Friday, August 30, 2013

Never too late

It's never too late to study science. All it takes is motivation and the admission to yourself that yes, you can do it. Dawkins is brilliant at supplying the former. You have to supply the latter.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Romantic love: the neuroscientist's view

Romantic love is a minor form of folie à deux, a mutual delusional fantasy that often afflicts otherwise normal people.
— V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), p. 261.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bigotophobia

Courtesy of the always-brilliant (in both the US and UK sense) Jesus & Mo:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I Stooged to Conquer

Chicago Review Press recently issued a new version of the autobiography of Moe Howard of The Three Stooges, now with the title he originally wanted: I Stooged to Conquer. I read this on my Kindle, so I am not sure whether it has the same format as the old version, but all of the content appears to be there, including the many, many photos, plus a new forward by Moe's daughter.

Despite having read the original many years ago, I put aside pretty much everything else to read this reissue, and was thoroughly rewarded for having done so. Even though I remember most of the content from the original, I found myself just as absorbed as the first time through and still laughing out loud at many of the stories, where a hilarious turn often comes as suddenly and unexpectedly as a pie to the face or a poke to the eyes. Moe writes simply and engagingly, as though he is telling anecdotes to old and dear friends. His story is fascinating, often touching, and—of course—filled with laughs. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Be forewarned: this post contains a few mild spoilers about the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

I finally got around to watching Zero Dark Thirty, and am frankly confused by the criticism that it misrepresents torture as having been useful in the hunt for bin Laden. As far as I can tell, the film nowhere shows torture leading to useful intelligence. Early in the first act a detainee is tortured to try to get him to reveal the date of an upcoming attack; however, the detainee does not break, the attack takes place, and it is ultimately only through pure trickery that the interrogators later are able to get something useful from him with respect to the hunt for bin Laden. At a few other points in the film, other detainees are seen offering up little bits of useful information, either in person or on video, but it is not clear whether this is because of torture: some clearly are being mistreated, but it is never clear that they were tortured to extract information (rather than just being in a foreign prison where prisoners are routinely mistreated), or that any of the information they offered up was the result of this mistreatment (in the sense that they would not otherwise have been forthcoming). Furthermore, the information they offered never, as far I can remember, added to that offered by others who showed no indication at all of having been tortured. The principal CIA interrogators on the ground in the film believe in the value of torture, but the film never seems to support that stance. If I have missed something, perhaps others can fill me in, but I came away from this film feeling that it presented torture as fairly useless.

This is not to say that I have no misgivings about the film; in fact, I don't think the film should have been made at all so soon after the events it dramatizes. Compression into a 2½-hour Hollywood drama naturally requires one to play fast-and-loose with the facts in a number of ways, and this is problematic since right now the public needs to know how the hunt actually proceeded. I certainly would like to know a lot more about it than I do, but I feel no more clear about it after watching the film than I did before. If people simply viewed the film as entertainment, then there would be no harm—in fact, taken in that light it is a very good film—but inevitably it will inform what many people actually believe about the way the intelligence world works. Whether or not it misrepresents torture, the film, by its non-documentary nature, necessarily creates a muddle where right now we need clarity.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Being theologians

Personally, I've never quite known what to make of the Death of God theologians, which so far hasn't lost me any sleep. Though I share the opinion that God isn't real, I can't shake the idea that they were simply making up the rest of it as they went. Being theologians, I guess you'd say.
— Dale McGowan, Atheism for Dummies (Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2013), p. 141.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Chomsky on the DoD

You refer to the Pentagon, as is usually done, as a defense organization. In 1947, when the National Defense Act was passed, the former War Department—the American department concerned with war which up to that time was called honestly the War Department—had its name changed to the Defense Department. I was a student then and didn't think I was very sophisticated, but I knew and everyone knew that this meant that to whatever extent the American military had been involved in defense in the past—and partially it had been so—this was now over: since it was being called the Defense Department, that meant it was going to to be a department of aggression, nothing else.
—Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005), p. 139

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A hopeful failure

I don't mean to be unkind, but I sincerely hope this book does not deliver on the promise implicit in its title.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pale blue dot once more

NASA has released a new photo from the Cassini spacecraft:



The pale blue dot you see midway down, three-quarters to the left, is us. Faced with an image like this, a sensible person can do naught but listen to Carl Sagan rhapsodize:


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Relativism and self-consistency

All versions of relativism have one problem in common: How are relativistic thinkers to exempt their own thought from relativistic "deconstruction"? After all, each relativist has a particular location in space and time, which location, if that individual's approach is correct, must determine his or her thought as much as anyone else's. Put differently, the relativist's thought is but one "narrative" among many others that are just as valid. 
— Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt (New York: HarperOne, 2009), p. 57.

This puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with a humanities professor who was just flummoxed that any philosophy instructor would try to abstract the views of great philosophers away from their historical context and assess them simply on the basis of their logical worth and evidential support. According to her, there was no way to examine a thesis on its own merits: once one understood the social and economic forces that led to a thesis being posed by someone, there was nothing left to say about it. I'm not very confrontational, especially with probable lost causes, so I did not ask her whether there was actual reason to believe the thesis she just presented, or whether, once one understood the social and economic forces that led her to pose it, there was nothing left to say about it.

It also puts me in mind of my very first philosophy of science professor talking to my class about one of his own encounters with a social constructivist. Social constructivism comes in many forms, but one common form contends (i) that scientific "facts" are merely whatever scientists happen to agree on, and (ii) that what scientists happen to agree on has nothing to do with evidence and everything to do with social forces in the scientific community. Needless to say, social constructivists tend to be sociologists. My professor related his wide-eyed response: "Do you mean to tell me that there are no objective facts about physics, or about chemistry, or about biology, but that there are objective facts about sociology?"

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Robert Ingersoll on the design argument

A man finds a watch and it is so wonderful that he concludes that it must have had a maker. He finds the maker and he is so much more wonderful than the watch that he says he must have had a maker. Then he finds God, the maker of the man, and he is so much more wonderful than the man that he could not have had a maker. This is what the lawyers call a departure in pleading. 
— Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert Ingersoll (New York, 1900), vol. 4, p. 27. As quoted in Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 37.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On the usefulness of geologists

It's always important to have a geologist around so that if you end up in space, there's someone to die first. At least that's what happens on Star Trek.
— Penn Jillette. Every Day is an Atheist Holiday (New York, Penguin: 2012), p. 74.

Of course, I'm a philosophy instructor by trade, so I'm in no position to throw stones (so to speak).

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Heroism

Moishe had talked to his father about becoming an atheist. Moishe felt his dad loved him but was still secretly hoping Moishe would end up in jail or something, some deep trouble, to vindicate the faith of his father. Moishe said his dad had asked him if he was happier without religion. If he was happier without his family and community. If he was happier as an atheist. 
Moishe had explained to his father that what made him happy didn't matter. What mattered was the truth. 
That may be the definition of a hero.
— Penn Jillette. God, No! (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), p. 37