Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Trump diaries

January 11, 2019

There’s two kinds of people. Strong and weak. Winners and Losers. I’m so strong and such a winner, biggest in the world, it’s so great. There was a German writer, Neechie, who said it’s masters and slaves; wrote about the “Ubermench.” That’s me!

I haven’t read Neechie, people have told me. I don’t read, reading is for losers who don’t already know everything, ha ha! Not for the Ubermench.

And the great thing about knowing everything — well, and being president — is that you can do anything and say anything, whatever you feel like. So the failing New York Times says it’s a lie. Who gives a shit? Not those stupid suckers out there who love me. You know what? It’s really because they wish they could be like me. Bunch of pathetic losers. What a joke!

Putin — now there’s a guy who’s strong too. I love that guy! Somebody disses him, Putin snaps his fingers, and that loser is gone. And I mean gone. What a shame we don’t have that in America. Boy, I’d have such a list!

And Xi Jinping, he makes those stupid Chinks worship him like a god. Practically licking his feet — cause he can snap his fingers too, you know. And it sure helps if you have a whole nation of dumb losers like China. Though Xi Jinping, that’s kind of a weak sounding name. Not like Trump, now that’s a real strong name. Trump! And Donald, not “Don!” Nobody calls me Don, I wouldn’t stand for it. All these weenie politicians using pal-sy names. Started with Carter. Calling himself Jimmy, not James, I mean, come on. Maybe Jim, okay, but not Jimmy. Like he’s a kid or something. What a wimpy loser. Not me!

Can’t believe I get away with all the shit I get away with. But God, I hate people who don’t grovel to me. Me, the ubermench! So unfair! Stupid losers.

I wonder what Obama is doing right this minute. That weakling laughed at me — at me — at that dinner. Not even white. Well, who’s laughing now!!

And that sniveling little Canadian twerp Trudo, what a loser. And that French guy, little Macron. Married to an old bag old enough to be his mother! In fact, she’s got a son older than him! I wonder if they actually fuck. I wish that little bitch Melania would let me fuck her. What a cushy deal she’s got, and she doesn’t even have to put out. As if there aren’t a million hot pieces of ass out there who’d fuck my brains out to be first lady.

One of the more tasteful photos of Melania

But what can I do? That’s the one thing I didn’t think of when I ran for president. All those Secret Service flunkies always there. How do I get any pussy in here? You’d think that would be one of the perks. So unfair! What kind of crap country have you got where the president can’t get pussy? I bet Putin gets it, served to him on a silver platter every day! No, gold, actually.


Consciousness, Self & Free Will — my talk 1/13

January 6, 2019

I will give a talk at the Capital District Humanist Society, Sunday, Jan. 13, 12:45 PM, Room 224 of Sage College Campus Center, Academy Rd & New Scotland Ave., Albany. (Nice refreshments!)

What does it really mean to have a self? Or feel that you do? Making choices and decisions? Philosophers have long wrestled with these problems. Some argue that neuroscience reveals the self and free will are illusions. A book by Daniel Dennett argues otherwise. My talk will resolve these issues once and for all.

Walls and ladders

January 3, 2019

Something there is that loves a wall.

A wall for keeping people out;

People who are not like us.

Of course they’re not like us;

They wouldn’t build a wall.

But wall lovers don’t conceive of ladders,

For raising people up, transcending barriers.

I lift my ladder up against your wall;

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus

December 22, 2018

We gave our daughter the middle name Verity, which actually means truth, and tried to raise her accordingly.

About the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, she wised up pretty early, as a toddler. About Santa, she was skeptical, but brought scientific reason to bear. A big unwieldy rocking horse she doubted could have gotten into the house without Santa’s help. So that convinced her — for a while at least.

Recently a first grade teacher was fired for telling students there is no Santa (nor any other kind of magic). This reality dunk was considered a kind of child abuse; puncturing their illusions deemed cruel; plenty of time for that when they grow up. However, the problem is that a lot of people never do get with reality. As comedian Neal Brennan said (On The Daily Show), belief in Santa Claus may be harmless but is a “gateway drug” to other more consequential delusions.

People do usually give up belief in Santa. But not astrology, UFOs, and, of course (the big ones) God and Heaven. The only thing making those illusions seemingly more credible than Santa Claus is the fact that so many people still cling to them.

America is indeed mired in a pervasive culture of magical beliefs, not just with religion, but infecting the whole public sphere. Like the “Good guy with a gun” theory. Like climate change denial. And of course over 40% still believe the world’s worst liar is somehow “making America great again.” (History shows even the rottenest leaders always attract plenty of followers.)

Liberals are not immune. Beliefs about vaccines and GM foods being harmful are scientifically bunk. In fact it’s those beliefs that do harm.

I’ve written repeatedly about the importance of confirmation bias — how we love information that seemingly supports our beliefs and shun anything contrary. The Economist recently reported on a fascinating study, where people had to choose whether to read and respond to eight arguments supporting their own views on gay marriage, or eight against. But choosing the former could cost them money. Yet almost two-thirds of Americans (on both sides of the issue) actually still opted against exposure to unwelcome advocacy! In another study, nearly half of voters made to hear why others backed the opposing presidential candidate likened the experience to having a tooth pulled.

And being smarter actually doesn’t help. In fact, smarter people are better at coming up with rationalizations for their beliefs and for dismissing countervailing information.

Yet a further study reported by The Economist used an MRI to scan people’s brains while they read statements for or against their beliefs. Based on what brain regions lit up, the study concluded that major beliefs are an integral part of one’s sense of personal identity. No wonder they’re so impervious to reality.

Remarkably, given the shitstorm so totally perverting the Republican party, not a single Republican member of Congress has renounced it.

The Economist ended by saying “accurate information does not always seem to have much of an effect (but we will keep trying anyway).”

So will I.

The REALLY big picture

December 19, 2018

We start from the fact that the Universe was created by God in 4004 BC.

Oops, not exactly. It was actually more like 13,800,000,000 BC (give or take a year or two). The event is called the Big Bang — a name given by astronomer Fred Hoyle intended sarcastically — and it was not an “explosion.” Rather, if you take the laws of physics and run the tape backwards, you get to a point where the Universe is virtually infinitely tiny, dense, and hot. A “singularity,” where the laws of physics break down — and we can’t go farther back to hypothesize what came before. Indeed, since Time began with the Big Bang, “before” has no meaning. Nevertheless, while some might say God did it, it’s reasonable instead to posit some natural phenomenon, a “quantum fluctuation” or what have you.

So after the Big Bang we started with what’s called the “Quantum Gravity Epoch.” It was rather brief as “epochs” go – lasting, to be exact, 10-43 of a second. That’s 1 divided by the number 1 followed by 43 zeroes.

That was followed by the “Inflationary Epoch,” which also went fairly quick, ending when the Universe was still a youngster 10-34 of a second old.

But in that span of time between 10-43 and 10-34 of a second, something big happened. You know how it is when you eat a rich dessert and virtually blow up in size? We don’t know what the Universe ate, but it did blow up, going from a size almost infinitely small to one almost infinitely large, in just that teensy fraction of a second; thus expanding way faster than the speed of light.

After that hectic start, things became more leisurely. It took another few hundred million years, at least, for the first stars to twinkle on.

This is the prevailing scientific model. If you find this story hard to believe, well, you can believe the Bible instead.

Here are some more facts to get your head around. Our galaxy comprises one or two hundred billion stars, and is around 100,000 light years across. A light year is the distance light travels in a year – about 6 trillion miles. And ours is actually a pipsqueak galaxy; at the bottom of the range which goes up to ten times bigger. And how many galaxies are there? Wait for it . . . two trillion. But that’s only in the observable part of the Universe; we can only see objects whose light could reach us within the 13.8 billion years the Universe has existed. Because of its expansion during that time, the observable part actually stretches 93 billion light years. We don’t know how much bigger the total Universe might be. Could be ten trillion light years across. (I don’t want to talk about “infinite.”)

Now, it was Hubble who in 1929 made the astounding discovery that some of the pinpoints of light we were seeing in the sky are not stars but other galaxies. And more, they are moving away from us; the farther away, the faster. Actually, it’s not that the galaxies are moving; rather, space itself is expanding. Jain analogized the galaxies to ants on the surface of a balloon. If you inflate it, the distance between ants grows, even while they themselves don’t move. And note, space is not expanding into anything. It is making more space as it goes along.

But there are two big mysteries. Newton posited that the force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between masses. However, what we see in other galaxies does not conform to this law; it’s as though there has to be more mass. We don’t yet know what that is; we call it “dark matter.” (There is an alternative theory, that Newton’s law of gravity doesn’t hold true at great distances, which might account for what we see with no “dark matter.”)

The other problem is that what we know of physics and gravity suggests that the Universe’s expansion should be slowing. But we have found that at a certain point during its history, the expansion accelerated, and continues to do so. This implies the existence of a force we can’t yet account for; we label it “dark energy.”

“Ordinary matter” (that we can detect) accounts for only 5% of the Universe. Another 24% is dark matter and 71% dark energy. (Remember that matter and energy are interchangeable. That’s how we get atom bombs.)

But, again, the story is a lot simpler if you choose instead to believe the Bible.

(This is my recap of a recent talk by Vivek Jain, SUNY Associate Professor of Physics, at the Capital District Humanist Society.)

“The Discovery” — Scientific proof of Heaven

December 6, 2018

Our daughter recommended seeing this Netflix film, “The Discovery.” It starts with scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) giving a rare interview about his discovery proving that we go somewhere after death.

This has precipitated a wave of suicides. Asked if he feels responsible, Harbor simply says “no.” Then a man shoots himself right in front of him.

Next, cut to Will and Ayla (“Isla” according to Wikipedia) who meet as the lone passengers on an island ferry. Talk turns to “the discovery.” Will is a skeptic who doesn’t think it’s proven.

Turns out Will is Harbor’s estranged son, traveling to reconnect with him at Harbor’s island castle. Where he runs a cult peopled with lost souls unmoored by “the discovery.” While continuing his work, trying to learn where, exactly, the dead go.

Meantime, people keep killing themselves, aiming to “get there” — wherever “there” is. Will saves Ayla from drowning herself and brings her into the castle.

Harbor has created a machine to get a fix on “there” by probing a brain during near-death experiences — his own. It doesn’t work. “We need a corpse,” he decides.

So Will — his skepticism now forgotten — and Ayla steal one from a morgue. This is where the film got seriously silly. (Real scientists nowadays aren’t body snatchers.) The scene with the dead guy hooked up to the machine and subjected to repeated electrical shocks was straight out of Frankenstein 1931.

This doesn’t work either. At first. But later, alone in the lab, Will finds a video actually had gotten extracted from the corpse’s brain. Now he’s on a mission to decode it.

I won’t divulge more of the plot. But the “there” in question is “another plane of existence.” Whatever that might actually mean. There’s also some “alternate universes” thing going on, combined with some Groundhog Dayish looping. A real conceptual mishmash.

One review faulted the film for mainly wandering in the weeds of relationship tensions rather than really exploring the huge scientific and philosophical issues. I agree.

The film’s metaphysical incoherence goes with the territory of “proving” an afterlife. There was no serious effort at scientific plausibility, which would be a tall order. Mind and self are entirely rooted in brain function. When the brain dies, that’s it.

The film didn’t delve either into the thinking of any of the folks who committed suicide, which would have been interesting. After all, many millions already strongly believe in Heaven, yet are in no hurry to go. But, as I have said, “belief” is a tricky concept. You may persuade yourself that you believe something, while another part of your mind does not.

The film’s supposed scientific proof presumably provides the clincher. Actually, religious people, even while professing that faith stands apart from questions of evidence, nevertheless do latch on to whatever shreds of evidence they can, to validate their beliefs. For Heaven, there’s plenty, including testimonies of people who’ve been there. But there’s still that part of the brain that doesn’t quite buy it. Would an assertedly scientific discovery change this?

I doubt it. Most people have a shaky conception of science, with many religious folks holding an adversarial stance toward it. Science is, remember, the progenitor of evolution, which they hate. Meantime — this the film completely ignored — religionists generally consider suicide a sin against God. Surely that can’t be your best route to Heaven!

The film did mention that people going on a trip want to see a brochure first. That’s what Harbor’s further work aimed to supply. Without it — without “the discovery” having provided any idea what the afterlife might be like — killing oneself to get there seems a pretty crazy crapshoot. Even for religious nuts.

Movie review: The Grinch, a humanist film

November 30, 2018

For our anniversary we decided on dinner and a movie. After carefully studying reviews of all current offerings, my wife chose The Grinch. (She’s a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan.)*

For readers from Mars, the story is set in Whoville, whose inhabitants are Christmas-crazy. Mr. Grinch hates Christmas, and sets out to ruin it by masquerading as Santa and, instead of leaving presents, steal them.

The film has two main themes.

One is redemption. Here is a character as nasty as can be. Though actually, in this version, we see signs of humanity throughout. (He treats his dog better; he’s even kind of likable.) And we also get here a backstory, lacking in previous versions, that explains his hostility to Christmas, in a convincing human way, that also helps make plausible his ultimate turnaround. (Though another, wished-for backstory might have accounted for Mr. Grinch’s relative affluence.)

The film’s other main thrust is humanist. Now, this is a Christmas movie; about nothing but Christmas. And what is conspicuously missing? Christ! The name was heard once in a carol being sung, but otherwise the film’s Christmas is wholly Christless, its conception of the holiday’s meaning entirely secular and humanistic. It is all about human fellowship, and the joy of living — here on Earth.

In fact, so determinedly non-supernatural is this film (despite, well, bending laws of physics) that it’s not only Christless but Santaless. While the Who children believe in Santa, the film winks at his nonexistence. There’s no suggestion the gifts the Grinch steals were actually left by Santa.

The production is dazzling. Since there were two quite serviceable previous versions, this one’s raison d’etre had to be outdoing them. And it did. The state of the art, in animated films like this, has progressed tremendously. Don’t dismiss this as insignificant lowbrow entertainment; that doesn’t respect the artistic achievement. I often wished I could linger over scenes to absorb all the clever detail and art, which went by at a breakneck pace.

This is a story-telling tour-de-force. Until, sadly, the lame ending. The one in the book, and 1966 film, had the Grinch joining in the town-wide sing and then, enthusiastically, in its great communal feast. Here, he just visits one home, and is moreover subdued. After all the dizzying, walloping, over-the-top action that precedes it, this modified ending is underwhelming. What were they thinking?

Nevertheless, go see this film and enjoy the visuals. I give it 3-1/2 stars (knocking off half a star for the weak ending).

* He voiced the Grinch; but early in the film I was sure there’d been some mistake because it didn’t sound like him at all. Seeing the credits surprised me. Quite a performance.

Republicans, and the hole in America’s moral soul

November 27, 2018

“Republicans must stand up to Trump,” declared the heading on a recent Michael Gerson column.

“How fatuous,” I thought.


Gerson is a former Bush 43 speechwriter and member of that endangered species, “principled conservative.” Usually clear-eyed about the gulf between those principles and Trumpism.

This column was about prospects for a Republican running against Trump in 2020. Gerson cites a poll saying 16% of Republicans prefer Trump to be a one-term president. “At least a place to start,” he says.

Good luck. The other 84% of Republicans are a red wall for Trump. Undaunted, Gerson muses that could change with “a particularly damaging new administration scandal,” or Mueller developments that “destabilize Trump’s personality in new and disturbing ways.” As if nothing so far has been damaging or disturbing enough. (Here’s a list.)

Yet Gerson does suggest the Trump cesspool is already stinky enough for a Republican challenger to pose the question: “why not conservative policy AND public character?”

Actually, Republicans now get neither; this ain’t “conservative.” But Trumpism is not mainly about ideology anyway. Instead it’s psychology; tribal and personal social identity. I increasingly think that deep down, many Republicans back Trump not in spite of his horribleness but because of it. Like women attracted to “bad boys;” like moths to a flame. It’s a fat middle finger shoved in the eye of a society which, Trumpeters feel, deserves it.

These are the people who spout about America’s “moral decline.” Mainly focused on homosexuality and other sex-related stuff. As though gays marrying, people changing gender, etc., is somehow immoral. They also feel the browning of our population somehow represents moral decline.

Yet it is true we’re in a national moral tailspin. Not because of tolerating gays but tolerating Trump. These people so full of moralistic blather sent to the White House the worst moral creep ever — and continue backing him, and his war against America’s values and ideals. Here we see the real hole that has opened up in our country’s moral soul.

“Republicans must stand up to Trump?” That horse left the barn long ago. What responsible Republicans must do is leave this degraded party (as I have).

I used to call myself, like Gerson, “conservative;” the odd man out in my social milieu full of liberals. My political principles haven’t changed, but have been superseded by more fundamental concerns, about the very character of our society. I and my liberal friends are together in opposing what’s happening. Yet I still feel somewhat alone in my grasp of just how bad it is, and what it portends for the whole world’s future.

I’ve made a lifelong effort to understand the world. It culminated in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, where I tried to bring it all together. A comprehensive global picture, justifying a positive outlook.

Martin Luther King said the moral arc of the Universe is long but bends toward justice. However, there is no force out there, no deity or law of nature, that so bends it. Only we humans, with our actions, can. My book argued that, in the great sweep of history, we’d been doing better and better.

The Enlightenment began three centuries ago, putting us on a path of progress through increasing rationality. Plagued at every step by fools dancing around bonfires of Enlightenment values. Today those flames are getting out of control, threatening to engulf us all.

If Trump is defeated in 2020, maybe the fire can be contained. If he’s re-elected, maybe my book should be thrown into it.

Do people still need religion?

November 24, 2018

My daughter asked my opinion about an essay in the New York Times, by philosophy professor Stephen Asma, titled, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).” (Here’s a link.) Asma says he’s not religious, but argues that we still need religion.

He starts with a story about a woman whose son was killed. She was shattered, and “suffered a mental breakdown.” But what saved her, enabling her to “soldier on” to raise her remaining kids was (guess what) religion, including belief that she’d see her dead son again in Heaven.

Asma calls that irrational; but says “its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.” (I’ve seen people say they have faith not in spite of its irrationality, but because of it.)

Asma is distinguishing between rationality and emotion. He locates emotion in the “limbic mammalian brain,” and reason in the more evolved neocortex. “Religion,” he says, “nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty,” and “can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.” He mocks the idea of trying to soothe that bereaved mother with scientific information.

But drawing such a clear line between emotion and reason is a fundamental mistake. Asma cites neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, yet the one thing Damasio is famous for is the idea that reason and emotion are actually inextricably intertwined. You can’t separate them. Indeed, patients who suffered brain lesions that did separate them had disastrous results, because it is emotion that provides the motivation for reasoning.

And what exactly does Asma mean by “direct access to this emotional life?” Simply that people can be more emotive about God and Heaven than pondering theories of evolution or relativity? Well, so what?

Asma’s is hardly a startling new argument. It’s a very old and lame apologia dressed up with a lot of neuroscience and psychology jargon. It’s a utilitarian argument: that religion is useful because it works in soothing the existential dis-ease that life entails; truth or falsehood is immaterial. In fact, Asma actually calls the “emotional management” provided by religious belief “healthy.” He even likens religion to pharmaceutical pain management remedies.

This echoes Marx calling religion the opiate of the masses. In effect Asma is  saying religion is a placebo! Placebo treatments work because they affect mental attitude, and mental attitude affects the body. Admittedly, of course, religion does do that.

But is this a reason to choose a religious belief? Remember that what one believes is, nominally at least, a choice. We don’t have beliefs pre-installed like software; we develop them ourselves based on what we’re taught, what we learn, what we experience. At the end of the day, does it make sense to say to oneself, “this isn’t true, but I’ll believe it anyway because it will make me feel good?”

My basic answer is this. One cannot engage authentically and meaningfully with life and the world while laboring under false concepts about their essential reality.

Like the concept of Heaven. As in the case of the mother Asma discusses, many people do prefer to believe death is not final, for obvious psychological reasons. I myself am profoundly troubled by my mortality. But that cannot persuade me to believe in a fairy tale alternate reality. And I feel that death, being really the most important fact about life, requires one to grapple with its true meaning, come to terms with it, and live life accordingly. Otherwise you’re not living authentically.

Meantime, most people who believe in an eternal paradise are in no hurry to go, and try to remain on Earth as long as possible. What’s up with that? “Belief” is a tricky concept. What people think they believe and what they actually believe can differ. You may persuade yourself you believe in Heaven — but another part of your brain is not on board. (As Mark Twain said, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”)

I consider it mentally healthy to avoid such cognitive dissonance. To have all parts of one’s mind on the same page.

Further, Asma recognizes that the assertedly good things about religious belief are bound together with some very bad shit. Faith does give some people some comfort, but it also gives some people suicide vests. And that’s unsurprising. Because, after all, the idea of God is a very extreme idea, with extreme implications for how to behave if one actually believes it.

Indeed, if people really and truly believed in God, most would behave very differently. That belief seems to govern their lives only about 10%. But then you do get some people at the 100% level. And that’s a peck of trouble.

Asma refers to aspects of religion apart from dogmas — rituals, songs, human interactions, etc., all of which provide something in the emotional realm. But can’t we have that without ridiculous dogmas? In fact, the Unitarian “church” goes some way in that direction. I have sometimes imagined creating a “religion” devoid of superstition, but with rituals, songs, togetherness, etc.

That “religion” would be an expression of the emotion I feel about what I have referred to as the essential nature of life and the world. The science that Asma disparages as some seemingly cold dispassionate construct is part of it; contemplating it gives me very profound feelings about what I call the human project. One does not have to believe nonsensical things in order to feel deep emotions about the cosmos and human life within it. I would even submit that such emotions are better than ones grounded in concepts that are false — and known, deep down, in one’s heart of hearts, to be false.

“Educated” by Tara Westover — Wow!

November 15, 2018

There’s a huge genre of “Parents from Hell” memoirs. Tara Westover’s is intensely gripping.

She was born in 1986 into an extremist Mormon family, standing in opposition to mainstream Mormons (whom they called “gentiles”) and everything in the outside world, including doctors, hospitals, medicine, the government, and of course the schools, all seen as a socialist/Satanic/Illuminati (yes) conspiracy. Tara was home-schooled — notionally. In fact she learned almost nothing apart from Mormon dogma.

Her mom practiced midwifery and was much into herbalism, “essential oils,” and homeopathy as their alternative to conventional medicine. “Homeopathic” remedies are a fraud, they’re plain water. Several times Tara noted that when treated with these “tinctures” they had no effect (not even a placebo effect, which requires some belief). But she never fully acknowledges it was all hokum.

Father “Gene” ran a junkyard and construction business, into which all his kids were dragooned. In lieu of ordinary safety precautions, Gene relied upon the Lord. But the Lord was not reliable, and OSHA’s writ did not run here. The book is a litany of nasty accidents, including two car crashes, one probably leaving Tara’s mother brain damaged. At ten, working in the junkyard, Tara barely escaped from inside a forklift loader dumping tons of scrap iron, her father oblivious to the danger. A brother was severely burned using a torch after having been doused in gasoline.

Finally, Gene himself used a torch on a wrecked car without bothering to drain its gas tank. It literally blew up in his face. All these accidents were handled using only mom’s concoctions. Gene’s injuries were horrific, but he did survive, albeit badly disfigured and partly crippled. Nevertheless, word spread about this “miracle healing” — causing mom’s herbal business to go viral. And the Westovers became rich.

Before that, Tara decided to go to college, to Brigham Young University. One older brother had similarly escaped the Westover la-la land. Tara crammed alone for the college entrance exam and scored well. Lying to BYU that her home schooling had entailed a rigorous curriculum, she was accepted. Only at college did Tara begin to grasp the depth of her ignorance and outsiderhood.

Long story short, she winds up with scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard, and a PhD in history.

But the real story is Tara’s wrestling with her relationship with her family — and with her own identity which, throughout, remained shaped by that relationship.

Her dad was not okay with her educational pilgrimage. He invoked God’s wrath against her. Tara was considered treasonous, dangerous, possessed by Satan. And a big part of her problem was the degree to which she herself bought into all this: “It was not that I had done something wrong so much as that I existed in the wrong way. There was something impure in the fact of my being.” Indoctrinated to loathe herself, she did so.

Tara was particularly hung up on the word “whore,” flung by a brother who repeatedly violently abused her (though not, overtly, sexually). Mormons in general are obsessed with antediluvian ideas about female chastity. This American Life recently profiled how Mormon “bishops” (volunteers, really) get their jollies formally interrogating young girls about matters sexual — deeply disturbing. But the Westovers were extreme even for Mormons, so terrorizing Tara that when, at about 17, she had a longtime dating relationship with a lad, she couldn’t even bear his touching her hand. And yet, accused of being pregnant, she imagined it could somehow be true.

Tara eventually figured out that her dad was, well, nuts. Bipolar, to be specific. I attended a talk she gave; asked whether the religious extremism made him crazy, she said it was really the other way around. But the nuttiness and religion obviously fed each other. Yet even while recognizing the pathology, Tara remained infused with a powerful tropism to belong to this tribe, hardly able to conceive of a personal identity exiled from it. (This power of tribal belongingness is seen in our politics.)

Her education entailed a series of epiphanies. I was gratified that one came from reading John Stuart Mill (who tops my own hit parade of thinkers), on how social conventions repress women, which “moved the world” for her.


She also learned of Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom: external versus internal coercion, the latter a function of irrational beliefs and fears. Tara knew that applied to her, yet extrication was an almighty struggle. She suffered a paralyzing mental breakdown.

Toward the end I was like, “enough already,” impatient with Tara’s inability to break the hold of her toxic family and its absurd religion. It’s so revealing about the human mind. Tara surely had an extraordinary level of cognitive intelligence to overcome her educational deficits and achieve what she did. Yet she struggled to free herself from ideas she knew were irrational and messing up her life.

But the book has a happy ending — it is really a “triumph of the human spirit” book. Though nothing suggests Tara ever relinquished Mormonism, she finally did kiss off most of her immediate family, saying she hasn’t seen her parents in years.

When I went up to her, to have my book signed — she was extremely gracious at this, by the way — I asked her, “Do you love your parents?” I expected a nuanced, if not agonized, response. But Tara said, “Oh yes, absolutely!”