Monthly Archives: September 2011

“Beating the little hater” (or, Jay Smooth kicks my lazy ass)

Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine speaks truth about self-censorship, self-doubt, perfectionism, procrastination, and creativity:

(Check out his YouTube channel and click around for more of his wit, honesty, compassionate politics — and his adorable cat.)

I particularly like the last bit of the second video — “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources” — which reminds me of the conclusion to Tom Piazza’s essay “Trust the Song” (from Devil Sent the Rain):

A few years ago, while I was attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Saul Bellow came to talk to us for a few days. In addition to a reading, he conducted a workshop and a question-and-answer session. During the Q&A one student asked him about “stealing” from other writers — borrowing techniques, structural ideas, entering other cultural milieus. Bellow smiled wanly and said, “You are entitled to steal anything you are strong enough to carry out.”

Exactly right.

All of this, of course, is to psyche yours truly up enough to tell myself: Enough guilt, enough doubt.

The stories in your head are waiting.

Time to get to work.

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Biblical literalism — and religion without God

Two dramatically opposed approaches to faith:

1) Dale McGowan confronts the Biblical literalism of a Jehovah’s Witness and engages in the brilliant conversation I’ve always wanted to have:

“Your friend is making a very common mistake,” she said. “He is interpreting the word of Jehovah God. You have to read the Bible exactly as it is, NOT interpret it. Otherwise there’s your interpretation, there’s my interpretation, and somebody else’s.”

“Right, we can’t have that,” I said. My porch was suddenly a barrel stocked with two fish, both of them dressed for a funeral for some reason. “So I went back to my Bible after I talked to this friend…and it fell right open to Matthew 5:17!”

I waited, nodding expectantly.

She smiled uncomfortably. “I’m not…too familiar with that passage.” […]

I closed my eyes and began: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Old Law or the Prophets…this is Jesus speaking…I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not the least stroke of a pen shall by any means disappear from the Old Law until everything is accomplished. Now I looked up ‘Old Law,’” I said, “and it means the first five books of the Old Testament.” I gestured around. “I don’t know about heaven, but Earth hasn’t passed away yet. So Jesus said the Old Testament is still relevant today.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “Every word is of Jehovah God.”

“And Jesus said, Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to be the least in heaven, and I’m sure you wouldn’t teach me anything that would make you the least in heaven, right?”

“Certainly not.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that. You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.”

You can guess what happens, I’m sure. But it’s a great story anyway, and McGowan is an engaging storyteller. Go here for the rest.

2) With the strident religious crazies of the Republican Party in full-throated roar, it’s easy to forget that not all faiths refuse to leave room for interpretation, doubt, and even criticism of the foundations of belief. But as an article in the Washington Post points out, Judaism embraces difference and debate — to the point where fully half of all American Jews doubt the existence of God:

“Atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, so to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn’t an issue or a challenge or a problem,” [Maxim] Shrogin said. “It is par for the course. That is what Judaism is. It is our tradition to question God from top to bottom.” […]

Unlike other religions, Judaism has often embraced its atheist strain. The 18th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from his Jewish community for equating God with nature. Today, his writings are studied by many Jews.

In the 1920s, American Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan developed the theology of what would become Reconstructionist Judaism, founded on the idea that God is not personal, but a summation of all natural processes. Four decades later, Reform Rabbi Sherwin Wine came out as an atheist and founded “Humanistic Judaism,” which emphasizes secular Jewish culture and history over belief in God.

And because Judaism is not dogmatic — unlike Christianity and Islam, there is no creed to adhere to — atheists can be open about their lack of belief and still belong to a synagogue.

Which reminds me of my first post on humanism, in which I quoted Fred Edwords describing the position of “religious humanists”: “[T]he true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for people remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.”

Read the rest of the WP article here.

(Photo via Wikipedia)

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“To make it worth defending”

Jennifer Ouellette recounts physicist Robert Rathburn Wilson’s testimony before Congress in 1969, on whether the government should support the multimillion-dollar particle accelerator that eventually became Fermilab:

During the testimony of physicist Robert Rathburn Wilson — a veteran of the Manhattan Project — then-senator John Pastore bluntly asked, “Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?”

Wilson, to his credit, answered just as bluntly: “No sir, I don’t believe so.”

“Nothing at all?” Pastore asked.

“Nothing at all.”

Pastore pressed further: “It has no value in that respect?”

And then Wilson knocked it out of the park. “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.” […]

Science isn’t just about winning wars, treating cancer, or devising revolutionary new technologies to boost economic markets — although it can and does accomplish all of those things. It’s also about the sheer joy of discovery, of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, as essential a component of the human spirit as the greatest works of art, of music, of literature. And as such, it is worth defending.

Yes. And what makes the country worth defending is surely worth the support of its taxpayers and the protection of a wise and democratic government — another reason why government matters.

Read the rest here.

(via io9; photo by Reidar Hahn)

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Why government matters, cont’d: Elizabeth Warren on fair taxation

Elizabeth Warren debunks the accusation that a proportional tax on the rich amounts to class warfare, and gives a rousing defense of the social contract:


It strikes me, once again, that it’s a Democrat who’s arguing for the importance of our obligations to others, rather than the importance of protecting “what’s mine.” Trying to appeal to selflessness and to our better angels always seems to be an uphill battle, which may be one reason the Democrats so often find themselves on the losing end. It’s still a battle worth fighting.

Warren is running for the Massachussetts Senate seat and needs all the support she can get. Go here to find out more, and to help.


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Thriving on open questions, cont’d

Adam Frank makes the point that, when it comes right down to it — when you take away the special interests, the political posturing, and the calcified cultural and religious reflexes — we actually all do rely on science for answers, and we trust it to deliver. Can subatomic particles travel faster than light? Researchers claimed it was possible, but now they call on the scientific community to scrutinize the results:

Now the world is waiting for science to do its thing. We wait for more experiments; we wait for the checks, the double check and the triple checks. In the end the process will shine a brighter light on the world’s foundations just as it did when Einstein overturned centuries of Newtonian physics.

All of us are waiting together: Republicans and Democrats; Evangelical Christians and the “Spiritual but Not Religious”; Economic Doves and Social Policy Hawks. We are all waiting for science to answer the question. We are all waiting for the process of science to run its course and we all trust science to determine the right answer.

So why then are we sill arguing about Climate Change where science has already answered the question? Likewise, how can any presidential candidate still publically challenge Evolution and not be booed off the stage? The same process we all agree will get us closer to the truth for relativity lies at the root of our understanding of Climate and Evolution.

Yes, the science of oceans and atmosphere has a more complex system to deal with than relativity. But the methods, checks and balances are all the same. Ditto for evolution. Science works because over the last 500 years we have learned how to enter into an authentic discussion with nature.

But science isn’t just about answers; it’s also (or even more so) about asking the questions. As always, Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it beautifully:

Part of what we also have to train people to do is to learn to love the questions themselves. If all you want in life are answers, then science is not for you. We have things that always give you answers to things, like religion. “Here’s what’ll happen to you after death if you behave this way, this is what was going on before” […] There might be some deep profound religious questions, but everyone I know who turns to religion, it’s because they need answers.

In science, on the frontier, the answers haven’t come yet. That’s why we have people working on the frontier. And so it’s the frontier that excites a subset of the public who are perfectly content steeped in ignorance because of the prospect that they might one day resolve the problem.

My sentiments exactly. Sure, religion and science can both claim to ask questions about the nature of truth — but religion already has the answer it wants to hear, which is that every question, every investigation, every doubt-filled journey leads to God. Faith doesn’t seek to know the world as it is. Its ultimate aim is not discovery but reassurance, not knowledge but comfort: God’s in charge, and everything is going to be alright. It promises what Christopher Hitchens eloquently rejects: “the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way.”

It seems to me that science, despite its flawed human practitioners and the mistakes they make, comes by its answers more honestly — because it’s willing to ask truly open questions, driven by genuine curiosity. No guarantees of what you’ll find at the end of the rainbow. Science has the courage to say “I don’t know” — and mean it.

If science discovers God at the end of its quest, it will be a deity that’s fully demonstrable, testable, and therefore reliable and real. If it doesn’t find God — if for some reason the universe doesn’t conform to the thousand-year-old myths and moral codes of primitive tribes — then whatever it discovers will likely be even more wondrous and strange. And science will be ready to wrestle with that knowledge, revise and expand our understanding of reality, and ask ever more open questions.

(Image via Sam Kumar)

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“An invention that’s killing us”: The double-edged sword of modern time

Our daughter is waging a losing battle with time.

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make that sound morbid. No, she’s fine and in good health. But she is discovering what most of us eventually learn — that in the most prosaic day-to-day sense (and therefore the most profound), much of life is a race to beat the clock.

No matter how much her young body needs its nourishing sleep, she must be awake by 7:00. No matter how much she’s savoring her breakfast, she must be done by 7:30. No matter how much she’s engrossed by a fascinating book, she must be out the door by 8:20. The school frowns on tardiness, and coming to class five minutes late earns you a mark in your record. Being on time is apparently one of the shining qualities that middle schools will look for when considering applications.

After school, she must read an assigned book for at least forty-five minutes. Not a problem for her, except that she’s itching to read other, more interesting stories and chafes at having to spend time on a book she doesn’t care for, with one eye on the clock. Apparently the mark of a “good reader” is not the ability to engage with a fascinating story and lose yourself in the tale, but the ability to sit and turn pages for three quarters of an hour. To be a “good reader” one must keep track of time — whereas our daughter, already a voracious reader, desperately wants to lose track of it.

And in the evening, of course, it’s bedtime by 8:40. No matter that the Family Ties episode on the Declaration of Independence is really interesting, or that the DVD of Back to the Future is getting to the really exciting bit with the lightning and the clock tower (there’s that motif of time again), or that Jon Sciezka’s Knuckleheads is so hilarious that we just have to read the next five chapters. It’s 8:40 and time for bed — so that she can wake up tomorrow and race the clock all over again.

We constantly want to stop for things — to experience something more deeply or to do something well. But we can’t stop; the clock is ticking. We are slaves to time.

Adam Frank discusses this in a fascinating post (the first in a promised series) on “The Tyranny of Modern Time”: Continue reading

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Please be true: Beating cancer, and the speed of light

A couple of things to get excited about:

1) Doctors are exploring a new method of fighting cancer — by training the immune system to destroy it. So far, the results have been dramatic. And if these experimental treatments prove sound, then the war on cancer will quite possibly have been won. (Update — There’s more: Researchers are studying a virus that can apparently kill 100% of breast cancer cells in as little as seven days. Details here.)

2) Physicists are looking into the possibility that some subatomic particles may exceed the speed of light — a limit that Einstein had declared to be inviolable. This is still very far from a sure thing. But if true, apart from overturning Einstein and revolutionizing physics itself, the implications are enormous:

John Learned, a neutrino astronomer at the University of Hawaii, said that if the results of the Opera researchers turned out to be true, it could be the first hint that neutrinos can take a shortcut through space, through extra dimensions. Joe Lykken of Fermilab said, “Special relativity only holds in flat space, so if there is a warped fifth dimension, it is possible that on other slices of it, the speed of light is different.”

And if that turns out to be the case, can we not somehow harness neutrinos the way we’ve already unlocked the power of the atom to suit our ends? Can our dreams of interstellar travel — of beating the light-speed barrier, warping space, or taking some extra-dimensional shortcut in order to finally reach the stars — really be so far beyond our grasp? Scientists often remind us that, for all the new worlds we’re detecting — perhaps even some harboring life — the vast distances of space and the light-speed limit ensure that we are, for all practical purposes, alone. Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing to break free of those shackles and take an even bigger “giant leap,” the biggest and most important one humanity will have ever made?

I know, I know, I’m just daydreaming here. These developments in medicine and physics are still just tantalizing possibilities, not certainties. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (as all the articles reporting on these announcements hasten to say), and further testing may prove these claims to be less than what we’d hoped. But just for the moment, I for one am willing to let a shiver of excitement run down my spine — as I entertain the possibility that, even now, in this jaded and exhausted age when optimism is cramped and ambition is in short supply, humanity’s most wondrous discoveries and achievements are yet to come.
Update: MIT’s Technology Review writes about a possible explanation for the neutrinos here.

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