An Important Message From the Monotheism Relief Fund: Please! We Need Your Help Now!

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised that some of the words in this post may conjure up disturbing images of the profound misery and suffering that can be caused by Abject Theistic Impoverishment, or ATI.

Dear Soul,

Over seven billion people are alive on our wonderful planet today, and for most of us, religion is a rich source of wisdom, security, and comfort. But did you know that is not true for everyone?

Sadly, there are people on this earth who at this very moment live in horribly abject theistic poverty. Decent people. Good people. Perhaps even neighbors of yours. People who mostly through no fault of their own were born into religions that have but a single god! Yes, just one — and only one — god!

Hard as it might be for those of us who are better off to imagine, literally billions of unfortunate people at this very moment are forced to survive their day to day existence living as monotheists! Each night, these poor souls go to bed with only one god to pray to.

Yes, as unimaginable for most of us as it is, billions of theists today exist merely one step away from no gods at all, and the dire heartbreak of atheism! Atheism!  Humanity’s oldest philosophical scourge!  No one deserves to be but one step away from it.  No one!

Can you help?

Here at the Monotheism Relief Fund, we are passionately dedicated to providing blankets, warm clothing, shelter, food, and vital copies of polytheistic literature to the world’s abjectly impoverished monotheists. But we cannot do it all by ourselves. We need your help.

Please donate generously to the Monotheism Relief Fund by calling, 1-800-ANOTHER-SUNSTONE-SCAM now! Have you credit or debit card handy!

Act now and with every donation of $25 USD or more, we might or might not send you a precious four volume copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God — which is veritably an encyclopedia of deities through the ages!

You CAN make a difference! Act now!

Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

Speaking Ill of the Dead

(About a 3 minute read) 

The death this morning of Roger Ailes prompted someone to ask why it is customary in the West to not speak ill of the dead, and whether there was still any merit to the custom.

Ailes, the co-founder of Fox News who for decades was a leading force in conservative politics in America, died this morning at the age of 77.  You can find The New York Times report here.  He was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, one who is certain to be spoken ill of in many quarters today, custom notwithstanding.  And, of course, many people will scold those who do speak ill of him on the grounds that it is neither customary nor seemly to do so.   But is the custom justified?

Like so many Western cultural traits, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead seems to go back to the ancient Greeks.  Around 600 B.C., Chilon of Sparta — one of the “Seven Sages” of ancient Greece — is reputed to have said, “Don’t badmouth the dead”.  Around 2000 years later, during the Italian Renaissance, his words were popularized by a humanist monk as,  “Of the dead, nothing unless good”.  And thus the notion comes down to us today.

I have heard it said that we should not speak ill of the dead in order to honor them, or at least to honor the good they did in life.  But I don’t buy into those notions.   I think there are people who were so vile that honoring them is borderline immoral.  And to honor the good they did amounts to a species of dishonesty in light of the evil they did.

If there is today still some reason not to speak ill of the dead, that reason might have more to do with us than with them.   Death is one of the most poignant and powerful reminders that, in the end, we are all human.  It seems to me that a brief period of grace — perhaps only the time between one’s death and one’s burial — during which we do not speak ill of the deceased would drive home the lesson of our common humanity.

We live in an age in which nearly everyone is at risk of having their humanity denied by other people at sometime or another.  All you need do to see the truth of that is go on anyone of tens of thousands of websites and announce a political opinion that’s unpopular on that site.  Sooner or later thereafter someone — perhaps many people — will vilify you, demonize you, dehumanize you.  And that is a dangerous situation:  At a minimum, it is not conducive to liberal democracy, which rests on compromise; and at worse, wars and genocides are made of such things.  A society — or world — can only hold together when it is widely recognized that our commonalities outweigh our differences.

The remembrance that we all have in common the same ultimate fate would help, I think, to put things in perspective for many of us.   Moreover, a few days in which we do not speak ill of the dead might go far in reminding of us of that.

Having said all that, I think remarkably controversial figures, such as Ailes, present a special problem.  Their deaths almost invariably become political occasions.  There is a rush by politicians, pundits, and others to make use of their passing in order to further agendas.  It might be noble to refrain from criticizing the dead under such circumstances, but certainly, it is not always practical to refrain.

In general, though, I think the practice of not speaking ill of the dead is a good one.  But what do you think?  Your comments, views, thoughts, and feelings are welcome.

Personality and Prediction

(About a 3 minute read)

Around 2500 years ago, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers conceived the notion that nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner.   As it turns out, that’s a rather interesting notion.

Consider, for example, the well-known tendency of thongs to ride up a person’s butt.  Today, we quite easily assume a thong will do that because of impersonal properties and forces.  We do not ascribe the action to the wicked will and personality of thongs — except perhaps in jest.  But the fact we think thongs ride up butts because of the laws of nature — and not because they most wickedly want or desire to ride up butts — is a legacy of the Pre-Socratics.  It was they who pointed out that nature is impersonal and obeys laws.

Modern science rests on that notion (and a hundred other notions).   If we did not today think nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner, it would be impossible for us to do science.

But why hasn’t it always occurred to us that nature is law-like and impersonal?  Why did that particular truth need to be discovered by the Pre-Socratics?  Why wasn’t it always known?

Allow me to suggest that it wasn’t always known because for most of our evolutionary history, we have thought of nature as personal.  Not as law-like and impersonal.  But as personal.

It appears that thinking of things as having a personality is a way in which the human mind predicts what those things will do.  Indeed, it may be our oldest and most traditional way of predicting the future.

When I think that my neighbor is currently cheerful, I have not yet ascribed to him a personality.  But when I think that my neighbor is characteristically cheerful, when I think he is more likely to be cheerful than not, then I have ascribed to him a personality.   To think of someone as having a personality is to predict, to some extent, their future behavior.

It is easy enough to see why an ability to think of people as persons — as having personalities — would be advantageous to survival.  All else being equal, the better you can predict someone’s behavior, the better you can deal with them.   Yet, humans are not merely capable of seeing other humans as having personalities.  Indeed, we are capable of seeing almost anything as having a personality.

You can see this tendency of ours to personify things even today — even 2500 years after the Pre-Socratic philosophers told us nature does not have personalities, but is instead impersonal. It is quite common for people to think of their car or their computer as having a personality.  Or the weather.   It’s possible that many of us live with one foot in an ancient world where natural things have personalities and with one foot in a somewhat more modern world where natural things are impersonal.

So perhaps it took us so long to invent or discover the notion that nature is law-like and impersonal because our species has traditionally thought of things as having personalities.  If that’s true, then it would not seem intuitive to us to think of nature as law-like and impersonal.

At any rate, just an afternoon thought.


Originally published September 24, 2009.

Diane

(About a 7 minute read)

Diane had a wicked sense of humor.  Usually, she didn’t repeat jokes she had heard, but rather made them up on the spot.  But besides being creative, she was quite level-headed and down to earth.

She was the evening manager of a fast food restaurant.  After we’d gotten to know each other, I took to staying late in my office so I could drop by her restaurant around seven or eight o’clock on the nights she worked.  We’d sit together in the dining room for two or three hours until the restaurant closed.

Diane had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen on anyone, a pretty good figure for someone who’d had two children, and dirty blond hair.  Her facial features included high cheekbones and an angular chin.  I think Diane’s most beautiful feature after her eyes was her grin. It was wide and generous.

Our conversations were rarely serious, or at least not wholly serious.  Once, Diane soberly mentioned she’d been raised in a nondenominational Christian church before becoming an agnostic around the age of 18 or so.  Somehow that quickly led to a flood of jokes about preaching.  Yet, there were almost always truths wrapped within the jokes — insights into each other’s lives, views, and values.

One of the very few times when we discussed something that neither one of us laughed at occurred about a year after we’d met.  As usual we were sitting in the restaurant when, for some reason I’ll never know, Diane’s mood abruptly changed.  “There’s something I want to tell you, Paul, but it has to be a secret between us.”

“Sure”, I said a bit too casually.

“No a real secret.  You can’t tell anyone.”

“I promise”, I said, becoming attentive.  After searching my face, Diane glanced away, as if gathering her thoughts.

“When I was seven years old, Paul, someone in my family taught me to give him blowjobs.  He’d pay me a quarter.  I’m not sure why, but I want you to know that about me.”

“God!  I mean…God!”  I was too shocked to say more at the moment.  “What…Who was it?” I finally asked.

“I don’t want to tell you who”, she spoke calmly,  “But it messed with me.  When I started having sex, I couldn’t at first take pleasure in it.  I thought I was fridged.  It took me a long time to learn how to enjoy it.”   Diane went on to describe how she’d overcome her initial inability to take pleasure in sex.  As she spoke, I became aware of the emphasis she was placing on her success at healing herself, and the almost casual way she now seemed to all but dismiss the early abuse of her.

“Diane…”  I paused, searching for the right words.  “A handful of women have told me about being abused as children, but I think you’re the only one I know who has gone so far in overcoming the problems it caused them.”  Diane thanked me for my understanding, and for the first time since she had begun her story, she smiled.  “It’s been quite a journey, Paul.”  Her smile, I realized, was one of victory.

Our evenings together lasted about two years.  During that time I came to regard Diane as my best friend in the city.  I wondered if she felt the same about me.  One night I decided to test her interest by suggesting we go to a movie that weekend.  She enthusiastically agreed.

When Saturday night came, however, she was late showing up at my apartment, where we’d arranged to meet.  A couple hours went by, and then another.  Finally, she called.  She was on her way, and would be there in 30 minutes.  Yet, by the time she arrived, it was too late to go to a movie, so we sat on opposite ends of my couch making small talk.

At some point during the evening, I decided on an impulse that it would be a wonderfully good idea to tongue her ear, so I casually crossed over to her end of the couch, and proceeded to do just that.  As it happened that was indeed a wonderfully good idea because her ears were among her erogenous zones, and she was quickly overcome with pleasure, which I thought was yet another wonderfully good idea.

We then spent the next six or so hours walloping each other with pleasure in every way we could imagine to do so.  Afterwards, she fell asleep in my arms for about an hour and a half until I had to wake her up, for she was pulling a double shift that day by working both the day and the night shifts.

Late in the evening of the day after our love-making, I drove over to her restaurant, parked my car, walked up to the door of the restaurant, and observed Diane behind the counter talking to a co-worker while grinning ear to ear and laughing uproariously.

It was the last time I would hear her laughter for several months.

The moment she caught sight of me, the happiness in her face popped out of existence almost as fast as it takes to snap your fingers. It was replaced by an expression of pure worry, and she placed her hand over her stomach as if something felt wrong with it.

I think I might have turned to look behind me to discover what had caused the change in her expression, because I couldn’t imagine it would be me, but I can’t entirely recall now whether or not I did.   At any rate, when we spoke to each other, she quickly asked me to go back to my car and wait for her.  I did.

It was a long wait.  Naturally, I had no clue what it all meant.  And I was pretty anxious when she at last came up to my car to kneel beside it and speak to me through the open window.

“I’m sorry I made you wait so long, but I was hoping you would leave so I wouldn’t need to speak to you.  Please, Paul, forgive me for being a coward.”

Leave?  Forgive? Coward?  I didn’t understand a word she said.

She went on, “All day today, I was happy.  I didn’t think about last night even once, but then I saw you and my stomach instantly dropped to my feet.  I’ve never felt it sink that fast and low before in my life.   That’s how I learned something was wrong, very wrong about what we did last night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was now hearing.  I stumbled out some question about whether last night’s sex had been that bad.

“No”, she said, “Honestly, Paul, that was some of the best sex of my life.”

I was now totally lost.  Some of the best sex of her life?  The worse sinking feeling she’d could remember having?  Nothing in what she said was aligning well enough to make sense, but it was just dawning on me that she was in the process of dumping me.

“You made me feel like a slut, Paul.”  She didn’t say it accusingly, but she said it with sad conviction.  “That was our first date and we should not have had sex.  We should have waited.  I can’t live with being reminded that I’m a slut, and you remind me of that.  That’s got to be the reason my stomach fell when I saw you.  It has to be.  I have never felt so guilty and ashamed in my life.”

Now to put all of the above in context, this was the first completely irrational thing I’d heard from Diane.  It wasn’t like her to run around with a tin foil hat on and a club for beating off alien abductors.  She was in my experience, always a reasonable person right up until that night.

I was so surprised I could think of nothing to say besides, “What do you want me to do?”

“Please leave. Please go home.  And please don’t come back unless I call you back. I think the best way I can get over it is alone.”

I drove off that night without having said a thing to change her mind.  I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything that might persuade her she was being unreasonable, let alone persuade her to relent.

We didn’t see each other again for several months, but we eventually got together again a few times — albeit never sexually.  I was unsure of her now — too unsure to want sex with her.  But I wasn’t angry with her, and I bore no grudge against her.  Diane’s irrational behavior had been incomprehensible to me,  and — instead of resenting her dumping me — I came to feel a bit sorry for her.  Whatever had provoked her behavior was a mystery to me, but she was above all a friend — I was unwilling to condemn her for it.

I am still not entirely certain what her rejection was all about, but in the intervening decades I’ve come to know a great deal more about the likely long term effects of childhood sexual abuse.  Although I will never really know, it seems plausible to me now that the abuse of her lay behind her behavior towards me.  One thing I do know:  The victims of child abuse do not merely include the children themselves, but everyone who will ever love those children at any point in their lives — from childhood through old age — so long as any fallout from the abuse still remains.

It’s been decades since I last saw Diane, and I imagine, having known her, that she has worked out over time all or almost all of the problems the abuse of her caused.  She seems to have had a genius for that.  But I cannot imagine she’s paid anything but a heavy price, no matter how successful she’s been in the end.