Monday, November 30, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
The optimistic view of science is that the theories advanced with its methods will have self-evident appeal to an educated public. Why, then, do people so often behave unscientifically? A sitting congressman claims he’s seen a U.F.O.; a former Playboy model insists, against overwhelming evidence, that childhood vaccines cause autism; Las Vegas vacationers expect to beat the casinos; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair treats his children with homeopathic remedies.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Friday, November 27, 2009
Nick Kristof likes Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong, allegedly "less combative and more thoughtful" than the New Atheists. (Stay tuned for future discussions of Wright and Armstrong.)
Kristof's little grenade is mostly intended for Richard Dawkins, who insists-- not entirely persuasively, but wittily and entertainingly-- that he's not strident at all, just gently satiric.
He's plenty thoughtful here, and funny. And he's right on target with his critique of the unconscionable indoctrination of young children into traditions they cannot begin to understand. It really does border (at best) on intellectual abuse.
And I can corroborate the claim that more attention, if not always more "raised consciousness," accrues to those who care less about being nice than being noticed and taken seriously. Humanists and most atheists have been "nice" and marginal forever. They've been sitting and chilling (as Marcus Brigstocke advises the religious extremists) and getting nobody's attention.
So yes, Mr. Kristof, an armistice in the religion wars-- a move away from intolerance by all-- is a great idea. Its time will finally arrive when the extremists stop persecuting and killing the people they deem immoral, and when "thoughtful" religious moderates in every Abrahamic tradition stop forgiving them for it... not when atheists and humanists shut up.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison
thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger
thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcass to rot
thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes
thanks for the AMERICAN DREAM to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through
thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces
thanks for Kill a Queer for Christ stickers
thanks for laboratory AIDS
thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs
thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business
thanks for a nation of finks — yes,
thanks for all the memories all right, lets see your arms you always were a headache and you always were a bore
thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
But I see no contest at all over the question of whether you can be happy and a scoundrel. I can't be, but of course you can... if you're that sort of person.
Sure, from my point of view (and from yours, I hope), the happiness of bad people is a degraded and inferior brand. Aristotelian eudaimonia is not supposed to be subjective, but people's estimations of their own well-being certainly are. Plenty of people are as bad as they want to be, and they seem plenty happy too. While that's an affront to the rest of us, it's just too bad. But I don't guess many of the rest of us will be lining up to join the scoundrels club, anyway. The institutions of morality are safe. We're all gonna be what we're gonna be.
So, Christine Vitrano, you're right too: "the happy tyrant, the happy hermit, and the happy immoralist" are perfectly possible, fairly-frequently actual human types. I hope Hitler wasn't overly happy but I fear he may have been, more often at least than most of his victims; and I wish my worldview allowed me the consolation of thinking that he finally got his. It doesn't. (Julia Sweeney: "You mean he just... died?!" Evidently, Craig.)
But the penultimate little essay in our final text hits just the right note of ambivalence, with Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even the most upstanding of us, thinking ourselves "good" and decent and entitled to happiness, are capable of compromising our integrity and our self-respect in its pursuit, in horrible and harmful ways.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Another of the books we'll spend time with in "Atheism & Spirituality": Richard Dawkins' 1991 ode to the joys and wonders of science, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Dawkins explicitly rejects the loose charge of nihilism and passionless materialism, and rises to make a Sagan-esque case for science as a richer source of spirituality than any mainstream religion. (reviews)
Here he is reading a selection from its early pages, one that he and others have said they'll stipulate for inclusion in their funeral services. I don't like to think too much about that myself, but I suppose I wouldn't mind including it either. (Well, I won't be minding anything, will I?-- Unless I can manage a Tom Sawyer-style appearance, correcting exaggerated reports of my demise...)
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Dewey’s epitaph, on the UVM campus in Burlington, Vermont:
“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
...the evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten the central position of either side. That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.
It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.
The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal. Nicholas Wade, "The Evolution of the God Gene"
Monday, November 16, 2009
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
He said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." Writer's Almanac
Monday, November 9, 2009
A colleague and I are scheduled to tape an interview on campus tomorrow, to discuss (among other things) the value of philosophy to our students, to the university, and to the culture at large. Just in case we don't get all the right words out, here are two of my favorite sources on this topic-- Bertrand Russell and John Lachs:
The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect…
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy