Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Follow-up — Tony Milillo — The pathology of the hard left

May 21, 2019

My last post concerned abortion. I also put it on the Capital District Humanist Society’s Facebook page, where one Tony Milillo entered two comments — highly revealing and instructive. Here they are, in their entirety:

1. Well there you have it, according to Frank S. Robinson anyone who has an abortion from the end of the second trimester forward is killing a human being. And Frank “the expert on everything” also declares Roe v. Wade “a bad decision”. How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long? From what I can see, the best that can be said about this guy is he has far too much time on his hands and far too high an opinion of himself.

2. From bad to worse from Mr. Robinson: “Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.”

First notice that my essay’s mainly criticizing Republican pro-lifers isn’t good enough for Mr. Milillo; I’m as bad as they are because I’m not an absolutist pro-choice zealot. 

Then notice that, to fit me into his box, Mr. Milillo’s very first sentence grossly misrepresents what I wrote; imputes to me a view my essay explicitly contradicted. 

It set forth the reasons behind my thinking. But notice also that Mr. Milillo’s two comments contain not a single word of actual argument. As though his own rightness and my wrongness is a given. Indeed, his second comment simply quotes me. Case closed! Res ipsa loquitur! It’s self-evident I’m wrong, no need to explain why. 

And what we do get, in place of any reasoned argument, is a lot of insults.

Notice particularly this line: “How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long?” So he’s saying I should be blackballed. For failing a test of political correctness as decreed (though not actually explained) by Mr. Tony Milillo — who, incidentally, has never been seen at a meeting of said organization (in which I happen to fulfill three separate roles). I think the organization, which actually does adhere to the principles of humanism, including reasoned discourse, will not follow Mr. Milillo’s recommendation. 

This is why the left gets a rep for intolerance toward diversity of viewpoints. Believing in freedom of thought and expression, but only for themselves, all others be damned. Almost literally. 

Elsewhere, this same Mr. Milillo calls Joe Biden (another notorious deviant from Mr. Milillo’s catechism) “a fucking liar.” And what is the alleged lie? Biden’s comments to the effect that Republicans are human beings who can be reasoned with and who need to be kept in the fold of American society. Mr. Milillo goes on at great length disagreeing, explaining why Republicans are irredeemable. (Well, at least there’s some actual argument here.) But I’m not sure what Mr. Milillo’s solution is. Shooting them?

I’m a former lifelong Republican who hates what the party has become. But I agree with Biden that we must search for common ground. 

If guys like Mr. Milillo succeed in tearing down every voice that doesn’t gibe with their extremist hard left view, they will get Trump re-elected. Mr. Milillo’s kind of scorched-earth politics is tearing this country apart and will end in its destruction.


The cruel Republican abortion extremists

May 20, 2019

I’m not “pro-abortion.” My humanism valorizes the dignity of human life; and advancing it through reason (rather than religious dogma). My pre-med studies showed me that a one-month embryo is not a human being while a six-month fetus surely is. In between, it’s not clear-cut.

I don’t feel a liberal abortion regime strikes quite the right balance. There should be more recognition that a life growing inside a woman (however conceived) entails a responsibility toward that life, and at some point during gestation society may say it can’t be terminated. However, there can be many circumstances in which abortion is justified, occasionally even a late term abortion, and where prohibiting it wrongs a woman.

Roe v. Wade was a bad decision. The Supreme Court was stretching to make a legal issue of what was really a social one. Far better to have let social forces play out. A consensus was already growing in favor of liberalizing abortion laws. By short-circuiting that process, the Court created a monster, turning abortion into a horribly divisive issue. European nations more wisely resolved it through democratic means, avoiding the acrimony that has afflicted the U.S.

So should Roe be reversed? No, it’s far too late to put that toothpaste back in the tube. Indeed, reversing Roe would redouble the issue’s baneful political divisiveness. Vocal as its opponents are, there’s actually a pretty broad consensus in the country for reasonably permitting abortions in certain circumstances. The Court’s defying that public opinion would be seen as an affront to democratic legitimacy, a political minority abusing its power, shredding the Court’s aura of impartiality. Of course it could not actually outlaw abortions; only allow states to do so; many states would not. Nevertheless, such a ruling would be seen as blowing up something that had come to be an integral part of our societal culture.

In the culture wars, pro-lifers bash their opponents as endorsing the killing of fully developed babies. And pro-choice absolutists play into their hands by refusing to agree that late-term abortion shouldn’t generally be permitted. Some even sanction what could indeed amount to baby killing.

Now some Republican controlled states, notably Alabama and Missouri, have gone to the other extreme, virtually banning all abortions. Including even cases of rape or incest. Alabama slates a 99-year prison sentence for doctors!

Note that the party of “law and order,” supposedly worshipping the Constitution, is passing blatantly unconstitutional enactments. Unconstitutional, according to the currently prevailing law of the land, as declared by the Supreme Court. Of course, they’re hoping this will end in the Court changing that prevailing law, reversing Roe. It’s been their political obsession for decades.

To protect the sanctity of life, and unborn children? These Republicans care little for actual, born children. The states passing these laws have the nation’s most dreadful stats on child health, welfare, and poverty. While thousands of children are killed or injured annually thanks to these Republicans’ insane fetishizing of guns. Sanctity of life and protecting children?

They do profess that God inserts a soul into an embryo at conception. Put aside for a moment that God and souls don’t exist. But where in fact does the Bible say embryos are ensouled at conception? Noplace! Its prescientific authors knew nothing of embryology, eggs, sperm, or conception.

So even if you believe in God, this soul-at-conception doctrine is strictly a modern add-on to traditional religion — added just to fit the culture-war abortion issue. If they wanted to, the religious could equally well posit that the soul arises at birth.

Republicans also supposedly believe in freedom — but not the freedom to depart from that weird religious idea of theirs. Abortion differs from other political issues, like immigration, tax or trade policy, etc., which affect everyone. A stranger having an abortion does not. You’re entitled to your own idiosyncratic interpretation of religious doctrine, but what gives you a right to impose it on all women?

So why is this happening? Why, after all, do Republicans so obsess over abortion? I think the true, deep-down, unacknowledged motivator here is hatred for the idea of female autonomy.

Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.

That’s what it’s truly about. Not “sanctity of life” but sanctity of patriarchy. Women as second class human beings who ought to be under male control. And that control is to be imposed with unflinching cruelty. The extremist idea, in the Alabama and Missouri laws, of making abortions virtually unavailable, virtually regardless of circumstances, evinces a vindictive cruelty toward women uppity enough to think they should have some say about their own lives. Bring on The Handmaid’s Tale.

But I believe these Republican extremists, intoxicated with their power, knowing no bounds, overplay their hands. And it will wind up burning their own house down.

What are we saying when we talk?

May 18, 2019

That was the subject for a fascinating entry by “Johnson” (after Samuel), The Economist’s language columnist.

We typically say language is for communicating and conveying information. But the two are not the same. A study cited in the column found only 36% of utterances purport to be factual statements. The rest instead have social purposes; either as social lubricants or to convey something about the speaker.

Johnson cited for example Christians who might say, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus.” Maybe not an everyday conversational gambit. Anyhow, I’ve pointed out that what we think we believe and what we truly believe can differ. Johnson posits that a lot of Christians don’t really truly believe in the resurrection; rather they are saying, “I am a Christian and it is important that I say this.” The latter is what they aim to convey — not that the resurrection was real. I’d put it in terms of delineating one’s personal identity.

Then there’s Trump. Johnson notes his telling fans that the Obamas built a wall around their house. Turns out they didn’t. But for Trump and his audience that was irrelevant. He wasn’t actually telling them, “this is a fact.” Instead he was communicating something about himself. Something like, “I share your loathing for Obama, that n_____.”

Yet, with all due respect for Johnson, there’s really more going on with Trump, he’s a special case. Normal people have a filter to vet utterances before they come out. Trump doesn’t. Recently he said his father was born in Germany. Actually it was the Bronx. Why misstate such a thing? He denied having any role concerning Jared Kushner’s security clearance; it turns out he had a very big role. This is not just ordinary lying, but pathological lying. A disturbed relationship with reality. What comes out of his mouth at any given moment is what his brain thinks fits with his narrative of the moment — reality being irrelevant. One very sick puppy here.

And here’s another point Johnson didn’t make. We understand pretty well what the story is when buddies banter in a bar; and it’s fine. However, it’s different when the president of the United States speaks in public. His office invests him with an awesome trust and responsibility, his utterances are highly consequential. Furthermore, people have long believed “all politicians lie,” a vast overstatement, but this basic reflexive distrust makes it all the more incumbent upon a president to use the greatest care when speaking, doing everything possible to avoid misstatements. Trump’s doing the very opposite is corrosive to the relationship between citizens and their government; devastating to our civic discourse and our whole civic culture.

Those are factual statements.

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).

Cultural lies — or partial truths? David Brooks, individualism, and communitarianism

April 25, 2019

“We’ve created a culture based on lies,” David Brooks says, and they’re the roots of our political problems. Hence we need a cultural revolution more than a political one.

Brooks is the best columnist of our time. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking; not stereotypically “conservative.” A pet theme lately is individualism versus communitarianism. Brooks sees them as oppositional and advocates for the latter over the former. Thus his recent column about cultural “lies.” (

Western societies have indeed entered an age of individualism (“hyper-individualism” Brooks says). That was not an option for most people in most times, given social and economic constraints. Conformism reigned. Those bounds were loosened by Enlightenment humanism — recognizing that what life is really about is for each individual to achieve fulfillment in his or her own best way. And giving many at least conditions of life that free us to pursue that happiness.

I celebrate this. I live it. Blessedly enabled to enjoy a good life according to my own conception — idiosyncratic though it may be.

Is individualism at odds with communitarianism, as Brooks keeps arguing? It can be. He’s right that in some ways individualism can go too far and undermine the social foundation for truly living well. Case in point: an anti-vaxxer, privileging her belief of what’s good for her kid over society’s good. Giving us an epidemic of measles, previously thought eradicated.

But the word that keeps coming to my mind — absent from what Brooks says — is balance. Neither individualism nor communitarianism is wrong. Both are good. We must balance the two. Healthy balance is, indeed, itself key to a good life.

Much of my own seems quintessentially solitary. I’m scribbling this essay lounging alone out on my deck, soaking up sunshine. I love this. Likewise, my involvement with coins, also very solitary. But not solipsistic. Most of what I do would be devoid of meaning for me if not embedded in a world of other people. What confers meaning on my numismatic doings is other people ultimately appreciating the coins. I write to communicate ideas to others.

Such balanced perspective is missing from Brooks’s catalog of alleged cultural lies. Here are his headings: career success is fulfilling; I can make myself happy; life is an individual journey; keep your options open; you have to find your own truth; rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

The last is a no-brainer. But none of the others is a lie; rather, they are partial truths. Nuanced by, but not refuted by, what Brooks says about them.

For each he sacralizes the social, with individuation subordinated to it. It reads as though he wants us all to live like bees in a hive. As though the Enlightenment and mass individual empowerment never happened, or were bad things. And we should go back to the conformism imposed by past constraints.

“Find your own truth?” Fine if your name is Aristotle, Brooks dismissively says; we mostly get our values from our societal context. And of course that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Does Brooks seriously suggest thinking for oneself is never good? And “society” is always right? What about all those Germans who swallowed the values of Nazi society?

“Career success is fulfilling?” A lie? Brooks claims his making the best seller list “felt like . . . nothing.” Well — it wouldn’t have, for me, as an author, but maybe he’s a saint without an ego. But such success can admittedly be empty if that’s all there is to your life, with no human connectivity. No one on their deathbed says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” yet most aren’t sorry they ever went. Many of us do get much fulfillment from work, it gives our lives meaning —  in great part precisely because of its larger social context. Utilizing our abilities productively is empowering, but we also feel we earn our pay because the work contributes to some greater good. Isn’t that the very thing Brooks urges on us?

Similar points apply to Brooks’s other “lies.” They’re not lies but partial truths — for each one he ignores something important.

The fact is that social life is integral to human existence. Just like bees evolved for hive life, we evolved for group life. However, there’s a lot more to us than to bees, and while community does fill needs for us, we also have needs as individuals. They’re not incompatible. We can strive to fulfill both.

Notre Dame and humanism

April 16, 2019

I was surprised at my depth of emotion at the news about Notre Dame (initially it sounded like total destruction).

I’m a humanist, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. When I heard it mentioned that de Gaulle, after liberation in 1945, went to Notre Dame to thank God, I said he should have thanked America.

Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.

A great monument of human civilization. That was what hit me so hard. More than tragedies with lives lost. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique and seemed eternal. So integral to the Human story, to lose it is unimaginable.

Part of Notre Dame’s heritage, and part of that story, is Victor Hugo’s great 1831 novel — always conjured for me by the cathedral’s image. Conjuring up the world of its construction, and the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel, yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.

I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn’t watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo’s deformity. I’d known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.

As an adult I read the book. What Hugo did was quite extraordinary: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one’s take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most alien-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world’s unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.

The novel’s final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, “The Marriage of Quasimodo” — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.

This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.


My pro basketball experience

March 31, 2019

This pic of me at the game didn’t come out so good

Last Sunday we went to Boston for a Celtics game. I’m no sports fan. In fact, the last pro sports event I attended was a Dodgers baseball game. When they were still in Brooklyn (and Ike was president).

But my wife is a basketball aficionado, and we’ve been hosting a gal from Somaliland who plays it in high school. So I went with them.


I really enjoyed the fan-cam and people’s reactions seeing themselves on the jumbotron. Most didn’t immediately realize they were having their fifteen nanoseconds of fame. A few never did, eyes glued to their phones. Most did exuberant dancing and arm-waving. One woman grabbed her husband’s head and kissed him on the lips. But I thought the most romantic one was the gal holding up a sign saying, “Marcus Smart will you marry me?” — until (silly me) I learned Smart is a Celtics player, not (presumably) her inamorata.

The game itself was less entertaining. Very much the same thing repeated over and over. Speaking of repetition, the jumbotron kept showing the word “DEFENSE” in giant block letters crashing down and crushing a bunch of what appeared to be pick-up sticks. And the crowd would duly pick up the chant, “DEFENSE! DEFENSE!” I waited, in vain, for a little offense; especially as the Celtics’ defense was being crushed by the San Antonio Spurs.


They lost 486 to 9. Or something like that.


I am no basketball expert. Yet I could have advised one thing to improve their score: doing free throws underhand (“granny style”) rather than overhead. Studies have in fact been done, and it’s proven that the former gives a higher success rate. Yet players universally ignore this. Why? They think it looks girly, not macho. So Vince Lombardi was actually wrong — winning isn’t the only thing.


Anyhow, some fans were deflated by the Celtics’ drubbing. Some even left early, in disgust, or perhaps to avoid the traffic crush. But most seemed to have a good time nevertheless. Even sports nuts ultimately understand that these games are Not Really Truly Important. They’re harmless. At least we no longer gather in stadiums to watch combatants literally kill each other. And at least these Celtics fans wore green hats, not red ones, and their chants weren’t hateful.

And I achieved my own personal goal for the evening: home and snug in bed by 1:30 AM.

Szukalski: the glory and strangeness of the human experience

March 18, 2019

We stumbled upon this fantastical Netflix documentary: Struggle — The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.

Glenn Bray stumbled upon a fantastical volume in a bookstore in 1968. Bray was into various artsy stuff. This book, published in 1923, contained work by a Polish artist, Stanislav Szukalski, whom Bray had never heard of — and it blew him away. He showed the book to anyone who would look.

Then in 1971, in another California bookstore he recognized a Szukalski poster. Inquiring, he was told it was a gift from the artist, still living — in fact, quite nearby!

In obscurity. His monumental artistic career forgotten. Bray became the nexus of a new friendship circle around him, filmed many hours of Szukalski holding forth, and eventually published a book trying to revive interest in him. This documentary was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987) was born in Poland, coming to America as a child. An artistic prodigy, primarily in sculpture, he became a leading figure in the 1920s Chicago avant garde art scene. What’s shown in the film is fantastic and fantastical. Not effete mannered works but their antithesis — bold dramatic images that grab you by the balls. (Or by the —– if you are female.)

Szukalski’s style was much influenced by ancient Mesoamerican art. But Polish identity was also central. Repeatedly traveling back and forth to Poland, he saw himself as the inspirator for a Polish national renaissance. His country had only gained independence after WWI, then becoming a nationalistic authoritarian state. Szukalski fit right in, his works infused with grandiose mythologizing. In the 1930’s, summoned by the regime to become its artistic star, he moved (seemingly) permanently back to Poland. Flooded with commissions for stupendous works, he became a revered national icon.

Even the German regime took notice and solicited Szukalski to immortalize Hitler. He agreed and pocketed the check; then delivered an image of Hitler in a ballerina costume. The Germans were not amused.

Yet a darkness seemed immanent in the film, and it duly materialized. In Poland Szukalski published a virulently anti-semitic periodical. The film-makers hadn’t known this when they’d started. Actually, Szukalski seemed to exude contempt not just for Jews but for all other artists, and indeed for all other humans apart from himself and his beloved wife Joan.

In 1939, Nazi aerial bombing obliterated much of Warsaw — including Szukalski’s studio, and with it, most of his lifetime artistic output. Two days later he literally crawled out from under the rubble. Eventually he and Joan arrived back in America; with nothing.

He was never able to put his public artistic career back on track, and spent the next half century in Southern California, subsisting mostly from odd jobs, never feeling at home.

Meantime the holocaust of WWII seemed to sear out his anti-semitism, turning him into something of a universalist humanist.

Meantime too, while his public artistic career did end, his private one did not. Szukalski spent four decades on his grand project, an effort to tie all of history together into one unified story, through art. He called it “Zermatism,” based on his idea that ground zero for the spread of human civilization was . . . Easter Island. (Actually one of the most isolated places on Earth.) He also believed we’re the product of primordial rapes by apelike yetis, accounting for all our ugly qualities.

This is pure crackpottery. Similar grand syntheses have long been a common enterprise for loopy autodidacts. That sad species was personified by Middlemarch’s Casaubon, who spent his life researching his projected masterwork, “a key to all mythologies.” When he died before completing it, his widow attempted to organize his notes and drafts, and found it all rubbish.

In Szukalski’s case, he produced homemade volumes filling a bookcase, with 25,000 pages and 14,000 meticulous and beautiful self-drawn illustrations. All identifying parallels among artistic images from disparate cultures. (Of course such parallels, even striking ones, are inevitable just from chance, if you compare many thousands of images.)

Yet his actual achievement remains. While much of his Polish output was destroyed, much was photographed, and other works survive elsewhere. A stupendous artistic legacy. Truly, Szukalski went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Sex, religion, and perversion

February 14, 2019

It started with civilization’s Middle Eastern beginnings, with the idea not that sex is dirty, exactly, but that afterwards you had to cleanse yourself, as part of an overall purification, before communing with the divine. But, as people will, some eventually carried this idea to an extreme, seeing sex as indeed dirty altogether.

There was a slight problem, inasmuch as sex was necessary for procreation (which everybody thought good). Well, okay, they said, so sex is acceptable but only for making babies, not to gratify lust. This is the Adam-and-Eve story. God did tell them to be fruitful, but Adam’s sin was doing it lustily rather than mere dispassionate fulfillment of duty. And note that it’s usually called Adam’s sin. There’s a reason. Ancient peoples didn’t read their biology books. They thought impregnation entailed a miniature person, in the sperm, being seeded into the woman’s body. They didn’t understand her genetic contribution. So while Adam’s “sin” was transmitted down the generations via repeated lustful couplings, that was only through the male line. Thus, voila, Jesus — immaculately conceived without sperm — was born free of original sin! Neat!

Eventually though, the Church realized this didn’t square with biology. So to fix the story, they belatedly (in 1854) posited that Mary too was — somehow — herself immaculately conceived.

You might be confused here, thinking the original sin was not lust but disobeying God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Same thing, said Saint Augustine (around 400 AD). The whole convoluted nonsense about “original sin” is traceable to him. Because he was tortured by his idea that the lust he himself experienced was a dirty sin that kept him from true communion with God. And, as Augustine’s legacy, Christians to this day torture themselves over this.

This attitude is itself a kind of sexual perversion. It loads ordinary, natural sex acts with a meaning and significance that make no sense. And, by the way, if humans were made in God’s image, does She feel lust? How does she handle it?

But actually we are products of biology. Even if you close your eyes to evolution, you cannot close them to biology, and the role of genes — with their be-all and end-all the promotion of reproduction.

One thing an organism needs to do to reproduce is to eat. Obviously. But (with very few exceptions) organisms aren’t smart enough to realize that. They need to be programmed by genes to eat; otherwise they’d just die without knowing why. So genes make organisms feel hunger, and feel good when eating.

What has this to do with sex? Everything. Would organisms even think of copulating (a pretty bizarre activity, really) if not biologically programmed to feel the analog of hunger, i.e., lust, and to feel good when satisfying it?

Nobody thinks hunger and eating are dirty or sinful. That would be nuts. So by what logic are the analogous lust and sex deemed sinful? Only by Augustine’s very twisted thinking.

Well, sex does bring a second person into the picture, which complicates matters. There’s always the key principle against gratifying oneself at another’s expense. So rape is a sin. Likewise assuaging hunger by eating another person. But that wouldn’t mean feeling hunger, or sexual desire, are themselves wrong. Only gratifying them in wrongful ways could be. (Which we don’t need God to tell us.)

Yet we so get our knickers in a twist over lust. The irrationality is exemplified by masturbation. Here (generally speaking) there’s no issue of harm to others.

An offense against God? Of course there’s no God, but even if there were, what kind of perverted human logic imputes to her a disapproval of self-gratification? What kind of perverted God would create us with powerful sex drives and punish us for expressing them in harmless ways that come naturally? It’s all hopelessly fucked up.

The ancient idea that conversation with the divine requires purification eventually got transmogrified into the Catholic Church’s priestly celibacy. As though sex is so profoundly dirty that no amount of pre-liturgical cleansing could suffice, hence our interlocutors with divinity must abjure sex altogether. So crazy extreme is this idea that the unsurprising result is to attract into the priesthood a disproportionate share of men whose own relationships with their sexuality are messed up.

Indeed, with more than just sexuality. There’s something deeply awry in the souls of men who ostensibly dedicate their lives to God’s work yet somehow convince themselves molesting choir boys is okay. Or that protecting rapists somehow serves God. Still holding themselves out as moral shepherds of their flocks. And what of the sheep who look to such men as their shepherds?

The Catholic Church may be a special case, but other faiths have similar fundamental hang-ups about sex. They condemn homosexuality as a sinful perversion, while loading up on guilt even over normal heterosexual feelings. Thus denying gays — and themselves as well — the right to feelings which cannot be willed away. Who are the real perverts?

Evolution by natural selection is a fact

February 5, 2019

My recent “free will” essay prompted some comments about evolution (on the Times-Union blog site.) One invoked (at verbose length) the old “watchmaker” argument. Nature’s elegant complexity is analogized to finding a watch in the sand; surely it couldn’t have assembled itself by random natural processes. There had to be a watchmaker.

This argument is fallacious because a watch is purpose-built and nature is not. Not the result of a process aimed at producing what we see today; instead one that could just as well have produced an infinity of alternative possibilities.

Look at a Jackson Pollock painting and you could say that to create precisely this particular pattern of splotches must have (like the watch) taken an immense amount of carefully planned work. Of course we know he just flung paint at the canvas. The complex result is what it is, not something Pollock “designed.”

Some see God in a similar role, not evolution’s designer but, rather, just setting it in motion. Could life have arisen out of nowhere, from nothing? Or could the Universe itself? Actually science has some useful things to say about that — better than positing a God who always existed or “stands outside time and space,” or some such woo-woo nonsense. And for life’s beginnings, while we don’t have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed (the earliest life could not have left fossils), we do know the basic story:

Our early seas contained an assortment of naturally occurring chemicals, whose interactions and recombinations were catalyzed by lightning, heat, pressure, and other natural phenomena. Making ever more complex molecules, by the trillion. One of the commonest elements is carbon, very promiscuous at hooking up with other atoms to create elaborate combinations.

Eventually one of those had the property of duplicating itself, by glomming other chemical bits floating by, or by splitting. Maybe that was an extremely improbable fluke. But realize it need only have happened once. Because each copy would go on to make more, and soon they’d be all over the place.

However, the copying would not have been perfect; there’d be occasional slight variations; with some faulty but also some better at staying intact and replicating. Those would spread more widely, with yet more variations, some yet more successful. Developing what biologist Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, called “survival machines.” Such as a protective coating or membrane. We’ve discovered a type of clay that spontaneously forms such membranes, which moreover divide upon reaching a certain size. So now you’ve got the makings of a primitive cell.

Is this a far-fetched story? To the contrary, given early Earth’s conditions, it actually seems inevitable. It’s hard to imagine it not happening. The 1952 Miller-Urey experiment reproduced those conditions in a test tube and the result was the creation of organic compounds, the “building blocks of life.”

That’s how evolution began. The duplicator molecules became genes (made of DNA). Their “survival machines” became organisms. That’s what we humans really are, glorified copying machines. A chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.

Of course DNA and genes, and Nature itself, do nothing with conscious purpose. Replicators competing with each other is simply math. Imagine your computer screen with one blue and one red dot. And a program saying every three seconds the blue dot will make another blue dot; but the red one will make two. Soon your screen will be all red.

A parable: A king wishes to bestow a reward, and invites the recipient to suggest one. He asks for a single rice grain — on a chessboard’s first square — then two on the second — and so on. The king, thinking he’s getting away cheaply, readily agrees. But before even reaching the final square, it’s all the rice in the kingdom.

This is the power of geometric multiplication. The power of genes replicating, in vast numbers, over vast time scales. (A billion years is longer than we can grasp.) And recall how genes are effectively in competition because occasionally their copies are imperfect (“mutations”), so no two organisms are exactly identical, and some are better at surviving and reproducing. Those supplant the others, just like red supplanted blue on your computer screen. But the process never stops, and in the fulness of time, new varieties evolve into new species. It’s propelled by ever-changing environments, requiring that organisms adapt by changing, or perish. This is evolution by natural selection.

Fossils provide indisputable proof. It’s untrue that there are “missing links.” In case after case, fossils show how species (including humans) have changed and evolved over time. (The horse is a great example. My illustration is from a website actually denying horse evolution, arguing that each of the earlier versions was a stand-alone species, unrelated to one another!)

We even see evolution happening live. Antibiotics changed the environment for bacteria. So drug-resistant bacteria rapidly evolved. Once-rare mutations enabling them to survive antibiotics have proliferated while the non-resistant are killed off.

Note that evolution doesn’t mean inexorable progression toward ever more complex or “higher” life forms. Again, the only thing that matters is gene replication (remember that red computer screen). Whatever works at causing more copies to be made is what will evolve. Humans evolved big brains because that happened to be a very successful adaptation. If greater simplicity works better, then an animal will evolve in that direction. There are in fact examples of this.

Another false argument against evolution is so-called “irreducible complexity.” Author Michael Behe claimed something like an eye could never have evolved without a designer because an incomplete, half-formed eye would be useless, conferring no advantage on an organism. In fact eyes did evolve through a long process beginning with light-sensitive cells that were primitive motion detectors, not at all useless. They did entail a survival advantage, albeit small, but it multiplied over eons, and improved by gradual incremental tweaks. So the eye, far from rebutting evolution, thus beautifully illustrates how evolution actually proceeds, and refutes any idea of intelligent design.

In fact, because our eyes did evolve in the undirected the way they did, they’re very sub-optimal. A competent designer would have done far better. He would not have put the wiring in front of the light-sensitive parts, blocking some light, nor bunched the optic nerve fibers to cause a blind spot. So we can’t see well in dim light. Some other animals (like squids) have much better eye design. And wouldn’t a really intelligent design include a third eye in the back?

Evolution by natural selection is the one great fact of biology. Not merely the best explanation for what we see in Nature, but the only possible rational explanation, and one that explains everything. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”