Thursday, December 27, 2007


A mythical child-god
Poops his pants in a stable;
Shit-stained swaddling clothes
Give lie to pristine legends
About an almighty become cuddly child.
Persian astrologers
Have shit-strewn straw flung in their faces
By the laughing, sinless son of god
As they describe their horoscopes
About the purported inscrutableness
Of it all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Religious Right numerology lunacy

Because Isaiah 35 says: “A highway shall be there,” a small group of churches is proclaiming I-35 the “Highway of Holiness” across the six states it traverses.

First, where’s U.S. 35? Or various state highways 35?

Second, this is the most stupid example of numerology since people kept pushing for U.S. 666 to be renumbered as 491, saying the number of deaths on the road showed it was “Satan’s highway.”

The nutbars neglected many hills, narrow shoulders, curves, and, above all, drunk Navajos, as being primary factors in all the vehicular deaths.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Yet another empirical swift kick in the pants for Charles Murray and “The Bell Curve”

Romanian children moved from orphanages to foster care show a 12-15 point gain on IQ, if placed before the age of 2.

So much for that high heritability of “q,” a mythical intelligence factor that’s never even been proven to exist.

Scott Atran does a disservice to “new atheism”

Anthropologist Scott Atran, an atheist himself and author, most notably of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, but a strong critic of the so-called “New Atheists,” even to the point of approaching talking about the “ineffability” of religious belief, was recently in an extended conversation with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris about their critics of the degree of harm religion causes.

The discussion also included side points on the validity, and degree of validity, of ideas of evolutionary group selection vs. individual selection.

Here’s my take on the whole thing, which is well worth a read.

The “new atheists” are right, in my opinion and empirical observation, that religion is harmful from the standpoint of groups, whether that be individual religious groups, faiths, sects, etc. other social groups, or the largest group of all, Homo sapiens. However, that then said, Atran is right that religion can be very valuable for the groups holding on to it.

That said, religion may well still have value for individuals. The psychological value of greater control that religion appears to give, greater control through its apparent, even if now known to not be real, explanatory value is still strong. But, its value minus its detriments is fading, especially in countries scientifically advanced not named the United States.

That said, the cohesiveness value of religion for groups still appears to offset those detriments in this country. But, as the United States exhausts its natural resources, faith-based stances from a fair amount of more literalist Christians on environmental issues, blank-check defense of Israel, and other items, will certainly grow more costly, especially to individuals within religious groups as individuals.

And, that said, while not dismissing David Sloan Wilson’s ideas on group selection, as many of the Dawkinses of the world do appear to do, and while noting that Darwin himself discussed group selection, ultimately, individual selection trumps group selection. Genes are passed on at the individual level.

So, Atran is somewhat right in an oblique way. Until individuals feel for their own selves the costs of religious belief, especially of a literalist or semi-literalist fashion, at the individual level, individuals won’t break out from the group benefits they get.

But, contra Atran, since at the group level, we have a conflict between in-group value and out-group cost for religion, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are absolutely right to expose the cost that religion imposes on outgroups.

In the U.S., the amount of tax deductions for religion would be one example. From President Bush on down to school superintendents, the increasing preference given to “faith-based” social organizations to perform government services, the cost religious groups impose on other groups, as well as individuals, across metagroup swaths of society is a big issue.

In other words, not as individuals within a particular group, but religious groups as “individuals” within metagroups, there is a huge, highly legitimate “free rider” issue.

In other words, let David Sloan Wilson talk about group selection with religion. He’s hoisting himself by his own petard.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Evolution’s acceleration and the evolution of religious belief

Recent news that the pace of human evolution may have accelerated in the last 40,000 years, and accelerated a lot in the last 10,000, seems like it would fit both with books I’ve read on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology’s connection with religion by others such as Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, but also with the dating of cave paintings in sites such as Lascaux.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

John Haught straw-mans atheism in the name of progressive theology

I appreciate that Haught, the only theologian to testify at the Dover Intelligent Design school education trial, believes Darwin is good for theology to counter a literalist understanding of God, scriptures, etc.

I can halfway accept that Christopher Hitchens, et al, “cheat” in their “New Atheism” books by just talking about the worst of major religions.

But, Haught sets up a straw man by claiming, in essence that atheism is psychologically impossible or nearly so, per “old atheist” literati like Sartre and Camus.

First, he is right that the “old atheists,” Camus above all, did give a hat tip to the social justice of traditional religion. Nonetheless, in the same speech where Camus most directly did that, he told his Catholic religious audience that he wouldn’t be critiquing them on social justice issues if more people actually followed Christian social justice teachings.

On the social justice angle of Christianity, if literalist metaphysical verities are thrown out, that's all that's left. And Christian social justice improved in the modern world, post-Renaissance, precisely as the metaphysical verities faded away.

Second, in claiming atheism can’t justify any hope it does have in this world, he argues from an a priori, a logical equivalent of Aristotle’s Prime Mover. That is, after saying too many fundamentalists and new atheists alike have too much faith in science as being able to provide ultimate answers, he insists the world does have ultimate answers. That is the backdrop for his unspoken assumption that most, if not all psychological stances in this world, can be justified.

Third, Haught basically ignores evolutionary psychology, and the degree to which things like altruism are in our genetic make-up, by indicating one must be religious to hve a sense of social justice.

Fourth, after rejecting Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion are “separate magisterial,” he criticizes scientists for ever making comments about “purpose” in life, trying to reserve that for a religion-philosophy magisterial.

Here’s an example:
What intelligent design tries to do — and the great theologians have always resisted this idea — is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But, per Christian theology, historical errors of the Bible aside, the Christian God is one who intervenes in history, who makes plans for history, and who ultimately becomes immanent in Jesus.

Ttherefore, claims about God’s actions in this world have to be considered empirically reviewable, unless …

Fifth, and most importantly, after his high-faluting language, he pulls out one of the theologian’s oldest dodges in the book: Finitum non capax est infinitum, or, “The finite cannot comprehend the infinite”:
We have to refer to (transcendent reality) in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor.

That didn’t fly when the author of Job put that on the lip of Yahweh, nor when Paul quoted that. And it doesn’t fly today. And, in fact, he gets called on it a bit later in the interview.

Haught does that again with resurrection stories:
If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that.

I guess he is OK with ignoring what Paul said in 1 Corinthians about bodily resurrections, even if Paul hedges his bet by talking about “spiritual bodies.”

Sixth, Haught simply covers his eyes when scientific explanations run over his stances like a Mack truck. Haught can’t accept that modern neuroscience and related disciplines show “the mind is the brain,” no matter how that’s understood in terms of mind being an emergent property?

Dismiss it away. Say that cognitive science and neuroscience not only haven’t explained consciousness, but can’t.
Don't get me wrong. I want to push physical explanations as far as possible. I'm a man who loves science. I'm in awe of science. I don't ever want theology to put restraints upon science. I believe every thought we have has a physical correlate. But at the same time, I believe there's something about mind that does transcend, while at the same time fully dwelling incarnately in the physical universe. I see that as a microcosmic example of what's going on in the universe as a whole.

In other words, practice intellectual dishonesty.

Beyond that that, his claims to embrace science aside, he’s actually being antiscientific, not just nonscientific, with his a priori rejection of what cognitive science and neuroscience may well continue to discover about the nature of consciousness.

Finally, we have this howler:
That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe.

Science admits its knowledge is provisional, but non-literal? This sounds like the intellectual relativists found in places like Stanley Fish lectures and the pages of New Social Review.

In other words beyond that, justify the Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world for pointing out that people like you don’t necessarily have much more clothes than ayatollahs or hellfire preachers, or even than popes and dalai lamas.

That said, Haught’s theological mentor is the late Belgian Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin’s “Omega Point” is certainly out of the scientific realm of empirical study, and, in terms of religion, it’s essentially a Catholicized version of Whitehead’s process theology.

But, all of this skirts an even deeper point.

Haught refuses to look squarely at the fact that Darwinian evolution guts Christian ideas of divine perfection. In other words while Haught has read plenty of Camus, Sartre, Paul Tillich and de Chardin, he hasn’t read enough David Hume. In other words, Haught doesn't consider this world might be the product, even as a process, not literal creation, of a divinity immature, incompetant, immoral or all of the above.

The only way Darwinianism can be squared with theology is if one accepts a God who is “less than all,” unless Haught trots out the “incomprehensible” chestnut again. That’s true in spades of quantum theory.

But, Haught sure doesn’t seem willing to do that.

That said, I find it interesting that many theologians will talk readily about “dialoging” with Darwin or Einstein, with evolution and relativity, and their effects on religion, but you’ll never hear one talking about dialoging with Heisenberg and quantum indeterminancy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Human evolution running at breakneck speed

And has been doing so for the past 5,000 years. Humans today are more different from humans of 5,000 years ago than those humans were from the last of the Neanderthals 30,000 years ago.

Among the main driving forces? The explosion in human population and the invention of agriculture. The main changes caused include digestive abilities, per the rise of agriculture, and resistance to disease, per the density growth in human population, which largely was an Old World phenomenon, as the disease non-resistant pre-Columbian Americans were to learn.

Global warming, increased human migration and other issues will certainly get a new look in light of this.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Moonbeams for a nutbar

Richard and Monica Chapin have built the first device designed to collect and concentrate moonlight. Why?

They claim moonlight could have yet-unknown medical, agricultural and industrial applications.

Yeah, right. Like, can I get a razor blade held at the center of the focused moonbeam to sharpen itself overnight?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Texas science ed director resigns over ID-creationist pressure

Texas’ state science education commissioner, Chris Comer, has resigned in what she calls a forced resignation over her refusal to turn a blind eye to possible evolution and intelligent design politics and spread.
Comer, who held her position for nine years, said she believes evolution politics were behind her ousting.

“None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses,” she said.

The Texas Education Agency put Comer on 30 days’ paid administrative leave in late October, resulting in what she described as a forced resignation.

The move came shortly after Comer forwarded an e-mail announcing a presentation being given by the author of “Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse.” In the book, author Barbara Forrest says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Ms. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities.

Here’s TEA’s spin:
Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," the officials said.

The officials said that forwarding the e-mail conflicted with Ms. Comer's job responsibilities. The e-mail also violated a directive for her not to communicate with anyone outside the agency regarding the upcoming science curriculum review, officials said in the documents.

The documents show that Lizzette Reynolds, the agency's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, started the push to fire Ms. Comer over the e-mail.

"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports," Ms. Reynolds said in an e-mail to Ms. Comer's supervisors.

Ms. Reynolds joined the agency in January and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education and as a deputy legislative director during President Bush's term as governor.

Note that neither TEA officials nor Reynolds claims to have an e-mail showing Comer officially endorsed Forrest’s book. The idea that it implies endorsement of the speaker may be true in the real world, but the TEA knows it’s not legally provable.

But, that’s small potatoes.

Why WOULDN’T Comer endorse Forrest’s book indeed?

For the TEA and Reynolds to say something is wrong with that leads to the inference they see nothing wrong with creationists trying to foist intelligent design — as already rejected by federal court in Dover, Pa. — as perfectly acceptable.

And, it’s pretty clear that is exactly what they believe.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Aggressive woman gets the guy

At least in the antelope world. I wonder how some of the more sexist practitioners of Evolutionary Psychology (vs. real proponents of evolutionary psychology), such as Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, will spin this challenge to their metaphysical beliefs.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Shouldn’t churches be rendering unto Caesar rather than building shopping malls, etc?

I look askance on churches entering the business world, even if their for-profit operations pay property, sales and other taxes.

The “success Gospel” obviously doesn’t give a damn whose image is on the denarius anyway.

Oh, and why should churches in their actual church operations get to avoid unemployment taxes as well as property taxes?

Does God do bloopers? Now online: GodTube

Or, at least, does people’s idea of God do bloopers? Find out at GodTube.

Lemme see, for Christians:

1. Mary trying to explaing “and the Holy Spirit shall overshadow you” to a Joseph who alternates looking like he wants to strangle her and to laughing his head off.
2. A picture of this big boxy boat running out of room for two of every species of nonswimming animal in the world.
3. Jesus trying a miracle and failing, and saying, “Dammit, I saw Kreskin do this. Now I’ll NEVER get that James Randi money.”

Saturday, November 17, 2007

FBI criminal profiling – little more than psychics’ “cold reading”

Why the FBI needs even more reform than just being dragged into the Computer Era

Cold reading is what pseudo-telepathic frauds like James van Praagh and John Edward use to make gullible people believe that they can actually read their minds. It’s obviously unscientific. A practitioner makes vague, open-ended statements to fish for information. With the exception of fishing for information, your newspaper horoscope is the same thing, of course.

Well, Skeptic’s Dictionary author Bob Carroll, following up on a New Yorker article by psychosocial insight guru Malcolm Gladwell and an actual statistical survey (PDF) by the University of Liverpool, argues that FBI criminal profiling is little more than bogus cold reading.

Carroll notes about the Liverpool study:
First, the psychologists argue that profiling won't work the way the F.B.I. does it. (F.B.I. profiling assumes a stable relationship between configurations of offense behaviors and background characteristics, which is not supported by the research evidence.) Second, they note that the F.B.I. claims a high degree of accuracy for the method that supposedly shouldn't work. Then, they explain the illusion of accuracy as due to subjective validation.

And then, about the actual FBI profiling study Liverpool analyzed:
It also turns out that it shouldn't be surprising that the profile is bogus. It wasn't based on a representative sample. According to Gladwell, the F.B.I. profilers who came up with the serial killer profile, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, chatted only with convicts who were in prison in California. Furthermore, they had no standardized protocol for interviewing their subjects.

The FBI had been operating under the premise that serial killers fall into two types. Those who preplan their individual killings, based on victim age, race, sex, etc., for some particular psychological fix, and those who kill at random. They then assumed that each type of serial killer had a profile based on a different personality type.

Well, profiles were somewhat off in many cases, and egregiously off in many others. Gladwell says that in Britain, the Home Office studies 184 criminal cases which had profilers involved, and the success rate was 2.7 percent.

More below the fold (pretty long):

The problem is even worse than that, Gladwell points out. Ultimately, the FBI method of developing details that are supposed to belong to a certain type of profile, such as one type of serial killer versus the other, is unscientific:
(FBI agents) Douglas and Ressler didn’t interview a representative sample of serial killers to come up with their typology. They talked to whoever happened to be in the neighborhood. Nor did they interview their subjects according to a standardized protocol. They just sat down and chatted, which isn’t a particularly firm foundation for a psychological system. So you might wonder whether serial killers can really be categorized by their level of organization.

The Liverpool study went back and analyzed a number of specific killings committed by serial killers. They started with the idea that traits that fit in the profile or organized killer, or disorganized killer, would “interlock” with one another.

Not true. Most the crimes had specific factors that were a mix of both profile types.

And, here’s exactly how it’s like cold reading:
A few years ago, Laurence Alison, one of the leaders of the Liverpool group and the author of “The Forensic Psychologist’s Casebook,” went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Gladwell begins his article by noting that profiling has many of its roots in Freudian psychiatry, which means that, beyond being cold reading fishing expeditions, actual profiling work-ups are also often wrong in the same way that Freudian psychiatry is.

We of course have seen FBI profiling go tragically wrong three notable times in recent years, first in falsely implicating Richard Jewell as the Atlanta Olympics bomber. the failure to consider blacks as sniper-type serial killers, as was disproved by John Allan Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, and finally, getting the Wichita, Kan. BTK serial killer incredibly misprofiled while he remained at large for decades. Note this FBI profiling of BTK, vs. the reality, from 1984:
The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified—and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.

Now that we have strong academic reasons for saying FBI profiling (not to mention movies based on it like “Silence of the Lambs”) is pretty much full of shit, we need to get the Attorney General in the next administration to get the FBI’s badly needed technological updates to be done in a way to push seat of the pants, cold-reading “criminal profiling” to the fringes of the Bureau.

Let’s put this in the “War on Terror” context. We could have false profiles of terror bombers (witness Jewell for a past sample of that). Or note that Transportation Security “watch lists” are based n about the same level of scientific credibility.

Shoe leather detective work is one thing. But seat-of-the-pants hunches and guesswork gussied up as “profiling” is another thing altogether.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


When I was younger,
I believed in the Platonic ideal.
I especially believed in the ideal of myself;
Perfect, and so, incorporeal.
The Platonic equivalent
Of the Pauline spiritual body.
Was it a love of Platonic philosophy,
Or rather a Pauline loathing of the physical?
I believe the latter.
Not only had I internalized
Augustinian angst about concupiscence,
I also had been buffeted by childhood slings and arrows.
Bullying by neighborhood acquaintances,
Abuse of various types at home,
Asthma, allergies and other breathing problems,
A bit of a lisp,
Late growth and skinniness.
What shy, quiet, lonely, hurting boy
Wouldn’t harbor Platonic thoughts
As a secret dream of salvation
From the curse and burden of the physical,
Deliverance from a body
That brought nothing but pain?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Top books: Amazon readers weigh in

And, so do Amazon’s editors. Read both their lists of top-100 books. From the editors, on the nonfiction side, there’s sublists of top-10s in current events, history and general nonfiction. Customers have top-10 lists of biographies, history and general nonfiction.

A definite favorite of mine, Chistopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” was No. 5 among all books, on the customers’ top 100. Say what you will about Hitch on the Iraq War, this was better than Richard Dawkins, a fair amount better than Dan Dennett, and far, far better than Sam Harris on the last year or two’s spate of atheism apologias.

Why? Two reasons.

First is that you get Hitch’s acerbic wit.

Second is that, unlike Dawkins and Dennett, who generally go light on Eastern religions, and Harris, who positively cozies up to Buddhism, Hitchens is ready to say the Dalai Lama has just as much no clothes as the Pope or Pat Robinson.

Gore’s “Assault on Reason” was No. 14 with customers; Greenspan’s book was the only higher-ranked political book.

Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Nine” topped editors’ current events top 10. Greenspan was second, followed by Robert Draper’s new W bio.

Colbert’s “I Am America,” at No. 10, was tops among political books on the editors’ top-100. They had Hitch at No. 22.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Karma, karma-lite and evolutionary psychology

I’ve blogged elsewhere before about my take on full-blown karma, that it’s both as illogical as western monotheism’s heaven/hell, and personally, at least as offensive.

But, what about “karma-lite,” the non-metaphysical, or less-metaphysical, generic claim that “what goes around, comes around”?

There’s a better, scientific explanation from evolutionary psychology. It’s called “reciprocal altruism,” or, in even easier layperson’s terms, “tit for tat.”

Animals with enough memory intelligence to remember past good or bad actions by their fellows and attribute them to specific actors, especially amongst highly social animals, can and do practice this. In the case of bad actors, it’s the old “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” schtick. Intelligence social animals can and do remember who cheats in the old game of back-scratching and won’t let Mr. or Ms. Cad play in any more reindeer games.

It’s that simple. Nothing metaphysical needed.

And, scientists are finding the first genetic support for reciprocal altruism. The gene in question appears linked to dopamine production and a similar gene in voles that promote social bonding, which makes sense to me. Reciprocal altruism certainly promotes social bonds, and a dopamine-based “feel good” feeling for doing it would be the reward individuals get to be good group members.

So, do altruism cheaters lack a copy, or good expression, of this gene?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fall is the time for poignant reflections

North Texas is not Michigan or Washington State. The days of fall, on average, don’t become perceptibly more overcast as they shorten. Nor does the amount of daylight in each day lose three or four minutes, unlike these northern locations.

In short, our area does not feel like it’s becoming sunlight-deprived as October rushes into November, with December looming on the horizon. So, the area is not a prime location to produce sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder, normally known by its acronym of SAD.

Nonetheless, this is a time of year I get poignant, to use a nice, high-dollar word.


In a word, or two acronyms, it’s the change from CDT to CST.

Our annual time to pay the piper for all those extra evenings of summer sunlight is now upon us, as we prepare to “fall back” to Standard Time.

I’m not awake early enough in the spring to notice my “lost” hour of dawn at the start of Daylight Saving Time, just my “gained” hour of evening.

I think a loss gets noticed more easily than a gain, though. And, being a night owl, not a morning person, I’m more likely to notice an evening loss, too.

To sound a bit John Madden-like, all of a sudden, BOOM, there goes an hour of daylight. And, I’m left feeling, well, poignant, among other things.

I hate using the word “ineffable” about the word “poignant.” Nonetheless, I think a complex emotional state like poignancy has to be experienced, has to be felt, to be fully understood; words alone can’t do it justice.

And, with the change from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time being pushed a week later this year, I will probably have that feeling of poignancy intensified a little bit this year.

Even though I just said that “poignancy” might not be easily definable to a person who has not felt poignant, I’ll nonetheless make an effort at it, and perhaps wax a bit poetic in the process.

To me, it contains wistfulness at the process of change, whether that’s change in seasons and sunlight, or other changes. It also contains a bit of melancholy, a gentle tinge of sadness as I once wrote in a poem, at how life is passing onward. But it also has a warm glow from memories provoked by thinking about life’s ever-changing flow.

So, no, the complex emotion of poignancy isn’t a “bad” emotion, not that “bad” emotions are bad, anyway, when felt at appropriate times and expressed appropriately. It’s a very human emotion, one that distinguishes us from lower life forms as much as our abstract-reasoning human intelligence does.

In other words, poignancy is an emotion about being alive, fully alive. It’s about being aware of life as it surrounds us, of how changes in life impinge upon us, and how we can awarely interact with our larger world. Either other people or changes in the natural world can stir it up in me.

And, with that said, I can think of two reasons why I think the one-week delay in the change back to standard time may increase those feelings.

One is that the daylight will be a little bit shorter with the time change a week later than it has been in the past.

The second is that, with the time change occurring another week into fall, more fall foliage changes will be out there for me to see. A few more leaves will be yellow, orange or maybe brown. A few more will be falling from their branches, pinwheeling and tumbling to the ground. The smell of various types of red oaks, and their decaying leaves, will provide an aromatic fall backdrop, accompanied by the aural filigree of the sound of those leaves, and the occasional acorn or pecan, crunching underfoot.

Fall may not be a season of hope in the way that spring is. But, it can be a time of taking stock, of appreciating and accepting where our journey of life has us at right now, a nature-based equivalent of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.”

And that, in a native pecan nutshell, is what poignancy is about.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

If enlightenment is “ineffable” …

Per a claim of Zen Buddhism, how can anybody claim that someone else is not enlightened? The obvious answer is, “They can’t.”

How can anyone claim that someone else’s use of certain words (or physical actions, drawings, music or whatever) to talk about enlightenment shows in and of itself that the person talking isn’t enlightened? The obvious answer is, “They can’t.”

For that matter, how can a person who claims he or she is enlightened actually defend that claim to any other person? The obvious answer is, “They can’t.”

The observations above are NOT about the “paradox” of a religion like Zen Buddhism that bases itself on satori is some other enlightenment that is claimed to be ineffable. No paradox is at issue here.

Rather, what IS at issue is failure in logical thinking skills. Of course, defenders of Zen will claim that this itself is part of Zen: its anti-logical stance.

OK, I’ll accept that for the sake of argument.

But, that goes right back to my point. If Zen Buddhism is anti-logical, or anti-linguistic, for that matter, you cannot defend it. Arguably, any attempt to defend it, in fact shows that the person making the attempt is unenlightened, no matter how much they claim to be enlightened.

Some further thoughts on defining religion

Based on my own readings in existentialism, and psychology of religion, I offer the following psychological definition of religion:

“Religion is an attempt to escape from the condition of being human in life. It is based on two facts. One is that there is something psychologically wrong with being human. The other point is philosophical — a belief that humans can be something besides being human.”

The only condition in which the second is true is with a .45 slug to the brain. Camus knew that when he said suicide was the ultimate question of philosophy. (He probably would have called existentialism, at least with the way he answered that question, as a psychology, not a philosophy.)

Psycho-philosophical escapism does sound a good way to define a religion, especially when he connect it with the sociology of religion observation that religions consist of certain defined rites, rituals, etc., such as prayer, worship, liturgy, etc. And, the psych-philosophical definition, of escapism, gets at the heart of what motivates religious people without even talking about whether a personal deity or not.

In other words, to riff on Paul Tillich, for the religious, escape from the human condition is the matter of ultimate concern.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Apparently even many scientists don’t think James Watson is racist

A World Science poll has the following findings about Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson:

1. Some 57 percent of respondents find his comments about black intelligence legitimate opinion, 26 percent racism, and 17 percent unsure.

2. A full 75 percent said the London Science Museum was wrong to cancel a lecture he had scheduled.

3. Even more, 79 percent said the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was wrong to suspend Watson as president.

4. A similar percentage, 74 percent, said this would chill scientific discourse.

5. Between two responses, for two different reasons, 70 percent said Watson’s critics should leave him alone.

6. Just over half of respondents to the poll were scientists.

I’m not advocating censorship of legitimate opinion, but, this went beyond opinion. It was racism.

And, in science terms, it was pseudoscience, clear and simple.

Now, per a reader of Talking Points Memo, it turns out this is nothing new from Watson. In fact, he’s got Read this SF Chronicle story. He made similar comments in a conference at Berkeley seven years ago. Had anybody short of a Nobel-level scientist said this, we’d immediately label him as nutbar.
Witnesses were flabbergasted when the 72-year-old discoverer of the double helix suggested there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges. “That’s why you have Latin lovers,” Watson said. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”

In a lecture hall jammed with more than 200 Berkeley students and faculty members, Watson showed a slide of sad-faced model Kate Moss to support his contention that thin people are unhappy and therefore more ambitious. …

Botchan, who presided over the session, said Watson was merely trying to call attention to a protein (pom-C) that helps create several different hormones: One determines skin color (melanin); another enhances a sense of well-being (beta endorphins); and the third plays a role in fat metabolism (leptin).

Botchan said Watson was wondering out loud why evolution had linked these hormones, and whether the interrelationship of these mood and behavior-influencing compounds might be affected by exposure to sunlight.

Unfortunately, said Botchan, Watson advanced his hypothesis with “comments that were crude and sexist and potentially racist.” But Botchan, who did post-graduate work under Watson, said he doesn't think the Nobel laureate is racist or sexist, merely insensitive. …

Berkeley genetics professor Thomas Cline said Watson's lecture ``crossed over the line'' from being provocative to being irresponsible because the senior scientist failed to separate fact from conjecture. …

Berkeley biology professor Susan Marqusee walked out about a third of the way through Watson's hourlong lecture. …

A spokesman at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institute on Long Island where Watson serves as president, confirmed the gist of his remarks and said Watson has voiced similar sentiments at other scientific gatherings.

Read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. The reporter notes that Nobelist William Shockley, inventor of the transistor, was ostracized for years because of similar comments. Why wasn’t that done years ago to Watson?

Being dismissed now as president of Cold Spring is less than punishment enough.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Patriots, gurus, scoundrels and martyrs

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, alleged misunderstanding is the last refuge of a martyr. That’s doubly true if the martyr is a religious, metaphysical leader or similar type of guru.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

For every two or three good PBS programs

You get some absolute dreck like "Paranormal Science."

Starbucks: use different beans!

I think I figured out part of why Starbucks ain’t all that for me. It uses too many Latin American beans for its different coffees. I like the hard, dry earthiness of East African coffees and the damp earthiness of Indonesian area coffees more than the winey flavor of most Latin American coffees; no matter the roasting level, I think you always have some of the wininess, or the different types of earthiness come through.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Contra Buddhism II

The eye that sees an I
Wants to obliterate it.
If thine I offend thee, pluck it out.
Camus once said
Suicide is the ultimate question of philosophy.
And so it is for Buddhist metaphysics.
How can the Theravada I,
Self-extinguished yet self-preserved
For the enlightenment
Of the non-transcendent masses,
Explain the inexplicable transcendental mu-nothingness
Without obliterating itself again?

Contra Buddhism I

This religion says,
“I am not a religion,”
And yet it is.
Some Magritte word-picture-play,
A paradox of some modern Zeno,
Or a Zen koan,
That would pitch one toward deeper meanings?
Its devotees would say “yes,”
If not rejecting the religious tag completely.
Does atheism make a religion not a religion?
I say “no.”
You stand charged in the dock, Buddhists.
Holding metaphysical matters of ultimate concern —
Afterlives, reincarnations, non-physical life forces.
You pray,
And engage in other rites,
Possess sacred texts,
And follow mandates,
In attempts to control these ultimate concerns.
No Zen koan;
This religion is.

October poignancy

A waning autumn sun
Lights trash in tired, stubble-strewn byways;
The emptiness and absurdity of life
Strewn as a randomized collage of suburban detritus.
Another fall is coming on;
I feel the pangs of poignancy in the weakening, shortening sun,
As the orb slips toward another southern nadir.
Another year suddenly seems too short,
As I age more,
And sense that the potential of another love
Is fading with that westering, lowering sun.

Twilight of the Idols

Schopenhauer falls first, then Wagner,
Until Nietzsche stands bare-faced before himself,
No absolutes and no absolutists still in place.
The core of pessimism,
Free of metaphysics and free of systems,
In his grasp.
His later, Fury-ridden madness,
An ironic vote for absurdity,
Mad not from seeing the truth but from helplessness,
His personal Birth of Tragedy,
Struck from the stage in the middle of Act III.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Lee Siegel could try to be open-minded about reading secularist tomes

Siegel, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, takes to task the recent books of “militant atheists” like Christopher Hitchens (five-starred by me on Amazon), Victor Stenger (given an advance provisional five-star rating), Richard Dawkins (four-starred) Dan Dennett (generously three-starred) and Sam Harris (two-starred). Hitchens is by far the best of those I’ve read, as he is the only one to, metaphorically speaking, show that the Dalai Lama as well as the Pope has no clothes. Dennett barely touches on Eastern religion, as does Dawkins, and Harris tries to pretend that Buddhism isn’t a religion, and that it doesn’t have any empirical or philosophical problems, both of which are incorrect. (Hat tip to Kevin Drum for his discussion of this op-ed column.)

Siegel first cites things from Internet pornography to the Kansas Board of Education being overruled on trying to teach creationism intelligent design (creationism-lite) as examples of why we don’t have to worry about religious control in America. He ignores that, no matter how many setbacks in the field, the Religious Right won’t give up. After all, it trotted out intelligent design to replace creationism. Here in Texas, “under God” was added to the Texas flag pledge of allegiance this year by the state legislature. (How many states are nutbar enough to have a state flag pledge, anyway? The U.S. and the Philippines are the only two countries to have a national flag pledge.)

He then claims “the attacks in the book don’t make much sense.” Well, if you’re going to adopt the patristic Christian claim, “I believe because it’s absurd,” as Siegel does later in the column, well, of course, they won’t make sense. Logic doesn’t make sense in an illogical, self-contained, hermetically sealed thought system.

Finally, Siegel trots out this old chestnut:
For the imagination is what embodies concepts, ideas and values that cannot be scientifically verified and that have no practical usefulness.

He is, in essence, making the old claim that the atheist can’t appreciate the “spirituality” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, let alone Handel’s Messiah, tying that with the canard about “soulless reductionistic science.”

I can surely appreciate the spirituality, or whatever, even of Mozart’s Requiem or Bach’s B minor Mass as much as any religious person, and said so in a newspaper column.

As for the “soulless reductionistic science” idea, I put up the quote of evolutionary biologist and science writer Robert Sapolsky:
Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.

In short, Robert Siegel doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. The title of his forthcoming book, “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob,” also labels him as some sort of Luddite.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Night Life (a poem)

The orangish sodium vapor glow
Brings out the yellow in the red oak’s green leaves.
The colors of our world have such sensitivity and delicateness
To be far away from full capture by any camera.

The sun-like warmth of the security light
Provides a tone of calm serenity to the night.
In the background, the drone of overused air conditioners
Provides an aural backdrop to the early fall chirps of crickets.

Meanwhile, my body relaxes and unwinds.
I sense the fiber-fullness of my stomach
And feel a touch of post-rain clammy heaviness in the night air.
While making myself aware of the cleanness of its scent.

It is good to be alive, good to be sensual, in the night air.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Why Nero couldn’t have been persecuting Christians for the fire of Rome

Even assuming that Rome had a number of Christians besides those mentioned in Paul’s letter to the group there, by AD 64, the entire city is unlikely to have had more than 200. (The whole world likely had no more than 1,500 or so; the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters paint a success story that just ain’t so.)

On a fairly conservative, but not extremely conservative estimate, Rome had a population of 500,000. Two hundred people, given the lack of electronic communications, newspapers, etc. would stand out even less in a city of 500,000 than they do today.

Now, the Roman historian Tacitus does mention a disturbance about a certain Χρήστος, but several observations need to be made. First, this is NOT the same as the Greek Χριςτός. The first Greek word means “excellent” or similar. It is nowhere used in the Greek New Testament, nor the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it was an epithet used about Greek Olympian divinities in general and Apollo in general. (Sidebar: nearly 200 years, Constantine would have a sun-struck vision that, had he not had a Christian mother, he probably instead would have interpreted as a vision of Apollo[or perhaps Mithras] instead; his first post-conversion coinage shows a beardless, Apollonian Jesus.)

Let’s say that Tacitus was unfamiliar enough with Judaism and with this nuance of Greek vocabulary that he used the wrong word. That, then, would mean he wasn’t familiar with Judaism in general, nor disputes among Jewish “sects.” He may have known enough to be familiar with the basic concept of the Messiah, the Christ, and that was, and thought Χρήστος was the right word.

In other words, he could be talking about a general dispute between Jews about the Messiah, and not about Yeshua bar-Yusuf at all. Second, he places this disturbance in the imperium of Claudius, not Nero. So, it could in no way be connected to any disturbance that caught Nero’s eye.

Between the likely generic Jewish dispute of Tacitus’ account and the small number of Christians at the time of Nero, and assuming Christians took to heart Paul’s “submit to the governing authorities” command of Romans 13, there seems to be no reason Christians were blamed for the fires.

Ergo, perhaps they weren’t blamed. Detailed accounts of this alleged persecution are found only in Christian writings, and not in any early ones. Clement of Rome nowhere mentions them in his epistle to Christians in Corinth, though it would have been an excellent example of steadfastness to pass on.

So, perhaps there was no Neronian persecution of Christians, even one just limited to Rome.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

New Skeptics’ Circle is up

It’s at Aardvarkology. For more on Skeptics’ Circle, a biweekly blog carnival about all things skeptical, go to It’s this Blogger site.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

World-renowned scientist wants new 9/11 investigation, but unfortunately appears to be adding to conspiracy thinking

Now, Lynn Margulis is a biologist, not a structural engineer. But, she’s also a world-class scientist whom I think would not be given to non-scientific thinking, including conspiracy theories. So, should her call for a new 9/11 investigation should be taken at least somewhat seriously?
“I suggest that those of us aware and concerned demand that the glaringly erroneous official account of 9/11 be dismissed as a fraud and a new, thorough, and impartial investigation be undertaken.”

But, no, her call shouldn’t be taken too seriously. She immediately shoots herself in the foot:
(Margulis) compared 9/11 to several self-inflicted attacks that had been used in the past to arouse people's fear and hatred and justify war, including the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, the Reichstag Fire, and Operation Himmler, which Germany used to justify the invasion of Poland, the trigger for World War II.

First, the verdict of history on the Maine is pretty damn clear: accidental explosion. The verdict on the Reichstag fire is almost as clear: the Communists started it, although the Nazis apparently hindered firemen from immediately dousing it.

She then goes on to further plunge headlong into, you guessed it — conspiracy theories.

The fact that she’s also influenced by David Ray Griffin’s book “The New Pearl Harbor” (which I assume starts from the idea that FDR knew in advance of the original Pearl Harbor), a book endorsed a by a certain post-9/11 conspiracy-minded slice of liberalism, is more disquieting. Griffin, who is a professor of philosophy, relies heavily on the thoroughly debunked “The Big Lie” of French writer Thierry Meyssan. (A full 80 percent of non-five star reviews at Amazon one-star Griffin’s book for its conspiracy thought.)

Far more sober was the call for further study by British war correspondent/investigative journalist Robert Fisk, who specifically separated himself from conspiratorial thinkers a few days ago. (Fisk’s questions of disbelief about how the jet fuel could have burned hot enough have already been refuted multiple times; at the easily accessible popular level, the magazine Popular Mechanics had an excellent conspiracy debunking about two years ago.)

Beyond that, the best counterthought for this being a government conspiracy?

It’s the same one mentioned by Fisk. The government of George W. Bush has shown itself to be too inept to pull off such a thing.

On the bonus side, fellow skeptics, I haven’t seen such a clear illustration of the fallacy of appeal to authority (should anybody cite Margulis as a reason to open a new, “we did it” 9/11 investigation) in a long time.

Update: A blogger acquaintance informs me that Margulis has also jumped on the bandwagon of deniers that HIV causes AIDS, with the certain amount of conspiracy thinking that goes with that, as well.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Religious liberalism hits a mix of social conservativism and need

At least one of the United Methodist churches in rural portions of Grimes County, Texas, has a woman minister. I’m not going to nose around for opinions in my last 2.5 weeks here, but I do wonder how members there, in this conservative, Deep South part of Texas, feel about that.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Question yourself

To “know yourself” (Socrates), in order to “be true to yourself” (Polonius in “Hamlet”) you must first question yourself.

Question authority? Above all, question the authority of your own conscious ego and its attendants.

Question above all the tyranny of social authority and expectation, especially as you have internalized it, then the authority of internalized family messages, and then the tyranny of unquestioned self-expectation.

Question not, though, in the style of a harsh interrogator, but that of a young child discovering the world anew. I hope to throw questions at my own self and life like that every day.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A very “unlucky” non-Friday the 13th looming?

I wouldn’t want to be in the West Bank or Gaza Sept. 13. Why?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts the evening of Sept. 12, according to the modern Western/Christian Gregorian calendar, and runs through the daytime hours of Sept. 13.

Ramadan, the Muslim month of daytime fasting, starts Sept. 13.

Can you say “potential for explosiveness”?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

“Out of body” experience induced — no soul or God needed

Scientists have found a way to induce “out of body” experience in a purely naturalistic manner, simply by using virtual reality goggles.
In the studies published in Thursday’s Science journal, two teams of researchers managed to induce the effect in healthy people by scrambling their senses of vision and touch with the aid of the goggles.

“We ... describe an illusion during which healthy participants experienced a virtual body as if it were their own, and localized their ‘selves’ outside their body borders at a different position in space,” wrote Olaf Blanke, a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

One team, led by Henrik Ehrsson at University College London, had volunteers sit in a chair in the middle of a room wearing virtual-reality goggles showing the view from a video camera placed behind them.

A researcher moved a rod up to the camera at the same time as the person's chest was touched, and then the rod disappeared from view.

This created the illusion that the person was sitting a few steps back, where the camera stood.

In Blanke's experiment, subjects wearing virtual-reality goggles watched an image of a mannequin representing their own body placed directly in front of them while a researcher scratched their back.

Afterwards, the volunteers were blindfolded and guided backwards. When they were asked to return to their original positions, they went toward the place where they had seen their virtual body — the mannequin.

The researchers said mixing up the senses of sight and touch was key to the experiments.

As the story notes, the studies could shed more light on the sense of one’s self, from the basic proprioception, or knowing where one’s body is in relation to exterior space, to the grounding of a psychological self that has given rise to ideas of a “soul.”

Monday, August 20, 2007

The ignorance or cluelessness of experimental economists about music

Apparently experimental economists have either never heard of, or are totally clueless about, the old maxim de gustibus non disputandum,; otherwise, we wouldn’t have nutbar experiments like
this, trying to determine which of AC/DC’s two lead singers, Brian Johnson or Bon Scott, is better on the basis of student’s economic efficiency while listening to each one of them.

As I posted on Washington Monthly, where I first read this:

Look at the world of classical music and try this same experiment. I'm sure I would be more economically efficient listening to Leopold Mozart than to Stravinsky, due to Stravinsky's dissonance, instrumental timbre combinations, polyrhythms, etc.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Snarkily rebutting a claim that AA is “secular”

An acquaintance of mine, at a conference, ran into an apparently long-term AA member who defended, probably vociferously, the idea that Alcoholics Anonymous is a secular organization.

Just how did he defend the idea that AA is secular? Your “higher power” can be a doorknob? I know people everywhere at the end of AA meetings don’t actually pray the religious Lord's Prayer, but instead:

Our doorknob who art on the door
Hallowed be thy brass;
Thy key tumbler work;
Thy doors open quickly, at home as at work.
Give us this day our daily security;
Forgive us our fumbled keys
As we forgive others who drop theirs, too.
Lead us not into stripped-out locks,
But deliver a locksmith quickly.
For thine is the safety, and the reliability, and the universality.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Prayer vs. self-insight in decision-making

I’ve long and often said, in riffing on the classical Western religious description of prayer as a “heart-to-heart talk with god,” that it’s really a “heart-to-heart talk with one’s self.”

First of all, once you recognize and accept that, even if you still believe in some sort of deity, you can’t pray to him/her/it; certainly not in the way you considered prayer to be before this light went on.

The flip side, though, of losing out on the belief of being able to tap into god as “deus quam machina,” no matter how capricious this machine is, one gets the empowerment, small as it may be, of being able to look to one’s own self for insight.

But, the flip side of that is that any decisions one makes can no longer be passed off, or buck-passed, to somebody else, as in “I thought god was telling me to, …” (Of course, if you still believe in a critter “downstairs,” you still have recourse to the infamous “the devil made me do it” plea.)

For me, probably in part as a reaction to events of childhood, I have trouble decision-making anyway. In part, it’s a fear of somebody — god (in my pre-conversion days), a boss, some other authority figure, or someone else to be affected by my decision — judging or criticizing me for making that decision. In fact, often, the decision itself isn’t the problem; facing up to the consequences, including this judgment, is.

And, now, I don’t have any god as daddy the tear-wiper, daddy the hand-holder, or daddy the giant daddy to make it all go away, to comfort me.

I have me, and human friend to whom to talk these fears out.

On the other hand, a god both omnipotent and omnibenevolent by definition can’t have an experiential concept of evil, psychological pain or sorrow anyway, and so is of limited use as a hand-holder.

All in all, lumps unfortunately included, I’m better off wrestling with my decision-making on the only plane I know we actually have, with the only, limited, human help I know is actually available.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Disingeniousness alert — Martin Novak

Biologist Martin Novak likens religious statements to mathematical ones for not needing scientific confirmation:
“Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation. Once you have the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it’s not like we have to wait for the scientists to tell us if it’s right. This is it.”

Err, mathematical statements DO do need mathematical confirmation, though, in a process every bit as rigorous as the scientific process.

If Novak can point me to a “religious confirmation process” that meets the same standards, I’ll eat my hat.

Priming behavior study gaining speed

As this Washington Post story shows, priming behavior is one of the greatest illustrations of the power, depth and breadth of the subconscious mind. In other words, Dan Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained,” even if it has the right theory, explains only about 10-20 percent of the mind anyway.

Roy Baumeister compares the subconscious to the conscious as hot-wiring a car vs. using keys in the ignition.

Mark Shaller has more:
“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

I’ve never believed the Hindu/New Age claim that we only use 10 percent of our brains. However, it might be true that only 10 percent of our mind is conscious.

Priming behavior study gaining speed

As this Washington Post story shows, priming behavior is one of the greatest illustrations of the power, depth and breadth of the subconscious mind. In other words, Dan Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained,” even if it has the right theory, explains only about 10-20 percent of the mind anyway.

Roy Baumeister compares the subconscious to the conscious as hot-wiring a car vs. using keys in the ignition.

Mark Shaller has more:
“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

I’ve never believed the Hindu/New Age claim that we only use 10 percent of our brains. However, it might be true that only 10 percent of our mind is conscious.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What is religion?

I am not going to give you a Webster’s definition, nor a Latin etymology-based one. Instead, based on my own academic experience and insight, I am going to offer one of my own, which will also illustrate why, in contradistinction from many of its adherents, I consider Buddhism a religion.

First, I believe religion arises from the juncture of philosophy, psychology and sociology. Most people could readily see the first two, but sociology? Yes, even for a hermitic monk. Even that monk’s idea of religious expression and devotion were originally developed in a communal setting and out of guidelines developed by a religious community.

Second, looking at the main branches of philosophy, I see religion as being concerned with metaphysics, ethics, epistemology and ontology. Even Buddhism falls into the first area, on a couple of grounds. Karma, as a law, is not a law about material substances, but the metaphysical idea of reincarnation. And, even if Buddhists reject the idea of an individual soul or the collective atman, something metaphysical, that is, something beyond the material world, is believed to be reincarnated. Not that I agree with Paul Tillich’s use of words, but if we want to talk about “ultimate grounds of being,” Buddhism has one, as I see it.

Ethics is obvious. By that, I am not saying that it is the primary, let alone sole, preserve of religions, just that every religion has some ethical focus. It may be minor in some, great in others, but it’s there.

Epistemology? Yes. Every religion is teleological in some way, and its mythos is in part, to riff on Aristotle, an attempt to explain either an efficient or a final cause of things.

Ontology connects with metaphysics as to the nature of what that cause might be, the nature of metaphysical objects, and the nature of anything, be it individual soul or individualized soul or not, the nature of humanity.

And, there is where psychology enters. Psychology in religion is about more than faith in the religious sense of “hope in things unseen.” Rather, it’s about how one orients toward the ultimate object of one’s concern, whether a personal God with a salvific-based resurrection, or moving beyond karma and its rounds of reincarnation to a depersonalized nirvana. As part of that, I can’t think of a major religion that doesn’t have prayer or something roughly analogous to it.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

More proof the Buddha was no Buddha

It’s likely that Siddhartha Gautama’s most famous phrase is:

“Life is suffering.”

If you’re a good Buddhist, life CAN’T be suffering, because you’re supposed to be in a state of satori. Rather, if the Buddha himself had actually obtained Buddhahood, he would have said, “Life appears to be suffering.”

Update, July 11: For some reason, Blogger's comment window isn't working for me today at work, either under my identity, or as an anonymous commenter. So, I'm posting here:

I don't think it's "sterile" nor do I think it's a matter of "dueling sound bites," the difference between "life is suffering" and "life appears to be suffering."

This hinges in part on other issues of Buddhism; I've already mentioned maya, which I know Theravada accepts, and I don't believe Mahayana rejects, at least. If life is an illusion, then the idea of suffering is ultimately an illusion.

It also hinges on the Buddhist rejection of atman, in another way. Arguably, can a good Buddhist even talk about "life" in this way if there is no reincarnation of an individual soul? I say not. In other words, what I see as implied invitation in the statement "life is suffering," for the listeners to agree that, "boy, yes, my life sure is suffering," or similar, can't logically follow if Siddhartha is enlightened enough to believe there is no "I" to be suffering.

Of course, I have other disagreements with the idea of karma, which I've blogged elsewhere on this blog. Frankly, I find it, more so in its Buddhist than its Hindu form (since Hinduism allows for an individual "soul"/life force which theoretically, at least, could remember the misdeeds of a past life which brought on an [apparentely] poor incarnation in this life), as appalling as fundamentalist monotheist ideas of hell.

Now, the people who have been posting here may see this as "village idiot anti-Buddhism" akin to "village idiot atheism." I don't. The original post and my comments to other commenters aren't snarky potshots but real issues. I made similar comments about Sam Harris' "End of Faith" on my Amazon review.

I find Buddhism to be a an interesting and enlightening psychological philosophy, but where it ventures into metaphysical issues as a religion, find it no more enlightening than any "Western monotheism."

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sam Brownback: Creationist schwaffler and spinmeister

Let’s just deconstruct his New York Times creationism column while seeing how many logical errors and fallacies we can find.

He begins by talking about “belief” in evolution:
In our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days.

This is one of the most disingenuous ploys of creationists. Frankly, you do not “believe” in evolution like you do in creationism.

Did Galileo “believe” in a heliocentric solar system theory? Did Newton “believe” in his theory of gravitation? Of course not.

Next, there’s this illogical false dilemma:
The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

Actually, of course, many people, including professional theologians, believe in some sort of theistic evolution that has plenty of room for macroevolution without considering it to rule out a divinity, etc. Note carefully the word “exclusively,” used (and I’m sure quite deliberately) to set up this false dilemma.

And, of course, “materialistic” is a four-letter word in this scenario.

Beyond that, we see the old false dichotomy between microevolution and macroevolution. The only thing missing is the word “kinds.”

Then, going beyond evolution to cosmology, Brownback talks about "facts," without talking about the actual facts, to avoid either huge lies or huge pants-crapping about the Big Bang and the date of the universe.
Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves.

And, he stops there and never mentions a single cosmological fact.

He then concludes with a diktat of faith thrown out as supposedly having empirical support, but again without listing any facts.
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.

What if man's likeness IS unique? So is that of a giant squid, or a planarium. As for the “likeness and image” of Genesis, theologians still have no consensus on what that even means.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Let the faith healing begin?

You’ll never believe what I got in the mail today

It’s a genuine faith-healing prayer handkerchief. I’m supposed to place it underneath my bed tonight, along with a sealed Bible prophecy, after writing all my needs on the second page of a letter that was also in the mailing, and …

Voila! My needs will be met!

Being a good empiricist, I’ll of course give it a test.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Atheism is NOT reductionism, be it scientific or philosophical

And speaking of “scientific or philosophical,” I think the two leading representatives of those schools as public speakers on issues atheistic, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, need to remember this, be reminded of this, called out on this, or whatever.

On issues both philosophical and mathematical (and extending toward evolutionary biology), Douglas Hofstadter presents the case for a holistic naturalism well in “Gödel, Escher, Bach.”

And, though evolutionary psychology, let alone Evolutionary Psychology, wasn’t riding high on the radar screen at the time of GEB, Hofstadter’s writing puts paid to the capital-EP philosophy vs. the small-ep science.

In fact, beyond its metaphysical bent, I believe that’s one of the main problems with Ev Psych. Per Dennett’s comments in some of his books about warranted vs. unwarranted reductionism, I believe Ev Psych engages in unwarranted reductionism.

Back to this post’s title.

So do many of the varieties of atheism plied today by intellectual leaders. No, we don’t know everything yet about evolutionary biology, let alone evolutionary psychology. The same is true of cognitive science. Too strong a degree of reductionism is unwarranted on lack of epistemological grounds alone.

Given that Hofstadter and others (chaos and complexity theories, Malcolm Gladwell’s pondering in this areas, etc.), the Dawkins/Dennett degree of reductionism is also unwarranted as a logical inference.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Why I am who I am

Shakespeare reference aside, it’s true about the sun’s influence.
Professor Jayanti Chotai, a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Umea University in Sweden … found that men born from October to January have low dopamine levels and are most likely to be gentle and reflective types.

My birthday? Dec. 26, right in the middle of this cycle.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How would Freud and Jung interpret my bit of bad driving?

I recently hit a curb with my right front wheel, on the way to a counselor’s appointment, and bent its rim, though not too badly.

Since I was going to a counselor, I wondered what Freud and Jung would have said about this.

Freud would have seen the round wheel, with its opening in the center, as vaginal. And the curb, hard and out-thrust, is obviously then penile. So, I have anger at women by bending the edge of a vagina. Since I was on the way to see a counselor, this was obviously arising in my mind at that moment.

Jung would see the wheel in its roundness as symbolic of reincarnation, eternal recurrence, or perhaps the Buddhist wheel of fate. The curb? The legal restrictions of the father-god. So, in this case, I’m still angry at the father-god, partially as represented by my minister father, and still “wreck” my spiritual enlightenment on the shoals of this anger.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It’s gay-baiting Texas State Sen. Warren Chisum who’s pushing this baby, so when he claims this is to treat the Bible as only literature “and not a worship document”, don’t believe him for a second.

Besides, IMO, this still runs into church-state separation First Amendment issues if the Bible is the only scripture so treated. (And, please do NOT trot out the “Judeo” fig leaf of “Judeo-Christian” beliefs, scriptures, etc., because it is, ultimately, just that — a fig leaf.)

So, if I counter Chiusm by saying, fine, let’s also teach the Quran as literature, including the sections about jihad, or if I say, fine, let’s teach the Norse Elder Edda, about Ragnarok and Valhalla, what then?

First, I’ll say, let’s teach the Bible as myth (by literary definition), alongside the others. Then let’s watch him blow his stack.

Then, I’ll say, Warren, are we going to have kids reading Song of Songs? The passage in Genesis where Lot is willing to substitute his daughters to rape rather than visiting angels? The passage in Judges where a man abandons his concubine, then, after finding her raped to death the next day, dismembers her body and sends pieces around tribal Israel as a cry to jihad of his own? The chapter after that, where the tribe of Benjamin is left so male-decimated they are officially encouraged by other tribes to abduct women from a village that didn’t show up for battle, as a means to replenish their numbers?

So, yes, Warren Chisum, Bible as literature? Bring it on. I’ll go get my teaching certification and gladly teach the most juicy parts as literature.

What a nutbar.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I want a lover …

I want the love of a true lover.

I want the love that, when I look in her eyes, I feel like I’m swimming 10 miles deep.

I want the love that, when I hear her voice with just the right tone, I feel like I’m going 20 miles deep.

I want the love that, when I touch her skin and run my hands through her hair, I feel like I’m diving to the center of the earth.

I want the love that, when we talk, before during or after all that, we have shared hearts, minds and spirits so much that I feel I’m swimming back up to the far side.

I’m asking.

I want to make myself available.

I am making myself available.

I am available.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

It was/wasn’t “meant to happen” — I think not

A few weeks back, I posted about how karma might be worse than Christian fundamentalism.

On the same axis, but “neurotic” to karma’s “psychotic,” would be the New Age idea that things are/aren’t “meant to happen.”

Meant by whom? And, unchangeable by us?

Now, I firmly believe I can be an atheist of some sort and still appreciate life’s mystery, dynamism, ebbs and flows of time and more. But I don’t have to believe in something like this, which is almost as cruel as karma, but as the death of a thousand New Age cuts.

Call it “karma light,” perhaps.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A birthday poem for “Pharyngula,” aka P.Z. Myers

A Pharyngula, like an amygdala,
Can be emotionally powerful,
Generating fear
In illogical creationists.

His mind is still evolving
(And, yes, it’s real!)
At the ripe young age of 50,
His questing, unlike his work study
Is not a fossil.

So if you value reason,
The penetrating mind of science,
And know the human mind
Can be special
Without a primum mobile,

Then go to his blog,
Read his posts,
And give him the kudo
That is his definite due.

A nice birthday e-mail
That says:
“Pharyngula, I dig ya.”

Happy 50 and many more in the “crusade” against illogic and illiberality, P.Z.
Oops, did I say “crusade”? Forgive the W talk.

Steve Snyder aka Socratic Gadfly

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Titanic, yes; Jesus’ tomb, I don’t think so

James Cameron of Titanic discovery fame claims he has found the tomb of Jesus as well as a son, Judah.

He claims he has verified the discovery in part through DNA analysis. Supposedly it took 20 years.

First, with whom did he compare DNA? If you’re Catholic, he didn’t have anybody in his lineage, so Cameron has no point of comparison.

Speaking of this, he claims Mary Magdalene is the momma of Judah, but says here this isn’t some Da Vinci Code nonsense.

But, out of 10 stone caskets supposedly found 27 years ago when construction workers were cutting out space to lay a foundation for an industrial park building. Those 10 caskets were named: “Jesua, son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Mathew, Jofa and Judah, son of Jesua.”

Israel's prominent archeologist Professor Amos Kloner didn't associate the crypt with the New Testament Jesus. His father, after all, was a humble carpenter who couldn't afford a luxury crypt for his family. And all were common Jewish names.

I totally agree. Why Cameron would be peddling this, I don’t know. And I can’t believe the DNA comparison part of it, period.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Reason No. 972 astrology is nutbar: What the hell is a “stealth Leo”?

Helen Mirren talks about being an astrological Leo, then about her latest director, Stephen Frears, being a stealth Leo. Is that like being a “stealth INSF” in Jungian personality typecasting? It just goes to show that, if you want to salvage some faith-based idea out of pseudoscience, you’ll bend your mind far enough to do so.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Karma: The greatest religious evil ever perpetuated?

Maybe it is. (In saying this, I’m referring to the traditional Hindu-Buddhist metaphysical doctrine, not the metaphorical “what goes around, comes around” phrase — unless that phrase reflect a person’s underlying metaphysical belief.)

And I hold this belief whether the believer in karma believes in the reincarnation of a personal soul or an impersonal life force.

First of all, I find it as intellectually incomprehensible as any Western doctrine, including the traditional Christian one of original sin plus hellfired damnation.

Second, from a philosophically-based psychological standpoint, i.e., the problem of evil, I find it as psychologically disturbing as any “Western” belief.

Finally, from an emotional and highly personal standpoint:

I find karma far more emotionally offensive and abhorrent than any Western belief, including original sin plus hellfired damnation.

I say this as a survivor of various events of sexual and physical abuse.

Neither I, nor millions of other boys and girls at home, nor any Catholic altar boys, fucked up so badly in a previous life as to literally … in a pre-adult stage of this life. Period. End of story.

So, let’s remember that Eastern religions aren’t necessarily “good” in comparison to Western ones.

And as for sane, Western-raised adults who eventually buy into some belief in karma, and still want to hold it after thinking about something like this, especially while claiming to be “enlightened,” they can go fuck themselves in this life.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Martin Luther: Lutherans can’t explain away his remaining trapped in fear

Ten years or so after his “Damascus road” flash of insight into being saved by grace alone, depending on your start date for counting, Martin Luther assembled his Small Catechism of biblical and post-biblical doctrines and documents.

For all of these, he developed interpretive explanations of what they really meant, or should really mean, in Christian life.

The first of these was the Ten Commandments.

For the First Commandment in non-Jewish reckoning, Luther said, “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.”

For each of the remaining ones, his explanation began, “We should fear and love God …”

Hmm. If one were really free of the belief that we are “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to flash forward ahead 200 years from Luther’s time, shouldn’t the word “love” have come first, as the primary motivation to live the Christian life?

Then “trust”?

Then “fear,” only because people aren’t perfect?


When I was growing up, and we had to learn all this as part of Lutheran confirmation instruction, I was told by dear old dad, who also happened to be dear old pastor, that, well, “fear” didn’t really mean “fear.”


You can’t hold Martin Luther up as a brilliantly creative translator of the Bible into German on the one hand, and claim he meant something besides fear when he used the word “fear” on the other hand.

Martin Luther was still, above all else, afraid of God. Afraid of God and ridden and riddled by anxieties, it’s no wonder he was morbid and morose more often than in-house biographies of the man will tell you.

(Nor will they tell you that much of the story of Oct. 31, 1517 is myth invented not just years but a decade or more after the fact.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Magical thinking? I’d say “delusional”

This New York Times article builds in large part on the work of people like Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran.

But, as Hume pointed out, “is” (in the naturalistic sense) does NOT imply “ought” in morals and ethics. It sure as hell doesn’t, and shouldn’t, in metaphysics.

It’s a control issue, and escapism. The article points out, rightly, that magical thinking is strongest when people feel most helpless. But, especially in today’s world, that’s exactly when people should instead engage in something like rational-emotive or cognitive-behavioral therapy on themselves.

Magical thinking is ultimately the ultimate surrender of control.

That said, I can certainly appreciate, understand and even empathize with the emotions often behind magical thinking, especially when it’s magical thinking related to something serious, like trauma, and not something trivial, like allegedly influencing a sports contest.

That doesn’t mean it’s any more true… just that it’s a lot more potent.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Riffing on famous thoughts of world religions

As anybody with knowledge of world religions knows, the creed and call to faith of Islam is:

“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet.”

My riff on this is:

“There is no god, and I am his prophet.”

From the East, Buddhism has, beginning with the early 1800s, exerted a powerful pull on many Western minds. Often accepted not just uncritically, but stripped out piecemeal, the result has been things like New Ageism.

The core tenet of Buddhism is that the idea of a self is nothing but an illusion from which one must detach to avoid endless reincarnations. Well, there’s one sure-fire road to self-detachment, hence this riff:

“The only good Buddha is a dead Buddha.”

Speaking of that, why don’t Buddhists join sky-clad Jains in voluntary suicide, whether slow or quick?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


“Bloom where you are planted.”
Facetious advice, at a deep level;
It presumes a Planter with a Plan.
I see neither.
Rather, like Camus’ Mersault,
I would open my arms
To the starlit sky of space-stuff
Scatter-strewn by no one and nothing,
Then cooked in stellar atomic fires,
Spewed and spread again,
To coalesce into a rocky orbital ball,
Carboniferous and oxygenated.
Although non-metaphysical fate,
Shakespeare’s outrageous slings and arrows,
And punch-marked DNA, hanging chads or no,
Have a large say,
I have some control, some last word,
Over different roots, different leaves.
Small though my self-nurture may be,
And as illusory as “I” may also be,
Deal me into the linguistic and ontological games,
Let me at least pretend the bet is mine,
And I hope I place my wagers well.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Evolutionary Psychology (in caps), string theory, verification, falsification

Evolutionary Psychology (as distinguished from evolutionary psychology, Greg Bryant and others) strikes me as having a number of parallels to string theory in cosmology.

Both were proposed in initial form a number of years ago and about the same time.

Both, despite their adherents, have made little progress on the Popperian issues of verification or falsification. Both seem likely to make little more progress in the future.

Both have drawn more scrutiny, questions or even setting aside or rejection from non-adherent scientists in their respective fields, the longer this has been the case.

Specific to Evolutionary Psychology, when it tells its “narrative stories” (whether you call them “just-so stories” or not), it is usually the case that an alternative narrative is readily available, that sounds equally valid, if not nearly so, or maybe even more so.

And, that gets back to the verification issue. Since Ev Psych is the “claimant,” the burden of proof is on it.

As for the likelihood of this, we really know little of the unconscious mind. Dan Dennett’s opus, “(Dan Dennett’s) Consciousness Explained,” or Steven Pinker’s “How (Steve Pinker’s) Mind Works” aside, all they have told us about is the conscious mind, for the most part.

Work with fMRIs and the next investigative tools beyond that, combined with well-crafted thought experiments, probably will take a couple of decades to reveal enough additional serious light on the semi/sub/un-conscious mind for us to even seriously talk about verification of some Ev Psych claims.

And no, I don’t think I’m setting up a straw man.

Verbal judo on Zen

If Zen is so Zen-like
About losing the “I”
Or learning it doesn’t exist,
Then why do the koans
Name monks by name
And cite their authority by reputation?

If satori is instantaneous,
No sage can say so;
If it is ephemeral,
No sage can deny.
And if it is not —
Then neither is Zen.

The only true Buddha is a dead Buddha.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Maybe it’s not really YOU making those New Year’s resolutions

What if free will (or a unitary “master” conscious self) just doesn’t exist the way the typical person thinks it does?
“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” philosopher of science Michael Silberstein wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”

Or, if that’s not enough to set your ears wagging:
“Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free. The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said.

Renowned philosopher Dan Dennett claims we do have free will, at least any variety worth wanting.
“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

Sorry, Dan, but I disagree on a few counts.

You yourself have come to the brink of questioning just how much not free will, but the idea of a unitary conscious controller “I,” exists. (If the “I” doesn’t fully exist outside illusion, free will certainly doesn’t.) Second, as some of the experiments by Benjamin Libet have shown, maybe we don’t have so much veto power over ourselves as we think.

Dan Wegner, who has stepped beyond Dennett in this issue, takes this bull more by the horns.
“It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back,” he said, comparing it to a magician’s trick that has been seen again and again. “Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”

I believe that the idea of free will, the feeling of free will, may come naturally as an emergent property of a certain level of consciousness. Therefore, to some degree, there’s nothing we can do but accept the illusion while further discussing what this fact means.