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.

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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.)

An immodest proposal for reducing inequality

December 15, 2018

Inequality — the cri de coeur of the left. The rich get richer while the poor get . . . actually richer too, in fact, though not as fast. We should stop obsessing enviously that the top 1% or 0.1% are so rich, as if their wealth makes others poor (it’s not so). Instead, the concern should be to give more people more opportunities to get rich(er).

America’s real inequality is between the well educated and the less educated. And that gap inexorably grows as the economy increasingly demands smart workers. So education ought to be the big equalizer. But U.S. education does the opposite — instead of giving the poor a hand up, it slaps them down. The education they get is worse than what the better-off receive.

And they only get it for half the year! What with weekends, holidays, and, mainly, the summer vacation which — at three months in America — is just about the world’s longest.

Fixing all that’s wrong in education for poorer kids is a huge challenge. But here’s one extremely simple thing we could do: cut the summer break. The education poor children get isn’t what it should be, but it’s better than nothing, yet for three months of the year we do give them nothing.

Poor kids fall further behind during those months. Studies have shown that such a prolonged hiatus causes children to lose a lot of what they learned in the preceding term. Affluent parents can offset this with enriching summer activities, which poorer ones can’t afford. Even just letting kids range free outdoors can aid development, but even this is curtailed by safety fears (largely overblown; though in the worst neighborhoods it is indeed dangerous for kids to be in the streets). Summer jobs too have largely become a thing of the past. The result is that poorer kids often spend summers as couch potatoes, rotting their brains.

A 2007 Baltimore study found the summer learning fall-off could account for two-thirds of the achievement gap between rich and poor students, by their mid-teens.

It even actually makes poor families poorer. During summers their kids miss free meals in schools, so their grocery bills rise, and they face added child care costs too.

Lengthening the school year would cost money, but would benefit all American children — the poor especially, reducing the opportunity gap. We can afford the added cost. Indeed, this investment in our kids and their future ability to contribute to the economy would surely more than pay for itself in the long run.

At the very least, we ought to do much more to provide summer activities, including meals, for poorer kids. Instead, Trump (who in the campaign challenged black Americans, “what the hell have you got to lose?”) has sought to cut all funding for such programs from the federal budget. Better educated citizens aren’t good for today’s Republican party.

Fear and Loathing in France and Britain

December 11, 2018

France is having a meltdown; a toddler’s screaming tantrum, pounding its fists and kicking its legs. Convulsed with truly scary violence around protests against Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

I used to be contemptuous of France and its politics (here’s an example). Then in 2017 they had a fit of seeming sense, electing an actually good president, with 66% of the vote no less — a landslide of proportions unheard of in America. After that, his brand-new party swept parliamentary elections too. But this revolution wasn’t all it seemed. In the presidential contest’s first round, Macron got only 24%, just enough to make the runoff, which he won only because the other candidate was utterly beyond the pale. (Though just such a candidate was elected in America.) Macron’s new party romped because the French had lost all faith in the old ones.

Still, Macron did win with pledges of long-overdue reforms to juice France’s anemic economy. (Unemployment is 9%, due in good part to an over-regulated labor market.) But the French are like St. Augustine who said, “God, make me chaste, but not yet.” So France has a repetitive history of presidents rolling out reforms, followed by eruption in the streets, followed by presidential capitulation. Macron vowed this would not be his story too.

Then the streets duly erupted. The immediate issue was a fuel tax, but the deeper complaint is the idea that Macron is out-of-touch and his reforms benefit the rich. Those actually protesting may be a small minority, but most French citizens back them. Contrary to his brave vow, Macron folded on the fuel tax. However, that’s seen as too little, too late, and the violence continues. On Monday he made a speech offering more concessions. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Meantime in Great Britain —

I wrote in August recapping the Brexit picture. Parliament was supposed to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal with the European Union. But she cancelled the vote because it was clear she’d lose, badly. Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum were delusional in imagining Britain could keep the benefits of the EU while freeing itself of the drawbacks. It turns out to be the reverse. The best deal May could get is clearly worse, all around, than the status quo. The Europeans are unbudging. But Brexiteers, still unable to face up to the hard reality, are screaming “betrayal” at May.

How can this mess be resolved? Britain should have a new referendum question — accept the deal on offer or stay in the EU. The latter would likely win. But Brexit zealots probably won’t allow such a vote. The deadline is March 29, and Britain now seems headed for crashing out of the EU without any deal — an economic nightmare. Meantime May’s hold on power hangs by a thread, within her own Conservative party. While waiting to take over is the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A very bad man whose accession would consummate Britain’s national suicide.

What do the French and British situations have in common? Citizen bloody-mindedness. Unreasonableness. Irresponsibility. Wanting what they want without regard to sense and reality.

The French overwhelmingly elected a government but refuse to let it govern. The Brits still refuse to give up the utter folly of Brexit.

And what about America? Trump has jeered at Macron’s poll ratings; elected with 66%, he’s now fallen to an abysmal 20%, while Trump remains at 40%. Is Macron really worse than Trump?! But if the French are fickle, America has the opposite problem. Trump’s steady poll numbers, in the face of his presidency’s total train-wreck, bespeaks a different and worse pathology. At least the French are reacting (if wrongly) to what they see is happening. The 40% of Americans backing Trump refuse to see what’s happening.

Here is the problem of democracy (which the Chinese regime smugly points to). Democracy’s weakness is not politicians behaving badly, it’s voters behaving badly. Politicians only march to voters’ tunes. In all three countries — France, Britain, America — and, alas, many others — voters have been behaving very badly indeed.

Why? A big subject. But read this past blog post for part of the answer; a review of a book titled The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell, today’s culture encourages the narcissism of thinking your opinions are as good as anyone’s.

Well (sigh), democracy is still better than authoritarian regimes (like China’s) with government not accountable to citizens at all.

Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

“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.

George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.

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

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.