The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, August 31, 2006
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WHY WE STILL NEED LIBERALS: I’ve been reading a liberal book lately. It’s called “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”, by Thomas Frank. I hoped it would be an unbiased, insightful analysis of how the GOP and its social conservatism won the hearts and minds of the hordes out there in the heartland, those who would have done a whole lot better under a Democratic / Liberal government. I hoped it would expose the fallacies of both smothering liberalism and laissez faire conservatism, and put forth some new ideas. But alas, it did not. This book is full of liberal ax-grinding. And that gets on my nerves.

Here’s a quote which exemplifies Mr. Frank’s approach to liberal versus conservative and Democrat versus Republican. He describes a well-off suburb of Kansas City called Mission Hills, which is home to a great many captains of industry and commerce. In describing how most of Kansas is going down the tubes financially, he opines that “the people of Mission Hills are unfazed . . . . they know that poverty rocks. Poverty is profitable. Poverty makes stocks go up and labor come down.”

Now really. Even the wealthy owners of capital have to sell their products and services to someone. They still need a middle class to keep their offices and factories humming. So it can’t be quite that bad.

Or can it? I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR the other morning, and I heard a report on the growing number of families without health insurance. One of the biggest causes is the reluctance of many employers these days (Wal Mart most famously) to give their workers coverage. I heard a Mr. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute say that expanding the government programs which pick up some of the uncovered workers (such as Medicaid) is exactly the wrong thing to do. Mr. Cannon claimed that the availability of government coverage for the working poor encourages employers not to offer health insurance. He implied that if there were no government alternatives, maybe the companies would be more willing to offer health insurance; the forces of supply and demand for labor would lead them to be nicer. It’s the government that’s making them so mean.

That’s one of those arguments that make a whole lot of sense if you don’t think about them. Since when do workers have the upper hand in the labor market? If this were 1960, you could argue that strong labor unions insure the workers’ bargaining power against mega-corporations (which are sometimes practically the sole employer in a small town, e.g. a mining town in Kentucky or a refinery somewhere in Louisiana). But today, the labor unions are on their knees. The percentage of workers who are members of unions is at an all-time low (12.5%, versus 53% in 1956). Big corporations have a whole lot more power over the terms of employment than individual, unorganized workers do. Big business has effectively used international trade to crush the American working man and woman.

I used to be unsympathetic to unions, as they went too far to protect sloth and inefficiency. I really thought that big business was being reasonable in its demand for worker “give-backs” and deregulation; at first they certainly were. But since Ronald Reagan, big business has gotten greedy. The ridiculous days of early capitalism, where workers died from dangerous machines and pollution, or barely stayed alive on meager wages, are coming back. Big business is truly a heartless monster after all. The rich are becoming filthy rich, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is being squeezed out. Somehow the capitalists are doing just fine selling their wares mostly to each other (or pushing the peons to buy on credit). I hate to say it, but perhaps we do need flaming liberals and stodgy unions after all!

The GOP offered America a contract, and the heartland took it. You can have you guns and your God, and we won’t make you sit next to gays and people of color. But in return, we will pick your pocket, take away your economic security, health insurance, clean environment and safe workplace. In return, we leave you with the chance to get rich. Too bad only about 1 in 1000 will even get close. But our mass media will leave you with sweet dreams, wonderful stories of those who have traded rags for riches in our “economy of opportunity”.

Perhaps Howard Dean is a necessary evil after all . . . . Kansas, how long until you figure that out?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 27, 2006
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Agreeing With the Devil: I usually disagree vehemently with philosopher Daniel Dennett and his loud proclamations that the human mind, in all its glory, has made God irrelevant and unnecessary. Oh yea, Danny, the human mind: the thing that has given the world Nazism, Darfur, neutron bombs, and health care rationalization. You really think those things are so much better than faith in God and participation in religious institutions?

Dennett is right in that religion and faith have frequently been part of the problem. But the core ideals of faith are not to blame, because they still haven’t been tried. Dennett is throwing a whole lot of baby out with the bathwater. Including the “Christ child” of Christmas, which in my opinion is one of the most touching religious mythologies ever to surface on this planet. I may not be a Christian at this point on my journey, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for Christmas.

So I read the transcript of a recent Australian radio interview with Dennett with my usual dismay. However . . . . the guy did say one thing that really hit home. He said that in his research regarding the folly of belief, he found that a whole lot of people who are heavily into religion have some dark secrets that they keep. Here’s the quote:

To me one of the fascinating things that grew out of my own research for this book was that I did a lot of informal, not scientific, but confidential interviews with people who were deeply religious . . . . . one of the most amazing things that emerged from them again and again and again, these people took this as an opportunity to tell me ‘Oh, I didn’t believe a word of it’, but they thought it was so important and it structured their whole lives. They are devoting their lives to their churches or their synagogues; no, they don’t believe that stuff, but they believe in belief.[emphasis added by me]

Yea, Dennett is right. That’s the problem with religion. Religion is supposed to be all about God, but it quickly becomes all about us. Cynics like Dennett believe that to be the fault of God (or the lack of God). I think that it’s our own fault. God is an idea still waiting to be tried. Among many other things.

Oh, the radio program is called “All in the Mind” with Natasha Mitchell. I’m nowhere near Australia, but thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I can stay up with this really interesting show. I very much recommend her show (and her show’s web site).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 25, 2006
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I’ve been driving back and forth to work along the same route for the past 15 years now (well, I try to take the train one day a week, although it involves a bit of a hike). Yea, mine is not exactly a life of high adventure. I go back and forth repetitiously, almost to the exact same minute each day. Over time, I’ve built up with a list of people to look out for, people that I regularly see along the way. They may be out jogging or power walking or slow walking or waiting for a bus. I have no idea who they are, so I give them fake names. Some of them, anyway.

One of my named characters is Ms. Cheerios. She’s just a middle aged suburbanite out doing some exercise-walking in the early AM. She used to wear a yellow Cheerios T-shirt. The T-shirt is now gone, but Ms. Cheerios is still out there most days, even on the colder and darker mornings. Give her credit for persistence.

Then there’s Grete the Great. Grete is a jogger, and she looks to be a darn serious one. She’s tall and muscular with pulled-back blond hair. She’s frequently out there at 7 am getting in her mileage. She obviously reminds me of Grete Waitz, the 7 time New York Marathon winner from Norway. I always see Grete running in the same direction as I’m driving (Ms. Cheerios, by contrast, is always walking in the opposite direction). During the summer months I sometimes spy her in my rear view mirror wearing sunglasses; that makes me think of her as “terminator-Grete” or “cyber-Grete”, especially when she has the pulse monitor around her arm.

Next, there’s Mr. Squiggleroom. “Squiggie” is an older black fellow who is a devoted power walker. He’s extremely disciplined in his motions, and it seems to keep him in good shape. I got the name for him while watching a tire commercial praising the virtues of a certain brand in its ability to absorb “road-squiggle”. To make the point, the ad showed a group of guys in a power walk race. Thus the inspiration for Mr. Squiggleroom. He was quite a regular there for a long time, at least 5 years (going in the opposite direction to me each day, same as Ms. Cheerios). Then I stopped seeing him late last year. But for the past couple of weeks he’s made a comeback. And that does my heart good.

There are a couple of other guys here and there that I recognize. One guy is frequently out running in the morning, but he never seems to be enjoying it. I think of him as Mr. Suffering. His face is always tilted a bit, looking as though he’s barely gonna make it (and he isn’t all that old either). Then there’s John, an afternoon walker (most of my clientele are seen in the AM). John is somewhat stocky and reminds me of an insurance consultant named John Wilson, who I remember from my days with the National Council of Comp Insurance.

The above characters have been perennials; they’ve been around for at least 5 years or so. But aside from them, there are a handful of others who came and went, who never stayed long enough to get a name. There was the tall, skinny Catholic high school girl at the bus stop near Roseville Avenue in Newark. Last I saw, she seemed to have a boyfriend. Then there’s the old guy from my former barbershop, who I sometimes see right after I pull out of my driveway (I haven’t gone there since I went bald, with the help of a triple razor). And a couple of years back there was a tall, blondish, somewhat vintage woman who I often saw walking into a laundromat in Bloomfield wearing high heels and a skirt cut somewhat above her knees. Every morning at 7. Don’t know what happened to her after the laundromat burned down.

Well, this is just what the mind does when it isn’t properly stimulated. It slides off into fantasy land. It finds its own little world to get interested in. And it’s just as well that we never discover the truth about the objects of our little fantasies. What if Grete the Great’s real name is Nancy or Rosemarie? What if Mr. Squiggleroom is really Robert? And Ms. Cheerios — oh, let’s not even get into that. To me they’ll always be my little fantasy team.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
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Sometimes I feel the urge to talk about all the positive things about this world. OK, so I will — just for a quick moment. It’s summer. And that’s still a positive thing in my book. Yea, it gets hot and muggy here where I live, and sometimes the bugs can be annoying (although I don’t mind the beetles, and the ladybugs and butterflies are part of the joy of summer). But still, the days are long, the mornings are cool (relatively), the thunderstorms are entertaining (so long as you find your way to safety), the flowers are pretty, and so are the young women. When I was a kid, summer meant swimming and ice cream cones and vacation trips and lemon ice and barbecued burgers. Today, none of those things make my list. Life has changed for me. But there’s still something about summer that makes life a little more user-friendly.

But back to negative things (i.e., let’s get real). Here are two of my pet peeves. First, the way that President George W Bush smiles after answering a challenging question, as if he thinks that he proved his point beyond a doubt. I don’t remember any other president ever doing that. OK, Ron Reagan smiled a lot, but that was more or less a permanent fixture. Actually, Dutch had enough sense to stop smiling when trying to be serious. GWB just doesn’t seem like a US President to me. And that stupid smile has a lot to do with it.

Second pet peeve: David Chalmers. Chalmers is a philosopher who thinks and writes about human consciousness. He’s gotten a lot of attention over the past 10 years, as consciousness research has experienced a renaissance. David is a groovy guy, and no TV or radio special on consciousness is complete without an appearance by him. But when you delve into his theories about consciousness, they make a lot of sense until you start thinking about them. In a nutshell, Chalmers suggests that human consciousness is just a peak form of some entity or event that permeates the universe. Where ever there is information, according to Chalmers, there is consciousness — to some degree, anyway. (Although Chalmers sometimes denies saying this, in fact he does). So consciousness is and isn’t a part of this universe of matter, energy, timespace and the physical laws that govern them. According to Chalmers, there could be a world where consciousness and matter / energy / timespace do NOT coexist. In that world, there could be human-like creatures just like us, who act just like us — but who just don’t experience consciousness (even though they talk about it, in the same fashion that Chalmers and the rest of us who are fascinated by the mystery of human consciousness). Chalmers calls them zombies. They live in a world where consciousness is just not in the air.

Chalmers thinks that this little ‘thought experiment’ proves the validity of his concepts and viewpoints regarding consciousness. But as various other philosophers point out, most notably John Searle, zombie-world is not our world. Perhaps we should stick to things as they are in the world that we live in. Regarding consciousness as we know it, it occurs within the brains of living human beings under certain conditions, i.e. not under anethstesia, not in a coma or deep sleep, etc. We still don’t know exactly what set of conditions lights the flame of consciousness. But it does most logically seem to be a triggered condition, an all-or-nothing event, not something that lodges in varying degree in simple machines such as thermostats, or in macro phenomenon such as the population of China. When you read Chalmers, he makes some good points in his first two or three paragraphs. But it’s probably best to stop right there. Everything that follows is the philosophical equivalent of President Bush’s triumphant little smile.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:19 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

I guess that I’m not the most optimistic of people. I’ve explained here why human civilization may be heading for a 200 or 300 year setback, starting sometime before the end of this century. This setback certainly won’t be the end of humankind, nor of civilization; but as with the Dark Ages, it certainly will increase the Hobbsian character of life for the average Joe and Jane, everywhere in the world. I.e., life for everyone on the planet will be nasty, brutish and short.

After a while, maybe around 2300 or so, there may well be a Renaissance; hope will return, based not so much on technology or wealth as on wisdom. People will finally learn that greed and tribalism and aggression have got to go. Laissez-faire capitalism, as we know it today, will finally be seen for the abomination that it is; society will finally see through the lure of individual riches that it offers. World consciousness will finally take root, overcoming the tribal barriers and prejudices that have built up around differences in languages, customs, skin colors, body structures and religious metaphysics. People will share each other’s resources and be concerned about each other’s needs; Houston will be concerned with Cairo, Buenos Airians will think about Vladivostok, Brazzaville will offer help to Los Angeles. Too bad I won’t live to see it (neither will anyone alive today).

But for now, it’s just one more sign of social decay after another along the road spiraling downward. If you’ve read my Urban Thoughts section, you know that I’ve been watching trends in America’s inner cities and have concluded that despite all the signs of gentrification and rebirth, many neighborhoods are stuck in a downward spiral of lawlessness and disengagement from the mainstream system of social norms, education and economics. An alternate social and economic reality is being built there by the street gangs, around guns, narcotics and other forms of illicit entrepreneurship. I started writing Urban Thoughts in 1998. Now it’s eight years later, and too many of my predictions are coming true. The gangsta rappers are making lots of cash selling songs about it to kids in the bored suburbs, who ironically don’t seem to realize that this is real. I’m not sure where it’s going to wind up for this “alternate America”, but I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.

I don’t stay up with the latest mega hiphop songs by 50 Cent or The Game, but I can offer you a local news story that is similarly quite frightening. It’s about the life of Raynard Brown of Orange, NJ. Orange isn’t quite what I would call a ghetto. It is located just to the west of East Orange, Newark and Irvington, all of which do have areas with a lot of poverty, crime, and gang activity. But Orange seemed to be hanging on as a working class town. However, about a week ago, Mr. Brown was reported to the police for shooting a sawed off shotgun at someone in the street. The police arrived and chased him toward an abandoned house used by drug dealers. Brown went up some steps to a second floor, then turned with his gun just as Orange Police Detective Kiernan Shields arrived below him. Brown pulled the trigger and Shields died from the gunshot blast.

In one of the background stories published in the local newspapers to explain this tragedy, it was pointed out that Brown is a ranking member of the Bloods street gang. But what really got me is that Raynard Brown grew up in a stable, working class family, the kind of household that still dominates the town of Orange. He had both his father and his mother at home with him, and they both cared about his education. They wanted him to succeed. They got him involved in after-school activities, and steered him away from the “trouble” crowd. They followed the parental handbook; they did everything right. And yet they couldn’t keep their son from the grips of a social infection that hadn’t seemed to have reached their town yet, not in a big way at least. The dysfunctional world of single parent homes and welfare and junkies and “hoeing” that spawned the local Bloods and Crips sets seemed to stop a mile or two away from the Brown family residence. And yet, that mile or two, along with a caring family, wasn’t enough protection. Obviously, the infection is still spreading.

What to do? As my Urban Thoughts page says, I think that the forces behind this “infection” are extremely strong and will overcome the meager resources that our society is willing to devote to it (e.g., federal and state grants for anti-gang youth programs, job training, housing redevelopment, inner-city economic development, convict re-entry support, etc.). In the end, about the best we can do is to help those who want to get out of the bad neighborhoods to get out, by expanding things like the HUD “Move to Opportunity” program. This “infection” may just have to end like the plagues of the Middle Ages did, by killing off those who are most vulnerable. In the mean time, it will also take down some collateral victims, like Officer Shields. I wish that I was wrong about that. But at the moment, America seems too busy … too “Bushy” … to care.

It may well take 2 or 3 centuries for a revolution of wisdom to overcome all of this and bring about a Renaissance of Hope.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:44 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Current Affairs ... Science ...

There’s a pretty good article in the September Atlantic about global warming (“Some Convenient Truths” by Gregg Easterbrook). Mr. Easterbrook makes the point that global warming is an air pollution issue, and thus far, humanity is batting well over .500 with air pollution issues. Once the USA and the other industrial nations decided to do something about smog, ozone depletion and acid rain, progress came more quickly and more cheaply than was thought possible. Right now, greenhouse gasses have everyone spooked. The Republicans stayed in denial as long as they could, but the scientific evidence is now quite strong. So they have shifted gears in their arguments against Kyoto and other proposed global warming efforts. They now argue that the problem is too big; in order to really change the situation, we’d all have to go back to living in teepees and riding horses. Unfortunately, the Democrats (Al Gore and his “Inconvenient Truth” lecture and movie) play into this line of thought. Mr. Gore says that we’re all going to have to live with less in order to avoid raising the oceans by 20 feet and flooding out the coastal areas where roughly 40% of humankind now lives.

(Of course, the Republicans make it sound much worse than it might have to be. Perhaps with some technology and emission credit markets, we could all get by with driving small cars, using public transit when possible, eating vegetarian foods, and living in houses or apartments having around 400 square feet per person. I do that right now!)

Mr. Easterbrook argues that it’s time to get optimistic and get busy about global warming. He says that Democrats should reaffirm their trust in big government and Republicans should reaffirm their faith in technology and capitalist innovation. As with smog, ozone depletion and acid rain, big government should call the tune, and innovative capitalists should figure out how to dance to it. In other words, let’s go back to the mix of capitalism and socialism that hasn’t always been pretty, but has served America rather well since the Great Depression (despite efforts to take it apart by Ronald Reagan and now G. W. Bush).

Personally, I’m all for turning back the Bush Revolution and returning to the regulated capitalist economy of the 1950s and 60s. I really hope that the Congressional elections this fall will convey a similar mood on behalf of the American public (and if so, I hope the Democrats will pick up on it; right now they are still a bunch of whimpering cowards).

But as to whether we can count on technology to come thru again with regard to global warming, as Mr. Easterbrook seems so sure of . . . . . I’m not sure I agree. The other air pollution issues Mr. Easterbrook cites involved chemistry that was somewhat optional to the underlying processes. The substances at issue represented “one way to do it”, i.e. one way to accomplish greater efficiency or greater effectiveness in running a motor or cooling a refrigerator. With some tinkering and testing, it wasn’t so hard for chemists and engineers to find another way to do the same thing, sometimes even better than the original way.

However, carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) is a lot more fundamental to the energy process than nitric oxides (smog) and sulfur dioxide (acid rain) were. If you burn anything with carbon in it, you get carbon dioxide. So why not burn hydrogen instead of coal, oil and gas? Fine, but to get hydrogen, you have to run electricity thru water, and to get that electricity, you have to first burn coal or oil, i.e. something with carbon. Then why not go nuclear? Because we still haven’t figured out what to do with all the nasty radioactive crap that nuclear plants leave behind. How about solar, wind, geothermal, tidal generators, etc.? Cool, but it takes a lot of investment to set those things up and you don’t get nearly as much energy [yet] for each dollar of capital invested into a wind farm or solar panel that you get from a coal-fired electricity plant. Since our economy has only so much capital to invest, alternative energy can only do so much; the technology is just not there yet.

Right now, about all you can do with carbon dioxide is to suck up the exhaust put out by power plants and hide it somewhere, probably deep under the earth. There doesn’t appear to be an easy and cheap way of turning carbon dioxide back into pure carbon and oxygen. You’re dealing here with fundamental chemistry and physics, the basic thermodynamic laws that govern our planet.

Over the past 10,000 years or whatever, the human race has dodged a whole lot of extinction threats by using its brainpower. It’s arguable that the power of the human mind in coming up with new technologies and better medicines and improved economic systems has made things better for all of us. I myself would agree, but the human mind still has a whole lot of work to do in recognizing and getting around it’s evolutionary bias toward tribal aggression. We’re still using our technology to kill each other more effectively; we still don’t see the deadly game that we’ve locked ourselves into. We still haven’t taught each other to share in those ultimate words of hope, i.e. “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

But back to global warming. I honestly wonder if this is where the technology-fix road comes to an end. Carbon dioxide is a very, very basic substance. Technology will certainly help to deal with it, but you may not be able to just make it go away like CFC’s. Permanently disposing of excess CO2 may make dealing with spent uranium fuel from nuclear power plants look like child’s play. Bottom line, it’s probably gonna be expensive. And the longer we wait, the worse it will get.

Therefore, there may be good reason why Al Gore and other global warming activists aren’t rushing to “give in” to techno-optimism like Mr. Easterbrook has. Solving the problem of global warming may yet require global-scale sacrifice regarding standards of living. And even if the necessary sacrifice is mild, sacrifice is not something that humankind does very well on a global scale. That old fashioned, hard-wired tribal aggression instinct kicks-in pretty quickly. The many tribes of the human race already have a long list of reasons to go to war with each other. The question of just who is going to give up their creature comforts because of all the coal and oil that the western world has burned over the past century or two is probably going to add to that list.

When I was around 12 or 13, I was very interested in science and chemistry. I knew what carbon dioxide was; I even used it once in a class presentation (more on that below). And I remember thinking to myself just how boring carbon dioxide was. I couldn’t imagine how anyone other than a few nerdy engineers working on certain kinds of chemical plants or machines would ever have to get interested in the stuff. Wow, I was really wrong there; little did I realize that carbon dioxide is just like the comet in Deep Impact or the asteroid in Armageddon. It’s a serious threat. And this time, it’s not a movie (“Inconvenient Truth” not withstanding).

(As to the class presentation: back in 8th grade, me and another guy had to give a short lecture about the growth of industry in China. So after gleaning a few facts about China from an encyclopedia, we got some balsa wood and built a model of a factory. Then we got some pipes and hoses and plastic containers, and rigged up a way to get hot water into a container with dry ice. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. The concentrated carbon dioxide gasses that were given off as the dry ice melted in the water then came up thru the chimneys of the little factory, looking just like smoke. As such, we were releasing carbon dioxide and contributing to global warming. Little did we realize just how accurate our little Chinese factory model was!)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:45 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
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Trite, but that don’t mean it ain’t true.

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Saturday, August 5, 2006
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I was in the mood for some scientific thought today, so I perused the Scientific American web site. I came across two articles of note.

First, this one about “Folk Science”. What is folk science? Is it anything like “polk salad”? (Remember that old song “Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White? Well, never mind.) No, folk science is what the average person thinks about things. Frequently, the way that the average person thinks about things is scientifically correct. The process of evolution gave human beings proper senses for perceiving things of certain sizes; basically from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a mountain. These are things that we can see, things we can smell, things that we can get our hands on (or walk over, in the case of a mountain). We also have a pretty good notion of the kinds of energy reactions that affect these things, e.g. fire, freezing cold, sunlight, lightening, hand power and horse power.

But our senses weren’t designed to get a handle on the biggest and smallest things of the universe. Therefore, in the days before science, it seemed logical that the earth was flat, that lightening was caused by a god or gods, that disease was triggered by some kind of an “evil spirit”, that the sun popped up out of the flat earth in the morning and settled back down into it in the evening. That was and is what folk science is all about.

The point of the article is that even today, even with all of the progress that science has made and all it has done for humankind, there is still a deeply inbreed tendency within many people toward folk science. For example, some of us think that we can cure ourselves when we get sick based on a story of what worked for someone else (the scientific method says that you have to test something on a whole lot more than one person to conclude that it is an effective cure; and you have to ask if there is something different between you and the other person). Hey, admittedly, I’ve done this too.

But generally I believe in science and the scientific method. Most people who read Scientific American (or have at least heard of it) probably do so themselves. And yet, a writer in Scientific American sees fit to give us a lecture about the evils of folk science. What are we, the SciAm faithful, doing wrong? Well, a lot of reasonably intelligent people still believe in God, and still think that our consciousness and self-awareness is something more than a set of neurons in the brain responding to stimuli in a programmed fashion, much like a computer. That’s getting the Scientific American editorial board a bit miffed, I think (although the article doesn’t directly mention God). And on this frontier, I would have to warn Scientific American and the science establishment to “back off”.

Science knows a whole lot; it’s amazing what science understands or at least knows something about. But it seems to me that scientists do not fully appreciate the fact that they do NOT know everything. In fact, they don’t know all that much about the simplest and most basic questions that philosophers have pondered for centuries (e.g., why was the world divided into solids, liquids and gasses? Why not four or five kinds of stuff, or why not only two?). It seems to be more and more fashionable these days amidst scientists to herald themselves as atheists. To be taken seriously as a neuro-consciousness researcher, you pretty much have to profess your disbelief in any and every notion of a higher power. To me, that starts to sound like bias. I.e., answering the question before all of the empirical evidence is in.

Generally, “folk science” leads common folk to believe in God. But today’s scientists seem to be developing their own folk science, based on atheism. To me, that’s just as intellectually disingenuous as “the leap of faith”. No, actually more so. The leapers at least admit that they’re leaping. The scientists seem to be above that. I’d have a whole lot more respect for the SciAm crowd if they ‘fessed up to their similarly irrational “leap of disbelief”.

For those of you (those few of you) who have regularly read my ruminations, you know that I generally err on the side of faith, although not without some wavering. But I still have much regard for science. To me, science is still a vision of the good, an instance of humankind responding to something bigger than itself. Each of us has maybe four or five things that really “move us”. Scientific and mathematical thought is certainly on my list.

So, I was taken by another article about a scientist named Alain Conne who is using complex mathematical theories regarding geometry to come up with a potential “theory of everything”, one that rivals the elegance and power of string theory. Yea, geometry and topology — the theory of shapes and surfaces — is a very understated area of math and science. I’m looking for a good popular-level book on it.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I remember reading how useful the study of shapes and surfaces is for science. But I didn’t take it seriously. Now, 35 years later, I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve read about how science is using shape analogies to gain an understanding of some really important theoretical stuff. Einstein’s relativity theories about gravity are now taught in terms of “the heavy ball on the rubber surface”. This ain’t merely to show what gravity does to time-space; it’s meant to show what gravity and time-space ARE, or at least are like. Non-Euclidian geometry (where you get beyond the basic geometry of straight lines and right angles that we are used to, i.e. the geometry of “folk science”) allows inquiries to be made about worlds with 7 dimensions where time can run backward and forward. And about the quantum world, which is even weirder.

So it’s pretty cool to read about how geometry is being used to help test and answer some of the hairiest problems about the “Standard Model” of sub-atomic particles. But as a “man of possible faith”, I do need to leave you with a bit of Pythagoras and his “music of the spheres”. Pythagoras sought ways to blend the “mystery of the divine” with common-sense rational thought, including much mathematical thought about space and shapes. He was actually pretty nutty, despite the good solid math ideas that he left behind. But I still hold out hope that we will someday hear the “song of God” — yes, the real, industrial-strength God, the God of Christian, Islamic and Jewish folklore — in the midst of our non-Euclidian geometric equations. As Pythagoras would have liked.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, August 3, 2006
Uncategorized ...

We’re just coming out of a heat wave here on the East Coast, which has reduced my enthusiasm regarding just about everything, including this log. But I’ll give it a try. Let’s see, what’s on my mind right now: well, just a lamentation about all the war that’s going on in the world these days, especially in the Middle East. It’s too bad that everyone cannot grow up to think of themselves primarily as citizens of the planet Earth and members of the human race. We’re still hard-wired to pledge our loyalty to some relatively small sub-set, i.e. to a tribe. We’re still tribal, not global. Our primary loyalties are to the people of a particular area, or a particular race, or a particular set of beliefs. It still seems better to most everyone on this planet to identify their loyalties and their economic and political interests with some tribe. And that is so unfortunate.

(Once again, Marx is proved wrong. Old Karl said that our true nature is in our “species being”, in our final unity with people of all kinds. He didn’t get out too much, did he.)

The basic frame of mind for human beings is one of tribal competition, not global cooperation. Any half-witted mathematician who understands game theory could easily prove to you that there would be more to share if everyone adopted the cooperation viewpoint. Fighting for land and wealth and privileges appears to maximize each family’s well-being, in the short term. But in the end, cooperation and trust would cause the pie to be bigger; thus there would be more to share. Unfortunately, we live in a short-term world. So the Jews and the Palestinians keep on fighting, the Jews and the Shiites are going at it in Lebanon, the Shiites and the Sunnis are having a donnybrook in Iraq; and men keep teaching their young sons and daughters that this is the way it all has to be. If only science could find a way to change the human brain, toward cooperation and away from aggression.

The free-market people might argue that aggression spurs innovation and economic growth, which causes the economic pie to grow faster, which should cause everyone to be more satisfied and thus more willing to let bygones be bygones. Yea, well — the Middle East has been, and will continue to be, the true test for that sort of thinking. Lockheed and Boeing are making all sorts of $$$ from these wars, based on hi-tech capitalistic innovations. But I don’t hear of much “trickle down” benefit from their prosperity reaching the masses in Ramallah and Tyre. The only thing that seems to trickle down in those places is their laser-guided munitions.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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