[R]esearchers led by Semir Zeki of University College London asked 16 mathematicians to rate 60 equations on a scale ranging from “ugly” to “beautiful.” Two weeks later, the mathematicians viewed the same equations and rated them again while lying inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.
Is it meaningful to say an electron “chooses” to jump the way it does? Obviously, there’s no way to prove it. The only evidence we could have (that we can’t predict what it’s going to do), we do have. But it’s hardly decisive. Still, if one wants a consistently materialist explanation of the world—that is, if one does not wish to treat the mind as some supernatural entity imposed on the material world, but rather as simply a more complex organization of processes that are already going on, at every level of material reality—then it makes sense that something at least a little like intentionality, something at least a little like experience, something at least a little like freedom, would have to exist on every level of physical reality as well.
Why do most of us, then, immediately recoil at such conclusions? Why do they seem crazy and unscientific? Or more to the point, why are we perfectly willing to ascribe agency to a strand of DNA (however “metaphorically”), but consider it absurd to do the same with an electron, a snowflake, or a coherent electromagnetic field?
I’m disappointed that you only put up the numbers from accidental gun deaths. It seems a bit disingenuous, as the number of non-accidental car deaths, pool deaths, etc., are, of course, dramatically lower. In 2010 the FBI recorded 12,996 homicides. Of those, 8,775 were committed with guns. That compares to 1,704 with knives, the next closest, 540 with blunt objects, and 11 with poison. Even if you would argue that, of those killed by guns, many would have been killed with another weapon, it’s hard to see how that would directly play out. How many drive-by knifings can you have? How many people can get hit by crossfire from a baseball bat?
How about suicide? In 2010, we had 19,392 gun suicides. Not so many with cars. And for those who would argue that guns don’t matter when it comes to suicide (i.e. people will kill themselves regardless of what tools they have to accomplish the deed), multiple studies have proven that access to guns dramatically raises the risk of a successful suicide attempt.
But if you want to stick with just accidental deaths, as you’ve done, let’s contextualize it a bit. From 2005-2010, almost 3,800 people in the US died from unintentional shootings. 1,300 of those were under the age of 25. 31% of those shootings could have been prevented by the addition of two devices: a child-proof safety lock and a loading indicator. And 8% of those shootings (that’s 304) were carried out by shots fired from children under the age of six. How many accidental road deaths are caused by drivers who are under the age of six?
So, yes, lots of stuff can kill you. No surprise. But in the US, we’re at a much higher risk of death by firearm because of the lobbying efforts of the industry whose product is design to kill.
Another reader, from the other side of the debate, quotes Waldman:
On one hand, there are over 300 million of us, so only one in 500,000 Americans is killed every year because his knumbskull cousin said “Hey Bert, is this thing loaded?” before pulling the trigger. You can see that as a small number. The other way to look at is that each and every day, an American or two loses his or her life this way. In countries with sane gun laws, that 606 number is somewhere closer to zero.
That sentence encapsulates what I hate about the anti-gun crowd.
Ed Finn argues that “when we start depending on our computers to explain how and why things happened, we’ve started to outsource not just the talking points but the narrative itself”:
The idea that a computer might know you better than you know yourself may sound preposterous, but take stock of your life for a moment. How many years of credit card transactions, emails, Facebook likes, and digital photographs are sitting on some company’s servers right now, feeding algorithms about your preferences and habits? What would your first move be if you were in a new city and lost your smartphone? I think mine would be to borrow someone else’s smartphone and then get Google to help me rewire the missing circuits of my digital self. …
But of course we’re not surrendering our iPhones or our cloud-based storage anytime soon, and many have begun to embrace the notion of the algorithmically examined life. Lifelogging pioneers have been it at it for decades, recording and curating countless aspects of their own daily existences and then mining that data for new insights, often quite beautifully. Stephen Wolfram crunched years of data on his work habits to establish a sense of his professional rhythms far more detailed (and, in some cases, mysterious) than a human reading of his calendar or email account could offer. His reflections on the process are instructive:
The idea for Time In Motion came to Qi Wei while working on its predecessor, and has taken about four months to put together. For the original series, Qi Wei shot at the same location for between two to four hours, usually at sunset to catch the most dynamic and glorious lighting. The challenge then was to slice up an image in an interesting way, then to find ways of using the best moments in a given shard and arrange them into a coherent overall image. In this [new GIF series], the same balance was necessary, but has to be sustained across each frame.
One thing lost in the conversion is time for inspection and contemplation. The images now generally pass by far too quickly to be discerned, leaving the overall effect to be taken in. Ultimately, Qi Wei is as interested in notions of time raised by these pictures as he is in the aesthetics of the images themselves.
We are many. Just not all of us are open about it! I don’t like the term “atheist” (being freighted with Dawkins anti-theism); I prefer the term “non-believer”. I passed through my ex-Catholic/angry-atheist phase to a post-religion phase where I value what we have in common more than I care about what separates us. I go to church because 1) I married a woman of deep faith, and 2) because we found our way to a community that welcomes both of us, when she was effectively driven out of her cradle Catholicism by the horrors of California’s Prop8. In fact, I was lobbying her to become Episcopalian for years, as that seems the logical place for a Vatican II-style Catholic with progressive views of church and justice.
Mutual respect makes our inter-faith relationship work. My wife’s service in church (she’s now the Head Verger of an Episcopal cathedral) is a major part of her life, and I love her completely, so of course I support her wholeheartedly. And she respects who and where I am as well. I too was raised Catholic, so the ancient rhythm of the liturgy is familiar, and the music is simply amazing (thankfully she went “nosebleed high” when she swam the Thames). I guess I am essentially a cultural Trinitarian sacramentalist Christian, even if I don’t believe per se. So I’ll do gladly do Episcopal calisthenics on a Sunday, though I don’t pray, sing, or take communion, because that would be disrespectful of the community.
As the members of my church say, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome here.” Kinda restores my faith in Christianity.
Reading your most recent post on Apatheism, I thought I’d relate the following story of how politics have made this outspoken atheist into a staunch defender of religious freedom.
Great to hear an actual defense of the ACA from Charlie Crist. Why, I wonder, do we almost never hear Democratic members of Congress say the same thing? Why the constant defensive crouch? Why do we not have an aggressive, active campaign to defend the ACA? I’ve never understood why Democrats seem so incapable of making the case for their policies. Part of me thought the Obama era could overcome that. But Democratic uselessness seems far too deeply ingrained for that.
With the release of Son of God, a new movie about the life of Jesus, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey remember that “Jesus films have not always been so serious, and they have not always been directed toward particular segments of the Christian community”:
Neither Godspell, nor Jesus Christ Superstar endeavored to convert unbelievers to Christianity. If they had a particular audience in mind, it was those who loved the theater. Both originated as stage productions. Tim Rice, the writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, explained later that he was fascinated with Jesus as a human and not as a divine figure. Following the theological controversy of the 1960s that had some leading religious thinkers emphasizing the actions of humans and not the powers of God, Rice tapped into this humanistic concern. In some respects, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar wanted to have their communion bread and eat it too. They followed the Jesus People movement by repacking Jesus in the idiom of cool, but also indulged in the new theologies that wanted to dispense with his divinity.
Blum and Harvey go on to ponder why, then, “major motion pictures about Jesus returned to their serious ways”:
So what was unique about the 1970s? One main difference was that evangelicals and Catholics had yet to form tight political bonds and had yet to become a powerful niche market. By the time of [Mel] Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, an entire industry of the devout had been created. It boasted singers like Amy Grant, athletes like NBA star David Robinson, restaurants like Chic-fil-A, and painters like Thomas Kinkade. Those markets, along with conservative media outlets, made the Son of God and The Passion not only possible, but lucrative. In fact, a main sponsor of The Bible miniseries was the dating site Christian Mingle.
In a review of David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, Michael Walzer observes that the author “insists, rightly, that real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism.” Elaborating on how “imaginary Jews” came to capture the minds of thinkers who had little experience with actual Jewish people, Walzer draws on Nirenberg’s discussion of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice “to illustrate the difference between his anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism that is the subject of more conventional, but equally depressing, histories”:
Shylock himself is the classic Jew: he hates Christians and desires to tyrannize over them; he loves money, more than his own daughter; he is a creature of law rather than of love. He isn’t, indeed, a clever Jew; in his attempt to use the law against his Christian enemy, he is unintelligent and inept. (A modern commentator, Kenneth Gross, asks: “What could [he] have been thinking?”) But in every other way, he is stereotypical, and so he merits the defeat and humiliation he receives—which are meant to delight the Elizabethan audience. …
Nirenberg’s question [is]: What put so many Jews (like Shylock or Marlowe’s Jew of Malta) on the new London stage, in “a city that had sheltered fewer ‘real Jews’ than perhaps any other major one in Europe”? His answer—I can’t reproduce his long and nuanced discussion—is that London was becoming a city of merchants, hence a “Jewish” city, and Shakespeare’s play is a creative response to that development, an effort to address the allegedly Judaizing features of all commercial relationships, and then to save the Christian merchants by distinguishing them from an extreme version of the Jew.
“The appeal of writing is the illusion that you can somehow bring about the completion and perfection of those things that will always elude you in real time. I suppose if we could find the life that we needed, and if it were intrinsically gratifying, that the need to narrate something outside of real-time interaction with people would really diminish. In a sense, the people we create in a book come from the people we know, but the conversations that we have with them in the book are the ones that we could never have with them in real life.
And yet the act of writing the life that we aren’t able to lead can complement the act of leading a life that we wouldn’t have been able to lead had we not the restorative power of writing and reading. This takes us back to this question of why reading and writing need to be defended. In reading and writing, in this locating the life that we have not yet been able to lead, we can make ourselves more capable of acting under fire. That’s the life of symbols. That’s what we are,” – Richard Powers.
NYC-based photographer Phillip Toledano‘s series The Reluctant Fatheris a frank and witty account detailing his less-than-enthusiastic reaction to his newborn daughter Loulou during the first year-and-a-half of her life. Rather than experiencing the “tsunami of love” most of us have been taught to expect, he instead confesses that “it was like trying to have a relationship with a sea sponge, or a single-cell protozoa. She didn’t DO anything. Or at least, nothing I could understand,” he recalls. Nor was he enamored of the shift that occurred in his and his wife Carla’s relationship, saying he felt he’d been replaced by an “alien.” Of course, as a short time would tell, he fell utterly and completely under Loulou’s spell.
Morgan Meis marvels at the recent critical success of Zibaldone, the lengthy diary of the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, considering that the book’s “central thesis … is that life is miserable and there is nothing to be done about it”:
The seduction of Zibaldone is in reading the words of a man who hasn’t flinched from the hardest thoughts. Reading Zibaldone is like getting permission to go into a room that is usually locked. It is a chance to let the dark thoughts speak. It is a chance to look at the desolation without brushing it away. It is a chance to sit and soak in the melancholy. Right now, at this moment in history, soaking in the melancholy seems the right thing to do. We are surrounded, after all, by a civilization that seeks pleasure and distraction with a shrillness that makes Imperial Rome look reserved. The current mainstream discussion of human happiness and infinite progress is so coarse that it has been more or less abandoned to the technocrats. Reflective persons have nowhere to turn. And then a volume like Zibaldone turns up. Leopardi, in his infinite gloom, takes on the guise of a savior. This is what it must have been like to stumble across a volume of Pascal’s Pensées in the late 17th century. It is like plunging into a very cold, very fresh mountain stream after days of walking in the hot sun.
Laura Pearson recommends the revamped Cosmos TV series, which premieres tonight with Neil deGrasse Tyson stepping in for Carl Sagan:
Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this time around, but the plot of the 13-part series remains largely out of this world, exploring the farthest reaches of the knowable universe and the origins of life on Earth. Spoiler alert for anyone who missed Sagan’s groundbreaking Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the instructive 1977 film strip Powers of Ten, or every science class ever: The universe is old. Mind-blowingly old and vast. To explore it is to better understand ourselves.
That’s why watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a matter of necessity, and what distinguishes it from what’s usually on TV—Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares or Hotel Hell or My Cat From Hell or whatever. Whereas the vast nebulae of reality shows entice viewers with the notion that ordinary people (and cats) can access instant fame, Cosmos shows reality as it applies to everyone, famous or not.
Matt Zoller Seitz sees plenty to admire about the new version:
“Plato at the 92nd Street Y” pits him against the Chua-ish “Warrior Mother” Sophie Zee, discussing Republic’s hypothetical “city of pigs” and testing out in the Myers-Briggs typology as an INTJ (just like yours truly); “Plato on Cable News” has him exchanging blows with a bloviating Bill O’Reilly clone named Roy McCoy. And yes, here is Plato at the Googleplex, debating an engineer over the possibility of crowdsourcing ethics, as well as wryly comparing its communal environment to the training of young philosopher-kings in the Republic. (I used to work for Google, and believe me, we had it way better than Plato’s ascetic Guardians.)
By alternating between these new “Platonic dialogues” and a serious chronicle of Plato’s life and philosophy, Goldstein makes a plea for the continuing importance of philosophy as Plato (427–347 B.C.) conceived it, and for the enduring relevance of Plato’s contributions.
A passage from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Naval Treaty” – in which Sherlock Holmes spots a rose in an interviewee’s apartment and waxes theological – prompts John Horgan to wonder if the detective believed in God:
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from flowers.”
Holmes is alluding to what I call the problem of beauty. As I have explained previously, the problem of evil prevents me from believing in God, or at least an all-powerful God who gives a damn about us. But the problem of beauty keeps me from being an adamant atheist. If reality results from sheer coincidence, why is it often so heartbreakingly lovely? As the great physicist Steven Weinberg, an atheist if ever there was one, once wrote, sometimes nature “seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.”
My guess is that the hyper-empirical Holmes, if pressed, would say that he is an agnostic, because there is insufficient evidence for either belief or disbelief in a Creator. (Holmes is more rational than his own creator, Conan Doyle, who after the death of his wife and other loved ones consoled himself by believing in ghosts.)
Previous Dish on Doyle and Sherlock Holmes here, here, and here. The recent Dish thread on the varieties of atheism is here.
Roger Scruton frowns on “scientism,” which he describes as involving “the use of scientific forms and categories in order to give the appearance of science to unscientific ways of thinking.” The arts and humanities, he insists, lie beyond the reach of the empirical:
Art critics have a discipline, and it is one that involves reasoning and judgment. It is not a science, and what it describes forms no part of the physical world, which does not contain Olympia or anything else you see in Manet’s painting. Yet someone who thought that art criticism is therefore deficient and ought to be replaced by the study of pigments would surely be missing the point. There are forms of human understanding that can be neither reduced to science nor enhanced by it.
Here is where the neurothugs step in, to declare that, of course, the science of pixels won’t explain pictures, since pictures are in the eye of the beholder. But there is also such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame. Since understanding a picture is a matter of seeing it in a certain way — in such a way as to grasp its visual aspect, and the meaning which that aspect has for beings like us — then we should be examining the neural pathways involved in seeing aspects, and the connections that link those pathways to judgments of meaning.
What does it mean to be called to the religious life? Even the most articulate of these women cannot find the precise words to explain how she came to understand her vocation. The youngest nun says, “I’m sure anyone who falls in love, they look back and say, ‘Oh, remember how we met? Or he showed his love?’ It’s the same, how God has shown his personal love.”
But how does one fall in love? These women are no more capable of explaining their love of the holy than we are of understanding the reasons two human beings are attracted to each other, and yet they try. One sister compares it to God “playing hide-and-seek,” drawing her to the religious life, but leaving her unsure of where to go. Like any love, there is struggle, not only with which of the various religious orders to join but how to live once there; it is not desperation which brings these women to the cloister but desire.
Giles Fraser thinks “the best theologians are musicians”:
Christianity is always better sung than said. To the extent that all religion exists to make raids into what is unsayable, the musicians penetrate further than most. When Mendelssohn takes the words of Psalm 55 and transforms them into the almost unbearably moving Hear My Prayer [above], he is not offering up some theological argument that can be batted about, agreed with, disagreed with. It’s not propositional. It’s a cry from the depths of his being. Longing, joy, hope, hopelessness, the call for justice – all these get expressed by religious music in ways that religious words can only partially capture.
As the voices of the choir bounce around the pillars of the cathedral, they carry with them the various petitions and often inchoate yearnings of those gathered in the pews: a death, a broken love affair, a new child, a desire for the world to be a different place. Tallis, Bach, Handel, Mozart, even contemporary musicians like the recently deceased John Tavener, they have the capacity take our patchy, confused and half-worked-through feelings and translate them aesthetically into something approaching coherence and worthy of wonder.