to all the achievements of all other forms of life that ever appeared on Earth to a secondary role below the vestigial animal instincts encoded in our genes and neurons, and how they drive or override our beliefs, values, and ideals, dehumanizes us and removes our responsibility for continuing to use culture to beat the evolutionary odds stacked against us.  Sociobiology and neuroscience have much to offer but their findings do not reduce emergent language-based culture and human agency to an epiphenomenon or mere behavioral expression of a more profound and truthful story residing in our DNA and neurons.

Dumb And Dumber - Brain Circuitry Versus Sociocultural Argumentation

Dumb and Dumber by George Lakoff, Foreign Policy, August 7, 2012

Linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff's point is a simple one - liberals go wrong when they use the term "low-information voters" for Americans who vote for Republicans, a party that, in fact, works to their disadvantage. Fine, point made.

Need he claim, like so many now on the neuroscience bandwagon, that "conservatives and liberals have different ideas of what is right: …they have different moral systems, each characterized by neural circuitry in the brain?" What, let's not discuss or debate our differential values and beliefs, let's take a look at our brain scans when we think about them? What, because certain configurations of the brain are detectable by scanners when one thinks one way or another we must therefore accept Lakoff's argument that liberals shouldn’t use or think of certain Republican voters as “low-information voters”? Please.

A simple, more demonstrable and therefore better argument is that the values and beliefs of liberals about what constitutes a “better” America are different from the values and beliefs of conservatives, and that liberals and conservatives differ in terms of what they value and use as bases for decision-making behavior such as voting. List the values and beliefs in two columns and compare them, critically. Then point out errors in liberal methods to persuade others of the merits of their values and beliefs, and ways liberals can do better. Period.

Brain circuit images don’t trump, prove, or disprove sociocultural explanations.

July 17, 2012

Syria: Global Reaction A Crime Against Syrian People, Humankind, And Earth

How Syria Divided The World by Michael Ignatieff, The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2012

This NYRB essay highlights the points made in my previous post - "Nationalism: One Of Two Major Threats To The Survival Of Humankind And Earth" - regarding the dangers of strategic nationalism as currently practiced by the most powerful nations on Earth.  The actions of the respective leaderships of the U.S., Russia, and China regarding Syria starkly exemplify how these leading nations willfully choose to ignore the broader dangers posed by their robust nation-state competitive gamesmanship to Humankind and the planet.  The machinations of all three are impeding efforts to establish a binding global ethic and pluralistic world governing body that put the well-being of Humankind and the health and sustainability of the planet above the interests of nation-states.

While U.S. leadership sometimes supports a global morality and governing body, too often when push comes to shove it too will do, sometimes very forcibly, all that is necessary to serve its national interests first and foremost.  As for Russian and Chinese leadership, they are never ambivalent about their respective positions regarding nationalism versus globalism.  Both consistently opt for a winner take all strategy among competing nation-states in their pursuit of resources, markets, and global influence - political, historical, ideological.  The needs of Humankind and the planet - much less that of the Middle East, the most volatile place on earth - are seldom, if at all, the concern of Russian and Chinese leadership.

I'm reminded of the Parker Brothers-Hasbro board game "Risk" of the late 1950s, early 1960s where each player's goal is world domination.  Fun for the parlor or family room but a heinous strategy when exercised throughout the increasingly fragile biosphere and accompanied by an inconsistent, negligible, or non-existent regard for human suffering.

If the Occupy Movement is looking to firm up its cause and message I recommend condemning the demotion of the needs of Humankind and Earth to the selfish, destructive desires of the most powerful nation-states.  Put Russia and China at the top of the target list, followed closely by the U.S.

July 11, 2012

Nationalism - One Of Two Major Threats To The Survival Of Humankind And Earth

How Syria Divided The World by Rober Ignatieff, The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2012

This NYRB essay highlights the points made below regarding the dangers of strategic nationalism, as currently practiced by the most powerful nations on Earth.  The actions of the U.S., Russia, and China regarding Syria starkly exemplify nation-state competitive gamesmanship.  The machinations of all three are impeding efforts to establish a global ethic and a pluralistic world governing body that puts the well-being of Humankind and the sustainability of the planet above the interests of nation-states.

While U.S. leadership sometimes behaves as if it supports a global morality and governing body, too often when push comes to shove it will do, sometimes quite forcibly, all that is necessary to serve its national interests first and foremost.  As for Russian and Chinese leadership, they are never ambivalent about their respective positions.  Both consistently opt for a winner take all strategy among competing nation-states in their pursuit of resources, markets, and global influence (political, historical, ideological).  The needs of Humankind and the planet much less that of the Middle East the most volatile regions on earth, are seldom, if at all, the concern of Russian and Chinese leadership.

I'm reminded of the Parker Brothers-Hasbro "Risk" board game of the late 1950s, early 1960s.  Fun for the parlor or family room but a heinous strategy when exercised throughout the increasingly fragile biosphere and accompanied by an inconsistent, neglible, or non-existent regard for human suffering.

If the Occupy Movement is looking to firm up its cause and message I recommend condemning the demotion of Humankind's and Earth's needs to the selfish, destruction desires of the powerful nation-states.  Put Russia and China at the top of the target list followed by the U.S.

AU Summit Highlights Pan-African Weaknesses, African Progress Panel, Volume 5, Issue 13, July 6, 2012

The above link presents a snapshot of Humankind's difficulty in growing the slowly emerging global morality as described by Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and others.  It describes a struggle between international justice, African regionalism (Pan-Africanism), African nationalism, and the conscience of a national leader, Malawi's president.

Lack of support for the International Criminal Court by China, India, and the US make these powerful nations part of the problem not the solution for growing a unifying, pluralistic, global morality.

The fact that this and other struggles between nationalism and global needs is seldom commented on by major thinkers or world leaders much less acted upon indicates that Humankind has a long way to go in terms of putting the needs of all Humankind and our planet's health ahead of national agendas.

The other major threat to a pluralistic, global morality and responsible Earth stewardship is fundamentalistic religion.

Further Reading:

Coalition for the International Criminal Court
Postnationalism, Wikipedia
Nationalism: Its Nature and Consequences by Richard Ebeling, Freedom Daily, June 1994
Globalism, Wikipedia
Globalism Versus Globalization by Joseph Nye, The Globalist, April 15, 2002

July 8, 2012

"God Particle" - A Metaphor Causing Increased Science And Religion Collisions

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at CERN in Geneva,
where scientists believe they have found the Higgs boson.

My previous post, “'God Particle' Discovered – Really?,” cautioned that the journalistic over-use of the term “God particle” could be problematic for science, religious believers, and the global public at large.  It is already proving to be so.  The following is a small sample of articles about believers’ reactions to news of the possible discovery of the “Higgs boson.” The responses range from a reaffirmation that the particle is the creation of the Abrahamic deity as described in the Bible, to indifference, to a condemnation of godless scientists for not possessing a reason for awe, wonder and worship:

“God and the God Particle”  "The Higgs boson may be responsible for holding the universe together, but Jesus holds the "God particle" in its place."

"All Things Visible and Invisible - Celebrating the 'God Particle'" "God is not a particle, of course. God is absolute being, which is something else entirely. We now have more insight into the physical reality of God’s creation. “Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation,” the Catechism tells us. This week’s result is as basic as research can get. … The Church – and belief in the supernatural in general – are often said to be in conflict with science. Not true. But the Church is in conflict with a materialist scientism that believes all reality is empirically observable and testable, and that no other questions are worth asking. This scientism is deadly. Walker Percy writes:

[T]he consciousness of Western man, the layman in particular, has been transformed by a curious misapprehension of the scientific method. One is tempted to use the theological term “idolatry.” This misapprehension, which is not the fault of science, but rather the inevitable consequence of the victory of the scientific worldview. . .takes the form of a radical and paradoxical loss of sovereignty by the layman and of a radical impoverishment of human relations.

"So it was wonderful to hear the excitement of the scientists, to see them celebrate with the ordinary ritual of champagne, to hear of Higgs’ own amazement at the discovery within his lifetime. They were marking a success in where wonder can take us using our reason to seek truth."

"Pakistan Shuns Physicist Linked to 'God Particle'" "Despite his achievements (researching the Higgs boson), Abdus Salam's (Pakistan's first Nobel laureate) name appears in few textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders or the media. (Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect, considered to be heretical by Pakistan's Muslims.) By contrast, fellow Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan, who played a key role in developing the country's nuclear bomb and later confessed to spreading nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, is considered a national hero. Khan is a Muslim."

“Scientists Discover ‘The God Particle’, As Clerics Insist It Represents God”  "It (the discovery) shows that it is establishing the fact that there was a force behind creation in such a way that God was behind it. Those particles did not just happen. It was the spoken word of God that caused the collision that resulted in creation."

“Vatican Astronomer Says 'God Particle' Misnamed, But Exciting”  "...if there was a particle that could exist that could explain all the little things we wanted to explain, it would be a gift from God."

"Evidence of the God Particle Found"
"The discovery of The God Particle represents a step forward in appreciation of God’s awe-inspiring universe however claiming to find the elusive piece of the cosmic puzzle is too naïve an attempt. Having said that, scientists may discover it, but we can’t deny HE (the eternal force God) invented it! To deny is to accept it too. ... Faith is the opposite of proof. I have faith in HIM and need no proof. God exists outside and inside of it all. He's not something which can be explained away by science, nor proven by religious fervor or argument. The God Particle is, in you and in me and in every particle around us. We only need to seek earnestly."

“‘God particle’ Discovered by Scientists - What It Means For Your Faith”  “People of faith have nothing to fear by these new scientific discoveries.  The God of Christian theology is not a god of the gaps, an intelligent designer who can be proved in the places of our scientific ignorance. God is the One who holds the whole scientific story in existence by maintaining the laws of physics. … Behind the myriad of particles and the laws, the universe has a coherent story because it is creation.”

“The God Particle: What Does It Mean From a Spiritual and Metaphysical Perspective?”  “I’m putting my quantum spirituality and metaphysician hats on when I say I believe the ‘God particle’ quantum physicists believe they’ve found is really the ‘Christ Particle.’ Why? I believe it is most appropriately called the  ‘Christ Particle’ because the Christ is God in physicality. And that’s the most famous duet of all: God expressing as the Christ. It is the ‘Christ Particle that gives “all matter in the universe size and shape.”

“Hunt For ‘God Particle’ Will Collide With Faith”  “This infinitesimally small piece of physical matter will likely become a big matter indeed and could impact the lives of Christians globally. For many in the scientific community, the Higgs boson particle is the Holy Grail that will allow modern science to finally and forever trump ancient religious beliefs.” … “The paradox of it all is that the “God particle” will likely be used in an attempt to undermine the very existence of God—even though any discovery will fail to explain how the Higgs boson particle originated in the first place. … But we have nothing to fear. Our God created every particle in the universe, and I am confident His fingerprints will ultimately be found on each and every one. … The invisible God not only made the Higgs boson particle, He made all other matter!”

July 5, 2012

"God Particle" Discovered - Really?

Higgs event.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Much has been reported in the news the past few days about the discovery at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe of a new sub-atomic particle.  The media is often referring to this yet to be definitively identified particle as the "God particle," with some writers using the qualifier that it is not a description liked by most scientists.

Such media usage of the term "the God particle" might persuade you think/believe that this discovery has something to do with the Christian biblical claim that a deity created all the mass we observe in the universe.  The rationale for such a view is something like the following:  These subatomic particles spontaneously come together in space to form clumps of matter that have mass, that this process led to the formation of atoms, and that gravity gave rise to all the more complex matter that followed.  So far, so good.  This is what leading theoretical physicists believe happened in the formation of our universe and all that is in it, including us.  Here is where the science stops and journalist conjecture and license, much to the delight of many believers, begins - that such a process of matter formation as described by scientists can only be explained as a creation act of God.

I am reminded of the hoopla that arose a few years back over the so-called discovery of the "God gene."  See my post The God Gene? on what became of that hyperbolic claim.

Why is the purported Higgs boson or particle being called the "God particle?"  Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

From the Wikipedia article, "Higgs boson"
The Higgs boson is often referred to as the "God particle" by individuals outside the scientific community, after the title of Leon Lederman's popular science book on particle physics, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?. While use of this term may have contributed to increased media interest, many scientists dislike it, since it overstates the particle's importance, not least since its discovery would still leave unanswered questions about the unification of quantum chromodynamics, the electroweak interaction, and gravity, as well as the ultimate origin of the universe. Higgs, an atheist himself, is displeased that the Higgs particle is nicknamed the "God particle", because the term "might offend people who are religious".
Lederman said he gave it the nickname "the God particle" because the particle is "so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive," but jokingly added that a second reason was because "the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing."
A renaming competition conducted by the science correspondent for the British Guardian newspaper chose the name "the champagne bottle boson" as the best from among their submissions: "The bottom of a champagne bottle is in the shape of the Higgs potential and is often used as an illustration in physics lectures. So it's not an embarrassingly grandiose name, it is memorable, and [it] has some physics connection too."

Don't be lulled by this widespread usage of the term "God particle" into thinking that this important discovery of what psysicists believe may be the "Higgs boson" or "Higgs particle" pertains to science having finally proven that God exists.  It doesn't.  Here are two excellent references that explain what physicists, not journalists, believers, or theologians, mean by the term "Higgs particle" or "Higgs boson:"

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene.  This book was also the subject of a PBS-NOVA science miniseries:  Fabric of the Cosmos, viewable online, free.

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss
How the Higgs Boson Posits a New Story of Our Creation by Lawrence M. Krauss, Newsweek, July 9, 2012
A Blip That Speaks of Our Place in the Universe by Lawrence M. Krauss, The New York Times, Science, July 9, 2012
Nothing Is Negligible: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Michael Shermer, eSkeptic, July 11, 2012

I found Greene's and Krauss' books difficult to read but nevertheless was greatly rewarded for my efforts to push through them by the knowledge I gained.

No points lost if you go for the PBS-NOVA miniseries which is an excellent visual, verbal explanation of this complex subject.

Wishing you smooth sailing on the "Higgs ocean!"  We live in an extraordinary time of scientific discovery.  Embrace it!

June 30, 2012

Rasputin - A Profligate Christian Who Changed The Course Of Russian And European History

Just finished this 500 page tome. Could hardly wait for him to get bumped off. Too long, yes, but if you want insight into what happened in Russian +/- 1900 re. the downfall of the last of the tsars, Russian religious mysticism of that period, Russia's role in WW I, and the major factor prompting the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Rasputin himself, check this one out. The man was vile to the core, a demented debaucher who had the tsar Nicholas and, more so, tsarina Alexandra in his pocket, so to speak.... Only $1.05, used, on Here are a couple of quotes from the book:

"It had come to pass by the end of 1916. It was neither the bullets of revolutionary terrorists, nor the shells of Germans at the front, but the existence of a single person that was threatening to destroy one of the greatest empires in the world. The opposition, society, the court had all struggled in vain against the illiterate peasant with the awful name from an unknown village."

"Just who was that man (Rasputin) who appeared in the fire of the first revolution (1905) and perished on the eve of the second? He was undoubtedly a deeply religious person. And at the same time a great sinner. With the simplicity of a century of uneducated, ignorant Russian peasantry, he tried to combine the mysterious passions of the body with the teachings of Christ. And he ended up a sectarian, a 'Khlyst,' a profligate, yet at the same time remaining a deeply religious person. He was the epitome of the Russian's staggering ability to live upright within while enveloped in unceasing sin."

See also Rasputin in Wikipedia.

June 25, 2012

Religion - Its Origin And Evolution

Why Did Religion Evolve? by Nigel Barber, Psychology Today, June 13, 2012

The origins of religion are to be found neither in its boost to reproductive fitness and fecundity, as the article above alleges, nor in religion's explanatory power and comfort.

Religion evolved along with other social structures and functions such as leadership (politics) and the distribution of wealth (economics). Primarily it emerged in the earliest stages of Homo's cultural evolution as a means of exerting social influence and control.  It agents for establishing such control were its practitioner's who proclaimed their possession of superhuman abilities to understand and control superhuman beings and supernatural processes they alleged existed.  They called these supernatural beings gods and their activities the various workings of Nature and the cosmos.

Ancient leadership, from early Homo into the earliest agrarian and urban civilizations, wasted no time in bringing religious cosmology under its firm control as an adjunct to brute force for maintaining control of the group (band, tribe, city, empire, civilization).  Since those distant times, for the most part, human leadership has succeeded in maintaining its control over religion.  However, today one finds leadership sometimes subordinating itself to religion when it is expedient or otherwise useful for leadership to do so, and one sometimes finds religion touting itself as liberated from leadership and as an empowering worldview of the individual.

Regardless, politics and religion have always been and will remain comfortable bedfellows.

Look for the origins of religion in our early cultural evolution as a form of social control, not in it's Darwinian fitness, solace, or explanatory power. The latter approach, as the above article exemplifies, is a biased speculative glance into our imagined ancient past using the worldview of the present.

As for species' future, the key for human progress, and very likely our and the Earth's survival, is to transform religion away from a focus on the supernatural to a reverence for a secular-scientific, factual understanding of Humankind, Nature, and the cosmos.

June 16, 2012

Are We Nearing A Planetary Boundary?

Disappointed EU Cites Rio+21 Bright Spots, UPI, June 25, 2012
Progress On The Sidelines As Rio Conference Ends by Simon Romero and John M. Broder, The New York Times, Americas, June 23, 2012
Scientists Urge Rio Moves On Population And Consumption by Richard Blac, BBC, June 13, 2012
Are We Nearing A Planetary Boundary? by Justin Gillis, The New York Times, Environment, June 6, 2012

"....the planet is nearing a "state shift," or tipping point, after which a "bubble" of population and economy will be unsustainable...."

Is this the beginning of the global disaster it appears must happen before Homo sapiens will put nationalism and supernaturalism second to science and the needs of all of Humankind, including accepting full responsibility as stewards of the Earth?

May 25, 2012

Fundamentalist Christian Apologetics Or A Crusade Against Science?

Religious Products: Prayers and Playthings, The Economist, July 14, 2012.  "Religions rarely praise consumerism. But 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims are a big market. Sales of books on the world’s two biggest faiths are soaring, with interactive Korans and Bibles among the innovative products. Last year sales of religious books in America grew by 8% in a declining industry."

Popular Science Books Take Off: A Big Bang In Physics Publishing by Tom Chivers, The Guardian, September 6, 2010:

"Traditionally, evolutionary biology has received most attention from publishers. As the philosopher and neuroscientist Daniel Dennett says, no area of science has been so well served by its writers: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and John Maynard Smith are particularly fine examples.

"But since Dennett wrote that in 1995, evolutionary theory has been fighting for shelf space, as quantum physics and relativity mount a comeback. The past few weeks have seen Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, move from the books pages to the front pages with its provocative argument that physicists do not need a creator to explain the universe’s existence. But a reader could equally well pick up We Need to Talk about Kelvin by Marcus Chown; In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin; Quantum by Manjit Kumar; Void by Frank Close; and dozens more.

"'There’s a real interest in science books at the moment,' says Stuart Clark, author of The Universe (part of the 'Big Question' series). And it’s not as if they’re light reading. Clark’s own book asks what stars are made from, whether there are alternative universes, what the fate of the universe will be, and whether, à la Hawking, there is cosmological evidence for the existence of God."

Contemporary fundamentalist Christians continuously and aggressively try to influence American politics and public education.  They also try to directly discredit and infuse science with supernaturalism and faith.  Their efforts are especially aimed at the foundational tenet of biology and all the life sciences, evolution.

Those around the world who seek a future where all Humankind and our stewardship of Earth is guided by a secular-scientific yet pluralistic global forum, face a monumental challenge.  That being the efforts of fundamental Christians and Muslims who aspire to being more than equals in such a pluralistic future.  Their faith-based, supernatural views, for example, are not regarded by them to be pluralistic alternatives to scientific-secularism.  On the contrary, the views of fundamentalists are seen by the faithful to represent an absolute truth that must, if and when necessary, be imposed on Humankind.

In part, this zealous effort is carried out through the publication of books such as those listed below.  This small but nevertheless representative sample of fundamentalist Christian efforts was published between the late 1960s and 2008.  I bought them at used bookstores and garage sales in the small, very conservative, predominantly Christian county where I live here in the American South.  I was not surprised to discover that most of the books are not simply apologetic approaches to Christianity.  They are outright assaults on science.  I will gradually be placing comments below each book as I review them in depth.  I would be very happy to receive readers' comments on the books and your reactions to my reviews.

May 10, 2012

What's An Atheist To Do?

Number of Nonreligious Americans Continues to Increase: One-Fifty Are Atheist, Agnostic, or Believe in Nothing by Jeff Stone, International Business Times, Faith & Belief, July 21, 2012

Indian Atheists See Recogntion In The Land Of A Million Gods by Samuya Sethia, Times of India, June 30, 2012

Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias As Presidential Candidates by Jeffery M. Jones, Gallup, June 21, 2012

One Nation, Another Religion? by Rachel Pridgen, a review of  Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans by David Niose and Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton, eSkeptic, June 13, 2012

Non-Believers Who Aren't Atheists? by David Niose, Psychology Today, June 4, 2012

Is Atheism Increasing At The Expense of Theism? by Gregory Paul, Science and Religion Today, May 30, 2012

Atheist Nation - Where In The World are all the atheists?  by Michael Shermer, eSkeptic, May 8, 2012

Should Atheists Slam Religion Or Show Respect? by Valerie Tarico, AlterNet, May 4, 2012

April 27, 2012

How Not To Write About Africa

Is Africa's Negative Image Justified? by Femi Adewunmi, Pan African Visions, June 2, 2012
How Not To Write About Africa by Laura Seay, Foreign Policy, Argument, April 25, 2012

Occasionally African and non-African scholars, and in this case a journalist, write complaining about the poor quality of media coverage of events in Africa. I also complain about this, verbally and in writing. Whereas my focus is on those patronizing aspects of Western attitudes and beliefs (culture) that continue to prefer Africa and its peoples as "wild" and ever seething with "tribal clashes" (a term the BBC is still very fond of), the writer of the link above focuses on another important problem - media management not hiring enough African reporters on the ground. The article also contains a lot of good general information about the continent. Please write your editor and ask him/her to do better.

April 11, 2012

Which Way America?

I recently received the photos below, with captions, from a conservative friend from my high school days.

Many of my fellow Americans long and/or pray for the return of an idealized America as it is portrayed in these pictures.  There's nothing wrong with that unless you want a fuller, more accurate picture of our society in the mid-1950s you'd have to add a few not too pleasant pictures of our urban and rural poor, white and black, during this period.

The mostly white, wealthy, Christian conservative Republican leadership, from the 1970s to today, should be credited and blamed for convincing most of the white middle class people in the US that their party, the GOP, will help preserve what is left of the 1950s America they cherish.  Or, with the help of the evangelicals, they promise to take the country back to that time completely.  Here are a couple of the many strategies many Republicans have lined up with to do so:  "The New Apostolic Reformation Movement" and the "Seven Mountains of Culture" -

The Republicans began this strategy in the 1970s using the Free Speech Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, and their mostly liberal, diverse advocates and participants, as whipping posts.  The GOP did so to generate support for themselves among middle class whites who aspired to join them in being the wealthy "haves" of our country.

This strategy worked and continues to work today.  In fact, many white American have prospered.  The reason they have, however, has not been due to the efforts of rich, powerful Republicans.  Rather it has been due to the generally rising tide of economic growth and technological advancements we have enjoyed since WWII.  Republican leadership succeeded in taking credit for this rise citing their free market capitalism (a form of social Darwinism) approach to the economy and society.  To bolster their approach they added bogeymen, educated liberal elites and the poor, whom they vowed to the middle whites would ruin the country if not kept in check.  Remember Nixon's Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (1969-1973) who wailed about and vilified the "effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals" who dared to protest against US government policy and action?

Thus the humane ideals of contemporary, ethnically diverse liberals for expanding individual freedom, protecting and assisting the exploited, ensuring equal economic and educational opportunity have become hated "doctrines of socialism."

My experience is that most of those persons in the middle class who subscribe to the Republican view of our nation's social and economic problems and a libertarian solution to them are so convinced of what they have been told to believe they will seldom if ever look at the issues objectively, much less do their own thinking or change their views.  It is very much like trying to convince evangelical Christians that there is a preponderance of evidence that Humankind is a product of the same natural processes that gave rise to all other life on earth - you are wasting your time.

So, here we are.  What to do?  Someone has to be right here.  Which of these approaches to society and ultimately the planet is the most reasonable and sustainable?  If you choose "Republicanism" you are selfishly dooming your life, that of our nation, and the health and well-being of planet to the short term.  If you choose fiscally conservative yet liberal, diverse global thinking, we have a chance at a long term and more humane future.  The former is the pursuit of ourselves and our nostalgic past, winner take all.  The latter is a realistic path to survival and happiness for the greatest number of people, as individuals and caretakers of the planet.

For more on this topic, please see my earlier blog post: 

Have you seen the new cars coming out next year? It won't be long before $2,000.00 will only buy a used one.
Did you hear the post office is thinking about charging 7 cents just to mail a letter.
If they raise the minimum wage to $1.00, nobody will be able to hire outside help at the store.
When I first started driving, who would have thought gas would someday cost 25 cents a gallon. Guess we'd be better off leaving the car in the garage.
I'm afraid to send my kids to the movies any more. Ever since they let Clark Gable get by with saying DAMN in GONE WITH THE WIND, it seems every new movie has either HELL or DAMN in it.

I read the other day where some scientist thinks it's possible to put a man on the moon by the end of the century. They even have some fellows they call astronauts preparing for it down in Texas.

Did you see where some baseball player just signed a contract for $50,000 a year just to play ball? It wouldn't surprise me if someday they'll be making more than the President.
I never thought I'd see the day all our kitchen appliances would be electric. They're even making electric typewriters now.
It's too bad things are so tough nowadays. I see where a few married women are having to work to make ends meet.
It won't be long before young couples are going to have to hire someone to watch their kids so they can both work.
I'm afraid the Volkswagen car is going to open the door to a whole lot of foreign business.
Thank goodness I won't live to see the day when the Government takes half our income in taxes. I sometimes wonder if we are electing the best people to government.
The fast food restaurant is convenient for a quick meal, but I seriously doubt they will ever catch on.
There is no sense going on short trips anymore for a weekend. It costs nearly $2.00 a night to stay in a hotel.
No one can afford to be sick anymore. At $15.00 a day in the hospital, it's too rich for my blood.
If they think I'll pay 30 cents for a haircut, forget it.

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