Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hoosier science

Michael Shermer:
Imagine this account being taught in public school science classes in America: Around 75 million years ago Xenu, the ruler of a Galactic Confederation of 76 planets, transported billions of his people in spaceships to a planet named Teegeeack (Earth). There they were placed near volcanoes and killed by exploding hydrogen bombs, after which their souls, or “thetans,” remained to inhabit the bodies of future earthlings, causing humans today great spiritual harm and unhappiness that may be remedied through psychological techniques involving a process called auditing and a device called an E-meter. This creation myth, formerly privy only to members who had achieved Operating Thetan Level III (OT III) through auditing, is now well known via the Internet and a widely-viewed 2005 episode of the animated sitcom television series South Park.
The absurdity of teaching religious origin stories in a science class could not be more poignant... (continues)
 But that's just what some legislators in Indiana are proposing to do. In science classes! Shermer: "knowledge that requires the imprimatur of legislation is not science." But what do they know?

Humans really don't have a clue sometimes.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The final frontier

Neil Tyson was fully caffeinated on Morning Edition today, talking about his new book and the case it makes for a significant human future in space. 

Like Tyson, I don't entirely understand why contemplating the vastness of the cosmos makes people feel small and insignificant. The pale blue dot [ext] is cosmically small, sure; but we evolved primates who ride it have grown big enough finally to know just where we stand. Thinking of that makes me feel "alive and spirited and connected" too. And it makes me curious about what's out there. As the SETI chief said at TED
We, all of us, are what happens when a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from.
Tyson's right: it takes a big person to do that. 
I also feel large, knowing that the goings-on within the three-pound human brain are what enabled us to figure out our place.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

"A Better Life"

Photographer Chris Johnson has a project worthy of your support:
The myth persists. Even in our modern world, countless people believe that without God, one’s life has no purpose or meaning — that our lives are devoid of joy and happiness because we are not religious. Those of us who are atheists know this is not the case. That’s where this project comes in…
I sense a trend coming on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


For the record: a Muslim student whom I admire says this is funny no matter who you are. I say it's funny if you don't take yourself, your faith (or no-faith) , or your species too seriously. Religion and philosophy are so much more fun when we can all laugh at ourselves.

I guess that's an invitation: hit me with your best atheist joke.

John Lachs lecture

John Lachs-"Why is Good Enough not Good Enough for Us?" Berry Lecture Thu, Feb 23, 7:30pm Vanderbilt Furman Hall 114

Dead Philosophers

I'm looking forward to Group 6's report presentation today in CoPhi, on Simon Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers. If "to philosophize is to learn how to die," the deaths of philosophers themselves ought to be instructive. That's Critchley's premise, and I think he cashes it in nicely. It's an informative, amusing, reassuring read.

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aureliuswrites, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.
Confucius say: “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?” His rival Lao Tzu thought he understood his body to be the source of all his suffering. That’s blaming the victim, if you ask me. Both are now asteroids, nominally at least. Presumably their suffering (and understanding) is no more. Same for Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), who– like Freddie the Leaf– saw death as “just like the progression of the four seasons.”

Critchley has as eye for the bizarre and unseemly side of philosophy.  We learn, for instance, that Diogenes abused himself in the marketplace, saying he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his stomach. It’s not too surprising to learn that he never married, but it is dispiriting to think of him as the original poster boy for cosmopolitanism. Maybe he just meant to abuse public decency laws everywhere in the world… like fellow Cynics Hipparchia (herself a disappointing “first female philosopher” who was bettered by Hypatia) and Crates. I do like his comment on Plato’s metaphysics: The table and cup I see, but I do not see tableness and cupness.

Critchley’s conclusion: accepting our mortality is the condition for courage and endurance in place of the despair that so many seekers of immortality (either in an imagined heaven or on a bio-technologically transformed Earth) must suffer. Most, including most Christians, “are actually leading quietly desperate atheist lives bounded by a desire for longevity and a terror of annihilation.” It is possible to lead an open and affirming atheist life, but only after looking the reaper square in the eyes and not flinching. I’m working on it. (Monty Python helps.)

I'm not sure what Group 6 has in store exactly, but they did indicate a particular interest in beans.

Don't Fear the Reaper... Critchley on happiness... The Philosopher Walks... The Way... Dead Stoics Society... more Critchley posts... Critchley, R.I.P

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Singularity

Ray Kurzweil was raised Unitarian. Now he's Singularitarian. Captain Kirk and Stevie Wonder are co-congregants.

"Why I Am An Atheist"

I AM AN ATHEIST. There, I said it. Are you happy, all you atheists out there who have remonstrated with me for adopting the agnostic moniker? If “atheist” means someone who does not believe in God, then an atheist is what I am.
But I detest all such labels. Call me what you like — humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nontheist, freethinker, heretic, or even bright. I prefer skeptic. Still, all such labels are just a form of cognitive economy, a shortcut into pigeonholing our fellow primates into tidy categories that supplant the deeper probing of what someone actually thinks and says. (continues)
-Michael Shermer (originally published in Science and Spirit)

Monday, February 20, 2012


A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!" -Stephen Hawking
Russell was indeed implicated in a famous tortoise-stacking  anecdote, as readers of Logicomix know. There's an elephant involved too, in his autobiographical postscript and in his discussion of the First Cause Argument for the existence of God in "Why I Am Not a Christian":
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause...
Anyway, I bring it up because this is Bring Younger Daughter to Work Day, and she says she wants to talk to my students about turtles.
POSTSCRIPT: She came, she quizzed two classes and plied them with candy (in recognition of Presidents' Day), and was surprised at how many college students didn't know that Dr. Seuss wrote "Yertle the Turtle" or that John Glenn orbited the earth 50 years ago.

Friday, February 17, 2012


A documentary based on a debate which became a book, "Is Christianity Good for the World?" Classic Hitch:
It is to me an appalling thought that anyone could wish for a supreme and absolute and unalterable ruler, whose reign was eternal and unchallengeable, who required incessant propitiation, and who kept us all under continual surveillance...

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Christopher Hitchens is sort of on the agenda for A&P today. He began his just-in-time memoir Hitch-22 with mention of Julian Barnes's own memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which memorably begins: "I don't believe in God, but I  miss Him." Interesting view. But it's not mine, and it definitely was not The Hitch's. He'd have agreed with the novelist's philosopher-brother: "Soppy."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wishing him nothing but the best

William James said we should make ourselves do something we'd rather not, every day, to build character and strengthen resolve.

OK, today I'm making myself look at this picture.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"The Fireplace Delusion"

Just caught up with Sam Harris's interesting analogy between the comforts of religion and of the woodstove or fireplace. Sam says
The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe. Even if you reject every intrusion of the “nanny state,” you should agree that the recreational burning of wood is unethical and should be illegal, especially in urban areas. By lighting a fire, you are creating pollution that you cannot dispose. It might be the clearest day of the year, but burn a sufficient quantity of wood and the air in the vicinity of your home will resemble a bad day in Beijing. Your neighbors should not have to pay the cost of this archaic behavior of yours. And there is no way they can transfer this cost to you in a way that would preserve their interests. Therefore, even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).
I have discovered that when I make this case, even to highly intelligent and health-conscious men and women, a psychological truth quickly becomes as visible as a pair of clenched fists: They do not want to believe any of it. Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts. To try to convince them that burning wood is harmful—and has always been so—is somehow offensive. The ritual of burning wood is simply too comforting and too familiar to be reconsidered, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous that it has to be benign. The alternative—burning gas over fake logs—seems a sacrilege.
And yet, the reality of our situation is scientifically unambiguous: If you care about your family’s health and that of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comforting as the sight of a diesel engine idling in your living room. It is time to break the spell and burn gas—or burn nothing at all.
Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.
This hits close to home for me: I regularly retreat to my Little House out back, where on cold days I indulge in the deeply comforting pleasures of my Earth Stove. (We never use the fireplace in our home, my wife can't stand the smoke.) I understand the environmental objection, I just choose to override it in the name of, well, personal comfort. I don't have a good argument for that, I just do it. Talking about it makes me uncomfortable, but there you are.

And so I think we can agree with Sam not only that we nontheists are up against a difficult challenge, to change hearts and minds wedded to the comforts of religion; but that we understand the religious mindset better than we might wish to admit. The "enemy" is us. 

Logically-astute nontheists  will rightly point out the relevant disanalogies here, but my main takeaway is a renewed sympathy for those who can't stand the thought of extinguishing the fire. Maybe they'd like to borrow my energy-efficient Heat Dish?

But no, it's definitely not the same.


Happy Valentine's Day! It began as a pagan fertility festival, before St. Valentine and Hallmark got into the picture.

My philosophy of love is not Socrates' (or Plato's) - it's no more perfect than a thorny rose, and it's best when particularized.

The Beatles overstated the case, but even if it's not all you need it's still a good candidate for the "meaning of life." A happy life is good, a good life is happy, a good and happy life is full of it.

And as John Lachs said in In Love With Life, "even those who complain a lot love what they do." We must imagine Sisyphus and Schopenhauer happy.

So I'm not complaining today about passing another milestone and watching another number role by on the odometer. It beats the alternative.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Appearance and reality

Nigel Warburton's introduction to the distinction behind corrective metaphysics. How worried should we be about the gap between how we see things and how they really are? How far should we go to compensate for the possibility of error? Is the world of everyday experience really a cave?

Still leaning towards giving his little book a try in CoPhi next year.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Winterton Curtis on the Scopes Trial

In recognition of Darwin Day, my old landlord's recollections of the infamous Tennessee Scopes Trial:

With my background of participations in the controversy it was natural that I should be called in 1925 as one of the expert witnesses in the famous trial of John T. Scopes as a violator of the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of Evolution.  In response to a telegram from the American Civil Liberties Union, I reached Dayton in time for my evening meal of Monday, July 13.  The trial had opened the preceding Friday, after which the court had adjourned for the weekend.
I was met at the station by one of my fellow scientists and driven through the town to the house where we were to be quartered.  The business section surrounding the courthouse was alive with people, natives and visitors, and ablaze with banners or orthodoxy, such as: “Read Your Bible” –“Prepare to meet Thy God” –“Repent or Be Damned.”  Dayton was more like a town prepared for a Billy Sunday revival than for a court trail.  Above all, the town was overflowing with “Foreigners: come to see the show, every room for rent was taken and vacant second floors of store buildings were filled with cots.  I recall being in one of these lofts occupied by newspapermen.  A cold-water faucet over a sink at the back near the outside stairs and a privy in the backyard were the only toilet facilities for the 25 or 30 reporters who slept on the close-packed cots... (continues)
Winterton C. Curtis... in Dayton, TN 1925

Friday, February 10, 2012

one god further

People are so perennially confused about how to use the terms "atheist" and "agnostic." "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley gave us the latter term in 1889: 
It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant... In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith.

Bertrand Russell  addressed the issue years ago:
I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist"... I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods... all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.
My student DH offers this:
"Gnostic" is relating to knowledge. "A" is the negation (not; without) what ever follows, which in this case is "gnostic." So, your agnostic--without knowledge in relation to a god or the supernatural. 

"Atheism" is the same deal. "Gimme an 'a"" (i.e., not) along with theism (the belief in gods) and you arrive a not (the negation) believing in gods. 

It's that simple. 
So we're all agnostic insofar as we don't know about gods or the supernatural. Those of us who go a short step further and assert our disbelief in gods and the supernatural on the basis of that lack of knowledge and compelling evidence are atheists. Simple indeed.

Richard Dawkins makes it even simpler:
I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.
One step beyond, and you're there. Dare to be bold, freethinkers. You have nothing to lose but your ambivalence.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Some students in CoPhi yesterday wanted to know more about what made Sir Isaac Newton such a big deal ("the greatest physicist of his time") than our text gave us. Neil Tyson thinks Newton's the greatest, period.

JMH summarizes nicely: 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"The Blind Watchmaker"

I'm brushing up on the canonical texts, in anticipation of Darwin Day.

In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins says he and a philosopher friend disagreed about whether a godless universe would require special explanation. "I said I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin's Origin of Species was published." The philosopher mentioned David Hume and asked "Why does the universe need any special explanation?"

I don't know about a "special explanation," but Dawkins should read the history of Doubt. Rational atheism doesn't seem to have been that hard for countless pre-Darwinians. Margaret Rose, for instance, may or may not have read her Darwin but she spoke for centuries of faithless skeptics when she disputed a fundamentalist's insistence that the discovery of "an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator":
He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed.
Jennifer Hecht remarks: "Rose had a notion of how some doubters have always understood the world... nature suffices as explanation."


Monday, February 6, 2012

Who are you?

Julian Baggini on the chimerical self. We're all literally no-thing. That's the Buddhist and Humean view, and neuroscience backs them up. Brains give rise to the sense of self, but there's much more (and less) to a person than a brain. This doesn't mean you're not real or that nothing is real. Nothing is, but impermanence is not unreality.

Maybe Lawrence Krauss can help disentangle the verbal morass we tend to fall into when we try to make sense of ourselves as relational beings. Or maybe it just takes a mystic.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Coming out

Julian Baggini reports on Atheism in America:
A report from the Pew Research Center last November showed that 53 per cent of Americans say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. That is one reason why many are afraid of coming out...

But coming out they are, in ever-increasing numbers. The New Atheists are one reason, but it's the Internet that's responsible for shining the biggest spotlight into those dark closets.
 “The reason that atheism is on the rise is because there is no way that a person who is an atheist can think they’re alone any more. When I was growing up, I was the only atheist I knew. I had to get on my bike, ride to the public library and take out the one atheist book that they had in the whole library: The Case Against God by George Smith. Now any atheist can go on Facebook or Myspace and find literally millions of friends.”
 So the next time someone says something snarky about the devaluation of friendship on the web, I'm going to speak up more vocally for this medium. Free people should not live in closets.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jefferson Koran

The stripped-down Jefferson Bible, featuring the ethical teachings of Jesus (sans gratuitous supernatural add-ons), is short and sweet. What if...?
And what if there were a comparably-elided Koran for the modern world? Maybe there is:
The Reformist Translation of the Quran offers a non-sexist and non-sectarian understanding of the divine text... It explicitly rejects the authority of the clergy to determine the likely meaning of disputed passages. • It uses logic and the language of the Quran itself as the ultimate authority in determining likely meanings, rather than ancient scholarly interpretations rooted in patriarchal hierarchies. • It offers extensive cross-referencing to the Bible and provides arguments on numerous philosophical and scientific issues. • It is God's message for those who prefer reason over blind faith, for those who seek peace and ultimate freedom by submitting themselves to the Truth alone...
And, of course, it's heretical.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Evolution and meaning

Still thinking about our class discussion in A&P yesterday. Julian Baggini, whose little book Atheism  is really first-rate, nonetheless claims at one point that  “Evolution doesn’t provide life with any meaning either.” I've quarreled with that claim in the past. 

And in addition to yesterday's comment, I'd just add that the last sentences of Origin of Species simply drip with naturalistic meaning.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Charles Darwin
So let's all open our hymnals... 

Darwin Day is coming!

So you want to teach Religious Studies?

We're in the process of interviewing candidates for a new full-time, tenure track position in Religious Studies, in our heretofore-merely-nominal Department of Philosophy and Religion.

That is, we've always offered religion courses taught by adjunct instructors; but we've never employed a full-time Religious Studies specialist, with a degree in the field of Religious Studies, charged with developing the Religious Studies curriculum. It'll be a new ballgame. So what shall we ask the candidates? A few interview possibilities:

  • What do you see as the important differences between philosophy and religious studies, as academic disciplines in the university? 
  • Do you see religion and philosophy as complementary , antagonistic, in tension, or ...?
  • How would you feel about being theonly RS faculty in a department of philosophy?
  • What do you understand by "collegiality"?
  • Would you agree that RS attempts to clarify the meaning and significance of religious experience and language but (unlike philosophy) does not critique religious discourse or attempt to rationally adjudicate differences among religious claims or between religion and secular society?
  • Do you agree that the province of philosophy is wider than that of religion?
  • What do you see as the peculiar challenges and opportunities (and headaches) of building a religious curriculum within an established department of philosophy?
  • Would you expect or encourage philosophy majors who do not consider themselves religious to take your classes? Would you expect or encourage religious studies majors to take philosophy classes (including Atheism & Philosophy)?
  • Do you have a favorite philosopher? Favorite works of philosophy? What book by a RS scholar do you wish every philosopher would read?
  • Have you read Varieties of Religious Experience (James) or Varieties of Scientific Experience (Sagan) ? 
  • What do you think James meant when he said that religion is our "most important function" - even if all religious creeds and doctrines turned out to be "absurd"? What do you think of non-believers who say they "believe in believing"?
  • What's your view of atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and naturalism? Do you see them as more "anti-religion" or pro-humanism (etc.)?
  • What do you think of Alain de Botton's recent suggestion that atheists should borrow the formal trappings of religious ritual, architecture, etc. (including atheist "temples")?
  • How do you feel about moving to a southern state?
  • Would any kind of professional collaboration between yourself and the Atheism & Philosophy prof be worthwhile?
  • Do you have any questions? Accelerating Intelligence News