Sunday, January 31, 2010


Spent some time last night reading the late Stephen Jay Gould, not on "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" but on baseball. I don't have a quarrel with anything he says about that

But he's worth reading on NOMA too, not because there aren't deep conceptual problems with the view but because it reflects the large soul and spirit of an atheist (he calls himself "agnostic" but I think he's just being polite) who is entirely civil and entirely unthreatened by the existence of people who see the world differently. Good for him, and good for us that he's left such a vast body of work to pull off the shelf on a snowy winter's eve.

I also like the sweet post-script tribute to Carl Sagan.

Just as religion must bear the cross of its hard-liners. I have some scientific colleagues, including a few prominent enough to wield influence by their writings, who view this rapprochement of the separate magisteria with dismay. To colleagues like me—agnostic scientists who welcome and celebrate thc rapprochement, especially the pope's latest statement—they say: "C'mon, be honest; you know that religion is addle-pated, superstitious, old-fashioned b.s.; you're only making those welcoming noises because religion is so powerful, and we need to be diplomatic in order to assure public support and funding for science." I do not think that this attitude is common among scientists, but such a position fills me with dismay—and I therefore end this essay with a personal statement about religion, as a testimony to what I regard as a virtual consensus among thoughtful scientists (who support the NOMA principle as firmly as the pope does).

I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the historical paradox that throughout Western history organized religion has fostered both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger...

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectua] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

As a moral position (and therefore not as a deduction from my knowledge of nature's factuality), I prefer the "cold bath" theory that nature can be truly "cruel" and "indifferent"—in the utterly inappropriate terms of our ethical discourse—because nature was not constructed as our eventual abode, didn't know we were coming (we are, after all, interlopers of the latest geological microsecond), and doesn't give a damn about us (speaking metaphorically). I regard such a position as liberating, not depressing, because we then become free to conduct moral discourse—and nothing could be more important—in our own terms, spared from the delusion that we might read moral truth passively from nature's factuality... 

Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits—indeed enjoins—the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk. Pope John Paul II would surely point out to me that his magisterium has always recognized this distinction, for "in principio, erat verbum"—"In the beginning was the Word."

Carl Sagan organized and attended the Vatican meeting that introduces this essay; he also shared my concern for fruitful cooperation between the different but vital realms of science and religion. Carl was also one of my dearest friends. I learned of his untimely death on the same day that I read the proofs for this essay. I could only recall Nehru's observations on Gandhi's death—that the light had gone out, and darkness reigned everywhere. But I then contemplated what Carl had done in his short sixty-two years and remembered John Dryden's ode for Henry Purcell, a great musician who died even younger: "He long ere this had tuned the jarring spheres, and left no hell below."

The days I spent with Carl in Rome were the best of our friendship. We delighted in walking around the Eternal City, feasting on its history and architecture—and its food! Carl took special delight in the anonymity that he still enjoyed in a nation that had not yet aired Cosmos, the greatest media work in popular science of all time.

I dedicate this essay to his memory. Carl also shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls—but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eternity roaming the cosmos in friendship and conversation with this wonderful soul.

But on the other hand, there's this guy. Talk about a "cold bath." I much prefer Gould's tone, but Hitchens is right.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"God will be written in C++"

Rebecca Goldstein identifies and critiques 36 arguments for the existence of God, one of which I note in today's dawn post. But a student's new blog announces #37... call it the Argument from Transhumanism? Hmmm...

Friday, January 29, 2010

our errors

As noted in this morning's dawn post (and in yesterday's A&S class) William James was not a good suspender of belief when he felt something life-giving was hanging in the balance. Beliefs are those thoughts upon which we are prepared to act, and the thought of not acting just because the right kind of evidence is not yet forthcoming was anathema to him. He wasn't defiant of extant evidence, but he was always eager to fill the vacuum of missing evidence whenever the act of filling would enact constructive ideals and make life seem more worth living to the actor. He had no use for Clifford's counsel (in The Ethics of Belief) to wait.

Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, " Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!" merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe tbat worse things tban being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford's exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sonnd. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher. Will to Believe

Thursday, January 28, 2010

absurd and important

Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function... William James

"An integrative musing inspired by three books, 'When God is Gone Everything is Holy' (by Chet Raymo), 'The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality' (by Andre Comte-Sponville), and 'The God Delusion' (by Richard Dawkins)." Lucretius40"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"reflections on a mote of dust"

Some people say pictures like this (or this) make them feel small and insignificant. But shouldn't they make us feel large with  responsibility and opportunity? We're alive, we've won the cosmic lottery! "To live at all is miracle enough." How shall we spend the golden time that is our most precious gift? 

Carl Sagan: We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.* 


We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa.** We have walked farCarl Sagan

* Excerpted from a commencement address delivered May 11, 1996. Image from Voyager 1, 1990.
**And this, from Kenya.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Robert C. Solomon

Bob Solomon's life ended suddenly in the airport in Zurich, Switzerland on January 2, 2007. A victim of pulmonary hypertension, he was dead at 64.

A former student said he was "more aware than most people how fragile and finite life is. He would tell students that if there were some things they wanted to do, to not hesitate to do them." And, he told them to be grateful every day.

"Gratitude, I want to suggest, is not only the best answer to the tragedies of life. It is the best approach to life itself. The proper recognition of tragedy and the tragic sense of life is not shaking one's fist at the gods or the universe in scorn and defiance. Whether or not there is a God or there are gods to be thanked, however, seems not the issue to me."

He was a teacher who clearly loved his calling. He reached  past the confines of his university (Texas) to teach countless autodidacts around the world who found him, and will continue to find him, through The Teaching Company. My great regret: I won't get to find him anymore at his favorite Austin pub, The Dog & Duck.

In my classrooms we'll continue to engage his instruction via Passion for Wisdom and Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


This isn't a great analogy, since religious scientists aren't breaking any laws, assaulting any minors, or-- in the strict sense of the word-- committing any perversions. But J & M make the point in spite of themselves: the mere fact that there are such persons does not in itself reconcile their underlying goals and motivations.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

theistic evolution?

Michael Shermer and Jerry Coyne had a little spat recently, Coyne calling Shermer an "accommodationist" for suggesting that theists who admit the provisional facts of science ought to not be badgered by atheists.  I sided with Shermer, as in general I side with the defenders of so-called theistic evolution. Putting a god behind the big bang may be gratuitous and non-explanatory but it's not obviously wrong, so long as scientific details aren't bent over backwards to fit (say) the narrative structure of Genesis.

And that's just what some theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists have done. They are Shermer's target here.  We saw Julia Sweeney saying, so sweetly, that the scientific evidence was stronger for her than her old unexamined religious pseudo-evidence. Shermer's making the same point here, less sweetly. He gives no quarter to those who attempt the logical absurdity of trying to squeeze the round peg of science into the square hole of religion. 

Shermer says this is not intended as a sacrilege of the poetic beauty of Genesis; rather, it is a mere extension of what the creationists have already done to Genesis in their insistence that it be read not as mythic saga but as scientific prose. If Genesis were written in the language of modern science, it would read something like this. Stephen Jay Gould, wherever he isn't, would approve. (That's what he meant about keeping religious and scientific magisteria apart.) But Jerry Coyne still calls him a sell-out. I'm still with Mike, and Julia, and Pearl too.

Friday, January 22, 2010

American Philosophy

Today in Intro we commence reading (in my case re-reading) the life-story of American philosophy's most iconic figure, William James. But what's so American about American philosophy? In a word: the emphasis on experience. Most of the talking heads in this clip are friends and colleagues I'll be seeing again at the next big SAAP conference (that's the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy) in March, this year in Charlotte, NC. Two of them were also my teachers at Vanderbilt, John Lachs and Michael Hodges. Another, Erin McKenna, was my Jimmy Buffett editor. They're smart folks, and a fun bunch to confer with.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Symphony of Science"

By popular demand. It grows on you:

We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

glee, voodoo

Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments has a fan on Terry Gross's "Fresh Air," whose reviewer praises its "gleeful gravitas": A philosopher by training, (she holds a Ph.D. from Princeton), Goldstein writes about what happens when worlds collide: the realms of the ethereal vs. the everyday; of erudition vs. gut instinct; of ration vs. lust. Her novels tackle the Big Questions of Life and unapologetically reference philosophers like Spinoza and William James. Best of all, Goldstein gets away with this high-hatting because she's so funny and she knows how to tell an engrossing story... (Also: Janet Maslin's NYT review)

Also on NPR todayVoodoo in a nutshell is about the idea that everything material has a spiritual dimension that is more real" than physical reality. So the Haitians are Platonists, as well as animists (they think the rocks and trees and fault-lines all have souls)? Whatever they are, Christopher Hitchens proposes that the vital next stage—beyond mere charity and rescue—will be to try and liberate Haiti's people from fear of witch doctors of all stripes...

Now, who will liberate us from that evil moron Pat Robertson? Not, I think, Rabbi Rami's interfaith breakfast buddies, or Rami's own pantheism. But I agree with his last word on the subject: To me there is no greater meaning or message or promise in the Haitian tragedy. There is only suffering and people seeking to take advantage of that suffering, and people seeking to alleviate that suffering.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Humility is a virtue. Jesus and Mo think they know that... but this is not exactly what Carl Sagan had in mind when he wrote that "the best way to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night."

thoughts from Opening Day

Still sifting the data from the info sheets I always collect from students on Opening Day. A few representative remarks from A&S students, asked for an indication of their present stance towards atheism:

* "The society I come from had a civil war based purely on religious differences... theism in my opinion has caused the majority of conflict in our world... Sam Harris is my favorite [atheist] because he confronts Islam..."

* "I love nature, and science, astronomy [especially]... the further my world is explained, the greater the 'miracle' becomes for me... my 'God' has no limitations and is only underestimated, misinterpreted, and territorialized by free & fallible-- and fully accountable-- human beings. Like me."

* "I believe atheists are honest and earnest in their beliefs, as are religious individuals, but are fundamentally misled... I call myself a thoughtful agnostic... I harbor no negative sentiments towards theists or atheists... Favorite atheist: Christopher Hitchens."

* "I am a Christian but I hold no prejudices or hostility toward atheists... My favorite atheist of today might be Hitchens for his wit and clever style... I also like the writing of Ayn Rand... Carl Sagan is also a favorite. Least favorite? Seth MacFarlene because Family Guy is in poor taste."

* "I consider myself an agnostic [&] a spiritual person... I am opposed to closed-mindedness overall, and atheists can certainly be just as closed minded as any believer..."

* " hopes to learn much from those who consider themselves atheists."

* "I know a few atheists and they're some of the nicest people I know... I feel more like an atheist as the days go by."

* "I do believe there to be a consistent 'order' that maintains all things. This can be thought of as God or nothing more than the pattern the world goes with. It is immature to write off explanations of the universe simply because they're not visible, like radio waves and electricity."

* "I have considered myself an atheist for about three years. Before that I considered myself to  be agnostic... I have never liked organized religion. I was forced to go to church my whole childhood and hated it... I am very accepting of other people's ideas and beliefs. I feel that there is some higher force in play but not a specific deity. I guess I could be a naturalist... as an atheist I always strive to show the utmost respect for other people's beliefs."

* "If we created morality, it is pointless... who cares if there is no ultimate meaning to society? However, I have found most secular humanists to be what I would consider 'better human beings' than a lot of religious people I know... My least favorite atheist is Richard Dawkins... I find his argument weak in that it operates under the assumption that there is no such thing as the supernatural... My favorite atheist is Albert Camus."

Lots to talk about. More later...

Monday, January 18, 2010

still dreaming

It was really a different world here in 1960, the one in which Grandpa's classmate (he was telling us yesterday) threatened to disrupt a civil rights sit-in at the old Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville by throwing bottles at the protesters. Racism and ignorance still plague us, and the most ignorant racists still hold big megaphones (Hello, Pat and Rush) but there's been measurable, undeniable progress towards a society in which people are finally judged only by the content of their character.  Let's not give up on ourselves just yet.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Carl Sagan's cosmic spirituality

The Carl Sagan Collection, from the archives of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI (formerly known as CSICOP), includes an excerpt from Varieties of Scientific Experience:

...Thomas Paine asks, “From whence then could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on His protection, should quit the care of all the rest and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a Redeemer?”

Paine is saying that we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.

Now, we can say, “Well, that’s just because the right words weren’t available back when the first Jewish or Christian or Islamic holy books were written.” But clearly that’s not the problem; it is certainly possible in the beautiful metaphors in these books to describe something like the Galaxy and the universe, and it isn’t there. It is a god of one small world; a problem, I believe, that theologians have not adequately addressed.
Now, I don’t propose that it is a virtue to revel in our limitations. But it’s important to understand how much we do not know. There is an enormous amount we do not know; there is a tiny amount that we do. But what we do understand brings us face to face with an awesome cosmos that is simply different from the cosmos of our pious ancestors.
Does trying to understand the universe at all betray a lack of humility? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring. If we seek that nature, then love can be informed by truth instead of being based on ignorance or self-deception. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would he prefer his votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? 
I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Out with the old email signature... "Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center." Jennifer Michael Hecht 

...and in with the new: "With few exceptions, there is no need to invent new values. What we need to invent, or rather reinvent, is a new fidelity to the values that have been handed down to us, which it is our responsibility to pass on. In effect, we have contracted a debt to the past that can be repaid only to the future." Andre Comte-Sponville

The "lovely center" of life: that's where the good schools are (and always have been). Greg Mortenson gets it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

more life

Very interesting post from Rabbi Rami, responding to the question Why do I talk so much about God? He writes: "'God' is just a word. For me it isn’t a matter of true or untrue, it is a matter of useful or unuseful."

So, with this view the Rabbi may be a kind of pragmatist or even Deweyan. In John Dewey's "A Common Faith," the word God names an active human will to close the gap between present reality and the envisioned attainment of our highest ideals. I prefer that to John Lennon's "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," but that view too can be useful. 

The Deweyan attitude seems less fatalistic, less stoically resigned than Lennon's (though in retrospect you'd have to say his fatalism was perfectly prescient). 

But it's also less reckless than William James's variety of pragmatism, insofar as being useful or not is still kept separate from the "matter of being true or untrue." 

I like William James's philosophy a lot, though I don't always share it. But I do share this view: "Not God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is the end of religion." Shouldn't that be the point of living, period?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"College sports feast..."

A reporter contacted me late last night, just before deadline, for a comment on this story in the Tennessean, which notes the incongruity between academic belt-tightening and the seemingly-bottomless coffers that university departments of athletics seem to tap. I hastily composed a late-night statement. In the light of day, I don't think I'd retract (as opposed to revise) a word: 

I have no particular knowledge of the financial figures involved, but it would not at all surprise me to learn that our athletic programs have been generously subsidized... ironically so, at a time when many core academic disciplines have been challenged to justify their very existence. My general comment is simply that our priorities  (as a university, as a nation) in this regard are badly twisted. Collegiate athletics have been "amateur" in name only for a very long time, and those of us who have objected have been told, impatiently, that the athletic departments are lucrative and subsidize US.  So, I look forward to reading your story; but I don't guess I can really contribute to it in a substantive way. 

(Another course begging to be offered here: The Ethics of Sport.)

College sports feast on $800M in student fees, subsidies
By Jack Gillum, Jodi Upton and Steve Berkowitz

More than $800 million in student fees and university subsidies are propping up athletic programs at the nation's top sports colleges, including hundreds of millions in the richest conferences, a 
USA TODAYanalysis found.
The subsidies have reached that level amid a continuing crisis in higher education funding.
At some of the schools where athletics is most heavily subsidized, faculty salaries have dipped, state-funded financial aid is drying up and students are bracing for tuition and fee hikes.
At Middle Tennessee State University, student fees contributed $5.3 million of the athletics department's revenues in 2008. Total spending on sports was listed at $19.6 million.
The Murfreesboro university — which has the largest number of students in the state — moved to the NCAA's highest level, Division I, in 1999.
According to the 
USA TODAY reports, MTSU allocated $3.4 million in student fees to athletics in 2005. Direct state and other government support of athletics at MTSU jumped from $5.9 million in 2005 to $6.7 million in 2008.
In March, as news of an estimated $181 million cut in Tennessee's higher education budget broke, MTSU was the first school to submit a detailed list of budget cuts ordered by the Tennessee Board of Regents.
* In its report, MTSU listed four departments — geosciences,
 philosophy, physics and criminal justice administration — that could be eliminated as a cost-saving measure.
The worst-case scenario budget was put off using federal stimulus money, said Steven Chappell, director of student publications at MTSU.
If that budget had been adopted, Chappell said more than half his
spending was on the chopping block.
"Every department was taking cuts," he said. "Nobody was exempt."
Athletics was targeted as well, Chappell said.
"I'm sure MTSU supports the athletic department with money not earned by athletics, but that happens at every university," he said. "That's common knowledge.
"Athletics are a big deal here in the South."
Subsidies grew 20 percent
Taken together, the subsidies for athletics at 99 public schools in the NCAA's 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision grew about 20% in four years, from $685 million in 2005 to $826 million in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.
"The word I would use is 'appalling,' " said Carole Browne, a biology professor at Wake Forest who co-chairs the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national faculty group that advocates for college athletics reform.
"It's appalling in the big picture and representative of what is going on in athletics with coaches' salaries and facilities. It's part of a bigger problem."
USA TODAY, through open-records requests, obtained four years of revenue and expense reports schools must send annually to the NCAA. The newspaper examined allocated revenues from student fees, university and state sources.
Of the 30 schools where the percentage of athletics revenue coming from allocated sources rose the most from 2005 to 2008, about half are from power conferences, often assumed to be self-supporting.
The 2009 reports, which may show even bigger gaps in some cases because of the recent recession, are due to the NCAA on Friday.
Nebraska and Louisiana State were the only schools whose athletics programs reported receiving no subsidies in each of the four years studied.
Students disagree
Dustin Evans, a senior organizational communications major at MTSU, said he wished the school would put more emphasis on academics, but he doesn't think there's a conflict between athletics spending and academic spending.
"I'm not an athlete, but our athletics program is definitely building right now. We just won a bowl game and it was really amazing," Evans said. "Sports is a part of the college experience."
Emma Egli, a junior journalism major, doesn't like using student fees to support athletics. "I think the money is better spent on academics," she said.
Egli said her department hasn't cut classes yet, but a lot of concentration areas, such as journalism and publicity, are merging."It's really not fair," she said. "I shouldn't have to pay to fund the sports teams. I'm coming here to get my education, not to play sports."

prayer and sacrifice

Theists sometimes claim that any problem with the concept of God can be fixed by downgrading His divine attributes. Here's how some atheists react to the idea of a non-omniscient Deity:

But seriously... I heard Tom Ashbrook sign off from his radio discussion of the Haiti tragedy yesterday with "Say a prayer for Haiti." Now really, if that was going to work would there have been a magnitude 7 quake in such a pathetic, impoverished backwater in the first place? What, you have to say the magic words if you want to incur divine favor?

I know, it's mostly rhetorical. People don't know what else to say. But as Dan Dennett asked, when well-meaning friends offered to pray for his damaged aorta, would they also offer to sacrifice a goat? Point is, those who reject the power of prayer need a new vocabulary of concern. Instead of praying for Haiti, what should we say? (We already know what we should do.)

Marcus Brigstocke is another Brit with some thoughts about all this:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Goldstein recommended

Positive recommendations for our "recommended" novel in A&S class:

"So extravagantly witty and smart that it's making everything else I've read recently seem drab." -Ron Charles, Washington Post 

"Comic and supremely witty, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is both a satire of the academic world and a feast of philosophical and religious ideas." 
-Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams

"You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something." 
-Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great

"Rebecca Newberger Goldstein does it all. She has written a hilarious novel about people's existential agonies, a page-turner about the intellectual mysteries that obsess them. The characters in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God explore the great moral issues of our day in a novel that is deeply moving and a joy to read." 
-Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Shiny, Happy Atheists"

Well written, Messrs. L.*

Why is it that we almost never see the noun “atheist” without some pejorative adjective like “dyspeptic,” which Judith Shulevitz shoehorns into her review of “The Faith Instinct” (Dec. 27)? Are the great majority of atheists really sour and sulky, angry and indignant?

Some unbelievers, uneasy at being the only group known by what it does not believe, have started the Brights, an organization that declares its faith in a natural world, without supernatural intervention. The atheist Einstein professed awe and wonder at this earthly home of ours, and I have not read a word of grump in anything he — or William Butler Yeats, or Matthew Arnold, or a number of other nonbelievers, have said. C’mon, play fair.

Ramsey, N.J.

(Re “Atheists’ Ad Campaign” (letter, Dec. 10), about the American Humanist Association’s ads:) Rather than continuing to remain publicly invisible, the association has recently been fulfilling its mission to raise the visibility and respectability of humanism through ads and other activities. Members of A.H.A. identify themselves in various ways — humanist, agnostic, atheist, freethinker and so on. Our ads reach out to kindred spirits to let them know that they are not alone in their nontheism.

Some people are “embarrassed” by the public acknowledgment that we are humanists. People of good will are not offended simply because others assert differing beliefs. I am not offended by those who say they are good because of God. Similarly, they should not object to others saying they are good without God. As long as we are all good, we can be united in our good works. And this unity is what A.H.A.’s ad campaign can accomplish.

*Mel Lipman
Las Vegas, Dec. 10, 2009

The writer is immediate past president of the American Humanist Association.

(published in the Times)

Monday, January 11, 2010

special dust

To the new atheists, the material world of physical beauty and the wonders of science are all the spiritual fulfilment they need. Dawkins writes that a ''proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world … can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically - and inadequately - usurped''.
Joel Kilgour refuses to describe himself as a spiritual person, but, ''if you ask if I have transcending moments, absolutely''. ''Sunset over the ocean, holding the hands of families or friends, looking into the face of my newborn niece … A lot of people claim spirituality for those moments … but I think people just like to feel they are special, that the universe was created specifically for them when, really, we're just a speck of dust.'' Michael Bachelard
Well, are we "just a speck of dust" any more than our planet is a speck of dust, or from a more distant vantage our sun or our galaxy or even our universe? The whole astonishing glorious spectacle of natural existence is wondrous, inspiring, magnificent, humbling, exalting... words do, really, pale.  Our own existence is a natural  miracle, and source of more "spiritual fulfillment" than any of us can adequately absorb.  Of course we're special.  Isn't that what Philip Pullman was talking about, with his "dust"? And Carl Sagan, with his "star-stuff"? And, with their clumsier way of re-branding, isn't that what the "Brights" are talking about too?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Teflon spirituality"

My friend and colleague Rami Shapiro, the Rabbi, is walking the pluralistic walk many of us typically only talk. "Today I am a Hindu," he proclaims.

I'm a different variety of pluralist myself, claiming no firm anchorage in any of the historically dominant theological or spiritual traditions but happy to take truth wherever it can be found and put to work. And I'm also eager to find the spiritual core of atheism, humanism, naturalism, and whatever other names or labels people march under, though a bit dubious as to the "truth is one" thesis. That is, I don't think it's one yet, but I agree that unity-in-plurality is a worthy aspiration.

Rami: The Rig Veda’s teaching that “Truth is one, different people call it by different names,” frees me from both abandoning names and having allegiance to them. But being a Jew is all about names, especially The Name, and taking that Name very seriously. Yet I just can’t do so. I love languages, I love names, but I never mistake the menu for meal, the name for that toward which it points, and it is the meal I desire.

Judaism is my primary menu. It is the system of names I go to first and most often. But primary does not mean exclusive, and I find value in many names and many systems. And while I do love to explore the differences and incompatibilities between systems in an academic setting, in my personal life they all point me to the same reality, the nameless “—“ that is both the One and the Many.

So today I become a Hindu, but this label adheres no more tightly than any other. In the end I practice a Teflon spirituality allowing me to mix lots of ingredients without worrying that any will stick.

Me: That's one small step for a man (of whatever wisdom tradition), one exemplary leap for cosmopolitanism. Good going, Rami!

Saturday, January 9, 2010


If only our A&S course were a few weeks longer, we could give this timely "recommended" novel the attention it deserves. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein -- excerpted on*

The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments may be the most psychologically important of the thirty-six. Few people rest their belief in God on a single, decisive logical argument. Instead, people are swept away by the sheer number of reasons that make God's existence seem plausible — holding out an explanation as to why the universe went to the bother of existing, and why it is this particular universe, with its sublime improbabilities, including us humans; and, even more particularly, explaining the existence of each one of us who know ourselves as a unique conscious individual, who makes free and moral choices that grant meaning and purpose to our lives; and, even more personally, giving hope that desperate prayers may not go unheard and unanswered, and that the terrors of death can be subdued in immortality. Religions, too, do not justify themselves with a single logical argument, but rather set themselves up to minister to all of these needs and provide a space in people's lives where large questions that escape answers all come together and co-mingle, a co-mingling that, in itself, can give the illusion that they are being answered.

*Speaking of large co-mingled questions and arguments,  check out's World Question Center question  for 2010, “How is the internet changing the way you think?,” and dozens of thoughtful replies. And last year's question will figure prominently in our "Future of Life" course next Fall: "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" 

We'll try to create more than the illusion of an answer. But, all is probably vanity. So we should all stop worrying and enjoy our lives. Right?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Forget Iceland!-

I'd still like to visit Reykjavik, but I'm retiring to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is one of the very few countries to have abolished its army, and it’s also arguably the happiest nation on earth... Costa Ricans, asked to rate their own happiness on a 10-point scale, average 8.5. Denmark is next at 8.3, the United States ranks 20th at 7.4... Maybe Costa Rican contentment has something to do with the chance to explore dazzling beaches on both sides of the country... Maybe the lesson for the United States is that we should devote fewer resources to shoring up foreign armies and more to bolstering schools both at home and abroad... Nick Kristof

Trouble is, we're all up against a deep ancestral tendency to "coalitional" conflict, especially us guys. But Andy Thomson agrees: education is our only hope:

I'm ready to get back to school!
And then, eventually, to Costa Rica.
In our dreams.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"on the slab"

I really like the way Jennifer Hecht's mind works, as evidenced in this post "on choice and the meaning of life."

When science presents a relationship to the public -- this causes that -- it seems like the tough part was measuring reality, but the toughest part comes first. It is the choice to be concerned with a particular influence that might be making some phenomenon happen. Once you choose which thing you’re going to study, you have made the biggest decision you will make. A writer’s greatest act of editing is in plucking one subject out of the busy universe and placing it on the slab.

What she's really talking about here is the power of attention, and she's right: the biggest choice we can make in any research or inquiry, or maybe even any undertaking at all, is the choice to give our attention to this, not that. (A close second might be the choice to do this, then that.)

So, the time I'm spending on syllabi is not wasted. (But what about the time I wasn't spending on them last week? Mr. Paige's answer works for me: Don't look back...!)

Anyway, I'm glad Jennifer's book Doubt: A History made the cut for A&S. It'll be time well-spent, too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

holy technology

Another dimension of spirituality to explore, both in A&S and in the Future of Life course: Kevin Kelly's "technium," the notion that our development of (or submission to?) technology is a defining expression of the human spirit and a self-transforming human nature. Better living through technology? I'm for that. But this?

Kelly is interviewed in the latest Orion online magazine installment.

KELLY: My larger agenda is to bridge the technological and the holy. These are not two words that most people normally associate with each other. It is going to be a long conversation to bring
them together.

LAWLER: Is this what you mean when you describe yourself as a “techno transcendentalist”?

KELLY: Right.

LAWLER: But can you really imagine Thoreau multitasking on a BlackBerry? How do you relate transcendentalism to technology?

KELLY: I don’t mean transcendentalist in a monkish or hermitlike way. I mean transcending in the sense of connecting to a state of awareness, of living, of being, that transcends our day-to-day life. It’s not a withdrawal, it’s an emergence. And tools can be used.

LAWLER: Or misused.

KELLY: There’s been a lot of chatter about information overload recently. It is true there’s something different about this [modern] environment in our day-to-day and minute-to-minute awareness. What it means and what we should do about it is really not so clear. I acknowledge the fact that multitasking and BlackBerrys and iPods and Twitter can be distracting. But we don’t really have the option of ignoring it. The proliferation of devices is necessary to learn new things. And the cost of learning new things is an avalanche of fragmented information. We just have to learn how to live with it.

LAWLER: But don’t we get to choose?

KELLY: It’s not that we don’t have the option to remove ourselves. This phase of cultural evolution, in which we are growing and discovering, requires this tide of twenty-four-hour information. I think it’s necessary and good that there will always be an opt-out option. We want to encourage that diversity, but it will always be a niche. Barring some disaster, society is not going to become a world where everybody stays at home writing poems and reading one long book after another without interruption.

LAWLER: Where is the transcendentalism in this view?

KELLY: The roots of technology go deeper than just human culture. They weave and string all the way back to the Big Bang. Technology is an example—like life and intelligence—of an extropic system, a system that feeds off entropy to build order. And not just order, but self-amplifying order of exploding complexity and depth. Extropic systems create even more entropy in the process—that is, energy runs through the system at a faster and denser pace. This is the definition of self-sustaining systems like a living organism. There’s continuity from the beginning of the universe, which is expanding out and creating space to allow diversity to flourish. What we have is a long-term trend of increasing diversity, complexity, and specialization—all characteristics of self-sustaining systems. That could be a galaxy or a sun or intelligence. The resulting density of power is technology. I use the term “the Technium.” A galaxy is a system composed of individual technologies, complex enough to have its own self-sustaining qualities including self-preservation. It is self-perpetuating and self-increasing. You could say that humans are the sexual organs of technology—that we are necessary for its survival. But it has its own inertia, urgency, tendencies, and bias...

I don't like thinking of people as sexual organs (though I've met a few I might describe as... never mind), any more than I like thinking of them as mere conduits for "selfish genes." But evolving technology isn't going away, we'd best find some way of assimilating ourselves to it and it to us.

(Trek fans should feel a little shudder at that word "assimilate"... is there a Borg collective in our future? Not talking tennis here.) Accelerating Intelligence News