Saturday, April 17, 2021

DO WE NEED MORE RELIGION?















I recently came across an article by Andres Oppenheimer titled “Churches, Religion Losing Followers Around the World” (Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald, April 13 ‘21). He, in turn, quotes Shadi Hamid’s article titled “America Without God” in the April 2021 issue of The Atlantic

Neither of these pieces is earth-shattering, but I will use them as a prompt for some comments about religion. 


To quote Oppenheimer and Hamid: “The decline of religions in the western world is leaving a huge vacuum.... Human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning...and that won’t change....The danger now is that religions will be replaced by secular political fanaticism....If religions aren’t around to teach us basic values - you shall not lie, you shall not be indifferent to oppression, etc. who will do it instead? Christianity, Islam and Judaism (should) reinvent themselves... (They) offer us ancient tales of wisdom....they can serve as a much-needed moral guide...(if) they adapt to modern times. (Otherwise,) their decline will continue and dangerous secular radicalism will take their place.” 

Wrong. 

The only thing which Oppenheimer and Hamid got right is that “human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning,” and truth, I should add. That is what philosophers and scientists have been doing for thousands of years - from Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s Metaphysics to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Twentieth Century Existentialism, Socialism and Einstein’s Relativity Theory. 

Organized Religion has done the opposite, spreading lies and superstitions more often than truth. 

Auguste Comte, the father of Sociology, posited that humanity progresses through three evolutionary stages: From religion at the most primitive level, to philosophy and finally to science, as the most advanced stage. Religion emerged as the first step in our evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to create larger groups that went beyond individual connections. 

I can see why Oppenheimer and Hamid fret about the 20th century rise of secular ideologies such as Fascism and Communism. It is true that movements led by men such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot have killed millions of people. 

However, I am wondering whether, on balance, Organized Religion has caused more good or more suffering. Christianity was responsible for crusades, inquisitions, auto-da-fés and it contributed to the genocidal treatment of aborigines all over the world. The religious Reformation wars devastated Europe. War between Islam and Christianity raged for centuries in Europe and in the Middle East. 

I have always been puzzled by the astounding durability of the world’s major religions. Their current decline cannot happen too soon. 

What is needed is not a renaissance of religion, but a growth of rational and benevolent humanistic values - the kind which emerged during the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) and were advocated by men such as Voltaire (1694-1778). David Deutsch, whose magnificent book The Beginning of Infinity I reviewed in this blog some years ago, identifies the Age of Reason as a unique turning point in history, namely the moment when humanity came to understand that its salvation lies in the open-ended scientific pursuit of truth. 

It is an error to claim that morality and good values can only be derived from religion. That only a religious person can be a good person. 

It is true that, as Perchik notes in Fiddler on the Roof, the Bible has many lessons for our times. However, whether one has good moral values or not does not depend on religiosity. For one thing, socialization is of the greatest importance. While we may not be born entirely a tabula rasa, there is no doubt about the exceptional level of human plasticity, and our great dependence on experience and learning. For another, we probably have, as ethologists note, an inborn sense of morality, as this benefits both the group and the individual. 

This is not the place to debate the nature-nurture question. However, I will remind you that human behavior is to a very great extent the product of culture and experience, and that socialization and education are therefore of the essence. We reject the extreme biological determinism which claims that some groups and some individuals are inherently no good. We recognize redemption and rehabilitation. Good and evil are both possible in each of us, and both are largely the product of nurture. 

Low-religion societies such as Japan, Australia and Western Europe do not subscribe less than the rest of us to principles of honesty, tolerance, respect for diversity, non-violence, compassion for your fellow human beings and community, what the German sociologist Tönnies called Gemeinschaft. Are countries with higher rates of church attendance more moral than those with lower rates? Very doubtful, and possibly the opposite. Is it possible that the more secular societies, those which have moved from Comte’s earlier stages to the more scientific stage, are more advanced, and have better values? 

I am no prophet. I have no labels for the positive ideas and value systems which will hopefully emerge in the future so as to improve the human condition. To take just one example, consider the contrast between the biblical mandate to gain dominion over nature, and the environmental movement’s opposite emphasis, namely respect for nature. Which is the better value? 

Humanistic values such as social solidarity, justice, love and honesty are not dependent on Organized Religion. They are part of our common humanness. The way we interact with each other, organize our societies and govern ourselves needs only to reflect and embody such values. These don’t depend on superstition. 


© Tom Kando 2021;All Rights Reserved
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Monday, April 5, 2021

US Presidents Ranked

by Tom Kando

So we have a new president (thank God!). 

As an inveterate list addict, one of the numerous lists with which I have often played is that of US presidents. I look up rankings done by experts such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and I also try my own rankings based on a bit of knowledge, some research and a lot of ignorance. 

Joe Biden is our 46th president. His predecessor, Donald Trump, can unequivocally be ranked as the worst president we have ever had. 

Beyond that, I divided our forty-five past presidents into four groups: 1) The twelve best presidents. 2) A group of eleven “pretty good” presidents. 3) A group of eleven not very good presidents. 4) The eleven worst presidents. I then ranked all forty-five men: 

Group 1: The Twelve Best Presidents: 
Tied for 1st place: Lincoln (1861-65) and FDR (1933-45) 
3rd place: Washington (1789-97) 
4th Jefferson (1801-09) 
5th Madison (1809-17) 
6th Eisenhower (1953-61) 
7th Clinton (1993-2001) 
8th Obama ` (2009-17) 9th Kennedy (1961-63) 10th Truman (1945-53) 
11th John Adams (1797-1801) 
12th Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) 

You may ask: What are my criteria? It is impossible to get into that, of writing a twelve-volume encyclopedia. 
Just a few comments: Note the large presence of the Founding Fathers in this first and most excellent group. (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and John Adams). Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s prominent positions go without saying. Theodore Roosevelt does not rank as highly as his distant cousin Franklin. However, his legacy, as the leader of the progressive movement, is respectable. Eisenhower and Clinton benefitted from presiding over the country during prosperous times, to which they themselves contributed. Obama and Truman inherited problems which they handled extremely deftly. Kennedy’s role is largely inspirational, as his promise was tragically cut short.  Read more...

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

King Aleph of the Alphabet

By Madeleine Kando

Once upon a time, there was a mighty king named Aleph. He was of a strong and sturdy lineage. Just by looking at his physique, one could see how he was built to withstand adversity of any kind. Over many generations, his ancestors had developed two unusually prominent legs, which were always planted firmly wide apart. The evolutionary process had worked in mysterious ways, making his waist narrower and his shoulders narrower still, until it went to work on his head, which was the smallest part of his body. In fact, if one didn’t know that he was a king, he very much looked like the first letter of the alphabet.

But what he gained in strength, he lacked in flexibility. No matter how many yoga classes he took, he just couldn’t bend over in the slightest. Being a king, he had to spend a lot of time on his throne, which he could only manage to sit on by straddling it, his short legs dangling in the air on each side.

There were other noble families with a similar defect. His cousins from the house of Ache (pronounced H) and his uncle from the house of Arr (pronounced R), were equally afflicted by this inability to bend. Was it a result of too much royal inbreeding? ‘If it’s not good for rabbits, it cannot be good for kings’, his great grandfather from the House of Ey (pronounced A), used to say.

Hence King Aleph, as mighty as he was, could not manage to get dressed, tie his shoes or even go to the bathroom without a great deal of assistance. As everyone knows, relieving yourself without bending is well nigh impossible without creating a serious problem. We will refrain from giving a detailed description here and leave it up to the reader’s imagination.

But King Aleph knew that without the help of many of his subjects, he couldn’t maintain his ruling position. He was as shrewd as he was rigid, so he forged a strong alliance with the House of Aaow (pronounced O). What King Aleph lacked, the Aaows possessed in abundance. Which was not flexibility, as you might think. Evolution, always working its mysterious ways, had omitted to provide this side of the royal family with any legs at all. Hence, they propelled themselves by rolling. And boy, did they roll! Many a distinguished member at the Royal Court ended up flat on their face as one of these Aaows came rolling down the garden paths at high speed. Read more...

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Our Lives in the 21st Century



 What is the main change over the last several decades - let’s say the difference between life in the 21st century vs. life in the 20th century? 
The widespread belief is that we have progressed, that we are much better off in the present century than we were in the previous one. This is widely attributed to communication technology, primarily through computers and other forms of electronic technology. What a crock! 
The opposite is true: today’s technology is unbelievably intrusive and invasive. It assaults us and hounds us 24/7: 
Most of the “communication” we receive consists of telephonic Robocalls, most e-mail is spam, most of the Internet consists of advertisements. 
We receive threatening messages alleging fraudulent charges to our accounts, we have to change passwords to protect ourselves, we get daily pop-ups demanding that we update or upgrade our programs and download new apps. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and all the others hound us relentlessly. We have to delete hundreds of e-mails, texts and phone messages daily. 90% of our snail mail consists of ads. Our privacy disappeared years ago. And then there are the even more serious problems, such as malware and other nefarious invasions of our machines.  Read more...

Sunday, February 28, 2021

What is the Mind, what is Consciousness?


 

Introduction:
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
5. Zombies6. The Self
7. Free Will and Agency
8. Humanity’s Future

PART THREE: THE SELF, FREE WILL AND OUR FUTURE 

6. The Self
As I just mentioned, a discussion of consciousness also requires us to delve into the concepts of Self and Free Will or Agency.

In Chapter 4 (“The Nature of Consciousness”), Sam Harris and Thomas Metzinger discuss the Self. In a 700-page long book titled Being No One, Metzinger explains that there is no such thing as a “self.”

It is a common misconception to conflate self-consciousness and consciousness. Metzinger explains that the self is an illusion or a hallucination. It is the sense we all have “that there is a subject in our head, a thinker of thoughts, an experiencer of experience.... We have this robust misrepresentation of trans-temporal identity” (pp.170-171). There is no such thing as a self, any more than there is a soul. There is, in our brain, no thinker behind our thoughts.

How this sense of selfhood emerges is a question for another day. Metzinger mentions all sorts of factors at work in this regard, for example gut feelings, perceptions, heart beat, breath, etc. (p. 171). Also, this human “self-model” is a product of evolution” p179).

Harris notes that believing and experiencing the absence or dissolution of the self can be achieved via psychedelics, meditation, and other Buddhist practices. The two scholars contrast the Western and Eastern scientific and cultural perspectives regarding the self: The Western scientific approach is third-person empiricism that objectifies the world. The great Asian contribution is its first-person, subjective point of view (p. 179).

Furthermore, these two authors note that the Western self model contains some “nasty inventions, such as this (odd) sense of self-worth...” Certainly wiser cultural values are conceivable and desirable.
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Monday, February 15, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?

 

Introduction: 
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 

PAR TWO: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND ZOMBIES 

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Consciousness Chapter 10 in Harris’ book “Complexity and Stupidity,” is an interview with David Krakauer, a mathematical biologist. Harris and his guest stress that intelligence must not be confused with consciousness. 
Humans have managed to build highly intelligent machines. However, throughout the book, Harris repeatedly warns against the potential danger of creating machines that are more intelligent than us, and then they get out of control - sort of a Frankenstein monster. 
In chapter two, titled “Finding Our Way,” where Harris interviews David Deutsch, the Oxford University quantum physicist, he expresses his misgivings about this possibility (misgivings which Deutsch does not share). 
For one thing, Harris argues, once machines become more intelligent than humans, they may take over even if they do not have consciousness. This might then be the end of consciousness. These future machines could be incredibly intelligent, they would be able to do just about everything, but without consciousness they would be zombies. “The lights would not be on.” They would not have experiences. 
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Saturday, February 13, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?

by Tom Kando

 This three -part article is a “magnum opus.” I struggled writing it, and you will probably struggle reading it, but it is well worth it. 

Introduction: 1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 
PART ONE: WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? 
I just read a fascinating book: Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity by Sam Harris (2020). 
 
Harris is a widely published neuroscientist and philosopher. In his podcast and this book, he interviews eleven eminent scientific experts. Most of the interviews are about consciousness, the mind, the self and morality. His guests are high-powered neuroscientists and philosophers (David Chalmers, Anil Seth, Thomas Metzinger and Robert Sapolsky), quantum and theoretical physicists (David Deutsch, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark), and biological and behavioral scientists (Timothy Snyder, Glenn Loury, Daniel Kahneman and David Krakauer). The group includes Nobel laureates. All these people have rich interdisciplinary backgrounds and experiences. So you are in a select company when you read this book. 

The main themes of the book are: (1) What is consciousness, what is the mind, is there something unique about us humans? (2) Artificial Intelligence; (3) Morality, politics and history; (4) Humanity’s future; (5) Knowledge; (6) Racism and the criminal justice system. 
My focus in this article will be primarily on the first one of these topics. I want to share with you some of the fascinating insights provided by Harris and his luminary guests regarding Consciousness - with forays into topics #2 (Artificial Intelligence) and #4 (Humanity’s Future). . 
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel Harris’ first chapter is a conversation with David Chalmers, an Australian-born cognitive scientist/philosopher. It is titled “The Light of the Mind.” The central question which the two scholars address is: What is consciousness? They agree that the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous formulation is still the most “attractive.” Nagel first offered it in 1974 in a now widely quoted paper titled “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”  Read more...

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

My Vaccine Adventure

By Madeleine Kando

I got my first Covid19 vaccine yesterday at Gilette Stadium in Foxboro, home of the New England Patriots. It is an enormous structure visible from the highway, long before the turn-off. Impressive as it is, Gilette is one of the smaller stadiums in the country. There are 30 of them, all ideal candidates to be converted into mass vaccination sites.

The huge parking lot was half empty that day, since it was after one of those Nor’easters that dump vast amounts of snow on New England. A gigantic electronic board showed which appointments were being admitted. Masked and with my appointment confirmation in hand, I was led to a booth where they checked my ID, gave me a fresh mask and asked me to answer a bunch of questions. I was told to follow a blue line to an escalator, at the top of which a nice uniformed and masked gentleman made sure I didn’t deviate from the footprints on the carpet. After a mere 5 minutes at a large ‘wait here’ sign, a vaccinator waved me over. Another brief ID verification, a short chit chat while I got unobtrusively jabbed in the shoulder and boom, done. 20 minutes total.

Outside, in the cold air, it struck me how much organizational skill is required to pull off such a mass vaccination effort. And this is just one location in one state in just one country. Who put the footmarks on the floor? Who placed the guard rails up? Who made the signs? Why this entrance and not another one? Is there a vaccination God somewhere that said ‘let there be vaccination sites: and there were vaccination sites’?

It’s easy for you to be impressed, I hear you say. You get first dibs. What about the rest of us? What about the slow roll-out, the lack of staff to get the vaccine into people’s arms? What about all the vaccine batches sitting on shelves going bad?

True, the US, the giant that it is, is slow to wake up, but once it had its first cup of coffee, it rapidly gains speed. As of this writing, 11% of Americans have been vaccinated. The EU is at 3.9%. Still, at this speed it will take a hell of a long time to get to herd immunity. So why not use every available large structure as a mass vaccination site? Why not use military barracks, large box stores, churches, airplane hangars and warehouse storage facilities? Gilette stadium could rev up its vaccination capacity 10 fold within weeks. Read more...

Monday, February 1, 2021

Confessions of a Grizzly Groupie

By Madeleine Kando

It all started with an innocent article about France’s efforts to repopulate the Pyrenees with brown bears. After the last female, Cannelle, was shot dead by hunters in 2004, an attempt was made to atone for hundreds of years of bear genocide. In 1994, the French authorities decided to introduce four female brown bears and a powerhouse of a male called Piros from Slovenia into the Pyrenees. This quickly resulted in many little bears, but since there was only one papa bear in the harem, there were concerns about inbreeding.

There was talk of catching Piros and snipping off the family jewels, but since Piros was already a geriatric bear, a new male was introduced in the area to create a more varied gene pool. This new bear’s name was Goiat, which means bachelor in Catalan.

All these efforts to bring back the rightful inhabitants of the Pyrenees didn’t go without a fight. The local sheep farmers didn’t see kindly to these large, furry immigrants that liked to eat their sheep for lunch, but there are now 50 bears in the Pyrenees, thanks mostly to Piros’ virility.

My fascination with bears didn’t end there, I am afraid. Since the closest I can get to anything resembling wildness in my daily life are the squirrels and rabbits in my backyard, I got completely addicted to watching the largest carnivore in the northern hemisphere amble across my screen at the touch of a key. We do have black bears here in New England, but they look like pretend bears compared to ‘ursus arctos horribilis’, which is the real name for brown bears a.k.a. grizzlies.

Instead of spending my time mopping the floor or cleaning the toilet, I have turned in to a virtual grizzly groupie. It actually goes beyond voyeurism. I am learning that for many large carnivores, the only thing that will save them from extinction is our willingness to share our space with them. We took most of what was theirs from them, basically telling them that their life is not worth living. Now it is our responsibility to become their stewards.

The bear was once considered the king of the animal world. It was and still is the largest and strongest animal in Europe and was feared to the point where even his real name ‘Arctos’ became taboo. If you mention the "true" name of a ferocious animal, you are likely to call it forth. So, they called it ‘the brown one’. (Norse ‘björn’, Dutch ‘beer’, German ‘Bär’). The original word completely disappeared from our language. This kind of linguistic tour de force is called ‘taboo deformation’.**

In its effort to combat paganism, the Catholic Church began demonizing the bear. It portrayed it as an oversexed animal and turned it into a symbol for gluttony, anger and lust (Ursus Diabolus). This most feared and respected creature of the wild, emblazoned on coats of arms and emulated by warriors and kings, was used for entertainment at town fairs, chained and muzzled. It was made to ‘dance’ over burning ambers, torn to shreds by dogs in ‘bear baiting’ and underwent its final transformation as A.A. Milne's lovable idiot, Winnie the Pooh, a bear so dumb, that it needs to be set straight by a donkey. (See: The History of a Fallen King)

Bears have been on our planet for around 33 million years. They had a great time until we came on the scene, about 7 million years ago. Here in North America, Grizzlies once lived across much of West, until the Europeans arrived and soon shot and killed most of them. In the past 100 years, 91 humans have been killed by grizzlies and more than 200,000 grizzly bears have been killed by man. There are now approximately 200,000 bears worldwide, most of them in Russia.

On my groupie adventure, I met several fascinating ‘naturalists’, who have dedicated their life to learn about bears by living in the wild. I call them bear whisperers. Some are well known, like Timothy Treadwell, made famous by film maker Werner Herzog in his ‘Grizzly Man’. With its tragic and gruesome ending, Timothy’s story has added to the perception that grizzly’s are ferocious, dangerous and unpredictable creatures.*

But there are others who show another side of these magnificent creatures. My favorite and most admirable bear whisperer is Charlie Russell. He lived amongst bears for 30 years on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, about as far east and as close to Alaska as you can get. The beauty of the scenery in the Documentary The Bear Man of Kamchatka is breath taking and so is the footage of the furry brown subjects.

Charlie, who died recently, was not only a bear whisperer, he was also a surrogate mama bear. He rehabilitated many orphaned cubs over the years, teaching them how to fish, how to find the right plants to eat and protected them from predator males who are known to kill cubs. If you have some spare time, I highly recommend you watch The Bear Man of Kamchatka,


in which you see Charlie stand between the cubs and an enormous alpha bear. Armed with a camera, his voice and a pepper spray (which he only uses at the very last minute), he convinces the male to move out of the way.
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Monday, January 11, 2021

Staring Down the Ugly Throat of Anarchy

By Madeleine Kando

Boston, 1/6/2021
Today, the State of Georgia votes for their 2 US Senators in a run-off election. If they vote Democratic, they win the US Senate. I am glued to my computer screen, checking every 10 minutes, to see where the numbers are. They are! One of them is in the bag. The other candidate’s numbers are going up too. Up enough to prevent a recount? Is it finally time to say goodbye and good luck to Mitch McConnell?

Today is also the day when Congress officially counts the Electoral Votes certified by each state. But some lawmakers have decided to object to the results, hinged on baseless allegations of election fraud. Those debates would start at 12:30 pm.

The line behind candidate Osoff turns a solid blue. Yes! We won the Senate! I step away from my desk to make coffee. When I return, the screen is filled with images of smoke and screams. I am looking at the coverage of the MAGA insurrection in DC. The elation is gone, from high to low, like a bowling ball dropped on my foot. 
Now things are getting worse. The announcer’s voice rises to a pitch: ‘They are storming the capitol building!’ A close up of people breaking windows, climbing walls, waiving giant flags on the scaffolding that have been raised in preparation of inauguration day. Then, inside the building, an endless line of rioters, walking across the ‘Great Rotunda’, like a group of tourists. Some are taking pictures of the ceiling. One is taking a selfie with a guard. No one is even trying to stop them.

I cannot make sense of this surreal moment: For me, life has been put on hold for almost a whole year now. I only venture out to go food shopping once or twice a week. On my daily walk in the woods, I step into the underbrush every time I cross path with another human. I put on my mask, my glasses fog up and I cannot see where I am going. But that’s better than risking infection.

In which alternate world do these hundreds of unmasked, yelling, chanting MAGA hat wearing rioters live? Is there no virus in their world? Are there no free and fair elections? Are there no laws that prevent them from entering and vandalizing government buildings? This live footage must be from another country and the announcer will soon apologize for his error. ‘Sorry, folks, this footage was taken in Somalia (or another failed state). We apologize for making you think that it was happening in the Capital of the United States’. Read more...