20 December 2011

Embodied Mind Neuroscience

Here is Antonio Damasio giving an extremely brief over view of the neurological basis for consciousness. This is a scratch of the surface of his book Self Comes To Mind in which he lays out his view of the "problem of consciousness." His perspective is particularly well informed by his clinical history as a neurologist who saw almost every neurological case in some midwestern state for many years, and his brilliant work on systematically understanding (and explaining) how it all fits together.

08 November 2011

Proto Life in the Lab

Here's a guy talking about the basic properties of life and how they have been able to produce these basic properties using chemical systems in petri dishes in the lab.

04 November 2011

Brains are for Movement

Here's a TED Talk by a neuroscientist explaining how important movement is to cognition.

29 September 2011

Here's Why Teachers in the U.S. of A. Have a Problem

Blog post on how power corrupts when the person wielding it is in a low status position (as teachers are in this country)

To elaborate on my point about teachers: Teachers in most traditional schools are given almost complete power over the moment-to-moment lives of children and teenagers and then paid little, blamed for all manner of social problems, and generally disrespected. There are going to be some exemplary human beings who fill the role with honor and grace, but the overwhelming situational forces are constantly working against them. Most will burn out and leave or succumb to the ever present little tiny compromises that eventually lead them into acting in ways they would never have imagined when they first set their heart on helping children to learn.

[Thanks to the Situationist Blog for sharing insights from the research literature!]

17 September 2011

TV as Social Conscience TED Talk

Here's a TV executive revealing some interesting trends from the last 50 years:

04 September 2011

An Encapsulation Of The Human Conditon

Here's a fun look at our current human situation:

02 September 2011

Priceless Politics with Jefferson Smith

Here's a good talk by the founder of the Bus Project and an Oregon Representative, Jefferson Smith:

09 August 2011

State of the World, State of Our Bodies

Here are a couple of the latest TED Talks. The first is by Eve Ensler who very poetically expresses where we are:

Now take a break before shifting to this under 6 minute talk by Psychologist Philip Zimbardo who very unpoetically explaining how boys are systematically becoming alienated from their bodies and the world:

08 August 2011

Assuming Objectivity

This is the next round in my exchange with Greg Byshenk.
My original post, Do You Believe in Zero?, and the discussion begins
My long reply to Greg, Do You Believe in Time and Mind?
Greg's Reply, God and Existence

I seem to be making some very different assumptions about the world than you are.

I assume for the purposes of scientific inquiry that there is an objectively existing world. There are a great many things about which there is a fact of the matter that can be determined by the social process of science. However, that process is still social in nature and is not all-encompassing. An objectively existing world is an assumption not a fact. Following the lead of Lakoff & Johnson again, if I say, “Grass is green.” then in common parlance it will be taken to be a true statement and what is meant by that statement is that there is some quality inherent in grass that makes it green. But when looked at in detail, scientifically, there is nothing about grass that is inherently green. It is the confluence of illumination, reflective properties and our bodily structures that gives grass it's greenness and my statement is scientifically false. There is a fundamental incompatibility between these two levels of analysis, that is, everyday experience and scientific knowledge, such that truth can only be determined by taking one perspective or another. There is no reconciliation possible and simply dismissing one level as wrong does nothing to further conversation with people who operate at the other level. Science is fundamentally dependent on the similarity of biological and technological structures between practitioners for it's findings. Correspondence is not a universal standard of truth, it is necessarily relative to the level of analysis that is assumed.

You seemed to dismiss the idea of levels of analysis when you rejected that at some level of analysis the features that make up our concepts of faeries have a basis in reality. Yet you seem to privilege the scientific view as absolute, as if to say the statement, “Grass is green.” must be a delusion given that scientific analysis shows that there is nothing green in grass. Given my purpose of communicating, then I find the dismissal of levels of analysis an untenable position to take. But you may not share my purpose of communicating, you may prefer to be right. I will certainly concede that you are right based on the assumption that your purpose is not to communicate with those who operate from different levels of analysis. If, however, you share in the purpose of communicating with those who are operating from a different level of analysis, then I believe you are wrong to take that position.

I take purposes to be central to ideas of truth, reality, knowledge and ignorance, in fact, they do not exist outside of purposes. I do not take purposes to be necessarily accessible to consciousness, but some form of purpose is always present nonetheless. Purposes may be biological or cultural in origin (other sources are also possible), and purposes serve as organizational principles for behavior.

I suppose one of my purposes is to communicate across a landscape of controversy around the concept of 'god.' (I don't necessarily know all the purposes that guide my behavior.) In formulating my position in this landscape I am trying to accommodate diverse views. I am being trained in scientific disciplines at Reed and want to be true to those disciplines. I am also a member of a religious community that explicitly states that science and reason are one of six sources of wisdom which also includes direct experience and traditional religious texts.

Notice that for me the high value I place on the purpose of communicating partly determines what is real and true. So to turn it around, if one of your purposes is to defend science as a universal standard of truth and reality and you place that purpose in higher regard than communicating, then your purpose is playing a significant role in what you take to be real and true.

I have previously presumed that your purposes align to some degree with mine, I may have been mistaken. I brought up the levels of analysis of our ideas of faeries and god to add nuance to the understanding of what constitutes useful concepts. But that point does not win the argument of what is real, as you pointed out. However, I am not interested in winning the argument about what is real. I am interested in formulating a position on the term 'god' that enables me to have respectful and honest dialogue about how people who accept the concept of god at face value behave in the world.

In order to deal with another person productively I have to take into account the levels of analysis they operate from. I chose to use a little girl as an exemplar because it precludes, on practical grounds, the idea that I could simply point out how wrong she is about the world. As I presented her situation it is irrelevant whether her knowledge is true or not, what matters is ensuring that she does not harm herself or anyone else.

re: Ignorance

I take ignorance to be the inability to organize information to serve your purposes. Everyone lacks information so more important than acquisition of information is the question of how well you organize your limited store of information to integrate more. I take an educated person to be one who is open to a diversity of information and capable of integrating it in useful ways. Volume of information is less important than organization of information. I presume that it is possible and undesirable to organize your information to be closed to further development. So, in essence, education is more productively conceived of as cartography (the organization of information for purposes) than as delivery (the conveyance of information from one place to another.) In my way of thinking more information does not educate you, if your mind is organized to be closed then more information will either be ignored or consistently re-framed to reinforce your ignorant view.

An educated person organizes information in a way that enables them to incorporate information that contradicts their current position, this is where the 'god' concept can be detrimental. If you organize your concept of 'god' to preclude the incorporation of contradictory information then you have a problem since you are inherently lacking vast amounts of information and some of it will inevitably contradict your view. But this is true of any concept, not just 'god.' I am just as concerned about views of 'science' that preclude new information, like the findings that the correspondence theory of truth is not compatible with a suite of findings from cognitive scientists. Many scientists have taken the universality of the correspondence theory of truth to be defining of 'science,' yet it may not be empirically supported, so that's a helluva conundrum. If scientists can't incorporate contradictory information, then they are just as ignorant as the religious folks who can't incorporate contradictory information.

In Summary

I am not committed to a particular definition of “real” or “true.” I am committed to communicating and working with people to get things done in the world. I expect values and purposes to guide our use of language and how we choose to interact. Definitions will, to some degree, follow values and purposes. Attempting to establish eternally fixed definitions that presume to be independent of a specific point of view is a fool's errand.

However, when building a bridge over the Willamette River I want to communicate based on a confluence of the user's, the engineer's and the architect's levels of analysis. I expect that the bridge will perform duties at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously, both serving as a reliable support for those who want to cross it and as an artistic statement about the place it occupies. (Portland is currently dealing with at least 3 different bridge debates.)

When attending church I expect my minister to operate at a level of analysis that is different from engineers and architects. Of course, I also share certain values with my minister which includes our espousing scientific sources of knowing as important. On the other hand, I am, occasionally, concerned that other ministers, who may not share my values, use their ministry to induce hatred and violence. And I am also occasionally concerned that humanists also incite hatred through their demonization of theists by accusations of delusional thinking.

I oppose the derogatory labeling of people regardless of their position in society. This is a reflection of both my values and a practical view of what it takes to communicate and work with people to get things done. I am not concerned about what they take to be “real” and “true” except to the degree that it enables me to find the common ground necessary for us to communicate about how important it is to not do harm, to provide care, and to ensure that everyone lives dignified lives.

[If you are interested, some other authors besides Lakoff & Johnson who have wrestled with similar issues around embodied minds: Mark Changizi (on perception in particular), Evan Thompson and Alva Noe.]

02 August 2011

My Complaint About the Bagdad Theater & Pub

I recently had another less than stellar movie going experience at the Bagdad Theater and Pub, so I told them about it and chose the "get back to me by e-mail" option. Since it's been a week and they have not responded I posted my complaint here on Yelp.

I had a good experience on the day they re-opened after a major remodel. Hopefully that covered not only the seating and projection system, but the culture.

28 July 2011

A Global Dream, not just an American Dream

Here's the beginning of a piece by George Lakoff and Glenn Smith about their view of the American Dream and how we are losing touch with it. In brackets I have substituted 'Global' for 'American' because this is the proper scope of the thinking we need to be doing. They are focused on American (U.S.) politics, so it makes sense for them, but I hope that the same dialogue can be brought into the global context, too.

Democracy... has been defined by a simple morality: We ... care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, and our friends and neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never seen and never will see.

[Global] Democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the [Global] Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The [Global] Dream is built upon mutual care and trust.

Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for we all have given you.

We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says that “democracy” means that nobody should care about anybody else, that “democracy” means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If [the world] accepts this radical view of “democracy,” then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made [the civilized world the civilized world], the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility, and trust is the democracy of the [Global] Dream. The “democracy” of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the [Global] Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.

Read the rest of Why Democracy is Public by Lakoff & Smith.

27 July 2011

Math of Cities and biology

Here's a talk about the mathematics of cities and how it compares to biology. It's fascinating stuff but my impression is that the models ultimately predict collapse because there are finite limitations on 1) resources, which is countered by innovation, and 2) our ability to innovate, which he provides no solution for countering. Our ability to rapidly innovate is staving off collapse from resource depletion, but in order for that to continue we have to continuously increase the speed of innovation. But there is necessarily a limit to the speed of cultural diffusion of innovation. While the internet provides very high speed diffusion of information, there is still a limit to how fast the information can be taken in and effect changes in behavior. Thus, we are destined to see the collapse of cities once that speed limit of cultural diffusion is reached.

Although if we could get a handle on the growth of population then perhaps that could bring about a balance between the need for innovation and the ability to adopt innovations.

20 July 2011

On Otherness: Thandie Newton's TED Talk

Actress Thandie Newton tackles the illusion of self as a prime source of difficulty in our world:

10 July 2011

Do you believe in time and mind?

This is my response to Greg Byshenk's 5th comment on my last post, Do you believe in zero? We have had a very enlightening exchange on this topic. This one was too long for the comment box so I'm posting it here:

Let's examine the unreality of faeries and unicorns, because at a certain level they have referents in the world even though they are clearly creatures of fantasy. Faeries could be the imaginative re-combination of people and dragon flies. Unicorns could be ibex with a single horn in the middle of their heads. Both are then given interesting causal capabilities that we humans don't have, like the abilities of other actual creatures to glow, fly, or perceive outside our sensory range. The point is that the conceptually basic components of unicorns and faeries certainly do exist, but when we take those basic low level components and arrange them differently at another level then we get something fantastic.

Lakoff and Johnson, in Philosophy in the Flesh, say that linguistic analysis shows that there is no literal core referent in concepts of time, only metaphorical constructions. This puts time on the same referential footing as faeries and unicorns; they are all three imaginative recombinations of more basic literal concepts.

But saying that time is not real just because the concept lacks a thing in the world to refer to does not convince me that it is not real. Sure it may be an illusion in some abstract sense, but it's very useful as a concept and pervasive in it's practical applications despite the evidence that it lacks a literal reference point.

Let me bring in Lakoff and Johnson here to assist with the broader point:

From the chapter entitled Realism and Truth in Philosophy in the Flesh- “[E]mbodied truth requires us to give up the illusion that there exists a unique correct description of any situation. Because of the multiple levels of our embodiment, there is no one level at which one can express all the truths we can know about a given subject matter. But even if there is no one correct description, there can still be many correct descriptions, depending on our embodied understandings at different levels or from different perspectives.

“Each different understanding of a situation provides a commitment to what is real about that situation. Each such reality commitment is a version of a commitment to truth.

“What we mean by “real” is what we need to posit conceptually in order to be realistic, that is, in order to function successfully to survive, to achieve ends, and to arrive at workable understandings of the situations we are in.” [italics in original]

This bit comes after they have spent a few pages tearing down the correspondence theory of truth. Notice that they simultaneously reject simplistic ideas of both objectivity and relativity. There are aspects of human experience that will always have absolute commonality because we share the same biological structures and on the other hand there are many aspects of human experience that we do not share, therefore nuanced views of both objectivity and relativity are required.

I would get near universal agreement (except for some post-modernists and buddhists) on the reality of my chair and the non-reality of faeries and unicorns (also with a few motivated exceptions) because all the people considering the issue share the same conceptual structures (including the motivated few who overcame them in order to reach their contrarian ideologies.)

Concepts of time, on the other hand, have a totally different basis. There is no objective, level-independent, neutral way to think about time. There is no universally shared conceptual structure, only a diversity of cultural and linguistic traditions. But that does not make time unreal, it just makes it really complicated.

Mind, on the other hand has a literal core referent. According to Lakoff and Johnson, at its core, mind is literally what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines and wills. There are manifold metaphorical constructions that make this skeletal core actually useful for understanding issues in the real world, but there IS a literal core referent to a causal agent of some kind. Therefore, mind could be said to meet your criteria for reference but time does not. Is mind real and time not real?

My current studies at Reed are focused on psychology and I take the mind to be a real entity that is the primary concern of my studies. Given that I take both mind and time to be real then it is no stretch for me to take the following steps to get to what I consider a responsible concept of a real god:

  • My mind is one of the primary things that makes things happen in my experience and I recognize that other minds are active agents in the world, too.
  • Minds are causal entities that are associated with many (perhaps all) living things.
  • There are causal forces in the world that act independently of things that I normally recognize as living or that occur at higher levels of organization of living things. (e.g. Following the lead of philosopher Douglas Hofstadter and a variety of ant scientists; individual ants can seem stupid but ant colonies can seem smart, therefore the colony is productively thought of as an agent, a causal unit, as are individual ants though at a smaller scale.)
  • Since, in my experience, minds make things happen, then it is possible that a mind-like entity that I am ignorant of is acting independently of things that I normally recognize as individuals, therefore I will come up with a separate term for a mind-like entity with causal agency in the world: god.
  • My concept of god is real in the same way that time and mind are real.
  • God is real like time in that I have imaginatively constructed a concept out of more basic concepts (via metaphor) to solve a problem: the problem of dealing with phenomena in my life that I cannot trace to individual causal agents.
  • God refers to the phenomena of causal forces that I don't understand, in particular forces that are non-living and/or associated with groups of living things that act in seemingly mindful ways.
  • God is real like mind in that I have borrowed the core reference to causal entities but I have dissociated it from the agency of individual living things.
  • Given that I built this concept of god from the concept of mind, then it is, at its core, a concept with properties associated with minds, but there is nothing inherent in the construction that limits me to human minds, therefore I can also equally conceive of god with attributes that are non-human.
  • God is also like zero in that it solves the cognitive problem of how to represent a lack of information (in a system that can only act on information) by the use of a placeholder.
  • Given that the central problem solved by the concept of god is my own causal ignorance, then I have to take responsibility for my ignorance by conceding that true knowledge about the causal factors that are covered by my use of the term 'god' is both possible and, perhaps, likely, given that I live in a complex technological society.

This way of constructing the argument relies on taking the terms mind and time to each indicate something real, while the realness of zero turns out to be irrelevant since it just illustrates a certain functional relationship. Of course, if you do not accept the reality of time and mind, then we simply disagree on those points, and that's where you'll lose me.

This line of reasoning leads me to reject the notion that 'god' is a term that cannot be used responsibly. It is a tool with specific uses that are legitimate and other uses that are not legitimate. I agree with you that god is a bad tool for playing in the realm of politics. Asserting power tends to require some claims to knowledge, preferably, for the aspirants to power, claims to special or unique access to some knowledge. So responsible use of the term 'god' requires a certain kind of (epistemic?) humility which may be difficult (maybe even impossible) to maintain unless there is institutional support for reigning in the temptations of power and correcting the inevitable occurrence of abuses.

Getting back to faeries and unicorns, I would accept the possibility of those concepts being real for someone if I thought that they served a necessary cognitive purpose. To take a concrete example, if a child consistently described the illumination of a light bulb as the action of faeries then I would not argue. Creating conflict over the specific language a child uses is generally of little value in my experience, so it is a battle I choose to fight only rarely.

Of course, electricity is clearly a hazard that must be handled carefully and if the child is probing for fairies in electrical outlets with a screw driver then I'll step in. But to ensure safety in the short term I would explain that faeries are very private folk and can hurt or kill people who get too nosy. This strategy accepts that faeries are real to her and uses the language of her understanding to reframe the story about faeries to reflect real dangers. Accepting and using her current understanding does not undermine my understanding, so there is no risk to me. In the short term my use of language according to her understanding of the situation will be far more effective than attempting to abruptly change her understanding. Over the long term, rather than argue directly about it with the child I would find out more about her causal concepts and probe the limits of her theory of light bulb fairies. I would probably get a kit for playing with circuits and help the child discover the real properties of electricity and in the process introduce the terminology that is generally accepted for discussing the topic. I am confident that the reality of electricity and the scientific understanding of it is compelling enough to ensure my ultimate success in facilitating the child to develop both a proper understanding of electricity and an ability to use socially appropriate language when discussing it (fairy terms in whimsical settings, if she is inclined to do so, and scientific terms in serious settings.)

So in a sense I am right in the danger zone you mentioned. I know that a little girl does not have an understanding of electricity and so the real phenomena she observes have to be explained in some other way. Imaginative creatures are a culturally supported way of thinking about phenomena in her experience. Faeries are real to her because they serve a legitimate purpose as a cognitive tool for her to deal with the situation of light bulb illumination. Her understanding will change over time and she will learn more ways to talk about her experiences, but for the time being faeries are “real” because they provide a cognitive framework for surviving as a little girl with access to electricity.

But, I will also be honest with her that I think the illumination of the light bulb was the result of electricity. Using her language of faeries to explain how to avoid being killed by an electrical outlet does not mean that I share her beliefs, it simply means that I have taken the time to get to know her and understand how to communicate with her. I am fully confident that her understanding will change over time and if she is allowed to engage with reality enough she will learn both the skills she needs to handle reality and a variety of linguistic concepts that will allow her to effectively communicate about it, as well.

I do not subscribe to the view of children as ignorant in the sense of lacking essential information. I do subscribe to the view that they are independent human beings with their own purposes and have access to a lot less information than older people. Rather than being responsible for delivering into their heads the correct knowledge-set I see my job as a teacher as aligning their purposes with mine. As a practical matter that means I should be clear and explicit about my purposes and letting them know when their purposes are in alignment with mine, or not. When their purposes do not align with mine then we will have conflict, in any case. The long term successful resolution of the conflicts will depend on how well we can come to a shared understanding of what purposes we can mutually serve while we share time and space. I usually have no problem getting kids of any age to agree that safety is a mutual purpose we can both serve. I do not take my purposes to be inherently superior to theirs, just different. I am confident that we share a significant proportion of our purposes and can figure out lots of mutually engaging ones to serve while we are together.

Implied in your concern about the propagation of ignorance is the idea that your knowledge is superior to the knowledge of those who are ignorant of what you know. What purpose are you serving such that your knowledge is superior? Until you specify the purpose you serve, there is no way for me to judge your claim that they are ignorant. Ignorance exists only in the context of purposes that structure the meaning of knowledge. Your knowledge may be superior for certain purposes you subscribe to, but, if the people you claim are ignorant don't share your purposes then your problem is not properly with their a lack of knowledge, its with the purposes they subscribe to such that they know things to be a different way. You can instantly convince them of their ignorance if you can get them to subscribe to your purpose and then examine how their previous behavior did not serve it.

The important shift in their perspective will not be about the truth value of their causal propositions involving the term 'god.' The important shift will be in their values, which follow from the purposes they serve. Given the right purposes to serve they will, over time, adjust their concepts of god to fit.

In my view focusing on the word 'god' as a sign of delusion and unjustified belief does not serve the purpose of communicating across religious divides. I believe that eliminating the word 'god' and its synonyms from common usage is impractical and likely impossible. So coming up with a plausible way of interpreting it that is reasonably defensible with what's known from cognitive linguistics about how humans use language seems like a good idea for enabling it to be used responsibly.

Thanks for helping me clarify what I'm doing!

01 July 2011

Do you believe in zero?

If you believe in zero, then what proof do have of it's existence? How seriously would you take someone who claimed that, given a lack of proof, zero must not exist and that those who continue to use it are suffering from the “zero delusion.” Or that believers in zero must be under a spell that should be broken because of how prolifically it was used in the systematic oppression of minorities of all kinds throughout most of recorded history especially by the Nazis and other genocidal maniacs.

Personally, I do not believe in the literal existence of zero. Zero is a concept we humans developed through our imaginative capacities to logically deal with gaps in our understanding. I am happy to use the concept, in spite of it's immoral use by others, because zero is an indispensable placeholder that signifies an absence of information. It is indispensable because it allows me to imply that information is absent and still proceed with extremely useful mental processes that require some form of information.

God is the same kind of concept. If you go back to the beginning of this piece and substitute the word 'god' for the word 'zero' in those first two paragraphs then nothing logically changes, though, of course, the connotations do.

Consider that Albert Einstien, when he wanted to concentrate his mental capabilities on the physical forces that comprised his expertise, had to ignore other forces in the world, such as political forces, in order to gain productive insights. There are always an unknown number of forces at work in reality at all times and it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that we can, like Albert Einstein may have done, productively encapsulate the forces we do not want to consider at one moment in a placeholder concept signified by the term 'god.'

Given this understanding of the concept, then the question of belief does not properly apply and questions of existence are also non-starters. Zero is not a faith proposition, and I suggest to you, that god is not a faith proposition either. God is a concept we created as a necessary placeholder for our ignorance of the fullness of reality. Use of the term, by definition, admits of ignorance. Therefore, invocation of god when considering causal forces necessarily implies an unwillingness to probe further into the actual causes of the phenomena under consideration. Invoking god in the course of a causal conversation is a resignation that the forces are unknown and/or unknowable.

This is where politics steps in. When power is cultivated upon ignorance, then those who wield that power have a vested interest in maintaining the ignorance upon which their power is based. And the denial of god is also a political move. Denial of god is the arrogant claim that reality is entirely known, or at least knowable. There is no basis for this claim other than speculation based on establishing or expanding a position of power for those who claim special access to knowing reality. Claims of special access to either god or reality are necessarily born of arrogance and/or maneuvering for power.

The point-by-point sketch of an argument that follows was started with the intent of curing allergies to the word 'god' and it's many synonyms. When all positions that invoke god (by that term or a synonym) are automatically considered to be dangerously delusional (ala Richard Dawkins book title), or at least foolishly mistaken, then there is a clear lack of mutual respect. I suspect that this ironically self-righteous position unnecessarily alienates too many people with perfectly reasonable views.

If the argument could be accepted as a reasonable view on both sides of the chasm centered on the use of the term 'god' then perhaps more inclusive and productive public dialogue on the nature and valid applications of religious thought and practice can happen. If we can agree on the specific form of ignorance asserted in this argument, then labeling positions that use the term 'god' as delusions, mistakes, or spells to be broken is fundamentally disrespectful and inappropriate in civil dialogue.

Even if agreement cannot be reached then those who accept this argument should still be able to circumscribe the role of causal belief within the doctrinal dimension of religious life, then deal with all the other aspects of the doctrinal dimension plus the other six dimensions of religion (mythic, social, ritual, experiential, ethical and material) as issues separate from the use of the term 'god,' and it's synonyms. My hope is that preventing allergic reactions to the word 'god' in this way would encourage more respectful public dialogue.

The argument is built on materialist assumptions, so some people may not be comfortable with its premises. But, if this argument is true, then using the term 'god,' or one of it's many synonyms, is effectively an admission of a specific form of causal ignorance that should, in principle, be acceptable to everyone who is honestly interested in respectful public dialogue to address abuses of science, religion, and our planet.

Sketching The Argument
  1. All human symbolic communication is mediated by some form of mapping, even if the realms mapped have no basis in reality.
    1. The only complete map of anything is the thing itself.
    2. No practical map can ever be complete.
    3. Practical maps serve a purpose and the map can be either adequate or inadequate to the purpose.

  2. Animals, including humans, construct biologically encoded maps of reality.
    1. Biologically encoded maps must be incomplete since they are inherently required to be a practical guide to the preservation of the individual animal and/or it's genes.
    2. The biologically encoded maps within humans are capable of representing a lack of information, as is the case with the concept of zero.
    3. In some instances, like zero, humans accomplish the feat of cognitively handling a lack of information by creating a placeholder that enables the system to act as if there is information when there is not, in fact.

  3. When individual humans who are highly responsive to the contingencies in their environment (thus they are both sane and reasonably intelligent) contemplate the complexities of reality they conclude that some of the forces at work are beyond their knowledge.
    1. Given the conclusion of their ignorance of some of the forces that influence their reality, many humans will assign a placeholder, like the term 'god' and it's synonyms, to some sub-set of the forces that influence their reality in order to sustain productive cognitive mapping of a different sub-set of influences that may be within their grasp. (For instance, Albert Einstein, in his role as a physicist, had to ignore some forces acting in the world, like psychological or social/political forces, in order to work productively on his technical understanding of the physical forces that were his primary interest.)
    2. Placeholders for a systematic lack of information beyond the individual level may be necessary for human cognitive maps to be adequate for the purpose of developing accurate cultural maps of reality.

  4. Humans tend to assign human or human-like traits to entities that appear to have the properties of a) independent movement, b) the ability to respond to environmental contingencies, and c) exert substantial influence on the environment.
    1. Given that the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms are by definition representations of complex but unknown forces that may exert substantial influences over the course of human lives, many humans would naturally assign them human or human-like traits.
    2. The assigned characteristics of the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms should reflect a logical combination of the possible aspects of human vs non-human traits and material vs. “immaterial” influences. Like so:

Logical categories for concepts of god and it's synonyms.*
(e.g. animals & tsunamis)
(e.g. minds & magnetism)

* Inspired by Rev. Bruce Bode's sermon series “Four Faiths in the Modern World” which was based on Rev. Fred Campbell's religious education curriculum “Religious Integrity for Everyone: Functional Theology for Secular Society.”


I conclude that god is real since there are clearly forces at work in reality that I don't understand. Those forces include both material forces such as animals, volcanoes and tsunamis and “immaterial” forces such as other minds and electromagnetism. I also conclude that god is correctly conceived in multiple logically-incompatible ways (which includes a diversity of terminology) due to the cognitive structures that are necessary for dealing with a lack of information and the tendency of human animals to assign traits to certain kinds of phenomena.

Logically and morally I assert that all conceptions of god that admit to our underlying ignorance of forces that influence our lives are appropriate, and conversely conceptions of god that deny our inherent underlying ignorance are inappropriate. Inappropriate uses are likely embedded in situations of power inequalities that are advantageous to some individual or group that benefits from the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge. Further, this political caution regarding the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge applies equally to denials of god.

20 June 2011

3 Questions for Education and a fellow critic of Waiting for Superman

Sam Chaltain beat me to criticizing Waiting For Superman for it's ridiculous presentation of learning and teaching. In this TEDx Talk he goes into his three questions for education:

13 June 2011

Resonant Excitation in the Reed Pool

Here's the underwater perspective on this participatory demonstration of resonant excitation organized by Reed Alumni Brad Wright for Reed College Centennial Reunion last week:

I was jumping in and out of the pool in the demonstration the day before shooting this. There was a film crew shooting the above water scene the day I was jumping in and out, so if you see that footage somewhere online let me know so I can embed it below. [Update: I've been contacted by the crew shooting above water and contributed my raw footage, so hopefully we'll get to see a nice presentation of the whole thing.]

Sexual Anatomy is Complicated and Politically Important

Here's a very interesting TED Talk about the complexities of sexual identity and anatomy and how those complexities show up in the political realm:

03 June 2011

Believing What We Want and Trusting in Self-Discipline

Doug Muder is one of my favorite UU writers and his latest perspective on the accusation/confession that UU's can believe whatever we want is right on:
For years, people have been telling me that Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever we want. And I find that notion intriguing, because for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to believe that I can fly.

I want to believe a lot of things about myself. I want to believe that I don't really need to sleep. I want to believe that if the plan depends on me being in two places at the same time, I can do that.

I want to believe things about the world, too. Those problems that you hear so much about -- climate change, poverty, war -- I want to believe that they're not really that bad. I want to believe that it will all be OK. And most of all, I want to believe that none of it is my fault, so no one has a right to expect me to do anything about it.

That's what I want to believe.

I'm sure there are many things that you want to believe too. ... (click on the link below to read the rest of this post)

Doug's Blog is Free And Responsible Search

The point is that we UU's trust in each other's self-discipline and the consistent impinging of reality on our beliefs to provide correctives.

01 June 2011

Fun to Imagine with Richard Feynman

Here's a link to the BBC Archive of talks with famous physicist Richard Feynman.


Richard Feynman, one of America's most renowned physicists, sits down in an armchair at his Californian home to explain the physics that underpins the world around us. In this first episode, he explores the beauty of the way atoms interact with each other and reveals why fires feel hot.

About Feynman:

Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga). He received the prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, a theory that describes the interaction between light and matter.

29 May 2011

Dancing at the Jefferson Memorial is still a crime

I don't know anything about this Kokesh guy, but here's the video:

Here's my reaction to a similar incident a couple years ago where I ask the question, "What's a cop's job?"

I have to give the Park Police a little credit for following my advice from a couple years ago in that they attempted to find organizers and communicate with them.

But then they failed in the acts of communication. If they actually believed that the people they were talking to were leaders they then failed to give the leaders time and space to pass the message on. They acted as if talking with one small group of people would instantly transfer knowledge to everyone. Once again they failed to be reasonable.

They made the same basic mistakes that I pointed out the first time:
"These are the park police failures.
1. They judged the activity of dancing to be a threat to the sanctity of the monument
2. They created a conflict by ordering the dancers to leave without explanation
3. They escalated the conflict by using foul language, engaging with people by physical contact and openly displaying anger."

This time there was not the foul language or the open displays of anger, but their basic failures remain the same. They made a stupid judgment and then played out the conflict that their own judgment created.

16 May 2011

Example of Conservative Educational Philosophy

Here's an example of what I would characterize as a conservative educational philosophy:
American Chronicle Article "Crisis, Education" by Tim Williams

It's unfortunately poorly edited with numerous errors, but the gist of the authors way of thinking about education is what makes this interesting.

The moral premises presented in the first couple paragraphs are all about what children lack. We are lead to believe that education is an absolutely necessary prerequisite to proper functioning in Democratic societies. The author takes the view that children are moral blank slates that must be written upon or else chaos will reign. He refers to The Lord of the Flies as a "great" portrayal of children without qualification or reference to the social situation that they were embedded within.

He asserts that parents "create" the thirst for knowledge in their children yet they are paradoxically sponges that absorb everything. He asserts that the purpose of education is moral virtue then in the next paragraph proposes that the major question in the field is jobs.

Despite his disconnected arguments, the metaphors he uses to understand the situation of education are consistent. Education is about delivering into children qualities or substances they lack. Their bad instincts must be controlled. His discussion of what is necessary in education leaves a gaping void of good things about children. His thoughts seem to be organized by the negative consequences he presumes follow from an inadequate educational system.

An extreme position in the other direction would posit only the good things about children and leave a gaping void regarding the negatives (which is sometimes done in the education circles I tend to favor). I would like to see a discussion that has room for both, although I also advocate for taking strategic action based on the the positive unless there is a clear and present threat that would prevent the strategic action from being effectively implemented.

I find that the authors assertions about children and society are mostly ridiculous, but that is partly a bias I have given my tendency to think about education from the liberal point of view. I take it as a given that children are inherently capable learners and the idea that anyone creates a thirst for knowledge and/or education is absurd.

I also take the Lord of the Flies as a great illustration of the socialization of children, exactly the opposite of his assertion that it is an illustration of what happens when they lack "definitive order or laws of civility." I would argue that the Lord of the Flies shows exactly what would happen if children are so thoroughly socialized by an adult imposed system of "definitive order or laws of civility" that they have failed to learn the foundational moral sensibilities and social skills that would enable them to successfully navigate the situation of being stranded on an island. One of the movie versions of the story made this point indirectly by portraying the boys as the product of a military academy. The screen writer chose to emphasize the contrast between their previous environment and their present one. If your view of children is that they revert to a "natural" state in the absence of adult authority then you would interpret the resulting social situation as an expression of that "natural" state. If on the other hand you assume that the social conditioning that children live with over extended periods of time has lasting effects, then the resulting social situation is an expression of the residual social conditioning. I don't think either pole of that dichotomy is a valid description of reality and neither is the Lord of the Flies. I believe that human beings as social mammals are wired for compassion though that wiring can be substantially altered by powerful social situations. It would be unlikely in my estimation for kids left to their own devices to be unable to recognize their interdependence in a dire survival situation such as a plane crash that leaves them stranded on an uninhabited island.

02 May 2011

Mind Bubble via Content Filtering Web Services

Here's a TED Talk about how the ubiquity of personalization filters is diminishing important but less common feedback loops:

26 April 2011

World Laughter Day Celebration

My friend Andrea Crisp is going to be leading Laughter Yoga at the Saturday Market Main Stage this Sunday, May 1st @ 2PM. http://amplify.com/u/b109v2

Mapping our own minds

Here's another take on the mismatch between reality and how we think about it. This time it is a post from Psyblog about how we should deal with the fact that we have very little ability to know the reality inside our skin. In my previous post I shared a TED Talk in which Bruce Schneier explained our lack of ability in knowing the reality outside of our own skin. Fortunately, we can get to know reality outside our skins through a variety of social supports and careful training in critical thinking and appropriate cognitive skills. Unfortunately, we do not have comparable tools for getting accurate information about our own minds.

Mind Maps for Security

Here's a TED Talk by Bruce Schneier about the difference between our sense of security and the reality of security. What caught my attention is his description of the discrepancy between our sensibilities and the reality they are supposed to reflect. He talks about it in terms of how we create security theater that has little to do with the reality of making people more secure.

I think the concept is crucial to understanding what is going on in education. We have lots of education theater that reassures people but contributes little to real education.

23 April 2011

Teaching Complexity and Compassion to 4th Graders

Teacher John Hunter created the World Peace Game and here's his TED Talk:

I Err, Therefore I Am- St. Augustine

Getting it wrong is central to being human. We cannot see the world as it is because of our species talent for seeing the world as it could be. Here's a TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz on this point:

Stretching the bounds of empathy

Are you willing to imagine what it's like on the receiving end of US military power? Here's an opportunity to find out guided by Sam Richards a Sociologist:

Big History

In this TED Talk David Christian gives a short history of the entire universe:

22 April 2011

Learning Poem by imogen

“You can love me, but I must make me happy.
You can teach me, but I must do the learning.
You can guide me, but I will have to walk the path.
You can coach me, but I must win that game.
You can even promote me, but I must be successful.
You can even pity me, but I will still have to bear the sorrow.

For the gift of love is not the food that feeds me;
it is the sunshine that nourishes what I must finally harvest for myself.
So, if you love me, don’t just sing me a song;
teach me to sing, for when I am alone I will need the melody.”

Source: Sweet Nostalgia Blog

01 April 2011

Making Small Spaces Feel Large

Here's a Tokyo architects methods for the illusion of space:

30 March 2011

Not Back To School Camp Video

Nicely done video about the unschooler camp started by the author of the Teenage Liberation Handbook and several other books about homeschooling and unschooling.

Not Back to School Camp: A Glance Within from Allen Ellis on Vimeo.

22 March 2011

Essence of Atttiude First Teaching

I believe in the power of the situation and the focus of my work is distinguished by my assumption that in order to teach properly I have to have control of the situation. Not control in the way a marionette pulls the strings of his puppet, but in the way a sailor knows how his boat interacts with the wind and the waves. The sailor does not any hope of taking control of the wind and the waves, but can learn to master his own boat in the context of the wind and waves. The right minded sailor must have profound respect for their power and dances with them to achieve his goals. And to be clear children (and other people, more generally) are the wind and the world in which I meet them is the waves, and the boat is everything I have control over. In this view of teaching gaining control of the situation makes pretending to have control of other people in the situation mostly unnecessary.

The influence I have over the situation is based to a large degree on the depth of my relationships with others who are helping to co-create it. The high art in my teaching practice is not about directly challenging students to attain some standard of mine, but to inspire them to exceed their own standards and expectations. That kind of inspiration arises from having a deep form of intimacy in which we are fully engaged with the world and the challenges it has presented us. It is from the depth of a highly trusting relationship that I am most able to make a difference with my students. And the most reliable way to build trust is to be able to manage the situation for a combination of challenging circumstances and reliable access to whatever tools are needed to meet the challenges.

Beautiful Spoken Poetry from Sarah Kay

21 March 2011

Language Development Recorded in Real Time

Here's a TED Talk from a scientist who recorded his home life for the first two years of his son's life. He shares how his son learns to say "water." Then his team applied the analytic tools they developed to media. Cool stuff.

17 March 2011

Our View of Ourselves is Changing

I love it when someone delivers a message that I think needs to get out. Here New York Times journalist David Brooks talks about the revolution in our view of human nature that is emerging from a variety of scientific disciplines. He mentions education only briefly but what he says is right on:

14 February 2011

Exemplary Business Ethics by Japanese CEO

Here's a CNN story about Japan Air Lines CEO who has lead by example by tightening his own belt as he tightened the company belt, too.

Progressive School "Chains" Article

There is an article that gives an overview of progressive schools that have replicated themselves. [Link: Progressive Chain Schools]
Founded by Francis Parker and popularized by John Dewey, the progressive education movement developed as a reaction against traditional schools that prioritize rote learning over holistic child development.

These institutions typically have certain features in common:

* Experiential hands-on learning takes precedence over test-oriented instruction.
* Emerging student interests guide classroom activities.
* Assessments are based on student projects and presentations.
* Curriculum is integrated and focused on thematic units.
* Development of creativity and critical thinking skills are emphasized.
* Teachers facilitate learning rather than deliver instruction.
* Social responsibility and community service are interwoven into the curriculum.
* Focus extends beyond academics to include moral, social, emotional, artistic and physical development.

The term "chain" might mislead someone who took it to mean that the schools are affiliated with each other in ways that are similar to restaurant chains like McDonalds. Sudbury schools are about as related to each other as Chinese restaurants are.

07 February 2011

06 February 2011

Science Teaching Flipped

Here's what one science teacher did to get instruction out of the way of his teaching:

Hat Tip to the Innovative Educator for this one.

05 February 2011

Connection Parenting

Here's a quote from a blog post by Kevin Salwen who co-authored a book with his daughter about how they gave up half their possessions: "In our big house, we stopped communicating. We'd scatter to different rooms, far from one another physically and spiritually. The house actually began to weaken our love, or at least our ability to express that love.

So, when Hannah prodded us to sell that house, she was pushing us to reinstate our communication, our connection, our love. In our new, smaller, "half" house, we live with each other instead of near each other."

Hat Tip to Llynn Peabody for this one.

04 February 2011

After School Program Spectacular

Here's a presentation from PopTech about a West Phillidelphia High School After School Program for engineering that made good, literally:

This reminds me of a discussion I was recently having about how The System is made up of people and the leverage for change comes from finding and exploiting every slight crack in its defenses. Think of a huge rock. Every year in the winter water finds even the smallest crack in the face and when it freezes opens it just a micrometer more than before. Over enough time those cracks eventually break it apart. If there was concerted effort to exploit strategically located cracks, then it would break down even sooner. The after school program mentioned above found a way to open up a crack. They want to leverage the attention they've gotten to bust out into their own school. If they get that far, then they've really accomplished something that might sustain. The video ends with an endorsement from President Obama making that very point (although they had not announced their agenda to start a school as far as I know.)

03 February 2011

Why glass is transparent.

Here's the answer from the University of Nottingham:

Hat Tip to Wimp.com

25 January 2011

Isaac Asimov Talks Education with Bill Moyers

This the second part of an interesting interview from way back in 1988 and they exchange some interesting ideas about education. The meat of the education discussion starts about 9 minutes in and goes for about 10 minutes.

24 January 2011

The Story of School video and Atittutor Media are coming!

I am very proud to announce a new project and the formation of an organization to make it, and future projects, happen.

The project is called the Story of School and it is a presentation that will become a video about one of the deep cultural roots of the problem with current school reform efforts. As long as we have a school system that forces adults responsible for children to sacrifice their moral duty to nurture those children on the alter of academics, then school reform will fail.

Attitutor Media is a company that I am forming to create media products and deliver public speaking and consulting services to school leaders.

Contact me if you would like to know more.

20 January 2011

Strict or Indulgent: The False Choice in Parenting

Here's an interesting article by Amy Chua defending the stereotype of the demanding parent and here's a very thoughtful response to it by David Brooks.

I'm with David on this one. He explains that the irony of Ms. Chua's approach to parenting is that while she believes she is being demanding of her children, in fact, because she is making all the decisions her children are being deprived of crucial lessons about how t make decisions. By being excluded from social situations by the demands of academic rigor their social skills will be retarded.

And here's a reaction from the Asian community. One of the criticisms is that Chua's article paints Chinese (and by extension all Asians) with an abusive brush. But the real problem is that the article that is causing so much controversy is supposedly an excerpt from Chua's book, but it gets the story badly wrong.

19 January 2011

Testimonial to the Importance of a Fair System

This is a powerful story of a crime and the consequences of having too much faith in one person's memory:

18 January 2011

Trade-offs in Teaching

Here's Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science on the trade-offs that occur depending on the style of teaching that is used. Reminds me of Ellen Langer's work in minful learning.

This is the experiment in which the experimenter either played with a toy in front of the child, talked with it to another adult, talked with another child about the toy, or showed the child a feature of the toy. The more direct the "instruction" the less likely the child was to find other features.