Friday, November 30, 2012

Existentialist or absurdist? Understanding Camus

Albert Camus/From Wikipedia
Albert Camus consistently rejected the label of “existentialist” for himself, preferring that of “absurdist.”

I’ve always thought that, in part, there was a jealousy dynamic involved. He didn’t want to be under the “umbrella” of the same descriptive label as was Jean-Paul Sartre. This parallels why I see Igor Stravinsky not wanting to be called a “neoclassicist”; that label was already hung on Sergei Prokofiev; see here for more on that.

That said, it’s arguable that there are differences between Camus and Sartre, and that, as well, Camus knew his own writing better than anybody else, and should be allowed for his own labeling. (Exactly the same argument applies to Stravinsky vs. Prokofiev and, in fact, I have a similar blog post up.)

Fortunately, Wikipedia has a very good page on absurdism. The best part is that it offers a nice comparison chart of basic issues versus both secular existentialism (Sartre) and religious existentialism (Kierkegaard), as well as against nihilism.

I like absurdism because it sees more grays and fewer blacks-and-whites in life. But, it’s not nihilistic, which, well, sees all blacks!

Versus existentialism in general, absurdism says life may have meaning, not that it necessarily does. But, more “positively” than secular existentialism, it also says that the universe may have inherent meaning, but we can never know that.

That said, I’m not sure how much Camus believed that, and he wasn’t the only literary or philosophical absurdist, to be sure. Personally, I’d nuance that statement to say, “I don’t think the universe has inherent meaning, but I can’t prove it doesn’t.”

Also, versus both types of existentialism, absurdism says, don’t expect any guarantees, even on an individualized attempt to create personalized meaning out of life.

That, of course, was part of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

In turn, in that book, he first articulates the philosophy of revolting against the absurd, which finds its ultimate articulation in “The Rebel.”

Here is where Camus and Sartre parallel each other on the issue of “authenticity.”

For Sartre, it’s about being authentic by creating an authentic meaning for life. For Camus, it’s about the authenticity of one’s revolt.

And, as a result, Camus tells us that a life without hope is not necessarily a hopeless life.

And, along with Camus’ general terseness of writing, that’s part of why I admire him as an author in general and definitely hold him on a higher level than Sartre. A play like “No Exit” aside, Sartre simply doesn’t seem to have a visceral grasp of modern absurdity the way Camus does.

For additional thoughts on and interpretation of Camus, not necessarily agreeing with what I have written, see this site from Swarthmore. For some of Camus’ pithier insights, see this page of quotes.

And, go here for my thoughts on Camus' birth centennial.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Texas fall color on display

A beautiful red oak in Rosebud, Texas, with my judicial
and skilled, if I may say, use of Photoshop.
I was worried, earlier this year, that ongoing semi-drought was going to gut fall colors this year in east and central Texas. Instead, it looks like the year is, at least in selected spots, supplying perfect fall colors.

Without going into all the details, the lighting was from the right back, in other words, partially backlit, which is what you want.

Photoshop work, without giving away details, involved some dodging, some burning, some of the highlights/shadow command, moderate application of, and proper settings for, Photoshop's HDR toning command, then my usual combo of Gaussian blur and unsharp mask to finish.

Does AI engage in behavioralism? Chomsky says yes

Noam Chomsky, a long and persistent critic of artificial intelligence, says yes, or that it at least engages in the equivalent thereof, as related in this extended interview with the Atlantic.

If he is right, and I think he’s at least in the right ballpark, I think this arguably explains why AI, for all its self-touting, is the biggest research science and technology failure this side of peaceful fusion power. Indeed, progress on the two shares a remarkably similar arc.

Noam Chomsky/From The Atlantic
The interview is indeed worth a read. It’s in-depth, and as the Atlantic editor-reporter notes, it’s rare these days, because everybody wants to interview Chomsky on political topics, not scientific ones.

Beyond his “behaviorist” comments, he suggests AI researchers, and at least some people in fields such as his own cognitive science, are still doing research on mind and intelligence at what might be called the wrong level of abstraction. It brings to mind Dan Dennett’s comment (ironic at times, given Dennett) of “greedy reductionism.”

It also brings to mind Paul Davies’ book “The Eerie Silence,” which criticizes SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, for various blinders it may be wearing in its search.

Chomsky, in the interview, also veers at least a bit into his home turf of linguistics. As part of that, he doesn’t have a lot of good to say about Bayesian statistics.

He says there are better ways for us to try to understand the “noise” with which we are bombarded on a daily basis.

I have to agree from a different, folk-level point of view.

To me, Bayesian statistics seems like “the hip thing” for pop and semi-pop observers of human cultural sociology. All it needs is a new book by Malcolm Gladwell.

From there, he ties linguistics back to cognitive science. And, hits the nail on the head, in my opinion:
It's worth remembering that with regard to cognitive science, we're kind of pre-Galilean, just beginning to open up the subject.
He notes that, with the likes of Paracelsus, natural philosophy before Galileo, in the hands of the likes of Paracelsus, was quasi-experimental. It had certainly become more empirical than the philosophical speculation of the Greeks. But, things like the null hypothesis, or the idea of using any particular hypothesis to direct experimentation, weren’t fully there.

Chomsky goes on to question issues related to algorithms. Again, I broadly agree with him. In a more technical way, certainly, than me, he appears to question the issue of claiming that mental processes in general, and especially those that would give us what we would call an intelligent consciousness, can be reduced to, or framed in terms of, algorithms. Indeed, when asked about it, in relation to some particular research and mental modeling, he specifically rejects the need for algorithms.

It sounds like in both cognitive science and artificial intelligence, if not already, Chomsky could soon become about as controversial as he is on U.S. foreign policy.

But, don’t stop there. Chomsky, getting into his theories of language, and with a nod to Wittgenstein, argues that something analogous to language could be used as part of new attempts to understand bodily systems, such as, say, how the immune system works. It’s true that biology already talks about things such as “signaling,” but in the past, it’s seemed to use these words and phrases anthropomorphically, and Chomsky is saying, “take the next step.”

Anyway, I’m just scratching the surface of my analysis, both in terms of how much of the interview I’m analyzing and how much analysis I’m putting forth. Go read the full thing yourself.

Let me just add that he closes by saying something else I agree with, and that I read Steve Toulmin saying 15 years or so ago: Scientists still need philosophers of science challenging them, now perhaps more than ever.

‘Old souls’

I still remember the first time I heard this phrase. I had been active in a social organization some time, and an older gentlemen, older than me by several years, and also with more service time, came up to me and asked for how long I had been involved, and I told him.

He responded that he was surprised I didn’t have more service time myself because I generally seemed like such an “old soul.”

Well, I’ve been thinking about that phrase more again recently.

Are there things such as “old souls,” and what do different people mean by that?

Now, regular readers of my pages know that I’m a secularist and a metaphysical naturalist. So, unlike some people, my definition of what might constitute an “old soul” is not based on someone being wise beyond his or her years due to particular lessons they learned in a past life, how much in general they remember from a past life, or anything similar. Nor, contra a religion like Mormonism, do I believe it’s because my soul had a special place on the planet Kolob. Nor, Scientologists, do I believe I have a soul with special connections to the Thetans. Nor, western monotheists, do I believe god specially smiled on my soul in the womb or whatever.

Of course, I don’t believe we have “souls.” We have personalities, generated by our genes causing brain development, which then produces a mind that interacts with the external world and further develops based on such interaction.

Nonetheless, metaphysically denatured, I do believe in the idea of “old souls.”

Reflecting back, I was one early in life.

In my religious household, where as a preacher’s kid, I and my siblings were going to Sunday school and church every week, by the time I was 8 or 9, I didn’t want to sit in Sunday school with the other kids my age. I wanted to be in the adult bible studies class.

Now, why that is, is a good question.

In my particular case, I believe life experiences were partly the issue. By the time I was that age, I was already “aged,” hurt and cut more by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than the typical American kid in a middle-class family. I had no real friends, only acquaintances. My No. 1 love was reading nonfiction, at several grade levels above my own. So, of course I had no interest in being with kids my age.

That said, the reading skills were not “outrageous fortune,” but rather a genetic gift. Also largely in my genes, whether gift or not, was my tendency toward introversion. A bit of tendency toward introspection was already accompanying that.

The thought about old souls, and how they may be formed and developed, leads to several additional questions.

First, given the background of “old souls” like me … how reliable of a marker is this for the possibility of some sort of child abuse, bullying by peers or both?

Second, how do we better nurture childhood old souls? And adult old souls, for that matter?

Third, how do genes contribute toward this, and in what ways? Are their genes that code for what we would call “maturity”? Or “sobriety,” broadly used?

Fourth, to what degree do old soul types overlap with highly sensitive personality types?

In an America of 315 million and counting, where many old souls may be introverted at times, even “retiring” at times, how do we get them, or us, more involved?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

So, how good is #Faitheist? What’s it about?

Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry
If you’re not familiar with that name, it appears to have been something largely coined by Chris Stedman, now the recently published author of a book by that name, which is what this blog post is all about.

First, some personal identification.

Regular readers of this blog, or at least the part of it that deals with religion, philosophy and metaphysics, know that I normally don’t have a lot of use for the New Atheist, or Gnu Atheist, “movement.” I consider them too confrontational, for one thing. I consider them too … fundamentalist, to be wry, secondly. Third, unlike them, I have no desire to “evangelize” religious America, let alone conduct an intellectual browbeating quasi-jihad.

Well, that’s where Chris generally comes from.

That said, is Faithiest the book about branding Faithiest the idea as well as telling Stedman’s own quite interesting journey, which includes his gay sexuality and coming terms with that while spending part of his time growing up in a conservative evangelical church?

Well, two different reviews have two different takes.

First, at Skepticblog, Daniel Loxton has a quite sympathetic review

Here’s the heart of Loxton’s review:
Like his other writing and interfaith work, Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue between people of faith and people who have none. Given the strong anti-theistic sentiments common currently in movement atheism and the atheist blogosphere, this has not too surprisingly made Stedman a somewhat controversial figure in atheist circles. Some place him as part of an established narrative—a proposed distinction between atheist “firebrands and diplomats.”

“We need both,” it is often said, “firebrands and diplomats.” Working together—the soft sell and the hard sell, the good cop and the bad—these complementary approaches may do more to bring down religion than either prong of the attack may accomplish on its own. “We’re all part of the same movement,” say these voices. “We all want the same thing.”

But that’s just it. We don’t all want the same thing.

The radical function of Stedman’s Faitheist is to underline that rarely-stated truth. Atheism is actually not a duopoly of firebrands and diplomats. These two types of evangelists no more describe “both kinds” of atheist than “country and western” describes “both kinds” of music.

Stedman explicitly rejects “the demise of religion” as a goal he does not share, and rejects the firebrands versus diplomats dichotomy as well. “I believe how pushy should we be? is the wrong question,” he writes. The better question is how do we make the world a better place?
I would agree with all of that, with one notable exception that is to Loxton’s one claim.

I’m not any kind of atheist evangelist myself, whether a firebrand or a diplomat. Now, if Stedman is (I don’t know about Loxton) then I part company with him there, and if “Faitheist” is part of a soft sell version of atheist evangelism, no.

Instead, like Garbo, respect my boundaries, both as an individual and as a member of society (no creationism in public schools, etc.) and I otherwise want to be left alone, and leave you alone, too.

Meanwhile, Simon Davis, guest-blogging at FreethoughtBlogs, the ground zero of Gnu Atheist bloggers, has a different take — one more critical, but not stridently so.

Davis first says he thinks Stedman overdramatized his encounter with an atheist group in Chicago.
The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.
Interesting, to say the least.

Second, Davis points out a little bit of elision Stedman does of a famous Carl Sagan quote, while noting that the version he has, or similar, has floated around the Internet.

Ditto on this Sartre quote Stedman uses:
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”
Several commenters, including one French-fluent, say Sartre never said this. In fact, one calls it Stedman’s wish-fulfillment:
I think this is a key to Stedman’s thinking. My armchair psychoanalysis is he has a god-shaped hole in his psyche which he’d like to fill but can’t because he intellectually rejects gods. Religion is emotionally satisfying for him but intellectually without basis. Hence his interfaith work and his criticisms of anti-theist atheists like PZ Myers and the other gnu atheists. We reject the totality of religion while he embraces the emotional (and possibly the social) aspects. He likes religion (except for the god parts) so he’s angry at those who don’t like it.
I think that’s over the top. I like certain things about religion, and, in non-fundamentalist incarnations, don’t come close to hating it.

At the same time, do I wish that at least some of the metaphysical promises, or even the psychological ones, of religion actually were true? Yes, yes, and yes.

An atheist who claims with a straight face not to have any such yearnings is a Gnu Atheist squared.

Anyway, what spurred Davis was this post by Stedman at Salon, an excerpt from the book. Read it for yourself.

The one other important part, related to Davis, is where the word “faitheist” comes from, and per this post here, whether there is some “branding” by Stedman afoot.

My final takeaway from Davis is that Stedman, according to him, doesn’t actually personalize the book as much as he could. For example, Davis said he’d like to hear more of how Paul Kurtz influenced him.

Giving some ammunition in support of Davis and commenters there that Stedman is in a journey that is still very much in media res?

First, his own history. Per Davis, from the book:
In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. … After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.

He then attends a Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.

Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir.
That is quite a journey, and as with humanism, if Davis is write, the book is poorer indeed for Stedman not showing more of the influences on him.

It also, again, could be an eyebrow-raiser as to the purposes of the book.

Second , the book is only 208 pages.

Third, Stedman’s a … young pup! He was only 24 when he wrote the book.

Fourth, we have the example, recently, of a Harvard student, one who had gained some prominence among young atheists, deciding she was no longer an atheist and instead becoming some sort of fideist Catholic.

Now, I’ll admit that, like with John Loftus, I may have a twinge or two of jealousy over Stedman. I’ll also admit that I’ve not read the book yet, but that I think Chris is a decent guy personally, and that he’s a Facebook friend.

That all said, because of my three caveats above, I’ll say that Davis probably, at least, isn’t all wrong in his review. Stedman may be dramatizing his journey a bit. And, there may be some “branding” behind that move.

I mean, his brief mini-bio on Amazon hints at why he might want to do that:
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. He lives in Boston.
Let’s be honest. That’s heady stuff for a 24-year-old who might well be more ambitious than he lets on in polite company. Especially when he was writing for the On Faith blog back at least at 2009.

For more about his thought in general, here’s Stedman’s blog.

For the book’s website, including a biographical page, go here. There’s more biography at his CFI page.

Anyway, I am, as of this time, still of multiple mindsets about the book. It sounds interesting. But, while Davis cuts too hard, maybe it’s not as deep as it could be. And, per myself, maybe it is a “branding” book.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A theological-philosophical mashup can’t save god

A Jewish scholar, Yoram Hazony, tries to make the claim that the Christian Old Testament/Jewish Tanakh doesn’t support the idea of a god who is both omnipotent and omnibevolent.

He tries to do this with an old angle … claiming the “omnis” all come from Greek philosophy, and they’re not supported by the Old Testament.

Simply not true that they all come from Plato et al, and simply not true that they’re not biblical.

The second issue first.

“Second Isaiah” is probably the clearest Old Testament example of the omnipotence of the biblical god. Isaiah 45:7 NIV:
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Second Isaiah has numerous other passages like this.

As for the provenance of omnipotency, etc., in early Judaism, after the return from exile? That came from the Persians that liberated the exiles, namely from their Zoroastrianism that gave us, as well, cosmic dualism, heaven and hell, etc.

That’s why Second Isaiah has passages like this. Ditto for Zechariah and some other late books.

Beyond that, Hazony is wrong in another way.

Daniel, of course WAS written long after Jews had had extensive contact with Greek philosophical thought. Depending on where you butter your bread on the date of this book, Ecclesiastes may reflect Greek philosophical influence, too.

And, the rabbis by the time of Rome certainly did.

A "more plausible" idea of god might exist, but it's not in the Tanakh.

Second, what is this "more plausible" idea? Is it a "god of the gaps"? Is it a magic-god of Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum, wielding advanced enough technology to seem divine to at least a few?

Finally, the idea that the Hebrew imperfect is best translated in this case as “I will be what I will be,” rather than “I am what I am,” in god’s burning bush appearance to Moses, is a weak reed. In English, both tenses can be seen, to some degree, as implying continuity, not a one-time event, or as implying an ongoing status. In either case, the Yahwist author of that portion of Exodus wrote about 450 years before Second Isaiah. If Hazony is going to give us an ounce of exegesis, please give us the whole pound.

And, he should also tell us that modern scholarship thinks the name of Yahweh is yet another botched pun, whose roots are actually in the verb HaWaH, to storm or blow. In short, Yahweh was a Midianite Zeus, with Sinai, like Olympus, an old volcano.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is the Internet conscious?

Now, my philosophy has no problem with imputing consciousness to non-carbon beings or creatures. (We would, of course, call anything with consciousness a "being" or a "creature" and not just an "it.")

Well, Massimo Pigliucci has a good discussion of claims about the consciousness, or not, of the Internet, here.

I agree with him that today's Internet is not conscious, but that, at some unknown date, it may become so. I also agree with what I take as his tacit thought that the "unknown date" isn't happening in the next few years. Sit down, Ray Kurzweil.

That said, especially on issues like this, Massimo gets some ... "interesting" comments and commenters. Baron and Dave S, definitely, on issues like this.

Per Baron and some of his interests in other blogs and such, I riff on Hanns Johst (not Hermann Göring): "When I hear the word 'noetic,' I reach for my revolver!"

My thought? Without going down Kurzweil's road, or Michio Kaku's, but with taking Lynn Margulis' idea of "symbiosis" beyond just carbon-based life (sorry, Massimo, you're being too restrictive there), we might talk about a symbiosis for a new type of consciousness at some point.

But, even that, rather than just talk about conscious humans being helped by the Internet, is some point away. And, if that symbiosis does become conscious, it will surely eliminate for now and beyond, the idea of the Internet having a free-standing, non-symbiotic consciousness.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Good-better-best haiku

Sometimes the good is
Enemy of the better;
An impatient move.

Sometimes better is
The enemy of the best
Also impatient

But at other times
Rather than wait, strike quickly
While iron is hot.

Wisdom is knowing
What is impatient, what is
Prudent and timely

Or foot-dragging fear,
Perfectionism, or just

Wise self-honesty
After that, we may never know
What the best move is.

Is still a move, anyway
And so we move, move.

Fear the enemy
Of good, better and best all
But it cuts both ways.

Fear of sitting still
And waiting in the silence
Is just as deadly.