Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

Do we misunderstand our selves?

In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”

The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”

According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.

“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”

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Challenging anthropomorphic physics

Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?

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Jellyfish immortality isn’t for me

At six thousand six hundred and some words, you’d think that Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? (New York Times MAGAZINE, December 2, 2012) would have something of consequence ot say about its subject.

It doesn’t.

After a rather perfunctory summary of the research into the so-called “immortal jellyfish,” Nathaniel Rich’s article devolves into a mostly tongue-in-cheek profile of the weird Japanese hydrozoan researcher and karaoke song-writer who is the most enthusiastic proponent of the peculiar kind of immortality represented by the Turritopsis dohrnii.

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Should the humanities try to be sciences?

It’s an unusual place for it, but a blog in Scientific American argues that the humanities should stop trying to be like sciences and instead embrace their non-quantifiable nature.

In the article “Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one.”, writer and psychology PhD candidate Maria Konnikova responds to the recent publication of “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks” by writing that some subjects aren’t, never have been, won’t ever be, and most of all shouldn’t be approached “scientifically.”

Konnikova’s critical article goes into greater depth on the subject than I did in my narrower and mostly positive response to the same article, posted here in late July. She critiques the specific study in question, but her real topic is the trend of which the study is but one current example. Continue reading

Why would atheists study religion?

Just when you thought that it was safe to ignore the “debate” between science and religion, along comes The Chronicle Review with a long article on the emergence of a “new” science, “evolutionary religious studies.”

From the start, let’s get the oxymoron jokes out of the way by noting that it’s not called “evolutionary religious beliefs.” The point isn’t to prove religion right; it’s to examine religion’s evolutionary character, its origins and its impact on individuals and societies.

When the suggestion arose that we consider the social origins of religion, a member of my Monday morning discussion and coffee group (not to be confused with my Wednesday morning coffee and discussion group) demurred, likening the suggestion to inviting a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses for tea and a chat. His distaste for the whole idea was clear.
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Perchance to dream…

In the latest issue of Philosophy Now, Raymond Tallis takes a semi-serious look at the great unknown, the under-examined third of our lives in which we are asleep.

The tone of Tallis’s article comes from the fact that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t know the first thing about sleep. Not just what it is and why we do it, but what it means to our concepts of consciousness and self that every night we lose control, passing from a world of physical perception to another of mental impression. Continue reading

Can biology explain art?

OK, so you buy into all of that evolutionary psychology stuff and look for the adaptational drivers behind everything humans think and do and are.

You will be on the solidest of ground when you’re describing the physical mechanisms of bodily states and functions. And you’ll do pretty well, most of the time, with speculations about the evolutionary advantage of this or that adaptation. You’ll convince a growing number of people of the interaction of both individual and group selection.

But once you’ve done that, what do you do with the hard stuff?

Consciousness is notoriously hard to explain, and even after many articles on the subject here I’m not at all confident that I, or anyone else, really has a handle on it. For now, I’m leaving that topic alone.

The other really tough topic is art, the creative and imaginative output of the free-flowing human mind. What advantage does art add to the evolutionary mix?
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Saving religion by deleting all the doctrine

Many critics attack the New Atheists as unsophisticated literalists who don’t understand much less appreciate all of the nuance and subtlety of religion.

By engaging rationally with the truth claims of various religions, the critics say, the New Atheists miss the crucial point that religion is, in the words of Robert Bellah, not necessarily a thing you believe but “a thing you do.”

I’ve always found this approach to the defense of religion curious — and ultimately self-defeating. Jettisoning the doctrine to save the practice seems to me so obviously self-deceptive that I marvel at how easily people do it. If science shows my truths to be wrong, well, then I don’t need them!

Bellah, author of the recent book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Agewas interviewed by Hans Joas in the latest issue of The Hedgehog. Despite his reasonableness and erudition, Bellah falls into the “religious faith isn’t faith in anything specific” defense with graceful ease.
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Quantum physics — making God more likely?

Big Questions Online (BQO) is a web production of the religion-promoting Templeton Foundation, and as such the site is prone to taking seriously some pretty silly ideas.

The latest example is the provocatively — and misleadingly — titled recent article,  “Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?”

The article starts with “No,” then proceeds to a long summary of some of the major characteristics of quantum physics. It ends with the argument — and here’s where the silly comes in — that since concrete materialism is apparently undermined by quantum physics, all bets are off, and belief in God is more reasonable.

What makes this so silly, of course, is that even if the assertion that quantum physics disproves materialism were true, that would have absolutely no effect on the reasonableness of belief in God, or gods.
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