Category Archives: Pretty Good Posts

None Of My Beeswax

I note with sorrow the success of Proposition 8 in California, which will amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriages. Of all the threats that imperil us in these uncertain times, that this is what they chose to focus on is a depressing comment indeed.

One God Further

In a recent post, Bill Vallicella chides Christopher Hitchens for a humorous jab at religion that he and Richard Dawkins often make. The offending remark, in its general form, is that since we are already all atheists as regards Poseidon, or Osiris, or Thor, all that is needed to finish the job is to go […]

Separate Cages

It startles me how differently people can see things. We all like to flatter ourselves that our opinions are guided by naught but sweet reason, but we overlook that reasoning is in general terms simply a manufacturing process, and like all such processes its output depends sensitively upon its input. That input, however, depends in […]

Sweet Soul Music

We have just passed the 10th anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, and much is being made of letters, recently publicized, that indicate that she had grave doubts about the existence of God, and was deeply tormented by her own lack of faith.

Tempest in a Teapot

We note with grave concern that the legendary Shaolin Monks, the state-sponsored Chinese “wushu” outfit, have got their saffron-hued knickers in a knot over some incendiary remarks made by an anonymous commenter in an online forum of some sort.

September Song

Labor Day weekend is here, and while a lot of folks are moping about summer coming to an end, you won’t hear any griping from me. Just as the advancing weeks of May and June fill me with a gathering dread each year as the heat and fetor approach, when I get to the end […]

Frontier Justice

The Gypsy Scholar, Horace Jeffery Hodges, discussed the question of absolute national sovereignty in a recent post. It’s an important and difficult issue, and opinions vary greatly.

The Kung Fu Bug

I haven’t written about martial arts much lately, but I thought I’d like to give readers a glimpse of a kung-fu style they may not have heard about: Southern Praying Mantis. Although I have devoted myself pretty much exclusively to Hung Gar for the past twenty-five years or so, the sifu I studied with when […]

The Great Debate

In Peter Berkowitz’s response to Christopher Hitchens’s god Is Not Great, he make some worthwhile points, but also trots out some familiar and flimsy ones as well. Let’s have a go at those first; we’ll take up his better arguments — and he does indeed make some — in a subsequent post.

The God Confusion

I don’t comment over at Bill Vallicella’s website any more, but I still follow the conversations there, as they are often interesting, and attract a number of intelligent participants. Bill has put up an odd post today, however, which he calls The Humanity Delusion, in an obvious swipe at Richard Dawkins’s atheist manifesto The God […]

Fogbound

Over at Dr. William Vallicella’s Maverick Philosopher website there is a dicussion thread underway, prompted by a silly item in the New York Times about cognitive neuroscience and the soul. In the original article, the author, obviously unfamiliar with the labyrinthine convolutions of mind-body philosophy, embarrasses herself with the following: But as evolutionary biologists and […]

Indian Givers

Among the books and periodicals I have hoarded here at home are quite a few old issues of National Geographic: I’ve been a subscriber since the early 80′s, and don’t throw them away. I’ll often pull out an old copy in an idle moment, and yesterday I was looking at one from December 1988. The […]

Faith In The Process

One of the warmer and more persistent disagreements between liberal and conservative viewpoints in recent years has been over the commingling of religion with politics. We hear a steady drumbeat from the Left alleging that the Bush cadre is trying to turn the USA into a “theocracy”, and in academic circles, where the prevailing attitude […]

The Second Book Of Samuel

Dr. William Vallicella, in a recent post, considers the following quote from the atheist author Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, pp. 38-39): If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers. In fact, they should be utterly immoral. […]

Winged Victory

Say what you like about New York City, there’s always something going on. At lunchtime today I walked into Grand Central Station, which is only a hundred yards or so from my office, just as some of the world’s top “competitive eaters” were about to begin a buffalo-wing smackdown. My sense of journalistic duty awakened, […]

Drosophilosophy

There’s a quirky little item in the science news today: some researchers in Germany have been studying fruit flies, and have observed that their behavior seems surprisingly flexible.

Descartes Before The Horse

I’ve finally had a chance to get back to considering Titus Rivas’s paper, in which he and Hein van Dongen argue that the mind-brain model known as epiphenomenalism — which says that subjective mental phenomena are indeed ontologically real, that they are “irreducible” to physical processes, and that they exert no causal influence on the […]

Beats Working

Today was, like yesterday, a day to set aside introspection, brooding and contemplation; a day to live life rather than examine it.

Lake of Fire

In the wake of the horror at Virginia Tech, folks around the world, and here at home, are expressing a predictable variety of responses. The Left is calling for stricter gun control, the Right for stricter immigration, the Europeans are criticizing our violent culture, and all sorts of people are focusing on the Asian-ness, or […]

It’s Not Just Physical

In the last three posts in this series on mind-body interaction, we looked at some of the more serious objections to what is known as “interactionist ‘substance’ dualism”. After laying out a litany of difficulties with this model, I ended the previous entry by asking why anyone would defend such a view. There are several […]

Material Objections

In the two previous posts (here, and here) in our ongoing examination of mind-body dualism, we looked at the “interaction problem” — the question of how an entirely non-physical Mind might push the necessary neural buttons and levers to get the body to do anything.

Mind: The Gap

In the previous post in this thread, we were considering the causal linkage between my observation of a falling flowerpot and my stepping out of the way, and how a dualist account of such a chain of events might differ from a materialist one. Although the immaterial Mind of the dualist is considered to be not of the physical world, and therefore outside the purview of the natural sciences, that is not necessarily the case, as we shall see.

Causing Problems

Well, having got the boot for badgering dualists about their view of the world, I might as well carry on. In for a penny, in for a pound, I say. So for the next couple of posts I’ll discuss what all the fuss is about.

As I’ve said, there are some good-sized humps any dualist account has to get over, and the one that comes up most often is the problem of causal interaction. Let’s have a look.

Apply Within

It is very, very difficult to develop oneself harmoniously. We are not one, but a collection of parts, and the parts bicker, struggle for power, jostle for position. Very often, one gets out in front of the others, sometimes for a very long while, and the last thing that it wants is for there to be an overview, a higher vantage, from which our whole inner world, and the tumult and disorder therein, can be seen.

The intellect, the instincts of the body, the emotions, all have their jobs to do in a properly functioning organization, but we are not so well organized, and there is no-one in charge. In one moment the feelings are on top, in the next it is some idea or other; soon it will be the stomach, a little later the reproductive organs — each with their own wishes, their own aims. And what of our aim? Where are we amid this riot, this anarchy? We are gazing out the window, or sitting comfortably — we must always be comfortable — dozing, recalling the past, or imagining the future; or we are fast asleep, dreaming that we are awake, that we are in command. And meanwhile, the servants, dressed in our clothes, are painting the town red, and writing checks in our name.

Woodwork

One of the cleverer ways that archaeologists date the artifacts they find is a technique known as dendrochronology, which relies on the patterns of growth rings in the trunks of trees.

Voice of Reason

I miss Carl Sagan. He was such a gentle and reasonable man, eloquent and passionate, but never strident, never shrill. He took immense joy in the simple fact that we humans live in a breathtakingly beautiful natural world, a universe of bottomless wonder and complexity, and that from this dance of atoms and forces arose beings that could come, in time, to understand it: that we, born of the ashes of stars, are the mirror in which the awakened Cosmos can behold itself.

Supply and Demand

Well, it’s mighty cold here in Gotham. The temperature is dropping back down into the single digits tonight, and adding a piquant accent is a howling wind that appears to have dropped straight down to Brooklyn from somewhere up around Port Radium. The few pedestrians that I can see out on the street, swaddled and muffled beyond any regard for fashion, tilt forward into the Boreal gale as they make their way to shelter. Otherwise, all is quiet save for the occasional pop as frozen sparrows, dislodged from their miserable perches by the icy blast, shatter like lightbulbs on the stony ground.

Here in our modest bow-front Victorian limestone townhouse, however, we are snug and warm, thanks to the controlled combustion of a steady flow of natural gas. This resource is provided, at exorbitant cost, by our mild-mannered neighbors to the North — who are, now that I think about it, the same ones who are supplying us with all this Arctic bluster in the first place.

You know, that’s a pretty smooth operation.

Hardware and Software

As I mentioned recently, I’ve just read John Searle’s book The Mystery of Consciousness. Searle holds a sort of middle ground among philosophers of mind: he is a card-carrying physicalist, meaning that he rejects the idea that our minds are non-material entities that interact with the body in some ghostly way, but he also takes issue with functionalist philosphers who argue that consciousness is simply an emergent property of sufficiently complex information-processing systems. Searle’s best-known salvo against functionalism is his famous “Chinese Room” thought experiment, which I won’t recap here, but which has been a source of lively dispute ever since it was published in 1980.

Round Trip

I’ve just got back to New York after a brief visit to San Diego to visit my father, and no matter how often I make the trip I still find it startling how utterly different the two corners of the continent are, and how easily we flit back and forth. It was a breezy 10° F. or so at dawn on Friday when I headed for JFK, and a sunny 70° at Lindbergh field when I blew in. Now, back in Brooklyn, though it’s warmed up quite a bit, it’s still snowing wetly.

If the Truth Be Told

My apologies to all for not getting the job done in yesterday’s post. Our friend Peter had asked this question, which last night’s item stopped short of answering:

Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?

Reader Kevin Kim, and then Peter himself, have quite rightly held my feet to the fire, and I’ll have a go at it here.

Do Not Disturb

We are all, of course, thoughtful and open-minded people — a distinction that sets us apart from the rabble, from the average man who parrots the opinions of the braying donkeys he sees on television and reads in the papers. No, we are different; the views we express are carefully prepared, using only the finest ingredients: the facts at hand, our rich store of personal experience, and the wisdom of the many sages whose works we have absorbed. When we deliver an opinion, it is like a sauce that has been carefully reduced — a rich and flavorful concoction, complex and nutritious. How could it be otherwise?

Here’s how. We fancy that we are savants strolling the agora, but in fact we prefer to keep indoors, in our comfortable and well-appointed offices, and to let our secretaries answer the phone. They, of course, having none of our exquisite subtlety of mind, are expected to send the important callers in to see us, where we may give them and their questions the attention they deserve. But what happens, as we doze in our leather chairs, is that most callers never get past the front desk, where they are handed a brochure outlining the company policy and sent along their way.

Blood and Sand

A grim story in today’s New York Times begins as follows:

The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqis were killed in violence last year, a figure that represents the first comprehensive annual count of civilian deaths and a vivid measure of the failure of the Iraqi government and American military to provide security.

This is indeed a sickening tally of human misery. And to be sure, the Iraqi army and police have been, by all accounts, at best useless, and at worst, have themselves been agents of grisly violence. It is also quite clear by now that the US management of postwar Iraq — attempted, as Tom Friedman put it, “with our pinky” — was vastly inadequate.

Salmon Run

We are home once again – just the two of us, having safely ensconced our son in his new home in the halls of academe. Thanks to those of you who have emailed in response to the previous post; the immediate connection with a community of friends is one of the most rewarding aspects of maintaining this website.

That’s A Moray

In discourse these days, whether about politics, religion, philosophy, or any of the other topics that seem so effectively to get everybody’s knickers in a twist, we will all have observed by now that some people have what is known as a “short fuse”. I’ve been noticing more and more that quite a few folks go one better, and operate on what might be thought of, if we are willing to test the metaphor’s tensile strength, as a proximity fuse: they detonate at the expression of any thought that even reminds them of whatever it is that they are crusading against.

Such minds are like eels lurking in the coral, snapping at whatever shiny object paddles by. I suppose other eels find them attractive, but to swimmers they are merely a nuisance.

The Most Wonderful Time

I must say, at the risk of sounding Grinchy once again, that I am not at all sorry that the holidays are over. The garish displays are coming down. The tourists crowd the city less densely, and the reduced incidence of pastel pink and primary-colored polyester outerwear stretched over ample midsections allows Gotham’s naturally dingy palette to return to the fore. Gone are the gift-laden shoppers who turned the subways into freight trains; gone as well is the bloody “Carol of the Bells” that blared from every loudspeaker. The hawking of rubbish to the besotted is much abated, and fools are once again being separated from their money at the normal workaday pace. For those of us for whom gift-shopping is a baffling mystery, the anguish of the annual Deadline has passed, and we are delivered, for better or worse, for another year. No more obligatory holiday parties, corporate gift drives, and salvos of greeting cards (actully we utterly dropped the ball on that last item this year; apologies to all).

No, that’s all behind us now. Nothing lies ahead but grim and slushy Winter, and the resumption of life’s dreary toil. Snows will fall, and blacken on the city streets, as we trudge to our daily servitude through the bleak and cheerless months to come. The distant memory of the summer’s fetid heat will seem an otherworldly illusion as the Boreal winds howl down Broadway straight from Baffin Bay, and the ancient questions, set aside during the recent Saturnalian euphoria, will gnaw us once again with renewed vigor.

Yippee! My time of year.

Experts In Their Field

The NFL playoffs are beginning, and with both of our local franchises having made it into the postseason tournament, the media hereabouts are brimming with informative coverage of the impending contests.

The best part, for the seeker of wisdom, is the commentary by the players and coaches themselves, in which they offer the lay audience a glimpse of the arcane inner workings of the game, and share with us the expertise that they bring to bear as they gird their loins for the struggle ahead.

The Story of the Moral

Dr. William Vallicella, in a discussion at Maverick Philosopher about whether religion is simply a quest for comfort, asked me the following question:

Can an atheist be moral? Yes, of course, in one sense, and indeed more moral than some theists. But the more interesting question would be whether an atheist would have an objective basis for an objective morality. In other words, even if it is true that many atheists are morally superior to many theists relative to some agreed-upon standard of behavior, would these atheists be justified in making the moral judgments they do if there is no God? Perhaps, but the answer to this is not obvious, whereas the answer to the first question is obvious.

While there are those who have tried to devise such a scheme, I think their efforts are misplaced; I will not try to establish an “objective morality” here, because I see no need for one.

Food for Thought

Yesterday evening, having spent more than a week unable to work out as usual due to back trouble, and feeling, consequently, a little in need of some exercise, I decided to walk for while before getting on the subway to go home. My office is on Park Avenue just south of Grand Central Station, and I thought I might stroll down as far as Union Square, or perhaps even Houston Street. It being an unusually mild evening, however, I decided to press on, and wound up walking the whole way back to Park Slope: a distance of about 7.62 miles, according to Google Earth.

Let’s Get Real

Readers will have noticed that I have been posting a little more often lately about the “science vs. religion” debate, and that I have perhaps seemed rather more on the side of the skeptics than the believers. Well they’re right, and in private correspondence I have taken, lately, an even more partial view. I think I am going to have to come right out and be a bit of a Grinch about the whole business, even though Christmas is right around the corner.

All Things Being Equal

I call the attention of readers to two recent posts on the subject of “equality”. The first is by Dr. William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher; the second is by the inimitable Deogolwulf, writing at his website The Joy of Curmudgeonry. Both make the same excellent point, which I shall reiterate here.

Time Trouble

I often wonder why some people are so resistant to Darwinism. The idea, once grasped, would seem to have everything going for it: it is elegant and simple, but despite its simplicity has amazing depth and explanatory power. It has been abundantly confirmed, by a diverse yet mutually supporting body of evidence, and provides a sturdy framework for our understanding of all life on Earth.

Nevertheless, the fact of Darwinian evolution is flatly rejected by a majority (!) of Americans. One obvious reason for this is the pernicious persistence of fundamentalist Biblical literalism in our country, with its irrational insistence upon the Old Testament creation myth. But the acceptance of such folklore as fact is abetted by another, quite natural difficulty: people have, generally, absolutely no concept of deep time.

Period Piece

As I have mentioned before, my house in Brooklyn is just a few paces away from Prospect Park, a lovely, rolling expanse of forest, lake, and greensward landscaped by the great Frederick Law Olmstead.

It’s Not Rocket Science

I receive a number of daily newsletters. Among them is one from Physorg.com, a website that serves as a clearinghouse for news on various scientific fronts. The stories are generally brief, rarely very technical, and their purpose is simply to alert the reader to the fact that that some new development or other has occurred in the field at hand; the curious reader may then, having been given the scent, follow it to its source on his own initiative. The whole thing is usually very professionally done, and is an excellent way to keep abreast of current events in science and technology.

Imagine my disappointment, then, to observe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the utter incomprehension of which we may sadly take as a “given” among its many detractors in religious circles, is also a source of confusion, even at the broadest and most superficial level, to the editors of the Physorg newsletter. I refer to the following headline, found atop a story in yesterday’s issue:

Do galaxies follow Darwinian evolution?

What is it that bothers me so? Read on.

Fourth Reich?

The gist of the essay is that the current administration, rather than being incompetent, or overweening, or imperialistic, or all three, is in fact a gang of Nazis, and we’d better wise up. The author, aghast at our complacency, seeks to rouse us from our stupor by pointing out – breaking news! – that the Germany of the 1930′s became utterly evil, in large extent, of its own volition, and suggests that the same is happening here.

Dark Energy

Political disagreements, such as those that have been taking place lately in comment threads here at waka waka wakaexhibit a property not unlike that ascribed astrophysicists to the hypothetical “dark energy” that is thought to permeate the cosmos: they exert a mysterious repulsive force.

The Narrow Way

However you may feel about Richard Dawkins’ recent campaign against religion, he is indisputably among the greatest living scholars of natural history. One of the many fascinating ideas he discusses in his richly informative book The Ancestor’s Tale is the notion that “evolvability” itself may be amenable to natural selection. He suggests that certain watershed developments in life’s history greatly increased the facility of organisms to adapt, and that such developments would have themselves been adaptive. There is tricky footing here; it is important to keep in mind that natural selection never “looks ahead”. But, as Dawkins writes near the end of the book, “we might find with hindsight that the species that fill the world tend to be descended from ancestral species with a talent for evolution.” There are a number of developments that Dawkins cites as having improved life’s “evolvability”: among these are the birth of eukaryotic cells, multicellularism, segmentation, and sex. He also discusses another, less obvious milestone: bottlenecking.

Rough Commute

Here’s something that happened to me a while back — around 1983 or so, if memory serves. I was reminded of it a few days ago, and thought it might be worth a post.

Turn of the Tide

I’ve mentioned oysters before in these pages (I should probably give posts about them a separate category by now), but while scooping a few dozen of them out of Wellfleet Harbor this weekend, I noticed something about them that I hadn’t realized before, which is that they seem to exhibit a consistent chirality.

Rest Area

I’m back in Cape Cod this weekend, and as always it is restorative to be here. The effect is rather like pulling off at a scenic overlook during a long motor journey to stretch the legs, breathe deeply, and take one’s eyes off the road.

Living and working, as I do, in New York City, is to spend each day in a hyperkinetic environment of entirely human manufacture, wrought at an exclusively human scale. But here in Wellfleet, on this tiny spit of land flung into the restless Atlantic, one finds oneself in the presence of physical immensities that offer the tightly clenched spirit room to unfurl. To step outside, as I did last night, to stand in silence under a moonlit sky, pine-framed and ablaze with stars, and then to stroll this afternoon along a deserted beach beside the limitless ocean — a scene entirely devoid, in chill November, of even the slightest trace of Man’s teeming presence — is to enjoy a trans-physical unconfinement, a lebensraum of the soul, that many denizens of the congested antheaps we call cities no longer realize we require for our normal development.

The Real Deal

I call attention to a new link on the waka waka waka sidebar; it is the website of one Gin Foon Mark, one of the greatest living masters of southern Chinese kung fu.