Friday, April 29, 2011

On a recent vacation, I happened to stop at and visit, for the first time, the world-famous El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico.

For those not familiar, the unincorporated community, and the Catholic sanctuary, are on the back road connection between Santa Fe and Taos, N.M.

For those unfamiliar with why it can be called world-famous, it is the second-most-popular Catholic pilgrimage site in the United States, and unarguably the top Catholic healing pilgrimage site.

In short, El Santuario de Chimayo is the Lourdes of the United States. Except at Chimayo, it's dirt, not water, that's supposed to have the healing properties.

Like Lourdes, it has an anteroom, to the side of the actual sanctuary but under the same roof, lined with dozens or more crutches. (There is a no-photo policy inside the sanctuary, which I respected.)

The parish priest at Chimayo, with cane.
The details of how this rural Spanish-American Catholic parish came to be a healing pilgrimage site are described at the top link.

That said, at such a place, like Lourdes, wouldn't you find it interesting, at least for the parish priest to be walking with a cane? Well, I did and he was. (Apologies for photo quality.)

I did a little journaling after I got to Taos, putting down some thoughts about how I felt about the priest, the church, and more.

1. Part of me was cynical, not just skeptical, after seeing not just the parish priest, but also an apparent parishioner, accompanied by a daughter or granddaughter, also on a cane. Now, the parishioner could perhaps be "excused" as elderly, but the priest was no older than I am. So, why did he still have the cane?

2. Part of me felt a bit sad for him. I looked at a bulletin, and saw that he did multiple Masses there and at nearby rural Truchas, as well as possibly at Espinola. And, he himself — had he ever tried the holy dirt or not? Was he a bit skeptical himself? Had anybody ever asked him about the cane? Even if not, he has to know that there are people like me. What's his attitude toward people like me in his mind — defensive? Apologetic?

A parishioner at Chimayo, also using a cane.
3. And what about his parishioners, even? Do any of them, even regular ones, wonder? How many of them eschew doctors entirely? How many, like among the world of New Agers and others, decry those who "just don't believe enough" as being the cause of their own lack of healing?

4. Part of me was cynical about the Catholic Church — starting with this parish, and not Benedict XVI in Rome or the soon-to-be beatified future patron saint of child molesters, John Paul II. The entire back page of the Santuario's bulletin was covered with ads for local businesses. To be snarky, I was kind of wondering if the Bingo sheet was missing from the inside of the bulletin. In the anteroom, along with crutches, were a variety of votary objects. I assumed they were all for sale, but didn't check on prices.

5. A skeptical part of me says, how can the dirt be so holy if it constantly has to be replaced? What would happen if we dug a second hole and did a double-blinded set of tests? A skeptical part of me also knows from Catholic history in the new world, Christian history in general, etc., that it's likely the Church appropriated a former Tewa shrine, just as did the particular appearance of Jesus in Guatemala with which the Santuario de Chimayo is connected. Meanwhile, a more cynical part of me notes that the Roman Catholic Church, as with Lourdes, takes no position on the actual occurrence of miracles. Perhaps the College of Cardinals doesn't want to be tested on the depth of its faith, either.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Just how irrational are we? Very?

Very, or potentially very irrational, defining "irrational" and "rational" in terms of the great project of Descartes and followers, it seems.

In a blog post at Discover, in follow-up to his column last week at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney notes that the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences has devoted an entire issue to what he covered at Mojo, with links to summaries of key content.

Here's a couple of key outtakes:

First:
Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious conļ¬rmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions.
And more, from a response to some of the issues:
When people reason alone, there will often be nothing to hold their confirmation bias in check. This might lead to distortions of their beliefs. As mentioned above, this is very much the case. When people reason alone, they are prone to all sorts of biases.

In short, as Mooney notes, classical Cartesianism appears m ore and more dead in the water. First, Dan Dennett (and others) said there is no little man, no Cartesian homunculus, making magic rationality decisions inside us.

Now, BBS et al say that, even if there were such a critter, he wouldn't be a disinterested rationalist anyway.

But, not all commenters on Mooney's post want to accept that, it seems.

I responded to one:
Nullius, (you seem to present) a great defense of the “traditional” view of reasoning or whatever …

BUT, I’m going to argue with you.

First, the “reasoning as argumentation” model I think explicitly says this is NOT, NOT, NOT, a “human failing.” Rather, it is, if I may, “human ISness.”

I won’t propose abandoning “rationalism,” but I will say that it is even more unnatural than you may want to admit.

And, that IS a conflict with Cartesianism, which postulates rationality is a cornerstone of homo sapiens.

Sorry, but, either you don’t get the degree of implications this involves, or …
You DO, unconsciously, understand precisely what is up and by your conscious argumentation, actually support the fact at hand.
Of course, maybe I have reasons for my argumentation.

Meanwhile, this SciAm blog explains some of the reasons for our irrationality, in terms of motivators.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Getting Gospel sychronization wrong - Templeton-worthy?

Or, why an academic expert in engineering should NOT stick his head into New Testament studies.


Colin Humphreys, a professor of materials sciences at Cambridge, claims to have "reconciled" John and the Synoptic Gospels' different datings of Maundy Thursday and the Lord's Supper, among other Passiontime events

The Telegraph explains the work of the professor:
Matthew, Mark and Luke say that it was at the start of the Jewish feast of Passover. John writes that it happened before Passover. In his new book, The Mystery of the Last Supper, Sir Colin deploys the full gamut of biblical, historical and astronomical sources to iron out the contradiction. The first three gospel writers – known collectively as the Synoptics because they largely tell the same stories, in the same sequence, of Jesus’s life – were, he suggests, using an old-fashioned Jewish calendar, whereas John was basing his timescale on the lunar calendar in official use back then, as now. Once you take this into account, he claims, all four writers were actually referring to the same date – April 1, 33AD. This was a Wednesday, rather than a day later, marked as Maundy Thursday by Christians. Because he can pinpoint the date, Sir Colin argues, Easter should move to a fixed time each year – the first Sunday in April – rather than being the current moveable feast.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Humphreys ignores that Mark ("father" to Luke and Matthew's accounts on the Two-Source Hypothesis) had good reason for dating the Last Supper differently in relation to Passover. He also presumes that the four "canonical" gospels are writing historically, should be considered as historical documents and, I guess, that they should be considered as accurate ones unless clearly not.

He's clueless, and Telegraph reporter Peter Stanford, who fairly gushes over Humphreys, is no better.

Of course, with the blathering of Cambridge University Press about his book, "The Mystery of the Last Supper," Humphreys is surely in the running for a Templeton Prize

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Linguistics smacks down Pop Evolutionary Psychology

I saw this while on vacation, and hadn't had a chance to blog about it.

Shades of Sapir-Whorf!

It appears that language usage, in the case of one language family versus another is fairly strongly influenced by cultural background.
The authors say their findings run contrary to the idea of Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, which says the brain has hard and fast ordering rules for language. They also contradict the "universal rules" of Joseph H. Greenberg, who said languages tended to choose certain patterns over others.

"Culture trumps the innate structure of the human mind," said study coauthor Russell Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. "We need to take much more seriously the role of cultural factors in changing language diversity."
Even if overstating the case, if it's half true, it not only undercuts Chomsky, it's another blow to the "massive modularity" idea of the brain.

Without looking at it in just that light, though, it does raise other issues of social and cultural evolution. Nature has more.

Beyond the easy references to how this undercuts (what doesn't, really) the "Pop" version of evolutionary psychology, this has more serious linguistic implications.

Greenberg, beyond being a "universalist" on linking phenomena of languages, was also a "clumper" in terms of how many, or how few, language families he postulated. This is especially true in his analysis of Native American and sub-Saharan African families.

But, if his "implication universals" idea isn't so true, then perhaps some languages he has clumped together should be bound more loosely. If we don't become "splitter" into many more language families, perhaps we should at least discuss the idea of subfamilies.