Sunday, February 28, 2010

Flew's flown

The first Dictionary of Philosophy I ever owned, as an undergrad back in the '70s, was by Antony Flew. What a strange, sad story he's become. How shamefully he's being exploited, in his senescence. Talk about a bird flying out of the light, back into darkness.

Flew argued that “God” is too vague a concept to be meaningful. For if God’s greatness entails being invisible, intangible and inscrutable, then he can’t be disproved — but nor can he be proved. Such powerful but simply stated arguments made Flew popular on the campus speaking circuit; videos from debates in the 1970s show a lanky man, his black hair professorially unkempt, vivisecting religious belief with an English public-school accent perfect for the seduction of American ears. Before the current crop of atheist crusader-authors — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens — there was Antony Flew. 

He's not all there now.

But there is a very good new dictionary of philosophy, by Simon Blackburn. And now there's a brand-new iPod app for that. It's in my hip-pocket.

(And of course, the classic in the genre: Voltaire's.)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Looking Backward"

Jennifer Hecht didn't leave much out of Doubt: A History. But might there have been a place for Edward Bellamy, whose Looking Backward inspired many late-19th century social utopians to translate their religious doubt into a political faith-- a faith that was supposed to have been redeemed by now, in Bellamy's dream? (Check out the new Google "clip" function.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

poetry of reality

The Poetry of Reality is the fifth installment in the Symphony of Science music video series. It features 12 scientists and science enthusiasts, including Michael Shermer, Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Jill Tarter, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Carolyn Porco, and PZ Myers, promoting science through words of wisdom.

Special thanks are due to The Sagan Appreciation Society:

and Connie Barlow:

Check out for more science music videos.

Fibonacci fib?

Kevin gave us a nice report yesterday on the Fibonacci sequence, the  so-called golden ratio allegedly ubiquitous in nature. The phenomenon, originally noted in antiquity, seems to imply an ordered nature whose regularities defy coincidence. It stops short of demonstrating a divine sort of order, of course;  and even if there are pantheistic possibilities in the hypothesis, that's not really what most people mean by "God." Still, it's an impressive thing. But...

Not wishing to dash cold water, I nonetheless feel obliged to note that cold water has been dashed by others. To wit:

Fibonacci FoolishnessA search of the internet, or your local library, will convince you that the Fibonacci series has attracted the lunatic fringe who look for mysticism in numbers. You will find fantastic claims:

  • The "golden rectangle" is the "most beautiful" rectangle, and was deliberately used by artists in arranging picture elements within their paintings. (You'd think that they'd always use golden rectangle frames, but they didn't.)
  • The patterns based on the Fibonacci numbers, the golden ratio and the golden rectangle are those most pleasing to human perception.
  • Mozart used f in composing music. (He liked number games, but there's no good evidence that he ever deliberately used f in a composition.)
  • The Fibonacci sequence is seen in nature, in the arrangement of leaves on a stem of plants, in the pattern of sunflower seeds, spirals of snail's shells, in the number of petals of flowers, in the periods of planets of the solar system, and even in stock market cycles. So pervasive is the sequence in nature (according to these folks) that one begins to suspect that the series has the remarkable ability to be "fit" to most anything!
  • Nature's processes are "governed" by the golden ratio. Some sources even say that nature's processes are "explained" by this ratio.
Of course much of this is patently nonsense. Mathematics doesn't "explain" anything in nature, but mathematical models are very powerful for describing patterns and laws found in nature. I think it's safe to say that the Fibonacci sequence, golden mean, and golden rectangle have never, not even once, directly led to the discovery of a fundamental law of nature. When we see a neat numeric or geometric pattern in nature, we realize we must dig deeper to find the underlying reason why these patterns arise...

Certainly, the oft repeated assertion that the Parthenon in Athens is based on the golden ratio is not supported by actual measurements. In fact, the entire story about the Greeks and the golden ratio seems to be without foundation. 

And: one of Rebecca Goldstein's 36 arguments addresses the alleged power of mathematical mystery to elicit feelings of transcendental astonishment:

30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
1. Mathematical truths are necessarily true. (There is no possible world in which, say, 2 plus 2 does not equal 4, or in which the square root of 2 can be expressed as the ratio of two whole numbers.)
2. The truths that describe our physical world, no matter how fundamental, are empirical, requiring observational evidence. (So, for example, we await some empirical means to test string theory, in order to find out whether we live in a world of eleven dimensions.)
3. Truths that require empirical evidence are not necessary truths. (We require empirical evidence because there are possible worlds in which these are not truths, and so we have to test that ours is not such a world.)
4. The truths of our physical world are not necessary truths (from 2 and 3).
5. The truths of our physical world cannot explain mathematical truths (from 1 and 4).
6. Mathematical truths exist on a different plane of existence from physical truths (from 5).
7. Only something which itself exists on a different plane of existence from the physical can explain mathematical truths (from 6). 8. Only God can explain mathematical truths (from 7).
9. God exists.
Mathematics is derived through pure reason — what the philosophers call a priori reason — which means that it cannot be refuted by any empirical observations. The fundamental question in philosophy of mathematics is: how can mathematics be true but not empirical? Is it because mathematics describes some trans-empirical reality — as mathematical realists believe — or is it because mathematics has no content at all and is a purely formal game consisting of stipulated rules and their consequences? The Argument from Mathematical Reality assumes, in its third premise, the position of mathematical realism, which isn't a fallacy in itself; many mathematicians believe it, some of them arguing that it follows from Gödel's incompleteness theorems (see the COMMENT in The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity, #30 above). This argument, however, goes further and tries to deduce God's existence from the trans-empirical existence of mathematical reality.
FLAW 1: The inference of 5, from 1 and 4, does not take into account the formalist response to the non-empirical nature of mathematics.
FLAW 2: Even if one, Platonistically, accepts the derivation of 5 and then 6, there is something fishy about proceeding onward to 7, with its presumption that something outside of mathematical reality must explain the existence of mathematical reality. Lurking within 7 is the hidden premise: mathematical truths must be explained by reference to non-mathematical truths. But why? If God can be self-explanatory, as this argument presumes, why then can't mathematical reality be self-explanatory — especially since the truths of mathematics are, as this argument asserts, necessarily true?
FLAW 3: Mathematical reality — if indeed it exists — is, admittedly, mysterious. But invoking God does not dispel this puzzlement; it is an instance of "The Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Pseudo-Explain Another." The mystery of God's existence is often used, by those who assert it, as an explanatory sink hole.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Ophelia Benson points out that 

Jerry Coyne points out another outbreak of godbothering from Francis Collins - which is all the more inappropriate (the apt word, for a change) now that Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health. (The outbreak is inappropriate, not the pointing it out.) The publisher does not omit to get in the obligatory slap at those god damn pesky impertinent inappropriate noisy New Atheists:
“Is there a God?” is the most central and profound question that humans ask. With the New Atheists gaining a loud voice in today’s world, it is time to revisit the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith.
'Is there a god?' is not the most central and profound question that humans ask; far from it; at this stage of the game it could better be called the most futile time-wasting childish infatuated question that humans ask. The voice the 'New Atheists' have gained, if they have gained one, is really not all that loud compared to the voice the Old Theists have had and continue to have for the last however many thousands of years, so I really don't see why so many people feel compelled to pitch such a huge fit about a few atheists finally plucking up the nerve to say atheist things aloud instead of under their breath in a closet when no one is home. I really don't. I really don't see why so many people are so god damn truculent about having to share a minuscule corner of the discourse with atheists. I don't see why our 'gaining a voice' is treated as some kind of foul presumption...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

truest vision

The Venerable Bede's "truest vision of life" as recast by Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird strikes the same Stoic note as Thanatopsis. But Bede himself apparently was less composed, when the time came to wrap his drapery. Simon Critchley says he broke down and wept over the dread departure of the soul from the body and the prospect of God’s judgment. Too bad he lived too early to read Emerson's Divinity School Address, which might have emboldened him a bit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

If there's a God,

why'd he make me an atheist? Good question, Ricky. Thanks again, Dean.*

* And for pointing me to this blogsite, 3quarksdaily. Just below Ricky is an amusing/disturbing philosopher's lament as to the "discreditable" nature of his day job, "A World Without Why" ("I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change...") Lots of other fun stuff here too.

Monday, February 22, 2010


The new Catholic catechism says Hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood “symbolically rather than physically.”

But the Pope says Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.”

Wonder if he'll be back-pedaling on Galileo and Darwin, too?


The last stanza of this marvelous poem by William Cullen Bryant was read at Grandpa's gravesite yesterday. Timeless irreligious wisdom.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

squashed philosophers

Squashed philosophers: fast fun, not too misleading...

John Stuart MILL
"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
On Liberty (1859)A System of Logic (1843)
"It is never too late to give up our prejudices.."
Walden (1854)
Charles DARWIN
"...endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
On The Origin of Species(1859)
"When you stare into an abyss ... the abyss also stares into you".
Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
William JAMES
"If merely 'feeling good' could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience".
Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
Sigmund FREUD
"...we men... find reality generally quite unsatisfactory"
Psychoanalysis (1910)
"Gott würfelt nicht (God does not play dice)"
Relativity (1916)
"The world is the totality of facts, not things."
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"In Our Time"

And I thought I was their only American listener...

There is a lot of talk about how the Internet is driving culture ever lower, but it also makes a wealth of serious thinking available. From the comfort of home, one can download free audio books by authors like Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad and free podcasts of university lectures ( has an assortment of both). “In Our Time,” a program on “the history of ideas,” is in a class of its own...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

from nothin' to nothin'

But with lots of somethin' in-between, beneath the surface absurdity and iconoclasm.

A great epi-stoic and humanist statement about life and death, except possibly for the scatology:

Friday, February 19, 2010

A free man

Freddie William Roth (12.12.28 - 2.19.10) Builder, engineer, leader, beloved father, husband, grandpa. A free man. [obit] [obit jco
United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible forces, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need -- of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed. 

Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power. Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Big Picture

"A Brief History of Pretty Much Everything," by a teen-age Brit.

Terrific! Thanks for the link, Dean.*

*and for this, on Gavin de Becker's advice that we pay closer attention to our "gut feelings" about dangerous situations and persons, an evolved instinct we ignore at our risk.. and *this, on a Christian equivalent of Sharia "justice."


Maira Kalman's latest (and last in her wonderful "Pursuit of Happiness" series)... soon to appear between hard covers. Read it and tell me: is she an Epicurean, or a Stoic, or a Jeffersonian? I think so.

Where George-- whose hero was the old Roman Cincinnatus, and who also wanted no part of permanent fame or glory or power-- found his ataraxia:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Romanes eunt domus?

Huntsville hijacked our A&S class yesterday, leaving little time for Romans and Christians and Kyle's question about what makes gods worship-worthy. I felt it was a necessary conversation, at least for me; but the Romans (and worship) deserve their day too. We'll give them some of the Muslims' time on Thursday. 

Meanwhile, let's lighten the mood. Going home is what spirituality is all about, whether you're an atheist or not. Romani ite domum! 

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

belief in belief

That's not a stutter, it's Dan Dennett's thesis that some non-believers think (some) others should believe, for the sake of social stability or moral rectitude or psychological comfort or whatever. He (unlike William James, possibly unlike Fyodor Dostoevsky) thinks that's condescending and an error. He told the Guardian:

I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.
A national study by evangelicals in the United States predicted that only 4% of their children would grow up to be "Bible-believing" adults. The Southern Baptists are baptising about as many today as they were in 1950, when the population was half what it is today. At what point should those who just believe in belief throw in the towel and stop trying to get their children and neighbours to cling to what they themselves no longer need? How about now?

Monday, February 15, 2010

stopping by woods

Cancelled classes today because it snowed and the radio reported lots of wrecks on the highway between home and school... but there were none between home and Percy Warner Park. Took lots of inferior pics with my Sanyo phone cam (that's Belle Meade Blvd. viewed from the Warner Woods trail) and got Robert Frost stuck in my head...
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Jefferson the epicure

In honor of Presidents' Day (I've already done my duty to Mr. Lincoln), and coincident with our attention in Intro class* to the philosophy of Epicurus... a letter from Mr. Jefferson written in the twilight of his years. Maira Kalman learned, in her very attentive visit to Monticello, that he too was an Epicurean. He too expressed himself on a wall. (A partial answer to the question: "How Christian Were the Founders?")

*INTRO STUDENTS: CLASS CANCELLED TODAY, the roads are unsafe We'll double up and do both Epicurus and Seneca on Wednesday.


"Epicurean" is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Bill McKibben, the environmental activist and author. But he grasps the fundamental Epicurean point: perpetual economoic growth doesn't make individuals or societies happy. We need to re-think our national servitude to this "ideal." We need to revisit Epicurus's Garden.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy V-day

Toward the end of the summer of '77, NASA launched two spacecraft as part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission. On board each craft was a golden record that included, among other things, the sound of a kiss, a mother's first words to her newborn child, music from all over the world, and greetings in 59 different languages. The spacecraft were designed to take close-up pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, then continue into the great expanse of space beyond our solar system. The records on board were meant to survive for a billion years, in the hope that some day, against enormous odds, they might cross paths with an alien civilization. And that's how a great love story begins...

Saturday, February 13, 2010


It's my old undergrad college pal's birthday. We met in a philosophy class not long before each of us turned 21, on consecutive days in the '70s, and cemented our lifelong friendship by going out and getting legally unfit to drive together on my birthday and then walking home.

Last night, driving (soberly) home, I heard the news on the radio of yet another senseless campus shooting. On his campus. So my annual birthday greeting was pre-empted by urgent concern. Was he ok? Did he know the victims?

Looks like I'll make 53. Too damned ornery and too much work to do to die.
We don't know who the victims are yet, or even how many of them there are--at least three, possibly five--but I do know the alleged shooter and I am virtually certain to know most of the victims. We are a small campus. This was one crazy, fucked-up day, my friend.

This morning we know: It was about tenure?!

It's also about too damned many handguns in general circulation, too casually available to people who can't or won't govern their own emotions. 

That happens to be my father-in-law's view as well as mine, and he's a gun-owning sportsman with a deer-head on his wall. Enough coddling of criminals and emotional loose-cannons, NRA. Enough!

Update. (2.15.10) Why wasn't this woman already in jail?!

The Chronicle of Higher Education says this raises troubling questions about the tenure process. Really? My friend in Huntsville says the tenure process there is fair enough. You can't expect administrative policy to anticipate and disarm a deranged crazy person. My friend actually recalls discussing tenure strategies with her years ago. She struck him as "naive and a bit unfocused, but did not seem deranged. Chalk up another failure to folk psychology, which comes up with easy explanations but precious few predictions."

Update nyt 2.16.10, Chronicle ("Heroic Professor")

Update nyt 2.21.10 "Fury Just Beneath the Surface"

Update nyt 2.23.10 "A Killer's Value to Science"

Update Chronicle 2.11.11 "Shattered Dept"...Leahy...Bishop


Charles Darwin & Abe Lincoln shared a birthday yesterday, born on the very same day in 1809. Darwin was more than a little interested in the slavery  issue. Adrian Desmond & James Moore contend that this was a prime motive in his evolutionary researches. Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy birthday, Chuck!

Darwin Day is a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. On this website you can find all sorts of information about Charles Darwin and the International Darwin Day Foundation...

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

[Dewey: Darwin's influence on philosophy]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

shift happens

I met Thomas Kuhn once, as an undergrad, when he came to speak at our school. I didn't block my ears, but I really don't recall a word he said. Something about paradigms shifting.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

holy google

People have been thinking about the question Stephen posed in class yesterday for awhile, here's an excerpt from an old essay suggesting the possibility of an emergent Internet intelligence. Google's not God, but it's something. (Still working on the connection to Job and Ecclesiastes. I'll Google it.) 

The pooling of human consciousness may begin with the transferral of all our knowledge to computers. This is already happening on the Internet. At a later stage of scientific advancement, a physical connection of humans to the matrix at higher and higher levels (via advances in nervous/computer interface technology) will be possible. Thereafter, with humans completely interconnected through a network, questions might arise as to the relevance of the physical world. Could we simply upload all our consciousness to this virtual world? Would we then create a comparable world inside the network?
This advancement in interpersonal communications is set to continue, the ultimate stage being the development of a totally integrated system of human communication, which is likely to be achieved by highly advanced human--computer interface systems. Preliminary research on this subject is already being done, for example in the implantation of artificial retinas, connected to the opticnerve, into eyes of blind people. As computers are already interconnected, the merging of humans into a super-high-bandwidth computer network will bring about the next level of human evolution: a human-computermeta-network.
Just as the merging of a large number of individual cells ultimately led to the development of consciousness, the merging of humans into an interconnected computermeta-network will eventually create a collective consciousness for all the individual participants. The forerunner of this "global" consciousness is already evident: our world is already described as a global village...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Turn Turn Turn

It's Ecclesiastes (and Job) Day in A&S, and I can't get this out of my head. Might as well spread the meme around...

To everything there is a season... a time to be born, and a time to die... There is nothing for a person to do but "to rejoice, and to do good in his life." It is a comforting speech, but the mood doesn't hold. Jennifer Hecht Accelerating Intelligence News