Thursday, August 23, 2007

God's Warriors

I hope each of you have been watching God's Warriors on CNN as I have! Christiane Amanpour is doing an outstanding job profiling the "true believers" among the three great Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

If you have not been watching, please look for repeats, which I am sure will be scheduled.

We were discussing the program at a group breakfast this morning and one person made an insightful observation and asked a critical question:

They are all true believers in their view of God and the Universe and they deny that any other view can be correct. Only one can be correct - either that or none of them are right!

I picked up an object at the table and demonstrated how ALL THREE views could be correct!
I've reconstructed my breakfast-table demonstration in the figure below:

"A", viewing the situation from above, claims the true situation is a horizontal rectangle at 9AM and a vertical rectangle at Noon. For "A" and his co-religionists, "God" is a constant rectangle that changes orientation only.

"B", viewing from the front, sees it quite differently! "God" is sometimes a rectangle and sometimes a perfect circle, changing shape only, not orientation. For "B" and her co-religionists, "God" is horizontal rectangle at 9AM and a circle at Noon.

"C", viewing from the side, sees it a different way! He agrees with "B" that "God" is sometimes a rectangle and sometimes a perfect circle, changing shape only, not orientation. However, for "C" and her co-religionists, "B" has the timing reversed, "God" is circle at 9AM and a horizontal rectangle at Noon.

Of course, the "real" TRUTH is that "A", "B", and "C" are each limited to a two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional object, which we humans recognize as a common can of soda, slowly rotating on a table. Given their fixed viewing points, all of their reports are absolutely TRUE, but fail to capture the WHOLE truth.


We humans have brains that are limited to perceiving three dimensions of Space and one dimension of Time. As we stand on the surface of the Earth, the North-South dimension and the East-West dimension appear similar to each other. It takes the same amount of energy to travel a mile North or South or East or West.

However, the Up-Down dimension seems somehow different. To travel Up from the surface of the Earth to a point a mile above takes lots of energy. However, traveling Down from that high point to the surface not only takes less energy, it yields energy! Yet, we understand (kind of) that the Up-Down dimension is really the same as the North-South and East-West if you consider the accelleration of gravity.

The final dimension we can perceive, Future-Past, which we call "Time" seems very different to us than any of the three Space dimensions. Indeed, Time appears to be only a half-dimension, since we can only go towards the Future and not towards the Past. There seems to be a powerful accelleration or something that forces us in one direction on the Time axis. Like falling Down from a height along the Up-Down axis, it is effortless to move along the Time axis in the Future direction. Moving Up to a height along the Up-Down axis takes lots of energy -- similarly moving to the Past along the Future-Past axis takes more energy than we can muster.


However, Einstein teaches us that Time is exactly the same as Space (in the same sense that North-South and East-West are the same as Up-Down). We can run a movie or videotape in the Future or Past direction with equal ease. If not for that accelleration towards the Future along the Time axis, we could travel to the Past with equal ease.

Indeed, according to Einstein there are many dimensions beyond Space and Time but we mere humans are not privileged to perceive them. However, if some super-creature could correctly perceive those dimensions (as we could see 3-D and thus understand more than "A", "B", and "C" in the above example who were limited to 2-D), that super-creature could understand more than us.

One of the participants brought up the subject of "dualism" vs "monism". Most philosophers up to Decartes were dualists who thought Spirit (or thought or form, etc.) was orthogonal to and quite different from Material (or physical or particular objects, etc.) Spinoza was one of the original monists who taught that what he called "Thought" (Spirit) and "Extension" (Material) were merely two ASPECTS of an Ultimate Reality we humans just could not fully perceive. That Ultimate Reality had a large number of Aspects and we could only conceive of two, Spirit and Material!

BOTTOM LINE: The purely "Spirit" Universe that the religious "true-believers" cling to is TRUE in its own way, but limited. It does not capture the WHOLE TRUTH. On the other hand, the purely "Material" Universe that the scientific "true-believers" cling to, while TRUE in its own way, also fails to capture the WHOLE TRUTH.

Ira Glickstein

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Emotion and Reason (continued from History Lessons)

I'm starting a new thread, because we've gone far astray from the original topic.

Ira said:

Anything learned independent of reasoning powers *cannot* be unlearned by reasoning! Our emotional system prevents us from unlearning those things as a way of preserving "tribal" customs and protecting the greater society. .......

I disagree with the above and the model that produced it. This particular model fails to take into account the fact that emotions and reasoning interact in ways that modify both emotion and reasoning. There are multiple scripts or voices that compete with one another in our minds. Certainly some of those scripts are dominated by emotional voices and some by purely rational voices, but they contain both. We need to settle on some definitions and determine what we accept as evidence.

For example: Let's say an outside stimulus to our nervous system is interpreted as a sensation, which in turn produces an emotion we call pleasure. In humans that interpreter lies in the rational part of the brain. During learning, a mental template is produced with a bunch of associations and conditions which must be satisfied in order to feel an emotion.

In that context I need to ask Ira what is meant by "Anything learned independent of reasoning powers....." The proof that this is not the case is the fact that the very same stimulus to the nervous system may be produced by different sources. As a result, different emotions and consequent actions are produced. when exactly the same gentle touch on the arm is furnished by an unknown source, a woman, a man or a snake. Information is combined with sensation to trigger emotion. I would rather say that emotions are hard-wired not learned. The things that trigger emotions are subject to learning and therefore to reasoning. If this were not the case, then a child who is bitten by a dog and feels fear after that, would never grow up to love dogs later in life. But, perhaps I'm just misinterpreting what Ira has said. Terminology in the domain of the mind is very malleable.

[Edited by Ira to correct typo and format long quote and paragraphs]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Does History Have Lessons?

As some of you have probably deduced, I'm fascinated by human fallibility. There are so many ways for our brains to go wrong. I've never believed George Santayana's

Those who won't learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.

I simply don't believe that history has any lessons, at least not any that are discernible to mortals.

Having made that bold statement, let me elaborate. Howard said in a recent post against the current policy concerning Iraq;

History’s lesson is that military force in the long run is useless against religious conviction. Remember that relatively few Christians eventually overcame all the Roman legions.

I have the opposite point of view concerning Iraq, so I might also point to history and say that the Christians did not overcome the Legions. Emperor Constantine found it politically useful to convert. But even if what Howard said were accurate, I would point out that in fact, the lesson of history is that military force is highly effective against religious conviction. We might take for example, the Roman destruction of the ancient Jewish nation despite the fact that the Jews of Masada were fervent enough to commit suicide rather than be captured. Simon de Beaufort destroyed the Cathare religion at Montseguer, despite the fact that they fervently chose death rather than conversion. Another case that immediately comes to mind is the stamping out of the Vaudois religion in the mountains of France by military action and repeated the action in the south of France when the Vaudois secretly established themselves there.

I'm not suggesting such a policy in Iraq. I'm simply saying that a lot of factors need to be taken into account before one can propose a general historical lesson in order to support or oppose a current policy.

Too often we create the lesson that supports our viewpoint and then pick and chose among historical data to "prove" the lesson. In science, it only take one contrary piece of data to discard a proposed theory. If the same rule were followed in the study of history, a single contrary example would negate the "lesson" proposed. In my opinion, history is so vastly complicated compared to science that finding it's so-called lessons is impossible. One only needs to look at the disagreements between stock market prognosticators to see that even in a narrow domain so-called lessons are useless. With respect -Joel

Sunday, August 12, 2007


I've found many of your recent posts to be full of interesting ideas that are related to what is knowable, if one steps back a bit.

1) For example Stu spoke of the paradox of Buddhists (inner directed) that he is acquainted with, who appear to be L-minds. I may be totally wrong, but I'm guessing that these people are converts. On the other hand, I've known several people in Hawaii who were brought up Buddhist. They were happen to be pretty much mixed minded.

This introduces us to the problem of data from a self-selected set. The converts are self-selected and as such don't represent Buddhists as a group very well. We don't really know what conditions caused them to select this religion. For instance, during the sixties the pacifism of the Dali Lama and rebellion against parents was often a cause for conversions. Their alignment to political liberalism came before their selection of Buddhism. So, the general question we must ourselves, is whether self-selection biases a group we are studying. A particularly clear example might be the fact that students who take drivers education have fewer accidents. It's not the drivers education that causes the lower accident rate. It's the fact that they are sufficiently prudent to elect drivers education in the first place. In other words, their self-seclction biases the data.

2) Another remark (made by Ira) also set me to step back and think a bit. Ira believes that insurance companies should use all data in setting rates, because "selfishly" speaking that would lower his own rates. Since Ira has spoken in favor of "enlightened self-interest" before, I assume that is what's driving his view. I have trouble with several aspects of this approach to public policy. The first is the word "enlightened." This word is so vague that acting in one's self interest has no meaning. Anytime I choose not to act selfishly, I can call it enlightened. Other examples of such modifiers might be "compassionate conservatism" and "pragmatic socialism.

My other problem with Ira's approach is that we are not a Ross Perot democracy (thank God!). If each of us had a voting machine in his home and voted on each and every issue, one might argue that each person voting selfishly concerning insurance and everything else would produce the "best" result on average. (I say "might" because such a system provides no protection for minorities.) Given that we have a layers of representatives and regulators between us and public policy, I can't see how a philosophy based on selfishness can be justified. I propose that a philosopher needs a more objective approach that optimizes the result as if one had the responsibility of deciding for all, despite the personal consequences. We can borrow an idea from Plato here. A king needs to be a philosopher, but also, a philosopher needs to believe as though he had the responsibility of a king. Socrates chose to die rather than use the escape plan that had been arranged for him by his disciples. In short, his reasoning was that he would be setting a bad example for all others.

3) Several things that Howard wrote lead me to this general thought. None of us can get inside the head of another. We can observe actions and we can listen to a person's explanation for action, but we cannot determine motivation. We are therefore free (in the intellectual sense) to choose to believe what we will about the motivation of others. But, in the end we must recognize that choosing to believe does not make it so. Let's take the phrase "It's all about oil" agreed to by both Ira and Howard, as an example.

This phrase is somewhat like the "getting 'round the squirrel" anecdote from the Willam James, which hinges on the unknown intent in the use of the word 'round. In "It's all about oil" the key word is "all." For some, the phrase means that the real reason behind the war in Iraq is that powerful industrialists in the U.S. want to obtain Iraqi oil in order to profit in some manner. The word "all" implies the existence of a hidden agenda. For others like me, the phrase means that there is a war between the forces of despotic theocracy and individual freedom. Oil is a strategic material which can be (and has been) used as a weapon by despots to coerce democracies. For me, "all" means that a free worldwide market for oil is "crucial". We have a choice in the meaning which depends upon the unknowable motivation of our leaders. Both sides in this dispute can selectively point to actions that they claim support their belief as to motivation. However, in the end, we need to recognize that there is no proof positive as to motivation. With respect -Joel

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Doom without Gloom or Gloom without Doom

Ira has expressed his doubt about whether or not we can succeed against a determined enemy like Al Qaida.

I am worried that we, whose religious beliefs vary from none to the "ethical culture" mind set of Unitarians, Liberal Christians, Reform Jews, and Westernized Zen Buddhists, can never compete successfully against absolutely TRUE BELIEVER zealots willing to sacrifice their lives at a moment's notice. And, many of them are at least as smart and inventive and industrious as the best of us. How can we ever win? Will we understand this battle will not be over for decades? Will we just "put our head in the sand" and hope for the best?

I have similar concerns. But, let's take a step back both in space and time and be philosophical about a doomsday (or doom century) scenario. Historically, there is no reason for us to expect that any civilization be permanent. Extremely powerful empires like the Roman, Greek, Macedonian and Assyrian have fallen for a myriad and reasons. In more recent times we have seen the Soviet Union, the British Empire and Yugoslavia fall.

We find ourselves in a situation in which the barbarians are at the gates and our allies are weakening. I say barbarians because the forces involved are all anti-liberty, whether they be China, North Korea, Al-Qaeda, Persian, etc. Given the long view of history and the political model of what is happening in Europe, it isn't unreasonable to assume that democracy will be submerged by totalitarian regimes.

My question is this. Is it possible to accept doom without gloom? If so, how? As individuals, we accept that our lives are of finite duration without living our lives in a state of depression. Is sticking one's head in the sand actually a rational national policy such as engaged in by France and Germany?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

L/C Persistence

I see from a comment by Howard that I may not have been clear about my L/C brain concept. I'm not suggesting that there is one key characteristic that separates L-minds and C-minds. A dominant local-versus-global point of view is only one that I suggest. Here's another that may prove interesting. I think there's a difference in persistence according to my observations. Although this C-mind is very persistent in personal goals, I fatigue easily when trying to accomplish a communal objective.

For instance. I speak French fluently, although it took me fifteen years to accomplish that, having no real gift for languages. I've worked at oil painting for all my life, taking a month or two on average to complete one painting. I'm still not any good, but I persist. One the other hand, in a committee or public situation, I can debate opponents for one meeting. If the decision is postponed for further discussion, my tendency is to lose interest. My impression from university internal politics is that L-brains can persist forever. What is your impression in this domain?

Monday, August 6, 2007

(Nuclear) Power For the People (of France)

Ira Nearly Gets Arrested in France!
There were no sirens as the gendarme car approached us. Two uniformed guards jumped out and asked if we spoke French. I replied that our Dutch guide spoke French and I called for her to come over and translate.

We had just finished dinner on our barge after a day of bicycling along the Loire River and the canal that parallels it. All day we had observed two large cooling towers in the distance, one belching steam. As the barge docked in Belleville-sur-Loire, I couldn't help notice that the cooling towers were an easy walk. After dinner I suggested we stroll over and see how close we could get! Half a dozen bicyclists and our guide joined me.

Along the way, we took some photos, including the one above that shows the cooling towers on the left and the containment vessel, the cylindrical building on the right, that protects the nuclear reaction.

As we got closer, I left the public road and took a picture of the warning sign, with the containment vessel to the right of it. We then proceeded to the parking lot along the Loire River and observed where the hot effluent from the towers flowed into a small bay and then into the Loire River. That was when the gendarmes approached us.

We were not permitted to be in that area, we were told, nor were we allowed to take photos. We lied that we had not taken any photos and assured the gendarmes we did not plan to take any. I was tempted to ask the gendarmes if I could take a photo of *them*, but managed to hold back! *

I find their warnings about photos kind of ridiculous because anyone in the world can access Google Earth and see the high resolution view of the entire nuclear plant in the photo above. The containment vessels are the two round buildings in the lower right. We walked along the public road on the upper left and were accosted in the parking lot on the upper middle. (The black areas are water and the Loire River itself flows along the upper right.)

France's Committment to Nuclear Power
In any case, we saw nuclear plant cooling towers looming in the distance and belching steam almost everywhere we bicycled in the Loire River area of France. I knew that France had made a major committment to nuclear power for generation of electricity several decades ago and that about 80% of their electricity comes from nuclear.

Some Interesting Facts About Nuclear Power
When I returned home I did some further research and here are some interesting facts:
  • France has some 59 operating nuclear plants while the US has more plants but, since our population and power needs are greater, we get only about 20% of our electricity from nuclear.
  • Environmental activists in the US have stymied further development of nuclear power due to (somewhat justified) concerns about safe disposal of nuclear waste and accidental release of radiation.
  • France and Japan, however, overcame opposition and reduced their dependence on volatile MidEast oil while, at the same time, reducing CO2 emissions.
  • Today, France and Japan have been joined by other countries, including China, India, South Africa, South Korea, and Finland with active nuclear power programs.
  • Ironically, many of the original nuclear reactors in France make use of US-developed technology, while US anti-nuclear activists have inadvertently made us more dependent upon non-renewable carbon-based fuels, increasing human CO2 emissions that may cause substantial global warming. Political pressure seems to be building for a renewal of the growth of nuclear power in the US.
  • Most of the radiation we absorb is from natural background sources and from medical use of radiation. Any mineral that is mined from the earth is likely to contain sources of radiation. That is why a coal-fired power plant emits more radiation into the atmosphere than a nuclear power plant. A person who lives in a brick building is exposed to more radiation than someone who lives in a wooden house because the materials in the brick emit radiation!
  • France has clean air and low cost electricity because of it's adoption of nuclear power generation. (We spent three days in Paris and, although the car and truck traffic was heavy, the air seemed cleaner than New York City or other large US cities. We had unlimited three-day passes for their very well-developed public transit which takes a big load off of auto travel. They have also instituted an automated system where you can obtain a bicycle in one area and return it in an other for a cost of a few dollars a day. We passed a half-dozen automated rental stations within several blocks of our hotel which was near the Arc de Triumph. We saw many people using the distinctive bicycles and we would have tried them out had it not rained on the morning we had set aside for that adventure. The air in the countryside along the Loire River Valley where we bicycled and barged also seemed quite clean.)
  • Electricity costs about 0.03 Euros per KW/hr (about 5 cents US) and has gone down a bit in France over the past decade as our US coal- and oil-powered electricity has gone up. French costs for reprocessing and waste disposal are around 5%
  • France now exports electricity to Italy and England. Prior to their commitment to nuclear power they were a net importer.
  • Disposal of nuclear waste was an issue in France until they came up with a clever *psychologically-based* solution. The radioactive waste products, the people were told, were not being disposed of forever. Rather, they were being stockpiled until research scientists and engineers could come up with a way to make use of them. Each of the nuclear waste "stocking centers" has an associated research laboratory working to find way to make use of the waste products in the future. Given that explanation, several areas in France are competing for the research centers (and associated waste stocking centers) and all the technical jobs that go along with such centers!

I hope readers will Comment on this posting and give their opinions on possible resurgence of large-scale growth of the US nuclear power industry. If we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions (as well as other byproducts of burning carbon-based fuels), nuclear seems to be one of the best proven alternatives.

I accept that storage of nuclear waste and the possibility of disasterous accidents and terrorist attacks are issues that detract from the advantages of nuclear power. However, we need to balance that against the cost in blood and dollars of our dependence upon MidEast oil. What do you think?

Some Good Websites I Used For Information
Nuclear Power (Wikipedia)

Nuclear Power in France, August 2007

Why the French Like Nuclear Energy (PBS)

Ira Glickstein

*Some years ago, I had a business trip to a NATO meeting at the Royal Air Force Establishment at Farnborough Airport in England. I added a week of bicycling prior to the visit and looked kind of scruffy as I checked in to the hotel where my colleagues and I were going to stay. I hopped on my bicycle and rode the short distance to have a look at the meeting site. Of course, it was behind a fence and guarded gate. I leaned my bike against the fence and started taking photos of the gate and signs and a uniformed guard came running to check me out. I don't think he believed me when I told him I was scheduled for a meeting the following day, but, he was nice enough to take a photo of me and my bicycle in front of the gate!