Adolescent Sexuality, Authenticity, Bad Ideas, Being True To Yourself, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Education, Equality, Ethics, Eudaimonia, Feminism, Free Spirit, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Fun, Happiness, Horniness, Human Nature, Ideas, Judgementalism, Justice, Learning, Life, Living, Love, Lovers, Memes, Morals, Oppression, Passion, Play, Pleasure, Poetry, Political Issues, Politicians and Scoundrels, Politics, Quality of Life, Relationships, Self-determination, Self-Flourishing, Sex, Sexuality, Shame, Society, Teaching, The Spanish Woman, Truth, Values, Well Being

The Right of Young Women to be Pleasured

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul’s take on the notion that young women posses a right to demand their lovers make a reasonable effort to pleasure them.

♦♦♦

THE CRITICS SING! “I challenge any honest and decent man or woman to read, ‘The Right of Young Women to be Pleasured’ without it causing their moral conscience to wail like an entire band of banshees.”  —  Merriweather Sterling, Blogs of the Day, “The Daily Burtie”, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England, UK.

THE CRITICS RHAPSODIZE! “Sunstone published today, and Christ wept. It has become time to end Heaven’s and the World’s suffering. The guillotine must be returned to its proper use tout de suite.” — Aloyse Leblanc, Le Critique Passionné de Blog, “La Tribune Linville”, Linville, France.

Continue reading “The Right of Young Women to be Pleasured”

Bad Ideas, Belief, Creative Thinking, Cultural Traits, Culture, Education, Friends, Human Nature, Ideas, Intelligence, Knowledge, Learning, Life, Living, Love, Lovers, Memes, Poetry, Quality of Life, Society, Teaching, Thinking, Truth

A Flock of Sparrows for Majel: “The Walls of All My Boxes are Brown”

A Flock of Sparrows for Majel

(About a 2 minute read)

I’ve come to believe most of my “thinking”
Is nothing much more than exploring
the insides of my boxes.

The boxes my mother, my teachers, my peers,
My friends, my culture, and that old guy
Who lived up on the hill in the Victorian,
Gave me mostly when I was growing up,
Something fun to play around inside of.
Something fun for me to play around inside of.

Continue reading “A Flock of Sparrows for Majel: “The Walls of All My Boxes are Brown””

Bad Ideas, Citizenship, Class War, Community, Competence, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Democracy, Education, Equality of Opportunity, Freedom and Liberty, Ideologies, Intellectual Honesty, Knowledge, Learning, Life, Living, Obligations to Society, People, Political Issues, Politics, Privilege, Quality of Life, Skeptical Thinking, Society, Talents and Skills, Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Tomoko, Values

The Value of a Teacher

SUMMARY: Teachers in the US are poorly compensated for the work in comparison to teachers in Japan.  Outside of the best public schools and elite private schools, students are educated to become loyal, obedient citizens with adequate job skills.  This contrasts sharply with earlier educational goals in America.

(About an 8 minute read)

My second wife, Tomoko, spent her early years in Tokyo, Japan.  She attended an elite school whose students were mainly the sons and daughters of government and corporate leaders.

Tomoko’s father, for instance, was an American on loan from Motorola to Sony who headed up Sony’s East Asian quality control during the years Japanese goods became synonymous with “quality”.   Her cousin, who tutored her growing up, was at one point the head of North American sales for Toyota.  His major accomplishment was taking Toyota products from about 6% of the car market in the US to over 22%.

Continue reading “The Value of a Teacher”

Advice, Education, Health, Learning, Life, Living, Mental and Emotional Health, Teacher, Teaching

One Good Reason to Help People

SUMMARY: Psychologists treating their patients might be curing themselves by doing so.  This seems related to the often remarked upon fact that teachers learn subjects they teach especially well compared to subjects they don’t teach.

(About a 2 minute read)

Sometime in my sophomore or junior year at university some 40 years ago, I began to notice something.  All the psychology students — at least the ones who planned to go into clinical practice — were a bit messed up, a bit more dysfunctional than seemed the average student.

At first I was suspicious that I might be misjudging them, but when I spoke with others about it, they usually agreed with me.  Then one day, I was talking with a psyche student and she brought it up on her own.  It was a common joke among psyche students, she said, that they were more messed up than the people they would treat upon graduation.

Continue reading “One Good Reason to Help People”

Abuse, Alienation, Alienation From Self, Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Community, Cultural Traits, Culture, Education, Family, Free Spirit, Happiness, Human Nature, Life, Political and Social Alienation, Quality of Life, Relationships, Religion, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self Interest, Self-determination, Self-Knowledge, Self-Realization, Society, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Talents and Skills, Teaching, Values, Work

Divorcing Our Self from Our Self

(About a 7 minute read)

Shortly following university, I discovered I had a remarkably alarming problem: I had prudently made firm, long-term plans to eat during my life, but I was rapidly running out of money with which to buy groceries.  Some quick computer calculations showed beyond doubt that I would be out of eats significantly before my ideal lifespan had been reached.

I laid wise plans to rob old ladies of their Social Security checks.

Continue reading “Divorcing Our Self from Our Self”

Al, Attila, Brotherly Love, Coffee Shop Folks, Coffee Shop Stories, Community, Cultural Traits, Culture, Education, Ethics, Friends, Giving, Human Nature, Learning, Life, Logic, Meaning, Morals, Obligations to Society, People, Quality of Life, Relationships, Religion, Society, Teaching, Values

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Apathy, Art, Attachment, Bad Ideas, Belief, Boredom, Cultural Traits, Culture, Happiness, Human Nature, Humor, Ideologies, Impermance, Irony, Knowledge, Late Night Thoughts, Life, Memes, Oppression, Poetry, Quality of Life, Relationships, Science, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Society, Subjective Verification, Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Truth

Late Night Thoughts: Scam-Sharks, Poetry, Blogging, Rebirth, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Grey skies, greyer rain.
We shelter our hearts
Together you and I
Beneath our bright
Yellow umbrella.

◊◊◊

Where are the best blogs?  I’ve come across several in the past few weeks, but not nearly enough to slake my depraved thirst for other folk’s  pleasantly twisted, often unique, vibrantly creative, or revealingly truthful perspectives on all things life.

If you know of any great blogs that fit any of those descriptions — or for that matter, are great and snerklesome in any other way — please link me to them!  I’d love to check them out!

 ◊◊◊

A young man, about 20 I would guess, recently told me that we know we are right when “the voice within” confirms we are right.  He was responding to another person’s question, “How do we know when something is true?”

I think, from what I’ve heard and read, that the notion we can discern the truth or falsity of an idea merely according to whether or not some “inward voice” tells us that it sits well with us, or feels right or true to us, is a popular one these days.

Frankly, I also suspect it is evidence of a disturbing lack of a competent education.  If that young man honestly didn’t graduate from high school knowing how — at least in principle — to sort what is true or from what isn’t true, he should consider suing his school board for negligent injury and malpractice, and name his teachers as co-defendants.

He should go for blood, too!  Settle for nothing less than hundreds of thousands.  It’s arguable that part of the foundation of any decent education is to learn what makes something true or not.

Whether the law will actually allow him to file such a suit is almost irrelevant to the fact that he does honestly deserve compensation — if he was not himself somehow to blame for being left ignorant of how to judge whether or not something is true.

He deserves it because he’s almost certainly going to pay for it again and again in the currency of messed up life decisions until he does learn.

Every politician and scam-shark out there can already smell his blood.

◊◊◊

I confess.  As you probably suspected, I just now cheerfully made up the newborn word, “snerklesome”.  I have no idea what it should mean.  Do you?  Suggestions, please!

◊◊◊

Without You

If I had this day to own
I think I could sit here for an hour
With nothing more important
Than coffee and this pen
And how much better living’s been
Without you.

I don’t do a lot these days —
It’s so crazy, but it’s fun
Just recalling what I’m missing
Without you.

It ain’t about good or bad
Or anything so grim —
I remember well your beauty —
But the mornings still have been
Lighter now without you.

◊◊◊

Is the desire for rebirth, renewal a human universal?  It seems ubiquitous enough: It’s found in every culture and society that I myself know of.  Perhaps it really is a universal, or nearly universal, trait of humans.

◊◊◊

I really do need more blogs to read.   “Please, sir, I want some more.”

(Silence)

“What? More?  The boy wants more?” Said the master bloggers in unison and disbelief.

“That boy will be hung”, said the author of a science blog. “I know that boy will be hung.”

◊◊◊

The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  — Kenko, Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa).

Sometime around the age of 50, I began to notice how predictable, repetitious, and boring life was becoming for me.  The weariness took hold gradually, but steadily grew over the next several years until it reached something of a crisis in that I was becoming lethargic and dissatisfied under the weight of it.

Ironically, those years were still the happiest of my life up until that time.  Yet the boredom rose and began to threaten that happiness.  What to do?

I would prefer to tell you now that I found the perfect solution, but I didn’t, and I still haven’t.  I have, however, managed to greatly reduce the problem through more than one means, most of them commonsense (“Try new things”, “Break at least some of your routines”,  “Turn to the arts and sciences for fresh ideas and ways of seeing”,  “Start a guerilla war with the kids on your lawn”, etc.).  Some of them, however, are perhaps a little bit more than commonsense.

When I came across Kenko several years ago, I was struck by two things.  First, the novelty of his view of uncertainty.  Most of us, I think, are annoyed by uncertainty.  We even seem to run from it.  For instance, how often do we embrace all too tightly beliefs about the world that we cannot possibly — if we were honest with ourselves — be that certain of?  And how often do we cling to old, outdated, now worthless habits and routines for no better reason than they make our days more predictable?  We are usually inclined, I believe, to view uncertainty as anything but “precious”.

So Kenko’s view of uncertainty first struck me for a view I’d never come across before.  And in the second place, it struck me for a view I didn’t understand.  Why did he think uncertainty was so precious?  Was he really seeing something?  Something I myself had never seen before?   If so, then what could it be?

Something I’ve become acutely aware of is how we tend to turn to stone over the years: To ossify in our beliefs, daily activities, relationships, and self-identities and images.  Indeed, I’ve written about how and why our self-image can become our greatest tyrant and oppressor here.  The problem is that it does very little good to merely say to ourselves, “Don’t do it!”  That’s about as effective in practice as “Just abstain until marriage” sex-ed.

What has worked best for me to solve the ossification problem is to look for uncertainties in my self-images or self-identities.  Seeing how uncertain my notions of myself are has significantly helped me to hold at least many of those notions tentatively, lightly.  It even seems to me now that a lightness of heart or spirit begins with a lightness of self-image.

Thank you, Kenko.  You got me to barking up the right trees, sniffing the right crotches, for an at least partial solution to my problem.

◊◊◊

Is there an absolute reality?

That’s a bit different from asking if there’s an absolute truth.   Ideas are like maps, reality is like the terrains the maps refer to, and truth is a quality of the relationships between the maps and their terrain.  So when we ask, “Is there an absolute reality”, we are not really asking if there is an absolute truth.

Without an absolute reality, the notion of ever knowing all there is to know about the universe becomes impossible, even in theory.
Yet, would that be a good or a bad thing?
◊◊◊

Artists of all kinds so often think they must seek out new truths.  Perhaps their most vital service to us, however, is to make old, solid, and well-known truths once again visible to us.

For such old truths have become clichés, and few of us see much beyond the surface of a cliché, see it fresh, and as if for the first time.  Consequently, old truths so frequently have less impact than they should (for our own sake) have on our views, actions, and attitudes.

◊◊◊

Recently, I saw a man in anger destroy nearly at once several friendships that only moments before were important to him.  He did it because he felt slighted by two or three individuals, and to retaliate, he entirely broke off relations with a whole small group of people, and not just the two or three members of the group who he felt had slighted him.

“A man can only take so much”, he said.

But it was not the man who suffered the slights, it was the ego in the man who suffered the slights.  A more rational thing to have done might have been to look more deeply into the matter, for when someone slights you, they either do so accidentally, or with just cause, or with injustice.

If accidentally, forgive them.  If just, apologize and forgive them.  If with injustice, dump them and forgive them (Forgiveness is not for their sake, but for yours.  It’s unhealthy to carry around a grudge).  But whatever you do, don’t lose friendships valuable to you over such slights.  The poor fool was a puppet of his pride.

◊◊◊

We make too much of beliefs.

We are taught to make too much of them by our cultures, and then we never seem to get around to de-programming ourselves of such an insidious notion.  We are even taught that we are our beliefs.  That they are the very substance of our selves.  But a self made out of beliefs — no matter how profound those beliefs are — is a shallow, superficial self.

For beliefs — even when true — are no more than the maps we use to negotiate reality, and just like paper maps, they are not at all the reality they refer to.  A person who thinks his or her beliefs are their selves is like a hiker who thinks the trail map they hold in their hands is the trail itself.  You can’t lose your virginity by reading a textbook in biology, and you can’t really know yourself if all you know are your beliefs about yourself.

Beliefs should be worn lightly, tentatively, hesitantly.  They should never become balls and chains on our ankles.  How, then, can we dance light-heartedly through life?

◊◊◊

I Remember

I remember
Laughing under summer skies —
Would have thought we could fly —
And the winds pass on by.

I remember
Holding hands while the river flowed —
Came a time to let you go —
And the waters pass on by.

Now for all that I know
You have a good life
Filled with the stars,
The sun, and the trees.

But all that I do know —
It’s the life you should have,
So beautiful
You were to me.

Allies, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Belief, Competence, Education, Epistemology, Honesty, Human Nature, Ideologies, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligence, Knowledge, Learning, Liars Lies and Lying, Logic, Obligations to Society, People, Political Ideologies, Psychology, Reason, Scientific Method(s), Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Truth, Values, Village Idiots

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.

Education, From Around the Net, Human Nature, Knowledge, Learning, Neuroscience, Outstanding Bloggers, Science, Scientist, Stolen From The Blogosphere, Teacher, Teaching

“What is it Like Teaching and Doing Research at a University?”

(About a 2 minute read)

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:

Jon Horvitz is a professor and neurosciences researcher at the City University of New York.  He also happens to have been a frequent reader of Cafe Philos, back before I put this blog in a six year hiatus, and he is still one of my favorite commentators of all time because of the many insights he shared. 

Jon keeps a blog called, Brain, Mind, and Other Things, that he describes as, “a ‘here’s-something-funny-that-happened-to-me’ or an ‘i-can’t-stop-thinking about-this-idea’ blog”.  I am quite pleased today to re-post here a recent, short article that he wrote for his blog.   When I read it, the article immediately struck me for its unusual, counter-stereotypical view of scientists.  After all, scientists are commonly looked upon as experts, wholly knowledgeable in their fields; but as Jon points out, that’s not how a researcher is likely to actually think or feel about themselves!  Please enjoy Jon’s thought-provoking post…

I told the students in my class Mind, Brain, and Experience that we don’t really know most things about neuroscience. That really the feeling of being a scientist isn’t the feeling of knowing lots of stuff. It’s the feeling of not knowing something that you’re interested in. Kind of like not understanding a new relationship with someone who’s important to you. It’s the feeling of scratching your head and saying ‘I wonder how this works’, and saying to your grad student ‘How do you think it works?’, and doing an experiment that probably doesn’t reveal the answer completely, but maybe reveals a little bit about the shape of the thing.

When I was in college, the professors I had all seemed to know so much. They seemed to be looking out from a high peak at the landscape below. But that’s not the feeling at all. At least for neuroscientists, maybe all scientists. It’s more the feeling of looking up at a huge waterfall, and not being able to see the top of it. You don’t know where the water’s coming from, and you’re not sure how to get to the top so you can see where it’s coming from. Is there a road that you can drive and get high enough to find out? There’s no map. You don’t even see a road, just a lot of vegetation all around. Someday someone might find a way to get to the top, but probably not in your lifetime. And instead of discovering the origin of the waterfall you’d like to discover something important about the brain and the mind, like how neural activity gives rise to thoughts, or even how the brain allows us to form habits that we can carry out almost without awareness.

You spend part of your work hours sharing what you know about the field with the undergraduates taking your class (and i love my CCNY students). Then you go back to thinking about pieces of experimental research findings that don’t fit together well, and wonder how you might find out more about the waterfall.

Authenticity, Education, Eric, Ethics, Fantasy Based Community, Free Spirit, Intellectual Honesty, Internet, Learning, Morals, People, Reality Based Community, Teaching, Values

What the Hell is Wrong with Eric?

Every now and then, I try to learn patience from Eric.  I’ve known Eric since he was an underclassman in high school habitually sneaking out of his parent’s house at night to visit a friend.  Eventually, the friend became his wife.  The two of them combined have enough brain power to light a small city, but what really marks the couple in my opinion is something that marks a lot of less intelligent couples — they are fundamentally decent people.  Kind, compassionate, open-minded, and honest people.

If there is any significant difference between Eric and his wife, it might be that Eric is significantly more patient than her.  I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on that, but Eric is significantly more patient than most people.  So, it seems possible he might even be more patient than his wife.

As it happens, Eric needs every ounce of patience he can get, because he has a trying hobby.  Eric likes to go online to engage Creationists, Climate Change Deniers, and many other often willfully ignorant people in rational, evidence-based debate.  And he’s amazing to watch.

The “Deniers” — for they are all deniers, in a way — inject whole oceans of nonsense into the threads.  Stuff like Darwin recanted his Theory of Evolution on his deathbed.  There is no consensus on climate change among climatologists.  Or, public health care systems are more expensive than private ones.   I no longer bother with such folks other than — at times — to demand they cite peer-reviewed sources.  When they refuse (often enough in a huff) to cite peer-review sources, I ask them to drop the subject or move on.  But now and then, I wish I had Eric’s patience.

He is all but unfailing polite — even courteous.  He sticks to well grounded evidence woven together by hard logic, and he does not indulge himself in personal attacks.  He does not condescend, but treats everyone with dignity.  He looks for what little common ground he can find.  When he makes a mistake — as we all do — he readily admits it.  And he does that stuff almost regardless of how inane his opponent’s points or reasoning become.

Don’t take away from this the notion Eric is perfect.  He is not.  He screws up now and then.  He sometimes betrays his own values. But I’m pretty sure he’s more often like I’ve described him than not.

In other words, Eric has so many of the virtues of a gentleman that I am left with no other option but to conclude he’s nuts.  The man is bonkers.  A lunatic.  Almost no one behaves like him anymore, and by 2015, he threatens to be the last true gentleman left on the internet — the last one of us able to hold his own while showing an appalling generosity of spirit.  Like any true gentleman, Eric is no push-over, but in light of today’s hyper-aggressive society, he appears to be…unusual.

Which raises the question, are his values really increasingly rare? Are there more or fewer people who practice those values today than there were, say, a few decades ago?  And were those values ever widely held to begin with?

Last, can you learn such values — can they be taught — or are you born with them?

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“The West Talks, The East Walks”

In spiritual matters, the West talks, the East walks.  Of course, that’s a gross simplification, but it is to some extent true enough.

For instance: The thing that impresses me most about the official morality of the Roman Catholic Church is how the theology of it — the theoretical basis for its morality —  is this vast and imposing Gothic cathedral constructed of incredibly elaborate logic and reasoning.  The Cathedral is set for all to see on the top of a large hill.  And people do see it — at least now and then — and they are often duly impressed, even intimidated, by what they see.

But who lives there?  Who actually lives in a Cathedral?  I know plenty of people worship in them, but I don’t know of many people who actually live in them.

I think that is too often the case with official Roman Catholic morality — it is an ideal.  Even when it somehow impresses us, awes us, it remains an ideal.  We might venerate the ideal, but we do not live it.

But how many Zen masters do you know of who are that merely idealistic?

I had occasion to wonder about all of that yesterday — after reading a post by the always acidic PZ Meyers.

If, when it comes to criticisms of religion, you are accustomed to the 5% or 10% acid solutions that you might find, say, on this blog;  or even if you are accustomed to the 30% acid solutions that you might find in the writings of Richard Dawkins, then it is still possible you might have no concept whatsoever of the fuming concentrations PZ Meyers is capable of.

Yesterday, I read one of the mildest posts I’ve ever seen PZ Meyers write about religion.  And I will quote from that post in a moment.  It is so mild only an exceptionally thin-skinned person would be offended by it.  Yet, please don’t visit his blog expecting that weak level of acidity to be the norm.

The background here is that Meyers got hold of a lavishly reasoned blog post by a Roman Catholic theologian, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., on the question of whether “unnatural sexual acts” are  “moral to use as foreplay”  prior to intercourse? In answer to the question,  Conte states:

The expression ‘that use which is against nature’ refers to unnatural sexual acts, such as oral sex, anal sex, or manual sex. Saint Augustine condemns such acts unequivocally. He even states that such unnatural sexual acts are even more damnable (i.e. even more serious mortal sins) when these take place within marriage. For God is even more offended by a sexual mortal sin that takes place within the Sacrament of Marriage, since this offense is not only against nature, but also against a Holy Sacrament.

Now, I have in the past seen Meyers take a passage like that one and rip apart its logic, prior to turning like a hellcat on the author himself.  But yesterday,  Meyers was gentle in his response:

Dang. Well, at least Augustine didn’t explicitly forbid rubber wetsuits, fuzzy handcuffs, vibrating crucifixes, octopus, ceiling-mounted swings, clamps, chocolate pudding, flavored lubricants, Wonder Woman costumes, rubber chickens, exotic headware, whipped cream, video cameras, Silly String, roller skates, trampolines, nitrous oxide, balloon animals, feather boas, ball gags, or bungee cords, or I might be going to hell.

So, I had a laugh, and that probably should have been the end of it.  But it was about then I was possessed to visit Conte’s blog.  Now, it has been decades since I read much theology, and I had forgotten how elaborate, intricate — almost ornate — it can be.  Still, it was for awhile interesting enough.

Yet, I don’t think I can sustain such an interest.  Conte’s theology seems to me speculative, ridiculous, and irrelevant: As an example,  consider his remarks here:

The two consenting adults argument is rejected by Catholicism, not only on sexual ethics, but also on ethics in general, because sin is first and foremost an offense against God. You can sin against God without apparent harm to another person. But from the point of view of faith, sin does do harm to self and neighbor, even if that harm is not readily apparent.

I think such notions are largely groundless.  Any college sophomore could come up with something just as speculative. At best, those notions seem to me ideals.  But even at that, they would be someone else’s ideals.  That is, it is not an ideal of mine to, say, take it on faith that “Sexual Act A” harms both me and my neighbor despite there is not a shred of evidence that is the case.

Yet, if you accept Conte’s argument that he is fairly representing the mainstream thinking of the Roman Catholic Church, then you can easily enough see how such thinking might lead to the Church asserting that, say,  gay marriage harms both gay married couples and their straight neighbors even though there is not a shred of evidence suggesting that is the case.

Someone who was so inclined could easily write a book responding to that one paragraph.  But to me, the bottom line might be that Conte’s theology — at least what very little of it I’ve read — quite often seems as poorly grounded in logic and evidence as when a kid says, “Let’s pretend…”.   The difference might be, the kid knows on some level that he’s merely pretending x is the case.  But does Conte know he’s pretending x is the case?  Does the Church know?  Does the flock know?  And does it really matter that anyone knows?

Roman Catholic morality,  as represented — or possibly misrepresented here — by a tiny sampling, seems to be an ideal.  Granted it is supported by elaborate reasoning, but it is still an ideal.  And, as I’ve tried to point out, such ideals are like cathedrals: However much we might venerate them, most of us don’t live in them.

“The West talks, the East walks.”  Oversimplified as that is, I fear it will be true to a surprising degree so long as the West relies on unrealized theologians while the East relies on realized masters.

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Wild Bill Davenport and His Scientific Method Medicine Show

Some long time ago, one of my best professors, William Davenport, introduced me to the basic scientific method.  Professor Davenport was an extraordinary logician and a philosopher.

He revolutionized my thinking on a number of issues,  and he did so though his voice never in all our conversations deviated from a soft monotone — a monotone I once swore capable of knocking out a busload of screaming cheerleaders on amphetamines.  But to be fair, I was drunk when I swore it.  After I sobered up,  I realized my mistake, and corrected my statement to two busloads.

Despite his voice, Professor Davenport had fully developed the logician’s skill of slicing away fat to reveal the essential ideas.  He could pull a string of logic so tight it would seem like an acrobat might walk his thoughts without a balance pole.  The false and fake never had much chance with him.  And that is precisely what I most needed when I was 19.

I was fresh out of a stifling rural town where it seemed that no one — at least not publicly — pursued their thoughts much beyond their neighbor’s thoughts.  Where everyone lived by the rule that, to get along, you reigned in.  That is, you pulled your thoughts up short even while they were still colts.  You tightly corralled them, though they naturally wanted green pastures.  And the gods help you if you did not break your ideas to the saddle of conformity.

In contrast, Professor Davenport seemed to me — fearless.

Though the first course I took with him — “Introduction to Logic” — met at a bleary-eyed eight in the morning, I could not have been more attentive to his lectures had he paid me for it in gold.  By the third or fourth week, I was certain that logic and evidence — only logic and evidence — were his navigational stars.  And I was beginning to sense how liberating that was, how whole worlds could be discovered — could be braved — steering by those stars.

I threw myself into that course with improbable intensity. Looking back, I realize now I so put myself into it because I was learning more than logic.  I was rising up out of the blinding conformity of my town.   At the same time coming home to a truer home than I’d known before.  In short, I was finding myself.

Professor Davenport not only had a monotone, but he trumped his soft voice with a shy and unassuming personality.   Then too, his boyish build and youthful appearance made him look like a fellow student, rather than an accomplished professor.  Last, he had an almost unnatural ability to at all times, and in every place, appear lost.

Even when you met with him in his office — even right on his home turf — you felt a deep concern to take his hand and lead him to the university’s lost and found.  There was really nothing about the man that spoke of steering by stars to brave new worlds.   Except for the fact he could place ideas before you illuminated like comets by his mind.

I wish now I had kept my notebooks from the courses I took with him.  I would especially like to read his comments on the hypothetico-deductive model of the scientific method.  There is more than one way of describing the model, but I think the simplest is to liken the model to the taunt belly of an erotic pole dancer.

Unfortunately, that is also by far the least accurate way ever invented of describing the hypothetico-deductive model.  I’m not saying who invented such a useless way of describing the model, but it was not Professor Davenport.  A much better — yet simple enough for this blog post — way to describe the hypothetico-deductive model might be:

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information (observe and/or study the observations of other folks)
  3. Form a falsifiable hypothesis (i.e. a hypothesis that could conceivably be demonstrated to be false)
  4. Make a prediction from the hypothesis
  5. Perform an experiment designed to test the prediction
  6. Collect data from the experiment
  7. Analyze and shift out noise in the data
  8. Interpret data  (e.g. does data support or contradict the hypothesis)
  9. Draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  10. Publish results (peer review)
  11. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)
  12. Accept Nobel Prize  (even more frequently done by other scientists)

Although I think the model fails to show how scientists actually practice science, it does seem to me useful to the extent it lays out a bit of the logic of the sciences.   To be sure, the above is not Professor Davenport’s description of the hypothetico-deductive model, but then it’s been about 35 years:  After all that time, I think I should be forgiven even if I were to, say, ridiculously confuse the model with the taunt belly of an erotic pole dancer.   Not that I would, though.

In that introductory course in logic, we began to study the logic of the sciences near the close of the semester.  And it was all over before we had time to complete our studies. But, for me, that hypothetico-deductive model, even half-understood, was the high point of the semester.   I didn’t know at the time how problematic it was.  Instead, I saw in it a method of establishing reliable truths that transcended blind conformity to anyone’s opinion; that relied neither on whim, nor on authority; and which seemed to open many more doors than anything I had been taught before.  I confess, even to this day, I have a fondness for it.

I took a handful of courses with William Davenport, and both because he was such an unassuming man, and because he so deeply impressed me as intellectually fearless, I came to privately think of him as, “Wild Bill”.

Despite the irony, it was an apt name because his courage was the key to him.  You couldn’t really understand Wild Bill without understanding he would go wherever reason took him.  There’s integrity and a kind of authenticity in that.  And like anything that rises above all around it that is merely fake and cheap, that authenticity can inspire others.

I sometimes wonder at people who think only giants can liberate us.  Wild Bill Davenport was in almost all ways an ordinary man.  He was certainly no bigger-than-life-giant: No Moses of the American Midwest.  He was so shy, it took all but an act of will to pay him the attention he deserved.  He was so unassuming, even now, even knowing how he inspired me, even understanding that he helped midwife my intellectual liberation, even today, I cannot think of him as heroic.

But he probably was, in a very genuine way, heroic.  Just not in any way that would obligate you to notice it.  Just not in any giant way.