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Sharon’s Love for the Horny Misfit Boy

(About a 20 minute read)

Many a beautiful friendship has sprouted from awkward soil.  In fact, most of my deepest friendships in life have begun clumsily.

I know of no inviolate law of nature that dictates the conservative beige panties of a young school librarian cannot possibly be the start of a profound bond between her and an insufferably horny 14 year old boy misfit.  I know of no law that states such a thing cannot happen.

Yet the very last thing on my mind when Sharon’s angry voice shook me awake that Spring morning was, “This is the start of a beautiful friendship”.

Continue reading “Sharon’s Love for the Horny Misfit Boy”

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”

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.”


“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.

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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.

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Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: An Award Winning Blog

Ed Darrell is a teacher and gentleman from Texas who has created an award winning blog called, “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub“.  He is also a staunch defender of truth and accuracy in a day and age when both of those things seemed too often scorned.

Ed is knowledgeable in a variety of subjects, including history, economics, geography, and education; and he is scientifically literate.  It’s hard not to be impressed by the man.

Have I mentioned yet that Ed’s blog has won the prestigious Golden Primate Award, which is given out exclusively to the very best blogs on the internet?  Well it has!  And if you check it out, I think you will agree that his blog deserves it too!

Currently, over 1,000 people a day visit Ed’s blog, and it is very close to marking it’s 5,000,000th all time visitor!  If you are at all curious what a blog that can attract five million visitors looks like, go right over to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub and check out Ed’s masterpiece!  I hope you will enjoy his blog at least as much I do!

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Can a Person Who is Alienated from Themselves find Happiness?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

–Oscar Wilde

In Artic Dreams, Barry Lopez somewhere talks about an Inuit word for a wise person.  The word, if I recall, means “someone who through their behavior creates an atmosphere in which wisdom is made tangible.”  When I read Lopez a few years ago, I thought of Paul Mundschenk.  As I recall, I never once heard him claim to possess, say, compassion, good faith in others, or kindness.  Yet, he embodied those virtues, as well as others: He made them visible.

Mundschenk was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, and, as you might imagine, I discovered he was inspiring.  But not inspiring in the sense that I wanted to be like him.  Rather, inspiring in the sense he showed me that certain virtues could be honest and authentic. I was a bit too cynical as a young man to see much value in compassion, good faith, kindness, and so forth.  I thought intelligence mattered an order of magnitude more than those things.  Yet, because of Mundschenk, and a small handful of other adults, I could only deny the value of those virtues; not their authenticity.

I can see in hindsight how I naively assumed at the time that we all grow up to be true to ourselves.  Isn’t that normal for a young man or woman to make that assumption, though?  Aren’t most youth slightly shocked each time they discover that yet another adult is, in some way important to them as a youth, a fake?

Perhaps it’s only when we ourselves become an adult that we eventually accept most of us are less than true to ourselves, for by that time, we so often have discovered what we consider are good reasons not to be true to ourselves.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Rather, his notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any fronts or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform.

Often, when I remember Mundschenk, I remember the way he shrugged.  I remember some folks for their smiles, others for their voices, but Mundschenk for his shrug.  It seemed to hint of Nature’s indifference, but without the coldness.  Which, I guess, makes me wonder: Is there anything unusual about someone who is both notably indifferent to himself and notably true to himself?

I was put in mind of Paul Mundschenk this morning because of a  post I wrote for this blog three years ago.  The post was intended to be humorous, but I titled it, “An Advantage of Being Cold and Heartless?“.   Consequently, the post gets two or three hits each day from people looking for advice on how to make themselves cold and heartless.

I can imagine all sorts of reasons someone might want to make themselves cold and heartless.  Perhaps someone they are on intimate terms with — a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a partner — is wounding them.  Or perhaps they are among the social outcasts of their school.  But whatever their reasons, they google search strings like, “How do I make myself cold and heartless?”

Nowadays, I think it is a mistake to try to make yourself tough, cold, heartless, or otherwise insensitive.  But I certainly didn’t think it was a mistake 30 years ago, when I was a young man.

Yet, I see now how my values and priorities in those days were not largely derived from myself, but from others. The weight I placed on intelligence, for instance, was from fear that others might take advantage of me if I was in anyway less intelligent than them.  I valued cleverness more than compassion and kindness because I thought cleverness less vulnerable than compassion and kindness.  And I carried such things to absurd extremes: I can even recall thinking — or rather, vaguely feeling — that rocks were in some sense more valuable than flowers because rocks were less vulnerable than flowers.  The truth never once occurred to me: What we fear owns us.

It seems likely that when someone seeks to make themselves insensitive, they are seeking to protect themselves, rather than seeking to be true to themselves.   If that’s the case, then anyone who tries to make themselves less sensitive than they naturally are runs the risk of alienating themselves from themselves.

Can a person who is significantly alienated from themselves be genuinely happy?  I have no doubt they can experience moments of pleasure or joy, but can they be deeply happy?  It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  Perhaps a little bit like asking whether someone who wants a melon will feel just as happy with a pepper instead.

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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.

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The Religious Sensibility, the Sense of Awe, is Non-Mystical

[A]s dawn arises on the new day, the Buddha achieves illumination.  This illumination so stuns him — it is an opening of the world — that he sits there for seven days.  Then he steps away and for seven days, regards the spot where he had sat.  Then for seven days he walks back and forth integrating what he has learned. Then he goes and sits beneath a tree and thinks, This cannot be taught.  And that is the first doctrine of Buddhism: it cannot be taught. No experience can be taught.  All that can be taught is the way to an experience.

Joseph Campbell, David Kudler

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

S. Mitchell, translator

At a website called, Ask the Atheists, back in October, some folks asked this question:

When theists and atheists feel awe, is it the same thing? I imagine that theists and atheists both get a feeling of awe and amazement when we see a beautiful sunset, mountain valley, etc. But the believer sees this as God’s handiwork, and attributes the beauty to Him. Is it a similar thing?

Five atheists then volunteered answers to the question.   Four of them agreed that atheists and theists feel almost the same thing when they experience awe of nature, while, in my opinion, a fifth atheist (“logicel”) over-thought the question instead of answering it.

Here, as an example of someone who answered the question, is “Mike the Infidel”: “As a former believer, I can tell you that it’s almost identical. The only difference is that I don’t go a further step and feel awe at the thought that it was all made with us in mind.”

In general, the atheists answered the question in ways very compatible with Carl Sagan’s reflections on nature and wonder:

By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.

I happen to believe all of these folks are correct to suggest “the religious sensibility, the sense of awe” is more or less the same for atheist and theist alike.  But only if they are not claiming that this religious sensibility, this sense of awe, is a mystical experience.

That is to say, the mystical experience is radically different from the awe of atheist and theist alike, and it should not be confused with that awe.

Of course, the two are confused all the time.  There are plenty of people in this world — maybe a large majority of people — who could easily read Campbell’s and Kudler’s descriptive myth of the Buddha’s illumination and then promptly, without thinking about it, confuse the Buddha’s obviously mystical experience with Carl Sagan’s awe when “looking up on a clear night”.

Yet, I don’t blame them for their confusion.  In my experience, the only thing more difficult to grasp than how radically different mystical experiences are from normal experiences is the nature of the mystical experience itself.  Confusion is the norm, not the exception, and no one should ever be blamed for looking like an fool when discussing this particular subject.   We all in some sense must become fools to discuss this subject.

Before we go on, it seems necessary to do a bit of housekeeping here: There are many kinds of mystical experiences.  Yet, we are only concerned here with just one kind of mystical experience.

That is the kind of mystical experience the Buddha was referring to when he thought, “This cannot be taught”.  And I take that kind of mystical experience to be practically the same kind of mystical experience that Lao Tzu, the author of The Tao Te Ching, was less directly referring to when he wrote, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Put differently,  the mystical experience being discussed here is the experience that one seems almost certain to have should a person’s subject/object perceptions abruptly end, thus dissolving the process that creates the self, while experiencing yet continues.

So far as I can discover, people who have not had an experience like — or very close to being like — the mystical experiences of the great sages will almost always confuse those mystical experiences with Sagan’s feeling of awe.

To express the same point with a touch of absurdity:  Sunstone’s Law of the False Equivalence of Mystical and Non-Mystical Experiences forceably asserts that,  “Anyone who has not had a mystical experience will inevitably understand mystical experiences to be the mere equivalent of an intense feeling of awe (usually regarding nature).

It’s the only law I’ve ever come up with, and it probably ought to be the last.  Enjoy!

Further writings on mysticism are here.

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A Sun Mountain Award for Dr. Karen Rayne at Adolescent Sexuality

As many of us know these days, the United States leads the Western world in nearly every category of adolescent sexual problem, including unwanted pregnancies, abortions, out of wedlock births, partner abuse, rapes, and STD infections.  It’s a disturbing picture.  Moreover, it’s pretty much up in the air at this point whether anything meaningful will be done about it.  That’s largely because there is strong ideological and cultural opposition in the US to implementing the solutions that are already known to work best.

Surely, those solutions do not include telling adolescents little more than to abstain from having sex.  In the first place, only a quaint minority of teens will take that advice.  In the second place, the majority of teens who don’t will all too often behave unwisely because we failed to share with them our knowledge and wisdom.  Yet, despite all that, abstinence only sexuality education remains a very popular pseudo-solution to dealing with adolescent sexual problems.  It is highly controversial in many parts of this country to teach teens anything else.

Indeed, abstinence is so highly praised in the United States that even those of us who oppose only teaching teens to abstain from sex are usually quick to say teens should still be taught abstinence as the preferred method for dealing with their sexuality.   “Abstain first, and have sex only as a last resort.”

It seems very few of us want to tell teens having sex can be a positive experience.  One of those few is Dr. Karen Rayne.  For that reason, Dr. Rayne’s blog, Adolescent Sexuality, is in it’s own way among the more courageous blogs I’ve come across on the net.

Dr. Rayne is an educator who, in her off line life, specializes in teaching human sexuality to people of all ages.  She has focused her blog, however, on providing the best possible help and advice to parents in dealing with their teenage children’s sexuality.   That is, her blog isn’t for teenagers so much as it’s for the parents of teenagers.  And it is surely one of the most helpful blogs such a parent could find.

I find her advice insightful, balanced and wise.  Some of us might be scandalized by the notion that sex — under the right circumstances — can be a positive experience for their teen, but I am not.  To be sure, I might have been scandalized by that notion as recently as fifteen years ago.  But that was before fate led me to make the acquaintance of scores of teens.  Today, I am because of those teens in fundamental agreement with Dr. Rayne.   Most teens are going to have sex by the end of their adolescent years, and those teens need to know how to best manage their sexuality.

Dr. Rayne’s blog is wide ranging.  She deals with just about every aspect of adolescent sexuality, and never seems to exhaust the subject.  She avoids writing technical jargon and instead writes for a general audience. Her advice is based both on research and field experience, and seems quite practical.  For those and other reasons, I am ruthlessly inflicting on her the Sun Mountain Award in appreciation for an outstanding blog.

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Will John McCain and Sarah Palin Defraud the American People?

“I didn’t think it was cheating because I didn’t even stop to think about it.”

Leah Solowsky, High School Sophomore (PDF)

My guess is neither John McCain nor Sarah Palin have stopped to think about the morality of lying their way into the White House.  I believe any two people who lie as religiously as McCain and Palin must be beyond worrying about it.

I am downright curious, however, whether it disturbs anyone at all that we here in America might be on the verge of electing a couple habitual frauds to positions of great power over us, our friends,  our spouses and children — to say nothing of the rest of the world.  Does that bother anyone?

Before I go on, let me pause to state this post is most certainly not about establishing whether John McCain and Sarah Palin are liars.  I think by now any informed and reasonable person will grant they are liars.  Indeed, that question has been answered here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — among many other places.  So, if there might remain anything to establish about their lying, then perhaps it’s only whether John McCain and Sarah Palin are mere compulsive liars or are actual pathological liars. In my opinion, the latter is more dangerous than the former.

At this point in the campaign, John McCain and Sarah Palin are apt to get away with their lying.  Only about 50 days remain before the election, and my hunch is that’s not enough time for the average American to figure out for him or herself how grievously they might be harmed by putting a compulsive or pathological liar in the White House.  Why do I say that?

Well, in part, I think it’s not enough time because it seems that lying is becoming increasingly acceptable in our culture. Moreover, the increasing acceptance of lying seems to be a well established, long term trend.  Now. I can’t be absolutely sure that lying is on the increase because I can’t find any research that bears directly on the subject.  But if you believe like I do that lying is closely related to cheating, then perhaps you can see something of a disturbing trend in this report on cheating from 1999:

“In a recent survey conducted by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, 80 percent of high-achieving high schoolers admitted to having cheated at least once; half said they did not believe cheating was necessarily wrong–and 95 percent of the cheaters said they have never been caught. According to the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, three quarters of college students confess to cheating at least once. And a new U.S. News poll found 90 percent of college kids believe cheaters never pay the price.”

“Crib sheets and copying answers are nothing new, of course. What’s changed, experts maintain, is the scope of the problem: the technology that opens new avenues to cheat, students’ boldness in using it, and the erosion of conscience at every level ….”

The Cheating Game, US News and World Report, November 22, 1999 (PDF)

So, I think there are just way too many voters today who are deeply tolerant of lies and liars for the fact that John McCain and Sarah Palin are liars to make much difference to the outcome of the election.  It seems many people no longer understand how lying harms them.  And I believe it would take more than a mere 50 days for it to sink in with those people that John McCain and Sarah Palin are dangerous to them.

Now, so far as I can see, the social acceptance of lying is just a small part of a much larger problem.

In America, we have a culture war going on.  Many people describe that culture war as a struggle between “religion and secularism”.  There seems to be some merit to that description, but I myself think it’s a bit more accurate to say it’s a struggle between the fantasy-based community and the reality-based community.  I prefer to describe it as “fantasy versus reality” for a number of reasons.

For instance: it’s my experience that many — perhaps even most — religious people are fairly rational and realistic.  So it seems misguided to lump all religious people together.  Instead, some religious people belong in the fantasy camp, and some don’t.  Just as some secularists belong in the fantasy camp, and some don’t.

Again, the core issue isn’t really “religion versus secularism”.  It’s reason and evidence on the one hand versus what amount to mere wishes and desires on the other.

So, the larger problem here is our society has developed a thriving culture of fantasy.  The tendency of so many of us to tolerate liars like John McCain and Sarah Palin is only one small trait or characteristic of that culture. Other traits of that culture include irrationality, willful ignorance, intellectual dishonesty, epistemological hedonism, and so forth.

To really grasp the magnitude this fantasy culture, consider that so many issues in our society now come down to battles between realism on the one hand, and fantasy on the other:

  • Evolution versus intelligent design and certain other variants of creationism.
  • Global warming versus the denial of global warming.
  • Science versus superstition.
  • Sustainable economies versus non-sustainable economies.
  • (Something that doesn’t yet have a name) versus imperialism.
  • Liberty versus authoritarianism.
  • Spirituality versus fundamentalism (Sometimes called the spirit versus the letter).
  • Gay rights versus the denial of gay rights.
  • Comprehensive sex education versus abstinence only sex education.
  • (Again, something that doesn’t yet have a name) versus consumerism.
  • Stem cell research versus opposition to SC research on superstitious grounds.
  • “The epistemology of reason and evidence” versus “the epistemology of hedonism”.

If you’ll notice, the way I’ve described the battle lines is not always the cliché way of describing those lines.  That’s because in each case I am looking at the underlying epistemology or truth theory of the opposing issues.

In other words, I believe I’ve noticed for some time that issue after issue is coming down to a difference between two separate methods of establishing truth.  The first method is to consider true those propositions that are supported by a weight of reason and empirical  evidence.  The second method is to consider true those propositions that make us feel better if we believe them true.

Now, I do not for a moment believe I myself am always on one side or the other side of that division.  I would like to think I always base my beliefs on reason and evidence.  But if that’s so, then how come I can from time to time catch myself believing something is true simply because I am more comfortable believing it’s true.  Yet, I do believe that, increasingly, one social and political issue after another is shaping up as a struggle between those who have most of the reason and evidence on their side, and those who have most of the wishful or hedonistic thinking on theirs.  Edward Bernays would most certainly approve of the mess we are in.

In some future post, I’ll give my reasons for believing Barack Obama and Joe Biden are largely aligned with the reality-based community in our culture war, while John McCain and Sarah Palin are largely aligned with the fantasy-based community.  I am also thinking of some time spelling out in extraordinarily painful detail several reasons why it might be in our own self interest to not tolerate aggressive liars and lying.  Last, I have a post in the works on the history of the culture war, which I will argue began at least as far back as the 1920s, if not earlier.

So, for now, please allow me to leave you with this quote, which I found thought-provoking:

“Honestly, I’m not sure that schools are here to teach honor or integrity because those are value judgments that we are not experts in, are not paid for, and have not been hired based upon.”

Found on the blog of an American teacher

It seems to me that person has a point.  We are not preparing our teachers to pass along our most necessary values — values such as honor and integrity.  Nor are we paying our teachers wages that are even close to being competitive.  What, then, do we expect to be the result, if not generation after generation of voters who require neither honor nor integrity of the people they vote into power over us and the world?

So, will John McCain and Sarah Palin defraud the American People?  Of course they will.  By now, that should be obvious to any reasonable and informed person.  But does it matter to us? Do we care?


The Fantasy Community Speaks Out