The Other I

September 7, 2014

I’m right, and you are wrong: so I’m good and you are evil

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:28 pm

Richard Rohr is a Catholic theologian who posts a daily blog of spiritual thoughts.  I find his thinking a little too pious to suit me, but a friend recently sent me one of his meditations that on first reading I thought was terrific.   It’s Rohr’s understanding of the tree of knowledge of good and evil described in the book of Genesis, and the eating of which resulted in Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden.

Rohr suggests that what Adam and Eve did was to take unto themselves the right to judge good and evil — not only in themselves, but in everybody else as well.  This is what destroyed Paradise, and it is the great sin still practiced by some of the great religions of the world.  We have been doing it for thousands of years.  Christians for centuries throughout Europe stretched heretics on the rack, burned them  at the stake or beheaded them if they failed to submit.   They even set out in heroic crusades against the infidel, murdering, stealing and raping in religious zeal,  Today, Muslims are continuing this righteous slaughter.

It is easy for me to sit here today in horror over these and thousands of other similar events:  the settlers in America who engaged in a pogrom of ethnic cleansing for centuries against the American Indians, Spanish explorers throughout the Americas who even wrote to the Pope to determine whether the natives were actually human, slavery which continues in many parts of the world today.  It’s easy for us in what we call the “free world” to condemn the absence of religious freedom and the coercion of non-believers on the grounds that those in power are enforcing God’s will.

Unfortunately, it is also easy for us not to see ourselves doing the same thing.  Positions on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, extra- and pre-marital sex, assisted suicide and capital punishment, among others, are being fought almost solely on religious grounds in our own countries practicing what we believe is “religious freedom.”  It is not only ISIS Muslims beheading anyone who disagrees with them who argue that they have the absolute truth, and therefore the God-given duty to impose that truth on the world.  The Roman Catholic Church has declared itself to be infallible, to be not only a true church, but the one and only true church.  Many fundamentalists of various persuasions are convinced that anyone who does not accept their doctrines is living with falsehood.  It is a stance different not in principle, but only in content, from the absolutism of many Muslim believers.  Most Christian churches no longer have the secular authority they once had to carry out beheadings and burning at the stake.  But many have not given up the belief that they have a unique unchallengeable insight into God’s Truth.


“The Fall of Man” by Lucas Cranach the Elder

And so this is my problem with Rohr’s interpretation of Genesis:  it is incomplete.  If we are going to say that we cannot judge others in terms of good and evil, that this is the great sin that destroyed Paradise, then we must face the reality that our own grasp of the Truth, of good and evil, is at best incomplete, and sometimes even positively wrong.

Why do so many of us seem to need this absolute certainty?  this conviction that God is on our side?  Are we afraid of uncertainty?  Is it a search for power?  Is it what so often holds our community together, that gives us a personal identity or sense of belonging ?


June 6, 2012

Getting down to earth

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:37 pm

Taking a blog break for a week and a half or so to visit with friends “on the ground.”

Expect to be back in cyberspace by mid-June.

May 31, 2012

Why some children aren’t happy

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:04 pm
Tags: , ,
Peanuts by Charles Schulz

Sometimes as a child I used to go to my bedroom and cry because I wasn’t as happy as my parents hoped I would be.  They tried so hard and did so much to make me happy and I was failing them.

It was especially bad at Christmas.

Sometimes parents just can’t win

May 30, 2012

Darwin’s conundrum

As I said in my post yesterday, a fundamental piece is missing in my understanding of the nature of life so that the whole universal endeavour seems contradictory.  Our study of the evolution of life on this planet seems to suggest that there are two universal characteristic of all living things.   First, living organisms, including us, are potentially capable of doing anything, apparently without any exceptions whatsoever, to survive.  Since we all must kill to eat, all living things are at least complicit in preying on others.  Second, we engage in caring, cooperative, and generous behaviors toward others, something which we also need to receive if we are to survive not only as a species but as individuals.

Two days ago the mother and father of six children were arrested for deliberately starting a fire that killed their six asleep in the upstairs bedrooms.  Several years ago, a mother was convicted of arranging for the kidnap of her daughter in order to make money.  Yesterday the UN observers in Syria reported finding 13 bodies with their hands died behind their back and shot in the head at close range.  Before that, a hundred members of an extended family, including almost half children, were knifed to death in Houla.

Why? Why do the most fundamental impulses of survival sometimes seem to get so horribly out of kilter?

The Platonic-Christian answer is that we are born sinners in dire need of redemption.  Most religions teach some variation on this theme including often the existence of a positive force of evil which is at odds with the forces of good.  Buddha, on the other hand, said that behaviors like these are a reflection of our incompleteness.

This makes more sense to me.  We are not morally outraged by a crocodile that consumes a hapless swimmer for lunch, the lion that preys on the lamb, or even the maggots feeding on the dead bird.  We are not morally outraged by the bear that attacks the hunter in order to preserve its own life or that of its cubs.  We are not even morally outraged by two animals fighting a deadly duel over a fertile female.

But we are morally outraged by similar behaviors among ourselves.  We do believe that we have developed an awareness and sensitivity that often makes these behaviors unnecessary for survival.  (Although it is worth pointing out that we often justify killing and torture and deceit if we feel threatened.  Look at the response of the United States after 9/11, and the government-sanctioned torture of sometimes completely innocent suspects.)

It seems to me that the idea of sin developed as a useful survival mechanism to control some of the worst of our self-destructive and murderous behaviors, survival behaviors which seem to have got out of control.  Behaviors that endanger our own survival or that of the community to which we belong are controlled by society by calling them “sins.”  Threats of punishment, whether it be in the present life or the “next,” often control many excesses.

But it obviously isn’t complete.  And in any case, it’s a stop-gap effort.  When we are not convinced for ourselves that some behaviors are wrong, we will rob, steal, betray, murder, and torture as long as we think we can get away with it.  I do not think this is a result of some people being “evil.”  It’s because we are not yet fully developed human beings.  We act instinctively, without further thought, defending our survival by whatever means we can.

I planned a murder once.  I seriously planned it and seriously considered whether I could get away with it without getting caught.  I decided I could.

But I didn’t do it.

My first response was to be shaken to the core of my being at the discovery that I am capable of such wretched self-serving, viciousness.  I was already middle-aged, and although I had enough self-knowledge by then to realize I was not all that morally superior to everybody else, I did not think I was capable of this.  It took me years to forgive myself for what I finally recognized as a potentially unrestrained drive for survival.

But I didn’t commit murder.  And perhaps to understand why is as informative as why I even considered it.  Not to pat myself on the back as a good person after all, but to understand how it is that we all are capable of developing fundamental moral principles based on the very survival principles that sometimes seem to go so horribly array.

But enough already on this weighty subject.  Why I didn’t do it is the subject of another post.


May 16, 2012

Last thoughts on the euro?

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:33 pm

The euro may already be lost.  The Greeks are currently withdrawing their money from their banks at the rate of 700 million euros a day.  That’s close to a billion dollars.  Even the best capitalized banks cannot stand this kind of run for long.

Germany is standing firm that austerity is the only route open to the Greeks. I think they and the IMF are wrong.  Greece is already anorexic, and cannot return to health on a stricter diet.  The IMF has made this mistake before in Latin America and SE Asia.  Admittedly, the picture is more mixed this time.  The Greeks are out on the streets to protect, among other things, their right to retire at 55, and they have a reputation as first-class tax dodgers.  Besides that, Greece deliberately doctored the books to make their national debt look smaller than they knew it was in order to get into the euro zone in the first place, and the Greek government continued to spend beyond its income in order to create government jobs to secure their votes.

One has some sympathy with the Germans who don’t retire until they are 65, and who went through a hard time after the reunification of east and west Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But Germany has benefited from the euro, possibly more than any other euro country.

In any case, the only way for the euro to survive is to federalize the euro zone so that money can move from economically successful areas to areas that are stressed, the way the American federal government is able  to do in the United States.

There is no evidence that I can see that the euro zone governments are willing to bite the bullet and do this.  They have certainly not done so since this crisis began two years ago.

If Greece exits the euro, willingly or otherwise, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and possibly Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, even France could tumble.

I just don’t see the euro surviving.

Though I hope it will, because this is a global economy now.  The crash of the euro will have profound effect on the economies of America and China, and so on the whole world.

Could we be looking at war?  One Greek political leader said yesterday that this will not ultimately be a political battle in Greece.  The side that has the most guns, he says, is the side that’s going to win.

Historically this feels to me like the 1930’s.

Except that today our weapons are much more advanced.  If “advanced” is quite the right word for such deadly machines of killing.

May 2, 2012

Replacement Holy Cards

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:24 pm

When I was growing up, holy cards were a big thing.  Perhaps they still are.  In any case, in my day they were often rather sentimental depictions of the Sacred Heart, or Virgin Mary, or the Crucifixion, with figures whose eyes were invariably cast to the heavens.  They were meant, obviously, to inspire us, and my missal (prayer book used for the Mass, for the uninitiated) were stuffed with them with messages from family and friends on the back.

I was reminded of this early tradition looking at the bulletin board in my study.  It’s a miscellaneous collection of things to do, lists to remember, and just things that — err,  like the old holy cards were supposed to do — just lift my spirits.

The biggest piece of paper is a twin list of US and UK words to represent the letters of the alphabet.  Eg:  Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta.  I have the list because as someone with  slight lisp and five S’s in my name and four more in my address, I often need it.  I always used to say “S as in Sugar” until a smart alec responded with “Is that F as in Fugar?”  Well, I think he said “Fugar,” but he may have used a more familiar word that sounds quite similar.  Anyway, I said, “No, S as in Sassy.”  We’ve been good friends ever since.

But I do now say “S as in Sierra” instead of Sugar.

As for my replacement holy cards, this is my current display:

  • E = mc2
  • Love is hard enough.  But it is also enough.
  • When life is very bad, two things make life worth living – Mozart and quantum mechanics.
  • If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.
  • By their fruits you will know them.

I will refrain from adding my homily that goes with each of the above.  I couldn’t improve on them anyway.

April 8, 2012

Trying to say it better this time

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

In my post earlier today I said I found some of Christianity’s myths to be childish.  I didn’t mean that.  To suggest that Christianity is a childish religion is so childish itself as to be almost unforgivable coming from someone who is well beyond childhood.

What I meant to say is that I find many of the interpretations of Christian myth to be childish.  But there is also the potential for great courage and strength and insight in interpreting these myths.

Actually, one can say this about almost any myth, religious or otherwise.  The story of Santa Claus may be told to children, but it carries the potential of a mature message.  So do Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella.  I am more familiar with various presentations of Christian myth than I am of those of other religions, and so I am more aware of the limitations of some interpretations, sometimes even those official interpretations which the faithful are told are infallible.  But that does not make the myths per se childish.

So I wish I had said what I meant in the first place, which is that Christian myths are sometimes interpreted in immature ways.


I have a lot of opinions, but that Christianity is a childish religion is not one of them.  I consider even appearing to suggest it was a Foot in Mouth moment on my part.

My mumbled apologies.

March 15, 2012

The invention of the soul

I read a post on The Writer’s Treehut yesterday discussing the legacy of  isolation and despair that the concept of soul and of our separate individuality generates in so many of us.  I believe it does.  I too believe that the idea that we each have a soul that separates us from the consequences of what happens to everybody else is often destructive for ourselves.

Most people, I think, assume that the concept of soul has biblical roots. But it does not. Souls are not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and to my knowledge not in the New Testament either. The core of the idea comes from Plato who lived almost half a millennium before Christ. He was trying to solve the intellectual problem of how we can have ideas of perfect things when perfect things do not exist in the material world. He decided there must be another world where these things are perfect – perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect people, perfect everything.

This perfect world represented the scientific – not religious – thinking of the day. It’s rather like our scientific ideas today about dark energy. We really haven’t a clue what dark energy might be, but it seems to be the only kind of thing scientists can think of at the moment to explain the extraordinary things we do observe. The secular idea of a soul was adopted by Christian theologians because it represented the scientific thinking of the day.

The idea of the soul was discarded long ago as a scientific concept, but its usefulness for controlling the behavior of believers by religious authorities remains. The existence of the soul comes packaged with the promise of eternal life – as a way for my most precious personal ego to survive forever. And the promise is that it will survive in perfect bliss if I do what religious leaders tell me to do. Eternal life as ME is no longer an idea that personally holds any allure or coercive power over me, but it did for a long time.

The invention of the idea of soul also has another hidden and I think immensely destructive result – it suggests that salvation is individual. You as a sinner might not go to heaven, but I can make sure that I do. In other words, we are not all in this together. I can feel superior to you, separate from your sinfulness, safe from it, whatever you do, even it kills me, even if it wipes out the entire human species. Because my soul will survive and go to heaven while you will go to hell. Ha! I shall win in the end!

The alternative is that we are all in this together, and that if we are, we must care about what happens to everybody else, care about their suffering, their lives, their opportunities. But there are many ways of doing this. Being incomplete as we are, many of those ways are self-absorbed, debilitating, neurotic, self-deluding. As a human race, we still seem addicted to “doing good” by bombing, shooting, punishing, and killing the bad guys. We even then pat ourselves on the back as heroic and patriotic. I have not been able to adopt the pacifist view 100%. Perhaps I was too influenced by the horrors of World War II gas chambers. But we are far too trigger-happy. We don’t really believe in diplomacy. We don’t really think that perhaps we too have to change, not just everybody else. We seem to think that because we have the bombs, we have the military, we must be right. It would be nice to say this applies to only America, but it seems to be a world-wide belief: the best way to impose the right way (which of course is the way revealed to me) is to be the biggest bully on the street. We imprison or kill anyone who does not accept our standards. Then people have to listen, even if they aren’t convinced.

There are two ideas that have most profoundly changed my view of the world in recent years. The first is the belief that there is no other supernatural, perfect world over and above our natural universe – or universes. What is of value is what is now, not some hypothetical future in some other world. And the second idea is the one that is central to this post – that we are all in this together. There is no possibility that I can just take care of myself. I myself depend in my very essence on what happens to all of us.

We know that children brought up in isolation cannot develop even the most basic human abilities.  We need others to have food to eat, to speak a language, to make a child.  We need others to be able to love, to feel that we are of value, to feel the joy of helping, of laughing together.  I don’t mean we have to agree with each other – what a boring dull prospect.

Home Safety


But we can’t become ourselves without everybody and even everything else.  We need the bees, and the cows.  We need the wheat fields and the sun and the rain.  In fact, we need the whole universe.

It’s our home.

March 11, 2012

Background thoughts on the birds and the bees

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:04 pm

One of the comments following my post yesterday suggested that if we are all involved with one another, don’t we have to take a stand against atrocity, injustice, against the raping of our planet?  Don’t we have to speak out?

Yes, yes, yes!  I born during WWII, and if I learned anything from my second-generation German father, it was a passionate conviction that to say nothing, to do nothing because it’s none of my business if I myself am not in trouble, is to participate in the atrocity.

But that conviction as I understood it as an idealistic teenager has matured since then.  I have learned, for instance, that I can’t be everywhere.  I can’t do everything.  I have learned that more often than not I do not know how to even begin to take a stand, to say no in the face of injustice and atrocity.  I have learned that sometimes in an effort to help I can actually make things worse.  I have learned that I am not a morally superior human being just because I am so often outraged at what other people do.

I am even less judgmental of the German people who let the gas chambers be built and to consume 15 million innocent people.  Could they have done more to stop this terrible holocaust? I am sure they could.  Many of them did.  But let us remember that they could not call people out onto the streets in protest using the internet.  Even today, superior military power is mowing protesters down by the thousands.  Fifty years ago the midnight knocking on the door was a constant danger if you were even suspected of not supporting government policy.  I wonder today not so much what so many Germans should have done as what I think in retrospect they could have done.  No, not do nothing.  But what they could have done that would have been effective is not all that obvious to me, even now.

What have I done about Guantanamo, for instance?  What have I done about Syria?  What have I done about the millions of people starving in Africa?  Are my annual donations to Oxfam and Amnesty International the solution?  Obviously my petty cash is a pitiful contribution.

But so is the pollinating activity of a single bee.  That is all a single bee can do.  And yet we desperately need every single one of those bees.  We are all part of a much larger whole – we are all in this together.  And the important thing is not that I attempt to save the world single-handedly.  It is not that I should even feel depths of anguish over every single struggling, suffering individual I hear about.   What is important is that I pollinate the flowers that are given to me.  It is important that I do whatever small or big things that come into my life.

And to trust, even though I do not understand it, that this creation, this universe, this incredible enterprise of which I am a part, has an intrinsic value that I can only partially grasp.

We are all in this together.  It is terribly important that I do my part.  But I’m not God.

I’m a bee, with the limitations of a bee.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

As a friend has just pointed out to me, even bees are imperfect.  Given the option, they seem to prefer artificial sugar-laden maraschino cherry juice to working for the real thing.  Ah!  does nothing measure up to my standards of perfection?

January 24, 2012

Addendum to Catholic thinking

Following my post yesterday, Leanna politely pointed out that, despite her Catholic socialization, she is what I think Jung would have called someone who put feelings or what I called experience, ahead of thinking.

It made me realize that I was so focused on analyzing my own thinking that I failed to make it clear that not all Catholics are thinking types, nor are all thinking types Catholics.  What I would also like to say is that neither thinking or feeling types are better or worse.  We need both, and as we mature, we need to learn to do both.  But I tend to agree with Jung that we are born with a disposition toward one or the other.  I have been a thinking type for as long as I can remember, which is about the age of two, and I was analyzing how being socialized as a Catholic thinker has shaped me.

In this context, thes issue of thought and feeling is closely related to the question of which comes first – religious teaching or personal experience.  The Roman Catholic Church has historically taken a pretty strong position on this issue in favor of thinking.  Dogma comes first.  Galileo looked through his telescope and concluded with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice versa.  Rome hauled him in and said that his observations contradicted dogma.   Under threat of the rack, Galileo publicly – if not privately – recanted.

This issue remains alive today.  Evangelicals, for instance, reject many of the findings of science on the grounds that it contradicts Biblical truth.  There is, for them, an over-riding idea that cannot be contradicted under any circumstances, whatever they experience, whatever conclusions may rationally be suggested by science, or whatever anybody else might think.

I suspect that Catholic theologians more often tend to be thinkers in a way that many Protestant theologians are not for two reasons.  The first is Rome’s doctrine of papal infallibility.  Under pain of excommunication, one cannot reject teachings which Rome has declared to be infallible.  The virgin birth, the immaculate conception, the assumption, the resurrection and ascension, original sin, the trinity of God, for instance, have all been declared to be literally (not just metaphorically) true.  Catholic theologians cannot not publicly take another position, whatever their conscience may require.  At this very time, a Catholic priest has been excommunicated by Rome because he publicly supports the ordination of women, a position that Rome has forbidden Catholics to defend.

I think that celibacy also contributes to a continuation of a one-sided emphasis on thought among Catholic thinkers.  Celibacy is defended on the grounds that it represents a higher calling than a sexual partnership and raising a family.   I was taught this and entered the convent with this conviction.

My experience no longer supports this view.  I think a close sexual partnership is one of the most demanding experiences of human life.  A committed, enduring partnership with another person with different preferences, different points of view, different strengths and weaknesses requires a diminution of ones own egocentrism in the way nothing else does.  I emphatically do not agree that a life of celibacy is more difficult.  In fact, I think celibacy often permits the celibate (or at least the uncommitted if not celibate) priest to blithely proceed on a path of self-diagnosed belief in the superior rightness of their personal beliefs.

This is not to say that Catholic doctrine in itself tends to produce this outcome.  I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus tend to turn us into thinkers at the cost of feeling.  Nor is Catholic doctrine the only system of thought that can give us a sense of righteousness.  I have seen scientists as rigidly committed to their theories as any theologian in Rome.  Science, however, in the end is committed to the primacy of using experience to validate thought.  Rome, with its position of infallibility, emphatically is not.

This is an extremely complex question, and although I obviously have thought about it a great deal, my discussion began as one of self-exploration, and I don’t want it to suggest that I think all believers are rigidly bound to a single system of ideas.  They are not.

I would be particularly interested in comments on this topic.  If you agree, disagree, or think I’m missing something significant, I’d hugely appreciate your saying so.



January 23, 2012

Still thinking like a Catholic

I grew up in an intellectual family.  I learned around the dinner table how to question and to look at other points of view before drawing my own conclusions.  I learned how to doubt received wisdom and even to question Catholic dogma.  This didn’t happen in most families I knew, and most Catholics I knew did not debate theological issues with the kind of knife-edge precision I’d learned at home.

When shortly after leaving the convent I stopped believing in just about all the tenets of faith required by Roman Catholicism, I naively thought I no longer thought like a Catholic.  My graduate education and all my professional life were in secular universities with no overt Catholic influences at all.

When my English, Protestant, academic husband assured me that many of my thought processes were still Catholic, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Over the years I have recognized bits and pieces of what he meant.  But I am still uncovering layers of undiscovered socialization that go back to those discussions around the dinner table.  There are several characteristics of my thought that I can still point to.

My thinking is organized, with a much greater emphasis on right answers than creative solutions.  It makes me good at figuring things out, but highly critical of “wrong” answers.   I’m good at explaining things if someone wants to understand.  I am, however, exasperated with people whose thinking seems based more on wishful thinking than on evidence or logic.  My patience all but runs out if they are nonetheless adamant about how right they are.

I have always used ideas rather than experience as the main criterion for judging the validity of a position.  I did it first with Catholic dogma, and later with scientific principles.  I didn’t ask myself what I was feeling.  Dogma or theories told me what I was supposed to be feeling, so I thought that’s what I felt.  The Church taught that we should forgive others as an all-loving God forgave us our sins.  I didn’t feel outrage that an all-loving  God was capable of the kind of vindictive unforgiveness required by someone who inflicts eternal hell fire on anyone who crosses him once too often and doesn’t manage to get access to absolution before dying.  It didn’t even bother me that this all-loving God wouldn’t let completely innocent babies into heaven if they died without being baptized.  Later in my life, Freud said I was repressing the knowledge of an Oedipus complex, so I went into psychoanalysis to uncover it.  I knew beforehand what I was looking for.  I knew beforehand what I was supposed to be feeling.

I look now with astonishment at those who from a very young age simply dismissed some of these ideas as so contradicting their own experience and common sense that they disregarded them without any guilt or confusion whatsoever.  They just never took them seriously.

It’s not that I am against not trusting our own experiences.  If science has taught us anything, it’s that we make mistakes, that we misinterpret, we draw the wrong conclusions.  The world is not flat, despite my experience that it is, the sun does not go around the earth despite the fact that I see it doing so in the sky every day.   But experience is what we all begin with, and to dismiss it as I have during so much of my life in favour of pre-ordained “right answers” is to be alienated from myself.

I think that on some level I have always sensed that my search for right answers, for a complete world view devoid of contradictions and paradoxes, was limiting.  It’s why I find modern art  so liberating.  It’s why what sounds so much like the illogical nonsense of quantum mechanics is so freeing.  I keep looking for the kind of right answers, the kind of complete coherent system Roman Catholicism offered me as a child, and then experience an almost mystical delight when the whole system falls apart and has to be put together again.

Learning to trust my own intuitions is probably what I now call my acts of faith.  My intuition is that my husband loves me.  I don’t have scientific proof.  But I do have experience.  My intuition is that despite all its travails, life is worth living.  I don’t have scientific proof.  But I do experience it.

I still like right answers.  I still like things to make sense, to be organized and coherent.

But at least I don’t trust my right answers anymore.  If Plato didn’t devise an infallible system, if Kant or Newton didn’t, if Einstein couldn’t, then I think I can rest assured that I’m not going to.  So I don’t know how to solve all the world’s problems.  I don’t have all the right answers.  And I’m not, after all,  responsible for running the world.

What a relief.

December 5, 2011

Evil incarnate? Understanding child abusers

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

It is not uncommon to hear court judges tell an offender on sentencing for a particularly vicious crime that he is “evil.”  I have long cringed at this diagnosis first because if a person is indeed “evil,” only God is in a position to make that judgement.

But having given up belief in the existence of Plato’s spiritual world, I’ve given up the idea of evil incarnate as well.  Evil, for me, is not an adequate explanation of what happens in this universe.

And yet, there are some things people do that have seemed particularly inexplicable.  I can understand even if I don’t approve of many things – murder, revenge, theft are often explicable.  But I have never been able to find a reasonable explanation for torture and sometimes murder which some people seem to engage in for no apparent reward save some intrinsic satisfaction of causing pain to a helpless victim.  Child abuse has always seemed the worst.

Until now.

To explain, let me back up.  After the Newtonian revolution in which the entire universe was seen as a giant machine, many scientists came to the conclusion that there was no essential difference between sentient animals and machines.  They therefore undertook some harrowing experiments on animals on the grounds that they did not feel pain any more than does a car motor.  It is only in the last  century that this view was largely abandoned.

Obviously this illustrates the fact that science is an incomplete project, that it is not always right.  And that there is a place for at least a serious examination of scientific findings that seem to contradict common sense.  I value science as one of the better applications of human intelligence.  But obviously it is not infallible and never will be.

It is science, however, which has also suggested to me how it is possible for child abusers to engage so casually in many of the behaviors judges so frequently label as “evil.”  We are now learning from MRI scans, in particular, that part of the brain processes of some people is damaged or not functioning.  Typically they are called “autistic,” which means they find it difficult to put themselves in someone else’s place, to sense what someone else is feeling.

This is not a question of intelligence.  Many of these people are exceptionally brilliant.  Newton himself may have been autistic.  But it is a question of the kind of empathy most of us take for granted.  Most of us can understand the physical or psychological suffering of others even when we ourselves are not experiencing it.

But what if I can’t?  then torturing a child may feel no more disturbing than exploring a light switch or trying to figure out how my toy train works.

And now we are learning more about how this kind of autistic damage occurs.  We have known for a long time that being brought up in an abusive environment often results in children who grow up to be abusive themselves.  But we now also know that stress during pregnancy can have long-lasting effects on the child.  This stress may not have been abusive.  It may be stress caused by famine, death in the family, anxiety about losing ones job, enduring concerns about one’s physical safety, or by marital discord.

The study of epigenetics is suggesting that actual physical changes occur during fetal development which can explain how abusive behavior  can run in families.

But science is also beginning to explore how we might deal with people affected in this way.  Punishment – even draconian punishments – do little to change the inability to empathize with others whom we might be causing pain.  But there are approaches to teaching children how to recognize and to some extent overcome this profound destructive deficit.  Some day there may be drugs that can help at some stage but that is some way down the line and not apt to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

But I’d rather put my efforts into supporting the scientific search for answers than to send increasing numbers to prison where presumably they will be cured of their “evil.”

November 8, 2011

How do we know what we know?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:29 pm

How we know what we know is a question has exercised philosophers for thousands of years.  Plato’s answers still influence the assumptions of billions of people in the world today.

It’s a question that also tantalizes cognitive psychologists like me.  Most of the time we avoid the answer by saying that if we can verbalize something, we know it.  Otherwise we don’t.

But although that may be fine for calculating an IQ score, it by-passes the fundamental question.  Because we all know things we are not aware of knowing.  We intuit danger or friendliness, we sense opportunity or crisis, we feel something has happened or is going to happen without being able to explain it.  And sometimes those intuitions are terrifyingly accurate.

For a long time intuition has been dismissed as belonging to the superstitious or at least slightly flaky minority.

But the evidence is overwhelming that we often know things without the reasons why we know something reaching that part of the brain that makes it conscious.

Yesterday I had what was a surprising example of knowing-without-knowing.  One of my sisters who has been telling the time for more than fifty years suddenly realized for the first time and with some surprise that the minute hand on a clock is the long hand, while the hour hand is the shorter one.

I would have thought, I told her, that this realization was fairly essential to telling the time.  At least to telling the time accurately 50% of the time.  Yes, she agreed, it was.  Nonetheless she’d been unaware of it.  But on some level she must have known it, because her accuracy in reading the time is a lot closer to 100% than it is to 50%.

The next question, of course, is how trustworthy these intuitions are.  When can we rely on them, and when should we find them suspect?  For myself, I have come to rely on intuitions in some fields and to dismiss others.

I wish I could answer this more fully.  It would improve the accuracy of my answers in relation to everything from the existence of God to what the stock markets and the weather are going to do tomorrow.

Speaking of noticing clocks, I’ve just discovered that in advertisements, clocks are always set at ten minutes to two.  To resemble a smile.  clock  ImagesDid you know that?

November 2, 2011

Cystitis, cranberries and me

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 12:50 pm

Almost all women and many men know what cystitis is.  It’s a bladder infection whose consequences, to say the least, are highly inconvenient.  Last week, I got an attack which is the worst I can ever remember.  Having trolled through the internet, I have to say it is not the worst case anyone has ever had, but it was bad enough that it was unsafe for me to be out of dashing distance of a bathroom for more than half an hour.

In the past, I have found that I can usually control cystitis with a few minutes of Kegal exercises,  extra glasses of water, and my regular cranberry supplements.

It didn’t work, and I was getting rather desperate.

While I was wondering if I were going to have to break down and ask my GP for an antibiotic, I googled the internet for natural treatments – barley water? cranberries? lemon juice?

I found quite an interesting – some might say drastic – suggestion:  to eliminate caffeine, alcohol, spices, and sugar from ones diet and to drink a glass of water with a handful of unsurgared frozen cranberries every hour during the day.  And also not to try to delay using the bathroom when the urge to do so  arose.  The author says the cure worked in three days.

Not having a couple of bags of frozen cranberries immediately to hand, I modified the approach.  I eliminated all caffeine except my wake-up morning coffee,  drank 16 ounces of water every hour, took a cranberry supplement with each glass, and added a handful of dried cranberries to each meal.

It worked in 24 hours.

I don’t present this as a universal cure.  Universal cures are rare.

But I do feel incredibly lucky.

November 1, 2011

Occupying thoughts

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:51 pm

We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know. 

W. H. Auden

October 24, 2011

Encouraging thought for the day

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:39 pm

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. 

— Ronald Reagan

October 19, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:08 pm

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,

to surrender to too many demands,

to commit oneself to too many projects,

to want to help everyone in everything,

is to succumb to the violence of our times.

Thomas Merton

Trappist Monk


It is somewhat sobering to realize it has taken me almost a life time to understand this.

I think it’s because I always feared that not to be outraged by every injustice, not to try to help every needy person, not to experience empathy for each and every suffering was to live a superficial, selfish life.

But I now think that to live as if I alone am responsible for the world is a form of quite seriously inflated hubris.

 I am not god.  That does not mean my life is not important, that my contribution may not be essential.

But it’s not everything.

I can be at peace, I can experience joy and delight.  I can have fun and play and even waste time without living a useless, meaningless existence.

October 17, 2011

It started way before Adam and Eve ate the apple

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:12 pm

Although I have worried about the ambiguities of right and wrong since I was old enough to think about it – which I think was about six – it is only in recent years that I have seriously begun to wonder about the source of our ethical and moral principles, and then the blog  Thinking makes it so turned casual conversation into serious thought.

I am now convinced that human morality cannot be separated from evolution and its driving force toward life.  But if I ever entertained the comfortable illusion that other living creatures were not capable of the same duplicitous behavior in the drive for life as we humans, I am now wholly disabused.

I know that lions hunt deer to kill and consume, I know that cuddly bears eat fish without guilt, I know that eagles swoop on helpless prey and devour them with relish, that the cat sits for patient hours waiting for the mouse, that the squirrel raids the birds’ eggs.

And now I see that even lovely little foot-and-a-half high penguins steal from each other.  It doesn’t look to me as if the innocent and naive are going to flourish.  Just look at this:

‘Criminal’ penguin caught on film


September 16, 2011

Badder than I thought

When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, instigating the collapse of huge banks in the U.S. and all over Europe, the very survival of our functioning economy was at grave risk.  I had to swallow hard like almost everybody else, but I thought then, and still think, that governments were right to rescue them with taxpayers’ money.

What I didn’t realize then was that this kind of rescue has been going on for years, and that banks had begun to behave as if they were insured by their governments.  They took risks they never would have taken had they not been assured that they were too important to be allowed to fail.

In his recently published book Age of Greed:  The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present, Jeff Madrick lists the bank busts that show that the credit crunch of 2008 is just the latest of increasingly bigger busts for the last forty years.

After the Great Depression, Congress passed the Glass Steagall act forbidding banks to use customers’ deposits to fund what is given the respectable name of “investment banking.”   This kept banking rather staid and stable, a service institution that greatly facilitated the processes in an economy requiring the exchange of money.

But then economic theory began to develop the idea that Greed is Good.  Greed itself might be selfish, the argument went, but the multiplication of money driven by greed, helped create a dynamic and expanding economy from which everyone, rich and poor alike, could benefit.   Alan Greenspan, hailed at the time as one of the most successful directors of the Federal Reserve in US history, bought into this doctrine.

The greedy, so the theory went, might be selfish, but they were not stupid.  And so they would not destroy the very systems, the goose, that was laying so many golden eggs.

And so it seemed.  More and more sophisticated computer-based and mathematically complex methods were instituted around the world to make billions of dollars.  Traders were given annual bonuses of millions of dollars.  They went out to $40,000 lunches.  They bought houses and cars and stocks in an ever-expanding stock market.  Economies around the world boomed, and the standard of living for millions of people rose.

Basically, banks were using customers’ deposits to engage in informed gambling with huge sums.  Were they aware of the risks?  Some undoubtedly were.

But they knew there was a safety net, one for which they weren’t even paying:  if all else failed, the governments would bail them out.

The rot began to set in about 1970.  Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan between them convinced the public that big government is the cause of our ills.  People began to trust themselves and private institutions – including banks – more than they trusted Big Government.  Many of the Far Right in America are still adamant that Big Government is our biggest problem, which is why they don’t want universal health care, why they want social security to be privatized, why they are against raising taxes, and most government regulation.

By 1970’s, banks were pushing for the repeal of Glass Steagall that kept them on the straight and narrow.  They won and deregulation of the financial world set them free to do whatever they wished with depositors’ money.

But although banks were against the federal bailouts of companies like Chrysler in 1978,  Citi Bank needed help – and took it – when loans to Latin American governments failed in the 1980s.  Then there was the savings and loan banks, which were bailed out by Washington.  And then there was the big bust in 2008, and at this very moment, EU governments are meeting to find a way out of the euro-crisis.

Effectively this is not to save Greece or Italy or Ireland from defaulting on their debts.  It is to save the banks which are holding Greek and Italian and Irish and other threatened euro-country bonds.  Billions of dollars have already been poured into this enterprise, and conservatively, another 17 billion (yes, 17 billion) dollars is required just to stabilize a situation that might develop into a global disaster.

Banks took and will continue to take huge government subsidies to stay afloat.  And yet they continue to argue that they know best.  That government interference and nannying is the real problem that needs to be reigned in.  They are resisting with every conceivable strategy and all the funds they can find governments’ suggestion that investment banking should once again be separated from commercial banking.

Big government isn’t the problem.  Even people who took out sub-prime mortgages and credit card debts they could not sustain are not the problem.  Banks were giving out mortgages to people without ever even checking their employment status, convincing them that they too would be on the band-wagon of big money.

Actually, many banks are at it again already, leveraging customers’ deposits to gamble with.

And could they go bust again?

What do you think?


September 14, 2011

From the mouths of children…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:45 pm
Peanuts by Charles Schulz

I think I may have found my true calling.

I’m not sure about the sincere part though.  Perhaps I could be an insincere false prophet.

No, that won’t work.  There are enough of those on television already.

September 13, 2011

Sitting vs fighting

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:14 pm

After my post yesterday on the alternative responses to the terrorist attack on 9/11, I have returned to a question I have been asking myself for more than half my life:  when should we fight and when should we choose instead to sit quietly knowing that we are strong enough to endure without lashing out?

One of the reasons I feel so betrayed by the Iraq war is that it was justified as a response to liberate people being persecuted, imprisoned or displaced by a dictator whom they were impotent to fight.  As a child of World War II, I came to believe that sometimes one cannot say about injustice “it’s nothing to do with me.”  And so I thought the Iraqi war was a just war.

I believe now that it was wrong on two counts.

First, we had and still have no idea how to mend Iraq, and we should have known that before we went in.  George Bush said when he was running for the presidency that he was not into nation-building.  I wish he’d kept his word.  We have not built a nation, but America has lost huge prestige and moral leadership in the world.  I know because I live outside the United States and the press here is not beholden to Washington, and does not have to worry about alienating its American readers.

Second, the lies that the American people were told were culpable.  They weren’t mistakes.  They were lies.  The evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction was substantial before the war began.  What we really went in for was oil.  It’s why, in the end, we didn’t wait to build a coalition through the United Nations.  And why we didn’t listen to the nuclear inspectors who thought it was unlikely that the weapons were there.  And why we were told that Al Qaeda was there when they palpably were not.  Al Qaeda got in on the coat tails of the American military.

Once we were fighting the war, our methods of torture, of rendition, of indefinite detention in Guantanamo are violating our principles of justice and are in violation of international law and the Geneva Treaty of which we are signatories.

But I’m not sure that means we should never go to war, never be prepared to fight to the death.   It seems to me to be a very complex question fraught with terrible guilt.  The costs of war are so great that going to war in situations where we cannot win the peace seem to me to be immoral.  Obviously, going to war as a mere manifestation of power is wrong.  Going to war on false premises or even as a result of having failed to learn the full facts is wrong.  Going to war when one has not exhausted all the other means of re-establishing justice is wrong.

But when in those situations when we honestly believe we have exhausted all other alternatives?  Is there, in other words, really such a thing as a just war?

Should we sanction a non-violent approach like Gandhi’s in  a fight against a mad man like Hitler, for instance?  Or more recently, were we right to refuse to tolerate Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Albanians in Kosovo?  I think so.  Should we have intervened militarily in the slaughter in Rwanda?  Are we right to be supporting the Libyan rebels with NATO air strikes as we speak?

After 9/11, America really could have chosen to sit quietly for a little while instead of “kicking ass.”

But I’m not convinced that sitting quietly is always the right choice.

Although I do know that fighting is never the whole answer.  After the military were finished and World War II officially ended, America spent years helping to rebuild Europe and Japan.  At least we had learned the lesson of World War I that total military victory does not win the peace.

I hope that somehow we can remember that again.

August 30, 2011

The many forms of wisdom

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 11:27 pm

To Do is to Be:  Plato, Descartes and/or Sartre

To Be is to Do:  Socrates and/or Kant

Do Be Do Be Do:  Sinatra

sign in a Cambridge bookstore window

August 17, 2011

The legacy of depression

Depression is perhaps the most unexpected source of suffering in an affluent society.   People who are no longer living on the edge, who have reliable sources of food and shelter, sometimes with almost boundless spending capacity and social status, are often screaming with the psychic pain of depression.


The causes of depression are many.  Unlike great scourges like the plague or polio or small pox or malaria, depression is not caused by a single identifiable organism that is potentially halted by vaccines.  Depression is partly genetic, partly learned;  it is partly bio-chemical, partly psychological.

Depression tends to run in families.  Many characteristics which are not genetically influenced are generational — the language we speak, for instance – but in the case of depression, there is a genetic loading.  Not an absolute determination.  But some bio-chemistries are more prone to depression than others, and bio-chemistry is partly inherited.

But it is only partly inherited through our genes.  We know now that our bio-chemistry is influenced by environmental factors beginning in the womb.  The chances of my being depressed in adulthood are increased from day one if my mother is stressed during her pregnancy.  The stress may not be of her choosing or her responsibility – it may be due to famine, war, marital discord, financial difficulties – but a study of epigenetics has shown that  the anxiety felt by the mother actually influences the gene regulation of the embryo.

Unfortunately the causes of depression are not limited to the first nine months of our lives.  Studies of tens of thousands of children in the States and in Britain show that children who are abused, neglected or rejected are more than twice as likely to experience recurring depression as adults.   People prone to depression are far more likely to be thrown into long periods – months or even years – of anguish by life’s inevitable challenges – bullying at work, death of a loved one, the break-up of a significant relationship, worries about money, or the life changes that might come with retirement and subsequent feelings of uselessness and abandonment.

Depressive people are often exceptionally intelligent, but depression is not rational.  The black cloud that engulfs a person is not something that is dispelled by reason or logical arguments.  It can’t be fixed by replacing the worn out part, by throwing money at it, by buying things, even by giving the depressed person what they think at the moment they desperately want.

It is not, though, completely hopeless.  In fact, depression is amazingly treatable.  The biggest obstacle is often convincing the depressed person of that.  The very nature of depression often leads the person to argue that there’s no use trying.  They believe the causes of their depression are due to factors outside themselves – the economy, their spouse, the world’s suffering, their own failures.

Drugs can and do help bring some people back even from the edge, even of suicide.

Exercise is an immensely useful tool in keeping depression under control.

Interestingly, cognitive therapy, learning to think differently,  has as good a record for many people who are depressed as medication.  Learning new thought patterns can often , with effort and patience, lead to significant permanent change.

One can learn not to take ones depression at face value – to recognize that depression distorts.  One can learn not always to assume that the negative interpretation is inevitably right — the depressed can learn that they are loved for themselves, not merely for their usefulness or money or as a result of some neurotic need by the person who seems to care for them.  One can learn that bad news can often be turned into an opportunity rather than failure.

In my experience, this kind of change doesn’t always require therapy.

But it does always require courage.  And time.  And love.

August 1, 2011

U.S. deficit deal agreed

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:09 am





Patriotism is the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it.

George Bernard Shaw

July 31, 2011

Armageddon delayed?

The news at the moment is that it looks as if a compromise has been reached on raising the US debt ceiling which will get through both Houses of Congress.  As of this writing, there should be a vote in about three hours.

Even assuming that this is not yet another compromise that falls through this doesn’t solve the problem.

But it may give us  a chance to look at the very hard choices we have to make and to discuss the issues rationally.

As I see it, the first question we need to address is whether now is the time to implement drastic cuts to government spending or whether we should concentrate on stimulating the economy sufficiently to get the economy rolling again before we start paying off what is, admittedly, an unsustainable debt in the long-term.

I think this is the easy question to answer.  The U.S. economy has slowed down much more than anyone realized and history suggests that cutting right now could slow the entire horse and cart even further.  If we can wait a year or two to implement cuts, there should be more tax revenues coming in to support them.

But we do need a credible mid-term plan to start cutting.  Already the markets are suggesting that the U.S. is going to lose is triple-A rating without one.  And there is no reason why we shouldn’t be working on it today.

And that is where we come to the hard part.  The Republicans want less government, less regulation, and less taxation to free the private sector to increase productivity and innovation.  I strongly suggest they have a point.  Over-regulation by a nanny government that knows best is unbelievably suffocating.  Communist Russia is a prime example, but unfortunately over-regulation and government intervention has not been defeated with the fall of the Soviet Union.  It is alive and well throughout the world.

So as I see it, the Republicans are not just corporate fat cats or Tea Party fanatics and bigots who can’t be bothered to learn anything about economics before imposing their views on the entire nation.

On the other hand, the Democrats believe the role of government needs to be increased.  Our population is ageing, we cannot remain competitive in the world without improving our educational systems, our road and utility infrastructures need upgrading badly, we are damaging the environment possibly catastrophically,  health care costs are running riotously out of control.  They want to increase taxes and government spending to tackle these problems.

And we the American electorate?  what do we want?

Unfortunately right now we want everything.  We want tax increases limited to the irritatingly rich who can afford it anyway, employment increased, and our benefits untouched.

We can’t have it all.  With the next election, we are going to have to decide.

By then the lay of the land may have changed.  The euro, which probably reflects an even bigger crisis than America’s, may have imploded with implications that are beyond even the experts to predict.  China’s economy may have slowed down.  The price of food and oil may have sky-rocketed.   Or another war may be devastating the lives of tens of millions of people.  Who knows what state the American economy will be in by the election at the end of 2012.

But maybe – with our backs to the wall – the human species will come up with a disruptive technology that replaces oil.  Or that can grow food with a third of the water currently required by most crops and animals.  Or maybe we will rally behind a political leader who can convince us that his or her plan is worth fighting for.  A country isn’t given a lot of leaders like that.  I hope if there is, that we’ll recognize it.

Okay, I’ll stop venting.  It’s not, I know, that I have a lot of light to cast onto the problem.  Really, what I’m trying to work out is how to deal with all this in my own life.  Not in terms of personal finances – though that could become a concern if things got bad enough.  But to try to live with some equilibrium, some peace and joy and gratitude, in the face of this kind of confusion and real injustice.

I finally do understand how it was that people were dancing even as war was breaking out.  It always seemed so self-indulgent to me in the past.

Now I see it as a determination to grab life with both hands and to live it to the full.

Whatever is in the cup.

July 30, 2011

A woman’s place wasn’t always in the home

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:52 pm
Tags: ,

I just come across some of the most fascinating research I’ve read in years.  I hope to study it in greater detail but for now here is the gist.

About seven thousand years ago in what is now Iraq, the god whom the people worshipped changed from an all-powerful mother goddess to male gods served predominantly by male priests.

This has been well-documented for a long time and is no surprise.  What is astonishing is that this change took place at the same time as men took over tilling the fields.  Up until then, it was the women who hoed the fields and produced the food on which the society survived.
But in 5,000 BC the plough was introduced.  A plough requires more upper-body strength than a hoe, and men, on average, possess more than women.  Men took possession of the plough and women were forbidden to use it.

So at the  point that the plough was introduced, not only did the top gods become male.  The work of women was transferred to the home.

But here is what I find mind-boggling:  Today, in societies that replaced the plough with the hoe thousands of years ago, women’s place is still seen to be  predominantly in the home.  But in societies where the plough was not appropriate for the crops – like rice, for instance – and that did not benefit from the plough, women are much more likely to work outside the home.

The figures seem to be quite dramatic.  Despite industrialization, despite the fact that the plough itself has been mostly displaced by a tractor which can be driven equally well by members of both sexes, huge differences persist.

For example 25% of women in the Arab world work outside the home.  91% of the women in Burundi, a formerly hoe-using country, do.  Women from hoe-using countries like Kenya are much more likely even today to work outside the home than those from former plough-using countries like India or Egypt.  In America, daughters of immigrants from plough-using societies are less apt to work outside the home than their counterparts whose ancestors used hoes.

Modern attitudes towards the appropriate roles of women follow the same pattern.  Plough-using descendants believe that in times of unemployment, men should be given jobs before women and that men make better political leaders than women.

Still, although these stereotypes may have lasted thousands of years, they are not totally immune to change.  During the second world war, women took over many of the “male” jobs on farms and in factories because the men were away.  A larger percentage of women still work exclusively at home than do men.  But the war did seem to make a permanent difference.

I grew up on a farm.  By the time I was six, I had a plan to get out of there and move to New York City.  I wasn’t abused as a child – I wasn’t running away from an abusive home.  I just didn’t want to be stuck on a farm with the cows and fields and chickens.  

I wonder if my ancestors were hoe-users.

July 22, 2011

No place to hide

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:37 pm

The BBC has just posted 50 “Americanisms” that the English seem to find most annoying.  It’s an interesting list, and even as an American, includes a few of my own favourite (or should I say favorite?) hates.

But the Americanism that doesn’t draw from me even a patronizing smile didn’t make the list, perhaps because it crossed the pond decades ago and is already in wide use over here now.  It’s the use – or rather mis-use – of the word “pressurized”  when what the person means is “pressured.”  Until about 1970,  I wasn’t pressurized to do something.  I was pressured.

The British do recognize that “burglarized” should rightly be “burglared” but somehow pressurized passes unnoticed.

I am glad to report, however, that the American “analyzation” has not yet replaced the original “analysis” on this side of the Atlantic.

But there is a phrase that has even made it onto the main news programs over here.  And that is “I mean you know.”  Even top level newscasters begin their questioning with that phrase – “I mean you know…”

I was not familiar with that ghastly phrase in the States, although I was aware that “you know” in the middle of a sentence usually signalled that the speaker needed an extra moment to clarify what indeed he or she did know.

But the “I mean” is a new addition.  Did it come from over there?  If so, I’d like to take it back on my next trip to the U.S., and leave it there.

I mean you know, it’s so meaningless.

July 13, 2011

Why don’t Americans live longer?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:59 pm

People in the United States spend more on medical care than any other country in the world.  Why don’t we live longer than the average person in Great Britain, in Canada, in Australia, or in Japan?

According to a recent report carried out jointly in America and Britain, not only is there a significant gap between us Americans and many other countries.   The researchers were surprised to discover that the gap is actually getting bigger.

Just as surprisingly, the explanation does not seem to lie in economic factors.  It is not the poor who are pulling down the average for the middle and upper classes in America.

The biggest contributors seem to be life style factors.  America has exceptionally high rates of obesity, stress, and smoking, high levels of salt in our diets, and alcohol and other drug abuse.

Interestingly, it might also be because Americans spend so much on specialist care to the neglect of primary care.  Even the middle and upper classes in America may not be getting their money’s worth because so much more money can be made by doctors specializing in things like plastic surgery than in more basic but less exotic areas.  The irony is that Obama’s health care plan really might benefit everyone – even those who can already afford expensive health care.

 There is some encouraging news.  Women in Florida have life expectancies equal to those of Japanese women, which makes them among the highest in the world.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the lifestyle of women in Florida might bear some examination.

July 12, 2011

My mother’s myth

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:23 pm

I was reflecting today on the fact that my mother’s mother died quite suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 42.  My mother was sixteen.

This was not something we ever talked about as I was growing up.  Not because it was too painful, but because my mother’s family and her background was somehow just not as important as my father’s family.  I knew my maternal grandmother and grandfather had died before I was born and it never occurred to me to ask any other questions.

But certainly my own mother, when she was faced with the doctors’ verdict when she was 48 that she had no more than six weeks to live, must have remembered.  My own mother was leaving behind ten children between the ages of 19 and 6.  Looking back, I am in awe of her generosity, her bravery, her honesty.

She was a committed Catholic and, although she told me she found the prospect of her death a little frightening, she never so much as once in our conversations during that six weeks, questioned that God was a God of love.  Somehow she accepted that her death was part of a greater plan than she could understand.  Somehow she could accept it.  She could trust it.

Okay, I do not put life together that way.  Even when I believed in God, I never exactly trusted him in the unquestioning way my mother could.

For many many years I thought her strength came from her beliefs, from what I called her faith, and all I saw was her philosophical naiveté.

I don’t think that anymore.  I have seen too many people who share her beliefs break under the whip of apparently meaningless pain and loss.   I think now that my mother was one of those rare people who could trust that life is valuable, that it has meaning.  That however incomplete and broken and askew it might seem, that it is good.

We all have our myths about the universe.  Even hard-nosed scientists do not possess some absolute truth.  Nor the Buddhists or the holy gurus of  the East who seem to so many to see beyond the horizon of our Western civilization.

Like so many I search for a coherent myth, for a story, that does not require me to do too much violence to the realities that appear before me.   I think the myth we adopt is important.  I think it can influence us for better or for worse, and as Tony Equale says so strongly in his post Resident Holiness, I think Catholicism is often suffocating, even hypocritical and destructive.

But some people have the capacity to see beyond the crippling institutional aspects of their beliefs, and somehow with a kind of innate goodness trust the essential value of life, even of existence.  However terrible things are, however unjust and cruel and askew.

I think my mother was one of these people.

July 2, 2011

More tonic

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:38 pm

The following story is making its way around the internet, and I have no idea whether it is true.  Even if it isn’t it,  it made me laugh.

Hymn of Gratitude

A minister, giving a sermon on temperance, completed with a flourish:

“If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.

“And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river

“And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river. ”                                                                                           

Sermon complete, the minister sat down and the choir leader stood up

“For our closing song,” he announced, “Please turn to Hymn #365:

We Shall Gather At the River.”

fat bottles Poster Print

June 25, 2011

Happiness isn’t all that simple

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:38 pm

I’ve run into trouble already with my “happiness” research on several counts.

“Happiness” has been the subject of a number of major research studies recently, but I’m having trouble with step one of any meaningful research design:  how do I define happiness?

As I sit down at the end of the day to list three things that made me happy, I tend to think of fairly inconsequential things.  Do they count as things that made me happy?  Do I count things like the chocolate cookie that I enjoyed at lunch?  or projects like planting the lettuce that I completed successfully?  What about things that are pleasurable?  or entertaining?  How about things that are simply a relief from worry?  In order to include all of the above, I’ve decided to list anything that I would call a “positive experience.”

So on the list so far I have listening to an old CD by Waylon Jennings, seeing that the vine we planted last month has begun to flower, and a phone call from my sister.  It also includes figuring out how to re-attach the kitchen cupboard door that inexplicably came off a hinge and hung precariously over my head when I opened it yesterday.  In fact, it even included looking at all the cupboard doors in the kitchen that seem to be swinging the way they should.

Actually, keeping this list has made me notice two things.  One is that there are an awful lot of little things on most days that give me delight.

The other is that these things are often rewarding because of something decidedly not rewarding that preceded it.  Like the door coming off its hinge.  It is often impossible to separate the positive from the negative experience.

Keeping this list has actually made me more aware of how much in my life I feel good about.  It is a practice I might recommend to someone who tends to suffer from depression.   Looking around and seeing the positive instead of the negative might be helpful for depressive types.

But I’m finding that this kind of list-making has already begun to feel too much like navel-gazing.  It’s making the pursuit of happiness feel hugely egocentric and short-term. The kind of things that give me deep, enduring happiness aren’t so short-term.  It is made up of relationships that are decades in the building.  It is made up of struggles and searches that take a lifetime to evolve.

Maybe that is why older people so often say they are happier than younger people.  Because at 18 or 28 one has hope.  One has plans and energy and goals.  At 68, the resources of energy are depleted.

But the sources of happiness may only be reaching their fulfillment.

June 1, 2011

Blog break

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:27 pm

We are having house guests for the next two weeks, so I am going to be courteous and enjoy myself besides and stay away from the computer.

Expected return to cyberspace in mid-June.

May 24, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:24 pm

There is a delightful and vivacious 8-year old girl in our village whose parents moved here to England from Poland several years ago.  Her ability to speak English is enviable (especially compared to my ability to speak Polish) but she is being held back a grade in school because she cannot grasp reading.

She has learned her phonetic sounds but has difficulty putting the various sounds represented by the letters  into coherent words.  I was discussing her problem with my sister who has taught reading to challenged adults and she pointed out some of the limitations of phonetics.

Take the letters “ough.”  By our last count, it represents potentially at least eight different sounds:

  • ooh as in through
  • uf as in rough
  • aw as in thought
  • uh as in Scarborough
  • off as in cough
  • oh as in dough
  • ow as in bough
Whew!  How did any of us ever learn to read?
Or maybe I should say “wough!”  Do you know what I mean?

May 20, 2011

Improving one’s world view

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:42 pm

I always turn to the sports page first…  They record people’s accomplishments;  the front page, nothing but man’s failure.

Earl Warren

May 16, 2011

Use-by Date

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:20 pm

I heard today that Boots Pharmacy plans on marketing a test for aging, a sort of use-by date for life.

Apart from having serious doubts as to just how accurate it might be, I find this a challenging question.  Would I like to know how fast I am aging relative to other people?  Would I like to know how much time I can reasonably expect to live?

For starters, if I had a reasonable idea of how long they are going to have to last it would certainly make organizing retirement finances much easier.

I think it would be something like half way between being told one has a terminal disease with some specific time doctors would expect me to live and knowing that we are all terminal but just don’t know when.

But what if I knew that I probably had six more months to live?  or ten years? or twenty or even thirty?  I don’t think I would mind so much, but would it really make a difference?  I would live with just as much energy as I do now.

And I quite respect the human condition for what it is.  Which is not knowing, possibly until the very last minute, that I am about to die.

So I think I’ll skip the Boots test after all.

Well, that’s a savings of $500 or so.

Would that all savings were this easy to achieve.

April 24, 2011

My annual Easter exultation

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:16 pm

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

e e commings

April 19, 2011

Diagnosis made simple

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:30 pm

The optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds.

The pessimist fears this is true.

James Branch Cabell

April 18, 2011

Biblical discrepancies

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

For fundamentalists who believe that every word in the Bible is literally and absolutely true, the fact that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke put the Last Supper on a different day than John puts it is a difficulty mostly to be denied or at best ignored.  For Biblical scholars, it is a problem to be solved.

Maundy Thursday « Matt Zainea | Fish of a Different Color

Essentially, the question seems to have been whether the Last Supper took place with the start of the Passover or, as John claims, on the day before that.

Now, a professor at Cambridge University thinks he has solved the conundrum.  He says that research indicates that there were two different calendars used to determine Passover.  One is the lunar calendar which puts the Last Supper on a Thursday.  But there was also a more ancient calendar in use in among the Hebrews in the first century that would put the start of Passover, and so the Last Supper, on a Wednesday.

A Last Supper on Wednesday would make more sense, in that it doesn’t mean that the arrest of Jesus in the Garden, his interrogation and two separate trials took place not in less than 24 hours, but in closer to 48.  This interpretation also eliminates the apparent contradiction between the various gospels which would solve a problem for fundamentalists.

But it would fix Good Friday on April 3, and Easter on April 5 every year.

That might ruffle some cherished certainties about how things are supposed to be.

April 17, 2011

Isn’t this enough?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:31 pm

A friend sent me to this YouTube.  I almost didn’t watch it because I usually prefer the written to the spoken word.  But I watched it — all 10 minutes and 7 seconds.

It was worth it for the line “Isn’t this enough?”

Yes, it’s enough.  It’s enough for me.  It’s inexhaustible.

April 7, 2011

Something to be glad for

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:28 pm

I watched some of the media coverage yesterday of Ronan Kerr’s funeral in Northern Ireland.  Kerr was a 25-year-old Roman Catholic who had joined the Northern Ireland police force after the peace agreement.  Somebody planted a bomb under his car that exploded when he got into it.

Since “the troubles” began in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, it has sometimes felt as if peace would never come to this troubled land.  The Catholics and the Protestants both seemed as if they would rather die than live side by side with each other.

But maybe – maybe – the peace is real.

This time, the outcries from both Protestant and Catholic communities was that this murder was an outrage, was a betrayal, did not have the support of the people whom it supposedly was meant to defend.

The First Minister of Stormont – a Protestant – attended the funeral, the first time in his life he had ever attended a Catholic mass.  This is even more revolutionary than it sounds, because for Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Catholic mass is a fundamental denial of their faith.

The Irish prime minister also attended.

Kerr’s mother begged other young Catholics  not to be deterred by her son’s murder but to join the Northern Ireland police force.

Kerr’s coffin was carried first by Kerr’s Catholic friends and family and then handed over the members of the police force whose members also acted as pall bearers.

Perhaps most surprising of all, thousands of Gaelic football supporters took part in a minute’s silence in memory of him before their match.  Until recently, police officers were forbidden to play on Gaelic teams.  Kerr did.

The people of Northern Ireland want to keep the peace they have finally achieved.

Two young men have been arrested on suspicion of being responsible for Kerr’s murder.  The speed of the arrests suggests to me that wall of silence on both sides that has protected people who engaged in this kind of sectarian violence in the past has broken down.

March 31, 2011

The problem of evil: Revisited for the umpteenth time

I was six years old when I first formulated the problem of evil for myself.  Why, I asked my father, if God didn’t want us to commit sins and if he could do anything he wanted to, didn’t he just make us so that we didn’t want to sin in the first place?

My formulations have become more sophisticated in the six decades since then, but in some form or other, it’s a question I can’t leave alone.

I tried atheism as a solution for a short time.  That solved the problem of god but it doesn’t solve the problem of suffering.

For a rather an embarrassingly longer time, I tried sainthood.  I would become a saint and in the process transform the world.  Mother Teresa may have failed.  Even Jesus had not succeeded in eliminating suffering.  But I had some vague notion that I could transform the world.

The next option, using my brain rather than virtue, fell upon similar barren ground.  Being rather well-educated, you might think that even a casual acquaintance of the destruction resulting from world-reformers in the 20th century would have kept me from even starting down the path of utopia creation.

But somehow I kept feeling responsible for the world’s suffering, with a nagging sense of guilt that somehow I wasn’t doing enough.  Here I was – and still am – living in relative comfort and safety.  How can this be fair?

It’s not fair, of course.  I don’t deserve, I have not earned, the good fortune which has graced my life.

And I still do not know why there is so much suffering in the world.  I no longer feel totally responsible for it, but I would like to understand it.

Buddha said that sin is not a positive evil, but is, rather incompleteness.   It is an indicator that we have not yet arrived, that we are still a work in progress.  It’s an idea that resonates with me.

And if I have any tenants of what might be called faith left, it is that existence is good.  To be alive is intrinsically valuable.

Exactly how suffering fits into this I’m not sure.  Except that somehow I believe that it is a creative part of the unfolding of the universe.

This is, I accept, an act of faith.  I can look at my own life and see in retrospect that what I thought was the worst possible thing that could happen was perhaps the best.  But there is much suffering that I cannot imagine being creative.  I find it impossible to look sanguinely as some suffering and blithely sing along with Mary Poppins that it will all be wonderful in the end.

So it’s an act of faith.  Or rather an act of hope.  I trust in the universe as it is.  I trust that what looks so terribly wrong from my small perspective and that I personally cannot fix will, in the end,  lead to greater good.

Having said that, if I live long enough, I am sure to visit this question umpteen more times.

March 22, 2011

A different road

Several years ago I returned to Maryknoll, the motherhouse of the order of nuns to which I belonged for nine years.  I was there to give a talk to current and former Maryknollers about my book The Big Bang to Now.   It’s a book based on current scientific thought and research, including most significantly, Darwin’s theory of evolution.

There were some listening to what I had to say who were made extremely uncomfortable:  Where was the Garden of Eden in all of this?  where, even, was God?

But what, in retrospect, impressed me most was not their confusion.  It was their ability to put it aside.  It was their ability not to dismiss me as a faithless sinner probably careening down the road to hell.  There was a split between what I would now call faith and belief.  The teachings of the Catholic Church did not inform my world view.  But somehow the women there were able to dismiss this.

And I think that has been a characteristic of many Maryknollers from the very beginning.  I myself cannot live as a participant in a community that is overtly committed to a view of the world with which I am fundamentally at odds.  But many of these men and women can.  And do.

I came away after that weekend at Maryknoll feeling that, although it was not my way, there is something there of deep and profound value.  And something that, to some extent, I was perhaps missing.  They trust what they know.  The contradictions between this and standard doctrine may have been a concern, but if something was going to take second place, it was the doctrine, not their conviction that people have a universal right to love and respect.  Whatever the Church’s dogma might say, what drives so many of them is that children should not have to live on the street, that mothers should not have to die giving birth because there is no medical help, that people should not be starving, that young women should not be driven to prostitution because they are bringing in the only income in the family, that learning how to read makes a difference to people’s lives that matters.

I don’t want to turn all Maryknollers into saints.  They aren’t.

But it is often too easy for me to see the flaws and limitations, and to miss the obvious:  that somehow so many of these women seem to have quietly been able to hold onto the most basic of Christian messages.  And that is a message of love and hope and peace.

If one has that, everything else is optional.  And if you don’t have that, one is not a christian.

March 19, 2011

Faith is not necessarily belief

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

After several strong recommendations from sources I respect, I have finally started to read The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox.  I’ve read about 50 pages so far and have scribbled myself enough notes for 5 posts on the topic.   The most significant ideas so far are not new to me but they are explored and expanded in ways I find quite exhilarating.

Cox begins with a distinction between religious faith and religious belief.  Cox was raised as a Methodist and says this idea is not new to him.  But I was raised, indoctrinated, and excelled as a Roman Catholic, and I find the idea absolutely mind-boggling.  It is more than a breath of fresh air.  It’s like a completely new world vision.   I wonder what kind of person I would have become had I understood this half a century ago.

According to Cox, early Christians tolerated a wide variety of different doctrines in their midst.  Dogma, for them, was not the essence of faith and did not define the Christian identity.  The community and something closer to what we mean by trust or perhaps even commitment and love were the essence of faith.   Because love was the essence of the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have not read the relevant chapters in detail, but Cox argues that doctrine replaced love as the essence of faith when it was adopted by the Roman Empire as its official religion.  (About which I will no doubt write more in later posts. )  But the idea of the centrality of love was never completely lost to Christianity, and often existed side by side with doctrinal correctness.

That is the world in which I was socialized.  I believed it was possible to be a good person without being a Roman Catholic, or even a Christian.  But I did not understand that it was possible to be a legitimate Christian if one did not accept Christian doctrine.  In fact, I think I often felt just a little smugly superior to those simple naive loving ignorant people who thought they were good Catholics but whose theology would – in centuries gone by – have gotten them burned at the stake.

How did we ever come to this monstrous arrogance?  How did we ever seriously think that the essence of what we believe is so much more important than what we do?   Today we have people making ghastly accusations based on belief.  Christians condemn other Christians to hell because they do not accept that the world was created in six days about 4,000 years ago.  No matter that you love your children, sacrifice for the good of your community, act with integrity and love.  You are going to hell because you do not believe that Jesus is literally present in the consecrated bread.  Because you do not believe that there are 3 persons in god.  Because you do not accept the infallibility of the pope or the virgin birth or the resurrection, because you believe in sex before marriage, or think birth control and abortion can be responsible choices.

What shocks me is not that so many people today reject this controlling, frightened, finger-wagging.

No, what shocks me is how long it took me to understand how profoundly wrong it is.

But it also helps me understand how it is that some people I know have been able to stay within the Church.  They never took all that doctrine as seriously as I did.  So they were able to grasp something about faith that I missed.  I had no choice but to leave the Church absolutely and totally, because I thought only a hypocrite or fool could stay.

I’m not suggesting I could possibly return to any church.  But I now understand the priest who answered the woman who told him she would like to return to the Catholic Church but that she didn’t believe in the resurrection or that Jesus was divine and much else.  She didn’t actually say she didn’t always believe in God, but I suspect she came close.

“That isn’t what faith is about,” the priest told her.  “If you feel you belong, you belong.”

Or as a student said in commenting on reports that Mother Teresa sometimes felt pangs of doubt “Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

March 12, 2011

The earthquake next door

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:49 pm

One of the things I find so devastating about the earthquake and tsunamis that are currently hitting Japan is that Japan was prepared.  Japan is not littered with sub-standard buildings and slums clinging to mountain sides.  It is a modern society that has taken the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis seriously.  Its buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes,  its sea walls to defend against tsunamis.

And yet thousands of people – probably tens of thousands of people – are dead.  Entire villages have been swept away by the raging waters,  whole trains travelling along the east coast are now missing, boats have disappeared in the whirlpools, millions are without water and electricity, hundreds of thousands are in shelters.  The damage has been felt half way around the world.

Gone: The same scene just moments later shows how the entire residential area of dozens of homes is completely obliterated by the unforgiving waters which swept away anything in their path

Click to see more photographs from the Daily Mail

And now the nuclear reactor along the coast has exploded, the consequences of which are not yet known.  It will be a powerful weapon for the Greens to use against building more nuclear plants.  Japans nuclear plants are not second-rate.   But it was vulnerable and the damage of escaping radioactive cloud may yet be immense.

The terrifying thing is that not only could it have been worse.  It could still get worse with after-shocks that are powerful enough to trigger more tsunamis and collapse more buildings.

Could something this destructive happen in the United States?  Yes.  The west coast is particularly vulnerable but there are the fault lines of tectonic plates on both the east and west coasts.

We call her Mother Earth.  But sometimes she is Medea, murdering her children in cold revenge at her betrayal.

March 6, 2011

The problem of evil isn’t the biggest problem for faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:24 pm

Many people do not believe in a loving God who has remained involved in creation because of what is called the problem of evil.  How can a loving, all powerful God possibly willingly permit so much innocent undeserved suffering that we see around us every day?

But I think there may be an even bigger problem for faith.  And that is the end of the universe.  One of the most respectable theories among scientists is that eventually – albeit trillions of years, but eventually and in real time – the universe will burn out and run down and return to smaller and smaller particles that eventually settle into absolute quiescence.

It might be a long time away, but it’s difficult to imagine this as a future one might look forward to.  This view doesn’t even save the existence of the very atoms of which I am made and which have been recycling through time for more than 13 billion years.

Okay, the caveats:  this is only a theory.  Science doesn’t know the future of the universe for sure.  Not all scientists agree on what is going to happen, and no scientist would argue it’s a dead cert.

And maybe there are other universes that will coalescence or supersede this one.  String theory suggests that there are.

But nonetheless, this is a serious theory about the future of the universe with a good deal of evidence to suggest that it may indeed be an valid prediction.

I said this is a problem for Faith, but I don’t think I want to put it quite that way.  For me, faith is trusting in the value of existence, in the belief that however indiscernible it may sometimes appear, to exist is good.

No, I go further than that.  I don’t say I understand it.  But I believe that to be alive is simply marvellous.  Getting up every morning, brushing my teeth, pouring my cup of coffee may seem pretty humdrum, pretty boring, not worth very much.  But actually, I think it is incredible.    Dealing with pain and disappointment and death sometimes feels tragic.  And in those times it faith is harder.  Sometimes faith doesn’t even seem sensible or rational.

And yet in the face of it all, we still have this drive to be, to live, we do the most amazing things to overcome the obstacles in order to continue to live and enrich our lives.

So in a way, I suppose the proposed end of the universe isn’t any bigger a challenge to faith than all of the other seemingly terrible things that seem to negate the sheer value of being here at all.

I couldn’t argue the case logically or using so much as a scrap of scientific evidence.

But I think simply to exist is a spectacular, fantastic wonder.  I hope I will always have the strength to hold onto this single strand of what I call faith that remains with me.

February 27, 2011

What my mother never told me

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:30 pm

Never answer an anonymous letter.

Yogi Berra

February 13, 2011

God as an ink blot test

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:15 pm

I was somewhat taken aback reading the New York Review of Books yesterday to realize just how many books have been published lately discussing the relationship between science and religion.  It seems to be a topic of greater importance to more people than I’d realized.

Personally, I’ve been trying to decide whether I agree with those who argue that the human race would be better off if belief in god were exculpated altogether.  Their point of view is that god and religion have been used from the very beginning to justify and motivate our aggression against our fellow humans and to avoid taking personal responsibility for ourselves.

“God,” of course, and the power of religion has often been used to justify every conceivable outrage from murder, torture, slavery, rape, starvation, stealing and vast destruction.

And yes, the concept of god is always incomplete, a metaphoric approximation at best, a ghastly projection of the worst of what we ourselves are at worst.

And yes, the existence of god can be neither proven nor disproven.  Belief in god is, after all, an act of faith.

But before I get too exercised with eliminating the concept of god, I would like to ask first what concept of “god” we want to eliminate.

“I believe in God”t doesn’t always mean “I have the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.”  It doesn’t necessarily mean “If you don’t believe in my God you are going to hell,” or even “If you don’t believe in God you are flawed, ” or “Those who do not believe in my God should be wiped off the face of the earth.”  It doesn’t even mean God as Creator or God as Father or God as our Judge when we die.

For some people,  “I believe in God” really means “I believe in love, in generosity, in forgiveness, in not judging.”  Or it means something like “I believe life is worth living despite some of the terrible things that happen to us.”  Or sometimes “I believe in something beyond myself, beyond today, beyond what money can buy.”  For some people, “god” is not a person in any sense of the word at all, god does not reside in another world beyond this universe, but is a presence which permeates and pervades everything but is nonetheless beyond human ability to understand.

As readers of this blog know, I personally cannot use the term “God” to describe anything in which I believe.  But some people can.  And some people have a concept of god which it seems to me is not only benign or positively enhancing.  Some concepts of god, it seems to me, actually are bulwarks against some of the worst abuses for which “God” is sometimes invoked.

“God,” just as all human reality, is always in part a reflection of the nature of the human mind.  As Stephen Hawking suggests in his latest book, The Grand Design, all of reality is a hypothesis.  So our concepts of “God,” just as everything else we think we know, is in part like the answers we give to an ink blot test.  It is, in part, a projection of our own ideas, hopes, and experiences.

I’m not convinced that eliminating “God” wholesale from our pantheon of beliefs will result in any great improvements in human life.  It depends on exactly which “God” we are eliminating, and what else we are putting in its place.

Recent history suggests to me that the replacement can be just as vindictive, just as selfish, just as arrogant, just as self-serving.

I suspect that changing ourselves into more loving, more intelligent, more responsible human beings is a lot harder than simply getting rid of “god.”

What we put in its place is the really significant task.

February 1, 2011

Breaking the rules

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:39 pm

I have just discovered that the term “Baroque” comes from a word used by Portuguese fishermen to mean “misshapen pearl.”

It began to be  used in the late 16th century to describe music and architecture that broke the rules.  Things are not perfectly aligned, they are not absolutely balanced, they do not reflect the world of perfect objects where Plato first argued perfection resided.

And yet they work.

In fact, to my ear and my eye, they represent freedom.  They break out of the repression of “the way things are supposed to be” to make space for what is unique.

When I was seven years old, I remember telling my second-grade teacher that I did not want to be Queen Elizabeth.  That I wanted to be myself.

And that’s what I like about Baroque.  You can break all the rules.  You can be unique.  And you can be absolutely beautiful.

All at the same time.

January 31, 2011

The sunshine option

Filed under: Osteoporosis,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:40 pm

I have a bone density scan scheduled for the middle of next week.  Three years ago, the scan showed that I had managed through a change in life style alone to stop bone loss in its tracks and possibly even begun to reverse the process.  So I am now extremely eager to see if the process has continued.  Particularly since I declined in the first place to treat the problem by taking bi-phosphonates despite the strongest recommendation of several MD’s familiar with the problem.  I had two particular reasons:

The first was the fact that, although bi-phosphonates increased bone density, they often did not reduce the incidence of bone fracture, which is the main point of the treatment.

The second reason was that after doing a fair amount of reading on the subject, it occurred to me that I had come close to creating a perfect storm for the occurrence of bone density loss:

We had moved from Spain to the north of England.  Although we kept walking in the hills of the Lake District two or three times a week at first, often for as long as four hours at a time, foot-in-mouth disease closed the trails within a year after our arrival.  So I retreated to my computer and spent an average of six hours a day writing a book.  And when I did go out, I covered myself from head to foot to protect myself from feeling cold.  So both my daily exercise and sunshine quotients were dangerously low.

Then I read that peanut butter was a highly recommended low GI food that is an excellent way of keeping one’s blood sugar levels steady.  So I began to eat it every day, and even developed a craving for it.  What I didn’t know was that it was packed full of oxalic acid that interferes with calcium absorption.

Not that I was getting much calcium anyway, since I was not taking any vitamin or mineral supplements.

What more could I possibly have done to speed up my bone loss?  I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t taking any supplements, I wasn’t making any vitamin D through exposure to the sun, I was eating foods that positively interfere with calcium absorption.  Oh, and I was probably drinking too much coffee.

So six years ago I started on a new regime.  If the bone density report, which I probably won’t get until March, continues the positive trend of three years ago, I will itemize what I think are the most important variables contributing to my bone health.

If the report shows a deterioration, I don’t know what I will do.  The Federal Drug Administration in the U.S. reported several months ago what I suspected years ago – that bi-phosphonates sometimes seem to increase rather than decrease bone brittleness and subsequent fractures.

In the meantime, I am continuing to take large enough doses of Vitamin D to scandalize my GP but which are not into the overdose quotients.

Apparently vitamin D not only helps maintain bone density, it also is implicated in reduced levels of many kinds of cancer, memory loss, and heart disease.

So along with my bottle of virgin olive oil and an apple a day, I might live forever.

Well, maybe for another decade or two.  If I’m seriously lucky.

Or not.

January 30, 2011

Marital bliss

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:27 pm

My advice to you is to get married.  If you find a good wife, you will be happy.  If you do not, you will become a philosopher.


I guess Socrates wasn’t happily married then.

January 28, 2011

There’s always another way of seeing things

Not only is there always another way of seeing things.  They often are inextricable.

If you don’t see what I mean, concentrate on the white spaces inside the letters.

January 21, 2011

Poetry and science: a personal manifesto

I have just had an energetic exchange about poetry and science with someone whom I think believes I put too much faith in science and not enough in poetry.

I am aghast.

I have spent so much of my professional life droning on that science is not a source of absolute certainty, that scientific facts are relative and that these facts can and often do change.  I also have argued – even here on this blog – that science is not all-encompassing.  Very few of the most important decisions in our lives can be subject to a verifiable scientific analysis.  And even if they could, they would not yield certainty.

I fall in love, for instance, and believe with passionate conviction that I will be happy with this person for the rest of my life.  My parents do not agree and strongly counsel against my marrying this person.  Whom should I trust?  myself or my parents?  Could I subject this decision to science?

Well, no.  Science might be able to tell me the odds of such a marriage lasting for my life time.  But science cannot study two unique individuals and predict more than the odds of our staying together.  I might want to consider those odds, but it is impossible for science to tell me whether I would be among the majority or minority of possible outcomes.  It is simply impossible for science to control all the variables that would determine the outcome and give me an absolute answer.

And we can multiply these situations.  Should I take this job?  should I have another child?  should I buy this property?  should I paint my bedroom wall another colour?  There is no end to the questions science cannot answer for us.

I must – and do – trust my intuition, my sense of truth, of beauty, of love, for right.  I “discern,” if you will, what others will do, what I think will happen if I make one or another choice.  I rely on poetry (albeit, often enlightened by science) to choose what I will live for, what I hope I would be willing to die for.

But discernment isn’t necessarily right any more than science.  Poetry can dazzle me with its magic.  Music can send me  marching off to war to kill my fellow human.   Poetry in the widest sense can be blindingly wrong.

So neither poetry nor science are sources of absolute certainty.  There are two things, however, that I value in science with passion.

The first is the astounding universe science is constantly unfolding.  I read about the world revealed by quantum mechanics and it creates for me the same wordless astonishment and wonder that Mozart’s concerti give me.  Or W.H.Auden’s poetry.  Or last night’s spectacular sunset.

The second thing I revere about science is that by definition it is never finished.  It never draws a double line and says “we know this without a shadow of a doubt and it will never change.  It is an eternal truth.”  My scientific conclusions are never given the absolute unquestioning acceptance of unchanging dogma by other scientists.  The door is always open to think again.  One can’t just come up with another idea, of course, and claim with convincing charisma that it is better than the old idea.  Science insists that one submit one’s convictions to empirical tests and to the scrutiny of the scientific community.

No, science is not my religion.  Science is not my poetry.  But science is a wonderful teacher and a strict task master.

In the long run science never lets you forget that you might be wrong.  Poetry doesn’t do that.  Mozart doesn’t either.

Enough.  I’m now going to listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.  I think they are one of the most beautiful things on this earth.

January 18, 2011

Earnest definitions

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

One of the first steps one takes in approaching a problem scientifically is to define what one is studying.  This is so elementary that the phrase “what I mean by x…” is equivalent to a 12-month old baby learning to say “mama.”

In that context, it’s rather surprising how many even exceptional scientists will discuss the existence or otherwise of God without more than a cursory glance at what they mean by “God.”  This same problem of definition surrounds words like “religion” and “belief” and “morality” too.

It is easy to find dynamic exchanges in print and cyberspace over whether wars are  caused by religious conflict and whether we would live in greater peace if we did away with God and religion altogether.

But aren’t religious beliefs so very varied that it is  impossible to discuss this question without defining which religious beliefs we are analyzing?

It seems to me, for instance, that a religiously derived belief that we should love our fellow humans as we love ourselves has quite different imperatives from the belief that God has mandated that I should eliminate from the face of the earth all those who do not believe in my God.

Religiously derived moral principles are sometimes just as diametrically opposed to each other.  It takes some fancy intellectual wiggling, for instance, to reconcile the prohibition against killing ones fellow-man and  capital punishment.  Or the essential equality of all people and slavery.   And does a sense of responsibility for one’s child support or condone a practice of exorcising a child because he is possessed by the devil?

It is obvious from the content of this blog that I find questions about God and religion endlessly fascinating.  But I do think we need to know what we’re talking about before we can begin to agree to disagree.

Having said that, I must admit that I’ve done a lot of agreeing and disagreeing in my life without having thought that I might not have much of an idea what I’m energetically talking about to begin with.

January 17, 2011

Ringing all dumbbells

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:06 pm

I suppose it would be too simplistic to say that there really are only two kinds of older people – those who think the younger generation is getting smarter and those who think roughly the opposite.  Though it does seem to me most of us have our unscientific opinions on the subject.

I don’t think the younger generation is getting dumber, but I have often thought that television programmes are.

But I may be seriously wrong.  Tonight on prime time mainstream television, BBC is presenting an hour-long programme discussing whether reality is merely a philosophical construction.  It really would be a stretch to call that dumbing down.

So I am now going to watch it.

I decided more than half a life time ago that I was going to opt for the position that an objective reality actually exists independently of my observing it.

I’m curious to revisit the question.  I wonder if I’ve changed my mind.

January 14, 2011

Essential information

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

Top:  Happy

Middle Row:  Grumpy, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy

Bottom Row: Doc, Sleepy

As we are leaving the holiday season behind for another year, I have devised a mnemonic to remember the names given by Disney to the seven dwarfs of Grimm Brothers fairy tale:

“Bash the Dopey and Grumpy Doc and Sleep Happy without Sneezing.”

Learn this and I’ll never again be at a loss for making small talk at one of those drinks parties I so dread.  That’s assuming I still remember this nonsense for the next drinks party.

And that I can figure out some way to bring up the Seven Dwarfs as a topic of scintillating discussion.

January 6, 2011

What’s causing the Decline Effect?

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:30 pm

Yesterday’s post described the Decline Effect, the phenomenon which seems to have appeared in almost every area of science, in which the results which seemed initially to be very strong get weaker and weaker as studies replicate the original research.

Undue carelessness in carrying out the original research or even deliberate fraud do not seem to explain why the decline effect is happening.  If only because nobody seems to be gaining from it.  The decline was initially even identified by someone trying to replicate his own research.

There might still, however, be a weakness in the way the scientific method is being implemented by the scientific community.  Ironically, globalization might be both making it harder to detect and exacerbating the decline.

The great benefit of replication, of research being repeated many times by many different researchers, is that it should reveal the errors and assumptions that any individual researcher may unconsciously be bringing to his or her work and which are distorting the outcomes.

Some of the strongest and most frequently unquestioned assumptions arise out of earlier research which has been broadly accepted.  So nobody is questioning them, even if they may be erroneous.  Some of these assumptions are widespread and held by the general public.  For instance, that gravity is what makes objects fall to earth.  Some assumptions are less well-known but are apt to be held by the majority of specialists in a particular field.  For instance, the assumption that the ability to see in three dimensions is limited if one is using only one eye.  Some assumptions are so deep that they are not even recognized as assumptions.  Whatever the combination of assumptions, they are always there.  It is impossible for any of us to perceive the world without making them.  What is observed is always and inescapably influenced by the perspective of the viewer as well as by the nature of the object being examined.

Abstract wallpaper backgrounds iaym.jpg ,  Size: 860.07 KB ,Resolution:1600 x 1200

The increasing globalization, especially through the internet, of scientific theory and research might make recognizing some of these assumptions even more difficult because they are more universally shared.  So scientists may be subject to the same distortions in their research, which results in coming up with similar errors.  This would mean it would take much longer for the Decline Effect to emerge.  Instead of a year or two, when it becomes clear that the original research results are not being replicated, it may take a decade or two.

Sometimes, of course, research might not be replicated at all for a very long time.  It may be too expensive, or take too long, or not seem to be of sufficient importance.

Finally, there is the problem of statistic significance.  There is a huge bias in science to publish research with statistically significant results.  In other words, that demonstrate that some variable makes a difference.  Publishing research which concludes that no distinguishing effects were found feels like failure.  It’s also much harder to get results which are not statistically significant published at all because professional publications prefer research with positive results.  Besides, positive findings are conclusive in the way that negative ones aren’t.

For example, suppose an article studying Vitamin B12 supplements concludes that it can make a difference in reducing memory loss in old age.  That’s good news.  We can do something about some of that distressing memory loss.  But if, on the other hand, the research finds no discernible differences, there is always the possibility that different research might still turn up something.  Different doses, different combinations of vitamins, different populations, different measurements of cognitive functioning – all of them might turn up some result.  In the meantime, the message is that there’s no new advice for dealing with our forgetfulness.  Not nearly as many people are going to be interested in this headline information.

In fact, when scientists don’t get a statistically significant result, they will often trawl through the data they have already collected to see if they can’t find something they hadn’t realized was there and had not, actually, been planning on looking for.  I know.  I’ve done it.  And I know dozens of reputable researchers who have done it.  It is not considered second-rate science to do this.  On the contrary.

But it creates a bias against finding results that are less striking than have already been reported in the research.

Imagine you are a young, ambitious scientist eager to make a mark.  Are you going to deliberately put your professional time and energy into doing research that is going to refute research which has already been published and is quite possibly lauded by the professional community?  Is it the wisest thing to begin by pitting your findings against received wisdom?  Wouldn’t it be better to strike out and find out something new and positive and statistically significant?

My strong suspicion is that the Decline Effect is the result of a widespread but indeliberate failure to adequately replicate initial research that reports some supposedly significant finding.   And so it is taking us longer to sort out the wheat from the chaff, to identify those findings that are robust, and those that were based merely on chance.

The almost universally accepted level of probability that results are not caused by chance is 5%.  It is even higher than that if there are some widespread biases influencing more than one researcher in similar ways.

Almost certainly then, at least 5% of all research reporting a positive result is simply chance and not a real effect at all.

The one thing science cannot afford to do is to let go of real, robust replication – including studies that report that they have been unable to find anything significant at all..

January 5, 2011

My second scientific bombshell

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

I was a young graduate student when I first read a book by Thomas Kuhn which convinced me that scientific fact could never be absolutely certain.  The reason is that a new theory might always displace an earlier theory, which then put everything we thought we “knew” into a different perspective.  And indeed this has happened more than once in the last four centuries.

As a result of understanding this, I have always been comfortable with the changing landscape and fundamental potential uncertainties of science.  But a friend has just sent me an article published last month in the New Yorker magazine that is, for me at least, as big a bombshell to the certainties of scientific fact as Kuhn was.

The article is about what is called the “Decline Effect.”  Fundamentally, this is a phenomenon in which scientific findings get progressively weaker as they are replicated.  The effects of a new generation of anti-psychotic drugs, for instance, which twenty years ago seemed to reduce psychotic symptoms dramatically, have bit by bit dribbled away.

The Decline Effect, though, has not just appeared in relation to research into the effectiveness of new drugs and medicines.  It has shown up in psychology, in biology, in physics, in fact in almost every area of science.

What in heaven’s name is going on?  Two holy grails of the scientific method – replication and statistical analysis – were supposed to prevent this from happening.  Are they breaking down?

Replication has been intrinsic to the scientific method since it was first formulated and refined five hundred years ago.  Around the world, it has  been almost an article of faith that scientific results must be repeated by other scientists, doing their own observations and producing their own data independently.  This seemed to be the cast-iron assurance against not only outright fraud but against careless research or against the inevitable bias that any individual might, in all innocence, impose on his or her research.

The essence of statistical analysis is deciding whether some event probably happened by chance or not.  Although analyses have become extraordinarily sophisticated with the increasing computer power in the modern world, the principle remains the same.

For instance, walking down the street, there is one chance in 365 that the next person I see will have been born on the same day of the year as I was.  There is one chance in two that if I flip a penny, it will come up heads.  Science uses statistical analysis to decide if the effect connected to some variable happened by chance or is what is called “statistically significant.”

Did this group of people, for instance, who took an aspirin every day for the last ten years have lower levels of cancer than a similar group of people who didn’t regularly take aspirin?  And if the first group did have lower levels of cancer, was that merely a chance difference or were the differences so great that the probability that it was chance are miniscule?

What the decline effect is suggesting is that results that at first look as if could almost certainly not have happened by chance gradually seem to look more and more like chance with repeated replication.

The Decline Effect, of course, creates a cloud of doubt over huge swathes of accepted scientific findings.  And scientists are not yet totally agreed as to its causes or its cures.

But there are some potential explanations, and their exploration will almost certainly have an influence on the way science is practiced in the future.  More about what they might be in my next post on the subject.

January 1, 2011

“Sir”, I believe?

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:49 pm

I wouldn’t call it a full-fledged  culture shock exactly, but we were at least rather surprised to open the paper today to discover that the son of the couple living next door has been made a Knight.

Every New Year there is what is called “the Queen’s Honours List” in which outstanding achievement or services are awarded honours.   Awards are given for activities in almost any field – sports, entertainment, business, science, or charity across the United Kingdom.

The honours are of all sorts and levels, the names or initials of which I mostly recognize these days but have no idea of their hierarchy.  I do know there are several levels of Knightly honours, and that a Knighthood is itself pretty significant.

Instead of being addressed as “Mr.”, knights are addressed as “Sir…” and their wives as “Lady…”  There is even a protocol which determines whether you follow the Sir and Lady with the first or last name or both.  I’ll learn the exact rules should I ever foresee the unlikely need.

In the meantime, our neighbour’s son might not notice much difference.  He already holds a high rank in the UK air force, so I imagine he’s been addressed as “sir” for quite a long time already.

It’s interesting.  But not like America.  It’s not that we Americans don’t have a hierarchy.   We just display our status in slightly different ways.

December 23, 2010

Christmas condolences

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:52 pm

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, Rudolph is no longer with us.

December 20, 2010

Omg, this might BE global warming

Here in Britain we are facing what is literally breaking records for cold.  Not just the last ten years, or “since the 1962 winter,” but quite possibly the lowest temperatures ever recorded in modern Britain.  Thankfully they do not extend to the ice age 15,000 years ago.  They don’t even extend to the 17th century mini-ice age when people crossed the River Thames in London on foot and in New York walked from Manhattan to Staten Island.

Yet modern records are bad enough.  During the winter of 1962 (which those who lived here then remember and shutter), it did not get over 5 degrees any where in Britain before mid-March.

This morning a meteorologist reminded me of something I’ve known for years but have tried to forget.  Instead of global warming making Britain a warmer, if wetter, place, it could shift the Gulf Stream south.  In which case our weather here in Britain will resemble that of Siberia or Alaska which are on the same latitude.

This winter the Gulf Stream has shifted south, and is highly unlikely to return here this year.  And it does feel like Siberia or Alaska right now.

Well, we will survive that.  But what if the Gulf Stream never returns?  I do not find the scientific evidence comforting.

As they say, one should be careful what one prays for.

December 17, 2010

Making it through December

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:51 pm

Get me through December
A promise I’ll remember
Get me through December
So I can start again

Lyrics by Allison Krauss

Our weather forecasters are trying to decide whether tomorrow we will be faced with heavy rain, heavy snow, or neither.  They all seem agreed that temperatures will be securely below freezing.  Our firewood which ordinarily would last into April will be gone by the end of January,  the local supplier has no seasoned logs left, and the price of heating oil has doubled in the last month.

But so far none of our water pipes have frozen.  Or at least haven’t burst.

Still, Lord, just a small touch of global warming wouldn’t be too bad, would it?

December 16, 2010

A giant full circle?

Several billion years ago – that is when Earth was about half as old as it is now – algae was one of the most common visible forms of life on the planet.  This kind of pond life was a key player in generating the oxygen that made it possible for life to leave its ocean home and set up a permanent home on land.  Algae remains an essential part of our eco-system, providing food for many sea animals and contributing significantly to the oxygen supply for those of us who breathe on land.

Algae may now be posed to make another significant contribution.    The US Navy has taken delivery of 20 thousand galls on jet fuel produced by – yes, algae.

If it works, and if algae-based jet fuel can be scaled up so that it can be produced cheaply and in sufficient quantity,  it can transform life once again.

As an alternative to fossil fuel, the contribution of algae-based fuel to the environment could be immense.  The political implications could be equally monumental.  Countries whose economies rely on oil exports as well as those relying on its import to meet their energy needs could find that they are dealing with completely revolutionized variables.

Will it happen?  It would require a lot of water under cultivation.  An area the size of South Carolina would be required to meet America’s transport needs alone.  Algae farms covering a country the size of Portugal would be need to service the transport needs of Europe.

The farms would not, of course, have to all be located in a single vast pond.  But if they are divided up into many small puddles, the algae would then have to be transferred to central refineries for processing.  And that, of course, would add to the fuel.

I am not benignly confident, but I am hopeful.

The human species, along with a number of arguably less admirable qualities, is marvellously inventive.

December 13, 2010

As I said earlier…

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:19 pm

The great and invigorating influences in American life have been the unorthodox:  the people who challenge an existing institution or way of life, or say and do things that make people think.

William O. Douglas

Associate Justice United States Supreme Court

Following my post yesterday, this quote, by coincidence, just showed up on my New Yorker page-a-day calendar today.  I love it when people agree with me.  Too bad I find it challenging to listen to people who don’t.

Unless I can convince them, of course, that I’m right.

December 12, 2010

Yahweh and the Universe

Unlike other societies who made images of their gods and carried them around with them, the Hebrews were forbidden to make images of God.  Their prophets destroyed them in righteous fury.

Instead, the nomadic Hebrews  carried an empty tent which symbolized the presence of their God in their midst.  God could not be reduced to images.  Yahweh is He- Whose-Name-Cannot-Be- Spoken — He-Whom-We-Cannot-Know.  The Hebrews did not think their sacred writings were inspired by God with a message meant to be understood literally.

Actually, what I like about the Hebraic concept of Yahweh is that in some ways it resembles the Universe.   It is an amazing, fantastic, inspiring and inexhaustible reality about which we can always understand more and never comprehend totally.

December 11, 2010

The small possibility that I am wrong

Earlier this week we watched a tv programme in which Jacob Bronowski’s daughter, now in her sixties, tried to understand her father who died ,pre tjam 30 years ago.  If you are old enough, you may remember the tv series The Ascent of Man, in which Bronowski argued that science was one of the greatest forces for good that mankind has at its disposal.

His daughter, now an eminent historian, was greatly influenced by her father and his ideals, and it was a great shock to discover recently that during WWII, he had used his rarefied mathematical ability to help allied planes drop bombs on German cities like Dresden and Berlin so as to maximize damage.  How, she wondered, did he live with this?  And what did he think and feel when he was sent after the war by the military to assess the damage of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

She discovered that Bronowski was not a man who went through life undisturbed by the decisions he had made.  In fact, she discovered and presented some gripping video in which her father faces the issue straight on.

He stands on the edge of a field at Auschwitz where the human ash of hundreds of thousands of Nazi victims of the gas ovens was dumped.  He bends down and takes the ashes into his hands and looks at them intently.  It is not possible, he said, to be absolutely sure about the choices we make.  Life faces us with dilemmas in which the moral choice is not always clear, in which doing anything or even nothing seems tainted with guilt.  But we must, he said, make the choices to the best of our ability at the time.

But we may be wrong.

We may be horribly, terribly wrong.

And then he quoted again that wrenching plea from Oliver Cromwell:  We beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to consider the possibility that you may be mistaken.  If only people like Hitler or Stalin had remembered that.  It was not science, he said, that murdered these people.  It was people who would not accept that they could be wrong.

I think this is the key to why Bronowski so valued science.  Because built into science is the unrelenting possibility that evidence will prove one wrong.

The history of science is littered with theories that have been accepted and then replaced by new theories because there is new evidence or new a new way of looking at old evidence.  Even Newton’s theory of gravity has not remained unscathed.  No scientist now believes the universe runs solely on the mechanical principles that he thought.

For science, there is always the potential for looking at things from another point of view.  There is always the possibility that I am wrong.

To live with that knowledge, not just in relation to science, but in relation to all the judgements I make, seems to me to demand great strength of character and discipline, but also to offer great rewards.

  • To be in the middle of a heated fight and to consider that there may be another legitimate point of view is not easy.  But it may save a relationship.
  • To be able to consider the possibility that someone who has done great harm may be something else besides a selfish brute who should be kept in prison for life may be the path to forgiveness, even of ourselves.
  • To be able to see something from a different point of view is the essential ingredient of creativity.
  • To believe that what seem to be two diametrically opposed ideas might somehow be compatible might reduce my bigotry.
  • Whatever else, it invariably makes life a surprise.

I have thought for a long time that the key moral value underlying science was to tell the truth – not to lie about what one saw.   But I think now, there is another moral principle just as important, just a hard to practice, and just as applicable in the world beyond science:  to always remember that I might be wrong;  that there might be another point of view that is just as legitimate, or even sometimes more legitimate, than the one of which I am so convinced.

But it’s hard work.  Maybe the work of a lifetime.

December 9, 2010

Music, mystery, and math

It’s not clear to me whether Iannis Xenakis thought of himself more as a musician or an architect.  He was outstandingly brilliant in both.  Mathematics was a bridge for him, and he found music in his modernistic architecture and geometry and set theory in music.

But he was a no mere translator of music into numbers.

Music, he said, was a way to find answers to phenomena we don’t understand.

Xanakis does not seemed to have talked a lot about what he came to understand through music.  Perhaps he felt the music said it for him.

If so, I think I understand.  Music often gives me a glimpse of things I do not yet have words for.  It’s like an arrow pointing to something which I cannot yet reach through rational  or scientific analysis.

I have too great a legacy of distrust for belief based on “faith” to place unquestioning trust in insights music suggests to me.  But I take it seriously.  And it has given me immense joy and strength.

December 7, 2010


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

I learned yesterday that a Pogonip is a kind of ice fog that forms in mountain valleys in the western United States.

Since the only pogos I’d ever heard of before were sticks, and since no one can accuse me of being someone to pass up an opportunity to learn Something Really Unimportant, I googled “Pogo.”

It’s quite a word:

First of all, Pogonips are an Shoshone Indian word for ice fog.  So I think they might claim credit for using the word first.

Pogo is also the name of a place in Alabama, a species of gorilla, a type of food also known as a corn dog, a kind of grass, a dangerous oscillation found in rocket engines, and the acronym for the Project on Government Oversight.

I’m not sure how so much of it got onto our trees and lawn here in Cambridge, England but ice fog certainly describes what our weather is currently spreading around.

Although my husband unromantically simply refers to it as “a heavy frost.”

December 6, 2010

I told you it was bad!

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:49 pm

I’ve learned not to complain too loudly about the weather over here to my friends and family living in the States.  Our temperatures here in England rarely sound as dreadful to the people I’m writing to as they feel to me, even though I grew up in northern Ohio and do know what it’s like to have now on the ground from November to April.

But now I have a story that is really competitive!  I mean, try to beat this one:  7 people have just gotten out of a Yorkshire pub where they were trapped for 9 days by 16-foot snow drifts.

Okay, it was a bed and breakfast place as well, so they all had beds, and even bedrooms.  They did not run out of food, and they certainly did not run out of warming drinks.

Snowed inn: The Lion Inn pub in Blakey Ridge, North Yorkshire, where seven people have been trapped for nine days

And I’ll admit it beats being marooned in a Chilean coal mine.

But I do bet it was pretty boring after nine days, don’t you think?

November 29, 2010

Almost an original settler

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

My brother  still lives with three generations on our original homestead in Ohio.

I guess most people don’t think of themselves as having grown up on a homestead anymore, but Jack pointed out that the land has been in our family for more than 70 years.  That is more than 1/3 of all the time Ohio has been a State.

On the other hand, the oldest company in the world is Kongo Gumi, a construction firm in Japan established in 578 A.D.

It’s still being run by a man with the surname of Kongo.

FLATLAND - BLACK DIAMOND MINES - Antioch, CaliforniaI think that means we need another 37 generations or so on the land in Ohio to catch up.

November 26, 2010

Religion and dogma: a happy ending

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

In several posts last week, I reflected on the role ritual has played in my family, and about both those times when it has been strengthening and when it has been divisive.    Thanksgiving has always been in our family, as among many families across America, a time to get together, to celebrate, and enjoy each other.  We’ve had our traditional dinner at my grandmother’s house down the road, sang our songs around the piano, and on Fridays, weather permitting, went for a walk in Virginia Kendall Park.

But this idyllic scenario was threatened to be ripped apart when my brother Tom got a divorce and then remarried.  By then, my grandparents had died but Thanksgiving continued to be hosted by our unmarried Aunt Tillie who still lived on the homestead.

The problem was that Tillie believed the Catholic teaching that divorce was bad enough but might under extreme circumstances be justified.  Remarriage, however, was always  a grave sin – a mortal sin which condemned the unrepentant to eternal hell.  It is not mandated by Rome, as far as I know, but where I came from, many Catholics believed that divorced people who remarried must not only be refused communion, but should be expelled from the family and community.

Tillie was a very good, very earnest Catholic.  She was also a person whose love and open door to her nephews and nieces was a life saver after my mother died.  Especially for Tom who also was particularly close to her.  Tillie’s problem was that she thought on the one hand religious teaching demanded that she refuse to continue to relate to Tom, and on the other, she knew how devastating a decision like this would be for both of them and for his children.

On pain of fearing that she herself may be condemned to many long years in purgatory, if not an eternity in hell, she simply said she loved Tom too much.  She never closed her door to him.

Tillie did not have the analytical skills that some of us have.  I have discovered about myself, for instance, that I can rationalize almost any course of action, and I cannot imagine suffering any torment in relation to a decision like the one Tillie made.  All she had was her conviction that to hurt someone she loved and who depended on that love as much as Tom and his children did was wrong.  Period.  She couldn’t explain it.

She just knew that, whatever the price, she wasn’t going to do it.

I know several other instances of people who have made similar decisions.  And I admire them beyond words.  I fear that I myself do not possess this arrow that goes to the heart of the issue so directly, so honestly.  I twist and turn, looking at every aspect of the situation, even when we are talking about something as basic as simply continuing to love someone.

Most great religions teach that loving our fellow-man is fundamental.  Tillie was one of those people who, whatever the cost might be to her, just never lost sight of that.  She anguished, she kept going to church, I believe she lay on her deathbed fearing she was going to hell.

But she never stopped loving.

When I was growing up, I thought this kind of steadfast love was rather simple.  Not that Tillie was unintelligent – she was, actually, a gifted musician and teacher.   But, forgive me, I took it for granted.  I might even have felt that my own analytical approach was superior.

Addendum:  since this is a story about religious dogma and self-righteous rules, it might sound as if I am attacking religion.   But I think the problem is much more complex than religion.  It seems to me that in all groups one can find sanctimonious people who lose sight of the reason for rules and become obsessed with enforcing them to the letter for their own sakes.

A small example of this was featured in the news recently, when garbage men refused to pick up the bins of an elderly woman because the lid was slightly ajar.  “The rule,” they said, “is that bins must be securely closed.”  To their credit, the local authorities suggested that in the future the men use a little bit of common sense and compassion.

Maybe even a little brotherly concern.  Sounds like a sort of secularized version of the command to love ones neighbour, doesn’t it?

Tillie would certainly have understood.

Addendum II:  I have only in the last several years really understood that authentic religion is not about belief.  It’s not about dogma and doctrine.  It’s not about power or social control or converting others to the ‘true faith.’

It’s about loving.

If it gets in the way of loving, there’s something terribly wrong.

November 25, 2010

It isn’t fair!

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:40 pm

Here in Britain, advertisers frequently try to encourage buyers with the phrases like

  • “You deserve it, “
  • or “You’ve earned it,”
  • or “You’re worth it.”

I find the approach irritating, because

  • No, I don’t, and
  • No, I haven’t, and
  • No, I’m not.

Life is horribly unfair, and on this Thanksgiving, I am profoundly grateful that fortune has not dealt me what I deserve, or earned, or am worth.

I have received much much more than that.  In her often profligate way, mother nature and good fortune have given me gifts and opportunities and challenges for which I cannot possibly make recompense.  When I was young and naive, I thought I could give back more than I was given.

Now, I can only say thank you.

And wish you and those you love a very happy – and unfair – Thanksgiving.

November 22, 2010

An unselfish gene?

Have you ever wondered why Darwin assumed that genes are selfish?  that is, that the pursuit for survival is based on a notion of survival based entirely on the individual involved?

Darwin himself wrestled with the problem created for this position by inter-species altruism.  The classic, but by no means singular example, are worker bees who are sterile but seem to work all their lives solely for the survival of the larger bee community.  Modern evolutionary theorists reason that altruism is a means of ensuring the survival of ones own genes carried by ones closest relatives.  A second-best choice, no doubt, to passing on ones own genes, but it does leave the basic mechanism of evolution in tact.

But I’ve begun to wonder if Darwin was influenced by his Christian beliefs.  Darwin himself took a lot of schtick, not least from his deeply religious wife, when he finally published his work.  But I know from personal experience that one can hold on to ideas that arise out of one’s earliest socialization even when I have thought I’ve abandoned the entire system.

This phenomenon, of course, if not unique to me.  Science itself is shaped by its determination to replace supernatural explanations of natural events with empirical, observable, and testable causes.  But the influence of that rejection of the supernatural has not altogether disappeared.  Many of the mistakes we scientists have made reflect a fear of letting the supernatural in by the back door.

Psychologists, for instance, in order to make eliminate concept of the “soul” tried to develop theories of human behavior in which the mind was completely absent.  Feelings and thoughts were at best epi-phenomenon, shadows of the real reality that could be seen and measured and subject to the laws of physics.  Not all of psychology is completely free of this assumption even today.

What has got me thinking in particular about this selfish gene is the concept of sin.  At the core of Christianity is the belief that mankind is basically sinful, that we need to be redeemed, and that was why Jesus died on the cross.  But it is possible to give up any belief in God at all and still cling to this assumption that we are basically sinful?

Are we hiding from ourselves that we still cling to this belief by using the world “selfish” instead of “sinful”?  Do we think selfish is somehow more secular, less spiritually contaminated, less influenced by this idea which is as old as far back as we can see into our own history?  Even before Christianity, we tried to placate the gods, sacrificed our virgins, danced our rain dances, apparently reasoning that we had done something terribly wrong and that we were the reason things were so badly askew.

In the light of this radical idea, I’m wondering whether the survival instinct is primarily creative rather than primarily selfish.

The problem with answering this question, it seems to me, is that there is so much evidence to support either perspective.  The media, of course, are hardly an unbiased source of data.  Stories that make news are inevitably the ones about disasters and crime, about impending doom, greed and ignorance.  Feel-good stories are add-ons.

How much unselfishness, how much creative impulse, how much caring and concern actually exist in our world?  It may be overwhelming.  Even the awful apparent evilness of a Hitler or Stalin might be interpreted as failed attempts to create a utopia rather than totally self-absorbed obsession with preserving their personal genetic legacy.

This idea is not entirely original to me.  I got the kernel of the thought from Tony Equale’s book The Mystery of Matter, soon to be available on Amazon.  Tony suggests that there is more reason to think genes are unselfish than selfish.  I take responsibility, however, for the elaboration of this idea here.   Equale may totally disagree.

I’m not initially inclined to trust ideas that are too optimistic.  But the more I think about it, the less outlandish the possibility that genes are more creative than selfish seems it might be.

November 20, 2010

Ritual and the stories we tell

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:00 pm

This is a response to Existentialist Ubuntu on Chris Lawrence’ blog Thinking Makes It So, which is itself a response to my post two days ago on Religion and Ritual.

My original post was about my personal difficulty with the traditional Catholic rituals with which I grew up.  I have experienced ritual as a way of humans standing together as we face events in our lives, many of which are inexplicable, but as my belief system diverged from Catholicism, I have found it increasingly difficult to participate in Catholic rituals without feeling a certain sense of hypocrisy in myself.

But we have often been able in my family to take these rituals and adapt them to express our common sense of loss and pain and also joy and celebration based not on our Catholicism but on those deeper values that we continue to share.

But Chris is right.  There are narratives, beliefs underlying rituals.  As I said in my earlier post, we were able to “hijack” the ritual for my sister Mary’s funeral and managed to include the entire – very large – family.  That is the last time we have been able to do it.  Since then, one wing or the other has either been absent or has cringed silently during parts of the ceremony.

The saddest example of the divisive potential of ritual occurred between one of my brothers, D, and sister, B.  D  is a uniquely committed but unyielding Catholic and he and his wife have raised their six children in Mexico following a fundamentalist interpretation of Roman Catholicism.  While not accepting his beliefs, B has been a particular friend and benefactor to his children, remembering their birthdays,  helping pay for their university educations, providing summer jobs, and attending many of the significant events in their lives.

Some years ago she was invited by the family to attend the college graduation of one of the children.  But when she took Communion at the Mass of celebration, she started a rupture that now includes most of us.  She is no longer a believing Catholic, and it was made clear that she was most emphatically not welcome to participate in the common breaking of the bread.  After all, she was not “one of them.”

Almost none of us are “one of them” by his definition, and the split between him and us feels simply irreconcilable.  He believes that without repentance, we are each on the road to hell.  The rest of us, for our part, don’t even believe in hell let alone in his version of our need for repentance.

What is so particularly painful about this rupture is that it is taking place over the very thing which we all share – our common humanity.  Communion, the breaking of the bread, is meant to be a symbol of that.  And yet Rome forbids Catholics to welcome non-Catholics to this table.  Even Tony Blair was explicitly forbidden by the present pope from sharing communion with his Catholic wife and children before he converted to Catholicism.  This restriction is not a narrow fetish of my brother; it is officially mandated by the Vatican.

And so although all of us everywhere do share our humanity, its mysteries, its pains, its joys, and our needs for each other, ritual is not necessarily a reflection of this.  The rituals I have described in my earlier post arose out of beliefs I no longer hold.  I am able to participate in them to the extent that whole group – most of my family – has often been able to embrace the sincerity of varying beliefs and disbeliefs and so subtly change the underlying meaning of the various rituals while retaining many of their outward forms.

But rituals are based on an underlying narrative.  And that narrative might be destructive.  I have often listened to the songs of the IRA calling for Irish independence.  The music is so rousing that I think sometimes I could be mesmerized into doing almost anything with a sense of heroic virtue.  And some people do.

The stories underlying rituals are held by the group as a whole.   I can’t, all by myself, transform any ritual into an expression that suits me personally.  To be a transformative ritual, it must reflect the larger values of the group.  And when it doesn’t, I cannot participate.

Rituals are very powerful, but they are like fire.  They can be healing, creative forces.  Or they can destroy our very selves and what we love.

November 19, 2010

Who is Lucy

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:28 pm

When they were old enough to be disrespectful, some of my younger sibs started occasionally to call me Lucy.

Today one of my brothers, who here shall be known only as Linus, asked me if I knew which Lucy was my namesake.  He pointed out three possibilities:

  • Lucy, formally known as Australopithiecus afarensis, who walked on two feet in Ethiopia three and a half million years ago
  • Lucy, the one with diamonds in the soles in her feet made famous by the Beetles’ song
  • Lucy, the  older sister of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts family;  I myself would not want to describe her as crabby, but she is, as you may recall, always right.

Well, I’m not Lucy afraensis, having no pretense whatsoever to being any kind of earth mother

My head may sometimes be in the clouds, but I’m far too clod-footed to be Lucy with diamonds in my shoes

So I guess I’m Lucy the Latter.  Or maybe Lucy the Lesser.

November 13, 2010

Car shock

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

Several months ago we were faced with the reality that we might need to replace our car.  After much soul-searching – not to mention repeated examinations of our accounts – we decided to replace our old Volvo which had been severely damaged in a flood.

It arrived yesterday.  Between us, Peter and I have over a century worth of experience driving cars, and have owned Volvos since the early 1970’s.  Over the years, each new Volvo, with some upgrades, has been much like the car before it.

Not like the Olden Days

Not this time.  This car is a whole new learning experience.

For starters, it doesn’t start with a traditional key slotted into a traditional key hole on the steering column.  This car starts with a fob pushed into a slot on the dashboard.  When we picked it up, the salesman gave us a short introduction during which the starter was only the start.  We both listened politely to the presentation, each of us thinking privately “well, I’ll figure this out using the manual when we get home.”

We shook hands with the salesman who disappeared, and we got into the car to drive home.  We couldn’t start it.  I mean, we couldn’t figure out how to start it.  We did turn on the air conditioning, the fans, the radio, the windshield wipers, the windshield washers, the fog lights, the parking lights, and the GPS.  And we  managed not to turn on the alarm, but after ten minutes finally looked at each other and admitted we’d run out of ideas.

I finally went back into the dealership office and asked for help.  I won’t go into details, but the essence is that you can’t start the car if you haven’t already got your foot on the brake.  I suppose it’s considered a safety feature that the salesman forgot to mention during the introduction.

Well we got home.

Since then Peter and I have divided the learning tasks we must achieve before going back onto the road:

the hand brake is nowhere in sight.  Well, that’s not true.  It’s not where every other handbrake in every other car I have ever been in is.  This one is a button somewhere on the dashboard.  We have to figure out how do you turn it off and on.

where is the special electronic release button to open the gas tank?

how do I adjust the driver’s seat so I can reach the pedals?  (don’t laugh:  I had to read the manual to find out)

how do you switch from automatic to manual shift – which then works without a clutch?

Then there are the obviously simple things like how the radio turns on and off.  ditto for the GPS and how is it programmed?  ditto for the cruise control;  and of course the lights of all kinds

And what do you mean –  “rear parking assist”?  what’s that awful noise?  we’re not that close to the wall!

Finally there was the cheerful warning from the salesman:  if you lock the car, after 15 seconds it will double lock itself and cannot be opened from the inside.  So don’t leave your spare key inside and lose the other one.  “There is no other way to get in.”   I started to object, but decided that redesigning the Volvo locking system on the auto forecourt was a lost cause.  I will just be careful never to lock my key in the car.

Except, of course, one doesn’t really have keys like in the olden days.  It’s a fob.

I’m thinking of taking a course.  Alternatively we can take the car out tomorrow and drive it.

I think Peter knows what he’s doing.

November 12, 2010

Inflationary cost of happiness

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:52 pm

I’ve been thinking about my post yesterday describing research finding that income increases up to $75,000 are correlated with reported levels of happiness among the half a million people interviewed in 2008-09.

This represents a significant inflation since a similar study found an annual income of about $20,000 would do it.

Personally, I think we benefit from recognizing the role money plays in reducing life’s stresses.  As my step-mother used to say “Money might not make you happy;  but it sure helps solve the problems that make you unhappy.”

Yet I’m inclined not to go overboard about just how much happiness money can buy.  Along with moderating our worries, I suspect money often makes more room in our lives for those things that do bring us positive happiness – love, work, friends, learning, music, all the beautiful things and places and experiences that bring us joy.

But I have to make an effort to achieve for those things.  Money doesn’t come with any of them automatically attached.

At least it sure doesn’t look like that to me.

November 8, 2010

Tying your shoe laces: is it genetic?

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:06 pm

Researchers recently have begun to question whether the alleged genetic differences between male and female brains is much less than we have thought, or if indeed if it exists at all.

I’ve long thought there are genetically-based differences in male and female intelligence.  But as someone who spent a substantial portion of my professional life arguing that the evidence did not support alleged racial differences in IQ, I am open to the suggestion that they have been greatly exaggerated.  I’m also a female who has what would be traditionally called a “male brain,” and I think it is quite possible that most differences between the sexes is due to environmental factors.

But I do remember when the twins were about two years old and learning to tie their shoe laces.  I had a bet with my older brother Tom that I could teach Mary to tie her shoe laces faster than he could teach her twin to do the same thing.  

At the end of a week, I told Tom that Mary had learned.  Tom disagreed, and asked Mary to tie her shoes which she apparently could not do.  The next day her twin Bob won the race, and the day after that, Mary had also learned the trick.

Years later I learned from Mary that she indeed had learned how to tie her laces first, but she thought Bob should win so she pretended she didn’t know how.

She was two years old.  I did come from a family where it was assumed that men were more intelligent than women.  But how did Mary learn that in less than 24 months after arriving in this world?  I don’t recall that Tom or I gave the contest a sexual dimension.

But the idea of sex roles certainly must have been pretty deeply ingrained if it extended even to tying shoe laces.

Unless, of course, it’s genetic.

November 2, 2010

Life’s puzzle solved

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 10:09 am

We are put on this earth to do good to others.

What the others are here for I don’t know.

W H Auden

October 30, 2010

A seriously serious happy Halloween

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:28 pm


With best wishes to all

October 29, 2010

Beginning with Mars

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:47 pm

Perhaps twenty years ago, I read an analysis of what scientists might do to make Mars a planet that is habitable for human life.  It included ideas like hanging giant solar-reflecting shields in space to increase the Martian temperature and growing plants to generate oxygen and food.

The estimate at that time was that humans could start to colonize  Mars in about a thousand years.

Yesterday, I read that NASA has begun funding plans to send astronauts on one-way trips to Mars or its moon to set up permanent human colonies there.

They estimate that the project would cost about ten billion dollars, and that it would begin about twenty years.

I think the idea is that about four men would be the initial colonizers and that gradually additional settlers would go out and the community would expand.

I’m gob-smacked.

And yet, psychologically I imagine such a trip to Mars in twenty years would be little different from the great ocean voyages barely more than 600 years ago.  The voyagers, then, were going into a great unknown. They had no idea how big earth was, when or if they would hit land and if they did, whether they would find food and water.  None of them could know if they would ever return and many of them didn’t.  They might not even have been absolutely sure the world wasn’t flat.

Actually, colonizers to Mars in twenty years might know more about their voyage and their destination than the men who set out on sea voyages and discovered America.  And the rest of the world.

October 23, 2010

When then was now

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:39 pm

I’ve spent the last week away trawling around in the past on several fronts.

First is the saga of the house we live in.  It is not more than half a century old but it seems to have gone through at least 3 major reconstructions.  I think it began as a 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom bungalow on a single floor.  Now there is a permanent line down the middle of the roof, the living room ceiling and across the living room floor where the outside support wall was knocked down and the room extended.  What is now a closet used to be a back entrance, and I think the present bathroom was a utility room.

I’ve been promising to tile the floor of what is now the family bathroom for months and this week I finally pulled up the carpet.  I expected to hit the concrete base but there were several layers of earlier living I had to get through before getting there.  Beneath the carpet was an underlay which was at least generation older.  Below that were the vinyl tiles, and below that a coat of paint.  The toilet is now situated where I think there used to be an outside entrance but which is now a wall backing onto the sun room.

Along with my personal excavations, I have been helping my brother organize the data going back for 13 generations of our family genealogy.   He has now just discovered that a book he bought through German e-bay is signed by our great great grandfather who died in 1875.  He had no idea that the book had ever been in his hands and bought it only with the hope of learning more about the village where some of our ancestors lived.

I’m now submitting a few relevant pages to Google Translate.  I think my brother’s 2 years of college German might be a better alternative. Google Translate noted of one of our ancestors “…that he had been a long illness exhausted by semen and hardly been worn by bone.”  If he was exhausted by semen, I wonder about his exhausted wife.

And I have also just finished reading Primack and Abrams’ The View from the Center of the Universe which delves into our pre-history beginning with the Big Bang.  It was a marvellous read.  I knew this before, but isn’t it astonishing to reflect on the fact that every particle of which you and I are made is billions of years old and has been banging around the universe trillions of miles away from here, burning up in the guts of stars’ nuclear furnaces, and contributing to the life forms of what be thousands of different life forms before stopping here.

With that profound thought, I return to the apple pie waiting to be removed from the oven. 

October 12, 2010

A critical distinction

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:22 pm

There is only one difference between me and a crazy man:

I’m not crazy.

Salvador Dali

Appearances not withstanding.

Hope I can make a similar distinction for myself.

But I’m not sure.

October 3, 2010

Will it ever end?

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:16 pm

I watched a tv programme last night featuring Stephen Hawking, the renowned astro-physicist.  The first half of the programme covered the time from the big bang to now.  The second half asked:  what next?

Here’s the options for the future as Hawking sees them:

Eventually planet Earth will no longer be habitable.

  • This might happen as a direct result of human activity.  We might make the world inhabitable for ourselves, or even for all living things.
  • Or it might become inhabitable because something big enough lands on earth from outer space and incinerates the planet.  Major catastrophic collisions with objects from space have happened more than once before, destroying more than 90% of all the life forms existing on the entire planet.
  • Or the gamma rays from an exploding novo-star in our neighbourhood could reach us.  Gamma rays are so destructive that they would rip off our protective ozone layer exposing us to the unfiltered deadly rays of the sun.
  • Or the galaxy in which we live, the Milky Way, is on a collision course with another entire galaxy called Andromeda.  The two galaxies will begin to collide in about 3 billions years and will take at least another 2 billion years to be resolved.

But assuming that we as a species survive long enough, Hawking thinks our best bet is to colonize another planet.

  • For starters, he recommends Mars.  Even at today’s speeds of space travel, humans could get there and back in several years.  Mars itself, however, would require some major adjustments if it were to be made habitable for the likes of us.  The gravity on Mars is about 35% as strong as it is on earth.  That would eventually lead to mass bone loss so crippling that we could not get ourselves around.  There is so oxygen on Mars or vegetation.  And the temperatures range from -200 degrees to 100.  Worse yet, they can change from the two extremes in a matter of minutes.  Yet Mars could conceivably be made habitable.

But eventually – in about 5 billion years, the sun will burn out.  In the process of dying, the sun will initially expand in intense heat, gobbling up the planets in its nearest orbit and incinerating Earth.

So then we will have to go much further than Mars to survive.  We will have to leave our solar system altogether.

  • Getting to the nearest planet we’ve actually identified which has reasonable temperatures and liquid water is far more daunting.  At current speeds of space travel, it would take 730 years to get there.  Generations would have to be born, live, and die in a space capsule with the hope that some day their heirs would reach some place they could call home.  Apart from the practical questions of feasibility, there are ethical questions about imprisoning unconsulted generations on this kind of trip.

But not only will our solar system eventually burn out;  so will the Milky Way.  To survive, we will have to travel through space not just to another planet but to another galaxy.

And if we manage to do that, we will still have to face the question of the survival of the entire universe itself.  The universe is even now in process and will not remain the same.  The universe seems to face two opposing futures, neither of which is reassuring.  Right now, a mysterious force called “dark energy” is pulling the universe apart.  The force of gravity is pulling it together.  Which one wins will determine the outcome:

  • The Big Crunch will happen and the universe will eventually return to the incredibly dense black hole called a singularity out of which it first emerged with the big bang.  Right now, however, dark energy is pulling the universe apart faster than gravity is crunching it together.
  • The Big Chill is what will happen if the balance between dark energy and gravity remains as it is today.  Scientists estimate that at its current rate, in about 30 billion years – that’s just a little more than twice as long as the universe has already been in existence –  the universe will consist of nothing more than isolated particles so far from each other than absolutely nothing ever happens.  The universe will by an infinity of cold emptiness.

By then life may have figured out how to get into another universe.

But we probably won’t live to see that:  the trip from Earth to Mars, beyond our solar system, into another galaxy and eventually to another universe is a little further than the local supermarket.

And it’s probably not even round trip.

September 26, 2010

Looking for another Einstein

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:09 pm

For most of my professional life as a psychologist, I have been fascinated by consciousness.  I have studied how it works, asked how it emerges and develops.  I have looked at what organisms or even non-organisms are capable of consciousness, how it differs depending on where and how it operates, its relationship to intelligence.

I have been particularly fascinated with the private nature of consciousness.  Why can’t we ever access the consciousness of anyone or anything else beyond our own?  What is the usefulness in Darwinian terms of consciousness that is so circumscribed?  And why or how is it that two different people can look at exactly the same thing and yet be conscious sometimes of vastly different things?  It is even possible for two people to experience diametrically opposed things in the face of apparently exactly the same situation.

But above all, I have never stopped wondering what consciousness is.  I have little doubt that some day scientists will have built a model of the brain and the nervous system with its complex of synapses and feedback loops which outline with credible accuracy the paths which information travels throughout the organism and the extent to which various parts of the brain operate in an executive function.

But this does not begin to address the question of consciousness.  What I want to understand is how this system of electrical impulses and bio-chemical interactions which comprise our nervous system results in the experience of consciousness.  How do bio-chemical interactions become experiences such as awe or delight or fear or love or convictions?

This question is similar to the problem of the relationship between matter and energy which Einstein finally cracked with his famous equation E = mc2.  I suspect it might even be an amplification of this problem.  If we understood the nature of matter and the nature of energy better, we might be better able to understand how the nervous system and consciousness are related.

For centuries, this question has been almost invisible to science because consciousness was equated with the soul or spirit and therefore beyond the realm or interest of science.

But consciousness so clearly is, it is a phenomenon that we all experience no matter what our circumstances, and so clearly is intimately related to what we do, that science cannot afford to leave it to the theologians who explain it in terms of a “soul,” or to philosophers who on occasion dismiss its intrinsic existence altogether.

Psychology needs an Einstein of our own.

September 15, 2010

Pregnant moment

The pope is due to begin a three-day visit to Britain tomorrow.

Feelings are running deep.  A German cardinal who was supposed to accompany the pope announced tonight that he wasn’t coming because England is “a third-world country” which is prejudiced against Christians and where the Anglican church is “a waste of time.”  Thousands of tickets for the outdoor masses being said by the pope are left unsold and 80% of the population seem to resent the fact that the pope is coming officially as a Head of  State rather than as a religious leader and they resent the 20 million dollar cost to the taxpayer that it is costing to provide the pope with security.

Meanwhile Britain’s Advertising Authority has told an ice cream company they must remove their advertisement showing a pregnant nun eating ice cream with a banner saying “immaculate conception.”

I appreciate that part of the problem is cultural.  English humour is unique and offense is not taken at many kinds of jokes that would not be acceptable in any other place I know.  Actually, I often hugely appreciate it.  But I also appreciate this is now a global world with mass communications and people’s sensitivities beyond this island must be considered.

But part of the problem also seems to me that Christianity has forgotten that it presents itself as a religion of love and forgiveness.  Britain is not prejudiced against Christians.  Though one must admit there is some historical feelings about Roman Catholics, what with Henry VIII being excommunicated and the Queen today being the official Head of the Anglican Church and all.

But despite the hosts of both Anglican and Catholic martyrs mutually created during the alternating reigns of Anglican and Catholic monarchs some four centuries ago, the real anger at Roman Catholicism today in Britain is related to the revelations of the repeated cover-ups of paedophile priests not in the distant past but in the  present.  Protesters are planning to greet the pope over these priests who are still being protected by the church.  Since 2001, 22 priests have been convicted and sent to prison for at least a year for child abuse in Britain.   Yet today more than half of them remain in the priesthood.  They are not practising as priests but they have not been defrocked and are living in church houses under church protection and care.

Adults who were abused as children are telling their stories – one American woman said that at the age of eight she was repeatedly held down by a nun while a priest raped her.  Many of these adults want to meet with the pope.  He is willing to do so but only on the grounds that the meeting is private and that nothing that is said during the meeting is ever made public.

Most of the victims are refusing to meet this last condition.

Their view is that it is this kind of secrecy which has been the problem with the church’s attitude toward pedophilia for centuries.

As I have said before, I know first hand that sexual and child abuse is endemic among the Catholic clergy.  But with great sadness and reluctance, I am reaching the conclusion that this abuse is far deeper and broader throughout the church than I suspected even in my worst moments.

September 13, 2010

A donation worth its metal

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am not a great lover of any religious institution.  I’m not even a believer in any orthodox set of religious beliefs.

But I am a passionate believer in religious freedom, and the fundamental principles upon which the constitution of the United States are built.

And so I am simply thrilled to read that since yesterday, Michael Moore has received more than $50,000 donations toward the building of an Islamic Center several blocks from the site of 9/11.   I’m sending a donation.  I don’t care whose pocket it goes into, as long as it is clear that there are still Americans who will not throw away our religious freedoms because they are too fragile to consider an Islamic Center anywhere near the former World Trade Center.

Michael Moore says he thinks the Islamic Center should not be situated two blocks away from Ground Zero.  He says it should be on Ground Zero.  I take his point, although I fear the egos of too many Americans are too fragile to bear such a display of our vaunted religious freedom.

September 9, 2010

The Truth?

I don’t always know what I’m talking about but I know I’m right.

Muhammad Ali

And so a church in Florida with a mere 50 members, only 30 of whom attend services regularly, is still planning to burn the Koran on Saturday, the anniversary of 9/11.

Proclaiming the Truth, says the pastor, is more important than not insulting the millions of Muslims who will be offended, more important than religious tolerance or avoiding the deaths of U.S. military in Afghanistan or Americans anywhere.  “Don’t blame us,” he said.  “We belong to a religion of love;  Islam is a religion of hate.”

The local fire department says he does not have permission to have a bon fire, and may be on hand to stop it.  The news here reports that the pastor says he might consider not going ahead with the burnings if he gets a personal call from President Obama.

Oh my, we do think we are important now, don’t we?  They say another pastor in Tennessee is lining up to pull the same publicity stunt.

Seeing this virulent intolerance rearing its head once again in the name of freedom in my country is much worse than watching the disaster of the World Trade Towers.

September 1, 2010

The miracle diet nobody will believe

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:36 pm

I’ve heard it before:  drinking water before meals helps you lose weight because you feel full sooner and eat less.

A research study in Florida was designed to test out the folk-lore and it might be half right.  Drinking two cups of water before each meal seems to increase weight loss by as much as 40% on the same number of calories.

Water seems to work some kind of weight-loss magic that coffee or fizzy drinks don’t achieve.  At least it worked for 48 relatively inactive Americans between the ages of 55 and 75 who were put on diets of between 1200 (for women) and 1500 calories (for men) for 12 weeks.

The biggest problem I see with this finding isn’t that it won’t work.

It’s that it doesn’t cost anything.

Who is ever going to market a diet like that?

Still, one might make a fortune bottling ordinary tap water with elaborate instructions about when and how much to consume, attaching a long analysis in small print about the research backing up its effectiveness, and a list of potential side effects (frequent trips to the bathroom is the one that first occurs to me).  With a sexy name, it might even look like a dangerous treatment that is worth it to be slim and sexy.

Oh, and be sure to price it at the very high-end of the market.

August 22, 2010

Reductionism: where to from here?

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:11 pm
Tags: , ,

If the laws of physics do not totally explain the universe, as reductionism claimed it would, what does?  Does anything?  Is there a scientifically viable alternative to reductionism?  Can the universe be explained in terms of natural law?

Although there seems to be increasing debate among philosophers and scientists, there is no consensus about what needs to be added to physics in order to understand the universe.  The possibilities are broad:

I.  Traditional reductionism might be re-invented. Mathematicians have devised proofs that all possible events cannot be encompassed by mathematics (don’t ask me to explain:  it’s the kind of thing I take on faith, except there do seem to be seriously brainy types who understand this and who, therefore, do not take it on “faith”.)  Nonetheless, it is possible that there will be some stunning paradigm that emerges within physics that returns it to its  position as a completely comprehensive explanation.

II.  The universe is controlled by natural laws which emerge as organization becomes more complex. Biology, therefore, operates in terms of its laws of genetics and evolution.  An individual person operates according to principles of psychology, cultures and communities in terms of  principles of sociology.  Higher levels of organization can be analyzed in terms of their component parts but they cannot to totally reduced to them.  In other words, when new levels of organization appear, something new has appeared which must be understood both in its own right and in terms of its component parts.

This approach requires a broader definition of “natural law” than that assumed by traditional reductionism, and thus far I have not found a completely satisfactory definition.  How does one recognize whether a proposed law is “natural”?  Saying simply that everything is “natural” and nothing is “supernatural” may be valid but it is vague and incomplete.

III.  Life, or even all the universe, is emergent, that is essentially creative – and therefore necessarily partially unpredictable. This possibility limits the potential of science to predict events but it does seem to describe much of what we observe.  Darwin’s theory, for instance, explains why and how species evolve, but it cannot predict the nature of that evolution.  It can predict that if the environment changes substantially, new organisms will emerge that are better adapted to the new conditions.  But Darwin’s theory cannot tell us ahead of time about which changes will emerge to make an organism better fitted to survive.

The problem with a creativity hypothesis is that it is an idea that can be used to explain just about everything we don’t understand.  It makes scientists like me nervous that it can be used as a blanket excuse for not trying to understand.  “Creativity,” attractive as the idea is, tends to hit a blank wall unless, like “natural law,” it is more closely defined to keep it from being used as a catch-all for whatever unpredictable event may occur.

IV.  There is an immanent sacredness, even an immanent god, in the essential unpredictability and apparent creativity of the universe. This god does not put aside the natural laws of the universe, but is manifest in its creative adaptability.

This position is similar, but with an added religious dimension, to the more secular creativity hypothesis.  It seems to me, however, to share both its potential strengths and weaknesses.  It can be used to explain some of our most profound human experiences.  On the other hand, it is even more difficult to define and can be used as an all-encompassing explanation for everything we don’t understand.

V.  There also remains the traditional dualist position, that God operates from beyond this universe to direct its course.  This God may intervene in events, superseding the natural laws governing the universe.  This is the idea of God of much of modern Christianity and Islam.

The difficulty with this position is that, because it is intrinsically untestable in empirical terms, it rejects the essential validity of the scientific approach.

Most scientists today, including strict reductionists of the traditional mold, now accept that the Newtonian belief that some day we could potentially explain everything that has ever or ever will happen is theoretically unachievable.  We cannot ever understand the universe totally.  But we can always understand more.

We may live in an eternal, infinite mystery, but we can always delve into it more deeply, unravel more of its unscrutability.  The mystery may not, in truth, become smaller.  But our understanding, our witness to it, can become greater.

August 21, 2010

Essential problems for today’s reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:48 pm

According to traditional reductionism, all phenomena in the universe can ultimately be explained in terms of the laws of physics and the interactions of fundamental particles.  Nothing else is real in its own right.  Originally, reductionism argued that all events are both completely determined and predictable.

With quantum physics and the principle of uncertainty, the commitment to determinism has been greatly diluted.  There is still no room for choice or free will, for values or meanings, but there is certain wiggle room for random events within the limits of probability.

But a commitment to the total sufficiency of the laws of physics for explaining events has remained firmly in place.

Until quite recently.

The problem – actually there are several, but there are two difficulties I find particularly intriguing.  According to reductionism, events should be reversible and predictable.  Right now, once we are beyond the simplest levels, they are often neither.

If all objects are really only the interaction of particles, it should be possible to return the objects to their initial state.  In other words, they should be reversible, the way water can be returned to two atoms of hydrogen and one oxygen.  But except on the simplest level, they do not reverse.  A drop of ink dropped into water will disperse automatically.  But it never coalesces as a drop of ink again.  A boiled egg cannot be returned to its unboiled state.

This may seem to be a fairly niggling unimportant observation.  And it might be.  Except that the higher up the level of complexity and organization one goes, the less reversible events are.   A fertilized egg develops forward, not backward.  Seed-bearing plants may ultimately evolve into egg-laying birds, but birds do not seem to evolve eventually into simpler organisms like plants again.  Even the entire universe is not characterized by the entropy that should be there if the combination of particles reversed as often as they combined.

What seems to be happening instead is that the universe is increasing in complexity in higher and greater levels of organization.  Fundamental particles combined to make simple atoms which combined to make molecules which combined in stars where further combinations have produced the molecules out of which simple life emerged.  Here on earth we have seen single cell bacterial combine for billions of years into higher and higher forms of living organisms.

The second problem for reductionism is its inability to predict.  If everything is the result of the laws controlling the operations of fundamental particles, then it should be possible to predict what is going to happen.

But we can’t predict the future.   Except for the motion (within a certain tolerance of error) of the planets and stars, the future cannot be foretold with anything resembling accuracy or precision.  Economists didn’t see the credit crunch coming, and can’t predict what will happen if governments increase spending or raise interest rates and taxes to pay down the deficit.  Nobody foretold the popularity of the internet or foresaw the floods in Pakistan which thus far have displaced twenty million people.  Nobody knows when or if we will ever find a cure for cancer, if a pandemic might again reduce the human population the way the Black Death did, or humans will colonize  another planet.  We don’t know how technology or cultures will develop or whether books and newspapers will survive the cyber age.

Even after the fact, we are unable to point with certainty to those conditions which produced events like these or almost anything else that surprises us when it happens.

Life does not break any laws of physics.  But it seems to go beyond them.  On a grand scale, the path of evolution cannot be predicted.  On a more immediate scale, we cannot predict with certainty how even a single individual will vote, who they might marry, or the career they will embark on.

Reductionism continues to notch up an incredible analytical record.  It has moved into the very center of living organisms, analyzed the way DNA is structured and operates, and has even been able to create new life forms by re-organizing it.  But no one, at this point, is under the illusion that science can predict the future.  In practice, we all live in a world we cannot fully predict or understand.

The question is why.  And what are the alternatives to scientific reductionism?

That is the question for tomorrow’s post.

August 8, 2010

The golden ring

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

A team of American researchers in Oregon have figured out how to make electricity out of raw sewage.  They started by adding a smattering of gold particles to the sewage along with bacteria that release electrons that creates electricity.  If it works, it would have an immediate impact on agriculture, and be especially valuable in the Third World where untreated sewage often causes disease.

The technology already works in a laboratory, but there are several problems they have to work out before this process can be implemented on an industrial scale.  One is the cost of gold – even the small smatterings of it that are required to make the process work fast enough to be viable.  At this moment, it looks as if iron might speed up the process just as well, and would produce electricity at a competitive cost in today’s market.   The cathode chamber also needs to be improved, and choosing the best microbial species to do the job requires more study.

A little less ambitiously, we are exploring the option of putting photo voltaic solar panels on our roof to generate electricity.  Right now it looks as if with the government subsidy on offer, the process would pay for itself in about eight years.  At that point, our electricity would essentially be free, and anything we don’t use would go back into the grid, generating a small income of its own.

The biggest problem we have is that we might have to cut down an absolutely gorgeous blue spruce about 100 feet tall.  Unfortunately, is hogging the sun that the panels need.

I don’t know if we can bring ourselves to do it.

We’ll decide in a month or so.

August 7, 2010

Gummed up creativity

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.

Art is knowing which ones to keep.


The first commercial gum was made in 1871, after Thomas Adams (1818-1905) failed to make car tires from the same ingredients.


August 6, 2010

The destructiveness of reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:20 pm

I can hear the sighs of boredom as I say I’m writing yet another post about reductionism in science.

So I’m going to defend myself by trying to explain why it matters so much.

Basically reductionism mechanized the universe.  Everything – everything – happens automatically in the same way a ball rolls down a hill or water turns into ice when it reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Essentially a plant, a couple in love, a dog protecting a child, a man climbing Mt. Everest are also all operating on these same basic mechanistic principles.  The feeling that each of us has of being self-propelled, and the sense that others and all other living things are too, is an illusion.

So if reductionism is right, we not only live in a huge machine.  We are merely cogs in a huge machine over whose direction and operation we have no control and for which we have no responsibility.

Personally, I think if reductionism is right,  kicking and screaming like a two-year-old isn’t going to change things.  It won’t change things if we elect politicians who agree with us and are willing to make laws that force everyone else to live as if they agree with us either.  If this is the way the universe is, either because God created it that way or because there isn’t a God at all, then the honest, courageous act of integrity is to accept it.

And so it is an important question to ask not as a religious believer but as a scientist if reductionism really describes the universe as we observe it.

As a scientist I myself am convinced that reductionism is an incomplete description of the universe.  I’ve indicated earlier some of the evidence I find convincing, and I suspect I will write at least one more post on the problems arising in physics today with a purely reductionist view.

But not being a reductionist doesn’t make me a believer in god or in a supernatural world.  I personally am committed to the view that all laws are “natural.”  It’s just that I think the “natural” world is a whole lot more mysterious than the traditional reductionist may think.

In that sense, reductionism did a violent disservice to life.  For centuries, it convinced people that animals are no more capable of suffering than a car engine is.  Human thoughts and feelings were not really real, nor were we responsible for anything – good or bad – that we did or for any consequences of our choices.  Even today, insights we may gain through the arts – poetry, literature, music – are somehow evaluated as “soft,” not quite as valuable as “facts” we can prove scientifically.  We don’t know how scientifically to evaluate beauty or the value of wild land or the pleasure of a hug for their own sakes, and so if they do not contribute some countable economic gain, we feel free to destroy them or pollute them or build on them.

I think these things all represent a great loss.

And that’s why I’ve been banging on about reductionism for weeks.  It’s not a defense of religious belief, it’s not an argument against the scientific method.

It’s an argument for that approach to science that doesn’t level the world to a single dimension.  Whatever else the universe is, I don’t believe it is reducible to a mega-machine.  We live in a much more mysterious, overwhelming, astonishing  place than that.

August 3, 2010

The finest thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It frees the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead.  A snuffed-out candle.  It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, the emotional manifestations at the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude.  In this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

Albert Einstein –

Address at the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, New York, 1941

Okay, if this is what some people mean by “sacred,” I can buy it.

(But I still don’t like the word.)

August 2, 2010

“Sacred” as an alternative to “god”

Somewhat to my surprise, in the last three days I have been engaged in no fewer than four discussions about the alternative to God.

If, as we all agreed, the traditional concept of god is anthropomorphic and coercive, and if, as we all agreed, this concept of god appears to be incompatible with science, what is the alternative?

It was apparent during these various conversations how central the question of reductionism is to this question.

Traditional reductionism says that everything that has ever happened or will happen in the entire universe is ultimately completely explicable in terms of the interactions of fundamental particles.  In terms of God, the most this position can say is that there might be a Creator God who set the universe in motion and then dissociated himself from any further interactions with it.  It is a machine which now runs on its own and will inevitably go forward according to the mechanical laws which govern it.

The alternative within science to traditional reductionism is not as fully defined as this.  There is agreement that the traditional approach has been breathtakingly successful in explaining some phenomena.  There is also agreement that at this point traditional reductionism is incapable of predicting the course of developments once we enter the realm of living things.  It cannot predict with any precision the course of evolution, of the development of the economy, of technological advances, or even the direction of the stock market within the next week.  It doesn’t even have any suggestions about how to go about making these predictions in a more scientifically precise way.

The alternative or additions required to reductionism are far from agreed, however.  Not everyone agrees whether all the laws governing the universe can be called “natural.”  Or whether a creative impetus is intrinsic to the universe.  Or whether we need a new concept of an immanent, even emerging “god,” or whether the word “sacred” describes the mystery in which we find ourselves immersed.

I have already said that I do not believe in the traditional concept of god.  Even the word “sacred” makes me very jittery.  I have heard people describe what they mean by “sacred.”  They use words like  overwhelming reality, stunning, awesome, astonishing, mysterious, amazing, all of which I can use without a qualm.  But “sacred” carries too much baggage for me.

No matter how much people argue that they don’t mean “god,” when they say “sacred,” I cannot banish the image of votive candles and priests in vestments lifting their hand in blessing.  “Sacred” for many is liberating with a suggestion of infinity.  For me it is coercive and suffocating.

I suppose my hang-up with the word sacred stems from my childhood when I was taught that “sex is sacred.”  This piety didn’t succeed in permanently ruining the possibility of sexual pleasure, but for some time it was pretty effective.

And it does seem to have permanently influenced my reaction to the term “sacred”.

July 27, 2010

Reductionism in original context

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:33 pm

I’ve read an argument recently that scientific reductionism was framed the way it was because of the predominant religious view from which it was separating itself.

That view was the dualism of Roman Catholicism of the Middle Ages.  Adopted from Plato’s world of perfect forms, Catholic theology made God the vital force which informed matter with souls, giving it life and making is capable of thought and decision-making.

Most of the early scientists continued to believe in God and thought that they were studying his work as they unfolded the marvels of the universe.  But they believed that although God had created the world, it was now controlled by purely natural laws undirected by forces from a supernatural world.

Reductionism, therefore, eliminated God as an explanation of dynamism and vitality.  Or more precisely, they eliminated dynamism and vitality as scientific forces.  Without the supernatural, matter itself became inert.  So convincing was this view that it was adopted by almost everybody.

Of course, changes were seen to occur in the universe, but those changes were the result of purely mechanical mechanisms.  They were never self-propelled, save for the laws of physics which determined the interactions first of particles, then atoms and molecules, and finally the complexity of life.

With quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, the absolute determinism assumed by the reductionists was abandoned.   But this did not usher in an acceptance of free will.  The commitment to the adequacy of the laws of physics to explain everything that happens in the universe remains.

Except it is being undermined from two fronts.  The first is a religious argument, which, frankly, I regret.  Many religious people believe that reductionism and God are incompatible, and depending on one’s particular theology, they may be.  I think, though, that it is unfortunate that scientific doubts about the adequacy of the reductionist view should be confused with religion.

God can neither be proved nor disproved through science.  Believers who cling to their beliefs on the grounds that X or Y cannot be explained scientifically are inevitably destined to be disappointed as our understanding of the universe continues to expand.  “God” as the answer to questions that we cannot yet answer is based on a flimsy faith.

The second assault on reductionism is coming from within science itself, and this, I believe, is a valid battlefront.  Some scientists, looking at the evidence, now doubt that we can explain the phenomena of our amazing universe within the reductionist assumptions.  They believe that the original assumption that matter is inert in itself is no longer scientifically viable.  Einstein has shown us that matter and energy – that dynamic vitality pervading the universe – are two forms of the same thing.

The increasing organization of the universe, therefore, springs from an intrinsic dynamism of matter.  It is no longer only Gestalt theorists who are arguing  new level of organization are governed by new laws appropriate to that level.  They are joined by physicists and biologists from below, by psychologists and social scientists from above.

I’m going to take a break on the subject of reductionism now until I’ve done more reading on contemporary thought.  I don’t know how great my need is to actually understand the research that has started a whole new dialogue on the subject among physicists and biologists, but it is provocative and fascinating.

But not because it has anything to do with the possible existence – or otherwise – of God.

July 26, 2010

The mind-body problem

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

The mind-body problem has been written about by great minds for at least a couple of thousand years.  I’ve read some, understood a few, and failed to read even some of the best on the subject.

I think I understand the problem in psychology, though, if not the solution.

The fundamental question asks where thought comes from.  How does the mind work that it produces what seem to be immaterial thoughts, some times about things we have never experienced or that aren’t even remotely possible?

For the sake of getting off first base, scientists (including me and most everybody else most of the time) assume that the physical world actually exists independently of our thinking about it.  In other words, we distinguish between our thoughts about a thing and the thing itself.  We don’t usually think of our plans, or our dreams as reflecting concrete objective reality.   But we do think of the world we experience in our waking hours as real.

Those real things include everything from gluons to galaxies, from pepples to people, from electrons to elephants.  They are all material, all made up of matter.  But a thought doesn’t seem to be made up of matter.

In this life, at least, thought does depend on the matter of which our brain is made.  But what is a thought itself made of?  How do the operations of the material world produce a seemingly immaterial thought?

There are three popular alternatives, none of which is totally satisfactory:

One is that living organisms have souls which are immaterial and are the source both of life and the capacity to think.  The predominant religious view is that the human soul is created by God with the beginning of each life, and that it will never die.

The difficulty for scientists with the Soul Solution is that it cannot be subjected to scientific proof or analysis.

Scientific reductionism takes a second position – that thought is no more than the operations of the brain itself, with its multiplicity of  feedback loops and incredibly complex and rapid functions.  Modern brain research has made huge advances identifying parts of the brain where various functions are supported.  We know where short-term memories are encoded, for instance, or what part of the brain supports various senses like vision and hearing.  The mapping of the brain through MRI’s is telling us almost daily about how the brain functions.

The limitation of this position, however, is that scientists are unable to identify the content of even the simplest thought.  We can often make a good guess.   Even a very very good guess.  If the relevant part of the brain fires after hearing a particular word, it is a good guess that the person heard that word and responded to it.  But we still have no direct access to the person’s private consciousness.  So it is possible that the word was misunderstood and the response was really to a different word.  The problem is compounded for more sophisticated thought processes.  Scientists could not guess from watching MIR read-outs, for instance, the content of an author’s thought if he were asked to think about how he intended to develop the next six chapters of his current novel in process.

Looking at the question from the other side, we run into a similar difficulty.  We have built complex computers that can solve many of the same kinds of problems we can.  They even produce what we call “artificial intelligence ” and computers are often much faster and more accurate than we are.  But all this computer complexity does not seem to have produced computer consciousness.  Although, since consciousness is a private experience, it is possible that computers do experience consciousness or thought as we do.  But if so, we still don’t know how a computer produces consciousness akin to ours when it is plugged in and turned on.

The third alternative is the possibility hinted at by Gestalt psychology, and which is reflected in what some biologists today call the emergence of agency.  This view sees mind as a phenomenon arising out of the operations of the natural world in which we live.   Mind has evolved as naturally as have vision to see with and wings to fly with.

This point of view agrees with the reductionists that the mind is natural, but argues that when a new organization emerges, something more than the sum total of the parts now exists on both the physiological level of brain functions and on the psychological level of experience.  This new organization then operates with an additional set of laws.  The basic laws of physics are not violated, but they are insufficient to describe or predict the totality of the new organization.  Biologists, then, for instance, develop additional laws for living organisms which add to the fundamental laws of physics.

This third position also has its limitations.  We still do not know how the mind seems to produce apparently immaterial thought through the operations of a physical body.

Einstein’s simple equation, Emc2, offers a tantalyzing possibility.

Well tantalizing for people like me who somehow find questions like these as engrossing as what to have for dinner tonight.

Nonetheless, I dare say I’d now best address this latter problem imminently and save Einstein for another post.

July 20, 2010

The basics of reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:42 pm

Newton’s theory of gravity was revolutionary.  With its strong mathematical foundation and stunning accuracy in predicting the movement of the stars and planets and in explaining why some objects seem to fall to earth while others don’t, it was a major influence in the development of reductionism.

Essentially Newton’s theory sees the universe as a giant machine which runs according to the laws of physics.   As a result of this simple set of assumptions, scientists believed it would be theoretically possible to predict exactly where every single particle, atom, and molecule in the universe had ever been in the past and how it would move forever into the future.  The universe and everything in it was like a gigantic and complex clock.

The first thing the assumptions of reductionism did, backed by the success of Newton’s theory, was to eliminate the need for a vital force in natural events.  Explanations not only no longer needed a supernatural world with God and angels and saints, humans did not require souls, we did not even need human intention or mind .   The laws of physics ultimately explain absolutely everything we see and experience and are.

This mechanistic model was therefore also totally deterministic.   Save for the possibility of God’s initial act of creating it, nothing that happened in the universe required deliberate intent.  Intention was a chimera, an illusion that we or other living organisms are the cause of any changes whatsoever, however small.  This eliminated both sin and virtue as causes of natural events.  Prayers of petition were without power, and the supposed wrath of God reflected in natural disasters were a conceit, making us, even in our sinfulness, far more important than we are.

Newton’s theory also seemed to show that the laws of physics, once they were understood, were predictive of what was going to happen in the future.  In relation to any event, it should be possible to state the conditions under which that event would happen.  As surely as the chemist can predict that two hydrogen atoms will combine with one oxygen atom to create water, everything else in the universe could ultimately be subject to absolute predictability.

These assumptions of reductionism have been hugely productive for the three and a half centuries since Newton lived.  It produced electricity and telecommunications, cars and rocket ships, it eliminated small pox from the face of the earth and produced vaccines that can eliminate polio, measles, whooping-cough, and chicken pox.  It is the approach that got us to the moon, and given us sight of the beginnings of the universe.

Religious believers have always had a fundamental problem with a reductionism that eliminates the need for God, for free will and human choice, and reduces all life to mere bio-chemistry.

But after three and a half centuries, problems are emerging from within science itself.  They began with psychology.  These will be the topic of the next post on the subject of reductionism.

July 19, 2010

The beginnings of reductionism

The beginnings of reductionism which many believe to be the bedrock of science can be traced back Galileo.  The traditional belief is that Galileo got in trouble with church authorities because, following Copernicus, he argued that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.

But that isn’t really the core of what was so threatening about Galileo.  He was called to Rome, threatened with the rack, and ultimately confined for the rest of his life to house arrest for a different reason.  Galileo believed that physical evidence and his observations of heavenly bodies seen through his telescope provided a more accurate account of the how the natural world worked than did revelation and the teachings of the church.

The belief that natural law is not subordinate to interference of supernatural or higher powers is one of the revolutionary foundation stones of scientific thought.

When Newton’s theory of gravity explained why apples fall from trees but stars don’t fall from the sky, the faith in the study of these natural laws in their own right provided a confidence in science and its methodology that was unprecedented.  With its powerful mathematical base,  Newton’s theory could tell where stars and planets had been in the past, but also predict where they would be for thousands of years to come.

Science became unequivocably committed to explanations of the universe based on natural laws.

Galileo and Newton and indeed most scientists continued to believe in God and most often to accept church teachings.  God created the universe and the laws under which it is was governed, but then did not interfere with their impersonal operation.  Mankind might still be held accountable on the day of final judgement and sentenced to eternal heaven or hell,  but the rain today did not come because we prayed for it.  Nor was the earthquake a punishment for our sinfulness.

This insistence that science seeks to explain the universe only through the discovery of natural laws has changed the very metaphysics of Western thought  and the role of religion in society.

But the specific assumptions of reductionism include more than a commitment to the exploration of natural law in its own right.  An examination of these further assumptions will be the topic of the next post on the topic.

July 13, 2010

Forgiveness Day

I was gritting my teeth recently as I remembered the time I supervised the men packing up all our belongings in our move from New York to Europe.  When they had finished, I thanked them all graciously.  But I didn’t know it was the expected custom to give them each a tip.  So I didn’t.

These examples of insensitivity, selfishness, or simply misunderstanding come back to me occasionally in excruciating moments of what feels like regret.  I would like to say that the intensity of regret is a measure of the harm done, but I fear it too often may be more a measure of egocentrism.  My trespasses are so often so insignificant that only my inflated view of myself can possibly consider them important.  Others might not even remember them at all.

They are not typically things one would mention in confession – if indeed I should ever be tempted to return to that dark secretive cubicle to whisper my sins to the anonymous priest behind the curtain.  A psychiatrist would no doubt conclude that I was dealing with a pathological guilt complex.

So along with Thanksgiving in November, I am proposing Forgiveness Day for myself.

It’s a day when I can forgive myself  for all the things I’ve done, big or small, that I wish I hadn’t.   Whether I did them on purpose or not.  Whether I was culpable or not.  Whether somebody else was hurt or not.  It’s a day when we recognize we don’t have to be perfect – or even very good – to be loved.

I know that in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask to be forgiven our own sins “as we forgive others sins against us.”

But if you are as egocentric as I am, it’s sometimes easier to forgive others than to forgive oneself.  At least when I forgive others I feel gracious and generous and virtuous.

But to forgive myself, I sometimes have to admit that I’m not nearly as important as I would like to think.

July 11, 2010

Update for Virginia

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:13 pm

One of the most active causes of unexplained change has been almost completely dismissed by a cynical scientific age.

But recent research confirms that Gremlins, like Santa Claus, exist in almost every household in the known world.

There is no other viable alternative to explain

  • what my reading glasses got into the refrigerator
  • how car keys were locked into a car that required the keys to lock the car in the first place
  • who opened a window in the guest bedroom the night it rained and no one was there
  • why my credit card was found by a neighbour on the sidewalk in front of his house
  • how the gift I packed for my sister somehow escaped from my suitcase before I left for America and was returned to where I live in England

Gremlins are mostly friendly types who like to play tricks, although occasionally they can cause real trouble.

You might not believe in them, but everybody has at least one.

With special thanks to AA who has provided me with this most recent research into the pervasive effects of gremlins.

July 5, 2010

Flat shoes

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:36 pm

Victoria Beckham, born 1974, former Spice girl, wife of David Beckham famous international soccer player, mother of two, cook, and now creative design executive for Range Rover, says she never never ever wears flat shoes.

She won’t even go to the gym because she can’t wear heels during a workout.

The interview with this infamous information did not specify whether she ever wore slippers.

Maybe in the dead of the night with the lights off?

July 4, 2010

Reasons to believe in god

Ernst Tugendhat, a German philosopher, says he thinks that, although we need to believe in God, we can no longer do so in the light of modern science without fooling ourselves.  (

I’m extremely uncomfortable with this view.   I think Tugendhat is asking the question the wrong way around.

Instead of suggesting that we are in a cleft stick because we need to believe in a god that does not exist, I think we should ask what needs our various constructions of god are being used to meet.  I think we will  discover that our concepts of god change quite radically, depending on the purposes we are using god for.  Sometimes these purposes are generous and noble, sometimes they are ignoble and self-serving, sometimes they are intellectual, sometimes cultural, sometimes terrifyingly pathological.

Some people use god as the answer to the question of how the universe came into being and is the kind of mystery that it is.  This god might be highly impersonal, a force that initially created the universe which is now left to its own devices.  It might still be a god that inspires awe, but not a god who intervenes with our lives, who answers our prayers, or who is comprehensible in human terms.

Sometimes god is the answer to our desire to know what happens after we die.  Do we simply return to the handful of star dust from which we were originally formed?  or does something of ourselves continue beyond death?  and if it does, what is it?  The god who answers these questions is often more personal, rewarding those who have lived good lives, punishing those who don’t.  Heaven and hell are the usual Christian version of this reward or punishment.  Reincarnation for those not yet ready for nirvana is another alternative.

Then there is the more immediate question of whether life has a purpose, has any meaning beyond our sheer existence.  Am I supposed to accomplish something during my time on earth, or am I simply part of an inexorable mill through which I am processed for some short time?  Sometimes the god who is constructed to give us purpose is a loving god, sometimes a vindictive, angry, punishing god.  This god may be singular or plural, beyond human understanding or embarrassingly human, belong to all people or the sole possession of only a single peoples.

These punishing and rewarding god are the ones most often used to increase group cohesiveness and exercise power and control.  They are the gods often called upon during social and political conflicts, and are used as justifications for trying to control, punish and even kill those who do not submit to the god associated with the most powerful group.  This is the concept of god, I think, which history shows has been used for the most self-serving and abusive purposes.  For the leaders within these groups, aligning oneself with an all-powerful god and even claiming to be a god’s representative adds an invincible authority to their commands.  For every follower, this god is a great escape from insignificance or failure.

I am a psychologist who believes that self-knowledge is by far the hardest knowledge to acquire.  We will go to the most extraordinary lengths to protect ourselves from seeing our own self-serving motives, however glaringly obvious these motives may sometimes be to others.  And so I think insights into the real needs that may be met by our concepts of god are hard-earned.

And indeed, our “god” may change quite dramatically during our lives.  In my youth, I believed in a god that was going to give my life a great purpose and importance.  Now I find the attempt to control the behavior – of myself or of others, but especially of children – with threats of heaven or hell highly unacceptable.  Fundamentalist religions in clear contradiction of modern science are equally unbelievable for me.  Preaching that God causes earthquakes and tsunamis as punishment for our sins simply seems ridiculous whatever concomitant good its followers may achieve.

This is why I would not ask if we need to believe in god.  “God” is too amorphous a concept in this context.  I would ask instead what needs we have that we use our concepts of “god” to meet.

July 3, 2010

Souvenir of sin

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:43 pm

Driving along Rt. 80 through Pennsylvania last week, I listened to a National Public Radio report on National Library Week.  The reporter was discussing the current funding difficulties of our libraries, which led him to experience a public pang of guilt about a book in his possession.  It was five years over-due from his local library.

He mentioned this illicit possession to a head librarian and asked for advice.  She recommended that he contact X, which he did, who castigated him for the condition of the book.  He claimed it was in that condition five years ago.  X was unimpressed, but agreed to take the book back nonetheless.  He asked if he was going to have to pay the fine, and if so, how much it would be.  As I recall, it had accrued to about $350, but X was willing to let the long-term borrower escape with a tongue-lashing.

It reminded me of a greatly treasured book on my own shelves, a book given to me by my father shortly before he died.  It is The Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith, D.D., 4th edition published in 1904.

The outstanding characteristic of this book for me, however, is not its content, interesting and well-written as it is.  It is the fact that it had been signed out of the Akron Public Library, and was due after 28 days on May 19, 1942.  Dad said he hadn’t returned it because he hadn’t finished reading it yet.

I’m not sure exactly at what point an overdue book crosses the line to being a stolen book, but I would suspect that this particular copy of The Historical Geography of the Holy Land probably qualifies as stolen property.  So I googled the author and looked the book up on Amazon.  The library had officially noted that all the maps are missing in this copy, and so I suspect its value is well below the $16.94 being asked for a used copy published in 1894.

Still, I grew up in a family that graded various sins carefully, and stealing was not dismissed lightly.  You might think that our grading scale lacked a certain moral sophistication – eating meat on Friday could condemn one to eternal hell fire while telling a small lie merely merited some uncomfortable time in purgatory before going onto heaven.  Still, I still think that stealing, by and large, should be avoided under most circumstances.

But this dusty book with the missing maps means a lot to me.  It’s a reminder that even the most loved among us are sinners.  And that, somehow, delights me.  It sets me free.  And gives me greater hope for all of us.

Perhaps I will send a donation to the Akron Public Library.

But I’m keeping my overdue – err, stolen –  book.

July 1, 2010

The life I didn’t choose

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:48 pm

When I was about twelve, I remember quite distinctly sitting at our family dinner table.  My father and eight brothers and sisters were there, and so was my mother, pregnant with her tenth child.

“Is that all there is to life?”  I inquired, dismissing the essential role of my mother in my own existence with the innocent callousness that can be managed only by adolescent arrogance.  “Do I just have to grow up, have children, and die?”

I don’t remember the answer anyone gave to my query, but my own answer was an emphatic no.  I was going to do something a lot more meaningful than live on a farm and have children.  And so I entered a missionary community because I thought I would be able to work in an underdeveloped country and make a difference.  (Actually, I was planning on making a historic difference, transforming at least all of Africa or Latin America.)  But even after I left the convent, the first thing I did was to get my Ph.D.  It wasn’t to get married or pregnant.  I did get married and we did hope to have children, but when it finally became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, I was happy with the fulfillment that university teaching gave me.

This last week I visited the homestead where I grew up and where the fifth generation of my family is still living.

The land today is breathtakingly beautiful.  The house where my brother and his wife live overlooks two lakes, and the gardens and rolling hills and woods are stunning.  Even more beautiful are the people – all three generations living on the land.  The two grandparents are generous and welcoming, with a delight in their children and grandchildren that lights up the room.  The parents are the kind that make you believe there is hope for humanity after all, and the children – right now ages 2-10 – are lively and energetic and creative and caring.

I looked at the lives on this land for the five days I was there, and thought “this is the life you thought was too dull.  Too prosaic, too commonplace, too unrewarding for you.”  And I understood with a depth I never have before why “just growing up and having children” can be so fulfilling.  It is a beautiful life, filled with  Little House on the Prairie joys that Hollywood loves.  In fact, I think I could tell enough stories from the weekend alone to make a movie.  (I won’t, but several stories from last weekend will no doubt eventually make their way onto this blog.)

But do you know what?

For myself I know I made the right decision.

It’s a beautiful beautiful life.

But it’s not a life I regret not choosing.  It’s not dull.  It’s not unimportant.  And it certainly isn’t unfulfilling.

But it’s not for me.

It was a wonderful visit for which I am profoundly grateful.  But I was glad to get back to my husband and my life in England

June 19, 2010

Fingering it out

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

If a person’s ring finger is longer than their index finger, the chances are that he or she will tend to have some characteristics that are considered to be more male than female.

And indeed, to have a ring finger longer than the index finger is much rarer in females than in males.  Those females who have it may be better than average in mathematical and analytical abilities, be more prone to take risks, or even be better at a game like soccer.

The assumption has long been that this strange correlation is a result of a burst of testosterone in utero when both the fingers and the brain are developing.

Makes sense, but it seems to be wrong. The long ring “finger” seems to be apparent even in birds, with accompanying male and female emphases of male characteristics.  But in birds at least it seems to be due not to the male hormone testosterone, but to a surfeit of the female hormone oestrogen.

Interesting, no?  Who would have predicted that the female hormone would be responsible for emphasizing male characteristics?  I wonder if increased testosterone is associated with emphasized female characteristics.

For myself, my ring fingers suggests that I should be pretty good at fixing things.  But I’m ghastly at soccer.  In fact, I was nominated at the worst player in our senior high school basketball team, which itself was the only senior team in the entire history of the school that was ever beaten by the freshmen.  My class wanted to elect me as the captain, but the nuns said no.  Apparently basketball was too serious to be frivolous about.

I was rather hoping for the honour of captaining the team myself.  It’s a big disappointment that has remained with me all these years.  I’m sure it has greatly undermined my self-confidence.

I am not going to have access to my computer for the next ten days so I won’t be blogging again until July 1st.    If you would like to know when there’s a new post,  click on the tab in the right-hand column to get an email.

June 15, 2010

Quantum mechanics and the mystics

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:03 pm

About ten years ago I started to dabble with an attempt to understand quantum mechanics.  The first thing I learned – and this is the absolute truth – was that it had nothing to do with engineering.

Every once in a while I return to this pursuit usually when something turns up in the news.  What is the Higgs bosom, for instance, and how can a particle explain why there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe?  and how will they know if they find it?  Or what exactly is the problem that the Standard Theory has with gravity that it can’t account for?

(Don’t panic:  I am not going to try to explain any this;  I only half understand it, and that is probably being generous to myself.)

But as I’ve dabbled away, I have sometimes got a glimpse of a universe that is both terrifying and stunning.  I get a glimpse of time that is forever and of an ultimate unity that can’t be fractured.

If this sounds vaguely like the language used by mystics that have emerged in every great religion in the world, I agree.  I find that kind of scary.

Because I am not a mystic.  I’m far too practical, too rational, too sceptical to be a mystic.  I appreciate poetry and music, but mystics have pretty much left me uninspired.  In fact, I’ve mostly felt myself recoiling from them.

Strange then that I should actually think I might at last have some small clue what they might be trying to say, and that clue comes not through prayer or fasting or contemplation or even suffering, which is where I was taught it should come from.

But through science.

May 20, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 11:33 am

Guests visiting until June 6.  In the interests of living in the present, my blogging will move into Slow Mode until then.

May 19, 2010

Mature wishes

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:06 pm

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work;

I want to achieve it through not dying.

Woody Allen

I remember when I blew out all the candles on my birthday cake and all I wished for was a pet horse.

Never got it, by the way.

May 18, 2010

Six ways to live longer

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

I heard a feminist on the BBC claim the other day that married men live longer than unmarried men, but that it’s just the opposite for married women.

I think she is misinformed.  Research on this topic began at least fifteen years ago and stretches across continents.  Both married men and married women live longer, on average, than their unmarried counterparts.  The difference is greater for men though, than for women.

There are a lot of theories about why marriage seems to be particularly good for men.  They may adopt less risky life styles, their wives might nag them to see a doctor when something is wrong, and women might make sure that they eat properly.  The only hypothesis I’ve read about why marriage seems good for women is that it makes them financially more secure.  I personally think there is a little more to it than that.

However, although I’m happily married, I would not recommend getting married in order to extent one’s life expectancy or to raise ones happiness quotient.

Here are a few other alternatives which might not be worth the effort either:

  • Churchgoers live longer
  • So do optimists
  • Republicans are happier than Democrats
  • Eating and drinking less, and exercising more increases longevity.
  • So does a good set of genes.

On the other hand, research suggests that the odds of dying are:  100%

May 17, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:16 pm

Cornwall Weblog: Elderly people sign (IMG_0933.JPG, 568 x 600, 96.0K) When I was a child,  we called our grandparents plus anybody with grey hair “old.”

But gradually, youthfulness replaced age in terms of desirability, and calling someone “old” morphed from a badge of honour to a disparaging description suggesting that the person was no longer relevant to our dynamic, exciting, and changing world.

So political correctness set in and the old were politely referred to as the “elderly.”  With this transformation, it became acceptable to address anyone with grey hair as “dear,” and the polite stance was one of patronizing patience.

But it became apparent that the term “elderly” did not sufficiently obfuscate the intended target, and it was gradually replaced with “senior citizens.”

Yesterday I was introduced to a new term:  OAPs.  OAPs are Old Age Pensioners, to distinguish them from those receiving a disability pension or a single-parent pension.

OAPs is the parent category of OATS, a subgroup of  Old Age Teetotalers.

Just kidding.  I made that last part up.

May 16, 2010

Something more or some place else?

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:39 pm

I have just finished reading an article on Greek mysticism recommended by the author of the blog Ontological Status.  It was quite a surprise.

The surprise is not that the Greeks believed that there is another, better world than the one we currently inhabit.  What surprises me is how pervasive this idea has been in Eastern thought as well as spreading to the West.  How many mystics have intuited that somehow we don’t belong here, that we really belong some place else.

As I read the article, I found this idea intensely alienating.  Because my own intuition is that I am already where I belong.  That this universe is my home.   I do have a strong intuition that there is something “more”, some dimension of existence that is ineffable, that is somehow more profound than the flat 24/7 days that necessarily consumes so much of our energy.

But that “more” isn’t some place else.  And it doesn’t come from some other place or Someone Else.  I exist in it now.  I take my sustenance from it.  It contains my past and my future.  And it is my destiny.

It’s why I’m a scientist.  I cannot think of a more marvellous, awful, profound (etc.) thing to contemplate than the universe of which I am a part.

May 15, 2010

Schrödinger’s cat and me

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:39 pm

The comment following yesterday’s post alluded to a problem in quantum physics concerning Schrödinger’s cat.  Without going into the why’s of this problem which I only vaguely grasp, the problem it poses is whether a cat in a box is alive or dead if nobody has looked in the box.  In other words, it suggests the cat’s existence depends on someone else knowing about it.

My understanding is that this problem has been solved to the satisfaction of those scientists who understand it in favour of the cat existing independently of our looking in the box.

Which is reassuring to those scientists and cat lovers who have been worrying about it.

But now our almost-instantaneous global communications systems are creating a parallel worry for me.  When I read comments posted on Twitter and Facebook and other social networking sites, I wonder sometimes if some people’s identity depends on someone else knowing that they are alive at that instance.

I mean, do I really need someone else to know that “I’m eating chocolate ice cream in Central Park?”  or that “I’m downloading Explorer 8 onto my computer right now”?  “Long day, dead tired, having a drink,” or “L has walked out;  I can’t stop crying”?

Do I only matter if somebody else knows? does what I am doing increase in importance if the whole world is told about it?

I find it a little scary.

I deactivated my Facebook account yesterday.  I’d delete it altogether but they keep telling me I’ll always be welcomed back.


May 14, 2010

Man with a bucket

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:22 pm

When Peter and I moved to Spain, I was equipped with two years of high school Spanish.  But I knew even less Spanish than that.

Because according to the dictionary, “mañana” means “tomorrow.”  It took some time, but I finally realized that is not what it means at all.  “Mañana” sits somewhere between “not now” and “never, but I don’t want to say no.”

Poco a poco,” however, means something entirely different, and it took not only a different translation but a little wisdom for me to understand what it really means.  Literally, “poco a poco” means “little by little,” or “slowly.”  But my first glimmer of what it really means, and how it underpins a whole philosophy of the Spanish way of life took place as I watched a Spanish workman.

He was filling up a hole roughly the size of half a swimming pool.  In America, a tractor or even steam shovel would have been hauled in.  In Spain, I watched as this single man trudged with a large bucket from the bottom of the hill to dump earth into what looked to me like a cavernous hole.  He didn’t even have a wheel barrow.  He just walked slowly back and forth, up and down the hill all morning filling and emptying the bucket.

And the hole got filled.

I can’t count the times I’ve looked at jobs that just seem too big for me ever to finish all by myself.  Or how many problems I’ve thought I could never figure out.

And how many times I’ve thought about that workman with the bucket.

I’m an American and for many years I shared the philosophy that “fast” and “big” and “efficient” are best.  It tended to make me feel rushed.  No matter what I was doing, I always had something else I had to get done next.

So I rarely just did what I was doing.  I never just walked up and down that hill with a bucket getting a job done poco a poco.

But I do now.  When I’m doing a job, I don’t think quite so often that it isn’t enough, because there is so much more to do.  And I don’t worry so much about not having all the answers to life either.

I’m finding it quite a fulfilling way to live.

Probably good for my blood pressure too.

May 13, 2010

A preposterous possibility?

There is a problem posed by quantum physics called entanglement.  The problem is that quantum particles sometimes seem to link in such a way that a change in one particle instantaneously affects its partner particle, even if the two particles are separated by millions of miles.

How can this be?  Nobody knows including the great geniuses of physics.  But all the observations made by scientists seem to come up with this seemingly-impossible fact.

Here are the hypotheses recently summarized in an article in the May 2010 edition of Scientific American of the various solutions offered to this extraordinary puzzle:

1.  The properties of quantum particles are not real:  they only exist in our perception of them.  That implies that nothing is real outside our own perceptions.  This is a problem because the assumption that the objective world actually exists outside our minds is a basic assumption of science.  Not to mention a basic assumption made by most of us during our saner moments.

2.  The scientists studying this problem do not have free will, but are predetermined by some unknown forces to study only those aspects of the problem that suggest these baffling results.  This alternative is no more palatable than the first, since it means that what we observe is determined not by us or by the nature of things but by some, again unknown, force, that controls what we do and what we observe.

3.  The third alternative is that some particles travel faster than the speed of light – at least ten million times faster than the speed of light.  This also violates a fundamental scientific principle underlying our understanding of the universe.

So none of the possibilities seem hugely convincing.

Now I know this is simple-minded of me, but it does seem to me that there is a 4th possibility.  I realize it is almost unthinkable and scientists may rather concede free will rather than consider this preposterous alternative.

But don’t you think there is at least a distant chance  that the observations of scientists are distorted?  Trapped here on Earth as we are, is it not possible that our observations are circumscribed by the nature of our senses and the limits of space and time within which we exist?

I think the problem just might be our limited perspectives.

But I guess that’s why I call this blog The Other I.

I think there is always another point of view that can change everything.

May 12, 2010

Cheers for breaking the law

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Younger Generation,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:19 pm

I’m not naturally drawn to breaking the law – in fact, it usually seems to me to be worth a fair amount of inconvenience not to – for myself and for society in general.  An attitude of indifference to the rule of law, if too widespread, leads to anarchy.

It goes without saying there are some times when the law is immoral.  I was five years old when World War II ended, but my second-generation German lawyer father never let us doubt that there are times when governments must be defied.

But sometimes the law is simply idiotic. Aspects of health and safety legislation here in Britain belong firmly in this category.

And so it was with great delight and relief that I read the story about three teenagers who defied the police and jumped into the River Clyde to save a drowning woman.  The police were lined up on the river bank keeping observers away but refusing to go into the water themselves to help.  “It’s not our job,” they argued.  They were waiting for the fire department to arrive.  By which point the woman would clearly have been dead.

Glasgow City Guide Photograph: Glasgow Guide: Images: Glasgow in July 2005 Along the River Clyde Along_the_River_Clyde_06.jpg Along_the_River_Clyde_06 Along the Clyde  87.8 KB 15:19: 24 True color (24 bit) 16777216   451 600 Along_the_River_Clyde_06.html Glasgow in July 2005 Along the River Clyde Along the Clyde

As I heard the story, I half expected to hear that the three teenagers, having saved the woman’s life, were then arrested for breaking the law.

But they weren’t.

Some true stories do have happy endings.

May 11, 2010

Returning to ground

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:31 pm

The Queen has just accepted Gordon Brown’s resignation, and David Cameron is as I write on his way to the Palace where the Queen will ask him to form a new government.  He is expected to arrive at Number 10 Downing Street within minutes.

The Tories and Lib Dems have been in negotiations for the last six hours, but the details of any agreement for forming a government haven’t yet been released.

I must say there is a dignity in this final resolution.  The last five days it has looked as if principle had completely departed from politics here.  But in the end, it was Labour parliament members who said that attempting to build a coalition with the Lib Dems to muscle out the Conservatives who had won a majority.

It’s a huge relief to have this crisis resolved.  It has been historic and watching it has been mesmerizing.  But I’m looking forward to returning to a little predictable routine.

Not least, I can start writing posts about something else.

May 10, 2010

Quantum Fuzzies II

I really was going to hold forth on a serious aspect of quantum physics tonight, but once again the UK election is using up all my psychic energy.

All day today, news reporters have been going along expecting an announcement from the Conservatives and the Lib Dems this evening that they’d agreed on forming a government.

And then out of the dark, Gordon Brown (current prime minister and leader of the Labour party) announced that he was stepping down no later than September and that the Labour party was entering into serious negotiations with the Lib Dems toward forming a coalition government.

AHH is breaking loose across the board.  The negotiations with the Conservatives had been taking place with a very high public profile, and they had no idea that the Lib Dems had been carrying on parallel negotiations with Labour.  One commentator called them dishonourable, standing on the street, if you will, hawking for the highest bid for their parliamentary support.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next:

  • The market is an important unknown:  how long will it take before sterling plummets and interest rates on government borrowings sky-rocket?
  • If nobody is able to form a stable government –  one that can at least command a majority vote following the Queens speech which lays out the government’s plan for the next year – there will have to be a new election immediately.  It’s not clear how long these negotiations can go on with no resolution, but next Monday might be the last possible date.
  • The one prize the Lib Dems are seeking is a change in the voting system.  Labour and the Lib Dems think they can get legislative changes through that will keep the Conservatives out for the foreseeable future.  Since the Conservatives command a majority in England, and Labour with the Lib Dems command majorities in Scotland and Wales, this could be divisive on a large scale.  In a desperate effort not to stay in contention, the Conservatives have, nonetheless, offered the Lib Dems voter reform if they will join them instead of Labour to form a government.

It’s a nasty business.

But it is totally fascinating.

May 9, 2010

Quantum fuzzies

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

I was going to write a post today about one of the more intriguing findings of quantum physics, but I find that watching the current developments in British politics is sufficiently mind-boggling.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Brown (Labour), Cameron (Tory), and Clegg (Liberal  Democrat)

At this point, I have received 3 telephone calls and six emails from Americans asking me to explain what is happening.  Actually explaining what is going on is probably beyond my wit, but here are a few relevant features:

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are currently locked in negotiations in an attempt to form a coalition government.  The Tory  Conservatives have 306 parliamentary seats, 10 short of the majority they need to form a government that the other parties could not unseat without help from Tory defectors.  The Lib Dems have 58 seats, so together they could form a pretty solid block.

The problem is that, although they agree on some significant issues, they seriously disagree on immigration policy, Britain’s role in Europe, how to deal with the looming budget deficit, and on changes to the voting rules.  The last is probably the most difficult to resolve, because the Lib Dems cannot foresee being more than a third tag-along party without change.  The current system is rather like the electoral system by which the U.S. President is elected, making it possible for the party with the smaller popular vote to actually win the most electoral votes and so become president.  The difficulty for the Lib Dems is that this system applies to every member parliament so that they routinely get a much larger popular vote than they get seats in parliament.

If the two parties can reach some kind of agreement on this issue, I think the chances are  that they can make it work.  The question, though, is whether the party members on either side can work together for long enough to hold the coalition together for more than a year.

The alternative to a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition with another party adding its votes when necessary.  The problem with this solution is that neither of these two parties received a commanding mandate from the voters.  And 62% of the population say that they want Gordon Brown out under any circumstances.

Okay, these are the public issues.  Slightly more sote voce issues which are nonetheless quite possibly of equal importance is the fact that each party is not only concerned, as they loudly proclaim, with the “good of the country first.”  First, also, is probably maximizing the chances of being or getting into power in another year or two.  For example:

Should the Conservatives let Labour and the Lib Dems deal with the cuts and tax rises and labour strikes which almost everybody expects to emerge in the next year, and then get elected with a majority next year?

Should the Lib Dems agree to a coalition with Labour in order to effect an immediate change in voter rules in their favour?  If they did, would the voters forgive them for such a blatant self-serving tactic?

Ditto for Labour.  Besides, will voters tolerate a party that came in second in terms of both the popular vote and parliamentary seats remaining in government?

Okay, tomorrow I’m writing about quantum physics.  That should be a good deal simpler.  (At least the way I’m going to write about it anyway.)

For what it’s worth, I’m hoping for a successful Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.  Given the very painful cuts and adjustments that the current economic reality is going to require for at least another five or even ten years, I think the country will find it easier to accept if it is coming from these two quite different parties together.

May 8, 2010

Which end is up?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

I read an analysis yesterday of a recent exposition of Intelligent Design (ID) – the theory that argues that the scientific evidence suggests that the universe must have been designed by some higher intelligence.

This analysis, like most others I have read, reaches the conclusion that ID is based on faulty scientific reasoning.  I didn’t need convincing, but I did begin to reflect on the root of my own almost gut-level disquiet with ID.

I was raised in a Catholic family where an unusually high level of intellectual discourse often took place around the dinner table.  I was able to discuss the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God by the time I was twelve.  By the time I was fourteen, I was even able to make a stab at refuting the arguments in opposition to the Thomistic view.  So I know first hand a lot about how much of religious analysis proceeds.

Thomistic thinking (its roots go back even to Greek thought)  is rational, but it is not necessarily scientific.   One important distinction between Thomistic and scientific thought is related to the way the problem is initially presented.  There are two main possibilities:  one can begin with a proposition and present arguments in favour of that particular conclusion.  Or one can look at the evidence and try to find the best conclusion or  explanation based on what one observes.  Broadly speaking, the first may be rational without being scientific, while the latter more accurately represents the thrust of scientific reasoning.

For example, if I go for a job interview, I present all the arguments I can muster to the interviewing board about why I am the best person for the job.  In other words, I present arguments for a conclusion I have already reached and want to persuade them to reach.  I do not present evidence about why I might not be any good at the job at all or why one of the other candidates might be better than I am.

The interviewing board, on the other hand, will look at all the evidence presented by all the candidates, and try to decide which candidate the evidence suggests would do the job best.

In other words, the candidate begins with the conclusion and presents evidence supporting only that outcome while the board begins by examining the evidence in order to reach a conclusion.

I feel that proponents of Intelligent Design do the former.  They are looking for evidence that there must be some force (frequently identified as God) that designed or created the universe.  And so they look only at evidence that supports this conclusion.  They do not look at evidence that does not support their position or that might even contradict it.

There is obviously a place for both kinds of reasoning in human thought.  But I think it’s a good idea to recognize which of the two one is utilizing at any given time.  Getting them mixed up risks missing a lot of the evidence that might change my mind.

Intelligent Design theorists argue that they are do not take the position they do because they believe in God.  If anything, they would say they believe in God because the science suggests that there must be some Intelligent Designer.

But I don’t think so.

I have a respect for believers who have the courage to remember that belief in God is a question of faith.  I think we all, as a matter of fact, have to make a stand and make decisions which cannot be validated by scientific evidence.  And we all must take the risk that those decisions could turn out to be faulty.  Maybe even horribly faulty.

But believers who try to hijack science to support their position do not, the way I see it, have the courage of their convictions.  I also think that if science suggests that my concept of God doesn’t fit in, one should consider whether it is ones concept of God that is faulty or limited rather than the science.

After all, Christianity finally came to terms with the fact that it does seem to be the earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around.

May 7, 2010

Resigning from running the world

Well, the election here in Britain has resulted in a humdinger of a hung parliament.  Britain has had hung parliaments before, but never before in the face of such a huge budget deficit and fiscal crisis.  The markets are wobbling, but if the Tories (Conservatives) can’t reach an agreement with the Liberal Democrats before markets open on Monday, pandamonium could break out.

Meanwhile, TruthOut, which I read with a due sense of outraged seriousness, continues to send me their daily updates about the dire state of everything.  Today their leads concerned the control of America’s mass media by the right wing, Arizona’s racist immigration law, the Time Square bomb, regulatory failure of the big banks, the Gulf oil spill, and the prediction that oil production will peak in 2014.

It’s a good thing I no longer feel responsible for the world.

Because even in the midst of everything that seems to me so wrong, so out of kilter, so cruel or stupid or unjust, I find an amazing joy, a great fulfilment, in just being here.

I wouldn’t have thought understanding something so simple would have taken me so long to learn.

But now I am going back to see what I can make of this jumble that seems to have resulted from the election here last night.

May 6, 2010

State of suspended animation

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 6:56 pm

Very few elections in my life have seemed critically important.  Kennedy’s election and Obama’s win stand out on the positive side.  George Bush Jr’s election and re-election stand out as recent elections with disastrous results.

Today’s election here in Britain feels like that.  It’s been a wild four weeks.  Today everything is quiet — media coverage is subdued except for reports of continued demonstrations in Greece and the spread of the oil spill in the Gulf.

We will stay up tonight until we collapse and have some idea of the shape of the results.

Now back to the suspense being covered by the BBC.

Best vote for the day:  A wildly popular political blogger tells this story of his family life around the breakfast table this morning.  The night before Guido Fawkes (father figure) brought home  finger puppets  of the three men leading the three main political parties vying for votes in today’s election.

This morning Miss Fawkes (5) and Ms Fawkes (2¾) grabbed them off the breakfast table, ripping open the packets to give dad the benefit of their political analysis.

First, and mindful that Mrs Fawkes was watching with a wary look in her eye, Guido tried to exercise some fatherly objectivity and give the girls some background:-

“The one with the red tie is Gordon Brown, he is the Prime Minister, the one with the blue tie is David Cameron, he wants to be Prime Minister.  Nick Clegg has a yellow tie and he wants to decide who is Prime Minister.”

Miss Fawkes immediately and preceptively interrupted “They are all boys?”, “Yes” replied dad. Miss & Ms Fawkes chorused “Yukk”.  With that they discarded the politicians and went back to their porridge.

So there you have it, The feminist Fawkes girls say “none of the above”…

May 4, 2010

The wisdom of age?

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:13 pm

I think wisdom comes with age, and you’ve had a lot of knocks by 35.”

Natalie Imbruglia, Singer

Do you think you get to be twice as wise if you’ve been knocking around for twice that long?

May 3, 2010

Another of man’s best friends

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:42 pm

Last week, a maintenance jeep broke down in the middle of one of England’s safari parks.  The park ranger got out, opened the hood and checked the water and oil.  It still wouldn’t start so he tried to give it a push.  That worked but then the jeep broke down again, so the ranger got back out of the vehicle.

To his astonishment, Five, a resident elephant came over to help.  He opened the hood and passed the dip stick over, and when the hood was closed again, got behind the jeep to push it.   That started it but Five noticed the dirty hand marks all over it, so he dipped his trunk into some near-by water and gave the jeep a spray.  Then he used a sponge and wiped down.

Elephant provides breakdown assistance to zoo keeper

We really really really don’t want to lose our animals through environmental carelessness.

And while I’m thinking about it, what idiot scientists ever decided that animals didn’t have intelligence?  It was a maniacal delusion that lasted well into the middle of the 20th century.  There might even be a few psychologists still out there of this persuasion.

May 2, 2010

Another mess

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

It looks as if the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is going to become an unqualified catastrophe.  They think it might take as long as three months to stop the leak which might not be a mere 5,000 barrels of oil a day but 25,000.  (To put that in context, the Exxon Valdez leak totalled 11,000 barrels of oil, and the effects are still evident.)

But it gets worse:  a whistleblower who worked for BP says there is another BP well in the Gulf which violates federal law and could make the current leak look like child’s play.

In that context, I suppose it qualifies as good news that the police disarmed the car bomb set to go off in the middle of Times Square last night.

So I thought it would not be inappropriate to write about another mess to which I was introduced during the weekend we just spent in London.

It’s called Eton Mess, and it is a dessert the like of which I have never had before.  It’s traditionally served at Eton College’s annual cricket game with Winchester College, and I would think would serve as an adequate consolation prize for whichever team loses.

Basically, it consists of the following in – from what I can tell – whatever amounts are available or preferred by the cook – mixed up in a huge mess:

  • any kind of summer berries or soft fruit;  strawberries are traditional
  • Cointreau, brandy, bourbon or any other liqueur
  • meringues, usually crushed into bite-size pieces
  • whipped cream
  • sugar to taste
  • melted white or black chocolate

I have searched Google for a picture that even vaguely resembles the dessert I was served at Brown’s restaurant in London’s Convent Gardens, but they all look quite sedate and respectable.  What I was served was a huge pile on a flat plate approximately the size of a small melon.

I cannot see that it had any redeeming nutritional value whatever save aiding one in actually rolling down the street.

I ate the entire thing.


April 29, 2010

Coming home

I have been reflecting in recent weeks on the path I have taken from my childhood belief in heaven and hell to where I am now.

By the time I was a teenager, I had outgrown the holy card version of heaven in which I knelt on a lower cloud surrounded by angels and saints in adoration of the King of kings.  I understood by then that heaven had to be a more sophisticated place than the one I was capable of understanding at the age of five.

By the time I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I’d given up most of the dogmas intrinsic to Roman Catholic doctrine.   I had consigned anthropomorphic concepts of god to the same category of childhood as my first heaven.  God, it seemed to me, was immanent in this world, and we were in part responsible for what the world became.  Our destiny, and the destiny of everything we touched was not inviolable, controlled exclusively by some divine plan that we were charged with somehow discovering and executing on pain of eternal damnation.  We were more responsible for what happened than that.

During those years, my view of life after death rested on the hope, which I sometimes thought of as an intuition, that in some way life did not end with death.   My reasons for taking this position, vague and undefined as it necessarily was, depended on two things.  One was the sheer flatness of accepting that there is nothing more than a recycling of molecules in a random process of birth, life and death and round again.

I rejected – and still reject – this expectation.  My sense – increased rather than decreased by my studies of science – is that there is a directed dynamic in the universe.  It is, at this point in time, beyond our complete understanding, and perhaps the process is and will be forever.  It seems to me to be a profound mystery, but not one which is therefore “above nature.”

But where do we fit into this process?  Are we no more than a packet of passive molecules put together for a short while to operate as humans and then return to dust?

I think not.  I have somehow never been able to accept the dust-to-dust hypothesis in its dreary completeness.   The reason I have long reasoned that life simply does not completely evaporate with death into molecular inertness is what in philosophy and psychology is often called “the mind-body problem.”

Put simply, the unanswered question posed by the mind-body problem is how something material – like the apparently electro-mechanical processes of the chemistry that control the brain – give rise to a completely immaterial experience like consciousness.  In recent times, neuroscientists have made great strides in identifying relationships between various psychological states and processes and corresponding brain activity.

While on the one hand this increasingly convinces me that the nature of our intelligence and our consciousness cannot be separated from the physical selves we and all living things are, on the other, we still haven’t the faintest scientific idea how the brain produces something as ephemeral, as non-physical, as thought.  Neuroscientific research simply ignores the existence of this question.

So for many years I have simply lived with the view that since consciousness does exist, there seemed to me two possibilities.  One is that consciousness – or mind – is a separate entity from body.  This possibility is vaguely related for me to believing in a soul or a spiritual world.  I have long suspected that it is a semi-secularized version of the Christian supernatural world elaborated from Plato’s world of perfect forms.  That does not necessarily make it invalid.  It is possible that these ideas which at such a young age influenced the very structures, the foundations of my world, were not wrong.  But I have not been convinced.

Increasingly I have favoured a second alternative.  That is that both mind and body are natural realities but that we do not yet understand how they are aspects of the same thing.  We did not understand until Einstein how matter and energy are aspects of the same thing, and simply lived with an unresolved dualism and the scientific and philosophical questions that dualism generated.  It seemed to me that someday scientists and philosophers would also come to understand how mind and body were two aspects of the same thing.  Not by reducing mind to a mere excitation of molecules, but by somehow preserving the nature of mind as I actually experienced it.  Not as something blindly mechanical over which my sense of control was an illusion, but as the dynamic drive which it seemed to me to be.

How this might possibly be conceived I had no idea, and thought it unlikely that I would have even a glimmer in my lifetime of how this might be possible.

But I have increasingly over the years begun to feel that this natural world is the only world.  I have increasingly edged toward making it my home.  This is not only where I am, but where I am always going to be.  When I die, I am not going to be – I do not want to be –  swept into a supernatural world where somehow I’m supposed to really belong.

No, I belong here.  In some form or other, my being will be here for eternity.

This universe no longer seems to me to be the flat reductionist place I used to think.  The mysteries suggested by science are more jaw-dropping, more incredible, more exhilarating, more challenging, than any religious vision I have ever imagined.  Whether it is imbued with a sense of what some call “the sacred,” I don’t know.  Any word that reminds me of the world “God” and its anthropomorphic distortions makes me very nervous.  But I do not see why, even as a hard-headed scientists, words describing the universe as potentially infinite, as eternal, as dynamic, even as profound, are not appropriate.

And now I even have a glimmer of idea of how the mind-problem might be resolved.  Not by positing a supernatural world, but with a different understanding about the nature of the very energy/matter out of which the universe is made.

But more on that in another post.  Even these thoughts, such as they are,  probably need further clarification and I will review and quite possibly re-write this post tomorrow.

For now, it’s not sufficient that I’ve come home.  I need more mundanely to go to bed.

April 28, 2010

How bad would it have to get?

A friend who is facing serious eye surgery about which her surgeon has some doubts told me that if she goes blind, she will end her life – that it would not be worth living if she had to be taken care of in such a total way.

I was a bit shocked.  I admit one of the recent traumas of my life was related to how I would cope if my cataract surgery failed on the single eye with which I can read.  I wondered where I would gather the strength of character to live with such a profound deprivation, but the thought of suicide didn’t even occur to me.

Yet I began to wonder just how bad it would have to be for me to prefer to be dead than alive.  Intense pain as the result of a terminal condition has always seemed sufficient cause to me.  Or to attempt suicide, as a doctor I know imprisoned in Hungary during the revolution, did in order to prevent authorities from torturing his wife and children in the attempt to extract information from him.  Being completely bedridden in itself would not be sufficient, but if it also involved an inability to speak, hear, or read, it might be more than I could take.  But then I probably would not be able to commit suicide under those conditions.

All of this, believe it or not, actually began as a reverie, despite everything that can and does go wrong, how wonderful it is to be alive.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister who is running for re-election, was caught on a live microphone today expressing disgust about a voter with whom he had just had an apparently successful conversation and with whom he had parted with a warm farewell and an arm around her shoulder.

The press are having a field day.  The woman herself was profoundly shocked at being called a bigot, and is now being pursued by the media to tell her story.  Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is driving up and down the country in an attempt to apologize.  Some people believe him.

Greece is probably going bankrupt and the only people in a position to bail them out are the Germans who are reluctant to bail out a country which has not only been profligate and irresponsible, but lied about the country’s finances until last fall.

The Greeks are rioting on the streets at threatened cuts.  The markets are worried that the debt problem could bring down Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and even Britain.

I worry about the United States’ deficit if this triggers a world-wide depression.

As I was saying, it’s wonderful to be alive.

April 27, 2010

Best kept secret

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:59 pm

I wonder if it causes any discomfort to the current Catholic hierarchy to know that the first pope, St. Peter,  was married.  Peter is the rock who Jesus himself more or less appointed.

Actually, probably not very helpful to mention it right now.

April 26, 2010

A hide and seek worth losing

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:27 pm

Like most people, I have a stock-pile of things to worry about – Darfur, Afghanistan, the Tea Party brigade, whether my pension will last as long as I do, global warming, saving the whale, chimpanzees, women and children labelled as witches spring to mind as I shuffle along the very long list.

But when the pile begins to look depleted, I have a new worry:  aliens.

For decades, there have been people analyzing radio signals for possible messages.  And there are all those UFO sightings that have never been fully accounted for, along with a number of apparently fringe reports from people who claim they were kidnapped by aliens.

Okay, but now the search for extra-terrestrial life is getting serious, and a few sensible and highly intelligent voices are suggesting that finding them might not be in our best interest.

I tend to agree.

If you are one of those people who has ever gone into a blind panic at the sight of a mouse scurrying into a corner of the room, or has ever killed a spider or a bee out of uncontrolled fear of being bitten, or whose heart is not strong enough to sustain close contact with a snake, you might understand my point.  First, I think our first impulse would be to try to imprison and eventually kill any foreign form of life that got into our orbit, even if it is as small as a single-celled bacteria.

That, however, might be the more benign danger.  What if, instead, this life is more intelligent than we are?  And what if they respond to life with the same colonialism as we have?  If we’re lucky we could be turned into slaves.  If less lucky, we could be slaughtered for Sunday’s roast.

No, I think we should be very careful about what we’re looking for.  And hope that nobody finds us, either.

April 25, 2010

A glimmer of hope?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:08 pm

The Taliban’s supreme leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, said in a long interview with a journalist from Britain’s Sunday Times, that they are willing to talk peace.  He said that they know they do not have the skills to govern the country and were surprised when they were in power before how complex and difficult it was.

Now, he says, all the Taliban wants to do is to drive foreigners out of their country.  But their enthusiasm for fighting to achieve this end by whatever means necessary is unabated.

If this isn’t just a strategy to get the foreigners from the West to go home and let the terrorist training camps back in, it represents a glimmer of hope.

April 24, 2010

Learning how to swim

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:17 pm

With science, you’ve go to enjoy swimming in this unknowingness — you never get to the bottom of things.

Tim Hunt, Biologist and Nobel Laureate

I agree.  But I wouldn’t limit the pool of unknowingness to science.  It’s what life looks like to me.

April 23, 2010

What in heavens name I’m talking about

As I’ve been trying to identify the fundamental assumptions differentiating science and religion, it has become obvious that, although science represents a more or less a coherent acceptance of the nature of the universe and the methodologies by which we explore it, religion is almost limitlessly diverse.

Some religions teach that there is one god, some believe in many, Buddhism has no god at all.  For some, god is immanent, for others transcendent, some gods are scandalously like us.  Some religions assume there is a supernatural world and an after life, others don’t.  Some religious views are diametrically opposed to science, others argue that science is a telescope that gives us a vision of a deeper reality.  For some, salvation lies in acceptance of specific doctrines of faith, for others it lies not in what we think but in what we do.

So I guess the moral of this story is that if I’m going to keep talking about religion, I’d better be clear about just what religion I’m talking about.

April 19, 2010

A testable possibility

In my post yesterday I suggested one of the issues frequently – though not always necessarily – dividing science and religion was the disagreement over the existence of a supernatural world whose inhabitants may intervene directly in the operations of the natural world.*

But there is a second assumption dividing scientific thought and religious belief which seems to me to be even more fundamental.  Not only does science accept only explanations which reflect natural processes and events, those explanations – that is theories – must be testable.

We’ve already seen that scientific proof is not absolute.  There is always the possibility that even the strongest, most broadly accepted theory, will be overthrown by new observations and new theories that explain what we observe more simply or with fewer contradictions.

Nonetheless, to be a workable scientific theory taken seriously by the scientific community, it must be testable.  That is, it must make predictions which scientists can then test.  The more predictions are validated, the stronger a theory becomes.  They are, essentially, the “proof” of the theory.

If a theory cannot be tested or if its predictions fail, it is not accepted as scientifically valid.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on faith, which by its very definition, cannot be tested the way a scientific theory must be.  Religious doctrine may make a lot of sense, may explain much of what we experience about the world and what we hope for the future.  But it is accepted for reasons that are beyond proof.

To many people, this sounds like an open and shut case demonstrating the superiority of science.

But I’m not so sure.

I personally cannot argue for the infallibility of any particular religious belief.  But I have difficulty accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding.  Why?

First of all, because there seem to be so many important things about which we must decide in life which are either in theory or in practice not subject to scientific or even full-scale rational scrutiny.  And some of these decisions are terribly important.  Like:  “will we be happy if I marry this person?”,  “what career path will I find fulfilling?”,  “will this investment make a profit?”  Admittedly, science can sometimes shed light on these questions, but it cannot answer them if only because in practice I cannot set up the required scientific observations.

And there are other questions which are simply beyond scientific testability.  Like “does my life have a purpose?” or “why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?”

Are the answers we give to questions sheer guess work?  or can we intuit some things, can we at least orient ourselves in the right direction?  Has, perhaps, evolution given us some wisdom to which we have access but which we do not fully understand about ourselves?  are even our scientific hypotheses based initially on intuitions which have a better chance of being validated than would mere guesswork?

And if we do possess some capacity for intuition, how do we use it? through poetry?  through music or literature?  from others? in our scientific endeavours?

If yes, how do we recognize it? can we validate these intuitions outside science in any way?  How do we distinguish between superstition and valid intuition? between wishful thinking and insight?  between fear-laden bigotry and a sixth sense that we might trust?

Given my background, I tend to approach these questions as a psychologist first, rather than in terms of theology or philosophy where I am a neophyte.

From that perspective, at this point, I don’t fully trust the announced intuitions of any one who seems to have a need for absolute certainty, who cannot consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  This is as true of scientific as religious thought.  I think it is an inescapable condition of being human that we must live with some level of uncertainty.  The decisions we make will always entail some risk that we are wrong.  That’s life.

But I also look for some coherence.  I can’t adopt a philosophy of life that broadly contradicts the assumptions and observations of modern science.  So I do not believe that the world was created in seven days some four thousand years ago, I don’t think homosexuality is intrinsically wrong or even immature, I’m open to the possibility that polygamy is a viable structure for some cultures, I don’t think any of us have a mission from God to either convert all non-believers or eliminate them from the face of the earth.

I do, on the other hand, have a sense of responsibility for earth and every one and everything in it, mainly because I can’t see any other alternative.

* There is a fuller and possibly more accurate exploration of the relationship between philosophy and religion by the author of the comment made in relation to my post yesterday.

April 15, 2010

Round and round

I’ve been intrigued by the idea suggested in a recent post on Thinking Makes It So that evolution never discovered the wheel.

Well, we did, but the discovery isn’t passed down in our genes.

When so much of what we discover or even “invent” are adaptations or copies of what has already been invented by evolution, I find it astonishing to think that something as useful as the wheel hasn’t made it into the genetic pool.

I’m now trying to think if there is anything else that is quite so critical that only we have come up with.  The rectangle might also be unique to us, but somehow it doesn’t seem to have quite the same potential as the wheel.

And we didn’t come up with it much more than six thousand years ago.

April 9, 2010

Addendum on Truth

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:52 pm

Science cannot arrive at an ultimate truth.  Science searches for understanding, not for Truth.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Astrophysicist

Burnell’s understanding of religion – she is a life-long Quaker -is similar.  She believes we need to continue to explore our understanding of god (or whatever term you prefer) all our lives – not to arrive at a static and unchanging ultimatum.

So we never ever finally get to some place where we know it all.  Never.

I think that means the process never ends.

Three cheers!

April 7, 2010

How certain is scientific fact?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 12:53 pm

This is the second part of the Question Beyond Science exploring how certain we can be about what we think we know.  Yesterday’s post discussed certainty and religious belief.  This post asks whether science can provide us with absolute certainty.  Again, your feedback is warmly welcomed.

How the Scientific Method Works

The scientific method is in many ways a highly disciplined application of the kind of reasoning processes humans use all the time.

First, we experience something – we see the sun come up in the morning, for instance, and set every evening.  In a scientific study, this is what is called “data.”

Then we ask what it means, we try to explain it.  How it is, for instance, that the sun comes up every morning and sets every evening?  In science the explanation is the “theory.”

But science adds several qualifications to these steps.  The first is replication of the data.  Scientists agree that data must be subject to being checked by other scientists.  So scientists study only objects and events that other scientists can also observe if they choose.  Whatever a scientist studies, from the stars to how people behave, the basic requirement is that other scientists can also observe and analyze it.

This is to rule out errors or fraud or even hallucinations or dreams that are mistaken for something objectively real.

The second qualification of science is in relation to theory.  Science neither accepts nor denies the existence of a supernatural world.  It does, however, look for explanations solely within the operations of the natural world.  So even if a scientist believes in God, it would not be an acceptable scientific theory to hypothesize, for instance, that the sun is under the control of a god who takes the sun away at night and brings it back every morning.

It is because science insists on data which is observable and theories which are rooted in the laws of the natural universe, that its theories can be tested.

How Theory becomes Fact

A scientific theory is first developed as an explanation for something we observe.  It is then tested by examining its predictions.  The more predictions made by a theory which are correct, the stronger a theory becomes.  Each correct prediction contributes to its proof.

For tens of thousands of years, human beings looked at the data and concluded, quite reasonably, that the world was flat.  Very few people questioned what seemed to be obvious to almost anybody who had ever walked on it.  But about 500 years ago, Copernicus suggested not only that the world was shaped like a huge ball but that it was twirling around in space and at the same time whirling around the sun.  This was a whole new explanation which at first sounded preposterous.

How did we all become convinced not only that it wasn’t preposterous but was actually fact, was, in other words, true?  We became convinced because the theory predicted and explained so many other things that it began to make sense.

This new theory explained how it was that the sun seemed to set at night and come back again on the other side of the sky in the morning.  It explained the changing positions of the stars.  It explained why the seasons regularly changed from winter to summer and back again.  It explained how ships sailed around the world and got back home without ever turning around.  It explained so many things that people now say it’s not “just a theory,” but a “proven fact.”

By a similar process, Newton’s theory of gravity, Mendel’s laws of heredity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution have become “fact.”

But scientific facts, no matter how much proof backs them up, never become absolutely certain.  They may be accepted by most people for a very long time under most conditions, but scientific facts are never beyond question.


How Can a Fact that is Proved be Disproved?

Facts are disproved when the theory that explains the fact is no longer accepted.  The “fact” that the world was flat was disproved when the theory that earth was round was accepted.  The “fact” that the sun went around the world was disproved when the theory that the earth went around the sun explained things better and so was accepted by scientists and by most people.

Newton’s theory of gravity that said the universe worked like a gigantic clock is no longer accepted as fact since scientists have shown that the force of gravity isn’t strong enough to hold the world together.  The “facts” that parallel lines never meet, that a mile is always the same length, and a minute lasts just as long no matter where you are have been disproved by Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Many of these disproven facts still work quite well in our small world where we still walk on what seems to be a flat world, where the sun still comes up and goes down each day, where a mile is always 5280 feet long, and a minute always 60 seconds.

But they are not absolute facts because time and space a relative. So they aren’t certain no matter what.  No matter what the “fact,” there is always the possibility that another theory will convince us that what we thought was indisputable is not certain after all.

So although science has taught us a lot about the universe, science always deals in various levels of uncertainty.  Some levels of certainty are very high.  But it is not absolute.

What do you think?

Are there some things about which you think you can be absolutely certain?  Why or why not?

Is your certainty about scientific fact and religious belief different?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

April 5, 2010

The independent life of meerkats

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

I consider TV ads an opportunity to get a cup of coffee, fix lunch, use the bathroom, or accomplish any other 3-minute job that suggests itself.  But about once a decade, the advertising world produces something that develops a life of its own, romping on independently of the product it is supposed to sell.

Instead of dashing into the kitchen during the television ads,  I am now watching the meerkats.

The meerkats’ job is ostensibly to sell car insurance through an online comparison site called Compare the Market.

The Meerkats, however, have generated an industry of their own.  One can buy stuffed meerkats to join the bedroom menagerie of bears, lions, and ducks and meerkat  gnomes are available to decorate the garden.

If you are looking for a little light relief in the midst of the drudgery and traumas of life, check out the Meerkat’s website, Compare The Meerkat.

Meerkats, by the way, in case your childhood pets were limited to dogs, goldfish, guinea pigs, and the occasional sassy parrot,  are real.

Though they have perhaps exaggerated their accomplishments just a little.

April 1, 2010

My favourite fools

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 1:34 pm

Every year on this day, How Stuff Works does an article to celebrate the human condition.  My favourites include “How Animated Tattoos Work”; “How Phone Cell Implants Work”, and last year’s post “How Rechargeable Gum Works”.

Fact is often stranger than fiction, and Asimov once said that it is often difficult to tell the difference between our latest scientific invention and magic.

With that in mind, I bow to the reader to decide which of How Stuff Works’ offerings today qualify for the Award of the Day.


My vote is on the Twapler.

March 27, 2010

More thoughts on green

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:45 pm

When I was about three, I remember telling my older brother that the inside of my eyelids had strips of color on them.  How he got to know these things with a mere year more of experience than I, I don’t know, but he told me this wasn’t so.  (He’s also the one who told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus, and that I couldn’t be a man when I grew up.)  I said I knew my eyelids were colored on the inside because I could see the colors when I closed my eyes and pressed on my eyes.

In other words, I had empirical evidence to support my conclusion.  My brother offered me an alternative explanation for the colors I was seeing, which in a slightly more sophisticated form is the one I’ve accepted ever since.

I’m telling this story because it illustrates the process by which we humans interpret our world.  That is, we have an experience.  That experience itself is completely and inescapably private.  We can’t compare our experiences directly with anybody else’s, nor can anybody from the outside tell us that we did or did not experience it.  We are the only ones who can know directly what we experience – whether we hear a sound, see an object, distinguish a color, feel a pain.  And if we can’t see a shape or color or hear a sound, no one can ever communicate to us exactly what it’s like.

I myself do not have depth vision, for instance.  I know I’m missing something but I cannot imagine what the world looks like to people with normal vision.  Similarly, people who have been deaf all their lives cannot know what a song sounds like, nor can people who can’t distinguish between green and red know what those colors look like to the rest of us.

What we can do, however, is to describe what it is we hear/see/feel/experience to others and compare their description of their private experience with ours.  That’s the first thing – and it is not a coincidence that this is the first thing scientists do when they are presenting their empirical findings to other scientists.

The second thing we can do is to compare our interpretations of our experiences.  My brother didn’t deny that I saw colors when I closed my eyes;  what he gave me was a different interpretation of what the colors meant.  In other words, he offered me a different theory to explain my data.

We “validate” our experiences like this all the time.  We ask others “Do you hear that?”  “Can you see that?”  “Do you remember when?”  In extreme cases, it’s how we decide if we are hallucinating or dreaming or actually responding to an external event.

In science, this process is usually accomplished by replicating the findings.  If scientists can’t replicate the results a scientist says he has found, then the data is questionable.  The assumption is that some unknown error occurred or there is outright fraud involved.  If the results are replicated, then the discussion moves to the forum of interpretation:  do these particular observations support Theory A or Theory B or a new theory altogether?

When the majority of scientists believe that the bulk of the data supports one theory rather than another it tends to be accepted as a solid universal finding.  Gravity explains, for instance, why we don’t fall off the planet, or the stars don’t fall down.  Or smoking increases the chances of getting lung cancer, and obesity increases the chances of developing Type II diabetes.

But just as my interpretation of the colors I saw when I closed my eyes changed, so too theories that may for very long periods be accepted as proven might be discarded.   Scientists now do not think gravity is the full explanation of what is holding the universe in place.  And doctors today are beginning to think that perhaps obesity is not the cause of Type II diabetes.

Okay, this is how we validate our interpretations of empirical events.  Our experiences themselves do not change, but our interpretations of them often do.  Can – and do – we use a similar process to validate our experiences of beauty? of truth?  of love?

I think we do.  But more on that in another post – if there are any readers still hearty enough to survive the onslaught of my treatise on the Psychology of Knowing.

March 26, 2010

How do we know it’s true?

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 10:53 pm

I listened to a programme on two 20th century musical composers this evening – Henryk Gorecki from Poland and Arvo Part from Estonia.  I’d never heard of either of them before, but since I’m half Polish, I expected to prefer Gorecki.  I was surprised that it was Part’s music that resonated.

Part (unlike a talkative Gorecki) is an extremely shy man who does not give interviews easily.  But he said one thing over which I have been puzzling.  He was a mature composer before he ever heard Gregorian chant. But, he said, when he listened to it for the first time he was stunned.  “I knew,” he said, “that this was the truth.”

Okay, what do we mean when we say something like music is true?  It’s not what my mother meant when she said George Washington was telling the truth when he admitted he’d chopped down the tree.  It’s not what mathematicians mean when they it’s true that 2+2=4.  It’s not what a historian means when he says something is true.  It’s not even what believers mean when they say scripture is true.

Yet, we do somehow know that music is a language.  We know that music can communicate.  So music must be able to say something that is true.

I’ve been asking myself – and others – this question for some time now.  I know how we test the validity of scientific theories.  But how do we test the validity of music or art or poetry or sculpture or literature?

I asked a musician this question recently.  He gave me a long silent look which I recognized as the look I give when someone asks me a question and I think “I don’t know where to begin;  I think you need to read several books, or take several courses, or live several decades more before I can begin to explain.  You’re starting out with all the wrong assumptions.”

Then  he said that it was not in understanding the nuts and bolts – how chords were used or different rhythms or instruments were combined.  Finally he said “You listen.  Stop trying to analyze it.  Just listen.  Eventually you might just know whether it’s true, or whether it’s fake.”

So this is what I think he meant and what I’m beginning to think I also think:

There are some things that we apprehend directly.  I don’t mean necessarily immediately, but I mean without need for any additional confirmation.  Like seeing the color green, for instance.  I don’t need to analyze the light spectrum emanating from an object to confirm that what I am perceiving is green.  I apprehend it directly.  Could I be wrong?  Yes, I could be color blind.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there are some things I apprehend directly, that I do not need to analyze or prove further in order to know.  I might, on rare occasions, do some further tests to find out if this really is green or some trick of the light.  But it is not the test results that communicate to me what green is.  It’s the seeing the green.  And without that, all the test results in the world cannot communicate to me what green looks like.

I think the arts are very much like that.  We apprehend them directly.  We recognize directly that they are beautiful or truthful or profound.  Yes, the arts can also be analyzed – what century they reflect, who they were influenced by, how they broke with tradition or reworked some period.  These things are useful and often may increase our appreciation of the intrinsic value of the work.  But they are not the same thing and do not themselves constitute that immediate response which recognizes beauty or truth.

Can we be wrong in what we apprehend?  of course.  We can mistake tatty tawdry trash for great art.  We can be artistically “color-blind” or “tone-deaf” in some areas, unable to see or hear the beauty that is there.  And we can learn, as we mature, to recognize truth in ways that as children we do not.

But in the end, I think we know that art is great because many people recognize it as great.  Because we look at it, listen to it, and know directly that it is true.

On another day I will try to explain why I think the answer to this question matters.  At least to people like me who seem compelled to analyze absolutely everything.  (Well, half of me is Polish.  But the other half is German.)

I have many people to thank for their thoughts on this question, most recently the latest posts on the blog Thinking Makes It So.  My conclusions, however, are nobody’s responsibility but my own.  And I unreservedly reserve the right to change my mind.

March 14, 2010

It’s easier to give than to receive

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

I’m not a person who remembers dates very well, and I rarely remember anniversaries.  It’s embarrassing:  I rarely remember on the day the anniversary of deaths of even my sister, and it is usually friends who remember my wedding anniversary.  In fact, I couldn’t sit here and write with absolute certainty the date I was married.  It’s July something, 197-something.  (This is not old age:  I’ve always been like this.)

All of which is an introduction to my unexpectedly noticing that 33 years ago this week my father died, and that I have now lived longer than either of my parents or any of my grandparents.  Maybe that’s why I’m finding getting old such a surprising experience.  I don’t have a lot of close experience watching how it’s done.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  I’m still healthy enough not to be considered among the “old old,” but I think a lot about how I want to grow old old.    I’m not saying how I “hope” to grow old, because I’m not talking about those things over which I have no control.  I “hope” that I do not spend years in a state of dementia , prolonged physical dependence, or pain which I cannot escape.  I “hope” I outlive my husband, mostly because he hopes I do.  But I have limited control over things like this.

I do have some control, though, over temptations and opportunities that – now that I’m thinking about it – are so often presented to those of us fortunate enough to live long lives.

A particular challenge, as I see it, is to recognize in myself how I am changing, and how what I can do is changing.  It’s hard to know, for instance, just how in touch I am with the world other people are living in.  It’s hard to gauge the extent to which my intellectual abilities have slowed.  There are other skills too I once had, which may or may no longer be up to the job.  Should I repaint our guest bedroom myself?  can I still tile my bathroom floor, scrape the moss off our roof, hang the bedroom wallpaper?  Or is it time to hire a younger fitter person?

And if or when I can’t do these things, what do I want to be doing with my time?  I still find great fulfilment in reading, in writing, in music, in helping others when I can.   But there might come a time when the only gift I can give to someone else is to accept their help and support.  Basic things like letting them help me dress and eat and wash and get to the bathroom.

Since childhood, I have been the helper, not the helped.  Since childhood, I’m the one who took care of my little brothers and sisters, not the other way around.  The virtue of giving was ingrained into my religious upbringing and taking was always tinged with a subtle suggestion of selfishness.

Besides, I don’t like to be helped.  I’d rather be independent and make my own mistakes.  Besides, giving does a lot more for my ego than receiving.  Giving makes me feel generous and wise and virtuous.  Receiving makes me feel dependent and inadequate, and I’ve always felt it was too big a price to pay for feeling loved.  I’ve never needed a lot of convincing that to give is better than to receive.

(Which is not to say that I haven’t been immensely fortunate.  The gifts I have received all my life are great beyond my limited words.  Actually, given all the practice I’ve had, I should be much better at receiving than I am.)

But perhaps learning to be helped is the one final thing I will learn in life.  I do not have children who will find an extra bedroom where I might grow old old and die.  If I do not die quickly, I will have to decide whether to go into care or to end my life myself.

At this point in my life, there is no question of my deciding to let go.  I’m happier than I have ever been in my life.

But I know – I feel in my bones – a time is going to come when I don’t belong on this planet anymore.  It’s going to be time to go.

When that time comes, if I have control over the situation, I do not plan on hanging on for the sheer purpose of staying alive.  And I’m not at all sure the world is going to need yet another elderly infirm person to care for simply to give me the opportunity to learn to come to terms with being dependent.

Dear God Almighty, I find life an interesting challenge.

March 12, 2010

Village life

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:49 pm

One of the lovely treasures in our small village just south of Cambridge is our village list serve.  It’s run by a single person who, on request, forwards messages about just about everything – lost chickens, mysterious vandalism, quiz night at the pub, the latest play being put together in the village hall.

Today a message came out asking if anyone could identify a black cat lurking in a villager’s back yard.  It was quite skinny and hungry enough to consume a quail belonging to the message sender.  The cat was also quite irascible, and had seen off three dogs inquiring into the cat’s rights to be where he was.  But he was wearing a blue collar suggesting he may have an owner.

Within hours another message hit our in-boxes.  The cat had been identified.  He is 17 years old (119 in human  terms).   “At that age”, the writer suggested, he was “entitled to be a bit scrawny, grouchy  and dine on my quail if he wants to.”  And, she added, his spirit in seeing off three dogs was enviable.

At the same time, I telephoned a friend, K, in New York.  She’s been living in the same brownstone for thirty years, and sending her laundry to the laundromat across the street for the same period of time.  She and the laundromat owner have come to know each other rather well.  In fact, better than she realized.  She’s been ill, and last week a friend delivered her bag of laundry for her to the laundromat.

K’s laundry bag is not Gucci, but it does have a couple of yellow and green stripes.  “That’s not your bag,” the owner of the laundromat said when it was handed over by K’s friend.

Seems life in the urban village isn’t too different from life in my Cambridge village.

K’s story reminded me of my last exchange with a New York laundromat owner which took place 40 years ago.  I’d been taking my laundry there for several years, but one day, he returned somebody else’s laundry to me.  I objected on the grounds that I had little use of several pair of Calvin Klein’s men’s shorts and similar attire.  “You have no right to complain,” he replied, reluctant to give me my money back.  “Your laundry wasn’t nearly as expensive as his.”

Yes.  Village life everywhere…

March 8, 2010

Why the witch smashed the mirror

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 10:15 pm

In my experience, by far the hardest thing to learn are the unpleasant truths about myself.  This is so even about those things that are glaringly obvious to everyone else.

But what I don’t know about myself has frightened me.  I fear the lies I am capable of telling myself, the rationalizations I’m so good at developing to hide myself from myself.

There is one mirror I’ve found which gives me some kind of glimpse into my less than lovely self.  But I don’t find it easy to look into, and I understand why the witch smashed the mirror rather than face the fact that she was not the most beautiful person in the palace.

The mirror is offered by Carl Jung, the contemporary of Freud:

What makes us most irritated, most annoyed, most angry about others can lead us to understand some parallel vulnerability in ourselves.

Frankly, I sometimes find it easier to get over my annoyance than to recognize that I might have in myself the seeds of the very thing that makes me so angry in others.  I guess that’s a little like smashing the mirror?

March 2, 2010

Old bones

Filed under: Osteoporosis,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

Between the weather and the flu, my daily exercise regime came to almost a full stop for most of February.

Wow, does it make a difference!

We went to Wimpole Hall, Wimpole Hall

a National Trust property of 2500 acres and a magnificent home where Rudyard Kipling’s daughter once lived.  It is less than ten minutes from where we live and we simply walked for the sheer delight of feeling the sun light upon our faces.  But within 15 minutes I could feel the pull on my back.  I’m seriously out of condition.

I think regular exercise might be even more important than nutrition if I want to keep as fit as possible as the years pile up.  Especially for me on the edge of full-blown osteoporosis.  It’s amazing how fast one can deteriorate with so little effort.

Anyway, I think I’m well enough to return to my regular regime of 30 minutes serious mixed exercise a day.

Well, serious by my standards.  Probably not much more than a quick warm-up for most.       Wimpole Hall Estate

February 25, 2010

Fighting with a hard ball

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:54 pm

Well, President Obama started out by offering his hand of friendship to those who disagreed.  It didn’t work with China.  It didn’t work with Iran.  It didn’t work with the Republicans.

But Obama is very smart.  He’s a fast learner, and he’s tough.  It also looks as if he may be getting a few breaks:

  • Scott Brown, the Republican who won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat has bucked party lines and is going to vote for Obama’s $15 billion jobs bill.  The tea-party brigade are incandescent.
  • Joe Lieberman is going to support equal rights for gays in the military.
  • And Obama is going to try to get his health care bill passed by using a process called – ironically – reconciliation, which by-passes the Senate’s right to filibuster it to death.  He might even get the public option through this door.

Right!  It’s made my day.

I even think I’m just about over the flu.

February 22, 2010

Did God create the universe?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

A reader has just made me realize that, despite my intentions, I had not posted my first Question Beyond Science here asking whether God had created the universe.  My next treatise is at least two weeks away, and possibly twice that.  So if you are not among those who enjoy this kind of amateur musing, do not despair.  And thank you for listening.  Despite my conviction that these questions have no absolute final answers, I continue to turn them over.  And over.

Where did the world come from?  Different civilizations, cultures and religions have all told creation stories as humans have tried to answer this age-old question.

Today the question most often asked is whether, however the story is told, there is a supernatural, superhuman intelligence most people call God who created the universe.

There are many different ways to answer this question.  For instance:

Yes, there must be a God who created the universe

Many people believe in God because we are here.  However far back one pushes the chain of events, there is always the question:  What or who caused that first event to happen?  How did the universe come into existence in the first place?  Even if you say “the big bang.” that doesn’t answer the question “what caused the big bang?”.   If there was a Big Bang, was it God who made it happen that way?  Many people believe it must have been.

Aristotle said that events have causes, an idea that seems quite logical to most of us.   Believers say that if you carry this idea to its logical conclusion, it seems obvious that there must be a First Cause.  For believers, that First Cause is God.

This doesn’t seem to be illogical.  In fact, it seems quite rational.  Why then, are there so many equally rational people who are not convinced that there is a God?

To say we don’t know the answer doesn’t prove there is a God

For non-believers, “we can’t think of any other explanation besides God” isn’t the same thing as saying “there must be a God.”  It would be better, they think, to say instead that we don’t know the answers to all our questions.  Perhaps, they say, it is the universe itself, not God, which is an infinitely unfolding mystery and has always existed.

Volcanoes and tsunamis, the rising and setting sun, the complexity of the human eye or a lucky escape from an accident have all been used as proof that there must be a God.  But today these events seem perfectly natural, and can be explained without resorting to explanations involving miracles or supernatural powers.

If everyone had been satisfied with “god” as the answer to everything we don’t understand, they say, we would not have electricity in our houses, or cars on our roads.  We wouldn’t even know that Earth revolves around the sun once a year. They worry that making God responsible for everything that happens is an excuse for not taking responsibility for ourselves.

What do you think?

Is it God or the universe itself which is infinite, beyond our present human understanding, an ineffable mystery?

Does the idea of God interfere with our being responsible for what we do?  Does it interfere with our exploring and learning more about the world in which we live?

Or as we learn more about the universe, its beauty and complexity, can we learn more about how to care for it and about a God who made it?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

February 20, 2010

Just tickled

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:12 pm

I know it rather well, because my husband grew up in Castleford, Yorkshire, and we lived there for a full year when his father was dying.

There is a bridge which I’ve walked under more times than I can count.  I didn’t know its name until today, but the locals did.  For a brief – very brief  – period it was called Tickle Cott Bridge.  But its real name is – and shall remain – Tickle Cock Bridge.

Yes, it means exactly what it sounds like.  It was named during Victorian times so it has a heritage.

The thing is that politicians from outside the area decided that Castleford needed to be tarted up.  After all, it had been an important Roman crossing two thousand years ago, and had much more potential that its residents appreciated.  Tickle Cock had to go.

It’s not that Tickle Cock is one of the truly great bridges of modern times.

It’s not named after an important person like George Washington.

It’s not the oldest extant bridge in the world in Torino, Italy.

It’s not even the longest bridge in Britain which is in Hull.

But a photograph of its pedestrian underpass before its recent renovation suggests its possibilities:  The underpass before regeneration

The politically correct renovators, however, felt there was room for improvement, and spent some significant effort improving it.  The local council faced stiff opposition after renaming the bridge (Photo: Wakefield Council)

Along with the tawdry underpass, the Improvers also decided that the ranchy name also was unworthy.  So they renamed it the Tickle Cott Bridge. They  reckoned without the Castleford Area Voice for the Elderly, a group of over-50’s who were not having a nannying government step in to sanitize their heritage.

The short-lived Tickle Cott Bridge sign has now been consigned to history.  Tickle Cock Bridge it shall remain.

February 19, 2010

What’s scary about Greece

Up until now, I’ve felt that the world had enough problems without my worrying about the Greek economy.  But I’m afraid that not caring about what happens in Greece is like not caring about Lehman Brothers in 2007.  Only worse.

Why?  Because Greece is a member of the EU and uses the euro as its currency.  So do 22 other countries, including giants like Germany and France.  The euro countries have rules about how they run their economies, but Greece has  been faking the numbers and a budget deficit that was supposed to be a mere 3.7% of GDP in August has now rocketed to 12.7%.  The markets are going crazy and threatening to raise Greece’s borrowing rates to unaffordable heights.

And then Greece might default on its loans, creating a sovereign-debt crisis which is the posh word for an insolvent, bankrupt country.   Well, Greece has a retirement age of about 61, a huge culture of tax evasion in which over half the families in the country pay no tax at all, and a bloated public sector that gets 14 “monthly” pay checks a year.  So they deserve what they get.

Just like Lehman Brothers and all the other banks deserved what they would have got if governments hadn’t bailed them out.  Governments bailed them out not out of charity but because the fall out for the rest of us, had the banks collapsed, would have been even worse than they already are.

A sovereign debt crisis for an EU country would make Lehman Brothers look like play in a sand box.  Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy would all be in immediate danger of similar default.  Great Britain could be threatened, and even America would feel the heat.

If that happens, a second Great Depression looms.

And that is why half the world’s economists are arguing that we cannot go on stimulating the economies of the developed world without worrying about beginning to pay down our looming budget deficits.

As I said yesterday, it’s a critical decision, and to get it wrong will be disastrous.  Withdraw the stimulus too soon, and the economy sinks back into recession or even depression.  Borrow too much money and it’s depression anyway.

From what I can tell, Obama’s budget is trying to steer a middle road, making some cuts, but also increasing the stimulus.  As many people are convinced he’s right as are sure he’s taking the country down the road to perdition.

I understand the problem.  I wish I were that unique person who is certain of the solution.

February 16, 2010

A private education

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:12 pm

It’s a little late, but I’ve been re-teaching myself music appreciation by a method I wish I’d applied years ago.

I’ve been going through my entire collection of recordings and in an exuberance of mad freedom, wildly giving away everything I’ve always thought I should like but don’t.   It’s marvellous.  Instead of looking at all those recordings lining my shelves and feeling guilty about not playing half of them since they were purchased, I now look greedily at what I am going to enjoy next.

I’ve given away every single one of the Gregorian chants and all the monophonic music of the Middle Ages.  I’ve saved several treasures from the Renaissance, most of which is music that didn’t make it into the church probably on grounds that it was too worldly, but everything else went.  I’ve kept everything Baroque – Handel, Bach, Vivaldi – and Classical – Mozart, Haydn, Haydn.  I’ve pruned the 18th century of almost every composer except Wagner, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, and what remains from the 20th century are Grieg’s Finlandia, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Dvorak’s New World and a huge collection of folk and country music.

People’s taste in music, even among professional musicians, is extraordinarily individual and we don’t necessarily like the same things.  I think Fauve’s Requiem is awful;  I have a brother who thinks it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.   Peter likes modern jazz,  my step-mother loved opera, my sister Bernadette loves musicals, my sister Catherine understands the 20th century.

So why not start out by asking young people to listen to all kinds of music and decide what they like?  Rather than feeling vaguely uncultured or uneducated  listening to music that creates no resonance, we could start out by experiencing the best of what music can do for the human spirit.

I speak from direct experience:  it’s exciting and guilt-free.  At my age anyway.

February 11, 2010

What do you think?

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

I have just begun to publish on my other blog The Big Bang to Now, a series I’m calling Questions Beyond Science.  They are Think About issues that developed from feedback to the first edition of my book on all of time.

The questions in general are not themselves scientific but are questions that people tend to ask in a world as science-oriented as the one we live in —  questions like Did God create the universe?  Are there different kinds of truth?  Is there a supernatural world controlling the natural universe?

I am looking for feedback from people with many different perspectives and beliefs.  This is not a poll to try to find out how many people take which position or an attempt to convince people that one answer is right and the others wrong.  What I would like to know, above all, is whether my presentations of the different sides of the questions seem fair and clear and respectful to people from many different points of view.

So often, it seems to me, we can’t listen to each other because our discussion is marred with sarcasm, distortion, and a lack of respect for someone who sees the world differently.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have views on most of these questions.  And there are times and places where sarcasm, distortion, or a lack of due respect are refreshingly funny and insightful, and positively valuable.

But there are other times when it is important to be able to listen without bias to views with which we may utterly disagree.   And I know how hard this can be.  Despite my commitment to respecting others, there are some views that make me so angry that I find it close to impossible to enter into a dialogue about them.

But if you are interested in these kinds of questions and if you have any thoughts on any of the posts, I would be very very glad to hear them.

The first Question Beyond Science is Did God create the Universe? You can see it on the blog The Big Bang to Now post for February 11, 2010, and some earlier comments on the post for the preceding day.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at