Monday, December 31, 2007

Rationality

I'm going to start a new post, because the old one is getting cumbersome being loaded with so many issues.

Howard brought up the question of rationality, non-rationality and irraationality and later Howard said: Ira is right that we can’t expect all of mankind to become rational after being indoctrinated with organized religions’ dogmas for so long. But why excuse or promote this inflexible irrationality?



I'm not comfortable with calling religion irrational. Let's start with the dictionary definition of rational. Mine says that rational means having reason or logic. It seems to me that for the most part religions are logical and have reasons for what they propose. Let's also stipulate that we're talking about religions with a personal god, i.e., a supernatural being having personhood or intention. Although you and I may believe no such being exists, that doesn't automatically make the religion irrational. I would contend that all thinking requires a leap of faith at some point. Euclid's geometry is held to be the ultimate in rational thinking, but it requires faith in certain axioms in order to get started. The Declaration of Independence rationally explains why the Framers believe they are correct to separate from England, but they require an intuitive assumption. "We hold these truths to be self evident.....) All reason is built upon assumption. One of the reasons we come to different conclusions about almost everything in this world is our intuitive assumptions. For example, almost everyone in today's America would agree by virtue of rational thought that it was wrong for Europeans to take this land from the indigenous people. However, many people of the nineteenth century would start their reasoning from the axiom that no people nor person can truly possess a piece of this planet. Possession does not come simply by being born in a place. What one possesses comes only from conquest and the constant defense against incursion by others. Thus with a different first assumption or axiom, one arrives perfectly rationally at two very different conclusions concerning the taking of land from the Indians (or anyone else).



As to the idea that religious indoctrination being virtually unassailable simply because of age, I have to differ. I don't think that the age of a tradition has anything to do with its survival. What counts is the number of people who currently believe in a tradition. When that number is beyond a critical value, the tradition is very difficult to overturn. I don't think the age is much of a factor except as a measure of durability. The traditional place of women in society was thousands of years old when it was overturned in a very short time. World War II, The Pill and the disappearance of the icebox contrived to make the old tradition obsolete. The survival of a tradition has more to do with its benefits and its adaptability. If a tradition cannot bend, it will break. Religion has shown itself valuable to the individual and society despite a changing environment and has been able to make small adaptations. To my mind, the most important adaptation in the survival of modern religion has been to look the other way when the membership sins. The "love the sinner, hate the sin" concept in modern Christianity is ingenious. It allows a member to attend church on Sunday and lie, cheat and steal on Monday with impunity. Hence, humans can remain members, pay their tithe and do whatever they wish without the condemnation of their peers. That's a lot of flexibility.



Let me finish with a short Wikipedia quotation concerning one of the strange fathers of rationality. "In Croton Pythagoras established his academy and became a cult leader. His community was governed by a large number of rules, some dietary, such as those commanding abstinence from meat and from beans, and others of obscure origin, such as the commands not to let a swallow nest under the roof or not to sit on a quart measure. The movement was united by the belief that “all is number.” While the exact meaning of this may be none too clear, that it led to one of the great periods of mathematics is beyond doubt. Not only were the properties of numbers explored in a totally new way and important theorems discovered, of which the familiar theorem of Pythagoras is the best example, but there also emerged what is arguably the first really deep mathematical truth – the discovery of irrational numbers with the realization of the incommensurability of the square root of two."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas, Santa, and the Spirit of Giving


Warmest Christmas greetings to friends of the Blog who rejoice and remember the birth of Jesus Christ.

And to all who have received or freely given help for the sheer joy of it! Literal believers or not, we all - if we are human - know the pleasure of helping others, particularly when we don't have to.

Perhaps the most famous editorial in the history of newspapers appeared in the New York Sun 110 years ago:


Virginia, your little friends [who say say there is no Santa Claus] are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. ... The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. ... Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

The full text of the editorial is available at: http://www.stormfax.com/virginia.htm

Ogden Nash captured the folly of disbelief in the spirit of giving in his famous poem The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus. Jabez Dawes makes a startling claim:



'Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn't any Santa Claus!'...

'Jabez' replied the angry saint,
'It isn't I, it's you that ain't.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn't any Jabez Dawes!'...

No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,...

From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,...

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

The full text of the poem is available at: http://www.westegg.com/nash/santa.html

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for charity, rooted in justice and righteousness. Maimonides suggested a hierarchy of tzedakah, where the highest ideal is to offer a fellow human what we would call "a hand up" - giving him or her what is necessary to become independent and self-supporting. That could be education, a job, a business partnership or a loan - anything that helps without shaming the recipient.

How to give tzedakah? If possible, it is best when the giver does not know the recipient and vice-versa. At a lower level, the giver is anonymous but knows the recipient. At the next lower level, the recipient knows the giver but but the recipient is anonymous. At a still lower level, the giver and recipient know each other, but the gift is offered without being requested. Finally, there is the gift given after being requested.

Ira Glickstein

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The TED Talks: Is There a God?

I was talking with Ira and Joel about using the TED talks videos as a springboard for TVPClub blog discussion. Here are the opening sentences in their website's "About TED" page:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

This site makes the best talks and performances from TED available to the public, for free. Almost 150 talks from our archive are now available, with more added each week. These videos are released under a Creative Commons license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

Our mission: Spreading ideas.



So, as you can see, on paper (pixels?) it looks pretty promising as an intellectual source and igniter --- and in fact, I've viewed several of their offerings and they are of high quality.

As an experiment, I am proposing that all interested parties take 29 minutes (they lied about the 18 minutes in this case) to view Richard Dawkins' talk on militant atheism and respond to it. There are already many responses on the TED site to this talk.

To get to the Dawkins' talk video I would recommend that you navigate to it in order to get a better feel for the website; just use the link:

http://www.ted.com/

to go to the home page and the first line indicates that you can search by theme, talk title or speaker. Next make sure that View as Visualization and Resize by Most Discussed are checked and the page displays visual blocks whose size is determined by the amount of discussion generated and when you pass your mouse over each graphic more information appears --- it's fun to play around with.

Here is one way to navigate to Dawkins' talk:
Click on "Themes A-Z" just above the red line.
Click on the Theme, "Is There a God?" under the letter "I" and wait patiently.
Click on the video "Richard Dawkins on militant atheism" to begin watching the video.

The "About" section previews the talk and the speaker and the "Comments" section is similar to our blog and worth browsing. If you rate the talk you can view a summation which uses the same clever size technique (using words this time). I'd like to view "How the Mind Works" at some point but how to proceed from here is anybody's and everybody's choice.

Enjoy,

Stu

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Magical Technology and the Supernatural

In an earlier thread, Howard introduced a new topic idea: " ... almost no one who uses the Internet has the faintest idea of the physics, engineering, manufacturing and programming skills that are essential for making it work. I mean, it’s a total mystery to most people. "

I agreed and quoted what turned out to be one of Arthur C. Clarke's Laws:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Howard went on: "... this feeling of mystery (or ignorance) may account for the rise the distrust of science in general and the increase in accepting occult and supernatural beliefs. In other words, if technical devices appear to have an unknown cause, then any event can have an unknown cause."

I agree with Howard that technology is a mystery to most people using it, but I am not sure if he is right about a rise in the distrust of science or an increase in occult and supernatural beliefs. In fact, I am concerned the common folks place too much trust in science and, as a result, are losing their faith in the supernatural.

My reading of history is that irrational beliefs are central to the success of any society. If they get out of hand -OR- if they are extinguished by pure reason, disaster follows. As always, the "happy medium" is the path to success.

The scientific method is a totally rational ideal that is largely responsible for modern civilization. However necessary, it is by no means sufficient. We still need belief in supernatural magic and other things not literally true to make progress work.

Another of Clarke's laws states:

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Indeed, we must creatively imagine we believe in the impossible to assure progress in extending the limits of science and technology. Howard agrees to a point: "An essential part of the scientific method is entirely rational, but another essential part is creative imagination often using irrational analogies and metaphors. Also, for physicists the natural world is super enough so that the religious supernatural appears quite dull."

We need to appreciate another of Clarke's laws:


When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

I, and most of the other active members of this Blog may be characterized, in the words of this law, as "distinguished but elderly scientists". We need to be wary of declaring anything impossible!

On the other hand, according to Isaac Asimov's corollary to Clarke's law:

"When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervor and emotion -- the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right."

Ira Glickstein

PS: The photograph is of The_Turk, a 1770's chess playing machine. It turned out to be a hoax - a skilled human chess player was hidden inside the device. Today, however, you can buy a chess program that will run on your PC and beat everyone but a chess master. Larger computers are well-matched with human chess masters and, in the forseeable future, the world chess champion will be a computer.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Half-Year Anniversary


THANKS ALL FOR MAKING THIS POSSIBLE!


This Blog has been around for six full months. We've had some 60 New Main Topics and over 300 Comments posted. We've enjoyed some pretty wonderful (and courteous) cross-discussions with some mighty talented and knowledgable people.
Stick with this project, at whatever level: Lurker, Commenter, or Author. Let's make the next six months even more productive.
Ira Glickstein

Sunday, December 16, 2007

god is not Great




god is not Great - How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens is an easy read - that man can really write! I found it interesting but full of irrelevant information and cheap argumentative tricks.

I know the scriptures are the writings of humans without the benefit of modern scientific educations. I know they have been translated and edited by humans for thousands of years. I am not a literal believer. Therefore, the rather obvious lack of scientifically verifiable content in holy books does not surprise me at all.

Hitchens claims (page 8) that religion has retarded development of civilization. On what evidence? None that I could find. The very fact that all societies and great civilizations of the past have been infused with what many of us judge to be irrational spiritual belief seems to argue for the benefit of religion for their survival and spread. If religion retards civilization, one would expect non-believing societies, free from religious retardation, to have been most successful. Can anyone cite an example? History proves the opposite!

Hitchens relates how he was asked by Dennis Prager if, approached by a bunch of men on a dark evening in a strange neighborhood, he would be less worried about his safety if he knew they were coming out of a prayer meeting. He spouts (page 18) a litany of cities (Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, ... "and that is only the B's") where, during certain times in recent and ancient history he would be less confortable if confronted by men exiting a religious meeting. Hitchens lives in Washington, DC and spends most of his time away from home in New York, London, Los Angeles, and so on. What would any honest person's answer be to that question?

He goes out of his way to trash both Mother Teresa (page 145+) and Ghandi (page 182+).

Hitchens was a Marxist before he lost his faith in that hopeless cause. He supported Trotsky who was exiled and later murdered by Stalin. One wonders if Hitchens would still be a Marxist had Trotsky turned the tables and eliminated Stalin.

Based on experience of loss of faith in Marxism, he laments (page 153) the pain he knows his book is inflicting on the religious faithful. I wonder if he is simply jealous of their faith? Like a kid whose balloon has popped, he savors the experience of popping everyone else's balloon.

He misquotes Rabbi Hillel, one of our most influential Jewish scholars, claiming Hillel stated the Golden Rule in the postitive version (page 213): "Treat others as you wish to be treated." In fact, even the slightest research would have shown that Hillel used the negative version favored by most Jewish scholars. Hillel wrote: "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

He has an entire chapter entitled "Is Religion Child Abuse?" and concludes it is much worse (page 217) "'Child abuse' is really a silly and pathetic euphemism for what has been going on; the systematic rape and torture of children ..." He cites cases where children have indeeed been abused by priests of various religions, but that is an argumentative trick. If some Englishmen rape and torture children would it be right to say English civilization is all about rape and torture of children?

In a Comment to a previous Topic I noted Hitchens's reaction to what he calls "Hannukah" (he can't even spell it wrong the "right" way "Hanukkah" as major media do :-(

"Hannukah" is, in his words, a "vapid and annoying" holiday where "the Jews borrow shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with 'Christmas'".

Sorry it annoys Hitchens, but our grandchildren and children and fellow Jews northwest of Boston were anything but "pathetic" a couple weeks ago as we joyously lit the Chanukah candles and consumed more than our share of latkes. In a multi-generational recognition, Vi and I and our family had the honor of lighting one of the candles at a multi-congregation event in Chelmsford, MA.

The Maccabees, the heros of our Chanukah story of religious freedom, were, according to Hitchens, "forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamenalism against the many Jews .. attracted by Hellenism." In doing so, they sired "the stench of Calvin and Torquemada and bin Laden ... a poisonous branch that should have been snapped off long ago."

Hitchens apparantly believes it would have been better for monothesim to have been wiped out by Hellenists in 165 BC because that would have prevented the excesses of Christianity and Islam!

Again, on what historical basis can that claim be founded? The Maccabee revolt was in response to the Syrian Greek effort to replace our monotheistic God with their pantheon of gods. To that end, the Temple in Jerusalem was forceably Hellenized. The success of the Maccabees restored a more traditional Judaism to that area, made the Greeks and later the Romans more tolerant of religious diversity in their empires, and set the stage for the later development of Christianity.

Would western civilization have been better off with a pantheon of Greek gods?

I think the case is clear that western civilization is an amalgam of Judeo-Christian and Greek/Roman civilizations and each of those components makes it strong. Had the Judeo-Christian element been left out, I think eastern civilization and religion (i.e., Ghengis Khan) might have wiped us out. Would the world have been better off? I don't know. However, Hitchens seems to hate western civilization so much that he might prefer whatever would have followed from a Mongol success.

On the positive side (at least for me as a Pantheist) he notes Leslie Orgel's comment (page 84): "... evolution is smarter than you are." (Orgel was an associate of Francis Crick, DNA pioneer.)

He also writes (page 165) "... people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be."

Ira Glickstein


Friday, December 14, 2007

Labels on Main Topic Postings

I've noticed that Joel has begun putting labels at the end of his new Main Topic postings.

GREAT IDEA!

I went back and put labels on a few older postings.

If we do this for all new Main Topics, it will help Blog members find related Main Topics and the Comments under them.

Here is how they work:

The Author of a new Main Topic puts the labels (e.g,, L/C, liberal, conservative, mental health, ...) in the box at the bottom of the posting.

A reader can click on the label at the end of the posting and see all the other postings with the same label.

Ain't that great!

Ira

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Evolution of an idea

As you are aware I'm fascinated by the fallibility of the human mind. I noted a new example the other day while struggling with one of the traffic circles in our retirement community. I'm not going to complain about the traffic circle itself. That's been done to death. Let's face it, at least about half of the people entering the circle don't know what they're doing. No, as I was struggling to maintain a view of the many hazards surrounding me, I jogged my head back and forth from one side of the window-roof pillar to the other. I recalled that this didn't used to be the case.

Back in the early '50's, you'll remember that we had "wrap-around" windshields. Here's a quote from a January 23, 1954 Christian Science Monitor news story titled, Cadillac Declares Top Power: "The wrap-around, panoramic windshield follows the trend in most General Motors cars this year, designed to move back the corner post blind spot from the driver's vision. These windshields add 186 square inches to the window area. A total of 55 square inches has been added to the over-all window space compared with 1953."




The problem of obstructed vision was solved by technology developed for WWII bombers. Bravo. Fast forward about twenty years and Lee Iacocca comes along to huckster "cab-forward design." Everyone signs on based upon a massive ad campaign. Besides, it's so stylish to move the windshield away from the driver and over the engine compartment!! It's more aerodynamic they assure us. (Actually the improvement is negligible.) The net result is that we all accept driving around with our view of the road obscured by a big fat post. Someday a class action lawyer is going to get smart and sue Chrysler for perpetrating this road hazard on the American people. With respect -Joel

Monday, December 10, 2007

State Sponsored Education

[from Joel] You may have seen a public service ad on TV recently, encouraging young people to visit a site called GetGoodKarma.com. The ad sends a comical message that terrible things happen to people who don't have good karma. The advertisement is sponsored by The Ad Council and the Federal Voting Assistance Program. I visited the website and found this on the site under the definition of karma.

LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND ALL THE STUFF IN IT.

Karma is the universe's system of checks and balances. Wherein everything you do has a corresponding effect. It's pretty simple really. Do good things, earn some karma points and raise your chances of good things happening for you. Do bad things and the cosmos may just send a swarm of locusts your way. Or open a black hole above your front yard. Or something similarly unpleasant. Maybe. Possibly. Better to keep things straight.

I'm a little disconcerted that a government agency would sponsor a blatant appeal to a specific religious belief. You may or may not believe in the concept of karma. Like Christmas symbols, it's possible to water them down for public consumption so that they lose their religious significance and thereby are allowable under the Constitution. I don't see how this is good for either religion or the State. The young people at whom the ad is aimed are often enamored by the Dalai Lama and Eastern religions, so this is not just a figurative use of the concept. I think that the parents of these young people (and Thomas Jefferson) would be right to be outraged by the governmental intrusion supported by their tax dollars.

Based upon my experience in first-grade classrooms in recent years, the broader philosophical question is this. To what extent should taxpayer dollars be used to support propagandizing children in a "good" cause? We probably all recall as children participating in fire prevention programs, not skating where the ice is thin, and being kind to one's neighbor. None of these are related to reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but were deemed non-partisan safety or character building issues. Now one sees non-smoking, anti-meat, and environmentalism creeping into the curriculum from kindergarten on. Are we at a tipping point? At what point is the state just doing its job and at what point are they operating as a state propaganda machine, using the power and resources of the state to force a belief upon children. Is there a bright line somewhere?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Happy Chanukah

Chanukah, the Jewish "Festival of Lights" celebrating a great victory for religious freedom in the second century BC, comes early this year.

This evening we had the pleasure of enjoying the lighting of the first candle with our triplet grand-daughters. Of course we ate traditional latkes (potato pancakes). Our grandchildren's Rabbi is anything but traditional. Not only is she a woman, but a woman married to a woman! Definitely not my grandfather's kind of Rabbi, but she is wonderful!

We hope everyone enjoys the winter holiday season with friends and family.

Chanukah is not an "important" Jewish holiday as it celebrates an event that occurred after the Hebrew Bible was completed. However, in modern times, in competition with Christmas, Chanukah has assumed major proportions.

I think it is fair to say that both Christmas and Chanukah really co-opt the Roman "Saturnalia" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia . That winter holiday is based on the Greek "rebirth of the Sun" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice). The ancients noticed that the Sun rose lower and lower as November and December wore on. There was a danger, if the trend continued, the Sun would not rise at all, and everyone would freeze. So, around the winter solstice, when the Sun begins to rise higher and higher, everybody lighted candles and were thankful the Sun was reborn.

So, "Yo Saturnalia", and "Merry Christmas", and "Happy Chanukah" and, for all the atheists in our group, have a "Wonderful Winter Solstice" (or, fellow Seinfeld fans, "Festivus for the Rest of Us")!

The Glickstein Family


PS: Note on English spelling of Chanukah (vs Hanukkah or Hanuka, ...)


The Hebrew Spelling is:


Reading from right to left, we have the consonant CHet (throat-clearing gutteral sound like the Scottish loch and German Bach) with the vowel A below it; the consonant Nun; the vowel U (as in blue); the consonant Kaf with the vowel Ah below it; and, finally, the consonant Hey. When I was a child, it was always written as "Chanukah".

However, some linguists got into the act and decided that "CH" was not the best way to represent the gutteral Hebrew sound the way it had traditionally been represented in loch or Bach. They used an H with a mark over it. Well, that got simplified into a plain H, and, as a result, many people pronounce it as "Hanuka".

The problem with that spelling is there are only six letters! You need eight if you are going to put one letter on each of the eight candles. So someone, who must have been unaware of the Hebrew, added an extra K in the middle and an H at the end, and the result is HANUKKAH which has become the standard spelling in major US media. Please note there is only one Kaf in the Hebrew spelling, so there is no justification for the double KK.

Please, as a Christian friend told me: "Put Christ back in Christmas and the CH back in Chanukah!"

Saturday, December 1, 2007

L/C Mental Health

This posting relates to our previous discussions of the limitations of polls and our L-mind C-mind dichotomy. The following, from Gallup indicates a linear relationship between self-reported mental health and party affilliation.



According to Gallup, "Fifty-eight percent of Republicans report having excellent mental health, compared to 43% of independents and 38% of Democrats. This relationship between party identification and reports of excellent mental health persists even within categories of income, age, gender, church attendance, and education."

The following chart shows that even low-income Republicans report better mental health than Democrats with similar incomes. As expected, Democrats with higher incomes report 17% better mental health than Democrats with lower incomes, but high-income Republicans report 19% better mental health than high-income Democrats and 36% bettter mental health than low-income Democrats!




Of course, Democrats and Republicans do not exactly map to L-mind and C-mind, but that is at least an approximation.

Some portion of the population will not participate in polls and others will tell the pollsters what they think they want to hear or what will make the pollster think more highly of them - or they may lie outright. Thus, despite the best efforts of the pollsters, the results may or may not represent the actual opinions of the total population.

Never-the-less, poll results may be the best information available for certain things. Also, the high visibility of polls indicates that media audiences tend to pay attention to them.

On the other hand, since the differences are so strong (20% difference between Republicans and Democrats) there is a good chance the conclusions are true. Therefore all you L-minds, if you adopt some C-mind attitudes, your mental health may actually improve (or, at least, you may think it has improved! :^)




Ira Glickstein


(feeling mentally healthy)