September 5, 2014

Roundabout I


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

I've read this essay once. My thinking the first time through kept me going to my effort some time back to understand the concept of time in a universe where humans did not exist - 

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

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

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

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

Let me read it once again....


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

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

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

Nature writ large, as in the cosmos, sure. But the life sustaining land, air, and water of the biosphere, the only part of nature we significantly impact, may not survive what we humans "can do to it."

Paul Kingsnorth, a self-described "ecocentric environmentalist," would likely describe Lightman, a physicist, as a "utilitarian environmentalist." See Kingsnorth's article:

The difference being the ecocentrist places the needs of the biosphere first in his/her environmental (protective) efforts, even if those needs mean accepting reductions in human global economic growth, human standards of living, and human resource exploitation and energy consumption.

The utilitarian, on the other hand, seeks to steward the earth with emphasis placed on human needs first. This is normally done in a manner that allows for continual economic growth, maintaining or increasing standards of living, and maintaining or increasing energy consumption through new technologies. Lightman doesn't address these matters but does place the protective needs of humans above the protective needs of nature.

I tend to side with Kingsnorth in principle but in practical terms it seems unlikely humans will willingly step down from their self-glorified pedestal and put themselves second to anything, including Earth.

What do you think? Maybe I'm reading too much into Lightman's essay. But he does strike me as a bit anthropocentric at the end. What do you make of Kingsnorth's article?


"The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others" by Oliver Sacks, April 24, 2014

Rethinking mind and consciousness....


"Our Skulls Didn’t Evolve to be Punched" by Brian Switek, June 10, 2014

Happy to see National Geographic address this nonsense masquerading as science.


"How Do We Explain the Evolution of Religion?" by Barbara J. King, April 18, 2014

The suggestion that religion and a belief in god began in families and subsequently spread to a larger circle of non-kin is probably wrong. Such an idea is not supported by the findings of paleoarchaeology or the patterns of social organization in living primates and extant hunter-gather societies.

From the fossil evidence, the archaeological excavations of prehistoric hominin living sites, and primatological and ethnographic analogy, it is generally accepted that the first proto-human, and all subsequent human social organization up to the time of the formation of "tribal" states, was the band, not the family.

Human and primate bands are usually comprised of two, and usually more, extended families and other non-related individuals who were, under extraordinary circumstances, allowed to join the group. Notions about the supernatural and gods more likely originated after the emergence of language 200,000+ years ago among the leaders of human bands (headmen, elders, medicine men and women) as a means of enhancing the protection, maintenance, and survival of the band, and maintaining the leaders' prestige and hold on power.

The notion that religion and gods originated among family parents and grandparents as a means of raising and obtaining allegiance from their children fits our Western ideas about families, not the evidence of the fossils, dwelling sites in the archaeological record, or what we observe of the social structure and organization of primates and living hunter-gatherer human groups.


"Human Nature, A Humean Take" by Massimo Pigliucci, April 14, 2014

Great essay. Am in full agreement with almost everything Pigliucci says except what I see as his opinion that a good (unified, comprehensive) theory of cultural evolution may one day be established.

"...despite much interest and a number of valiant efforts — we really don’t quite have a good theory of cultural evolution at hand."

Though he doesn't directly address the reasons for this lack of a good cultural evolutionary theory, Pigliucci is right about this.

The lack of a "good" cultural evolutionary theory has to do with our scientistic expectations. That is, the incorrect belief and insistence that the patterns and practices of human cultural adaptation, at present and throughout history and prehistory, are reducible to a unified theory containing equations, formulae, and genetic mapping in a manner similar to what mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology apply to other phenomena.

The reason we don't have a good theory also, and more importantly, has to do with the complexity of culture as an adaptive process.

Culture and cultural evolution are not fully explained by the Darwinian-Mendelian theory of biological evolution, or more recent related efforts called evolutionary psychology and memetics.

Ideas such as beliefs and values and their attendant and complex social relations such as marriage, family, and broader group relations, and the rituals, institutions, codes, and laws that, in turn, attend to them, have different properties from those of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, bodies, and species.

Cultural phenomena, both within a society at any point in time and through time, and comparatively between societies over large expanses of time, are artifacts of human mental life. They are created, shared, enforced, upheld, maintained, revised, and/or rejected within ever-fluctuating environmental and social and historical contexts.

There is a similarity between cultural phenomena and atoms, molecules , and species in that all are acted upon by conditions and processes in their environments. The difference is in the type and nature of these respective environmental conditions and processes.

Physical environmental contexts are at work on matter, biological individuals, and on cultural phenomena. Over time the cultural adaptive strategies of individual societies and Humankind as a whole have led to the emergent development of an immense, complex, worldwide cultural environment. This cultural domain influences the ideas and values of every human society and their constituent individuals.

Non-human species are impacted by the physical environment, as are their decisions and other behaviors that impact individual and group survival and reproduction. Cultural phenomena are not completely comparable to matter and species. They are subject not only to the same physical and social influences at work on matter and species, they are also subject to the history and prehistory of ideas.

Take fire, for example. It was initially used by humans for warmth, lighting, cooking, and stampede-ambush hunting. Since those times, there has been a gradual increase in the quality and quantity of ideas about the nature and uses of fire. Any new idea about fire is not only subject to its potential influence on and from the environment, and on the viability and reproductivity of human groups, it is additionally subject to the full panorama of historical and prehistorical ideas, codes, laws, and behaviors pertaining to fire.

Trying to evaluate and understand the essence or fundamental nature of fire only (reductively) in terms of its relationship to the physical environment (matter), or fireness" as might be found in genes and neurons, or as fire's potential impact on individual and group survival and their biological fecundity, is ludicrous.

Fire ideas may be, to a degree, successfully subjected to the above approaches. However, and far more importantly, ideas about fire are also subject not only to the current market place of ideas (itself an environment separate from material physicality and bio-repro), but to all market places of ideas throughout cultural evolutionary history.

Pigliucci is right. Physio-chemical reductionism (materialism) is insufficient on its own and the Darwinian clone memetics is a misplaced metaphor ineffectively posing as a biological theory of culture and cultural evolution.

Will there ever be a physical/genetic equation or formula for, or Darwinian explanation of, cultural evolutionary processes and their expression in human lives, past and present? I am doubtful. In fact, the best minds in the social sciences over the past century and a-half have failed to reduce this vast cultural complexity to a "good" unified theory.

I see a parallel between this failure and the failure, so far, to solve the brain-mind problem. The levels of complexity inherent in the entirety of cultural phenomena and their processes and manifestations, past and present, are directly expressed, in large part, in the mental life of the contemporary human individual.

Such information, for the most part, can be "held," "carried," and manipulated by the brain but deep notions about fire and it's use are embedded not in our nerve cells and genes, rather in our archaeological sites, textbooks, and libraries.

Still, this essay is a very good read.


"Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response" by Jesse Prinz, July/August 2014

I agree. My only reservation about the essay is Prinz's acceptance of the long-standing and commonly held view that science and reason can only tell us what “is” and not what “ought” to be regarding morality. Sam Harris's and Michael Shermer's efforts to establish a universal morality are very persuasive - that an ought based on harm avoidance and the pursuit of the greatest possible level of well-being in communities can be derived through science and reason. Also, anthropologist Donald Brown's extensive list of human universals also contains guidance for developing, through science and reason, a universal or objective morality when each universal is assessed using the harm and community well-being standards. What do you think?


"Building a Brain" by Lynne Malcolm, June 8, 2014

Fascinating! The Quest To Understand And Explain "~>"
Neuron structure & function~>neuronal connections~>neural networks~>brain states~>consciousness~>mind~>speech production & comprehension~>self person~>social & physical worlds

"Actually a brain is incredibly stable, and it's very difficult to get a brain disease. And the reason why that's the case is because everything constrains everything else. It's like an all to all constraint. ... So there are so many rules. And what we are after is just hunting all these rules. And if you get one rule, two rules, and they start interlacing together you discover that the problem is actually not that complex. What becomes very complex is the emergent properties. That is…there's just not enough information, you don't have a machine, you don't have a way to interpret these emergent properties.
"I think what we have to do is realise that there are ways to make what appears to be a complex problem tractable. ... I think that what I'm very confident we will understand is the machinery, the biology, how things are put together, how many neurons, the types of neurons, the way that the proteins are put together, the way that they are interacting and the way genes are expressed, and we'll understand that machinery, and that will give us in the very, very least case a very, very strong foundation for understanding any theories of the brain, of what the brain may do as a whole.
"What we know or what we believe is that consciousness is a state of activity, there is a state, it's a special state, we don't know what it is, we've got to hunt for the state. By 'state' I mean the neurons are collectively doing something that we don't believe it's coming from magic. It's a machine, it's producing some kind of state. It's an emergent state which then produces consciousness.

What I really think that we are going to have a better understanding of is what kind of states can emerge in the brain. You know, states when you make decisions, states when you become aware of your body in an environment. We need to understand all those different states in order to really understand what's a special state, because consciousness is a special state. Even if we bumped into the state of consciousness today, it would take a long time for us to understand why it's special.
"Yes, we have a philosophy section and ethicists, and I think that it's a very important issue to tackle as to what would be the set of questions…in fact that's the philosopher's Holy Grail; what is the set of questions I should ask you in order to determine whether you are conscious?"


"How the Brain Makes and Breaks Habits" by Ann M. Graybiel and Kyle S. Smith, June 2014

My brain made me post this. I'm not sure but my delusion of self thinks (?) my brain wants me to do so because it, my brain, thinks other brains might benefit from it. I'll respectfully leave it up to your brain what it wants your delusion of self to do with it. Brain, out.


"The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others" by Oliver Sacks, April 24, 2014

Rethinking mind and consciousness....


"So My Mushy Head is 'Hardwired' for Girly Things, Is It? If This is Science, I Am Richard Dawkins" by Suzanne Moore, December 4, 2013

Such articles are important for keeping us grounded in science and not in the hopes and desires of scientists and the hyperbole of journalists who write about science. Neuroscience will continue to tell us more and more about how the brain works and how it is related to the self. But it will not ultimately make the self and freewill irrelevant delusions as many of its proponents within and outside science want us to believe. The fervor with which neuroscientists are working is in large part an ego-driven race to make that one Holy Grail discovery that solves, once and for all time, the mind-brain problem. It is akin to 19th Century efforts to come up with “the” grand theory of anthropology, the scientific laws of human behavior. That pursuit was finally abandoned, happily, following significant failed attempts in the early 20th Century and the accumulation of scientific findings that human behavior, psychologically and socially, is too complex to reduce to a single theory. I predict the practitioners of neuroscience, followed by their legions of fad-chasing science writer parasites, will likewise realize that neuroscience reductionism will continue to provide more and more detail but will ultimately not provide the explanatory hegemony they so confidently seek without integrating their findings into pluralistic explanatory models. Neuroscience will not make physics and chemistry out of human behavior. The sooner we accept this the sooner we will make true progress in understanding and solving the mind-brain problem. Is their an echo in this room or am I hearing a loop tape?


Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 2014 

Enjoyed this book very much. Good mix of history, philosophy, contemporary thinking, and humor. Plato was astonished while at the Googleplex to learn that Google's overriding purpose in trying to accumulate all knowledge in one place, including that on living a life that matters, is to make money.


"Is the World Living or Dead? Or, The Trouble with Science" by Christy Rodgers, August 30, 2014

Here’s a gold mine of ideas to truly think freely about. That is, to discuss openly and honestly, free from unquestioning science advocacy and defensiveness and accusations of science bashing. Science, including reductionistic materialism, is great and is among Humankind's greatest intellectual achievements. But along with its contributions to knowledge, technological progress, and human material prosperity science, especially reductionistic materialism, has explanatory limitations and shortcomings that threaten planetary and human well being. I think there is great benefit in thinking about and discussing specific points this essayist puts forward, including the content and quality of her argumentation.


"Simple Isn't Better When Talking About science, Stanford Philosopher Suggests" by Helen Longino, July 25, 2014

Oh my, another philosopher, this time Helen Longino, daring to comment on the modern methods of science and its reporting. Strong, anti-philosophy Hawkinsians, Tysonians, Kraussians, Coynees please note, she's not trying to bash science. She's trying to broaden scientific thinking and methodology and improve its reporting, and thereby strengthen (make more accurate) science's truths and the public's understanding of them. Her book is likely a very worthwhile read.
I share this for its intrinsic worth and to support the approach I often argue for, usually less than successfully, on this page.

"In her analysis of citations of behavioral research, Longino found that the demands of journalism and of the culture at large favor science with a very simple storyline. Research that looks for a single 'warrior gene' or a 'gay gene,' for example, receives more attention in both popular and scholarly media than research that takes an integrative approach across scientific approaches or disciplines.

"Social research was always treated as 'terminally inconclusive,' using terms that amount to 'we'll never get an answer.' Biological research was always treated as being a step 'on the road to knowledge.'

"[Q]uantitative behavioral genetics research will consider a putatively shared genome against social factors such as birth order, parental environment and socioeconomic status. Molecular genetics research seeks to associate specific traits with specific alleles or combinations within the genome, but the social factors examined by quantitative behavioral genetics lie outside its purview. Neurobiological research might occupy a middle ground. But no single approach or even a combination of approaches can measure all the factors that bear on a behavior."


"Beyond Energy, Time, Matter, and Space" by George Johnson, July 21, 2014

Some good links to some WD-40 for the secular-scientific mind. I've read Nagel's book and appreciated his notion that scientific thinking needs to be expanded in order to understand such things as the mind. Also read Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion. I like all I've read of Pinker but think his slam of Nagel was unnecessary and perhaps a disservice to science. Science is a big boy/girl and can take care of itself. A science that rejects reasonable, pro-science, non-woo proddings, which is what Nagel and Kauffman are about, is a science that is limiting itself unnecessarily. It is also a science that may be on a path to an absolutism little different from the one deeply entrenched in the thinking of religious fundamentalists.


"Ten Questions Science Must Answer" by Martin Rees, November 29, 2010

"Will science and engineering give us back our individuality?" Don't understand exactly how 3D printers work. Can't imagine they can create a pair of eyeglasses, for example, with all the specialized materials and specs required. More importantly, is our individuality as expressed materially that important. I tend to think of individuality as the content of one's character not the uniqueness of one's stuff. Wouldn't put this matter, as stated, on my top ten things science should attend to.

"Is there a pattern to the prime numbers? The primes are the atoms of arithmetic; from numbers you get mathematics; and from mathematics flow all the other sciences."

Huh? I am too much of an itchy-scratchy terrestrial primate to think prime numbers may hold enough promise for me to, say, vote public funding for researching them and not more pressing matters. But, hey, who really knows?
Otherwise, I like the other questions. Like you I could come up with a prioritized list than would include many of those described, and more. I think I would put at the top of my list - How can science help further, make tolerable to all, and make sustainable a global, panhuman morality and civilization?
What would head your list?


"A Muddled Defense of New Atheism: On Stenger’s Response" by Massimo Pigliucci, February 28, 2014

A new open-access journal you might enjoy. Stenger and Pigliucci square off at the very beginning....


"Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green Launches a New Project: A Public School Bible Curriculum" by David Van Biema, April 15, 2014

I have no problem with a Bible studies elective course in public schools, in principle. I do think it possibly unconstitutional to use public funds to pay teachers to teach it, not to mention the infrastructural costs of the classrooms and their utilities where it is taught. What do you think? Also, I don't know so please help me out here. Do US public schools offer elective courses in philosophy/critical thinking, comparative cultures, or anthropology?


"An Epistle to the Epicureans" by R. Joseph Hoffman, May 27, 2014

A must read for many atheists/agnostics as well as Christians who think their religion is too often treated unjustly.

Don't mind the learned author's snarky sarcasm. I think he is justifiably angry about the malformed notions of those professing a "new atheism," especially their arrogance and willful ignoring and distortion of the historical precedents that nurtured modern science and atheism.
There is much to be learned from this essay and others on the author's blog, including an opportunity to achieve a more truthful and complete understanding of science, Christianity, and atheism. An excerpt:

"A contempt for fundamentalism, for the crudity of ancient rituals and law as it is depicted in the world’s religious books; disgust at the stupidity of some religious leaders and politicos; remorse that too many Christians and Muslims believe preposterous things–on a range of social and ethical issues; despair that certain kinds of religious teaching and practice can encourage superstition, violence, and mental illness. It is possible to hate all of these effects, as I do, and still appreciate the possibilities of religion and respect what William James called the 'will to believe.'"


"The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion" by R. Joseph Hoffman, January 11, 2014

 A superb treatment of an important period in the history of ideas and its present impact, and a few very good one-liners thrown in for fun:

....a lot of Darwin haters haven’t given a minute’s thought to Darwin in their whole hypoactive grill-it-and-eat it lives.

I remember Sister Mary Alacoque’s quick reply when I asked her one day if we came from monkeys. “I can’t say everyone did Joseph, but I’m quite sure about you.” have to be a little shy in the compression chamber not to “believe” in evolution.

Darwin’s shocking idea was that given enough history—enough time—organic changes that would have been imperceptible over the lifespan of a single organism could be extrapolated to produce adaptations so profound that all existing biological life could be explained, in all its variety, as a result of earlier forms. Our species didn’t stand outside that process but within it. The discovery of the last generation is that the same process affects the environment; and the news from science in the last fifty years is that the universe itself is a process not a closed orb with fixed coordinates and boundaries.


"Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam" by Mandalit del Barco, January 07, 2014


"The Fire Burns Yet - Native American peoples are still here and still caring for their land. Can their conquerors say the same?" by Peter Whitely, November 29, 2013 

Is the main message in this article woo? If it is, then the anthropologist author has surely strayed far from the conventional secular-scientific view of Nature and our relationship to it. If it is not, then the science-religion disconnect new atheism touts as a founding principle and Humankind's best way toward a sustainable future needs some serious reconsideration.


"The Political Future of Atheism (Jacques Berlinerblau)" by R. Joseph Hoffman, November 27, 2013

Here are a couple of essays that ask: "What do atheists want?" Berlinerblau's to the point essay is about modern atheism's lack of political cohesion, focus, strategic goals, and direction. Hoffman also goes to the heart of the matter but is much more informative about the shortcomings of atheism from an intellectual, ideological standpoint. What they both highlight is the failure, so far, of atheism to find social and political traction due, in part, to its crude believer-bashing and ridiculing tactics, and its lack of a sociopolitical agenda and platform. I share their view regarding the crudeness of atheist tactics and have written about it on my blog under the topic of "new freethinkers." Yes, there is a certain level of activism among atheists but it lacks clarity of focus, methodology, direction, and a clear cut message that appeals to a majority of American society. Even more lacking is a global attempt in this regard. Berlinerblau's essay offers some good practical suggestions for getting started. Perhaps it is too early to expect more results than we've so far seen. Perhaps a unifying vision is coming into focus and finding traction but for various reasons it is not easy to see, yet.


"Did Music Come Before Language?" From The Master and His Emissary (2009) by Iain McGilchrist, July 31, 2013

Like me, I'm sure many of you have wondered how American society became so deeply divided in terms of the beliefs and values its citizens hold. I often ask: What happened in the history of the US, whose founders in 1776 adopted the motto "e pluribus unum" (out of many, one), that led to today's society being so starkly divided by two diametrically opposed sets of beliefs and values? Consider the following:

Excerpt - "The new discipline of economics (as found in Adam Smith's 'The Wealth of Nations' of 1776) boldly claimed to reduce what had once seemed vital questions of moral and political justice to the mechanical application of objective scientific truths."

This kind of thinking, as more fully explained and exemplified in the link below, is one among the most important historical ideas that have come to define the battle lines in the contemporary "culture wars" in the US.

Notwithstanding some individual exceptions, the Adam Smith view of science, society, morality, and the role of government described in the link is held by most of those on one side of the firing line. These citizens comprise about forty percent of US society, most of whom are white, politically conservative, relatively wealthy, Christian, and Republican.

This camp also includes other less wealthy and less informed white Americans who vote for Republican politicians despite incontrovertible evidence that doing so leads to governmental actions that are against their social and economic interests. Members of this group of followers and supporters, more often than not, choose to believe most, and in many instances all, of what they see on Fox News and hear on the radio from Rush Limbaugh and his ilk regarding the causes of and solutions for America's problems.

On the other side of the battle line is slightly more than half of the US population which is, fortunately, a steadily increasing percentage. This camp is comprised of the racially and culturally diverse, persons holding a wide range of religious beliefs and non-beliefs, a wide range of incomes, and supporters of the Democratic party or the politically independent. The beliefs and values they all share favor merit, equality, and justice over privilege; liberal progressive versus conservative approaches to society's problems and solutions, and the common well-being of all over the well-being of a few.

The main story line of US social history is how the conservative, social Darwinistic thinking described in this link and that found in other complementary worldviews, ideologies, and belief systems (Eurocentrism, Manifest Destiny, Christianity, etc.) have persisted and continue to so strongly influence American society and politics.

Clearly the approach described has and continues to have great appeal to many for a reason.

This is the case because of the social and economic benefits such a worldview promises to all who support it. Regrettably for all in the society such a view and approach only delivers on its promises to a small minority of the nation's political and economic elite.

In which camp are you? Why?


"On Naturalism" - Our philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci reports from a workshop, 2013

"(O)ntological reductionism goes against the available empirical evidence, in that the universe appears to be characterized by layers of complexity, with new types of behavior of matter ‘emerging’ with increasing complexity." - Massimo Pigliucci

Check out the thinkers who attended this gathering.


"Some Modern Perspectives on the Quest for Ultimate Knowledge" by Stephen Wolfram

"At various times in the history of exact science, people have thought there might be some complete predictive theory of human behavior.

"And what we can now see is that in a sense there's a fundamental reason why there can't be.
So the result is that at some level to know what will happen, we just have to watch and see history unfold."

- Stephen Wolfram, mathematician, physicist


"Science and Moral Life," The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (SPRING 2013)

A must read complement to Michael Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil) and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) on science and morality. All three are excellent treatments of this subject.

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