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Late Night Thoughts (Reposted from February 20, 2011)

There are few noises at this hour.   A car passes in the distance.  The house creaks.  The furnace starts.  I have not heard a dog bark in hours.


…”It is really annoying when people, particularly those in positions of power, can’t even be bothered to take the trouble to lie well.” — Yves Smith.


…To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.


…It seems what’s happening in Wisconsin is part of the class war in America that’s been going on for sometime now.  As Warren Buffett pointed out, the war was begun by members of his class, and his class is winning it.

Unfortunately, if rich billionaires like the Koch brothers win the Wisconsin round in the class war, that means they will have managed to break the Wisconsin public service unions.  And if they manage to do that, then the Democratic party will be left as nothing more than a paper man in that state.


…The other day, I noticed an advertisement that claimed the Bible was, of all the world’s wisdom literature, the most profound.  Now, I’ve heard that claim made before in various ways and places.  But, I confess, I have never understood why anyone would make that claim.

As wisdom literature, the Bible seems to have been often surpassed. And not just by many of the ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, or Chinese authors.  But also by more modern authors.

To give some of the Biblical authors credit, though, their concern for social, political, and economic justice was remarkable for their time, and — thankfully — very influential on the West.


…There seems to be a sense in which almost all complex, hierarchical societies — even going as far back as to the origin of complex, hierarchical societies some 5,500 years ago — have been scams.   Moreover, it’s been the same scam perpetrated again and again.  And, in essence, that scam has been to fool the masses into believing the society’s elites have the backing of a supernatural order.


…There are many people in this god-drunk town who cast their blurry vision on science and declare that it, too, is a religion.  The last drunk to tell me that declared, as his reasoning, “Religions are based on beliefs. Science is based on beliefs. Therefore, science is a religion.”

By precisely the same “logic”, “Cats are furry.  Dogs are furry.  Therefore, dogs are cats.”

But, even if his reasoning was logically valid — which it is not, unless dogs are cats — what would not then become a religion?  Indeed, even one’s overwhelming desire to take a shower after hearing him espouse his drunken  “logic” would, according to his drunken  “logic”,  become a religious act.


Just now, a motorcycle started up, then sped off.  In the day, it would be just another cycle.  But in the night, it seems a story in itself.


…Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

Now, when we fall in love, she sooner or later challenges our maps…

And, if our love survives those challenges, there’s a chance that our love is true.


…Tonight, I came across in a faded notebook a line from a poem I once wrote to a woman: “No one has made me wish / To face with grace the challenge / of her morning breath like you, Joelle.”   And consequently, reading that line, I had a sudden and abrupt realization of precisely how it is that I have managed all these years to remain celibate despite the occasional woman who’s now and then been interested enough in me to even read my poems.


…Once I saw a Seven-Eleven that was closed.  Locked up and abandoned.

Since everything inside the impossibly dark store windows was in place and intact, I eventually concluded it must be a clerk who didn’t show up for work.  But I at first thought: “Not even a president’s death can close a Seven-Eleven. It must be something.  It must be big.”

Perhaps there is inside all of us a thing — a strange, hard thing — that now and then longs for an event so big it will close even the world’s Seven-Elevens.


…When I met Becky she was in her 30s and would now and then do something completely spontaneous: Always some little thing, but it was an attractive quality.   Even in a city, birds from a branch put to air like her.  So, though they live like the rest of us amongst the concrete and noise, you can see how those birds are beyond the artificial world we have created for them — how they are still native to the earth and sky.  Some people are like that.


…So far, I have found only three things with power to redeem the human condition: Love, work, and play.  And of those three, love is the greatest.


…Brett called to invite me to lunch the other day  (Brett was 15 the year we first met at the coffee shop.  I was perhaps 40 or 42).   So, we met at a tavern where the beer is watery, but the food is good, and I enjoyed talking with him so much the time slipped past on rabbit’s feet.

At some point in the afternoon, after we had exhausted half a dozen topics, Brett said he suspected the reason quite a few kids had hung out with me years ago at the coffee shop was because I was for the most part nonjudgmental.   So I told him that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard from a fellow human, if indeed he was actually human. So, I thanked him for confirming a suspicion I’d had.  Then, being an insufferable old fart, I told him a story he’d already heard at least twice from me, and one he probably didn’t want to hear again.

After we had parted for the evening, I reflected on the fact that Brett had certainly been one of the most intelligent people at the coffee shop, and very likely one of the wisest.  Yet, it had never been any one thing that led me to those conclusions.  Like a stream of gold dust, Brett is someone who stands out from the crowd not for any one big thing, but for the cumulative impression made on you by a thousand glittering details.


…My second wife had a taste for dresses by Ungaro.  Is Ungaro still around?  That Italian knew how to make a woman wearing silk look like a nude.


…This night, for the first time in ages, I recall once a woman and I spent nearly two years laughing together.  No, she was not my wife, but a co-worker.  We worked together in the evenings, and we’d spend every moment we could with each other.  Then, when I moved on to a day job, I still dropped by her workplace in the evenings to laugh with her.

One day, I invited her out to a movie.  But by the time she got to my place, it was too late to catch a show.  At a loss for much else to do, I tried nibbling on her ear.  Consequently, two years of laughing together led to her having three explosive orgasms: The best in her life, she told me.  After that, you might think she’d be happy.

Yet, somehow, by the next day, she had translated everything — all of it — into guilt and regret.  “You must think I’m a slut”, she said, “because I slept with you on our first date.”

“No, I feel as if I’ve been courting you for two years”, I said, “Besides I’m in love.”

“Even if you don’t think I’m a slut”, she said, “When I saw you this evening, it made me think of myself as a slut, and then my heart sank to the floor.  I can’t see you again.”  And she meant it.

It was much later I realized that, despite our rapport, only one of us had been in love.


It is almost dawn.

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Only a Child Can Believe

(About a 3 minute read)

The next time someone gives you directions, take a moment to notice how you feel about them both before and after you have taken them and discovered for yourself they got you where you wanted to go.

Did your feelings change a little bit?  My own feelings change.  Not much, but still perceptibly change.  Near as I can figure, that’s the difference between my believing that something is true and my accepting that something is true.  It’s the difference between my conscious mind believing something, and my whole mind — including my subconscious — believing something is true.

I have a friend who is in the habit of saying, “I believe you, Paul”.  I have known him for at least a decade, and I have yet to see evidence he has believed me even once about anything!

Continue reading “Only a Child Can Believe”

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In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion that a milestone was recently passed in the fight between liberals and progressives for the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps for the future of America.

THE CRITICS ADORE! “The eternally intolerable Sunstone has no more insight into politics than a six year old brat has into the chemistry of fire.  All Sunstone does in his recent post is play with matches, and quite predictably, he burns the house down.” — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

Continue reading “In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News”

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“How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?”

A Special Guest Post by Boyd Stace Walters II

(An 11 minute read)

Boyd Stace-Walters here.  Worldly epistemologist, savvy logician, and adept philosopher of the sciences parachuting in from an undisclosed location and secret hideaway in academia to answer Mr. Bottomless Coffee’s excellent compound question, “How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?”

As it happens Mr. Bottomless Coffee, that question was the single most frequently asked question at the most recent party I was invited to back in ’96.

Admittedly, the reason it was the most asked question is because I got deliriously drunk on two two many glasses of the old bubbly and started asking it of all the guests.  I was hallucinating they were graduate students, you see.  But I’ve learned my lesson, and never again will I drink at my own wedding.

Continue reading ““How unbiased is science and how unbiased are the scientists?””

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Who is Privileged and Who Is Not?

(About  5 minute read)

Growing up, I had a keen sense that I could get away with a good amount of rule-breaking.  Not just little things, but some fairly sizeable offenses too.  I didn’t usually push things as far as I sensed I could, but I did have the perception I could get away with a whole lot of things — if only I wanted to.

The sense stayed with me when I got older, although it became a little vaguer.  When I was in my late teens, early twenties, majoring in philosophy I was aware that I wouldn’t have much trouble getting a good job upon graduation — despite some warnings that my major was impractical.

Continue reading “Who is Privileged and Who Is Not?”

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That’s Bullshit!

One of the more obvious things about life is that some people are more intolerant of bullshit than others.  By “bullshit”, I don’t mean using big words or fancy phrases.   Nor do I mean any particular philosophical, political, or religious ideology.  I don’t even mean showing up to a sex orgy dressed in a chicken outfit with a bible underarm and a feather duster stuck up your ass.  All of those may be called bullshit by some people, but they are not what I mean here by bullshit.

“Bullshit” in the context of this post means a poorly grounded claim or proposition that is being asserted as established truth.  “Conservatives are racists.”  “Progressives hate the rich.”  “Priests molest children.” “Atheists feel empty and unfulfilled.”  If you take those statements to mean, “all” — in the sense of, “All Conservatives…”, or “All Progressives…” — then those statements are pure, liquid bullshit.  And some people are more intolerant of those kinds of statements than others.

Indeed, some people have almost violent reactions to bullshit.  Or, at least to what they think is bullshit.  They become visibly upset or angry.  Other people — or maybe some of the same people — flinch or cringe.  Bullshit strikes them like fingernails dragged across a chalkboard, like the “wrong” kind of music, like one of my poems.

Maybe the intolerance some people have for bullshit is partly explained by the fMRI study Harris, Sheth, and Cohen did which found,”The acceptance and rejection of propositional truth-claims appear to be governed, in part, by the same regions [of the brain] that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors” (p. 146 .pdf).  That is, more or less the same brain cells are being used to decide whether some claim is true as are being used to judge whether something smells or tastes foul.  If so, that might be part of the reason some of us have such visceral reactions to what they think is bullshit.

Of course, I’m not saying that people who are highly intolerant of bullshit always know what is or is not bullshit.  Perhaps ironically, being intolerant of bullshit seems to have little or nothing to do with being right about whether or not something is bullshit.

People who accept evolution often enough think Creationism is full of bullshit.  But some Creationists have the same gut reaction to the Theory of Evolution.  Apparently, it annoys, angers, and exasperates them.  So, what matters is not whether something is bullshit or not, but whether one thinks something is bullshit or not.

If our bullshit meter were a reliable truth detector, we could throw out all the scientific methods.  We wouldn’t need such cumbersome, laborious methods to determine whether we had arrived at reliable fact.

I think most of us are in the middle when it comes to tolerating bullshit.  We put up with it to get along, and we put up with it to a point.  Now and then, we reach our limit for the day.

Our neighbor, though, might be someone with a much greater tolerance for bullshit than we have.  The other day, someone was telling me he didn’t care whether his religious beliefs were true because their truth or falsity was less important to him than their contribution to his “self discovery and self-realization”.  “I don’t want to know if I’m right or wrong.  I want to know who I am.”

I wonder if our tolerance for bullshit more or less matches how conscientious we are at trying to establish the truth of a matter?

  • If I am highly tolerant of bullshit, am I relatively less conscientious at establishing truths?
  • And if I am highly intolerant of bullshit, am I relatively more conscientious?

I don’t know of any studies done on that subject, but my guess is that it is not as simple as that.  That’s just an intuition, though.  And I can’t come up with any good reasons in support of it, so maybe there are none.  Maybe it’s just as simple as it looks: People who dislike bullshit are relatively more careful not to indulge themselves in it.

My last question is: Do we become numb to bullshit?  Is it possible there’s so much bullshit today that it numbs us?  That we scarcely notice most of it anymore, and sometimes hardly respond to what we do notice?  What do you think?



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How Bad is Unemployment?

How bad is unemployment?  The Heathen Republican, an excellent secular conservative blog, has posted easy to read charts for a number of ways to measure unemployment.  Bottom line: It’s not declining by any measure, and is rising by some significant ones.

For the record, I do not agree with many of the conclusions the Heathen Republican reaches, but I recommend his blog to anyone who wishes to engage in a serious discussion of the issues.  He strikes me as old school: That is, he respects facts and makes an honest effort to get them straight.

Folks like him — on all sides of the issues — are the folks who make democracy possible.


UPDATE: I regret that I must amend this post to withdraw my endorsement of the Heathen Republican’s blog.  Today, he posted this:

Conservatives and progressives witness the same events but interpret them very differently. I think it’s more accurate to say that progressives interpret and conservatives observe and process the real world with no interpretation involved, but I expect someone to object to that statement.

It’s pretty clear to me that progressives look beyond reality and have their own sort of religious faith. Perhaps I have my own “conservative faith” to which I am blind, although (naturally) I don’t think so. [emphasis in original]
On the basis of that and other statements I have read on his blog since making my initial endorsement of his blog, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that he has a tendency to demonize Progressives while idealizing Conservatives.  I cannot endorse that policy since I do not see it as conducive to rational debate.

I apologize for having misled.
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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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Is it Moral to Take Advantage of an Idiot?

Is it moral to take advantage of the village idiot?

Suppose on Friday, your local village idiot signed over the deed to his house to you, thinking he was going to be raptured yesterday (Saturday, May 21, 2011), would you now be under any moral obligation to return his house to him?

Should banks forgive the credit card debts your local village idiot racked up in anticipation of his not having to pay them off?

In general, to what extent should politicians, preachers, pundits, corporations, neighbors, or society as a whole be allowed to exploit the world’s village idiots?

Should the world’s village idiots now be allowed to sue Harold Camping for damages to them?

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Late Night Thoughts (March 5, 2011)

I understand a rational person to be a person who, for the most part, sustains an intellectually honest effort to base their views and decisions on reason — that is, on the weight of logic and material or empirical evidence.

I don’t think any of us are purely rational, but I think some of us are more rational than others of us. Moreover, I think the more rational someone is, the more likely they are to — in ways both great and small — contribute to the welfare, not just of themselves, but of others too.

So far as I’ve seen, noticeably irrational people — such as drama queens, authoritarians, and the emotionally and mentally ill — are most often high maintenance.

That is, they are dependent to an unusual extent on other people and require inordinate amounts of time, effort, and resources from those other people without giving back nearly as much as they consume. It seems that a measure of rationality is more than merely desirable — it is actually required — if one is not to become an unusual burden on others.

I don’t think people always — or even perhaps very often — chose how rational they are relative to others. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that most authoritarians did not chose to be relatively irrational.

Our species seems to have a very long history of cooperative living — including a very long history of taking care of those who are less fortunate than the rest of us.  There is strong evidence, for instance, that our direct ancestors had already evolved that kind of behavior well over two million years ago.  To take care of the less fortunate is a very human thing to do.


Three questions for Spinoza:

As I understand it, it used to be the tribe that took care of its own.  When someone fell sick or injured, the tribe looked after them.  When someone had much less than others, too little to live on, the tribe looked after them.

But the tribes were destroyed — wiped out by nation-states.

So, today, it’s the nation-state that has inherited those duties.  Spinoza saw that earlier than most, more clearly than most.

Yet, today, a lot of people in America don’t like that even one bit.  Which makes me sometimes wonder:  Are we becoming a nation of shirkers who won’t even take care of our own any longer, or are we becoming a nation of sociopaths who can’t even see why we should be taking care of our own?  Or, in fairness, is some third or fourth thing happening that I myself don’t see yet?


The one thing — besides the camaraderie and brotherhood — that I long ago most loved about fire fighting was sometimes being seized by the reality of the fire.

When it happened, that sense of being seized by the reality of the fire was almost mystical in its intensity.  Some rock climbers here in Colorado tell me of experiencing similar feelings while hanging off cliffs hundreds of feet up mountain walls.

Once, thinking about those feelings, it occurred to me I had never yet in my life witnessed a political discussion in which the folks — myself included —  came even half close to the realism demanded of a fire fighter in knocking down a simple blaze.

On the other hand, I thought, I had routinely seen folks get orders of magnitude more “emotionally involved” in discussing politics than a fire fighter gets even when his life balances on a thread pulled taunt between fates.  Discussing politics, we humans are ever a bit like bowlers who frequently make “passionate”, but entirely useless, gestures in an attempt to control the ball — even when it is already thrown.

But I observed we are also far too often political hypocrites who fail to walk our talk, though a fire fighter unwilling to walk their talk is rare.  So, for all of those reasons, there seemed to me more than a mere whiff of bullshit present in even the cleanest political discussions.

Those thoughts then all but left me homesick for a good, honest twelve foot high wall of white flames.


In matters of love, “surrender” can be a beautiful word, but “submission” is most often an ugly one.


It seems unnecessary for us to believe a map is infallible in order to make cautious, but good, use of it.  But we seem to require that our preferred wisdom literature be infallible before we can feel entirely comfortable ignoring its advice.


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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.

Authenticity, Education, Fantasy Based Community, Intellectual, Intellectual Honesty, Learning, Oppression, People, Philosophy, Quality of Life, Reality Based Community, Science, Scientific Method(s), Society, Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Truth

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.