Saturday, June 13, 2015

Hate Mai...... Oh, Heck, Here This Is More Interesting And Won't Take Up More Than About Five Minutes Of Your Time

William Bolcolm - 60 Second Ballet (for chickens)

Guy Livingston - piano

From Guy Livingston's album of purpose commissioned one-minute (more or less) pieces for piano, most by composers I'd never heard of before.   I love listening to new music I've never heard and like nothing I've never heard before.

Here, a few more, now with movies!

Music by Alvin Curran
Film by Newt Hinton

Music by David Jaggerd
Animation by Juan de Graaf

Film by Newt Hinton
Score composed by Robert Strizich 

Music by Bongani Ndodana
Performed by Guy Livingston

I'd better stop.  They're addictive.  

Encore:   For Fred Astaire

Music by Werner Heider
Film by Nelleke Koop

Richard McBrien, This Week on Saturday, As Well - Vision Of Reinhold Niebuhr

RMJ pointed out in a good post that in the column I posted yesterday Fr. Richard McBrien neglected to mention examples of fine Protestant theologians, which is a valid point.  He also noted the rather unfortunate characterization of liberation theology, something which I noticed as well since liberation theology, Latin American, Black and, far later, Asian has had an enormous influence on my own thinking.

Here is his column on the death of the great Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.

Some people may clinically dismiss anything written before the Second Vatican Council as a waste of time. Such a principal, if accepted as a normative standard for reading and study, tends to constrict one's theological horizons.

Pre-1962 reading-lists include the Fathers of the Church (Irenaeus, Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, et al.), the great medieval theologians (Thomas, Luther, Calvin, et al.), and, indeed the Bible itself. 

They also include most of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who died on the first of June at Stockbridge, Mass.

Niebuhr has probably been the most widely influential American religious thinker and writer in this century. He began as a pastor of an industrial parish in Detroit and then, after more than 12 years of service, was invited to accept a chair of social ethics at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He taught there from 1928 until his retirement 32 years later. 

Throughout his academic career, not only did he produce a fair amount of impressive theological materiel, in the way of books, articles, and lectures, but he also applied his theological principles to the marketplace of social and political action by participating in the founding of the Liberal Party in New York State and of the Americans for Democratic Action nationally. He was intellectual counselor to many politicians, statesmen, and scientists, and for many years was an editor of Christianity and Crisis, a tiny but influential journal which he helped to found in order to counteract the prevailing spirit of Liberal Protestantism in America.

Niebuhr is best known for two works in particular, Moral Man and Immoral Society, which he wrote in 1932, and The Nature and Destiny of Man, which were originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1939.

The former book had about the same impact in Protestant America as Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans had upon Protestant Europe more than a decade earlier.

Both Niebuhr and Barth raised a piercing word of protest and dissent against the utopianism and naive optimism of the early twentieth century. That spirit of unbounded optimism, with its illusions of inevitable progress, had been especially vigorous in the United States during the 1920's.

The Depression, however, had generally the same effect on American ebullience as the First World War had on the European variety. In both instances there were remarkably perceptive theologians around to offer some useful interpretation and penetrating criticism of each of these phenomena: Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Over against the Liberal dogma that the Kingdom of God was within the very reach of man, Niebuhr argued, as much on the basis of his Biblical and theological reflections, that the Kingdom will come only as a mighty act of God at the end of history, beyond the reach of man's weak grasp.

Niebuhr outlined his theology of history in terms of a dialectic between "nature" and "grace." "Nature" he defined as "the historical possibilities of justice," and "grace," the "ideal possibility of perfect love, in which all inner contradictions within the self, and all conflicts and tensions between the self and the other are overcome by the complete obedience of all wills to the will of God" (The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. II, p. 246).

The best that man can hope to accomplish in this world is an approximation of total justice and of perfect love. Moreover, every partial realization of justice and love inevitably contains elements which stand in contradiction to both these values.

"Higher realizations of historic justice would be possible if it were more fully understood that all such realizations contain contradictions to as well as approximations of, the ideal love," he wrote. "Sanctification in the realm of social relations demands recognition of the impossibility of perfect sanctification" (pp. 246-7).

According to Niebuhr, the "pinnacle of moral ideal," which is the Kingdom of God, stands both inside and beyond history. "Christian realism," as he called it, requires us to accept this ambiguous and sinful character of history without yielding to the temptation to withdraw from social and political action and to retreat from worldly responsibility. 

The vision of Reinhold Niebuhr bears some significant resemblance to the eschatological perspective outlined in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, especially n. 39. Some theologians have criticized that constitution for not stressing enough the element of sin in the evolution of human history. If this is indeed the case, Reinhold Niebuhr offers us a useful corrective and a valuable supplement. 

7 / 2 / 1971

I could have excerpted many of his other columns and passages praising Protestant theologians and theologians and writers from many other religious traditions but maybe on a future Friday. 

As to the his comment on liberation theology,  I quoted from his second edition of Catholicism from two decades after that column in which he shows a more considered attitude to it. 

"Another variation is advanced by those in the liberation theology. God is disclosed in the historical praxis of liberation. It is the situation and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed. ... The Word of God is distorted and alienating unless one is committed to change for the sake of the Kingdom. Such a commitment to liberation gives rise to a new way of being human and believing, of living and thinking the faith, of being called together as Church. Revelation, therefore, happens when we recognize and accept God's summons to us to participate in the historical struggle for liberation." 

It could be pointed out that by the current online orthodoxy that shouldn't have been able to happen because, as everyone knows, religion doesn't develop.  But here we see that one of the most widely read of Catholic theologians of the last century developed quite far in two decades. 

Brahms String Sextet in Bb op. 18

Krysia Osostowicz
Niels Chr. Øllgaard
Steven Dann
Michel Camille
Marko Ylonen
Franz Ortner

I love this performance, especially the second, variation movement.  You can hear even more when you see how the different instruments were given different parts.  It's better than just reading the score for that, for some reason.


Bring Back Rigorous Frosh Rhetoric Prerequisites

Remember my saying that you couldn't go several days without hearing something silly being said supporting materialist ideology about our minds in the media?  A few hours after I posted the piece below, NPR's Morning Edition, Saturday had a piece doing that, over and over again.   The motive was a sort of promo-review of a really stupid sounding movie purported to teach children and parents about the science behind their puzzling behavior, explaining it all through the latest in neuro-cog-science.   If you don't catch the movie, don't worry.  They'll change everything said in it around in a few years, if not months.

I kept gritting my teeth listening to it wondering, didn't anyone teach them how metaphors work?  Over and over again, people who go on like that continually mistake metaphors standing in for the thing they are only a comparison to, for the thing the metaphor was invented to explain.   A metaphor isn't necessary if the object of the effort is understood, in itself.

It makes me think of something said about metaphors in an old internet forum on "Metaphors, analogies, thought mappings" I once read and, wouldn't you know, I found it.

"When a precise narrowly focused technical idea becomes metaphor and sprawls globally, its credibility must be earned afresh locally by means of specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application. It is not enough for presenters to make ever-bolder puns, as meaning drifts into duplicity. Something has to be explained."

The problem is, that's not how human beings in real life operate.  Once they have learned a metaphor the strong tendency to mistake it as established fact takes over.  While it is endemic to many branches of science, it is especially true of those things presented by science reporters in the media.*   Metaphors have a shelf-life that fact isn't supposed to have and when you substitute metaphors for fact, you are bound to risk coming up with some really bad consequences.

Interestingly, in the same forum discussion was this, from a teacher.

I've been teaching a class of 4th/5th grade students to create a blank map of a place as a class, then invent that place through their studies. They "discover" items on the map by turning up items in reading, looking at photos, listening to sounds, brainstorming, etc. When they've studied those items and written about them a bit they're drawn into the map. As the map grows denser their ability to explore it, and thus generate ideas from it, grows.

In a curious way, this is a way of reversing the metaphor of the mind map -- it's a mind map that really becomes a map.

I've been fascinated at how readily the students take to this kind of thinking. I've had to explain this approach to adult teachers many times and generally received confusion and skepticism in return. But when I showed it to the students not one of them needed an explanation. One said: "I can't wait to get started!" and there was lots of agreement.

I post this here because it is, in a sense, a large-scale metaphor for learning, although it's functional as well.

You have to wonder what the tendency of the students to mistke their metaphor for some actual representation of their actual mind, the know to them, the unknown to them, and that the entire thing was based on assumptions that don't meet the requirements of "specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application".  Evidence based science, among other things, in short.

The mistaking of metaphor for the thing the comparison was created to explain is a common enough problem, it is found in the ideological enemies of the "brain-only" materialists, the biblical literalists, whose reading of the book of Genesis, etc. is recapitulated by them for what is merely a different ideological position.

While listening to the NPR piece I kept thinking, this has to be a result of sci-folk not being exposed to the humanities to the extent that they understand the very real and serious limits of metaphors, not to mention identifying a metaphor as one and not a scientific "fact".  Only, when I looked, NPR's Science Editor Jon Hamilton "... graduated with honors from Oberlin College in Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English... He earned his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University."  And Neda Ulaby "... taught classes in the humanities at the University of Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University and at high schools serving at-risk students..." and was "A former doctoral student in English literature.   What the hell?   How can you get through your Frosh year as an English major without understanding the nature of metaphors?   Bring back rigorous Frosh Rhetoric prerequisites for all incoming Freshmen, especially any of them who are going to blather in the media about "brain science".

*  The distinction between serious-popular and serious-academic as opposed to journalistic theology which Richard McBrien made yesterday is as good a description of science writing, as well.  Only sometimes the journalistic writing pushes an agenda on behalf of even those writing serious-academic science, these days those whose primary avocational goal for science is pushing materialist ideology.

Thinking Through The Ultimate Far Fetched Dream of Materialists

I happened across this story at Alternet about billionaires trying to cheat death with science and technology,  as one of those quoted in the piece say, "they’re convinced there is nothing you can’t do if you can turn biotechnology into information technology".  

The article is quite a grab bag of flaky ideas and schemes to make people immortal, all of them ridiculous, all of them purported to be science, by someone, at least.   My question would be how these immortals propose to survive proton decay if that ever expanding model of cosmology turns out to be true.  Or, conversely, the big crunch if the whole shebang is coming back together into a primordial speck.  Or, a more pressing problem, how they expect to survive when the sun goes red giant, if that expectation of the cosmology of my young adulthood is still current.

That some of those who are investigating and funding the quest, presumably for them to achieve immortality in their life time - and is that even the word for what they're thinking of - are supposed to be religious is especially bizarre.   I'd think an immortal person would rather be stuck on Earth when their real destination is the afterlife.  I'd think they'd be kind of like the ghosts of Hogwarts, afraid to "go on".  

I came across it while trying to refresh my memory over some of Ray Kurtzweil's wackier ideas about achieving immortality through coding.  Why that idea isn't more ridiculous than the old notion of a vital essence animating life is curious, itself.  If there's one thing that is obvious about computing technology, it is that it isn't alive, it doesn't even have a very long sell by envelope.   Just try downloading a driver for your old printer if you want to see what I mean.  If immortality is the goal, computers would seem to be a silly means of achieving it.  Though not as silly as freezing someone like a piece of meat and expecting their bodies to reanimate and resume living.

Another of the striking things about this, which occurred to me while I was reading the article is how the "brain only" folks aren't at war with those true believers in Kurtzweil's immortality through computers.  If not only the essential mind of a person but also its memories, its perceptions, the products of its sensory experience are transferable to code, that removes them from being tied to the molecular and biological structures of the brain which they are supposed to not only be identified with but to be the actual, physical being of those things.  I doubt Kurtzweil has thought that out, being preoccupied with his machines, but it would be, I'd think, a death blow for a materialist explanation based on ideas being physical structures and consciousness as an phenomenon arising out of those physical structures.  If the mind survives that radical a transfer of physical form, from biological tissues to computer coding, it would mean the mind transcends any specific physical form.   Far from confirming the materialist theory of the mind, I think accepting those ideas is a fundamental challenge to it. If it succeeded, it would be a practical demonstration that minds are not the creation of the physical structures that materialists assert but can exist independent of them.


Friday, June 12, 2015

McCoy Tyner Trio - Reaching Fourth

McCoy Tyner - piano
Henry Grimes - bass
Roy Haynes - drums

O Jesus, My Saviour - Cades Cove Primitive Baptist - Spiritual At Noon

McBrien on Fridays

Because of the ignorant snark about theology that I also got this week - from someone so ignorant that they think I'm engaging in theology, here - I'm posting this explanation from a theologian, written forty years ago, tomorrow.

Three Different Levels Of Contemporary Theology

For some people, theological interest is like ice cream. You have to lick it quickly before it melts.

You weren't "with it" in the mid-1960's if you hadn't read "The Secular City," or, failing that, at least adopted the vocabulary of Christian seculiarity.

You weren't "with it" soon thereafter if Altizer, Hamilton, and Van Buren -- the so-called "death-of-God" theologians -- weren't as familiar as your favorite double-play combination (Tinkers-to-Evers-to-chance, and all that).

You were dragging your feet if you did not leap aboard the "theology of hope" cavalcade of the late 1960's, with its focus on prolepsis, "the power of the future," even "the future of the future!"

The reform of sociely, the expiration of God, and the vision of a new aeon -- all in five years! But no sooner had we begun to catch our breath when transcendence was back in fashion, with all its works: festivity and fantasy, mystery and mirth, prayer and play. And under exactly the same sponsor that brought us "The Secular City!"

But the activist urge would not die a peaceful death. A virulent life-form, sornewhat akin to the presidential bug. Once it gets into your bloodstream, a former U.S. senator said recently, it can be expelled only by embalming fluid.

Our balloons were no sooner in the air, floating lazily in the reflected glow of the strobe lights, when word came forth that certain late entries in the secularity sweepstakes were to be given a respectful glance; black theology, liberation theology, feminist theology. Affirmative action, perhaps.

But transcendence was jealous of its newly gained prominence, and did not yield ground without a fight. If we were supposedly beyond God as creator, judge, and father, we were not beyond the Devil as possessor, chain-rattler, and mischief-maker. The demonic became delightful.

And if archbishops no longer broke the bread of wisdom, we found Don Juans aplenty to lead us in the Yaqui way of knowledge, with the sacramental assistance of peyote, Jimson weed, and mushrooms.

All of this was enough to frustrate the most diligent observer of the religious scene. Keeping up with theology seems to have had about the same appeal as pushing the rock of Sisyphus up a mountainside -- with roughly the same effect.

What the confused reader has to keep in mind is that theology makes its entry at three different points: the popular-serious, the scholarly-serious, and the journalistic.

By "Popular-serious" theology I mean the kind of work that Charles Davis did so well in the late 1950's and early 1960's while he was still one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians in Great Britain.

I mean, too, the very helpful popularization of biblical scholarship that John McKenzie provided with his pace-setting "Two-Edged Sword" in 1956.

By "scholarly -serious" I mean the kind of work that Karl Rahner and Yves Congar, the two most distinguished Roman Catholic theologians, have done over the past several decades. Strong on history, carefully analytical in method, their books and articles have been models of theological scholarship.

Finally, by "journalistic" theology I mean the kind done at the talk-show and magazine levels. It feeds on publicity and is discernibly commercial, generating book sales and higher TV ratings.

Its practitioners have about the same relationship to academic theology as Dr. Stillman has to medicine. They may interest Johnny Carson, but the rest of the profession is wincing.

It is "journalistic" theology -- whose right to exist I do not challenge -- that gives popular-serious theology a bad name.

Too many otherwise responsible people in the Church make up their minds about "popular-serious," and even "scholarly-serious," theology on the basis of their reading of "journalistic" theology alone.

That's neither reasonable nor fair.

Hate Mail - The New Rule of (uhm) ... Intellectual Discourse, Hard Equals Wrong

I have had not one but two people complain that I write long pieces and I write long sentences.   The blogatheists' idea of an ultimate intellectual refuation, "word salad," was used.   I don't want to get into the Strunk-White religion again but those two pudding heads might account for some of that nonsense.  It is stupid to think that you can discuss complicated things in a way that would be comprehensible to the average fourth-grader.   How far the alleged left has come from the Reagan era when so many would point to his facile, foolish ideas and policies and repeat the words of H. L. Mencken, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."  Or, more typically, paraphrase because they'd never really read Mencken.  For the record, Mencken was generally wrong in most important things but he got that one right.   It's a lot easier to get something obvious right even if the middle-brow mind has been educated out of understanding that.

I don't find that people who write about the things I do write in short sentences in the corpus of words found in Basic English.   Unlike me, a lot of them are real writers, not the more common scribblers.    The person who can condense complex ideas into sentences that average eight to twelve words is likely, actually, watering them down.  The reductionist thinking that is typical of most atheists is usually of that kind.  It is remarkably common among even the scientific luminaries among them,  especially those in the social sciences and the occupation staff of those of real sciences.  

For people who are constantly throwing the named logical fallacies around, easily three-quarters of the time entirely inappropriately to the context, they seem to think that the ones they constantly commit are some kind of rhetorical virtue.   Over-simplification is one of those that is most effective among those who know the least.   And it is ubiquitous among neo-atheists.   If you want to see that in action among some intelligent people you can listen to any of the debates between famous atheists and the philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig.   I certainly don't agree with Craig on many theological matters but he is a master at exposing the things that even such eminent scientists as Sean Carroll are in the habit of leaving out of their considerations.  You can see if you agree with me, here.    If you want a good example of that, here is some of Craig's post-debate, response to Carroll's post-debate analysis.  Notice, especially how Craig catches Carroll in a bit of logical positivist "meaningless" double talk in the section headed Aristotelian Causation?    It looks to me that Carroll mastered the formula of dismissal without understanding that he contradicted his resorting to it in mounting a refutation.  And, from what I've observed, Sean Carroll is, actually, the most competent of the people who have debated with Craig.  While I would say that Craig beat Carroll, he didn't, as usually happens, mop the floor with him.   That isn't to say I buy Craig's proof, which I don't buy but don't reject.  I do, though, have to reject Carroll's arguments because they are reductionist and stuck in the place that cosmology has gotten itself into because the majority of cosmologists aren't involved in science these days, they're involved in debunking religion.    

Now, the one or two atheists who have made it this far might ask, if it occurred to them, why am I going into that?  Well, I'm wondering if they would reject what their atheist champion was saying on the basis of the length of sentences and the vocabulary he used.  But I'm not wondering very hard because I've read the pop atheist analyses of the debate and I know that they would have approved of it even if it had been the sputtering nonsense that other atheist debate opponents of Craig had resorted to.   

Intellectual atheism has always been a matter of reductionist thinking, among the Greeks and among the various Indian systems that are atheistic, the ones I've read something of,  they want to reduce the complexity of human experience down to one thing.   I think it's an emotional response to that complexity being complex and, to repeat the whine, "It's hard".   The trouble is, human experience of the world and the universe is hard.  The futility of the attempt to reduce it to an ultimate unity in physics is best seen by the resort to inventing jillions of universes and dimensions which surpass the ability of human beings to experience or comprehend as a reality, 9,11,.... who knows how many dimensions they'll have to use next year?  And, least you forget, none of it can be empirically observed it certainly can't be experienced and the equations are beyond the understanding of more than a few specialists in what has become a throwback to medieval scholastic science based in authority.

And in their quest for an ultimate unity, they have produced ultimate multiplicity and, certainly, if those universes and dimensions could enter into human experience, ultimate complexity.*   

But, for this post, my point is that by the rules of debate in the world of popular atheism, Carroll would have to lose.  That is were it not for the first rule of atheist discourse, the atheist is always to be declared the winner.   

As you can see, I'm not buying it.

* In one of his debates, in response to the multi-verse refutation of the argument from fine tuning of constants, Craig pointed out that a multi-verse ensemble would almost certainly require its own infinitely more finely tuned constants, which would make those who argue for God on the basis of fine-tuning even more convinced of their argument. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Eric Dolphy - Status Seeking

Eric Dolphy - alto sax
Mal Waldron - piano
Booker Little - trumpet
Eddie Blackwell - drums
Richard Davis - double bass

I needed a little pick me up tonight.  Hard day of electric fence fixing in the hot sun.  

Karen Armstrong - A Case For God

I'm dealing with a ground hog in the garden catastrophe, etc.  so I can't write anything today.  Here is a talk by Karen Armstrong with the title of a book I haven't read yet.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Spirituals at Noon - Mahalia Jackson - Soon I Will Be Done With The Trouble Of The World

With the sad state of gospel singing these days it's good to hear how good her style was.  She uses ornaments sparingly as ornaments to emphasize the text, not swooping aimlessly around on every note.  It's a rare singer these days who can hit a pitch directly.

Hate Mail

Maybe I should look at it the way the show biz people do, any publicity is good publicity.  

Hey, spread the word of my thought crime all over.  Go ahead, just remember to spell my URL right. 

Requests With Stipulations and Conditions: A Difference Between Childish Thinking And Adult Thinking About Religion

As if to confirm my contention that neo-atheists' idea of their religion, scientism,  is a cargo cult, someone demanded that I tell them what the use of a god who didn't give us what we want is.  It's a demand that I show that religion will get them as much as its opposite does, or, rather, what they take as its opposite.   Someone I suspect would use the same standard of judgement for teachers, civil authorities and public servants, waiters in restaurants, authors of non-fiction and, perhaps, parents, as well.   Which, perhaps, accounts for why so many of the neo-atheists, from the lowest level of online insulters up to the admittedly not so high levels of discourse coming from Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are always so angry.   They want what  they want and they want it now.

The idea of religion as a continual practice of asking for things shows that such atheists have the same idea of it as those who attend to the heretical prosperity gospel so popular with nightclub churches and glitzy TV productions and those religious radio shows that sound like the world's longest commercial.   It's no wonder such people with that view of religion are so frequently the most angrily disappointed.

The most well known of Christian prayers, the Lord's prayer is a good example of a more mature attitude.  Before the prayer lists things being asked for it submits those requests to the condition that they might be according to what God wills "thy will be done".   And, it has to be pointed out, in that list of requests what is being asked for is always for "us" not for "me".  And there is also moral obligation, measuring the forgiveness we have a right to request with our willingness to forgive others who have wronged us.  The "debts" in the common translation used by many Protestants instead of the more common Catholic "trespasses" imply that by harming others we put ourselves in moral arrears by doing so, to each other and through each other, to God.  You can understand why that understanding of morality isn't popular with such people.  And you can see how as familiar and common a part of the scriptures can contain enormous implications and need for contemplation of them if you really want to find some kind of understanding of it and how it should inform your life.

Along with that is the focus on prayers that ask God for things when intercessory praying accounts for a small part of why people pray.  Søren Kierkegaard's famous saying about prayer,  “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays,”  is good to consider.   God doesn't need our help our respect or our abject supplication.  In the passage before Jesus gave the formula for praying he pointed out that God already knows what we want as well as what we need.  A more mature attitude about prayer than the one that prays for a new bicycle or for some sports team to win would see that what we need most would be more likely harmed by getting those things we so much want which are entirely unimportant.  For someone who believes in God that would be to act the right way and to think the right way, things not set by people who are so apt to define those things according to their own desires and not for the common good.

Just as I pointed out that problem with the atheist substitute for morality, utilitarianism, that we can't know the ultimate results of our actions, good or bad, we also can't know the ultimate results of even our most seemingly noble requests in prayer.  When you pray for someones' recovery from a severe illness, of course your intentions are good and it's good that you have them, but the lives of even our most loved ones aren't entirely ours to determine.  They're not even entirely their own.  Which is why the thinking about being the "master of your own fate" in that insipid inspirational poem,  Invictus, is so foolish.  Our own control of our lives has its most definite limits or intercessory prayer would never have occurred to people.   Perhaps the intercessory prayers that work are the ones that are in line with the thinking of God on any individual case.   Which would not have anything bad to say about the intentions of the people who prayers are not in accord with that unknowable intent.   Unselfish praying does change the person who prays it.  While it might not change a person for the better it is certainly far more likely to reinforce habits of unselfishness more than railing that we aren't getting our way and mocking those who ask for things they know they might not get.  If they ask for it with all of those conditions and stipulations in mind.
Considering the almost uniformly childish understanding of religion exhibited by online atheists, it has to reveal more about the character of those who engage in it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Illogic of Trying to Study The General Effectiveness of Prayer With Science

Update: 2015   Rereading this post it surprised me how conciliatory the tone of it was to the materialists.  I had just started seriously looking into their claims on different topics and didn't know how pervasive the dishonesty and hypocrisy the self-appointed biggest fans of empirical evidence, scientific method and logical analysis was.   I still thought there was some way to reason with them.  I don't think that's the case with most of them anymore.   I edited it to remove some of more conciliatory phrasing in light of subsequent experience.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Note: I was going to hold this till later but a piece of junk mail came today, from “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by what I consider to be the pseudo-skeptical group, CSICOP*. You can imagine the effect it had on me. I might post a piece on that group someday about why I am very skeptical of its skepticism. Maybe it was the praise of Stephen Pinker in the come on that really got me going.  This is also posted as motivation to skeptical evaluation of claims of the kind of science he and many others promote. Until then, hope you find this fun. I did.

What did you mean when you said the “prayer studies both pro and con are bogus”?

Now, you will remember, before we begin, that no claims are made here as to the effectiveness of prayer. This is about why the studies are bogus. It is also about why both the believers and skeptics are being dishonest about these widely reported “scientific studies”. The real point is, spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, that would really save lives and improve health.

In order to study something you have to be able to observe it, to define what you are observing within some limits and to be able to verify that it is present in your study. “Prayer” is not definable and it can’t be known to be one thing or to exist at any particular time. Any possible mechanism of its operation or the results of it are also undefinable or prone to ambiguity. The widely reported “prayer studies” don’t even get past the first hurdle of logic, never mind science.

Prayer is an undefined activity, it is also an activity that can’t be observed. It seems that the only verification of the presence of prayer in these studies were the reports of those doing the praying. Self-reporting, one assumes by people who believe in the effectiveness of prayer, is hardly objective verification. It isn't even knowable if they had the same idea of what they were supposed to be doing. Some people might have been trying to appeal to a god to effect healing,others may have been trying to send out healing “energy” from themselves, some might have been trying to do both at once or at different times. Others might have been doing something else. It could be that two people who used exactly the same words to describe what they were doing were actually doing different things. It is quite possible that the mental activities of two such people were quite distinctly different. How would the researchers have controlled for that? If imaging or other techniques were used to monitor brain activity during prayer, there isn't any way to know if that would have an effect on the outcome.

It could be that any single person was actually doing different things on different occasions, even if they thought they were consistent. We have it on the authority of people who pray that they don’t always “get it right”. So, there is no defined activity that can even be tested for its presence. It gets worse.

It is possible that a subset of the group studied would have actually shown a result different than that of the whole group. It is possible that those were the only ones “doing it the right way”. There is no way of knowing which of the results, positive or negative, might have been right or if neither of them were valid.

Given the very nature of what was allegedly being studied, there is a possible participant in the study whose participation didn't even seem to enter into consideration. What could be a rather important “other”. If every single person who was “praying” was praying in exactly the same way for the intercession of a god or other spiritual consciousness there is no way to know, 1. If they exist, 2. If they would cooperate with the sloppy study, 3. If they found the entire thing too insulting and so sabotaged it. Maybe the “agent of healing” had entirely different motives and chose to act in an entirely mysterious way without informing the participants. There are precedents reported in the literature of prayer that are consistent with that kind of thing.

And now for one of my pet peeves in this kind of “science”, the control group. It is entirely possible that such an agent of healing had motives entirely separate from those of the study and who chose to effect healing within the people in the “control” group. Maybe God took pity on people who were set aside by the protocols set up for the convenience of the researchers. You think a God who is willing to heal people on the basis of abject, desperate, requests wouldn't have thought of that?

There isn't any way to know that either a member of the control group or prayed over group was praying for them self or if other people, unknown to those doing the study, were praying for them. There isn't any way to know if such prayer would be more of less effective than that prayer sanctioned by those conducting an official “scientific” study. There is no way to know if the effects of prayer might not be cumulative. Maybe the number of people praying has no effect whatsoever, that is if there is any effect. Even if all of the participants in the “control group”, both non-pray-ers and prayed not-overs were self-declared atheists there isn't any way to know if some of them might have cheated and snuck in some prayer just to cover all the bases. I suspect Balzac would have suspected that as a possibility*.

Why any scientist, skeptic or religious believer would give a “study” that begins so badly the time of day is probably the most interesting question that could come from this kind of thing. With a lack of validity being so clear, questions of motives must arise. Why the media would is clear, it takes up air time and pushes agendas.

These “studies” are a waste of resources that could be better spent in other ways. It’s quite shocking that religious believers, particularly Christians, would put God to a test like this. Even if its being literally against the word of Jesus didn't bother them, the literature of religion tells us over and over that doing this kind of thing is just asking for trouble.  It was Satan, after all, who was the one who proposed Jesus put God to the test when Jesus quoted Deuteronomy,

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The motives of “scientific skeptics” who take their side of this thing seriously are even more suspect. If they are willing to accept such sloppy science their skepticism is of a very low order. As long as no one is being charged for services or delaying treatment, let people pray as much as they want to. While it might offend the tender sensibilities of the pseudo-skeptics, it’s really none of their business how people in despair try to alleviate their distress. They certainly haven’t come up with something any more guaranteed to do that. If skeptics want to go after charlatans who bilk the vulnerable and who endanger people by encouraging them to stop or delay treatment, that would be an entirely worthy use of their time. Otherwise, it’s not only none of their business, it’s cruel.

Spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, there is an enormous amount of evidence that a universal healthcare system would really save lives and improve health. So important, it needed repeating.

* Marcello Truzzi was a co-founder and was later somewhat a apostate of CSICOP before he was kicked out for being more of a scholar than a gutter snipe.  He is often cited as the author of the slogan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," which Carl Sagan swiped. Apparently he broke with a number of avocational ‘skeptics’ over the fact that much of not most of the activity and writing surrounding many of the well publicized “skeptics” isn't skeptical at all but is a promotion of their fixed opinion. The term “pseudo-skeptics” is a good word to describe the intellectual conceit that is fashionable among so many materialists.

By the way, the slogan itself is scientifically problematic. Who gets to decide what claims are extraordinary to start with? Presumably the same people get to decide what evidence is extraordinary enough to fulfill their requirements.

And isn't demanding anything above the normal level of verification be a bald faced violation of the foundation that scientific inquiry has to be controlled, that no one gets to choose standards of rigor for one area of study that other areas aren't subjected to? The danger of that is clear, it would be an open door for allowing prejudice into what must be as objective as possible. Why would the designation of a claim as extraordinary require more than the, presumably, sufficiently rigorous level of evidence that makes ideas in science accepted? Is there something wrong with the normal level of scrutiny that science practices? I kind of think it works, when it’s actually practiced.

That is, that’s the level of verification necessary in science. What it takes to convince people in normal, everyday life is an entirely different matter. That’s too variable to get a handle on. People have a right to be skeptical for their own reasons that might have nothing to do with what can be demonstrated with the very limited and specialized tools of science. And they should be free to believe on that same basis. That's what we call freedom. And as long as they don't try to call it science or to force it on the unwilling it's their right. And, as I've tried to show in these posts, some "scientists" are just as guilty of passing off their unsupported opinions as science.

** See his short story, The Atheist’s Mass.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dave Holland - Goodbye Mr Pork Pie Hat

A great meditation on the great Charles Mingus' memorial to Lester Young.   There are so many great bass players around right now,  Dave Holland is one of the best.

Typical Brit-Centrism In Galton's Prayer Study

A long, long time ago, I wrote up a piece  giving my reasons why it was not possible to study the effects of prayer with science.  Which I will post tomorrow as I will be working.  I recently came across Francis Galton's 1872 article detailing his attempt at debunking the effectiveness of prayer based on the official act of praying for the health and well being of British monarchs and their average age as compared to those of other people.

After chugging through the long article, written in Galton's tedious style, I noticed that he had left a lot of things out of his consideration.  If lots of Brits were praying for the health and well beings of  the monarch, I can imagine lots of Irish, Scots, Welsh, American, Indian, South African, Australian, etc. were not thinking fondly of various of those monarchs who the Brits were praying for.  I can imagine many Irish who were dying of starvation during Galton's life time did not wish her majesty, the head of the indifferent government that exacerbated the famine, knowing what they were doing, wished her well.  Perhaps they were even praying for an early demise for all of them and their deliverance from her. It happens.   While I'm sure that the habits of believing that any God worth considering had England as the apple of his eye - he spoke English, didn't he? -were and are widespread among most Brits, it's rather funny for a scientistic atheist like Galton to have made that assumption, as well.  Some habits are harder to give up than others, perhaps.   I could document other eminent scientists of his circle who shared that idea, only without mentioning God.

Another thing he seems to forget is something many of us were told by our mothers, that God answers all prayers, it's just that quite often the answer is no.
The idea that God is like a force of nature that can be channeled and manipulated into doing our biding is a quite childish notion.  Perhaps the nature of what science was invented to do, to discern those forces and to manipulate them to our ends makes it impossible for many scientists to imagine God in any other way than that, which gets me back to my theme in the last piece.   Galton's use of statistics proves he was that kind of thinker, in that statistics are used to determine what is typical of some aspect of the workings of the physical universe.  Even in the practice of statistical analysis, outliers are cast out of consideration because they don't go along with the general trend of events and phenomena.   As such, statistics would be about the worst possible tool to choose to discern miracles or the effectiveness of prayer asking that the typical course of events be deviated from.  They would also be useless to discern the thoughts and decisions of God, if God is held to be able to surpass his own created order if God chooses to.

What he was doing with attempted elegance was about the same kind of stuff atheists are up to now, with no more discernment as to the thing they're attempting and what that would require.  Perhaps what Galton proved was that God doesn't listen to Brits praying to him in English any more than anyone else, that prayers for the rich, the high and the mighty are no more likely to be effective than those for the non-eminent or even the least among us.   Or maybe he was betraying the typical thinking of atheists about these things, turning God into an aspect of the physical universe instead of its creator.   That's a god I don't happen to believe in, not even when it's not called "god".

Update:  Yeah, I did see that.  I just didn't want to go into Galton's clear hypocrisy about what he was doing as he did it.

The god of Materialism Is Just A Souped-up Bronze Age Idol

In this very brief history of modern cosmological physics, the laws of quantum and relativistic physics represent things to be wondered at but widely accepted: just like biblical miracles. M-theory invokes something different: a prime mover, a begetter, a creative force that is everywhere and nowhere. This force cannot be identified by instruments or examined by comprehensible mathematical prediction, and yet it contains all possibilities. It incorporates omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, and it's a big mystery. Remind you of Anybody?

Tim Radford:  Review of Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design

Among the silly billies who are a burden here there seems to be this persistent notion that I've been in the business of proving the existence of God when I've never presented anything remotely in the form of a proof for God and never would because 1. it would require attempting to define God and that is an act of idolatry, 2. it could not escape implying that God is like a thing in the physical universe when I believe God is not like a thing and certainly not like one of the set of objects in the physical universe, 3. for those reasons trying to prove the existence of God only proves someone is as rather bad at reasoning as the majority of people who demand proofs of God.

Any God who can be defined by methods for discerning the nature and existence of items in the physical universe would share the same qualities of limitation that items in the physical universe have.  None of which is God, despite what gods people make of money, fame, power, ideologies, science, physical laws (a popular one in the last few years is some notion of quantum vacuum), mathematics, and even some individuals such as the sacred Charles Darwin.  Other than that last one, all of those things that are commonly worshiped are man made creations, as certainly as any stone god or god of wrought gold.  Well, since almost everyone's notion of Charles Darwin is a post war myth constructed to hide the real man, that one is too.  No one who knew Charles Darwin would, I suspect, know the post-war Charles Darwin which is falsified most easily by reading what the real man wrote and what those who knew him intimately said about him and his work.

Given the widespread ignorance about science, especially among those who have, in fact, turned it into a matter of religious faith, their fundamentalist insistence on its infallibility and the insistence on reverencing it and its priesthood is not different from their scorned and imagined "bronze age" illiterate peasant's ignorance  based awe.  Really, it's only different in vehemence, not kind, from the faith of those religious fundamentalists of today who they hate and scorn.  Though every one of the major homicidal regimes, Nazi, Stalinist, Maoist, etc. have claimed the mantle of science for their beliefs and sponsored scientists so that's no guarantee to not be a feature of future science worshipers.   They've been as willing as any fundamentalist to kill, though certainly not as willing as the money worshipers, though there is nothing mutually exclusive about the two faith systems.

One of the more telling aspects demonstrating that is the sometimes made challenge to list the contributions of religion that match things like vaccination,* modern medicine, computers, mass communication, .... and many promised benefits that are bound to come, they believe, due to the potency of science and the day of ultimate redemption when those many notes of promissory materialism are finally, finally cashed dollar for dollar.  Which is not really different from any other kind of cargo cult.   By comparison the promises made to the children of Abraham, accounting for the contemporary knowledge of things like the number of stars and grains of sand, seem modest, realistic, in comparison.  And its achievement as described in the books that come after the "Mosaic books,  wasn't any glorious pie-in-the sky like Marx's promised land. People were still people and still subject to the many trials and tribulations that are our lot, in reality.   When translated from the literary conventions of the times, the modes of expression and thinking, such as we can discern them, it seems much more realistic than the Panglossian ideas that the leisure loving type of materialist expects.

One of the lessons which the "historical books" of the bible constantly emphasize is that actions have consequences and the consequences of human weakness and greed aren't pretty.  It holds that those are not inevitable but are a matter of  moral choices, unlike the more macho, action oriented materialists who have constructed that mountain of corpses in the past and today who hold that their depraved vision of present and future are a matter of physical law and determinism.  They must because they spend so much of their effort in insisting that all of our thinking and action are the result of physical law which can't be overcome.  Dawkins prattling about choice even as his ideology denies that possibility only shows that the guy is really, really bad at thinking things through.

I have to wonder if there isn't a useful analysis of the hatred of the God of Abraham and Jacob, up till today, as a fight between those whose God is nothing like something in the physical universe and those who can't conceive of their god as not being anything but a physical object or force.  And another analysis of the more typical blog atheist who is pissed off that things aren't just to their liking all the time in every way, and that things aren't that proves there is no god who has delivered on their every desire.  The number of times I've heard that proof, that x is dead and Dick Cheney isn't proves there is no God.  The self can serve as a god when your idea of god is an object.   Materialists are mostly quite willing to cut themselves an exemption from their system, even those too ignorant to understand they operate within a system.

*  Darwin predicted, wrongly, that universal vaccination would have disastrous effects in the human population due to too many poor people and other "weaker members" of the human species he listed as unfit to live.  When his son, Leonard, ran for a seat in Parliament,  opposing universal vaccination was part of his platform.   He lost.   It has been one of the ironies of my research that even as the atheists mock and scorn the anti-vaxxers, their god was something of one, himself.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Melba Liston - Insomnia

Melba Liston, Frank Rehak: trombones
Marty Flax:   baritone sax
Walter Davis Jr.: piano
Nelson Boyd: bass
Charlie Persip: drums

Someone said something about wanting to hear women playing trombone?

Melba Liston wrote it and that certainly sounds like her arrangement.  She was one of the really great arrangers.

Hate Mail

OK, so, give me that long list of atheism based groups that campaign against cluster bombs, spent nuclear armaments, war in general or for any other cause than attacking religion and promoting atheism.    I don't think the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee actually qualifies as one so don't try to pull that one on me. 

You can also tell me what great moral position that logically follows from atheism they base their stand on while you're at it.  Or not at it, as I suspect will be the case. 

As for you idiotic contention that what I posted this morning has anything to do with a "proof of God", I'd be embarrassed for your ignorance if I had the energy to do something requiring so much effort.  

An Illustration

"Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves. But when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect."

That was Christopher Hitchens' revised statement on cluster bombs, as he was under fire for his much more often quoted, gleeful and, to my ears, erotically enamored statement of their extensive killing capacity.   I wasn't able to find any evidence that Christopher Hitchens, who was considered a journalist, after all, ever cared enough to research the topic of cluster bombs to find out that most of those killed by them, 94% are civilians, 40% of them, children, often years after the intended targets were gone,  nor do I think he would have cared at all that they do.   Yet he is adored by many an atheist on the internet and off because he's the man who kicked around a ... well, I'll quote his description of Mother Teresa, "A thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf."  "[She] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty." That was in his 1995 bestseller, Missionary Position.   Five years later he endorsed George W. Bush for president of the United States.  Three years later, as he was thick in his promotion of the Bush war in Iraq he said of her,

"Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions."

A few words and letters changed, instead of lying about a nun, he could have been giving an honest statement about George W. Bush and his administration, which he was endorsing to Hitchens' fame and fortune.  And even as he was going on C-Span and the network shows to promote the disaster that the Bush Iraq invasion had turned into, he was also adored by hoards of atheists for saying that about a woman who, decades into her work for destitute people had accidentally been made a celebrity, something which she was totally unprepared for and the center of an international fundraising operation.  Something I'm unaware of any atheist-based group ever doing.  Hitchens harvested every possible thing about her he could make hay out of, coloring in what he couldn't find with his florid invective, his only real literary skill, and the atheists, including those who, as he was, allegedly of the left because that's really all there is to their ideology, hatred and glee in basking in their own self-announced superiority over the vast majority of humanity.

Not all atheists,  Alexander Cockburn,  a frequent critic of Hitchens, even as they had sort of parallel Brit columnist columns in The Nation,  said this in his postmortem column,

I used to warn my friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’  books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened?

Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Bombay, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa.  Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity.

While Cockburn could, sometimes, say silly things he never, in my decades of reading him, ever said anything as clearly false and stupid and nothing as entirely corrupt as Hitchens did almost every time he approached a keyboard.   One of the big differences is that Cockburn was entirely less of a snob and he wasn't as self-centered and greedy.  I doubt he'd have sold out to the Republican right if he'd lived a thousand years.  And, though he was an atheist who could, at times, be rather patronizing, I don't think it was ever a matter of hatred and contempt for the majority of people with him.

Hitchens knew the two audiences he was playing to, the totally amoral corporate-fascists and the equally amoral neo-atheists and he would say anything that he thought they would approve of.   Even before he officially defected to the Henry Hyde* Republican right to aid its effort to impeach Bill Clinton (who Hitchens despised, for personal reasons) , before his false accusation for profit made against someone who had foolishly considerd Hitchens a friend, Sidney Blumenthal,  even as he was still a columnist in the august The Nation, he was able to pen a billy-do to Margaret Thatcher as she was ousted by John Major.  I had read his column every issue and I'd already realized I just simply didn't like the man, and that was before he endorsed the genocide against the native population of the Americas.  That was, in fact, the decisive issue on which I judged his character and his journalism.  His act having been one I'd seen in would-be intellectual fops my entire adult life, it was stale long before I read his version of it.  I think Alice Roosevelt Long had pretty much said everything in it boiled down on her famous pillow encouraging malicious gossip.


But, getting back to those cluster bombs.  One of the facile quotes of Hitchens that is often seen is "Religion Poisons Everything"  the subtitle to his atheist catechism.  Coming from his notoriously poison pen, that was rich.   That it was a lie can be seen every day in the widely ignored work and struggle of religious people in religious based organizations, the kind of thing Mother Teresa did for decades before the BBC featured her in a TV show in Britain and made her internationally famous.

That won't ever be the case for many of those religion based groups whose campaigns endanger the profits of the corporate elites around the world.  There are thousands of them, from nuns who disrupt the calm of shareholder meetings to elderly nuns and religious lay people who get sent to prison for pouring blood on nuclear weapons facilities and get the full weight of the Department of Justice thrown at them.

One of the groups which has been strongest in fighting for the banning and end of manufacturing and use of cluster bombs is the Catholic group Pax Christi, a group which has been a thorn in the side of the military-industrial-banking complex for decades.**

And it's not only cluster bombs that are the target of Pax Christi and other groups struggle against, the pollution that bombs enhanced with spent uranium is another of many issues that Pax Christi is active in.   In his contention about religion poisoning everything as in so many other things, Hitchens was a liar.
What poisons everything are the science and technology and the investors, banks, industries, militaries and governments that use those products that Hitchens' "Enlightenment" has bestowed on the world, the people who Hitchens befriended in his last decades, even as he had to leave behind his former identity as a Trotskyite to make the complete conversion and the fame and fortune it brought. And the media of whom Christopher Hitchens was a darling, as he was spewing toxic lies and false invectives, their adoring obituaries, always mentioning occasions where the scribblers had rubbed elbows with him, the same media who had gone down on bended knee to George W. Bush, as it had his father, to Ronald Reagan and to other apparatchiks of the corporate elite who are, in fact poisoning everything.

And, I say the neo-atheists are a part of that.  You can tell by how readily they took Hitchens to their bosom based on nothing more than his hatred of religion and his readiness to kick a little old nun around.  Most of them don't know anything else about him.  I've had atheist idiot fans of Hitchens online deny both that he'd ever been a Trot or a supporter of George W. Bush.  Even as Hitchens was alive and supporting George W. Bush and his disastrous war and even more disastrous occupation of Iraq.

Until I started reviewing material and writing this piece, yesterday, I hadn't considered what a large role that may have played in my own conversion into an opponent of neo-atheism.  I'm sure that any movement that could promote Christopher Hitchens as he was in the 2000s and after his death would have deserved my skepticism.  As I learned more and faced the actual history of the atheist "left" I realized that atheists over the decades have earned far more than just mere skepticism, even a lot of those who didn't defect to the corporate right.  The hold-out Marxist, Richard Seymour, one of the harshest critics of Hitchens, still supports an ideology that has produced an enormous mountain of evil, itself.  Hitch, as a Trot, was a Marxist, of sorts, as well, before he followed the money and fame and adoration.

*  Considering that, other than being a Catholic nun, a considerable part of Hitchens venom aimed at Mother Teresa was due to her conventional Catholic beliefs over contraception and abortion, his alliance, at exactly the same time with Henry Hyde, the author of the Hyde Amendment and a host of other Republicans whose position on reproductive rights was about exactly the same one as Mother Teresa's only heightens his hypocrisy for personal gain.   The man had absolutely no honesty or integrity.  I think the position you held on Hitchens in those years was a pretty good diagnosis of your honesty and integrity, as well. And it continues to be.

**   I should disclose that I sent contributions to them and that my mother was a member of Pax Christi.  They have been continually working on various issues against war and war profiteers for decades.  I remember debating a fan of the Reagan terror wars in Central America who compared Pax Christi to the imperial Pax Romana, as if both names being in Latin and beginning with the word "Pax" made them equivalent when their means and results were entirely different.