Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Religion destroying India

January 24, 2020

India is heralded as the world’s largest democracy. Proving that democracy is not just a luxury for rich nations. Some claim messy democracy is bad for economic development — citing China’s high growth rates under authoritarianism. Yet is dictatorship really good for prosperity in the long term? After all, the richest countries are the most democratic. But anyhow, man does not live on bread alone, economics is not everything, and people value democratic rights for their own sake.

That was true of Indians — until lately. Now they’re sacrificing democracy, not for economics but for religion.

India was founded as a state both democratic and secular. This made huge sense given its diverse religions, mainly Hindu and Muslim. And its experience of vast intercommunal bloodshed accompanying Pakistan’s being made a separate Muslim state.

Some nevertheless wanted India to be a Hindu state. One was Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Hindu supremacists like Godse hated Gandhi for promoting accommodation with the nation’s Muslims. They’ve instead advocated “Hindutva,” an ideology of “India for Hindus.”

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has its roots in the RSS, a pervasive nationwide Hindutva organization. The BJP’s leader Narendra Modi rose out of the RSS, and in 2014 scored a big election victory, becoming prime minister, on a platform stressing economic reform. He won even bigger in 2019. But Modi seems focused less on the economy than on Hindutva — and on his own power. He’s increasingly authoritarian, and intolerant of criticism or opposition, using every possible means to suppress it. The RSS acts as a parallel government. That’s Modi’s power base. He openly rejects the founding concept of a secular state.

Kashmir is India’s most Muslim region. India and Pakistan have perennially contested sovereignty over Kashmir; effectively they’ve split it. India’s portion had a special status with much home rule. But in 2019 Modi’s government revoked that, putting Kashmir under military rule, while locking up legions of politically active Kashmiris, imposing a curfew, and cutting off communication with the outside world.

Another Indian state with a lot of Muslims is Assam. Hindutva activists claim many have “infiltrated” from next-door Muslim Bangladesh. The government has now created a register of citizens; if your name’s not on it, you’re put through bureaucratic hell to document ancestral Indian citizenship. Almost impossible if you’re poor and illiterate. Over a million Muslims are being thusly made stateless, with nowhere else to go; India is building detention camps.

Meantime, nationwide protests have greeted legislation to fast-track citizenship for refugees — provided they’re not Muslim. This is seen as violating India’s religiously color-blind constitution. And, more importantly, as presaging extension of the Assam initiative to the whole country. To make millions of Muslims not just second class citizens but non-citizens, stripped of rights. Including, of course, the vote. (Muslims mostly vote against the BJP.)

Defenders of religion call it a force for good. But too often it hijacks people’s rational brains. For many Indian Hindus, it’s not enough being freely able to practice their religion. They want it to reign supreme, crushing others. Rather than having a nation of equal rights, and peace among faiths.

Persecuting some small religious minority, though nasty and unjust, might be no big deal really. Not roiling the nation too much. But India’s Muslims number around two hundred million! With already a history of much sickening religion-inspired violence, mostly against Muslims, including lynchings. To deliberately stoke that religious conflict is national insanity.

Godse, the Hindu fanatic assassin of Gandhi, is now being rehabilitated as a hero. While Trump has staged a Texas rally with Modi lionizing him as a great pal.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part II — Is it OK to eat animals?

January 8, 2020

I eat meat; not a lot, but am troubled by the ethics. Michael Pollan too, discussing this in depth in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like me, he’d like to be able to justify meat eating. While recognizing that bias.*

Descartes saw animals as just machines without feelings. We know better. Pollan quotes Jeremy Bentham in 1789, that the question isn’t animals’ mental abilities, but can they suffer? (Note, we’re really talking about higher animals; seafood creatures don’t have much inner life to fret over.) However, Pollan notes, pain and suffering are different things. Humans suffer from pain in great part due to the mental constructs we form around it, which animals generally cannot do. (Having no conception of death or really, even, the future.)

Eating them is defended on the basis of nature. We evolved to do so, part of the overall natural schema of predators and prey. Certainly the ubiquitous animal predators think nothing of eating other animals alive. Ethics is indeed a purely human thing, evolved to regulate relations among ourselves, and absent in the rest of nature.

So we don’t treat other humans like animals, don’t eat our weaker kin. Just because they’re “humans” and animals are not? Thusly privileging humans in a way denied to other animals is called “speciesism.”

Its basis is dubious. As Peter Singer (the leading animal rights thinker) argues, most of us subscribe to an ethic of human equality. But that’s a moral, not a factual, idea. We recognize humans vary greatly in, say, intelligence, yet hold everyone’s lives and interests nonetheless entitled to equal consideration. Hence you may not exploit another for your own ends. Why then are humans entitled to thusly exploit animals — those that are sentient, feeling, and certainly possessed of lives with interests?

While cynics and pessimists deny it, humanity has in fact made great moral progress over time. Yet again, read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. People used to accept practices — like slavery — now condemned morally. Will that one day be true of meat eating?

Pollan suggests, however, that Singer is looking at the matter from the standpoint of an individual animal, but he urges a wider species-oriented perspective, positing that species have interests too. The domesticated animals we eat actually represent a mutualism or symbiosis between their species and ours — rooted in an opportunistic aboriginal deal with us, enabling them to survive and prosper better than if on their own. And their populations are now vast, while those in the wild have shriveled. So the deal is advantageous even while individual animals do die. Which of course is true of all individuals in any case. “As a rule,” Pollan says, “animals in the wild don’t get good deaths surrounded by their loved ones.”

(One might counter that a species has no consciousness; only its individual members do. So a species cannot value enjoyment of life as an individual can, and its having larger numbers serves no moral value.)

But meantime, also looking at the big picture, Pollan deems it “doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production.” He doesn’t think it’s practicable for all of us to become vegetarians. A totally plant-based food chain would consume even more fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, and might actually kill even more animals as collateral damage. If our goal is the fewest animal deaths, we should all eat the largest possible ones grazing the least cultivated land.

But all this assumes animals, before and during slaughter, are at least treated humanely. Finally returning to Bentham’s suffering point. Whatever else can be said about our overall interspecies relationships, inflicting suffering on innocent sentient beings is indefensible. And while it can be avoided, as Pollan’s reportage about a model farm showed, our vast industrial American meat-producing machine tends to sacrifice such niceties to economic efficiency. Though it’s true that absent that industry, the animals would not even exist, their existence is no boon either to them as individuals or to their species when it’s an existence of misery.

Consistent with the book’s title, for Pollan this issue remains a dilemma. He does not advocate vegetarianism. He sees the problem as our simple obliviousness to the reality, modern consumers being thoroughly insulated from how food gets to us.** Transparency is his answer; if only we really knew, we wouldn’t tolerate the animal suffering. Producers would have to heed consumer qualms. Making meat costlier. We’d eat fewer animals, and “with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.”

When pigs fly.

And what about me? Giving up meat entirely is hard; making ethical distinctions among meats even harder. Being human, my morality is imperfect. I live with that, perhaps consoled by being at least above average. Of course, everyone thinks that.

However, right after I finished Pollan’s book came an article in The Economist (“Fake Moos”) about great strides in developing plant-based imitation meat. It doesn’t yet taste quite the same, and costs more, but both problems are on track for resolution. So maybe we can have our cows and eat them too.

* He quotes Franklin that the great advantage of being a reasoning creature is that you can always find a reason for whatever you want to do.

** Unwilling to eschew his inner carnivore, Pollan decides he’s honor-bound to, at least once, eat something he’s personally killed. His successful wild pig hunt is detailed at length, with much nuanced meditation on what it all means. Initial atavistic elation mixes with later disgust and shame. But here too Pollan arrives at no definitive conclusion.

What do we mean by faith?

December 30, 2019

I was flabbergasted by one passage in Tyler Cowen’s 2018 book, Stubborn Attachments. A top economist, Cowen basically argues the moral case for economic growth, as key to improving quality of human existence. All good. Until this:

“There are, of course, many forms of bad faith in politics, and we should not encourage political (or other) beliefs in willful disregard of reason. But we cannot kick away faith itself as a motivational tool, as politics is of necessity built on some kind of faith. The lack — and, indeed, the sometimes conscious rejection — of the notion of faith, as is common in secular rationalism, is one of the most troubling features of the contemporary world.”  (My emphasis)

This is in the context of his arguing that our decision-making tends to give insufficient weight to future impacts. Cowen casts concern about the future as a kind of faith. But what does that word really mean?

Mark Twain said “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Actually, we use the word in two really different ways. One is a synonym for religious belief — with the connotation of Twain’s quip — belief without evidence or even in defiance of evidence. In this sense faith does contrast against reason.

But the word’s other sense, contrariwise, has a strong rational element. As in faith that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Or an airplane will (with a high probability) land safely. Such faith is predicated on factual reality and reason.

There’s much confusion between these two distinct meanings. As when religionists assert that secular humanism, or atheism, is just another “faith,” standing no differently from their own. This is Cowen’s mistake too.

I think what he really wants is to distinguish cynicism and pessimism — nihilism even — from optimism and a positive outlook. In my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism, I explained that the title meant not a “Pollyanna” hope that all will be well, but rather a belief that we have the capability to shape outcomes. Such belief being based on using our reason, supported by all the ways it’s been shown to actually work.

Labeling this a “faith in reason” is another similar confusion. Reason itself, too, is often called just another thing people believe in, again no different really from religious faith. We even hear the words “irrational faith in reason.” But (as Steven Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now) any such arguments actually validate the concept of reason, because all arguments are appeals to reason. That’s how reason differs from faith. Reason is subject to argument; faith is not. (I’ve also heard Pinker remark, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”)

People will say they have religious faith, because they just do, with reason being inapplicable. Yet actually there are always reasons for a person holding any belief. It may be simply that’s what they were taught. But there are always reasons, that came first, causing the faith. And the question must be whether those reasons are good or bad, rationally valid or specious.

Getting back to Cowen, he’s wrong to deem secular rationalism’s rejection of “faith” a bad thing. The faith it rejects is Twainian faith that sets itself apart from reason, if not in opposition to it. Whereas it’s our use of reason that has produced all the progress humanity has ever achieved. Indulgence in “faith” outside of reason has only ever held us back. Insofar as secular rationalism can defeat that kind of faith, it’s all to our good.

I have faith in our progressively achieving that. It’s a faith of the rational kind. And that, I think, is indeed exactly the kind of faith that Cowen really means to encourage.

Happy — the movie

December 27, 2019

My humanist group recently viewed the 2012 documentary film “Happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a basic American (or human) right. But what is “happiness?” If it’s a feeling, and your pursuit ends in getting it, what then?

This suggests that a sensation at a given moment, necessarily transitory, is not the true aim. The Greeks spoke of eudaimonia, a life well lived. Not the feelings of a moment, but of one’s life in its wholeness.

The film began with an Indian rickshaw driver. Tough way to make a living. But, surrounded by smiling faces, he was smiling too, as happy as the average (far more affluent) American.

Indeed, studies show such life circumstances account for only about 10% of happiness. Fifty percent is genetic, giving each of us a baseline “set point,” to which one’s mood reverts after the impact of some stimulus, good or bad, tails off. And the remaining 40% is a function of what we do.

Dopamine is a chemical, a “neurotransmitter,” produced in the brain, which induces sensations of pleasure and happiness. There’s a “use it or lose it” aspect to dopamine. Thus a key route to feeling happy is to seek out experiences that trigger dopamine release. Physical activity does this; especially when involving novelty.

Appearing in the film was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave us the concept of “flow.” This is when one is completely absorbed in an activity, subsuming all quotidian concerns. Good for dopamine.

Also appearing was Daniel Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness showed how poor we are at judging how any future thing will affect our mental state. In particular we overestimate how good an achievement or acquisition will make us feel, in the long term. A related concept is the “hedonic treadmill” or “adaptation effect” (explained in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice). We adapt to a changed life situation, now taking it for granted as the “new normal,” so its psychological lift dissipates, leaving one no happier than before. And craving the next lift. This “chain wanting” is what Buddhism declares the root of suffering.

Similarly, we over-estimate the impact of bad turns. Illustrative here was Melissa Moody, disfigured in a horrible accident. She not only adapted to her “new normal,” it actually gave her an enhanced perspective on life, and ultimately greater happiness than before.

Schwartz’s book also distinguishes between two personality types: “maximizers” who aim for achieving the best in any situation, and “satisficers” for whom the watchword is “good enough.” It turns out the latter are actually happier with what they get. And another key aspect of happiness is feeling gratitude for what you do have.

The film portrayed Japan as the least happy industrialized nation. Flattened by WWII, Japan emphasized rebuilding, making for an economic miracle of affluence rising from ashes. However, that went to an unhealthy extreme, creating a culture of all work and no play. They even have a word, “karoshi,” for death by overwork — not a metaphor but an all too common reality. Yet the film contrasted one part of Japan, Okinawa, with a very different ethos emphasizing communitarianism: people enjoying each other. And more reach age 100 there than anywhere else.

Bhutan, meanwhile, has sought to de-emphasize Gross National Product in favor of “Gross National Happiness.” That might sound like gooey happy-talk; and while it does make sense to recognize that there’s more to life than wealth production, one film attendee was disturbed at the idea of Bhutan’s government not just pushing happiness but imposing its own prescription for it. Bringing to mind her one-time home — the USSR.

What actually seems to be the happiest country is Denmark (where religion has almost disappeared). But what Denmark does have is, like Okinawa, strong communal feeling. The film showed a “co-housing community,” where a bunch of families live in close proximity, sharing meals and other aspects of life. A big element of human happiness is, again, relationships with other people.

As I keep stressing, social cooperation was a powerful driver in human evolution; we lived in bands where that was essential for group survival. Studies repeatedly show that the healthiest and happiest people are those with the strongest ties to others. Many strive for popularity, attractiveness, and status in the eyes of others. But such superficialties don’t do it for them; they tend to be less happy, and more anxiety-ridden, than those who relate to others with compassion, caring, and love. This was exemplified by the film’s last profile, a man who gave up “normal” life to devote himself to caring for afflicted people in Mother Teresa’s Kolkata sanctuary.

To say one shouldn’t be selfish ultimately misses the mark; “no man is an island” is true but also untrue in the sense that we can only experience anything within the confines of our own skulls — literal islands of experiencing. But the paradox of happiness is that confining one’s concern within that space makes for an unsatisfying life. What happens on other islands is an indispensable source of meaning for us.

America’s reality problem

December 19, 2019

Reality. We have to live in it. Humanity may one day escape the confines of Earth, but we cannot escape reality.

America was the one nation actually founded on the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment. Such rationality is grounded in reality. It’s also the substrate for reasoned discourse, another element of the Enlightenment. Reasoned discourse means opinions can differ; indeed, it is through such argument, as opposed to everyone thinking alike, that we work toward truth and wisdom. But argument must be rational — grounded, once more, in reality.

And America, we have a problem.

It’s not news that we’re polarized into two mutually antagonistic tribes, each inhabiting a very different reality. Political opinions can, again, differ, but each must be reality-based. The two contradictory realities can’t both be true.

Democrats (being human) certainly have their biases, blind spots, even irrationalities. But their big picture perception of today’s political reality is basically grounded in fact. While Republicans’ picture is a false one self-servingly painted by a monstrous liar, Trump. I say this as a Republican myself, for half a century, until I saw the party plunge down that rabbit hole.

The other night I attended a dinner, with a couple of Trumper friends (I do have some). They are not (otherwise) stupid or crazy; one has a Masters in History. One mentioned “Shifty Schiff” unmasked as a sex criminal. They avowed lack of surprise, wondering only how such a scumbag got away with it so long.

Amid all the despicable Trumpist smears against Schiff, I’d never heard this one. I held my tongue, but googling at home, immediately found (as expected) reports debunking this totally false garbage sloshing around the internet.

I did suggest my friends take care about their information sources; and was told I should stop listening to the fake news on lying mainstream media.

As talk inevitably turned to impeachment, trying to swat down, with facts, all the Trumpist spin, was a waste of breath. The History guy even insisted Trump couldn’t have been trying to smear an opponent because Biden wasn’t even a candidate at the time. (He was.)

To change the subject I mentioned thousands of children snatched from parents at the border — including toddlers, most of whom will be never be reunited — a Trump atrocity I thought no decent human being could defend. But I was told that every picture of children in cages was taken during the Obama administration. And that those adults were not their parents! DNA tests proved it.

DNA tests? They weren’t even properly recording children’s names. Good God.

After this alternate reality bath, at home on TV I then caught a clip of Trump reacting to the DOJ Inspector General’s report. Trumpists have long been salivating for this to prove the whole Russian meddling investigation was a “deep state” plot to take Trump down. Inspector General Horowitz found nothing of the kind (of course). While faulting the FBI for some irregularities and mistakes, he concluded that its investigating Trump’s campaign was wholly justified based on actual evidence, with no political bias.

The idea of the FBI nefariously plotting against Trump in 2016 is obviously absurd because they publicly revealed their investigating Hillary’s e-mails, and a reopened investigation right before the election, almost surely sinking her; but didn’t reveal investigating Trump’s campaign! If they were biased against anyone, it was Hillary.

That’s factual reality. But your reality may differ.

As does Trump’s. Concerning the Horowitz report, he said it’s “far worse than expected. This was an overthrow of the government . . . a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught, they got caught red-handed.” He called the FBI officers “scum.”

This was an overthrow of the government?!

Trump’s reality is just exactly what he wants it to be. Nothing he says need have any resemblance to actual reality. If this were not so cynically calculated, by a president, in anyone else it would be seen as severe mental illness. Yet his fans march in lockstep to his tune. This is destroying the basis for reasoned discourse upon which a democracy depends.

Factual reality: Trump tried to extort a bribe (smearing an opponent) from Ukraine’s president, in exchange for releasing congressionally-mandated aid. Compromising national security. The aid was only released because the scheme was blown by the whistleblower. Who got it totally right, as confirmed by mountains of hearing testimony. Trump doesn’t even deny what he did. The idea that he was concerned about “corruption” is ludicrous. He wasn’t even asking Ukraine to actually investigate — merely to announce an investigation, to besmirch Biden. And trying to pin 2016 election meddling on Ukraine, not Russia, makes a mockery of what America’s intelligence services determined, confirmed by tons of evidence in the Mueller probe. While Trump ordered the entire executive branch to defy lawful Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents.

These charges are extremely grave, and indisputable.

Republicans’ devotion to Trump has an intensity without parallel in U.S. history. It might be comprehensible if he were some paragon of virtue; a Nelson Mandela. Yet we’ve also never seen a political figure so obviously corrupt, selfish, lying, divisive, irresponsible, and immoral. A reality to which Republicans blind themselves.

Lincoln said this nation cannot endure half slave and half free. Nor can it endure half in reality and half in a corrupted alternate reality.

Everybody’s Fool, and capital punishment

December 17, 2019

My humanist group had an outing to the wonderful Miss Lodema’s Tea Room, in Sharon Springs. I recognized it as “North Bath,” the (barely) fictionalized town in Richard Russo’s novel, Nobody’s Fool, which I’d just read. So then I read the sequel, Everybody’s Fool.

I previously reviewed Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere — a more accurate title would have been Momma’s Boy.

Nobody’s Fool was Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a decent everyman who does some foolish things. He reappears in the sequel, but the title character is Douglas Raymer, North Bath’s police chief. His wife died a year before, falling down stairs en route to leaving him for her lover. A “MacGuffin” in the book is a garage door opener Raymer finds, believing it will reveal that lover’s identity. (Some big spoilers ahead.)

This combines with an elaborate story about Raymer injuring his hand and obsessively scratching at the itchy wound — with the garage door opener becoming the perfect hand-scratcher. With a predictable denouement in someone’s garage. But by then, by process of elimination, the reader could already guess who that unmasked adulterer is.

All this may seem hokey. But this novel doesn’t aspire to be Crime and Punishment, it’s more like a comic book, and reasonably succeeds as such. Indeed, despite the obviously contrived action, it did succeed in engaging my emotions. I was even saying to myself, why is my heart pounding in response to this?

But speaking of crime and punishment, what I really want to discuss is the role in the book of the death penalty.

My wife and I watch some detective/crime shows. Now, the folks who write and produce them, and most novelists too, are presumably good intellectual liberals morally opposed to capital punishment. Yet normal humans are biologically programmed to crave justice and punishment for crimes. This plays out in their shows and books.

I’ve written about this before, in connection with a sci-fi novel: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/why-liberal-intellectuals-love-the-death-penalty/  Its author entered a comment saying he really does favors capital punishment!

While watching those mystery shows, my wife and I will debate whether capital punishment is coming: whether the murderer will be merely apprehended, or will die. The rule seems to be that run-of-the-mill baddies get caught while particularly heinous ones get killed.

Roy is a character in both Russo’s Fool novels, looming larger in the second. At first he seemed just a pathetic dumb loser. But gradually he’s revealed as a really nasty piece of work, a sociopath. And the reader’s thirst for punishment grows.

However, Roy hasn’t actually killed anyone. Yet. And capital punishment can be meted out only to killers. Then Roy spitefully almost kills his mother-in-law (a good person, who’d been much nicer to him than he deserved). She survives only because Sully shows up to whack Roy with a skillet. One aches for a second whack to finish the job, but Roy too survives and manages to slink away before the police arrive.

He’s been shacked up with an overweight sad sack, Cora, only because he’s got nothing else. She drives the getaway car. Roy treats her horribly and she takes it. You want him dead. But remember the rule: killers only.

Then he whacks Cora. Apparently only aiming to knock her out while he absconds with her car. But it seems Cora is dead. At least we’re not told otherwise in the remaining pages.

That sealed Roy’s fate, I felt sure. And my confidence was vindicated.

Meantime, though, Russo actually violates the rule of capital punishment for killers only. Well, technically. Another bad guy was in a hit-and-run, and tries to hide the body, but the victim actually recovers. There’s a long set-up to culminate in cosmic justice for this villain, by snakebite. Even though he didn’t totally kill anyone (that we know of); but I guess an author has the freedom to make any character die, if he wants.

Probability, coincidence, and the origin of life

November 30, 2019

The philosopher Epicurus was shown a wall of pictures — told, reverently, they portrayed sailors who, in storms, prayed to the gods and were saved. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed and drowned?”

He was exposing the mistake of counting hits and ignoring misses. It’s common when evaluating seemingly paranormal, supernatural, or even miraculous occurrences. Like when some acquaintance appears in a dream and then you learn they’ve just died. Was your dream premonitory? But how often do you dream of people who don’t die? As with Epicurus, this frequently applies to religious “miracles” like answered prayers. We count the hits and ignore the many more unanswered prayers.

I usually work with the radio on. How often do you think I’ll write a word while hearing the same word from the radio? (Not common words, of course, like “like” or “of course.”) In fact it happens regularly, every few days. Spooky? Against astronomical odds? For a particular word, like “particular,” the odds would indeed be very small. But the open-ended case of any word matching is far less improbable. Recently it was “Equatorial Guinea!” Similarly, the odds of any two people’s birthdays matching are about one in 365. But how many must there be in a room before two birthdays likely match? Only 23! This surprises most folks — showing we have shaky intuitions regarding probability and coincidence. Most coincidences are not remarkable at all, but expectable, like my frequent radio matches.

So what does all this have to do with the origin of life? I recently began discussing Dawkins’s book, The Blind Watchmaker, and life’s having (almost certainly) begun with a fairly simple molecular structure, naturally occurring, with the characteristic of self-duplication. Dawkins addresses our intuition that that’s exceedingly improbable.

The essence of evolution by natural selection is, again, small incremental steps over eons of time, each making beneficiaries a bit likelier to survive and reproduce. The replicator molecule utilized by all life is DNA,* which maybe can’t be called “simple” — but Dawkins explains that DNA could itself have evolved in steps, from simpler precursors —non-living ones.

Indeed, non-living replication is familiar to us. That’s how crystals form. They grow by repeating a molecular structure over and over. (I’ve illustrated one we own — trillions of molecules creating a geometrical object with perfectly flat sides.) Dawkins writes of certain naturally occurring clays with similar properties, which could plausibly have been a platform for evolving the more elaborate self-replicators that became life.

Maybe this still seems far-fetched to you. But Dawkins elucidates another key insight relevant here.

Our brains evolved (obviously) to navigate the environment we lived in. Our abilities to conceptualize are tailored accordingly, and don’t extend further (which would have been a waste of biological resources). Thus, explains Dawkins, our intuitive grasp of time is grounded in the spectrum of intervals in our everyday experience — from perhaps a second or so at one end to a century or two at the other. But that’s only a tiny part of the full range, which goes from nanoseconds to billions of years. We didn’t need to grasp those. Likewise, our grasp of sizes runs from perhaps a grain of sand to a mountain. Again, a tiny part of the true spectrum, an atom being vastly smaller, the galaxy vastly larger. Those sizes we never needed to imagine — and so we really can’t.

This applies to all very large (or small) numbers. Our intuitions about probability are similarly circumscribed.

If you could hypothetically travel to early Earth, might you witness life beginning — as I’ve explained it? Of course not. Not in a lifetime. The probability seems so small it feels like zero. And accordingly some people just reject the idea.

Suppose it’s so improbable that it would only occur once in a billion years. But it did have a billion years to happen in! Wherein a one-in-a-billion-year event is hardly unlikely.

The odds against winning the lottery are also astronomical. Our human capacity to grasp such probabilities is, again, so limited that many people play the lottery with no clue about the true smallness of their chances. Yet people win the lottery. And I had my “Equatorial Guinea” coincidence.

And what’s the probability that life did not evolve naturally, along general lines I’ve suggested, but was instead somehow deliberately created by a super-intelligent being of unimaginable power — whose existence in the first place nobody can begin to account for?

Surely zero; a childishly absurd idea. As Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, howsoever improbable, must be the truth. But the Darwinian naturalistic theory of life is not at all improbable or implausible. There’s tons of evidence for it. And even if there weren’t, Dawkins observes, it would still be the only concept capable of explaining life. Not only is it true, it must be true.

* That all living things use the same DNA code makes it virtually certain that all had a common ancestor. Your forebears were not, actually, monkeys; but the ancestors of all humans, and of all monkeys, were fish.

Christian destruction of the classical world

November 19, 2019

Hans-Friedrich Mueller is Professor of Ancient and Modern Languages at Union College. I heard (twice!) a talk he gave, based on a book by Catherine Nixey titled The Darkening Age — the Christian Destruction of the Classical World.

Nixey was brought up in a religious environment, and got the traditional “sunday school” story of Christian monks preserving, through the Dark Ages, the writings of the ancient world. She was shocked to find out that in fact such preservation was almost accidental and was overwhelmed by a much bigger tale of destruction and suppression. Her aim in writing was to present this other “untold” side of the story.

The religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans was what we call “pagan,” with a pantheon of deities like Zeus and Athena (Jupiter and Minerva to the Romans). Actually the word “pagan” was a Christian coinage intended to be derogatory; it derived from “pagus,” meaning “countryside.” Hence a religion of country bumpkins.

The change came when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (ruled 307-337 AD) converted to Christianity, making it now the state religion. But Professor Mueller observed that it’s actually hard to convince people to change their religion. He pointed to conflict in his own family concerning his marriage, involving two kinds of Christianity; and of course between paganism and Christianity there is a far bigger gulf. The conversion was accordingly achieved by much violence and repression.

Indeed, Mueller started by reading from Nixey’s account of what happened at Palmyra, a Syrian city, in 385 AD. “The destroyers came from out of the desert,” it began. A large “swarm” of Christian men, targeting everything pagan in Palmyra. Described in detail was the dismemberment of the beautiful marble statue of Athena, likened to a rape. “The triumph of Christianity had begun.”

In an unmistakeable reprise of this past, Palmyra’s ancient monuments were again ravaged, in 2016, by ISIS, with a quite similar religious impetus.

Hypatia was not a marble statue, but an actual woman, a notable philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, in Alexandria, Egypt. In 415 AD, she was lynched by a Christian mob at the direction of their bishop. Professor Mueller gave a graphic description but I will spare my readers here the ghastly details.

Meantime, however, we’ve all been told how Christians themselves had suffered persecution in prior centuries. This is part of the mythology Nixie sought to debunk. While the Romans did require everyone to partake in some pagan rituals, and executed refusers, this wasn’t a big thing. Mueller quotes a letter from the Emperor Trajan (98-116 AD) to a Roman governor, embodying a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Roman state practiced a whole lot more religious tolerance before Constantine’s conversion than afterward, with persecution of pagans far more severe than what Christians had experienced. Indeed, Christians persecuted each other far more, over doctrinal disputes.

Nixey thinks not only that Christianity’s triumph by violence and oppression was a crime, but also that something valuable was lost. Pagan religious practice was a part of civic community life, and may have accorded more holistically with human nature. Professor Mueller noted in particular that ancient pagans had more open attitudes about sexuality, that were probably healthier, in comparison to Christianity’s frankly twisted up doctrines.

The ancients more generally took religion less seriously, tending to view their gods as being merely symbological or metaphors. Poseidon, for example, was the personification of the sea. But most intelligent people were not so silly as to imagine the gods were actual beings. Religion was for them a way to acknowledge our context within the natural world. It was not something central to their lives, as it is for high octane modern Christians or Muslims, for whom god does play a big role in the world and in their lives.

The degree of violence and social upheaval experienced in past civilizations, as depicted in Professor Mueller’s talk, was actually pretty typical throughout human history. Our own societal dispensation, with its separation of church and state, ethos of tolerance, and constraints upon violence and other forms of governmental power, is something not to be taken for granted. Yet there are fools today actually trying to tear this down.

Also there’s a notion that modern monotheism is a somehow more advanced religion than silly childish paganism with belief in many deities. A humanist might agree only insofar as belief in just one god approaches the correct number.

End Road Work? No!

November 8, 2019

We’ve all seen those signs along highways, saying “End Road Work.” This movement seems very misguided. I can think of many things that should be ended, but road work surely isn’t one of them. In fact, most people would consider it a very good thing if not, indeed, vitally necessary. Having myself sustained a flat tire recently due to a pot hole, count me as strongly in support of road work. What can these people be thinking, wanting to end it?

Sure, it can be an annoyance, slowing up traffic. But traffic would ultimately become a lot slower if the campaign against road work succeeds! One of the many things about modernity we blithely take for granted is good serviceable roads. But there’s no free lunch, everything has a cost.

Maybe road work opponents have been confuzzled by all the rhetoric trying to soft-soap socialism, by claiming that anything government does is socialism. So they think road work is socialism. Well, I’d be happy to see it done by the private sector. But failing that, I still want roads repaired, even if it is socialism. There are a lot worse ways for government to use taxpayer money.

Fortunately, years of “End Road Work” signs seem to have had little or no impact on curtailing the practice. These foolish cranks should give up and find a different issue to protest about.

What is humanism?

October 28, 2019

Some religious voices assail humanism as a belief in nothing. Thus blamed for (supposed) moral rot; as if morality needs some supernatural basis. While labeling humanism just another religion or faith, no more provable than any other.

Humanism is not a religion or faith, but a philosophy, originating in ancient times with thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius, with a rebirth in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It’s a way of understanding life and the world, anchored in reason and reality. This does mean eschewing religious superstitions, all the deities, immortality, etc. But humanism is not simply nonbelief; it’s not believing in nothing.

To the contrary, humanists have strong beliefs — strong indeed by virtue of requiring no leap of “faith,” no suspension of disbelief. Humanism’s truths are self-evident:

All of existence comprises natural laws and processes; there’s no such thing as “supernatural.” Nature has no purpose; it just is. We ourselves are products of nature, evolved with minds enabling us to use reason and science to understand it, tackle our problems, aspire to justice, and shape our own destinies. Thus humanism believes in progress, taking pride in what we strive for and have achieved. Humanism is love for humanity.

Our earthly life is the only one we get; and nothing can ultimately matter except the feelings of beings that feel. This tells us our purpose is to make them as good as possible. Which gives our lives ample meaning, as well as providing the bedrock of morality — to enable every person, oneself included, to live fully and attain happiness. This means equality of human dignity, democracy, freedom of thought and expression.

It’s what our Declaration of Independence says. The Constitution’s preamble similarly targets human flourishing, with no deity mentioned. Thus was America founded not as a “Christian nation” but a quintessentially humanist one.

The humanism elucidated here is the essence of rationality and sanity. Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith. Believers act humanistically in battling for social justice. Even if you believe in an afterlife, nobody can be sure, and contemplating the possibility of earthly life’s finality spurs one to cherish it and improve it for all of us. Aiming to solve problems ourselves by confronting earthbound realities — rather than putting the whole burden on a deity who, if he does exist, probably has plenty to do.

It’s when we deviate from these humanistic paradigms that trouble brews. Religions, rooted in different cultures, with irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, are unending sources of conflict. Humanism offers a universal philosophy to unite us.

Death is tragic, but to live at all is a glorious gift. Only by coming to terms with the reality of our existence, as embodied in humanism, can we live authentically and meaningfully. “Being at one with everything” is a cliché of Buddhism; but I get a similar feeling from how my humanism grounds me in my engagement with life, the world, and humankind. It’s better than religion because it’s true.