Monday, November 21, 2005

Ezra, meet Snopes

Biblical literalists, or semi-literalists, who think the allegedly pious intent of the allegedly known authors means the material must be true, should read Snopes. No, the editor of Isaiah I, II and III, or the E, J, D and P threads of the Torah didn’t have Photoshop, but he had a fair amount of technical skill, an editor’s technique and a polemicist’s eye.

Yes, mistakes were made. The wonder is not so many but so few. With literacy rates of 5 percent and literally only a dozen or two copies of, let’s say, the different strands of the Torah floating around, an editor by the name of, shall we say, Ezra, didn’t have the luxury of typewriter inventor Christopher Sholes, let alone our computerized world today.

No double spaced lines or marginal room for extensive copy editing or proofreading notes. No nice blank parchment to transcribe comments to, oir make notes. No extra copy of the parment to refer upward from what would become Exodus 34 back to Exodus 28.

Nope, it all was done by memory. Even with priestly assistants, this would not have been easy.

Why don’t we have even more variants today?

A number of answers abound.

First, Ezra may have deliberately burned exemplars. This would not have been to hide his tracks, but to remove confusion, on the one hand, and to get people to focus on him as a religious leader, along with his new all-in-one edition, on the other hand.

Second, despite conservatives’ brushoffs that they have just minor textual differences, we do have a number of variants. Qumran, with close but different versions, plus more variant versions sounding like midrash at points, show the difference. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, reflects some of these variants. There are even more variants in the other two divisions of the Tanakh — the Nibi’im and the Kethubim (the Prophets and the Writings).

The former prophets of Joshua-Kings have different versions with major genealogical differences. Jeremiah in Greek and Qumran Hebrew versions is more than 10 percent shorter and in different order.

The point of the Snopes link is to show how easily something that people want to believe gets spread around.

Take the Torah. Take it in its historical context.

Judah is a Persian backwater named Yehud, ca. 450 BCE. The alleged permanency of the Davidic dynasty, as claimed in Samuel, seems laughable if not pathetic. The hopes of some sort of restoration, reflected in Haggai and the first part of Zechariah, have gone by the boards. The priestly line does some more permanence (we won’t get into Aaronic, Zadokite and other priestly lines that may have actually or legendarily existed) but may be at loggerheads with itself.

Then Ezra presents a fait accompli. Yes, the learned had earlier versions of a proto-Torah, but as separate writings, not as one theoretically continuous narrative. Nor did they have literature presented as though it had one overarching theology.

The leaders of Yehud wanted to believe they were more than a Persian backwater. And so Ezra’s Torah spread like wildfire.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Acceptance and no Cartesian Central Meaner — who’s accepting what?

In an earlier post, I indicated that I not only agreed with Dan Dennett on the lack of a “Cartesian Central Meaner,” but even went beyond that. In the years since I first read “Consciousness Explained,” (which waggishly should have the better title of “Dan Dennett’s Idea of Consciousness Explained”), I’ve become more accepting of this idea.

Who has? Well, I said that I have.


I think I (dang it, did it again, like the Knights Who Used to Say Nee) have a paradox worthy of Zeno.

There is no “I” (can’t say “I have no ‘I,’” can I [“I”?]) to accept that “I” don’t exist.

What a tangled web I (“I”) weave. Doug Hofstadter would just looove this one.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Are you looonely tonight?

It may not just be a song, it may be you. Twin research on 8,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins indicates a moderate- to fair-sized correlation for a hereditary tendency toward loneliness. As I’ve noted in posts and responses to commenters here, I do believe there is a valid discipline of evolutionary psychology, while I am at the same time far and away from believing every claim of its biggest boosters and their just-so stories.

So what’s the evolutionary advantage of loneliness, if this isn’t just a spandrel from genes coding for a tendency to something else?

The researchers suggest that loneliness may stem from prehistoric times, where hunter-gatherers may have deliberately shut themselves away from others so they did not have to share food.

That would have meant they were better nourished and therefore better able to survive and have children.

But loneliness would already then, and certainly today, does have its downside, the researchers caution. Then:

But they added that the strategy had a downside, in that it also developed dispositions towards anxiety, hostility, negativity and social avoidance.

And now:

Loneliness has been linked to heart disease as well as emotional problems, such as anxiety, self-esteem problems and sociability.

One naysayer psychologist offers a caution:

Dr Arthur Cassidy, a psychologist at the Belfast Institute, said people could learn behaviours from their families.

“They may have a very pessimistic outlook and interpret things in a very negative way, so people can learn to become pessimistic and therefore to become lonely.”

Actually, all Dr. Cassidy does it to show that he apparently doesn’t recognize how twin studies are controlled, through studies of adopted twins, etc., to control for environmental influences such as that as much as possible. Besides, it is likely that as much of a sociological influence toward loneliness would come from outside the family structure as from within.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

More about whether “happiness is really that achievable”

Blogger Greensmile asked me for evidence of my “lot of empirical research” claim in this post that we really can’t do too much changing of our own “emotional thermostats.”

I posted two responses in the comments myself, but the third had too many weblinks to be accepted. That's fine; a longer update on the main page is probably good anyway.

Short answer: I am talking about evolutionary psychology and its cousin focusing on human differences, behavioral genetics. Not meaning to stereotype, but many progressives (though not this one) look at ev psych with at least mock if not real horror.

Now, I take a fair amount of a, say, Steve Pinker with a grain of salt. I do that with basically anything Randy Tannehill says. But someone like a Matthew Ridley points out what is the "baby" of a reasonable evolutionary psychology after you throw out the bathwater.

Point is, if, to use crude shorthand and a hand-drawn syllogism, if:
A. The mind is the brain
B. Evolution is a scientifically demostrated theoy, then
C. Ergo, some version of ev psych must be true.

Now, on to the details of those links.

First, I’ve blogged about the difference between evolutionary psychology and Evolutionary Psychology.

Second, here’s some clear evidence of internal physiological constraint on emotional tendencies — this constraint being genetic. MAOA gene correlates with strong tendency to antisocial behavior.

Third, not all emotional “locking in” of an internal emotional thermostat is genetic. Though.. For example, look at the effects of brain trauma on psychopathy.

Fourth, Orwell aside, let’s remember that some identical twins are more identical than others. Nature and the womb environment can reinforce each other.

Let me get more explicit with this emotional thermostat metaphor.

Your home or office thermostat, if set at, for example, 70 degrees, will kick in between 68 and 72. So, that thermostat is not locked on a single point. But yours may be set at 70 and mine at 68. So, I run “cooler,” which in this case would be leaning toward the pessimistic rather than optimistic view of life. Where’s the “center point”? That’s subjective. My “realism” may be your “pessimism.”

Or, we may be both set at 70, but mine comes on between 68 and 72 and yours runs from 65 to 75. In other words, you are more emotional. I am talking here about whether you have a certain emotionaltiy and not whether you express the emotion outwardly or keep it constrained. That may be related, but it is not exactly the same thing.

Here, the question is, in medical terms, what’s “normal” and what’s “bipolar”? I have no problem with admitting the definitions are socially driven, while still saying the actual behavior is more inwardly driven.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Mighty sons of god
Knew lowly daughters of men
And produced monsters.

The hard earth trembled
Beneath half-breed tyranny
Though only in myth.

God decried his works
Yet blamed it all on earthmen
And disavowed them.

An early Pilate,
Hands dripping hypocrisy,
Washed his hands in wrath.

Noah survived the storm
Through capricious blessing,
Meeting hinted fate.

Castrated by Ham?
Indeed. Like Greek Ouranos
Cut down in slumber.

Hebrew reticence
Will not tell the fateful truth
More than Oedipal.

The deepest revenge –
Blackest, hateful rebellion –
Proved most godlike.

Yahweh remained remote
At the base sexual parricide,
Knowing its true object.

Uneasy lies the god who wears a crown
As master of fate and all.
A myth better ignored than overthrown.

Shiva rules


June 16, 1945.
Trinity Site.
“I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds.”
So said Oppenheimer
At the moment of blast.
A brilliance that froze time,
Nay, did more than that;
A Kabbalahesque shattering of vessels
Of an old way of life.
Computers, Internets
DNA, cloning –
The wheel of time goes but one direction –
Forward only.
Unstoppered genies
Cannot be bottled again.
To know, to dissect, to grow
Is our curse.
“I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds – “
And builder anew.

Steve Snyder
March 16, 2001

Fear of death, or of life?


The dead, nobly and ignobly alike,
Sleep deep in orthogonal plots of countryside.
Their selves matter not one whit to the breathing world,
Save one elemental fact – their death.

And yet, I feel that emptiness primordial
As I speed by each country-yard site,
The fear that I am giving a life unlived as boon
Not living fully out of fears of hurt,
Not surrendering my self as hostage to life – or death.

That poignant mix of ache and dread,
That desire to do else but search out not what,
That fear to act and fail, to live and be struck down,
To reach and fall short –
Abides deep in this troubled soul.

The fear of death? Nay, that’s but light grace.
The fear of dying? That’s but bit more,
Save some physical pains.
The fear of living?
The fear of letting die old fears, of murdering old ways of being myself?
That poignant drive
Invokes my envy of those with black rest in the country yards.

     Steve Snyder
     July 4, 2001

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Think back 5,000 years

As we live today’s American rat race, in jobs which even if largely fitting our skills and interests, still have stretches of boredom, frustration and tension; in lives which, even if relatively tranquil overall, also still have stretches and boredom, frustration and tension, we often look to how changing major parts of our lives — such as our jobs or even our career paths — might reinvigorate our very selves.

Then think back to, say, about 3000 BCE. Picture being a peasant farmer in the fields at the edge of at Ur or one of the other city-states of the Fertile Crescent. What can you change?

You were not born a royal or a priest — often of the same family — so possibilities of civic leadership are excluded.

Your ancestors have farmed for, say, nearly 1,000 years. Much old hunter-gatherer knowledge of edible wild plants outside of the edges of cultivated areas has long since been lost, as have hunting and stalking skills. To go back to that life would be risky indeed.

Brigandage? The current priest-king is renowned for having established a new level of order in his bounds, and stretching those bounds. The rewards may be great in the short term, but surely will have no long term.

As prosperity swells Ur, the lure of the city has grown for many peasants. But now, in your latter 30s, you fear that you are an old donkey unable to learn new tricks. Besides, a touch of arthritis in your hands restricts how much crafting skill you can develop, anyway.

Nothing remotely close to modern games exist. Ritual re-enactments of actions of the gods enliven some days and nights in Ur, but your small village has nothing of the sort.

Life is not nasty, brutish and short. Rather, it is mind-numbing, steam-rolling and interminable. Even a Zen-like detachment fails to offer relief, with so little to detach from in the first place.