Monthly Archives: November 2009

Why is the moon round?

Something dreadful happens to students between first and twelfth grades, and it’s not just puberty – the interest in science that is there in the first grade is beaten out of them by twelfth grade. And I think part of it is that there are adults who are nervous about being asked penetrating question by young people, and so they give offputting answers. “Why is the moon round?” “Well, what did you expect it to be, square?” Instead of encouraging the child – it’s a deep question, why is the moon round? It can get to the nature of gravitation, central forces, the strength of materials, there’s so much in there if you wanted to pursue it. And likewise all those other wonderful questions that kids ask – why do we have toes, what’s the birthday of the world, how deep could you dig a hole, and so on. Every one of those is an aperture to exciting children with their natural aptitude of interest in science, exciting that and encouraging them not necessarily to be professional scientists, but to be citizens who have a responsible role in dealing with science. We have a society based on science and technology, and at the same time we’ve arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That’ s a prescription or disaster as clear as anything.

-Carl Sagan

Am I the only one who looks forward to answering, or trying to answer, these sorts of “silly” questions? The child is a wonderfully blank slate, coming into this world with only rudimentary instincts and a fierce desire to learn. Each generation is born ignorant of history and how the world works. Is not the process of reeducating the entire human species one child at a time terribly exciting?

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An Ecological Approach to Mental Health

link

…how come we so often ignore to consider that many mental issues that arise (such as phobias, anxieties, bad habits, low self-esteem) are learned behaviors, not causes of a biological disturbance…

…the 2008 American Psychological Association President Stephen Sharfstein released a statement saying psychiatrists had “allowed the biopsychosocial model to become the bio-bio-bio model.”

…We need to also accept that first and foremost psychology is a social science; we need to study humans in the context of their whole environment and being, not just inside their brains.

Right on! In his latest book, which I highly recommend, Alva Noë concurs that we are not just ours brains, but rather, embodied brains interacting with a complex environment. The difference sounds like mere semantics, but it makes all the difference in the world!

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Being-in-the-modern-world

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In Defense of the Philosopher

Click here

[S]cience depends on philosophical assumptions that are outside the scope of empirical validation, but philosophical investigations should be informed by the best science available in a range of situations, from metaphysics to ethics and philosophy of mind…

Why, then, not admit that by far the most effective way to reject religious nonsense is bycombining science and philosophy, rather than trying to arrogate to either more epistemological power than each separate discipline actually possesses?

Love this post!

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An Evolutionary Argument for Atheism

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The Reformed Epistemologist wants you to think that theism and atheism are on the same epistemic grounds. That is, theism is just as rational as atheism because it is properly basic. A properly basic belief can be rationally held without evidential argumentation given it is grounded by a pragmatic functionality. In other words, if you grew up in a theistic community, you are epistemically warranted to believe whatever you want provided you can cope well and your belief  isn’t easily knocked down by argumentation. Ultimately, the Reformed Epistemologist wants you to think that both atheism and theism, being propositionally counter to each other, are more or less taken on faith.This post concerns an intuition pump I’ve been thinking about for many years, but never tried to write down, that argues against this thesis. I will essentially argue against the Reformed Epistemologist by claiming that atheism is the epistemic default for the ideally educated person.

First, let us imagine an incredibly intelligent human being, ignorant of all possible knowledge concerning the history of religion, but capable of extraordinarily rapid learning. If we put her to the task of learning everything there is to know about the history of religion, what would she have to say about the epistemic status of a supreme being? Through a hypothetical time-portal, she would have at her finger tips all possible knowledge about the evolutionary development of religion. She would watch a lifeless, dead world, inhospitable to life and forsaken by God, spring into organic activity through chemical necessity. She would watch our genetic heritage crawl through time at a glacial pace, struggling for life but developing intelligence and technology slowly over time. As we edged closer to the dawn of historical consciousness, our ideal scholar would watch how our ancestors brains lighted up with divine commands in roughly the same way schizophrenics experience it today.

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Indeed, our ideal scholar, studying the history of religion, would simultaneously discover the birth of schizophrenia and command hallucinations wherein humans experience external voices with authoritarian personalities issuing admonitory commands and critical judgement. I have never experienced such hallucinations, but I imagine the effect on a Paleolithic human would be momentous. Let us not immediately scoff at such a notion lest we forget the Bible and religious history in general is littered with references to hearing the awesome voice of God in quite a literal fashion.

But aren’t I rigging the game by assuming that the root of religion is hallucinatory, and thus natural? I reply, if the game is rigged, then so is reality itself. For if our ideal scholar was to spread out before her mind all the spits and spurts of religious development in all the various cultures of our world, she would see a vast sea of schizoidal behavior coupled with context-dependent ritual and myth. She would see the birth of ancestor worship, witchcraft, oracles, divining, animism, shamanism, goddess worship, steward-gods, Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek and Roman polytheism, Judaism, Islam, Gnosticism,  Christianity (and all its schisms), Mormonism,  cult worship, occultism, Scientology, etc.

Imagine our scholar looking at ALL that, at all the cultural complexity, all the historical twists and turns, at the social construction of divine being, of the priesthood and middle men, at the shamans, the trickery, deception, ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia, psychological and physical torture, indoctrination, cultural determinism, etc. Can anyone seriously entertain the intuition that our scholar would think it necessary to introduce a divine agent as an explanatory hypothesis for any of that history? Could we not, in principle, account for everything in naturalistic, atheistic terms? Could we not plainly see how it was humans who created God and not the over way around?

Coming back to Reformed Epistemology then, can we give a conclusion regarding the supposedly equal epistemic status of theism and atheism? We assumed before that the atheist was simply the propositional opposite of the theist. The theist says “I know there is a God” and the atheist says “I know there is no God.” Right? Wrong. The most logically consistent atheist will never make a positive claim about the existence of God. On the contrary, the negative atheist simply says “I lack a belief in God for various reasons.” This is not a dogmatic position. Even if our ideal scholar looked at all the evidence for and against God’s existence, studied the history of religion, and said “The evidence is inconclusive; I make no decision” she would be an atheist given she lacks a positive belief in God on account of the evidence being inconclusive. The negative atheist position is thus the epistemic default from the standpoint of cultural ignorance. And if the ideally educated person would be atheistic, then the Reformed Epistemologist’s trump card of “pragmatic functionality” is useless in light of historical consciousness.

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CFP: 2nd Annual LSU Philosophy Conference

We are pleased to announce:

The 2nd Annual LSU ‘Mardi Gras’ Philosophy Conference:

Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
February 19-20th, 2010

Keynote Speakers:

Dr. Edward Casey, SUNY Stony Brook
“A Matter of Edge: Border vs. Boundary at La Frontera.”

Dr. David Wood, Vanderbilt University
“Can Art Save the Earth?”

This conference is open to all undergraduates and graduates. However, we will be looking for graduate-level work and only the best papers will be selected for presentation. This conference is open to any topic, but creative philosophical work in encouraged.

Please submit papers intended for 30 minutes of presentation/questions (do not exceed 15 pages). Send papers as an attachment in Word, but remove your name to facilitate blind review. Include name, paper title, university affiliation, level of education and contact information (phone and email) in your email. Please email papers to ajoh147@tigers.lsu.edu by December 15th.

This conference was funded by PSIF and the LSU Philosophy Department. It is organized by the graduate students in the Philosophy Department, at LSU.

Please contact the Graduate Advisory Committee with any questions: Andrew Johnson ajoh147@tigers.lsu.edu; Megan Lann meganlann@gmail.com; or Gary Williams garystevenwilliams@gmail.com.

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Thoughts on the Future of Human Development

I find that reading Carl Sagan’s prose often inspires me to, as he would put it, think cosmically. Such thinking is universal in scale. It requires a mind bathed in the ideals of progress (a recent concept) and the possibility of progressive self-understanding. Human thought has been stuck in a terrestrial rut for too long, thinking in terms of earthly territory, aggression, and xenophobic alienation. To think cosmically involves a new set of classificatory parameters when thinking humanity. Instead of understanding herself in terms of tribal significations, the cosmic mind understands that she is, fundamentally, a human being, a cousin to all other organisms, kin to a primordial ancestor, born in the cradle of Earth. This is not a New Age proclamation; organic relatedness is a scientific fact. The implications of this thought strike me as fundamentally constitutive for a new human understanding, one seen implicitly in the organic religions of East and Martin Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world.

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Under such an understanding, typical of Buddhism, particularly Zen, the organism cannot be intelligently thought apart from its orientation within a natural ecological niche. The fundamental metaphysical lesson of Eastern philosophy (and Heidegger) then is that one cannot properly think the flower independently of the ground in which it finds support. In the same way that soil is necessary for flowers, the environment is necessary for an organism. This lesson reverberates throughout our entire conceptual landscape: back and front, top and bottom, yin and yang, self and other, I and world. Similarly, if we are to think the essence of humanity, and of organic being in general, we must realize that having-a-home is constitutive for our average mode of existence.

Historically, the human home has been constrained by limitations of geography and territory. Our home-of-homes has almost always been where we dwell; where we eat, sleep, and socialize. But as civilization developed, self-identity expanded with the rise of nation-states and the politics of identity. The size of our “tribe”  grew enormously in response to a self-consciousness of ethnicity, linguistic heritage, and political/religious identity.  Our home became synonymous with cultural boundaries, most notably language, habit, and superficial appearance (skin, clothing, hair style, etc.).We became not just sons of our fathers, but of the Fatherland, and ultimately, of deities. But as Sagan points out,

The old appeals to racial sexual religious chauvinism and to rabid nationalist fervor are beginning not to work. A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet. One of the great revelations of the age of space exploration is the image of the earth finite and lonely, somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.

It gives me great hope that the destruction of all irrational boundaries between ourselves and everything else is the next logical step in the progressive expansion of human self-understanding. To see ourselves as not just countrymen, but as Earthmen, as humans, ultimately, children of the stars, of Earth. And as Sagan was oft to say, “If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” Any self-respecting human should be deeply humbled and deeply intrigued by such an image. The exploratory drive etched into our brains cannot help but stir at such a thought. Deeply embedded into the DNA of every average human being is an insatiable curiosity, an exploratory fever driven by our species’ long history of never staying in one place for too long. We see this exploratory curiosity naturally in young children:

Exploration is constitutive of human being. Moreover, humans explore territories unreachable by our cousin organisms. We can, for example, explore the boundaries of language, playing with meaning and metaphor, creating new words and concepts, saying and thinking what has never been said or thought in the history of the universe. We explore the horizons of our selves, minds, and memories, investigate the corridors of history, the mind-numbing expanse of stars and galaxies,  introspect the space within and perceive the world without. We explore reality with science, with poetry, filmography, bodies and brains. In this way, humans are both extraordinarily similar and dissimilar with other animals. Accordingly, it really doesn’t surprise me that Creationism was widespread before evolutionary theory offered an alternative, naturalistic explanation of where the Earth and ourselves came from. Everyone is born ignorant of our cosmic history and the failure of education leads naturally to the supposition of divinity. When we peer inside our selves, the bottomless complexity is staggering to the point of inducing hasty philosophical conclusions. But though we are not divine, we do hold the future in our hands. It is a fragile little thing, but our most prized possession.To end this post with a quotation,

I detest all systems that depreciate human nature. If it be a delusion that there is something in the constitution of man that is venerable and worthy of its author, let me live and die in that delusion, rather than have my eyes opened to see my species in a humiliating and disgusting light. Every good man feels his indignation rise against those who disparage his kindred or his country; why should it not rise against those who disparage his kind? – Thomas Reid, quoted in Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Amen.

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Behavioral Plasticity and Technosensory Addiction

SFGate has a great article on technology addiction

“If our attention span constricts to the point where we can only take information in 140-character sentences, then that doesn’t bode too well for our future,”

He noted that reliance on even the simplest programs – such as a spell-checker in a word-processing program or a contact list that memorizes all your phone numbers for you – are short-circuiting the brain’s ability to process details.

“It’s a challenge for many kids just to sit silently for a few minutes without moving around, looking for some kind of stimulation,” he said. “We need that ability to center ourselves.”

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Thoughts on the Paradox of Meditation

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It occurred to me the other night as I was falling asleep that meditation is a special cognitive activity. This is not the first time I have had this thought but whenever it occurs, I am always perplexed. Meditation seems to be one of the few behaviors where the achievement of it necessitates that you are metacognitively unaware that you have achieved it. Because meditation is concerned with the dissolution of conscious thought in favor of mindful awareness, it is impossible to metacognitively think “I am now meditating” while successfully meditating. Whereas thinking “I am now running” does not interfere with the action of running, if you think “I am now meditating” while meditating, you will immediately cease to successfully meditate. This leads to a paradox of sorts wherein the desire to pat yourself on the back and think “Keep up the good work!” or “I am so good at meditating!” will immediately halt the action that you are trying to congratulate yourself for achieving.

It is hard to think of other activities that involve this same kind of paradox. Nevertheless, this puzzle seems like one of the central features of meditation in terms of fostering a cognitive skillset useful for everyday coping. It teaches you to act without mental commentary, to breathe without thinking “I am breathing”, to be-in-the-world without reflexively thinking about your situation.

Moreover, what is the difference between controlling your breath voluntarily and merely watching your breath? The answer to this question seems to me important for getting clear about a number of cognitive puzzles, including the nature of conscious introspection and the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior. I don’t think I have a clear answer to this puzzle yet, but I would be interested to see what other people think. It is something I often think about as I am falling asleep, shifting back and forth from watching myself breathe to actively controlling and slowing down my breath. The interplay between these two actions is incredibly fascinating given the mindful awareness of breath often slows it down (longer exhalation periods)  in the same way that actively controlling it does. Therein lies the mystery. Who or what is the controller and the controlled? The breather and the thinker, the watcher and the watched? Jaynes has some interesting insights on this question, but I don’t have time to go into them in this post. I am currently working on a paper though that goes into detail spelling out the nature of conscious behavior versus nonconscious behavior. The difference is roughly that between walking and sleepwalking, acting while introspecting and being-in-the-zone. The interesting question then is to the extent to which we can be completely unconscious while still maintaining our capacities for complex perceptual-behavioral loops. I would wager that we underestimate our capacity to do things unconsciously and overestimate to extent to which conscious control is necessary in everyday habit.

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Can God Die?

A “God” who can die harbors already, even when he is not dying, such a weakness that from the outset he falls short of the idea that we cannot not form of a “God.” And is it not the least of courtesies that he should satisfy a propaedeutic concept, even if it is only our own? A “God” who decides to die dies from the beginning, since he undoubtedly needs a beginning –which means that the “death of God” sets forth a contradiction: that which dies does not have any right to claim, even when it is alive, to be “God.” – Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance

The atheist responds, “That which is of human origin can always pass away.”

Indeed, for Marion misses the atheist’s point entirely in proclaiming the death of God. No amount of circular reasoning can prevent the inevitable realization that God is no longer as influential in everyday Western life. It is a fact that most Christians only feel guilty on the Sabbath. During the week, all but the most enthusiastic  fail to feel God’s presence as an omniscient  Judge, subtly looking over our shoulders and shaping our behavior out of either fear or reverence (which usually go hand in hand). We no longer feel as guilty indulging in the pleasures of secular existence. Sex before marriage? Sleeping in on Sundays? Yes, please! (It’s okay, we’ll just ask for forgiveness even harder; shouldn’t matter theologically speaking.)

With that said, can God die? Why not? More importantly, has God died? Without a doubt. When our cars break down, we go to the mechanic, not the priest. When the crops fail, we plead with the scientist, not God. When we get sick, we rely on God working “through” the doctors, but rarely expect miracles (Why does God not heal the amputee?) . When we want to know how things work, we consult engineers, not mystics. God has retreated from society in all but the most superficial of ways and it is in this sense that the blood of His death remains on our hands. Theologians can claim that God is utterly beyond the social customs of humanity, but this only buries God deeper into the obscurity of abstraction. God as that which is circularly defined to be incapable of not existing is not the God of old, lavished with prayer, devotion, and worship. The phenomenon of groveling before His presence has all but vanished in our society. We are now autonomous and proud, and rightly so. The God who retreats from finite temporality lives only in a theologian’s imagination.

It seems then that God can die and has died. He can die in the same way that ideas and customs can die. In the same way that habits can be broken, God is mortal.As Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” When we stop worshiping except on Christmas or Easter, when we live finite lives in a finite world, the reality of God’s mortality sinks in. The zealot Christians who still hear God’s voice can no longer persuade anyone else to listen for when we cock our heads to hear His voice, all we hear is silence. God no longer speaks to us; his voice reduced to a faint whisper, we can no longer distinguish it from our own consciousness. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

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