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Atheism and Morality Oct. 11th, 2005 @ 08:42 am
If modern atheism has a achilles' heel it's morality. Not that atheists behave any worse than theists—there's no evidence that they do. The problem is elsewhere: atheists (as well as modern secularists in general) have failed to provide a coherent justification for moral norms.

Does it matter? Does anyone care whether we can justify moral norms or not—so long as we can impose them?

Alright, how do we decide which norms to impose? Majority vote? Who has the strongest armed forces? Or the most money?

Or do we reject all impositions of morality, and let each individual decide for themselves— that in effect is where the intellectual climate is leading us.

And one might argue that the very term "moral norms" means nothing other than what is "statistically normal" for a particular population.

Alright, but where on the bell-curve do we draw the line between normal and abnormal. And is it really satisfactory to say—as this approach effectively does say—that "unusual" = "wrong" and "usual"="right".

In fact, if we define behaviors as good and bad based on how common or uncommon they are, haven't we only imposed an incredibly inflexible conservatism on society? Aren't we simply dictating that the status quo is moral and anything else is out of whack?

I realize of course that society is dynamic: the status quo is always changing. Which means—under the current intellectual orthodoxy—that what is moral and immoral is also always changing. Yesterday homosexuality was morally unacceptable; today it is acceptable. Yesterday body piercings (except of earlobes) was wrong; today they are right. Today public nudity is not permissible; tomorrow it probably will be permitted. Today aborting a fetus because of its sex is frowned upon; tomorrow it may be common practice.

Right and wrong changes with time—so what is the problem?

Let the individual decide what they shall do—or shall not do. Why is there a problem?

The problem, I would suggest, is two-fold. First, quite simply, when we or those we care about are on the receiving end of certain behaviors—behaviors considered perfectly fine by the individuals doing them—we get quite upset, as if they had violated some sacrosanct ought. It is wrong to cheat or injure or kill me or those I love—so we all insist. But why is it wrong? Merely because we don't like it?

What if we are outnumbered? What if the majority—either in numbers or in strength—says otherwise? If morality is merely a matter of the personal preferences of the majority or the most powerful, then "right" is whatever can be imposed by the majority or the powerful.

If Hitler had won WWII, then Nazi values would be morally right—including killing off those who disagreed with those values.

The reality is that we know otherwise. We feel that certain things are wrong even though we may not be able to explain why they are wrong. Humans behave, in other words, as if there really is a basis for morality which is distinct from what is popular or what the powerful are capable of imposing.

So the first problem with equating morality with "current moral norms" is that despite what we think or say, that is not how we actually determine for ourselves what is moral or immoral in actual practice.

Still, even if moral decisions are made individually on the basis of something we feel inside of us, nevertheless some individuals (as our prisons attest) do very bad things. How else to decide what shall constitute "bad" except by vote or the raw imposition of governmental power? Don't we have to decide somehow what the laws will be—what behavior gets punished and what doesn't.

Fair enough. So long as we understand that the laws thus imposed can sometimes be wrong. Or incomplete. So long, that is, as we accept that there is a basis for right and wrong which stands outside of or beyond our collective current opinions, our collective culture.

For if we don't concede this last point then morality is justified merely by force and numbers—in short there is nothing necessarily "moral" about it at all. Morality disappears into the preferences of the powerful and numerous, and it becomes something as whimsical as those preferences often are—or as frightening.

Ok, so there really is some kind of basis for morality independent of societal values. That gets us somewhere, but raises questions and problems.

For one thing, saying that there must be a basis for morality outside of our current wishes and opinions does not, in itself, help us know what is right or wrong. We must figure out the nature of that moral basis first, and then hope that understanding it enables us to tap into a source for moral answers.

But there is something else that must be explained as well: if humans have a moral nature—or a moral sense or instinct: some way to tap into this independent source of morality—then why do we so often do the wrong thing? Any theory of morality must account for this remarkable but all too common human failure.

Theists—and in particular Christians—have an answer. Does it work? And do atheists have anything to offer at all? Or is atheism dead in the water when it comes to providing a basis for morality?

Moral argument with Bionaut Oct. 9th, 2005 @ 06:59 pm
Author: Rastaban 
Date:   07-23-05 19:04

Bionaut, thanks for addressing this subject. I am always amazed at the popularity of moral relativism among Americans, and I can't help but wonder if that is why we are so docile in the face of injustice and so unwilling to critically examine the rightness or wrongness of our actions as the most powerful nation in the world.

I admire Noam Chomsky's elegant phrasing of the Golden Rule: "If an action is right for us, it is right for others; and if wrong for others, it is wrong for us. Those who reject that standard simply declare that acts are justified by power."

Denying that there are moral absolutes is very convenient when you're the most powerful kid on the block. It allows you to justify whatever action you want to justify and still feel good about yourself. It means you don't have to worry about whether your behavior (or your society's behavior) is right or wrong. Since there's no objective standard, there's no way to make such a determination anyway. The result is that by default power becomes the standard. In any serious moral conflict, might makes right.

Since no one can challenge the might of the United States, moral relativism is very convenient for Americans right now. I view its popularity in that context.


Author: Rastaban 
Date:   07-24-05 05:40

Let me address your moral argument for God's existence. You propose two versions. Here's the first:

> 1-There is a universal moral law
> 2-If there is a universal moral law, then there must be a
> universal moral lawgiver
> 3-Therefore, there must be God

I see that Yar has already responded to this more capably than I could ever hope to do. I'll sit back and see how your discussion with Yar plays out.

Here's your second syllogism:

> 1-Real moral obligation is a fact. We are really, truly,
> objectively obligated to do good and avoid evil.
> 2-Either the atheistic view of reality is correct or the
> "religious" one.
> 3-But the atheistic one is incompatible with there being
> moral obligation.
> 4-Therefore the "religious" view of reality is correct.

I don't think 2 is a correct a/not-a construction, since atheism/religion are not true opposites. The opposite of atheism is theism, but theism in this sense has to include polytheism as well as monotheism. Whereas your first syllogism argued for God's existence, this one merely argues that atheism is false. Therefore I think it would be better to put it this way:

1. Real moral obligation is a fact. We are really, truly objectively obligated to do good and avoid evil.
2. But atheism is incompatible with there being moral obligation.
3. Therefore atheism is false.

Atheists who are moral relativists object to 1. However, as you might guess, my objection is not to 1 but to 2.

To show that 2 is mistaken, all I have to do is provide a plausible atheist explanation for moral obligation. I don't have to prove that my explanation is true--only that it's reasonable--in order to dispel the claim of incompatibility. Here goes:

Humans experience moral obligation because they have an innate moral sense, which might also be described as a moral instinct. There are two primary questions which need to be explained.

1) How did humans acquire this innate moral sense?

2) Why do humans often fail to behave in accordance with it?

Christians answer 1 with "God" and 2 with "original sin". A satisfactory atheist answer obviously has to rely on evolution. Instincts have evolved in many animals, so the notion that humans might have instincts as well seems to me quite plausible. But what are instincts but directives to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances--that is to say, like morality instincts are about behavior. Thanks to instinct the female praying mantis eats her spouse after mating--one might say doing so was the morally right thing for a praying mantis.

I see no reason in the world why human wouldn't have evolved behavioral instincts as well. The difference between us and the praying mantis would be that we have an instinct that urges us to reciprocal benevolence, that is to say, to obey the Golden Rule. The evolution of cooperative behaviors in species is very common, and I think it's clear to scientists that cooperation is a key element of the human survival strategy. It would therefore not be surprising if humans evolved with an instinct "to treat others as you would want to be treated."

Bionaut, I know that you've already objected to this in a prior post. You wrote:

> If it was Darwinian evolution that provided this moral
> instinct, it would be based on the premise of the
> survival of the strongest. As many moral absolutists will
> point out, this view in no way explains or even hints at
> why we should act unselfishly or with acts of sacrifice,
> altruistic behavior, etc.

But the theory of evolution (Darwinian or otherwise) is not about survival of the strongest but survival of the fittest, and fitness can be enhanced by cooperative behaviors including acts of sacrifice and altruism. In fact, that sort of thing is not uncommon in certain social species studied by scientists.

What the atheist still needs to explain, however, is this: if the moral imperative is an instinct, how is it possible for us to disobey it? Why is it optional? I suppose we could argue that it is an instinct, though a very weak one. However I think there is a more apropos explanation.

Here's my hypothesis: as the environment gets more complex and species evolve, they need a way to develop new instincts that can override prior instincts in specific situations but not others. Sentience--the ability to feel pains and pleasurable urges--provides this. The earliest instincts were just there--an animal obeyed the instinct like a robot more or less. But to be successful in a more complex environment species developed the ability to override the brain's instinctive decision-making at least some of the time. Sentience is a way to get the older brain's attention, a kind of interrupt, making it possible to alter behavior if the sentient pains or urges are "loud" enough.

With the evolution of humans, a new interrupt was added: language and internal thoughts. The original instincts are still there, but now there is an even more sophisticated way to override them available. Thus whereas Christians talk about "free will" enabling us to behave immorally and disobey God's moral laws, atheists can talk about how evolution provided us with a "rationality override" that enables us to ignore our moral instincts (often working in concert with other interrupts like anger), or in other cases (working in concert with the moral instinct perhaps) enabling us to override sentient urges and pains.

This hypothesis (or something like it) is capable of providing an evolutionary explanation for our moral sense. As I tried to indicate, additionally it can provide an explanation for two further difficulties facing the atheist: the evolution of consciousness and of free will.

My account is plausible. It lets us see that evolution can be compatible with our sense of real moral obligation. Thus that step in your syllogism is mistaken.

What do you think?

this was a selectsmart debate that appears to no longer be accessible

Oct. 9th, 2005 @ 08:46 am
"This is my life," he said, planting a wet kiss on her vagina. "This is where I begin and end."

new tongue twister Oct. 5th, 2005 @ 09:06 pm
Say fast 3 times straight:

Which witch whisked the fish with a switch?

Religion and a Society's Health Sep. 29th, 2005 @ 08:11 am
A study published in the Journal of Religion and Society (vol 7, 2005) "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look" by Gregory S. Paul, attempt to determine if there is a correlation between religion (as measured specifically by the level of atheism/agnosticism, belief in God, church attendance, rate of prayer, taking Bible literally, and belief in evolution) and a society health (measured by rate of homocide, abortion, suicide, infant mortality, venereal disease, teenage pregnancy, and life expectancy).

The 18 countries compared are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Austria, Spain, Italy, United States, Sweden, and New Zealand. As might be expected, the United States looks exceptionally unhealthy compared to the other Western democracies in most of these measure of societal health. We are off the chart in rate of homicides, venereal disease, teenage pregnancy and abortion, and nearly so in infant mortality (Portugal is worse). The U. S. falls in the middle of the pack in abortion rate, and at the lower end in life expectancy.

On the religious scale, the Unites States leads the pack in belief in God, prayer rate, taking the Bible literally and the rejection of evolution. Only Ireland has fewer atheists & agnostics. Only Ireland and Italy attend church more often.

Still, this study ignores the fact that the United States is unique in several other significant ways that may account for its roughness. We are a nation greatly influenced by the settlement of the "wild west" for example. And we are a cultural melting pot which is not particularly well melted, whereas Japan and many of the European democracies are ethnically homogenous. We also allow large corporations to fund & influence the democratic process to an extent that far exceeds that found in the other Western democracies, I believe.

Nevertheless, what is striking about the 9 charts in this study (with the exception of the one on homicide) is that an inverse relationship between belief in Christianity and societal health seems to fit the evidence even when the United States is taken out of consideration.

With the exception of Japan, all the nations in this study have a Judeo-Christian heritage. Yet belief in Christianity and in the Christian God appear to be inversely related to societal health. Paul's conclusion:
Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.
Turning to the pressing question for Americans—how we can catch up to the level of social health found in these other Western democracies, Paul observes
The United States’ deep social problems are all the more disturbing because the nation enjoys exceptional per capita wealth among the major western nations (Barro and McCleary; Kasman; PEW; UN Development Programme, 2000, 2004). Spending on health care is much higher as a portion of the GDP and per capita, by a factor of a third to two or more, than in any other developing democracy (UN Development Programme, 2000, 2004). The U.S. is therefore the least efficient western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health. Understanding the reasons for this failure is urgent, and doing so requires considering the degree to which cause versus effect is responsible for the observed correlations between social conditions and religiosity versus secularism. It is therefore hoped that this initial look at a subject of pressing importance will inspire more extensive research on the subject. Pressing questions include the reasons, whether theistic or non-theistic, that the exceptionally wealthy U.S. is so inefficient that it is experiencing a much higher degree of societal distress than are less religious, less wealthy prosperous democracies. Conversely, how do the latter achieve superior societal health while having little in the way of the religious values or institutions? There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms (Aral and Holmes; Beeghley, Doyle, 2002).

Flooding cells Sep. 29th, 2005 @ 07:33 am
Imagine being locked in a cell without food or water for 4 days while the cell floods up to your neck or higher. That is what happened in New Orleans when prisoners were abandoned in the Orleans parish prison. According to Human Rights Watch over 500 prisoners are apparently not accounted for. At this point it is unclear whether they drowned or escaped.

Russell on Nakedness Sep. 25th, 2005 @ 12:06 pm
From Marriage & Morals (1929) by Bertrand Russell:
The taboo against nakedness is an obstacle to a decent attitude on the subject of sex. Where young children are concerned, this is now recognized by many people. It is good for children to see each other and their parents naked whenever it so happens naturally. There will be a short period, probably at about three years old, when the child in interested in the difference between his father and his mother, and compares them with the differences between himself and his sister, but this period is soon over, and after this he takes no more interest in nudity than in clothes. So long as parents are unwilling to be seen naked by their children, the children will necessarily have a sense that there is a mystery, and having that sense they will become prurient and indecent. There is only one way to avoid indecency, and that is to avoid mystery. There are also many important grounds of health in favor of nudity in suitable circumstances, such as out of doors in sunny weather. Sunshine on the bare skin has an exceedingly health-giving effect. Moreover, anyone who has watched children running about in the open air without clothes must have been struck by the fact that they hold themselves much better and move more freely and more gracefully than when they are dressed. The same thing is true of grown-up people. The proper place for nudity is out of doors in the sunshine and in the water. If our conventions allowed of this, it would soon cease to make any sexual appeal; we should all hold ourselves better, we should be healthier from the contact of air and sun with the skin, and our standards of beauty would more nearly coincide with standards of health, since they would concern themselves with the body and its carriage, not only with the face. In this respect the practice of the Greeks was to be commended.

Death and me Sep. 24th, 2005 @ 08:15 pm
My first 15 years were nearly idyllic, and blew by unperturbed like an afternoon at play. But within a few weeks of my 15th birthday death intruded. My favorite teacher—also the best I ever had in grade school—hung herself in her room.

It was only foreshadowing.

The summer I graduated from high school my closest friend almost succeeded in committing suicide. Found unconscious, he was rushed to the emergency room where pumping his stomach saved him. When I visited him in the hospital he told me, "It was amazing. You should try it."

I thought about suicide a lot in those days, as I cycled through several years of depression. Melancholia I called it at the time. I felt like I was living in the dark ages, that they were sweeping over me. I walked out a lot of sadness—often at night on dark, wet streets.

The summer I turned 20, I had to face the funeral of my brother's best friend from childhood. My own best friend—the one who almost killed himself at 18—died in a car crash when I was 21.

A year later I met a girl named Carol at a party and there was some real connection between us. A day later she was dead, product of a bad heart.

Since then there have been numerous other unexpected deaths. My brother's from leukemia; my own son's from cytomegolovirus. But it was those earlier deaths that set my orientation. They convinced me, for one thing, that I would not live to be old. They made me think often about my own death, and about what could possibly make my life meaningful.

At the age of 20 I was planning my own burial, as if the manner of burial could somehow indicate the meaning of a life. At 22 I wrote out my will, including the importance of being "allowed to die a real death."

The biggest influence death had was in sharpening my sense of life. It was probably no coincidence that within a couple months of Kip's funeral I became an atheist, or that immediately after Boyd's death I first declared my atheism in public. Or that Carol's death led to thoughts like these.

It was defiance, but it was also the solution.

Most people find any way they can to deny death its sting. I went the opposite direction, insisting on death's utter finality. Death was real. I realized death had to be real, or life couldn't be real—couldn't be valuable enough.

The death of those I loved taught me that life has to be fragile and impermanent. Has to be a brief flash of pleasure and pain, of brilliance in the sun, of bright experience that matters, before our common extinction in the darkness.

That way those I have lost matter. Their moments were unalterably valuable.

Life that is not perishable is not worth living. Life that is perishable is.

Brown Leaves Sep. 24th, 2005 @ 02:24 pm
In the last several days leaves have begun to fall from the Tulip trees, the first smell of fall.

Nudity Sep. 20th, 2005 @ 09:02 am
Nudity is the litmus test for sanity. Sane societies are clothing-optional, and are built on the principle that no one has the right to control the appearance of others. The clothes someone wears or doesn't wear, the manner in which they style or color their hair and body—these are sacrosanct to the individual.

We were born naked and we will die naked. Our skin requires broad exposure to sunlight in order to synthesize vitamin D, and that alone tells us that the right to be naked is innate. It is a health right.

The importance of being nude in the sun was recognized 150 years ago, when enlightened American doctors advocated sun-baths, and their instincts were right on target. Today the list of cancers that vitamin D appears to protect against includes breast, prostate, colon, ovarian, lung and—yes—skin cancer. It is also suspected to protect against type 1 diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and osteoporosis . In addition there is also evidence that calcium and D together reduce PMS "feelings of anxiety, loneliness, irritability, tearfulness" and so on according to research at the University of Massachusetts.

These benefits don't come from the small amounts of vitamin D added to milk and other products. The federal RDA for D is 5 iu, yet a days exposure to sunlight can cause your skin to create as much as 50,000 iu. To take such quantities in a supplement would create a serious risk of vitamin D poisoning—yet when D is synthesized by your body from sunlight it seems to be impossible to get an over-exposure. The human body automatically regulates how much is synthesized.

How much sun-bathing does it take to get the full health benefits of vitamin D? Probably 20 to 30 minutes (without sunscreen) is sufficient, though of course no one really knows yet. (Don't throw your sunscreen away, however. It is still vital to prevent sunburn.)

Nudity is important for physical health, but it is also essential for sanity. But right now I have to put some clothes on and go to work (and become a little less sane).

Marriage of Laura & Dwight Sep. 17th, 2005 @ 10:39 pm
We were going to get the local Unitarian minister to perform our wedding ceremony, but when we learned he would be on vacation at the harvest moon on Oct 2, we quickly wrote our own ceremony and engaged a friend who had purchased a $10 minister's license from the Church of Mother Earth as our "minister". Read More . . . Collapse )

Death & Morality Sep. 17th, 2005 @ 03:09 pm
Death and morality are closely intertwined. Without doubt death—whether ours or those we love—is the most difficult thing there is to accept. Why does life have to end? Why can't we stay young and healthy forever? Why be given such a wonderful paradise of bodily life—only to have it taken away?

Of course life is not given to us: we are life itself. Still, why must we be temporary? We would like to go on forever.

When we look at evolutionary biology we see that science provides the framework for a common sense explanation of death.

Explaining why we die does not make death any more acceptable, of course. We still yearn for eternity, to stay forever young, sexy and healthy. But the story of why we die does have a silver lining, for it also shows us the immense stake we have in each other. It is that stake which makes caring about each other, behaving morally toward each other, so fundamental to human nature.

But this is where the story gets disturbing. If death is the crucial element which makes others important to our own chronicle of immortality, what happens when death is denied? What happens when religions step in and declare that as isolate individuals we can each achieve an individualized immortality? Suddenly our stake in others in no longer necessary. It no longer matters so much.

If the form that eternity takes is bodiless, or weakly embodied in some essentially bodiless heaven, then truly we don't have much need for the earthly bodies of others. Even loneliness will dissipate once we sit at God's side at the heavenly table. Give us personalized eternity, and we have no need—no stake—in the well-being of others at all.

That is what the afterlife religions do: they undermine our stake in others. No wonder the societies in which afterlife religions thrive are so full of meanness, indifference, and cruelty.

As we saw earlier, what genuine immortality we obtain depends wholly on the survival and well-being of the others who survive us, and that makes them supremely valuable to our own interests. But when religion denies death, denies even our vulnerability and transience, and substitutes a personalized eternity elsewhere, then we lose or at least appear to lose our stake in the well-being of our fellow beings. They are no longer essential to us. Our loss is no longer their loss, and their loss is no longer our loss.

The result is that morality is undermined fundamentally. There no longer seems to be a real need on our part to treat others as we would have them treat us. Behavior which otherwise would be seen as essential to the longevity of our essential being is now seen as just a nice thing to do, or merely utilitarian. Treating others well rather than meanly becomes just a mental suggestion to be strengthened by imposing punishments or making up supernatural threats.

And of course, this desire for an eternal personal salvation elsewhere is essentially a selfish desire. Selfishness goes hand in hand with personalized immortality.

That is the problem with the big, dominant religions we have today. They appeal to what is most selfish in us, and in doing so undermine the very foundation of human morality.

We deserve much better.
Other entries
» Is Evolution a Fact?
It drives me crazy (not really, of course) when atheists (and lately even some scientists) assert that evolution is a "fact".

Now, the word "fact" can have various (conflicting) meanings. For example there is a sense in which calling something a "scientific fact" simply means "most scientists agree" it's true. I suppose in that sense everyone would agree that evolution is a fact. But it's a senseless use of the word "fact"—and not at all the sort of thing most of us mean when we call something a fact.

Of course, if we examine "facts" closely enough we discover that they become less and less "factual" the more we look—but I won't go into that here. I don't want sound like what my younger daugher calls "a crazy philosopher guy" who "gives people headaches". I'll avoid casting too critical an eye on factuality and stick with the ordinary meaning of the word.

Facts are the evidence upon which inferences and hypotheses and theories are built. So in ordinary usage if you see a red apple on the table, that there is a red apple on the table is a fact. If somone then lays a table cloth over top the apple, so that now you only see an apple-sized lump under the table cloth where previously you saw the apple, it is now an inference rather than a fact that there is an apple on the table.
Is it a sound inference? Probably so—unless you are attending a magic show and the person who placed the cloth over the apple is a magician. Magicians, after all, make their living by tricking audiences into false inferences, or confusing inferences with facts.

Consider a simple magic trick. The magician sets a glass of water on the table, and then asks a member of the audience for a quarter. Magician holds the quarter up for all to see, then takes a handkerchief and drapes it over the quarter. With two fingers he holds the quarter up, hidden by the handkerchief, so that you can make out the circular shape of the quarter underneath. The magician even passes it to an audience member to hold (without peaking underneath the handkerchief, of course.) Finally the magician asks the audience member to hold the handkerchief and quarter over the glass of water and let go, so that the quarter should fall into the water (and the handkerchief drape over the glass. He then asks the volunteer to pull the handkerchief away and reveal the glass of water.

The quarter is gone! Disappeared. The magician even pours the water slowly out of the glass and dramatically holds the glass upside down—no quarter!

Where is the false inference? In this case, when the magician covered the quarter with the handkerchief, he swapped the quarter with a piece of glass exactly the size and shape of a quarter. The glass may not weigh exactly the same as a quarter, but draped under the weight of the handkerchief, who can tell? When the quarter-sized glass is dropped into the water it is for all practical purposes invisible, especially to an audience expecting to see a real quarter. The surface tension of water makes the glass quarter cling to the bottom of the drinking glass even when it is held upside down.

All magic tricks rely on inducing the audience into making a false inference of some sort or another. If you want to avoid being tricked you have to become aware of your inferences.

So, is the origin of species by evolution (whether by natural selection or otherwise) fact or inference? Do we see evolution happening the way one sees an apple on the table, or is species change not observed directly but rather based on a set of inferences? The answer, I think, is obvious.

All scientific theories are built on inferences from facts, and are therefore never factual themselves. They are always—oh, what is the word?—oh yes, now I remember—they are always theoretical rather than factual.
» Sex & Marriage (again)
A few days ago I complained about how conspicuous it is that sex is missing from our marriage ceremonies. I blamed it on the dominant religions of the day. After all, they've never really embraced sex or the body.

The result is that marriage comes off as being all about love and togetherness, yet somehow cut off at the waist. As if genitals and marriage don't go together. We treat sex and love as if they belong to separate realms, the first secular and the second religious.

And it is wrong, it seems to me. Sex is the fount of marriage. We all know that. So why can't we admit it in our solemnizing ceremonies? Why can't we make sex religious? Why do love and sex have to be like Jekle and Hyde? If we can't admit in a wedding ceremony that marriage at its core is about sex—about a sexual relationship—then it's a sham. Fraudulent. Dishonest.

So humanist and atheist weddings bring sex back to the marriage ceremony, right?

Apparently not.

I went looking on the internet for humanist/atheist wedding ceremonies and what I found was as sexless as any Christian ceremony. For example, check out:





Something is seriously wrong, and the wrong—which seems to me some kind of poison—affects theists and atheists equally it appears. Which means that blaming it on the middle-Eastern triumvirate of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is too simple.

It made me wonder about my own wedding, which Laura and I wrote ourselves. Did we also leave sex out of the equation of marriage?

Fortunately, not quite. I'd write a different ceremony today, of course, with sex as the centerpiece. But Laura and I did include the following passage (from Wendell Berry) in our ceremony:
To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. . . . No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality. . . .

The forsaking of all others is a keeping of faith not just with the chosen one, but with the ones forsaken. The marriage vow unites not just a woman and a man with each other; it unites them with the community in a vow of sexual responsibility toward all others. The whole community is married, realizes its essential unity, in each of its marriages.
Quote from Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. (I think)

(By the way, the old rumor that Laura and I got married naked is misleading. We weren't naked at the public ceremony, at least. That occurred at the full moon in October. But we had an earlier outdoor ceremony—naked & private—during the lunar eclipse.)
» Which theologian are you?
I usually abhor these kinds of quizzes, and ignore them. But this one I couldn't resist.

Which Theologian Are You?

My result?

You scored as Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich sought to express Christian truth in an existentialist way. Our primary problem is alienation from the ground of our being, so that our life is meaningless. Great for psychotherapy, but no longer very influential.

Paul Tillich 80%
J?Moltmann 53%
Friedrich Schleiermacher 47%
Martin Luther 33%
Augustine 33%
John Calvin 20%
Jonathan Edwards 20%
Karl Barth 7%
Charles Finney 0%
Anselm 0%

I've never read Tillich. I never hear of Moltmann, have vaguely seen the names of Finney and Schleiermacher somewhere. But where are Bonhoffer, Bultmann, Kung, Plantinga? For that matter, where are Cobb & Griffin and their process theology?
» Confession
I've always been physically immature for my age. I didn't even turn 18 until my 22nd birthday.
» duly noted
Republicans like to say that government is wasteful and inefficient and if you elect them to office they'll prove it.
» Sex & Weddings
I've always been surprised—ok, not surprised, but aware—at the extent to which sex is missing from marriage ceremonies. You find the minister or priest or officiator of the ceremony talking a lot about love and marriage, but usually never mentioning sex at all.

When one considers that marriage is the bonding of two people for the purpose of sexual reproduction, it seems a glaring omission.

Why is talk of any sort about sex missing from our marriage ceremonies—why is sex missing at weddings? The answer is simple, I think. Marriage is a religious ceremony, and the official in charge is almost always a representative of one of the major world religions, most often Christian or Muslim. And our major religions have an incredible amount of antipathy towards sexuality.

Which in my book casts them as evil and anti-human. People who don't copulate can't be trusted. And people who copulate but think it "dirty" or "undignified" have feelings that can be trusted even less. There is something poisoned and unhealthy about them.

No doubt the poison comes from religion. Christianity and Islam can never be condemned enough for the despicable outlook they bring to sexuality. They reek of memes which are cancerous. And have for centuries.

If the dominant religions had their way, no one would feel any connection at all between sex and love. The twain would never—or almost never—meet. Sex would be dirty, debased and animalistic, and love would be cerebral and angelic. I can't imagine anything more anti-life, more inhuman than such a split.

Marriage is a physical bond between two people who have built a house of sex between themselves—who have found their sexual home in each other.

But our sex-hating religions can't admit that. They want marriage to be mental—the joining of two pure minds, the mingling of souls. They wish marriage could be bodiless, just as they wish life could be bodiless. Which is nothing but self-hatred, since bodies is what we are and must be.

In real life, splitting sex from love has bad consequences. In the worst case it leads to the rapist. But even in mild cases it leads to a bit of self-loathing. Because splitting sex from love necessarily splits feeling from body. It disembodies our feelings. It alienates our bodies.

I will never forgive Christianity for hating sex. Nor will I forget that the hatred of sex issues directly from hatred of the body. I will neither forgive nor forget that Christianity and Islam and all the others stinking religions want us to be as divorced from the body as possible. They worship non-existence. If anything in this world is evil, the worship of non-existence must fit the description.

In marriage ceremonies they pass this evil attitude on to our children. A wedding ought to be all about celebrating the sexual home two people have found in each other, but instead they use the occasion to hide sex. The minister or priest shouts about ethereal love while pretending sex has nothing to do with it. They thereby send a very clear message to our children that sex is a totally separate thing from love, that the two don't go together.

The subtle message is that sex is off-scene, if not obscene (which actually means the same thing as off-scene), and its place is outside of marriage. Subtly the message is sent that sex is extra-marital. Of course when sex crops up outside of marriage—exactly where they've pushed it—they cry adultery and sin. Yet their message all along has been that marriage is really not about sex but about love, not about bodies but about eternal minds.

The problem, you see, is that sex exposes their falsity. Sexual passion is the trump which makes it plain that we exist for pleasure, and that pleasure is inherently bodily. Sex tells us that we are indeed animals, that biological evolution uncovers both our intimate history and our ultimate nature. Tells us that our home is not heaven but here on planet earth coupled together, having sex.

We are biological beings. We are body beings. If we bring this fact into our wedding ceremonies, making marriage a celebration of sexuality and sexual coupling, if we make marriage sexual again, then we send the message to ourselves and our children that sex and love are not divorced, and neither are bodies and minds.

It is the beginning of self-healing. And sanity.
» Stupidity is not patriotic
What makes the Bush Administration's war on terror tragic is not just that it has diverted significant resources away from civilian purposes of government such as preparation for natural disasters like Katrina, but also that it has increased rather than decreased the terrorist threat facing us. This has happened because Bush & gang have never understood what motivates suicide terrorism in the first place. The Administration get the motives of our enemies so wrong that they have actually pursued a foreign policy that has increased the motivation and conditions which drive suicide terrorism.

I'll explain that in a moment. But first I want to point out what smart people do when faced with an enemy:

Smart people figure out what makes their adversary tick, then take advantage of that knowledge to lessen the adversary's undesirable behavior.

Yet since 9-11 a lot of Americans--both inside and outside the Administration--have made it vocally clear that they consider any attempt to understand our enemy's motivation to be a betrayal of the nation bordering on treason--as if understanding one's enemy is somehow unpatriotic. As if patriotism requires ignorance. Read more . . .Collapse )
» Iraqi Constitution = Republican Nightmare
From the proposed Iraqi Constitution:

"Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages for Iraq. Iraqis are guaranteed the right to educate their children in their mother tongues, such as Turkomen or Assyrian, in government educational institutions, or any other language in private educational institutions, according to educational regulations." and "The Turkomen and Assyrian languages will be official in the areas where they are located." and "Any region or province can take a local language as an additional official language if a majority of the population approves in a universal referendum." (from Article 4)

"Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief, opinion or social or economic status." (Article 14)

"Equal opportunity is a right guaranteed to all Iraqis, and the state shall take the necessary steps to achieve this." (Article 16)

"Each person has the right to personal privacy as long as it does not violate the rights of others or general morality." (Article 17)

"An Iraqi shall not be handed over to foreign bodies and authorities." (Article 21)

"Work is a right for all Iraqis in a way that guarantees them a good life." and "The law regulates the relation between employees and employers on an economic basis, while keeping in consideration rules of social justice." and "The state guarantees the right to form or join syndicates or professional unions."(Article 22)

"An Iraqi has the right to ownership anywhere in Iraq and no one else has the right to own real estate except what is exempted by law." (Article 23)

"Low-income people should be exempted from taxes in a way that guarantees maintaining the minimum level necessary for a living." (Article 28)

"The state shall guarantee the protection of motherhood, childhood and old age and shall take care of juveniles and youths and provide them with agreeable conditions to develop their capabilities." (Article 29)

"The state guarantees social and health insurance, the basics for a free and honorable life for the individual and the family -- especially children and women -- and works to protect them from illiteracy, fear and poverty and provides them with housing and the means to rehabilitate and take care of them." (Article 30)

"Every Iraqi has the right to health service, and the state is in charge of public health and guarantees the means of protection and treatment by building different kinds of hospitals and health institutions." (Article 31)

"The state cares for the disabled and those with special needs and guarantees their rehabilitation to integrate them in society." (Article 31)

"Violence and abuse in the family, school and society shall be forbidden" (Article 29)

"Education is a main factor for the progress of society and it is a right guaranteed by the state. It is mandatory in the primary school and the state guarantees fighting illiteracy." (Article 34)

"Free education is a right for Iraqis in all its stages." (Article 34)

"Every individual has freedom of thought and conscience." (Article 41)

For most of these, if an equivalent were proposed for the U. S. Constitution it would cause Republicans to go into uncontrollable spasms of anger and denunciation.

It seems somehow ironic.
» A few broad strokes
Religious atheism can be seen as an attempt to fix religions' flaws and eliminate its untenable assertions. Most religious flaws revolve around the concept of a spiritual world separate and remote from this physical world of bodies here on earth. From this mistake spring Gods and miracles and afterlife.

I can paint the religious revolution I am proposing in a few broad strokes. Read more . . .Collapse )
» Fixing Christianity
In the past I've written much about the flaws of Christianity and other major religions like Islam. One response supporters of those religions make is to say that what appear to human eyes to be flaws don't matter. Why not? Because the religion is nevertheless true. But again I have shown that to reasonable eyes the claim that Christianity or Islam or any major religion is true is a doubtful claim. The evidence for their truth is simply lacking, and inconsistencies abound.

That doesn't matter, adherents respond, because the truth of their religion is known by faith or by direct inspiration from God/Allah/Brahma/Buddha/etc.—which paradoxically reveals the problem with belief based on faith. It "justifies" any faith, and indeed every faith. The failure of faith as a method of determining truth is laid bare for all to see in the thousands of different religious faiths we find worldwide—or for that matter even in a pluralistic society like the United States. If Buddhism is true, Islam isn't. If Islam is true, Christianity isn't. If Catholicism is true, Protestantism isn't. If Methodism is true, Mormonism isn't. On and on. When it comes to determining truth, nothing is a greater failure than faith.

The question of faith can only be resolved by reason. Yet if we think about religion reasonably, we can't be confident about any of the major faiths out there. They are all out on unsupported limbs with a myriad of untenable claims. Without exception, all rely on unlikely and unprovable assertions: on ancient miracles and resurrections and "sacred" words from undetected (or misdetected) supernatural entities.

The question becomes: can the flaws be fixed? Since I have concentrated on Christianity's flaws, I will concentrate on Christianity's fixes as well. Read more . . . Collapse )
» Healing Circle
Chant for a healing circle*

In the simulacrum of life and living
In the brightness and the darkness
In you, in me, in us, in we
The touch of living and the living touch
Heal the body, cure the memory
In this healing circle, be.

Let it be.

* In a healing circle friends & family gather around the person who is ill, forming a circle with that person by holding hands. In turn each family member and friend tells the sick person how much they care about them, love them, hope & pray for their recovery, whatever they feel in their heart to say. Then the group recites the chant in unison.

This is a ritual for a new religion. For an explanation of the symbolism of brightness and darkness see this page in my journal. (Circles are usually small gatherings of people who come together into touch to bring religious reverence or fun to everyday or extraordinary activities. Thus in addition to healing circles there may be eating circles, music circles, exercise circles, etc. They are characterized by holding hands in a human circle and saying meaningful things. This replaces prayer to the supernatural.)

Healing circles are also appropriate for remembrances of tragedies like the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (four years ago today) or hurricane Katrina.
» Compelling Reporting on Fox

QuickTIme version

Windows Media Player version

Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera on camera telling it like it is in New Orleans. On Fox.
» What happened to FEMA under Bush?
Testimony of former FEMA director James Lee Witt before Congress, March 2004:
As you continue to examine DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and its growth, I want you to know that I and many others in the emergency management community across the country are deeply concerned about the direction FEMA is headed. First, we are greatly concerned that the successful partnership that was built between local/state/federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare, and respond has been sharply eroded. Second, FEMA, having lost its status as an independent agency, is being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle.

I firmly believe that FEMA should be extracted from the DHS bureaucracy and reestablish it as an independent agency reporting directly to the President, but allowing for the Homeland Security Secretary to task FEMA to coordinate the Federal response following terrorist incidents. Third, the FEMA Director has lost Cabinet status and along with it the close relationship to the President and Cabinet Affairs. I believe we could not have been as responsive as we were during my tenure at FEMA had there had been several levels of Federal bureaucracy between myself and the White House. I am afraid communities across the country are starting to suffer the impact of having FEMA buried within a bureaucracy rather than functioning as a small but agile independent agency that coordinates Federal response effectively and efficiently after a disaster.
. . .
In an effort to build other Directorates within DHS that need more help, vital pieces of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate--FEMA--are being moved or underfunded to prop up these other very critical areas. Programs--like the very successful Fire Grants--are being moved out of FEMA. And the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) which provide the backbone to our emergency management systems are being cut and significantly restructured in a very detrimental way. In fact some estimates suggest that the 25-percent cap on personnel costs within the EMPG could result in more than half of the country's 4,000-plus emergency managers losing their jobs. By throwing all of these disparate pieces together in the DHS stew, we have not only diluted the concentration on some of the most critical parts of our counterterrorism efforts, but we are allowing scarce resources to be directed away from consequence management. Our Nation's emergency management system has often been held up as an international model; however, this country's well-oiled emergency management infrastructure--that has been built over many years--is now in great jeopardy as DHS attempts to build capabilities in other areas of the Department.

» Oil Patriotism
Internal Memos Show Oil Companies Intentionally Limited Refining Capacity to Drive up Gasoline Prices
» Image is Everything, Image is All
As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters - his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week - a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta.

Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.

Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.
. . .
The firefighters, several of whom are from Utah, were told to bring backpacks, sleeping bags, first-aid kits and Meals Ready to Eat. They were told to prepare for "austere conditions." Many of them came with awkward fire gear and expected to wade in floodwaters, sift through rubble and save lives.

But as specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.
Article from Salt Lake Tribune. Photo from Yahoo News.
» Can it be salvaged?
Is it worth trying to salvage the Department of Homeland Security?

I don't think so.

It needs to be deconstructed, torn down, eliminated. All the once-capable government agencies (like FEMA, but not only FEMA) that got folded into "Homeland Security" over the past 4 years need to be given their old independence, their old goals, and their old funding back.

The militarization of government which Bush and the Republicans have been carrying out the past few years has been a failure on all counts: invasive, insufficient, inefficient, incompetent.
» Worth Reading
The Perfect Storm and the Feral City
» The Wider Disaster
All that was accomplished with the creation (and massive funding) of a "Department of Homeland Security" was to make us less prepared for a disaster.

Michael Chertoff is the head of the Homeland Security department (into which FEMA was folded). CNN reports:
Chertoff said FEMA is not equipped to send large numbers of people to help during a disaster.

Instead, he said, "FEMA basically plugs in to the existing state and local infrastructure. What happened here was, essentially, the demolishment of that state and local infrastructure and, I think, that really caused a cascading series of breakdowns.
But the "demolishment" of state and local disaster preparations happened because their Federal funding got yanked from them and sent to the Department of Homeland Security. Or to pay for Iraq. Or to cover tax cuts.

What a tragic waste of money.

Quite apart from the human disaster—which was worth spending $100 billion dollars to avoid—is the economic disaster. The financial consequences extend far beyond oil and natural gas disruptions. As George Friedman explains in his article New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize (Sept 1, 2005 at www.stratfor .com),
The Ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic. On its own merit, POSL is the largest port in the United States by tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products -- corn, soybeans and so on. A large proportion of U.S. agriculture flows out of the port. Almost as much cargo, nearly 17 million tons, comes in through the port -- including not only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilizers, coal, concrete and so on.

A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped. Consider the impact to the U.S. auto industry if steel doesn't come up the river, or the effect on global food supplies if U.S. corn and soybeans don't get to the markets.
True, the loss of the Mississippi as a shipping route can be overcome by replacing it with trucking and rail transport to other cities—but at significantly higher cost.

A lot of voices are declaring that we should not bother rebuilding New Orleans. They have no clue how economically foolish that would be. The Mississippi is still navigable, it is true, but it is useless without a city at the gulf to handle large-scale transfer of goods from river barges to ocean vessels. Friedman explains:
New Orleans is not optional for the United States' commercial infrastructure. It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist. With that as a given, a city will return there because the alternatives are too devastating. The harvest is coming, and that means that the port will have to be opened soon. As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to people prepared to endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the end, the city will return because it has to.
The United States has other ports. But none of them sit at the outlet of a river system like the great Mississippi, which until a week ago made New Orleans the country's largest transportation hub for international shipping. America needs New Orleans. Friedman again:
The oil fields, pipelines and ports required a skilled workforce in order to operate. That workforce requires homes. They require stores to buy food and other supplies. Hospitals and doctors. Schools for their children. In other words, in order to operate the facilities critical to the United States, you need a workforce to do it -- and that workforce is gone. Unlike in other disasters, that workforce cannot return to the region because they have no place to live. New Orleans is gone, and the metropolitan area surrounding New Orleans is either gone or so badly damaged that it will not be inhabitable for a long time.
The tragic misery and loss of life brought on by Katrina, by the failure to make provisions for the evacuation of people without transportation (or money or credit cards once evacuated), by the anemic and slow response of government, is water past the levee now. We can learn from our mistakes but we can't undo them. But the crisis of New Orleans has just begun. Once again I turn to Friedman's cogent article.
The displacement of population is the crisis that New Orleans faces. It is also a national crisis, because the largest port in the United States cannot function without a city around it. The physical and business processes of a port cannot occur in a ghost town, and right now, that is what New Orleans is. It is not about the facilities, and it is not about the oil. It is about the loss of a city's population and the paralysis of the largest port in the United States.
If over the next year or so we fail to handle the rebuilding of the city and the displacement of its population with intelligence and foresight—and yes, compassion—the consequences for all of us will be rough.

See: George Friedman, New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize, Sept 1, 2005, www.stratfor.com
» Once in a Blue Moon
The full moon last month was a (relatively) rare blue moon. The next blue moon won't occur until May 2008.

But wait, you might ask: the full moon in August occurred on the 19th. The moon was only full once in August so how can it be a blue moon? Isn't a blue moon supposed to be when the moon is full twice in the same month?

No, that's a recent misunderstanding. As Sky & Telescope magazine has reported, the "widespread adoption of the second-full-Moon-in-a-month" myth was instigated by an airing of the radio show StarDate on January 31, 1980. Debra Byrd, who wrote that show's script, relied on an article by James Hugh Pruett titled "Once in a Blue Moon" in the March 1946 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Pruitt for his part misinterpreted Laurence J. Lafleur's question and answer column on blue moons that had appeared in the July 1943 issue of Sky & Telescope. Laurence had noted in his column that blue moons result when there are 13 moons in a year. (From this brief comment Pruitt mistakenly inferred that a blue moon occurred when their were two full moons in the same month.)

Laurence himself got his information about blue moons from the 1937 Maine Farmers' Almanac. But he failed to realize or at least to explain to his readers that blue moons result not when there are 13 full moons in a calendar year, but when there are 13 full moons in a tropical year. Or even more specifically, that a blue moon occurs when there are 4 full moons in a tropical season rather than the usual 3. Most likely Laurence did not understand this himself.

The calendar year runs from Jan 1 through Dec 31. But the tropical year runs from one winter solstice to the next, and is broken into seasons by the spring and fall equinoxes and summer solstice. When the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582 in Catholic countries (Protestant countries didn't adopt the new calendar until 1752), the vernal or spring equinox was defined as always occurring March 21. From this date the rest of the holy calendar is calculated. For example, Easter is defined as the first Sunday following the first full moon (called the Paschal or Egg moon) following the vernal equinox. Once Easter Sunday is identified, you count back 46 days to calculate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

A "season" stretches from solstice to equinox or equinox to solstice, thus Spring begins March 21, Summer June 21, Autumn Sept 22, and Winter on Dec 21. The Gregorian reform added a leap day in February (because it was the last full month before March 21) once every 4 years (except century years unless divisible by 400) in order to keep the vernal equinox in place.

Normally 3 full moons occur during each season, but when a 4th full moon occurs in the same season then the 3rd moon (not the 4th!) is called a blue moon. Why the 3rd and not the 4th?—Sky & Telescope explains,
Why is the third full Moon identified as the extra one in a season with four? Because only then will the names of the other full Moons, such as the Moon Before Yule and the Moon After Yule, fall at the proper times relative to the solstices and equinoxes.
And that is why the moon on August 19 was a blue moon. The summer began June 21 at the solstice. The 1st full moon was June 22. The 2nd July 21. The 3rd August 19. The 4th will occur September 18, giving us 4 full moons before the end of the season on September 21.

Since the August 19 moon was third out of the four, it's "once in a blue moon".

So, far from being the 2nd moon in a month, blue moons never occur in months with 2 moons. Indeed, they can only occur in the following months: February, May, August and November. And they can only occur between the 18th and 23rd of the month.

Sky & Telescope was responsible for the misunderstanding about blue moons. But they are also responsible for exposing their mistake and providing the correct definition of a blue moon in their article, "What's a Blue Moon: the trendy definition of 'blue moon' as the second full Moon in a month is a mistake" which is my source for the above.
» 1st personal computer?
What was the first digital personal computer ever made? Blinkenlights.com answers that question on this entertaining web page after considering 20 candidates (some well-known and some not so well known). The answer will most likely surprise you.

But before checking out the link, write down your best guess. If you don't have a "best guess," then I'll provide 3 hints:

1) It's not the MITS Altair (Jan 1975)—not even close.

2) It's cost was around $300.

3) This is what it looked like.

If you want clarification of exactly how we're defining "personal computer", blinkenlights.com provides the following:
It must be a digital computer.
It must be largely automatic.
It must be programmable by the end-user.
It must be accessible, either as a commercially manufactured product, as a commercially available kit, or as widely published kit plans.
It must be small enough to be transportable by an average person.
It must be inexpensive enough to be affordable by the average professional.
It must be simple enough to use that it requires no special training beyond an instruction manual.

» A Day of Prayer
As the tragedy in New Orleans enters its 3rd day, the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, has declared Wednesday a day of prayer and asked Americans across the nation to pray for them. "Prayer is very powerful" she explained on national tv.

And to be honest, I am praying that as many people as possible can be rescued and that the loss of life in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is nowhere near as great as I fear. (My fear is that thousands are dead.) My heart goes out to those who have been lost, and those who loved them. And my hopes are with the rescuers.

From my perch as an atheist, praying looks identical to hoping, the strongest kind of hoping. It is natural and human and understandable.

But from the perch of theism, prayer is difficult to comprehend. Christian Scientists probably make the most sense of it. For them prayer is not a request to God for intercession but a "scientific" method of controlling events on earth by "correcting one's thinking". Doing so taps into the structure of divine Mind and allows you to utilize it to control events in the physical world. Advocates of Transcendental Meditation view meditation in a somewhat similar fashion, it seems to me.

But how can prayer be squared with traditional Christian theology? After all, prayer amounts to telling God there is a problem and asking him to intercede. It is based on two dubious theological assumptions: (1) that God doesn't know about the problem and (2) that God is not inclined to help unless we beg him.

When Presidents and Governors ask an entire nation to pray at once, it clearly implies that an awful lot of begging is necessary to get God to act. As if God were up in the sky mocking us,

"I can't hear you. You'll have to worship me louder than that if you want my help!"

But maybe theological sense can be made of prayer after all. By choosing to intercede in human affairs only after episodes of public prayer, God can signal to us both his existence and his preferred language of worship. Much as we train lab rats to ring a bell in order to obtain food, God trains us to pray in order to obtain divine assistance.

Of course such a Pavlovian God needs to create conditions in which humans need divine assistance. Otherwise he could never train us to pray, since we would have no interest in the reward which followed. And to create human dependency on divine assistance, what better is there than an intermittent stream of natural disasters, of which Katrina is merely the latest.

Not a God I'd want to worship. Not a God I could even like.

I conclude that the concept of prayer exposes one of the fundamental flaws of monotheism (whether it be Christian or Islamic):

If there was a good, competent God, we'd have no need for prayer.
» Comparing Preambles
I've always liked the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution. Brief and to the point, laying out the general scope & purpose of the government being created:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Compare it to the Preamble of the recently proposed Iraqi Constitution:
We the sons of Mesopotamia, land of the (messengers), prophets, resting place of the holy imams, the leaders of civilization and the creators of the alphabet, the cradle of arithmetic: on our land, the first law put in place by mankind was written; in our nation, the most noble era of justice in the politics of nations was laid down; on our soil, the followers of the prophet and the saints prayed, the philosophers and the scientists theorized and the writers and poets created.

Recognizing God's right upon us; obeying the call of our nation and our citizens; responding to the call of our religious and national leaders (and our national forces and politicians) and the insistence of our great religious authorities and our leaders and our reformers, we went by the millions for the first time in our history to the ballot box, men and women, young and old, on Jan. 30, 2005, remembering the pains of the despotic band's sectarian oppression; inspired by the suffering of Iraq's martyrs -- Sunni and Shiite, Arab, Kurd and Turkomen, and the remaining brethren in all communities -- inspired by the injustice against the holy cities (and the south) in the popular uprising and (burnt with the sorrows of the mass graves, the marches and Dujail and others); recalling the agonies of the national oppression in the massacres of Halabja, Barzan, Anfal and against the Faili Kurds; inspired by the tragedies of the Turkomen in Bashir, and as in other parts of Iraq, (the people of the western region have suffered from the liquidation of its leaders, symbols, tribal leaders and displacing its intellectuals, so we worked hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder) to create a new Iraq, Iraq of the future, without sectarianism, racial strife, regionalism, discrimination and (elimination).

Terrorism and "takfir" (Editors Note: takfir means to declare someone an infidel) did not divert us from moving forward to build a nation of law. Sectarianism and racism did not stop us from marching together to strengthen our national unity, set ways to peacefully transfer power, adopt a manner to fairly distribute wealth and give equal opportunity to all.

We the people of Iraq, newly arisen from our disasters and looking with confidence to the future through a democratic, federal, republican system, are determined -- men and women, old and young -- to respect the rule of law, reject the policy of aggression, pay attention to women and their rights, the elderly and their cares, the children and their affairs, spread the culture of diversity and defuse terrorism.

We are the people of Iraq, who in all our forms and groupings undertake to establish our union freely and by choice, to learn yesterday's lessons for tomorrow, and to write down this permanent constitution from the high values and ideals of the heavenly messages and the developments of science and human civilization, and to adhere to this constitution, which shall preserve for Iraq its free union of people, land and sovereignty.
We hear all the time from certain religious writers that the U. S. Constitution established a "Christian" nation— although nothing in that document says so. God is not mentioned, and religion mentioned only to forbid a "religious test" for public office, forbid the "establishment" of religion by government, and guarantee religious freedom. If that "establishes" us as a Christian nation, it is rather surprising.

A Constitution which "establishes" an official religion is much more likely to look like the proposed Iraqi one: beyond the numerous religious references in the Preamble, it also declares in Article 2, "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation" and "No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam" before going on to declare religious freedom in a rather un-American fashion: "This constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and the full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices like (Christians, Yazidis, Sabaean Mandeans.)"

That's what establishing a religious government looks like in a Constitution. It's stark contrast to the American Constitution makes clear that our founders had no intention of creating a "Christian" nation or "guaranteeing" the "Christian identity of a majority of the American people". Instead they wanted religion separated from government.

If you're one of the religious conservatives (or liberals or moderates) who hates separation of church and state, then the Iraqi Constitution is the sort of document you wish upon the United States—editing of course Islam to Christianity.

Here is the full text of the proposed Iraqi Constitution. (Can also be found here, in case the N.Y. Times link ceases to be free)

Here is the U. S. Constitution.

By the way, here are the Sunni objections to the proposed Constitution. Among them: "The preamble should be brief and no majority or minority should be mentioned because that does not serve Iraq's unity" ; "Government posts should not be apportioned by religious sect" ; "The constitution should not refer to the Arab population as Sunnis and Shiites, but just Arabs" among others.
» Another cost of Iraq
"August 1, 2005, 9:07 PM CDT

JACKSON BARRACKS -- When members of the Louisiana National Guard left for Iraq in October, they took a lot equipment with them. Dozens of high water vehicles, humvees, refuelers and generators are now abroad, and in the event of a major natural disaster that, could be a problem."

This article, written nearly a month before Katrina struck, reveals another hidden cost of the decision to invade Iraq while carrying out a war in Afghanistan at the same time: the siphoning off of so many national guard and reserves, (along with their equipment) that rescue operations in New Orleans and Mississippi are anemic compared to what they might have been. According to another source nearly 9000 Army National Guard and Army Reserves from Louisiana and Mississippi are currently in Iraq, (not to mentions thousands more from neighboring states).

Combine this with the Bush administration's ongoing elimination of "natural disaster preparedness" from the mission of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to a focus almost solely on terrorism, as described by Eric Holderman (who is the director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management) in this article, and what you get is a picture not pretty.

Of course, global warming is a myth and therefore the notion that we face an increase in hurricanes and tornadoes is nonsense.

Natural disasters--pfff! America is God's chosen country. Prayer is all the "preparedness" we need.

Or maybe God is punishing us for not assassinating the President of Venezuela yet. Have to check with Pat Robertson about that. (See My fatwa's bigger than your fatwa)
» I wrote . . .
this poem many, many years ago.

Red, Red Rose
My love is like a red, red rose
A red, red rose is she
All day long beneath the willow boughs
She softly swings my baby
All the day beneath the swaying boughs

All day long below the willow tree
She slowly swings my baby.

My love is like a red, red rose
A red, red rose is she
For up she rises when the evening's come
Up rises she and baby
Up she rises from the thorny rose

Up gets she when it's evening come
And tosses me my baby.
» Intelligent Design
. . . should be taught in high school.

But not in science class.

And not, ideally, in religion class.

Intelligent Design should be taught in philosophy class or—since philosophy is a scary word for administrators & teachers—in a "great ideas" class. This means, of course, that we have to convince the public that the "great conversation" about life & origins & ethics which human have carried on for thousands of years is something worth introducing to our children. (That it is, say, no more a waste of time than the latest video game or reality tv show.)

But first, why not science class?

Because I.D. as an alternative to standard evolutionary theory comes off looking weak and not very scientific. Even if textbooks are written in a way that disguises this, the reality is that public complaints by scientists, science groups and others won't be suppressible. Kids will get the message that scientists in the field don't approve of I. D.

But there is a further problem: I. D. is essentially a philosophical position at its base, which stands in opposition to philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism doesn't belong in science class either, but it is likely to end up there, confused for methodological naturalism (which is a basic ground of the scientific method). Distinguishing philosophical from methodological naturalism is very important in the world of philosophy, but the distinction would sure get blurred in science class if supernaturalism (played by intelligent design) and naturalism (played by natural selection) square off.

As it is, philosophical naturalists like to wear the cloak (or perhaps I should say lab coat) of science—as if the success of methodological naturalism proved that philosophical naturalism was true. But that is only an inference, and not one that necessarily follows logically.

There is another way to say this: stick I. D. in science class and it comes off looking like bad science and allows its true opponent, naturalism, to don an undeserving lab coat.

I. D. in science class ends up stuck in a lose/lose position.

But move I. D. to philosophy class—to an introduction to great ideas—and here it can more than hold its own. Here naturalism loses the unfair advantage of being confused with science and is forced to compete on an equal playing field with supernaturalism. Here supernaturalism has another advantage, for it brings centuries of experience and expertise into the ring, while naturalism is an inexperienced newcomer.

But why philosophy class rather than religion class?

Because the teaching of religion in public school has to be "fair" to all religions (and boy, there are a lot). Or at the least it has to be fair to all the "major" religions. Which is to say if I. D. gets introduced in religion class, it ends up getting paired as an opponent to something like reincarnation or whatnot, rather than as an opponent of naturalism. Why? Because unfortunately naturalism is not a base assumption of any major religion. (The closest one comes is Wicca or Buddhism or some of the Chinese nature religions—but even those are essentially supernatural.)

There is nothing wrong, I suppose, with simply ignoring naturalism, as if it didn't exist. But given that naturalism has arguably become the dominant intellectual assumption of our age—thanks largely to its confusion with the methodological naturalism of science—this simply lets it fly under the radar unquestioned.

In the short run that's good for naturalism. In the long run that's bad for everyone.

But if we're going to introduce philosophy in high school, it needs to not be taught as "stuff to be learned" but rather presented as a "long-standing conversation" that everyone can join. Doing this means raising questions & making students develop their own answers, followed by introducing the answers of others and asking students to respond in turn.

And since no teacher can presume to know the "right" answers (well they can "presume", of course) philosophy class can't be graded by the "correctness" of a student's answers or positions. Instead grading should reward each student for the extent to which she or he actively engaged the subject.

Disclaimer: as an advocate for philosophical naturalism I may have a bias which the reader should take into consideration.
» Cutting & Running
I am in complete agreement with Lieut. Gen. William Odom's article, What's wrong with cutting and running? in which he argues that the best option we now have in Iraq is to pull out. Step by step he goes through 9 objections to pulling out—we'd lose credibility, we'd leave behind a civil war, Iraq would become a haven for terrorists, etc—and points out that every objection is already happening anyway. A 10th objection—that the American soldiers who have died in Iraq would have died in vain if we pull out—likewise misses the point: they've already died for a mistake, and the question is whether we will allow even more to die for that mistake, or wise up and cut our losses.

We're in the position of a gambler who has gone to Vegas expecting to win big, and now find ourselves $200 billion in the hole. "We can't stop now!" the advocates of going to Vegas in the first place shout, "Look how much we've got invested now—we've got to turn this into a success somehow."

In fact our best option is to stop sooner rather than later, or we will simply face greater losses. Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq, understands this. She has already had her loss, nevertheless she doesn't want other families to have to lose their sons or daughters for the same mistake. It doesn't help her. It can't bring Casey back.

Gen. Odom addresses the claim that it's unpatriotic to suggest pulling out.
"Most surprising to me is that no American political leader today has tried to unmask the absurdity of the administration's case that to question the strategic wisdom of the war is unpatriotic and a failure to support our troops. Most officers and probably most troops don't see it that way. They are angry at the deficiencies in materiel support they get from the Department of Defense, and especially about the irresponsibly long deployments they must now endure because Mr. Rumsfeld and his staff have refused to enlarge the ground forces to provide shorter tours."
Gen. Odom notes that the Democrats, supposedly the opposition party, has been too timid to advocate pulling out.
"We face a strange situation today where few if any voices among Democrats in Congress will mention early withdrawal from Iraq, and even the one or two who do will not make a comprehensive case for withdrawal now.Why are the Democrats failing the public on this issue today? The biggest reason is because they weren’t willing to raise that issue during the campaign. Howard Dean alone took a clear and consistent stand on Iraq, and the rest of the Democratic party trashed him for it. Most of those in Congress voted for the war and let that vote shackle them later on. Now they are scared to death that the White House will smear them with lack of patriotism if they suggest pulling out.

Journalists can ask all the questions they like but none will prompt a more serious debate as long as no political leaders create the context and force the issues into the open.

I don't believe anyone will be able to sustain a strong case in the short run without going back to the fundamental misjudgment of invading Iraq in the first place. Once the enormity of that error is grasped, the case for pulling out becomes easy to see."
Today the public is well ahead of the weak-kneed Democrats. If the Democratic establishment had the guts back in 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq from the beginning as the strategic blunder it obviously was, the party would be in a very strong position today.

But the opposition party failed to be in opposition. Gen. Odom reminds us,
"Look at John Kerry's utterly absurd position during the presidential campaign. He said “It’s the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time," but then went on to explain how he expected to win it anyway. Even the voter with no interest in foreign affairs was able to recognize it as an absurdity. If it was the wrong war at the wrong place and time, then it was never in our interest to fight. If that is true, what has changed to make it in our interest? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

The US invasion of Iraq only serves the interest of:

1) Osama bin Laden (it made Iraq safe for al Qaeda, positioned US military personnel in places where al Qaeda operatives can kill them occasionally, helps radicalize youth throughout the Arab and Muslim world, alienates America's most important and strongest allies – the Europeans – and squanders US military resources that otherwise might be finishing off al Qaeda in Pakistan.);

2) The Iranians (who were invaded by Saddam and who suffered massive casualties in an eight year war with Iraq.);

3) And the extremists in both Palestinian and Israeli political circles (who don't really want a peace settlement without the utter destruction of the other side, and probably believe that bogging the United States down in a war in Iraq that will surely become a war between the United States and most of the rest of Arab world gives them the time and cover to wipe out the other side.)"

All quotes from Lieut. Gen. William E. Odom, Ret. "What's wrong with cutting and running?" at NiemanWatchdog.com. Odom was director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan from 1985-1988, Military Assistant to Zbigniew Brzezinski under Jimmy Carter, and was the Army's senior intelligence officer from 1981-1985

» honoring the fallen. . .
"... we wanted him to look at the pictures of Casey—[President Bush] wouldn't look at the pictures of Casey, he didn't even know Casey's name. He came into the room and the very first thing he said was 'so, who are we honoring here?'

"He didn't even know Casey's name, he didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to hear anything about Casey, he wouldn't even call him 'him' or 'he.' He called him 'your loved one' and every time we tried to talk about Casey and how much we missed him, he would change the subject.

"He acted like it was a party... he came in very jovial, like we should be happy that our son died for his misguided policies"
—Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq April 4, 2004, in interview with Wolf Blitzer Aug. 7
» welcome night
Glow of heartburn in the west
And fir-tree moon due east,
After feast of traffic and stress
Mount the darkness of release.
» seen
a hint of fawn
in the dawn-blue eye of a girl
lilting down the avenue
» bin Laden at Tora Bora
Newsweek reports that Gary Berntsen, "the CIA field commander" for the CIA's "Jawbreaker team at Tora Bora"
says he and other U.S. commanders did know that bin Laden was among the hundreds of fleeing Qaeda and Taliban members. Berntsen says he had definitive intelligence that bin Laden was holed up at Tora Bora—intelligence operatives had tracked him—and could have been caught. "He was there," Berntsen tells NEWSWEEK. ...

In his book—titled "Jawbreaker"—the decorated career CIA officer criticizes Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department for not providing enough support to the CIA and the Pentagon's own Special Forces teams in the final hours of Tora Bora, says Berntsen's lawyer, Roy Krieger. (Berntsen would not divulge the book's specifics, saying he's awaiting CIA clearance.) That backs up other recent accounts, including that of military author Sean Naylor, who calls Tora Bora a "strategic disaster" because the Pentagon refused to deploy a cordon of conventional forces to cut off escaping Qaeda and Taliban members." -- Newsweek, Aug. 15, 2005

» Nash - 4. How to Choose (determinism)
Continuing with Nash's Chapter 4 'How to Choose a World-View' Collapse )
» Nash - 4. How to Choose (logical positivism)
Chapter 4 'How to Choose a World-View' of Nash: Faith & ReasonCollapse )
» 1984 has arrived says Montana justice
Montana Chief Justice James C. Nelson's opinion in State of Montana v. A Blue in Color 1993 Chevrolet Pickup, 2-Door, MT 14T-D899 VIN/2GCEC19KOP1153371 and 1973 Boat Trailer, MT 14-Z20, VIN/STRN30459MT, and 1972 Boat, Jolly Roger, Hull #MT2952AC, in which he admits Orwell's 1984 has arrived:
Read opinion. . . Collapse )
» Dirty war vs Democracy
In this article in The Guardian, Sidney Blumenthal contrasts Bush's "dirty war" against terrorism with the methods of a free democracy. Definitely worth reading. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1542927,00.html
» Bush Post-Modernism
From Arianna Huffington, the conservative Republican turned liberal:
"As pretty much every fact has turned against the administration in Iraq, the fallback position has increasingly become: well, who can really know anything? Everything is so complex. You've got Sunnis, you've got Shiites, you've got Kurds...the truth is...well, the truth is that we can't know the truth...so how can we be held accountable when nothing is really knowable?

Of course Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their cohorts didn't invent this way of thinking. The funny thing is that the very people who claim to be moral absolutists from the heartland turn out to be arguing a variation of postmodernism -- an Eastern elitist linguistic theory laden with moral relativism.

Here's the short version of postmodernism, via Wikipedia (I know I'm distilling a bit, but this is not, after all, a peer-reviewed academic blog):

"In the broadest sense, denial of objectivity is held to be the postmodern position, and a hostility towards claims advanced on the basis of objectivity its defining feature... all standards are arbitrary and meaningless."
Sound like any defense secretaries you know?"


Looking back, it's fascinating how sure they were back when they were lying about WMD. Then it was all about solid facts, and aluminum tubes, and Tenet saying "slam dunk" and Cheney saying "no doubt."

But now that all that has vanished, so too, it seems, has our ability to know anything about anything.

Bush claims he's going back to his ranch after his presidency, but perhaps a Distinguished Chair in Postmodernist Theory at an Ivy League university might be more appropriate."
Read the full article (and Arianna's other excellent posts) at www.huffingtonpost.com
» Unfortunately true. . .
"[W]e need to face up to the simple truth that Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri et al do not need to organise attacks directly. They merely need to wait for the message they have spread around the world to inspire others. Al-Qaida is now an idea, not an organisation."

--Jason Burke, "Al-Qaida is now an idea, not an organisation", Aug 5, 2005 in The Guardian
» Fake Democracy for Iraq?
According to Newsday, circulating drafts of the Iraqi "constitution in progress" would create a nation lacking political rights for women as well as freedom of religion. Basically, these drafts contain language what would deny any "rights" inconsistent with sharia, the Islamic religious code. Protests Newsday, "... the protection of basic individual rights should not be subject to quibbling. A poll earlier this year found that 70 percent of Iraqis want equal rights for women and 60 percent want freedom of religion. That's exactly what they should get."

There's a very good chance they won't.
» another daming FBI memo
on "extraordinary rendition" - the practice of outsourcing suspects to countries identified by the U. S. as practicing torture. An FBI supervisor assigned to Gitmo warned, that
"In as much as the intent of this category is to utilize, outside the U.S., interrogation techniques which would violate [U.S. law] if committed in the U.S., it is a per se violation of the U.S. Torture Statute," the agent wrote. "Discussing any plan which includes this category could be seen as a conspiracy to violate [the Torture Statute]" and "would inculpate" everyone involved. - "Exclusive: Secret Memo—Sent to be Tortured", Newsweek, Aug 8, 2005 issue
As many have pointed out, torturing suspects is a very unreliable way of obtaining information. But most importantly, torture is not something that humane or civilized people get anywhere close to, no matter how frightened they may be. Torture and callous murder--and the defense of those who commit such acts--identify the barbarian (in the worst sense of that word). It is evil.
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