Friday, June 24, 2011


If you treat meaning as a quest you will never discover it. The meaning of life is apparent to anyone who lives intentionally and rationally. I should probably add realistically with respect to life's finite duration. It is not provided by God or anyone else. This is not to say a theist cannot discover meaning in life, but as a quest to find what God intends is a open invitation to the con artists who are happy to satisfy that quest.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Biology of Ethics

The Biology of Ethics - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Churchland, professor emerita of philosophy at the University of California at San Diego, has been best known for her work on the nature of consciousness. But now, with a new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (Princeton University Press), she is taking her perspective into fresh terrain: ethics. And the story she tells about morality is, as you'd expect, heavily biological, emphasizing the role of the peptide oxytocin, as well as related neurochemicals.

Oxytocin's primary purpose appears to be in solidifying the bond between mother and infant, but Churchland argues—drawing on the work of biologists—that there are significant spillover effects: Bonds of empathy lubricated by oxytocin expand to include, first, more distant kin and then other members of one's in-group. (Another neurochemical, aregenine vasopressin, plays a related role, as do endogenous opiates, which reinforce the appeal of cooperation by making it feel good.)"

Facing Death

Is Theism Simply ... The Fear of Facing Reality? - Beliefnet

I suspect you will find that for those of us who accept the permanence of death anything, even God, is a distraction we cannot afford. I am too busy living each day as if it were the last, doing what I can to make this space I live in more inviting and user friendly for those who will inherit it I can't say I fear death. I plan as if it will never come, although I know it will. There will be, as my late mother bequeathed to me, 'Things I haven't finished' but I will have done what I can undistracted by planning for the unknown.

I have found that all God concepts are so encrusted with the barnacles of a violent and hateful past that it is better to rediscover human values that underlie the religious dogma. Humans evolved as tribes, and once we got beyond a face group tribe things began to fall apart, imperfectly glued back together with God and religions. I find it useful to go back to the tribal mores: be nice to those in the tribe, help all the children in the tribe grow to useful intelligent adults, and make the tribal space a better place for the whole tribe. I try to generalize that to the large and amorphous tribe I consider to be my Social Support Group, that is, people who have the same values and mores that I do.

Friday, June 10, 2011

No Afterlife?

Is Theism Simply ... The Fear of Facing Reality? - Beliefnet

No afterlife at all. When I die, nothing remains but a few ashes. If I have done my job in this life I will have affected a lot of people who will either grow with it and affect others, or not. In either case I neither know nor care after death. I do however, know and care now and that affects the way I will conduct whatever life is left to me. And has affected the way I have conducted my life up to this point. I have seen people I affected grow to greatness. I am content.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Atheist Values

Differences in outlook - Discuss Atheism - Beliefnet Community

Most non-believers I know are interested in social values and the direction of human evolution, neither of which is bounded or delimited. Much of the thinking in this area is found in fiction, that most do not recognize as atheist until you realize that nothing in the fiction depends on God. Steinbeck for example superficially uses religious themes in East of Eden but it is one of the most profoundly humanist books I have ever read and reread frequently I might add. Similarly for Grapes of Wrath. None of the major characters can or do get any help or guidance from God in their attempt to create a livable society for the propertyless. Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Pournelle-Niven are all working out the ramifications of social structures without God. Ostensibly telling fictional stories about the future, they are dealing with real situations that exist in societies today, and working them out without the help of God. And not incidentally showing how such societies can work quite well in many cases.

The other, much more difficult source of information about atheists working out the problems of living is to observe the lives of graduates of the top universities. Very few get their direction or inspiration from God in working out the messy and unbounded problems of making a contribution to their society through their work, perhaps in business, but frequently in a non-profit, the arts, or academia, living and raising families that will carry their values and aspirations forward. Most are too busy to blog, but an interesting source that many depend on is peers in the social networks on line. Almost always simply links to interesting idea sources, but once a trusted atheist acquires a following others feed links that are reposted for those interested. This source is obviously quite new. And used by Churches effectively to promote religion, but the secular world is using it effectively as well.

I am not sure how any of this might help us find common ground, as it appears to me that God solutions are necessarily static and conservative, and the atheist solutions fluid and nebulous. Uncertainty is part and parcel of an atheist life, as the only certainty is death. Living in a way to justify having lived is an important issue for most atheists. God won't help.

Atheist Lfe Stages.

Is Theism Simply Born And Persist Due To The Fear of Facing Reality? - Discuss Atheism - Beliefnet Community

I also think that after the age of fifty or so we should gradually become disenchanted with life so as to ease more gracefully into our departure from it.

If I may respectfully offer an alternative for an atheist. As a youth with a lifetime ahead one has plenty of life to waste even if one is vaguely aware that death is somewhere ahead and final. So one wastes it discovering what is of transient value and what might be of more value to self and society. In midlife one is so busy with creating value for self, family and society that thoughts of the end of life seldom intrude. After the creative torch is passed to children and/or the creative successors at work, 50 is as good an age as any, that the end of life becomes apparant and one reflects on the contributions one has made, and what still is left to be done to help those carrying on the legacy. Telling stories about life lessons learned is a common solution, either live if one is fortunate enough to have the successors nearby, or in writing if not. Self published books that may have surprising impact far beyond their intended audience of friends and family, or which languish on shelves. The value is in the creation, not the result.

I know of one atheist who is struggling to stay alive to finish volume IV of an immigrant's life story that is resonating with another immigrant from a different country in a different era. Worthless? Easing into death? I think not. But the pressure of impending death is powerful, and the work left to be done is reason enough not to go quietly into the night.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On a Life Worth Dying For.

Is Theism Simply Born And Persist Due To The Fear of Facing Reality? - Beliefnet

Accepting the reality and finality of death, does not lead at all to fear of dying today or any day. When the time comes that the mind and body cannot maintain their integrity they will cease to function. In the mean time there are many things that a person needs to do to affect the society of which hesh is a part to make that society more human friendly. Some of those things will have lasting effects, some perhaps will have none, but all are important reasons for living today, and as long as one can affect others in the society.

Death might well be described as a condition when affecting others is no longer possible. It is nothing to fear, if one has affected others properly they will carry on the task of making society a better place for humans, and life in the larger sense goes on, even though the no longer useful individual is not a part of it.

Today I can see people I have affected taking the society to places I cannot conceive, but which I approve of. Whether I die today or some day in the future I am content. But I am not finished affecting others in my society. So until the time comes when I can no longer do so I will continue to live my life so that it is worth dying for. Thanks, Forrest Church.

Monday, June 6, 2011

the unfulfilled dream : the unfulfilled dream

Note the linked article is necessary background.

As long as UU does not define a belief statement it will remain a social club that meets on Sunday.

UU's seem to fear any statement containing God as offensive to us atheists, but Forrest Church's Cathedral even had windows for atheists. In that Cathedral atheists could worship meaningfully with their theist friends. The humanist God of Jesus (Matt 22:37-40) who loves all Herm neighbors is perfectly acceptable to most atheists. They won't believe, but as a unifying principle with their theist friends God can work as an avatar if not a deity.

As a side benefit you will probably attract a lot of Christians who are fed up with Paul's trinity and have refocused their theology on the Synoptics and Matt 22:37-40 in particular.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Education Common Privatized.

Blogger: Free and Responsible Search - Post a Comment:

The common that is being stolen today is the right of every child to the education hesh needs to claim herm place at the workbench of ideas. Good public education has become the property of those that can afford the homes in the few good school districts and vote for the local taxes that support them. With some charity to a few who can make the trek and get in.

This is the modern stake that was once given to anyone that chose to pay attention in school. It is now denied to most.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Random Thoughts from The Believing Brain.

I have just started The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. This post is a collection of quotes and reactions not to be taken too seriously. It is definitely not a review, and should not be quoted as such.
"The brain is a belief engine.
Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow: Belief-dependent realism." p5
Pattern seeking certainly, but a belief engine? I think not.
"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons." p36
Certainly true for many smart people that are not trained to be skeptical about beliefs in general. There may in fact be two types of people, believers and for lack of a better term philosophical non-believers. Or in Heinlein's terms learners.
I have no beliefs. Belief gets in the way of learning. Lazarus Long Time Enough For Love, Robert A Heinlein, 1973 p20.
Chapter 3 The journey of a believer from nowhere to religion to fundie skepticism. The will to believe will not be denied. I hope he does more with his thinking up to the conversion in 12th grade.
Chapter 4 Patternicity
People believe weird things because of an evolved need to believe unweird things. p62
He is assuming that there is no evolutionary pressure to sort out the weird things from the unwierd, since the cost of believing in weird things is assumed to be zero. This may be true for the evolutionary scenario for individuals, the theory being that there is no cost for being skittish of wind in the grass compared with the cost of a lion in the grass. But in a sense this is a Pascal Wager argument. If one shies at every odd movement, one will never get the hunting or gathering done. There must be a BS detector built into the belief system even at the primitive level.
The rest of the chapter is a series of experiments in pattern seeking in uncertain situations. In the Ono experiments the subjects were in effect told to find patterns. "If you do something you will get points on the counter." The Catania and Cutts experiment also created the impression of pattern possibility. Encouraging pattern seeking behavior involving the two buttons.
Chapter 5 Agenticity.
Typical of a skeptic believer Shermer picks extreme examples to mask the underlying reality of the natural duality of the human mind. As if you have to be in extreme conditions to be aware of the inner control segment of the mind. True most of us don't hallucinate doubles or OBEs or God for that matter, but the society imprints the necessary and life maintaining control mechanisms on the subconscious mind that we seldom are aware of. Including the necessary social controls necessary for getting along with "our people." It also takes care of the extreme staying alive situations by essentially shutting down the vaunted rational cortical control and going back to the basics of breathing and putting one foot in front of the other.

He includes the obligatory skeptical look at some of the weirder manifestations of this duality. Sort of like the cartoon ex-drunk sweeping the drinks off the bar. Too much time spent on paranormal psychic garbage, which are God substitute ways of staying in contact with and attempting to manage the inner control mechanism.
It was just one of many readings [of conversations with the dead] (at ninety dollars a pop) conducted [by one of the gurus for the psychic crowd.]
The position of shaman... is lovely work, if you can stomach it. Lazarus Long.

Chapter 6 Part 1. The neurological argument for the mind. He starts by demolishing a straw man argument of a mental force argument for the mind, weak argument weak rebuttal. The description of the working of neurons is detailed, and informative, about the right mix of science and gee whiz for the educated layperson who is the presumed target for the book. The discussion of dopamine as the belief mediator it detailed and persuasive. I am skeptical of experimental protocols using groups of skeptics and believers as subjects, as the skeptics seem to be believers in skepticism, that is ESP and the paranormal is crap. As a true non-believer, I wonder if some of the pattern finding activities might show different results for those with a finely honed pattern finding facility with an excellent BS detector as well. Apparently more to come on this issue. A nice few pages on patternivity, creativity and madness. Using 3 Nobel prize winners Feinman of A bomb fame, Mullis of Polymerase Chain Reaction fame, and Nash whose game theory equilibrium is certifiably crazy. Feinman sane and creative Nash Schizophrenic and creative and Mullis somewhere in the middle, a definite believer in weird things, but somehow able to sort out the weirdness useful enough for a Nobel. I am not convinced that the craziness is not in the eye of the beholder, Shermer in this case.
Chapter 6b Good discussion of mind-brain that makes me wonder about whether all monists are believers in the sense of either the mind belongs to God or it belongs to me as actions of the brain. Quot\ing Paul Bloom: "We are natural born dualists." He then goes on to defend monism as an unnatural state of affairs, which I find involved belief. He then goes on to explain the Theory of Mind (TOM) which is the way we think about how we think and how others think. Tying it all together with agency, mirror neurons, and story creation. According to Sam Harris experiment on 14 subjects some "believers" some not. We perceive all things as true and evaluation of falsity is a separate function. Even religious statements for believers and non alike p135-7 I wonder if any "real" non-believers, (acreds) that is non-believers unrelated to religious beliefs were a part of the experiment. I would be curious to see the raw data and see if there was an "anomalous" result that was thrown out. Probably not as I find acreds to be a very small segment of even the secular and especially the skeptic population.
P143-4 Making a lot of stew from the oyster of the Harris poll. Where are the unbelievers in the dthe 6 pretty well cover the waterfront. ata? Ok for believers in afterlife he gives some plausible reasons. Pick one and you can explain anything.

148-50 way too much attention and debunking given to ESP theory of the afterlife. To be expected from a believing skeptic. Lots of what is the mechanism and reliance on the data protocols of esp skeptics. Look for esp under the streetlight of heavy emotional content: Lovers and musicians and dancers.
P152-6 Long discussion of NDEs and drug induced OBEs which he as expected confirm his belief in monism.
It may be true that the brain is 9integral with the mind, but as I read the data a natural dualism explains things better.

Amusing but basically useless CNN panel including all of the usual suspects Depak Chopra, Sanjay Gupta, and a few NDE survivors and reincarnations for color. I won’t watch the replay.

The wrap up of the chapter is the counter argument that lack of afterlife simply makes this life important. As I use it all the time myself in almost the same words he has to be right.

It is nice to see that believers and acreds can come to the same conclusions occasionally.
P171 In his discussion of VMAT2 gene which seems to give 'Self forgetfulness' and "transpersonal identification" and "mysticism". The link to nicotine addiction seems plausible to me, absent other influences which was the basis for the study, the link to God p172 seems like a leap of faith. It would seem that eg Mormon eschewing of nicotine, caffeine, and other addictive substances, would lead to the opposite conclusion that VMAT2 would lead away from God belief to self actualization.
p 170 the link of DRD4 to risk seeking behavior seems unrelated to God belief to me, not sure what Shermer is trying to get to here. It would seem that risk aversion is more closely related to God beliefs, and therefore low DRD4=high dopamine fix naturally would lead to no risk belief in God.

I wonder about this psychobabble self-transcendence. "Becoming totally absorbed in an activity, feeling connected to the larger world, and an unwillingness to disbelieve in unfashionable things like ESP (my restatement of the last) sounds like simple rational intelligence to me not spirituality. Dopamine makes you feel good about the way you look at the world. If you look at it without beliefs or prejudices, and concentrate on things that make the larger world a better place of course you will get a dopamine high. Any relationship to God beliefs is clearly Shermers belief in a believing brain.

pp172-184 Conventional skeptical analysis of God belief as created by humans to fill a God hole in their brain. Certainly true for a large portion of the population who will disagree with the human creation part and assert a Creator.

p186 "It is time to step out of our evolutionary heritage and our historical traditions and embrace science as the best tool ever devised for explaining how the world works. It is time to work together to create a social and political world that embraces moral principles [Whose?]and yet allows natural human diversity to floursh." "Religion cannot ...." Although he denies it typical liberal skeptic BS.

Chapter 9. Conventional skeptical look at the alien as replacement for God. Now that religion has lost its elevated position. He uses it to buttress his premise that the belief comes first and justification later. It works just fine.

Chapter 10. Standard debunking of conspiracy theories focusing on 9/11. Not enough focus on why conspiracy theorists think the way they do.

Chapt 11 Politics. He begins with Jost's Meta-study of conservatives linking conservatism to psychological management of uncertainty and fear. I am less comfortable with the endorsement of inequality. Haight points out the group binding and support of essential institutions as part of the conservative pattern. He Lakoffalso mentions the Political Mind, Lakoff and The Political Brain, Weston p234 with the liberal trope (This God forbid) rationality, intelligence, & optimism. This conflicts with Shermer's belief bias toward Libertarianism. He confirms this by the association of university profs with liberalism. Duh they all are smart, flexible and rational enough to get a PhD. [Also at least in my experience they have left behind their religious beliefs if they ever had any. The selection process is reinforced by the conservative religious bias against education.] Interesting factoid, USA Today is the most centrist media. Probably due to its primary market in the hotel and travel areas where money talks and the well off are either liberal or successful conservatives generally at least well educated.

He then conflates p237-40 belief based morality with politics using Haight and Graham's 5 innate and universal moral parameters. 1. Harm/Care. 2. Fairness/Reciprocity. 3. In-Group/Loyalty. 4. Authority/Respect. 5. Purity/sanctity.

P 240 "Liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, and often flaunt(sic) faith and tradition in order to care for the weak and oppressed" ?????

"Religion and Government are the two systems for social control and watchdogs" to control the free riders. Shrmer then wastes a few pages with different studies using different words to confirm his belief that liberals weight H/C, F/R higher than G/L A/R & P/S with conservatives the opposite.

He then spends several pages setting up the justification for his Libertarian BS. (Which according to the thesis of the book came first.)

Chapter 12 101 ways our brains fool us into thinking we are right. He starts with one of my favorites post hoc odds. "A talk show you will never see: Our guest has had several dreams about the death of prominent people none of which have happened. Stay tuned maybe the next one will be confirmed" p260-1 describes a delightful experiment in which 15 Dems and 15 GOPs were wired up and presented statements by Bush and Kerry in which they contradicted themselves. The cognitive areas of the brain were out of the circuit, the emotional areas and conflict resolution areas were hot and everybody got a dopamine fix when their candidate was right.
He goes on to describe all the usual suspects Hindsight bias and self justification bias getting prominent attention, along with a host of other biases people use to avoid thinking about what they are observing.
The obligatory debunking of ESP. [not convincing] but a good discussion of the return to the mean fallacy. The SI Cover jinx is simply back to normal for the athlete after a flurry of good stuff that made the cover. Extraordinary things happen given enough time and attention. It is important to recognize they are just that: things on the tails of the bell curve.

I get the impression that in Chapter 13 Shermer is trying to justify his belief comes first in the face of the fact that the inductive paradigm of science has the potential to put the data before the belief in spite of our inherent tendency in his thesis of belief first. He properly points out that in Terra Incognata the absence of belief is liberating, and frees science to create de novo theories, unclouded by belief. But he seems a bit uncomfortable with this conclusion and points to belief based interpretations of data by Columbus and even Galileo in his interpretation of the Saturn data. It seems he is fighting a confirmation bias of his own Belief first belief. Which is threatened by the Scientific Method. He claims to be examining this in the final chapters. We shall see.

Chapt 14a Even astronomers can be victims of confirmation bias, but eventually science prevails, as a lead in to the orgins question.
Chapt 14b. Apparently an extended confirmation bias of Goddidntdoit. Shermer presents a bunch of origin of the universe theories as if they have more value than Goddidit. He messes around with the theist argument of the cosmological constants being just right for our existence as if there needs to be an explanation. Or as if no explanation is conceding the Goddidit argument. Amusing speculations to be sure as a confirmation bias that Goddidntdoit. But what is wrong with the universe exists, I exist, it all works. The only reasonable answer to why? is don't know, don't care.

From Beliefnet:"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

—Micheal Shermer--"

In his most recent book The Believing Mind, Times Books, 2011 Shermer makes a strong case that the human brain is necessarily a belief engine. His case is that pattern seeking and assigning agency to the patterns is a survival trait built in to the brain. His claim is that we believe first and think about it later, if ever.

In my experience this is as true of atheists and skeptics (including Shermer) as it is for religious believers. As many will testify dragging a belief say about UFOs out and trying to ask whether the belief is justified or not is extremely difficult for most people. Whether you are for 'em or ag'in 'em can you really decide you just don't know? My experience is that most people can't on any belief based subject which is to say, if Shermer is right, all subjects. It as if "I just don't know" just doesn't have a home in the human brain. "That's right!" has many homes OFC and ACC and lots of reward mechanisms in the ventral striatum in the brain. P 260. This makes a lot of sense, in the modern world "I don't know" gets in the way of many necessary decisions. Which stock to buy, which way to bet on a business decision, etc, as they say, it is better to go with the gut, i.e. the belief systems in the brain, and just do it.

I of course can't speak for Shermer but one of the reasons I enjoyed the book is that he makes a hard scientific case, that is materialistic and rational, for woo-woo. Maybe I am belief disabled, or I had the wrong upbringing and went to the wrong school, but I have never been able to understand how extremely intelligent and rational people can believe weird things. I think I understand it better now, but I am still an outsider looking in.

Whew, finally done. Formal review on Thinking on the Blue Roads