“Christmas and the Religion of Atheism”

There is nothing religious Americans hate
Like the phrase “separation of church and state”
Their claim, if they note the construction at all
Is that Jefferson wanted a one-way wall
Now the latest new step in the desperate dance
Is “religion is one ontological stance”
Thus atheists’ faith in material stuff
Is the same as religion—at least, close enough.
(Though he’s wrong, there’s an aspect he’s clearly neglected—
He’s just made the case that our side is protected:
After all, it’s religion, or such is his claim,
So if one is protected, the other’s the same—
A point I’ve been trying to make all along,
So maybe he’s going to be happy he’s wrong.)

A particularly poorly written essay, “Christmas and the Religion of Atheism” at PewSitter.com, misrepresents what atheists want, misrepresents the first amendment, misrepresents both religion and atheism, and ties it all together with a ribbon on top, in a paragraph beginning with “thus…”

He begins (ready your bingo cards):

With the Christmas season approaching, the now predictable protest by atheists against public displays of creches and the like already have begun. The city of Santa Monica (ironically “Saint Monica”) was sued by a Christian group for no longer permitting a nativity display which had been allowed for over sixty years. Elsewhere, in Arkansas, a single parent stopped students from seeing a Charlie Brown Christmas play even though she simply could have opted out her child.

Ah, yes, the “look the other way” argument. Familiar ground. (mark your cards!) Note the “Santa Monica” parenthetic; we’ll revisit it later. Also, note the twist on “public displays”; a church’s yard is a perfect place for a nativity scene, and it is very public. My uncle’s yard is a perfect place for a solemn display of a creche, standing out against his neighbor’s miles of bright lights, illuminated reindeer, and inflatable Santa (Claus, not Monica) displays. A town hall or public school? Not so much; those are owned by all of us, and it is not acceptable for me to put up my display on your property.

Atheists often cite the so-called wall of separation of church and state and the way in which they do so completely turns the idea upon its head. The phrase nowhere appears in the U.S. Constitution, but in a private letter written in 1802 from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

“Separation of church and state does not appear in the constitution” (mark your cards!)… no, it was only the concise way Jefferson described what is in the first amendment.

The problem is that the Danbury Baptists had contacted Jefferson to obtain reassurance that the state of Connecticut, that is the government, could not stop them from worshiping. Thus we have the first point: The primary function of First Amendment of the Constitution (and the “wall of separation”) is to protect religions from the government, not the other way around.

The “one way wall” gambit! (mark your cards!) Oh… readers here will be well aware, that keeping religion out of government is how you protect religion from government. When the power of government is allowed to support one religion, other religions suffer. The first amendment was not designed to protect believers from non-believers; atheists were few, far between, and powerless. No, the first amendment was designed to protect Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Lutherans, etc., from one another.

One might also note that Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. This period believed that reason was a pure thing in itself and it alone could prove moral norms as well as do scientific investigation. However, a number of thinkers have since demonstrated that reason left to itself ineluctably ends up in going in circles, even in scientific theories. This fact has demonstrated itself amply in current debates over morality. Reason needs a ground or a starting point. Therefore whether you believe in God or not, you must make basic unprovable assumptions about how the world works and why.

That’s actually quite an admission in that last sentence. For someone who thinks objective morality can only be grounded in god, admitting that this is an unprovable assumption is big.

Thus atheism is every bit as much founded upon a belief system just like any deistic religion. The difference is that its central doctrine is that matter is the ultimate reality, not a deity. Consider this telling quote from Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewonton, an atheist: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”

Actually, no. I know atheists who are not materialistic monists, but a-materialists. I know others who do not take an ontological stance at all, but pragmatically assume an unspecified monism (dualism being logically incoherent). Atheism simply does not require an ontological commitment to materialism.

As for reason needing a grounding point… there is no need for that grounding point to involve a god. I have also seen the argument that it is less unbelievable for Platonic ideals to exist than for God to exist (they are simpler entities, after all), so even if you need grounding that exists separately from our experienced universe, that does not logically imply a god. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice if the Lewonton quote could continue for just a couple more lines? Selective editing? (Mark your cards!)

Atheists often arrogate to themselves titles like “freethinkers” or “brights,” implying that they are smarter those who believe in a deity. But the Lewonton quote hints that there is an “unreasonableness” to denying realities beyond the merely material. This has been amply demonstrated in any number of books such as Robert J. Spitzer’s “New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.” Spitzer cites numerous respected cosmologists who point out that the mathematics used to describe the workings of the universe practically demand a Creator. A number of these cosmologists have been converted from atheism to belief in a deity by the force of the evidence. (And a number of biologist have been converted through their study of the human genome.)

“Freethinkers” as a term is roughly 400 years old, so that makes it older than Santa Monica. If you get to appeal to history for that name, so do we. But “freethinker”, of course, does not automatically mean smarter, just not bound to a particular dogma. The author of the essay is a member of the Catholic church, as identified with dogma as McDonald’s is with the Big Mac. His writing is not free from that dogma. (As for “Brights”, I thought that was a bad idea from day one. But of course, disliking the “brights” label does not get me kicked out of atheism. No dogma, see?)

“A number” of cosmologists have been converted, as have “a number” of biologists. (Mark your cards!) Of course, a number of believers have lost their faith over the course of their education. In the US, it is a virtual certainty that the number of scientists who have lost their faith is considerably larger than those who found it (there are simply a much vaster number of former believers to lose faith than former non-believers to find it); I would wager that not just the number, but the percentage, tips my way as well. Yes, some of the names that have migrated (or Flew) to religion are well-known. In part, though, they are memorable because they are so few.

Thus the current efforts by some to push religion completely out of the public sphere are faulty on several counts. Secular viewpoints are not “neutral,” are not necessarily more reasonable than some religious viewpoints and making them the standard of public policy is not in line with the intent of the First Amendment. But in the end it should be patently obvious that the more we have pushed religion out of public culture, the more coarse our society has become.

You can recognize a non-sequitur in religious writing–it begins with “thus”. Note that the author has proved that an ontological stance (which need not be held by atheists) is a religion, and thus cannot be made public policy, because it, as a religious view, is protected from government meddling. While religion (of which the ontological stance of materialism is but one example) is protected from government meddling, and therefore can be made public policy (at least at Christmas, because reasons).

Presupposing Zeus

Is there really any reason
We should not believe in Zeus?
Or at least to say he possibly existed?
A professor of philosophy
Believes there’s no excuse,
Though his writing seems, to me, a bit ham-fisted.

If we presuppose existence
Of the Father of the Gods
Or of anything at all, for what it’s worth
Then we find we can’t disprove it,
Though it’s way against the odds,
You can’t kill it, once you presuppose its birth.

So an atheist’s denial,
The philosopher asserts,
Should be traded for a pure agnostic stance
But logic is supposed to help
In this case, logic hurts,
As we watch him make his suppositions dance

And it isn’t quite pragmatic
Just believing something true
Till it’s false beyond the shadow of a doubt
We have vast imaginations;
Our ideas will accrue
Since we never have the leave to weed them out.

A very strange thing, in the NYTimes Opinionator today–Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, writes “Did Zeus Exist?” He notes, first off, that the ancient Greeks certainly seemed to believe Zeus existed:

The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it. Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus. But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization.

Further, as this civilization developed the critical tools of historiography and philosophy, Zeus’s reality remained widely unquestioned. Socrates and Plato criticized certain poetic treatments, which showed Zeus and the gods in an unworthy light. But they never questioned the very existence of the gods, and Socrates regularly followed the dictates of his daimon, a personal divine guide. There were many questions about the true nature of the divine, but few about its existence.

Rather than being skeptical about the existence of a supernatural being, Gutting seems to turn Descartes on his head, refusing to doubt anything that there is the slightest possibility of being true, or even having once been true.

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life? If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?

If we can’t be 100% bulletproof, bet your children’s lives certain (and we can’t), we need to accept the possibility of, in this case, Zeus.

He then considers some objections, which you’ll have to see there. It’s a very brief piece, so I am perhaps expecting too much, but they really come down to “since we cannot unequivocally prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond any possibility… then it just might be true”. Mind, he’s not claiming it is true, but rather that we should keep our minds open.

On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”

Two things, then. One, I’m surprised that a philosophy prof is conflating ideas of belief with ideas of knowledge. Disbelief in Zeus is absolutely grounded. Without convincing evidence (this is where “knowledge” comes in, and where his objections actually matter), Zeus has not passed the threshold for my belief. I have no obligation to believe in something that has no positive evidence for it, just because there is no evidence against it.

Which leads to my second thing. Presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight, but this example shows why good logic can lead to bad conclusions. It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening, in order to examine the natural world. And we, therefore, cannot conclude there is no supernatural, since that would simply be circular logic, assuming our conclusions. And since our conclusions about the supernatural depend on our assumptions, the logic is no help at all.

A pragmatist approach, though, does not ask what is true, but rather, what is useful. A theory that explains more phenomena, or explains with fewer assumptions, is not necessarily “true” in any ultimate sense, but it is more useful than the theory it replaces. And theories are replaced–upgraded, if you will–all the time. They don’t have to be absolutely true or false–really, that is not a concern. And pragmatically, whether you believe there is a god that keeps the universe behaving naturally, carefully making it look as if the naturalistic explanations work… or whether you believe the naturalistic explanations… actually work… it really doesn’t matter. We know that if you start out assuming there is a god, you’ll conclude you can’t deny it, and if you start out assuming there is no god, you’ll conclude there is no need for one. So it really just doesn’t matter.

But (back to point one) that is all about knowledge. Not about belief. So… why would one presuppose the existence of a god? That’s the question we should be asking. Sure, once you presuppose one, you can’t deny it, but the same is true for Zeus, for Russell’s Teapot, for Sagan’s Dragon, and for compassionate conservatives. There may be no reason not to believe, but there is no reason to believe. Atheism is perfectly justified, even for agnostics.

One last thing… the comments at the article are very strange–given that it is the New York Times, the commenters are not what you usually see at, say, FoxNews or CNN. But the article itself is so bizarre, commenters can’t quite tell if it is satire, apologetics, excellent, horrible, or what. Anyway, I understood it all perfectly. By which I mean, you cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not.

Oh, Nothing, Really….

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
Why, their nothing has nothing at all
No time, and no space, and no matter,
Not even the quantumly small

When philosophers talk about “nothing”
It’s a special and magical word
But it isn’t the “nothing” that physicists see,
Cos the thing is, it must be inferred

Now, this doesn’t much bother philosophers
As a rule, they are rarely unnerved
But you see, this philosopher’s nothing?
It has never—not once—been observed

When philosophers argue religion
And their “nothing” implies a first cause…
If you get to assume your conclusions,
You’re not looking for natural laws

If the universe started from nothing
Which it can’t, the philosophers say
Either “nothing”, or “nothing”, is faulty
So… why swing the philosophers’ way?

There are two different versions of “nothing”
Which the sides have us choosing between
One version says God isn’t needed…
And the other has never been seen

So it’s “nothing” to fret about, really
(and “nothing” seems overly broad)
And there’s nothing that needs a creator…
But it works… if you presuppose God.

Y’know, I would swear I’ve already responded to this… but my aggregator says no. Lemme show you a video by Peter Kreeft, explaining that belief in god is more rational than atheism…

Yes, Kreeft starts with Aquinas, because the 1200’s are so modern.

Ok… I was going to go through the whole video, but I think maybe I’ll save that for later. I want to mention one other thing first.

Now… what was that?

Oh, yeah… nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, Krauss has a book out about nothing. And he’s pretty damned good at talking about it, I hear. But there are those who say he’s talking about an entirely different nothing than the philosophers are.

Which is the point of my little verse. See… Krauss’s “nothing” has the decided disadvantage of being observable. Philosophers need not restrict their nothings with such trivial matters. There is “nothing”, and then, there is “nothing”. One is easy to understand… but has never been observed. The other does not match our expectations, but does match the evidence.

There’s nothing, and then there is nothing. The philosophers’ “nothing” is an assumption, not an observation.

Really…. It’s nothing.

The Effing Ineffable

We need a sort of language
To describe the indescribable—
To build a firm foundation
To discuss what no one’s seen

A light to shine on empty space
To highlight shared experience
So others of my tribe will know
Exactly what I mean

We’ll say it’s all quite cryptic
But that faith will make it knowable
That hearts perceive reality
Our eyes can never see

Since none can quite describe it
Why, it matches to a T…
This effing the ineffable
Sounds effing strange to me

So I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR (This story in particular), and the guest author said something along the lines of (the full transcript is not yet up, as of this writing) “the language of religion, by definition, attempts to describe the indescribable, to give a common language to speak about the ineffable”.

Which is quite an interesting feat. If we all agree that something we experienced was “indescribable”, that does not mean we agree. I mean, two of us could call the same dish “indescribable” and yet disagree whether it was good or bad!

Mind you, having faith that your words mean the same as someone else’s is relatively small potatoes when compared with having faith that [insert religious belief here].

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

On Free Will

Our free will, or its illusion,
Is the source of much confusion;
We make choices all the time, but can we say that they are free?
Mind and body in cohesion
Make us think we are Cartesian,
But the whole of modern science makes me want to disagree!
A causal mind’s existence,
Though a meme of some persistence,
Has the weight of long tradition, but the evidence is slim.
Our environment controls us;
Though Cartesian thought consoles us,
The truth is, we’re reactive, and we never act on whim.
Even my creative rhyming
Is controlled by sound and timing
And a history of consequences leading to this end;
Rhymes appear as chosen freely,
When the truth is different, really—
There are multiple parameters to which I must attend!

(Parenthetically, I mention
That “free will” will draw attention
To the action and its consequence, but little to its cause;
The resulting shift of focus
Makes it seem like hocus-pocus;
Through a bit of misdirection, it appears we break the laws!)

Reposted from here (where there are some links and comments worth seeing). Everything old is new again; I’m talking free will in another comments section. Gotta run to class; I’ll throw some links up in a bit.

At The Dalai Lama’s Science Conference…

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

The Dalai Lama saw the moon
Was not lit from within
He shared his observation
(To his tutors’ great chagrin)

Tibetan thought did not survive
Objective observation
The moon was not a lantern—
That was just imagination

This sparked his curiosity
And formed a strange alliance:
A Buddhist monk’s philosophy
And love of modern science

This skepticism surely might
Be called on to explain
How their use of introspection
Tells us beans about the brain

They call it looking inward—
That’s the purpose that it serves—
But the trick is that the brain itself
Is lacking sensory nerves!

We cannot feel our thinking—
To those processes, we’re blind;
So introspect your brains out, but
Beware of what you find.

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

So, yeah, the Dalai Lama (winner of the 2012 Templeton Prize in Science & Religion) hosted a science conference. The 26th Mind and Life Conference (this year’s theme: Mind, Brain, & Matter) invited scientists and Buddhist monks to join in scientific pursuit of an understanding of consciousness:

The examination is rooted in the personal story of the Dalai Lama. During his secluded training as a child in Tibet, he would gaze at the night sky through a telescope on the roof of the Potala Palace. He looked at the moon with such intensity he realized the shadows and asperities on its surface contradicted the Tibetan belief that it was lit from within. He took his findings to his tutors.

“When I told my tutors of my interest in science, they replied that it made sense,” said the Dalai Lama during his welcome speech to the conference. “However, although we have an interest in science, that doesn’t mean we have to devote all our energy to it. I spend the majority of my time in meditation on love, compassion and wisdom, which is the source of my interest in science.”

It’s perfectly understandable that a meditating monk would want to understand consciousness. It’s also understandable that scientists would. Which makes it a bit strange that the confluence is, well, strange. But I guess we are used to science and religion having such very different, competing, and (often) mutually exclusive approaches to finding the truth. These monks, though, are not like, say, young-earth creationists:

The monks are Tibetan scholars from all monasteries who followed a multiple-year science course and are now asked by the Dalai Lama to compile what they learned into a book for their fellow monks. “These are monks who have spent from early morning to late night memorizing ancient texts, having them explained by wise elders and debating them long into the night,” says Rato’s abbot. “They had to leave behind Tibetan beliefs in place for centuries and apply the same strict discipline they had in their Buddhist studies to modern science.”

This is the strength of mind required of the modern monk, he says: a capacity for knowledge, open mindedness and debate, carried alongside the absolute belief in Buddha’s words.

That last bit does raise the question of whether this is a joining of science and faith, or a superb job of compartmentalization.

As for the scientists?

Responses from the scientists differed strongly.

Christof Koch, a University of California neuroscience best known for his work on consciousness, said we could speculate but ultimately we don’t know where it lies beyond the brain, its physical basis. He added that all mammals have consciousness but it is impossible to know where it lies (for example, our immune system can function without it).

Matthieu Ricard, the French monk who was a genetics scientist before taking up the monastic life, turned towards his Buddhist teaching more than his scientific past.

“By honest introspection, by following one line of inquiry which is pure experience,” one can reach an understanding of consciousness, he said.

Ricard then addressed the topic of reincarnation and some individuals’ ability to remember past lives.

Arthur Zajonc, a professor emeritus of physics at Harvard, doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist he said. Yet, he added, “I meditate and through that, have come to believe in the possibility of reincarnation.”

I’ve seen Koch speak before; his expertise is in the brain, of course, so it makes sense that he looks there (and that his expertise is there and not in the terra incognita he sees outside). Koch has also worked with Francis Crick, of “you are your brain” fame, (oh, yeah, and being a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), with which I very much disagree; again, it makes perfect sense that he looks to the brain for answers. Ricard and Zajonc, it appears to me, suffer from the very common problem among scientists: they take their well-earned scientific expertise to mean that they know what they are talking about in other areas. Their reliance on meditation and introspection (apparently the monks’ investigative methodology of choice) is fatally flawed: the brain, lacking sensory nerves, cannot feel itself think.

This, of course, is why we have such bizarre conceptions of “mind” as something ontologically distinct from matter. Imagine you could not feel yourself, say, walking. It would feel like you were magically floating from place to place (or perhaps teleported there in a flash?). You cannot feel yourself think; you only have partial access to some of the outputs of that thinking, and even then your access is both imperfect and subject to constraints of situation–were you even attending to that information at the time? (For those who have not seen it, looking around for examples of attentional blindness, or the art of the pickpocket, easily demonstrates the limits of our awareness.) Let us suppose that the extraordinary training of the monks allows them to attend to all of the outputs at once (very unlikely, but let’s go there)–they would still have no direct access to any of the processes that led to those outputs. And researchers like Koch are happy to tell us of how many interacting and/or parallel processes are at work in an active brain. The metaphors that come to me–diagnosing car problems without opening the hood, or diagnosing computer problems without the ability to see what any of the components are doing–all are considerably simpler than trying to figure out this extraordinarily complex, non-intelligently designed, meat-based data processor.
XKCD cartoon
(image: XKCD, of course)
From the point of view of the introspector, it feels like magic. The vocabulary we use to speak of consciousness, of course, precedes scientific exploration of consciousness, but still shapes what we expect to find, and what explanations we will accept as reasonable. It’s like asking how the sun climbs through the sky, and rejecting the notion that the earth turns. Magic begins to seem reasonable. As long as we’ve got magic consciousness, why the hell not have reincarnation as well? (BTW, the Times post mentions that quantum physics was a topic at the conference–at a “mind, brain, & matter” conference, this can only mean one thing–quantum physics was being misused, and can very likely be considered the modern vocabulary for “magic”.)

I’ve written more than I intended to, already. I’ll stop rather abruptly here. Oh, but I will note that the conference is available for viewing–11 looong youtube videos cover the morning and afternoon sessions of the 6-day conference. I’ll be looking through them at least a bit, to see if I am wrong.

I was wrong once before, and didn’t like it.

Mechanism, Contextualism, And The Limits Of Brain Science

Over at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Alva Noë writes about “Science And The Allure Of ‘Nothing But“, a topic near and dear to my hearts. Reductionism in science has led us to some frankly silly stances, but stances held and strongly defended by major players, and (probably, but I have not counted) a majority of those working–for instance, Francis Crick’s claim that “you are your brain”. We fetishize the brain–not a week goes by (or so it seems) that we don’t see some trivial aspect of human behavior get the official stamp of approval because some researcher has located an area in the brain associated with… lying, or love, or awe, or fear, or jealousy. Mind you, we already knew these things existed–indeed, the vocabulary of the “mind” long preceded our ability to look meaningfully into the brain, and so it makes no sense whatsoever to think that such a phenomenon could only (or even reasonably) be defined within that three pound mass of goo.

What Noë does not say (it is a piece for the general public, after all) is that a large part of our brain fetish has to do with the dominance of a philosophy of mechanism, wherein we use the metaphor of a machine (typically a clockwork, but Noë uses a car in this essay) to understand whatever it is we are looking at. We see how the bits go together, how this machine varies from that one in important ways, but that they are similar in others (averages and ideals are very important in this metaphor), and how some parts control other parts. The brain is a controller of sorts in this model.

Mechanism, however, is not the only philosophical stance science may use. Contextualism, or functional contextualism, looks at things through an entirely different perspective, asking different questions and demanding different answers. Rather than a machine, the metaphor is a behavior in its context–running is never just running, for instance, but exercise, or escape, or hurrying, depending on context. The same behavior or feature might be adaptive in one context and not in another, or different behaviors or features might exploit the same resource. Natural Selection is best framed contextually (which might be obvious by now), as is radical behaviorism and its offshoot molar behaviorism. As the article puts it:

You are not your brain. You are a brain, in a body, situated in an environment, an environment that includes other people, artifacts, as well as mere physical stuff. And when you are living, then you are in continuous interaction and transaction with the surrounding world.

Behaviors and populations extend across both time and space, and interact with an ever-changing and responsive environment. This is the world we live in, and this is the world in which our vocabulary about lying, love, awe, fear, and jealousy (and everything else) came to be useful. And yet, it is the discrete mechanisms of this brain area or that, that we are currently trying to reduce our experience to?

I still have grading to do, so I have already written more on this than I have time to. I will close with something from a while back, inspired by the beautiful photos of macropinna microstoma from 2009. If we had this fish’s head, maybe we could look inward to understand ourselves. But we do not, and so if we truly wish to understand ourselves, I suggest we start looking around instead.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

The claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where we’re told that it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

Absolute Truth(s)

It’s fun* sometimes, to look at what other people think atheists must think. I saw an example of this recently:

Atheists love to tell Christians we’re just about as atheistic as they are. We’re atheistic about millions of gods; they’re atheistic about millions plus one more.

Okay, it’s silly, but I’ll address it one more time.

If God exists, then God is an atheist toward all gods but himself. Therefore God, if he exists, is very nearly (within mere thousandths of a percent!) as atheistic as atheists are.

That’s where their logic goes. The mind reels.

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