Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 7, 2014

Exceptional You

By N.S. Palmer

You are exceptional. So am I. So is everyone else.

Ironically, however, we ignore the ways that we really are exceptional, and we pretend to be exceptional in ways that we really aren’t.

We really are exceptional in that we all have unique:

  • Life experiences
  • Innate abilities
  • Developed skills
  • Knowledge
  • Loves
  • Hates
  • Fears
  • Loyalties
  • Personal connections

We really aren’t exceptional in that we all:

  • Get an unknown but limited amount of time on earth.
  • Feel as if we’re the center of the universe, even though we know we’re not.
  • Have roughly the same human nature.
  • Are subject to the same moral laws.
  • Make excuses for our sins, shortcomings, and failures.

Every person is good at something. Every person can make a unique contribution to the world that no one else can make. Every person has secret passions and sorrows, virtues and vices.

What’s true of individual people is true of human groups. Every society, religion, ethnicity, and country believes that it is exceptional. Whatever it does is good, simply because it is good. Its motives are always the best. It does what is right; or if not what is right, then what is justified under the circumstances; or if not justified, then what it has no choice but to do.

That’s being exceptional in the same old ordinary way: Narrow-minded, self-centered, excuse-making, and heedless of the good or harm we cause to others.

But there’s a better way to be exceptional:

  • Try to see the good in others and understand their viewpoints.
  • Consider their welfare as well as (but not necessarily in preference to) your own.
  • Conduct a “reality check” on your beliefs. Are they actually true, are they self-serving propaganda, or are they a little of both?
  • Conduct a “morality check” on your actions. What are all the probable results? Who will probably benefit and who might be hurt? Can you live with that?

You are exceptional. Really. But you can do better. You can be the very best exceptional person possible.

It’s your choice. Whatever you choose, that’s the person you will see in the mirror.

Is the person in the mirror someone you can love and respect?


Copyright 2014 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | March 19, 2014

Rules for Relationships

By N.S. Palmer

My rules for relationships. Take them with a grain of salt because I’m currently single:

  1. Keep the romance alive. Don’t miss chances to remind each other of why you got married in the first place (unless it was a shotgun wedding). Surprise your spouse with something that he/she especially likes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but focus on the issues and don’t be a blamer.
  3. Don’t be a grudge collector. Forgive and forget. And don’t forget to forget. If you keep remembering something that made you angry, it will keep making you angry. Let go of it and get on with things.
  4. If you need or want something, you should usually say so. That includes in the bedroom.
  5. Be available when your spouse needs you, but also remember that everyone needs space once in a while.
  6. Speaking of space, if the house is big enough, each spouse should have his or her own “private domain,” a room that (except in emergencies) no one else enters unless specifically invited. However, accept in advance that there’s no way to keep the kids from snooping around once or twice.
  7. If you have a private domain, don’t spend all of your time there. If you do that, you’re neglecting your responsibilities to spouse and family, and you might as well be single. They need you and you need them, up close and in person, not sitting off in your own room doing Heaven knows what.
  8. Agree on standard practices in advance: who does what and when, date nights, and so forth.
  9. If you’re unhappy or angry about something, say so. But always remember that you’re talking to someone you love. Be kind.
  10. Likewise, if you’re happy about something or just want to say “I love you,” don’t be shy. Do it.
  11. On a regular basis, do things together as a family. You’re not just separate individuals. You’re a part of something bigger. Schedule some kind of family time at least once a week. “Hello / goodbye” in the kitchen on the way to work or school isn’t enough.
  12. Make friends with your in-laws. They are your family and you are a part of their family. Be so wonderful that they have to realize you’re “good enough for their son/daughter” (but don’t insist that they say it).
  13. (Women only): Remember that men don’t understand subtlety. If you want us to know something, you usually need to tell us in plain language.
  14. (Men only) Remember that women don’t always directly say what they mean and what they want. Make an effort to stay alert for subtlety. If you think that you’re missing some subtext, ask them.
  15. Accept the fact that your spouse is imperfect and so are you. You won’t always do everything right. In particular, there’s no way in the world to be a perfect parent. You’re going to screw it up. Just do the best you can and try not to screw it up too badly.

Copyright 2014 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 14, 2013

Scientific Certainty? Oops.

By N.S. Palmer

How many chromosomes do human body cells have?

It seems like a simple question.

Until the 1950s, biology textbooks said that human cells have 48 chromosomes. That number of chromosomes was determined in 1923. American biologist Theophilus Painter counted them.

How many chromosomes do people actually have?

46. That’s the correct number, given by all current books.

From 1923 through 1956, everyone thought that people had 48 chromosomes because Painter mis-counted them. After that, nobody bothered to recount them.

That’s the power of conventional wisdom and groupthink. “Everyone knew” that human cells had 48 chromosomes, so what was the point of counting them? If you happened to count them and you didn’t get a total of 48, you simply assumed that you’d made a mistake. Everyone knew there were 48. Who were you to say otherwise?

Today, “everyone knows” that blood cholesterol causes cardiovascular disease. Ancel Keys got the ball rolling with some rather sloppy research in the 1950s. Most physicians have spent their careers telling people that it does. Their sense of self-worth is riding on the belief. Drug companies have made countless billions of dollars selling statin drugs as a result of that belief. They’ve got lots of money riding on the belief. Is it true?

It might be. But I remember the books that said human beings have 48 chromosomes. And I wonder.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 5, 2013

You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances

By N.S. Palmer

Nuance won’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Of course, if we’re talking about the word “nuance,” it fits just fine. But what the word denotes — subtleties, complications, uncertainties, and ambiguities — won’t fit. It’s big and it’s messy. That’s why people absolutely hate it. That’s why they tend to avoid it in their thinking.

These comments are inspired by a recent discussion among my co-workers. One of them made a favorable remark about vitamins and herbal supplements as health aids. Another cited an Atlantic Magazine article by Dr. Paul Offit, a physician who thinks it’s harmful to take vitamins in amounts greater than the government’s recommended daily allowance (now called the Dietary Reference Intake or DRI).

Let’s lay out the facts. Very few people on either side of the debate like them. They don’t fit on a bumper sticker.

There is some evidence that vitamin consumption in excess of the DRI can improve health and reduce one’s risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. There is some evidence that it’s a waste of money. There is some evidence that in certain situations, it can be harmful (though still safer than prescription drugs). Taken as a whole, the evidence is all over the place in terms of results, clarity, and credibility.

Add the fact that in spite of astonishing scientific advances in the 20th and 21st centuries, the human body is still poorly understood. We still don’t know exactly what factors (that’s “factors,” plural) result in heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. We still don’t know with a high degree of certainty how, why, or even if some medicines work. And the people who sponsor studies are usually selling something.

As a result, even people who are careful and well-informed have to base their judgments on a real mess. They have to sift through contradictory evidence, assess the credibility of various experts (Linus Pauling, Paul Offit), and reach a conclusion. If they’re smart and self-aware, they know that their conclusion might be wrong. Or it might be right. And that’s as much certainty as they’re going to get.

The human mind hates that kind of ambiguity. It’s much easier to say that Nobel laureate biochemist Linus Pauling was a nut, vitamin intake over the DRI is worthless, Paul Offit is right, and conventional medical treatment is always the solution to our health issues. Or to say that Linus Pauling was a god, vitamin intake over the DRI makes you disease-free and immortal, Paul Offit is a corrupt apologist for Big Pharma, and conventional medical treatment will kill you for profit.

Linus Pauling didn’t subscribe to that kind of over-simplification. When he was dying of cancer at the age of 93, he said that he never thought Vitamin C was magic. He thought it would reduce a person’s risk of premature death from various illnesses and would probably confer other health benefits. And, as a scientist, he knew better than to cite his own individual case of living to the age of 93 as proof of his theories. In science, individual cases tend not to prove much.

Nor do I subscribe to that kind of over-simplification. Dr. Paul Offit is neither stupid nor ignorant, but like all of us — including me — he has a point of view through which he sees and evaluates the evidence. Like all of us, his point of view is biased by his psychology, his personal history, his sources of (considerable) income, and the things he learned first. Whether or not it’s true, what we learn first tends to bias everything that we learn later, because we assess the credibility of new information in terms of what we already believe.

And the issue isn’t limited to vitamins. It affects our judgments in many areas where the evidence is uncomfortably complex and we try to cram it into a simple, black-and-white picture:

  • The free market is the solution to all our problems, and liberals are a bunch of America-hating Commies (though I guess now, they would be secret Muslims). Or socialism is the solution to all our problems, and capitalism just means the rich exploit everyone else.
  • The Bible is God’s revealed truth, and as such, is error-free in every word it says. (Pick your favorite Bible translation: That’s the one that God likes.) Or the Bible is superstition, and religious believers are ignorant fools.
  • Neuroscience can account for and cure all psychological problems. Or Freudian psychoanalysis can, and neuroscience is beside the point.
  • America is good. Or America is evil. But whatever it is, we still hate the French.

Those kinds of ideas fit nicely on a bumper sticker, so they are congenial to the simplicity-loving human mind. But they ignore a big truth:

In most situations, you pays your money and takes your chances.

In my opinion, anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding himself.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 26, 2013

Toward a New Ethics of Belief

June and Ward Cleaver from a 1960s TV series.

Ward believes that June is the best wife in the world.

By N.S. Palmer

Who is the best wife[1] in the world?

There are many criteria you could consider. But let me give you a shortcut. Skip the criteria. If anyone ever asks you that question, there is only one correct answer:

My wife is the best wife in the world.”

Why? Because she’s your wife.

One hopes that you mentally believe she’s the best wife in the world. But whether you mentally believe it or not, you’d be wise to say it when someone asks you.

It’s not just a matter of prudence. Even if the sofa is very comfortable and there are plenty of frozen dinners in the refrigerator, you have a moral duty to be loyal to your wife. That includes believing good things about her — or even if you don’t mentally believe them, then at least verbally assenting to those beliefs.

But wait a second. Aren’t you supposed to believe things only if you have good logical or empirical evidence that they’re true?

Delete the “only” and that’s correct. Other things being equal, if you have good logical or empirical evidence that things are true, then you should believe them.

But the story’s a little more complicated because it’s “other things being equal.”

What if you have good logical or empirical evidence that by some set of criteria, your wife is not the best wife in the world? Then you have a conflict of duties:

  • You’re obliged by evidence to believe that your wife is not the best wife in the world.
  • You’re obliged by loyalty to believe that your wife is the best wife in the world.

Which duty takes priority? A lot depends on the circumstances, but it also leads us to the fact that “belief” can mean different things, have different functions, and be justified in different ways.

To determine what belief is, we should not make up a definition, then go out into the world and see if anything matches our definition. We should look at the circumstances under which people say that someone believes something.

Likewise, to determine what belief does — what functions it serves for individuals and society — we should look at how it actually works, not just at how we think it works. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, look!” This is empiricism and common sense. Aristotle and Maimonides would approve.

In one sense or another, you believe X if you do any of the following:

  1. Mentally assent to the proposition that X is true.
  2. Orally or in writing, state consistently that X is true.
  3. Behave consistently as if X is true.

Even if logic prevents your mental assent, you can still believe that your wife is the best in the world if you give your verbal assent and act as if the idea is true. Trust me: if you want to stay married to her, that’s a wise course of action. It’s also the right course of action.

As Sherlock Holmes Would Say, “A Clue!”

The clue that we’re dealing with more than logic and evidence comes in the very question we’ve been discussing:

Under what circumstances should you believe a statement?

“Should” is not a logical word like “is” or “implies.” It’s a prescriptive word, telling us how to act and how to live. That tips us off that we’re dealing with an ethical issue. The logical and empirical evidence supporting a belief are relevant, but they’re not the only relevant factors.

And the fact that it’s an ethical issue tips us off that belief is not a special kind of thing, off in a corner, governed only by its own rules. It’s a form of human action. To believe something is to do something. And what we do is governed, inter alia, by moral concerns.

A Field Trip to Southern Africa

In search of answers, let’s take a field trip to Southern Africa. There we encounter the Herero people, a subgroup of the Bantus. They have a curious preoccupation with witchcraft. If anything bad happens to someone, they believe it’s because the person was “witched.”

But witchcraft doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us. There are no boiling cauldrons, no eye of newt, nor even usually any deliberate spell-casting. According to Henry Harpending in his book West Hunter:

The way it works is this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, and he discovers that I am seething with jealousy [at him], so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him, so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family.[2]

The result is something very positive:

Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself.[3]

So here’s the question: Should the Herero people abandon their belief in witchcraft because it lacks empirical evidence to support it?

Unpacking the Belief

It will also help if we can get clear about exactly what the Herero people believe. Their idea of witchcraft is peculiar by our standards. They think that if someone bears ill will toward someone else, then through some unknown mechanism, it causes misfortune to befall the other person.

What’s their evidence for the belief? Correlation: Whenever a person suffers misfortune, it’s always possible to find someone who bears ill will toward him or her. All that’s missing is a real theory about how the ill will causes the misfortune.

Here’s how their belief in witchcraft looks in terms of the three belief types mentioned earlier:

  1. Belief as mental act: The Herero mentally assent to the statement that negative emotions toward other people can cause harm to those people. The content of their belief consists of a known subject (negative emotions), a known object (harm to other people), a known correlation (negative emotions followed by harm), and an unknown process that accounts for the correlation.
  2. Belief as verbal declaration: The Herero consistently state that a causal relationship exists between negative emotions and harmful consequences. They never deny that belief.
  3. Belief as behavior: The Herero consistently behave as if a causal relationship existed between negative emotions and harmful consequences. If something bad happens to someone, they look for a negative emotion in another person that might have caused the misfortune. When they find it, whether in themselves or in someone else, they try to defuse it to prevent any further harm.

Apart from the supposed causal relationship between negative emotion and misfortune, there’s nothing very objectionable going on here. The social and moral results of (2) and (3) are overwhelmingly positive. And even the unknown causal relationship at the root of (1) isn’t logically disreputable. We often notice and act on correlations that are useful but unexplained. For example, aspirin (in the form of tree-bark extract) was used as far back as ancient Greece because someone noticed a correlation between aspirin consumption and pain relief. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we had any idea why aspirin worked. We just knew that it did work: and our knowledge was based on a bare correlation without any explanation behind it.

Now, we may fault the Herero for not testing their belief scientifically. They’ve never set up a control group, they haven’t looked for negative emotions that didn’t cause harm, and they give too little weight to other causes of mishaps.

But what would be the point of all that extra effort? Their belief is logically innocuous while being morally and socially helpful. There’s no percentage in putting it under a microscope. It works. The best outcome of a scientific inquiry would be to validate the belief, in which case they wouldn’t have anything more than they already have. The worst outcome of a scientific inquiry would be to discredit the belief, in which case they would have lost a powerful support for moral behavior and social harmony — giving it up for the relatively minor benefit of logical purity. They would have exchanged something more valuable for something less valuable.

Given that circumstance, the conclusion is clear: They should believe in witchcraft as they define it. The belief is a good thing. Taking that belief away from them in the name of logical purity would be wrong.

Do We Even Disagree with the Herero’s Belief?

Here’s a much trickier question: Do we even disagree with the Herero’s belief?

Remember what they assert: negative emotion, bad result, correlation, and a postulated but unknown causal mechanism.

We might say that we don’t see what the causal mechanism is, but neither do they. We might say that other causes are involved, but so do they. If they believe that witchcraft made a rock fall on someone’s head, they don’t claim that witchcraft alone caused the injury. The rock was clearly involved. They just think that other factors were also involved. Do we disagree? No.

Often, because of differences in terminology, context, or ritual, we think that disagreements exist where there are none. We don’t like the word “witchcraft” because of the meaning that we but not the Herero attach to it. However, we have no substantive complaints to make about the Herero’s belief. We tend to think that our disagreement with them, to the extent it exists at all, is much larger than it really is.

Unpacking One of Our Own Beliefs

Let’s apply the same kind of analysis to a belief that’s much closer to home:

I believe with perfect faith that God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress them.

That, of course, is Maimonides’s 11th principle of the Jewish faith. In one form or another, the belief is held by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In particular, Orthodox Jews believe that there are 613 commandments governing every area of life: 365 negative commandments that forbid certain actions, and 248 positive commandments that require certain actions.

What is the evidence for the belief? As befits a principle of faith, the evidence falls far short of proof. Though it’s doubtful that any imperfect human being could keep all the commandments all the time, some people do try. And sometimes, good things happen to them. But overall, we know far too painfully that earthly rewards and misfortunes bear no dependable relationship to obeying the commandments or to moral behavior generally: the Bible’s Book of Job testifies to that fact. So we are left to see the rewards as either spiritual or deferred until “the world to come.”

Here’s how our belief in Divine reward and punishment (“God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress them”) looks in terms of the three belief types mentioned earlier:

  1. Belief as mental act: Because God transcends human understanding, we cannot form a concept of God[4] (the belief’s subject). Therefore, we cannot hold the belief as a mental act unless we do some covert anthropomorphic substitution.
  2. Belief as verbal declaration: Orthodox Jews consistently state that God rewards those who follow the commandments and punishes those who violate them.
  3. Belief as behavior: Orthodox Jews try to obey 613 commandments that govern every area of life. That requires constant thought about the moral status of their actions. It also discourages impulsive or unethical behavior. It’s no guarantee: people who are inclined to cruelty or criminality can usually find an excuse, even within the constraints of the commandments. However, Orthodox Jews’ resolution to follow the commandments generally helps them be kinder, more honest, and better citizens than otherwise. The same applies to any other humane and comprehensive moral code.

Even though the belief cannot be formed as a mental act, the fact that it invokes the Creator of the universe as its authority increases its motivational power. Without that added authority, the belief would be less helpful. As belief types (2) and (3), the belief signifies membership in the religious group, expresses loyalty to the group, and promotes social cohesion.

Now, we may fault the Orthodox for holding a belief they can’t understand mentally, for not testing it scientifically, and indeed, for holding it in spite of voluminous contrary evidence.

On the other hand, those objections concern only belief type (1): belief as a mental act. And though the belief cannot be formed as a mental act, one can construe it as a slightly different, entirely comprehensible mental act that’s an ellipsis for two other beliefs and a resolution:

  • Right and wrong are a basic aspect of our world.
  • Acting morally is important.
  • Therefore, I resolve to act morally by following the commandments.

The first part is a metaphysical statement that summarizes a vast number of observations, attitudes, and descriptions about the world. The second is an evaluation. The third isn’t even a statement of fact, but expresses an intention. Put more concisely, the belief amounts to:

Right and wrong are a fundamental and important feature of the world. As much as I am able, I resolve to do right and to refrain from doing wrong.

Construed in this way, the mental-act belief is logically innocuous while being morally and socially helpful. It works. Science has nothing to say, pro or con, about any of it. The type (2) and (3) versions of the belief are indisputably positive.

Given that circumstance, the conclusion is clear: Orthodox Jews (and anyone else so inclined) should believe faith Principle 11. The belief is a good thing. Giving up that belief in a misguided and ultimately quixotic quest for logical purity would be wrong.

But Is Belief Voluntary?

An obvious objection to this line of thought is that belief is involuntary. We can only be obligated to do what we have the ability to do. If we cannot control our beliefs, then we cannot have a duty to believe one thing or to disbelieve another. As Brand Blanshard put it in Reason and Belief:

Now, beliefs are rather like tics and sneezes. In some cases, they are completely uncontrollable, and then to talk of duty in connection with them is absurd. If a man were offered a million dollars to believe at this moment that three and four made eleven, or that the chair on which he seemed to be sitting was the only living unicorn, he would lose the money.[5]

Blanshard locates our ethical duties about belief in two actions that we can control: First, to acquire the relevant evidence to assess the beliefs; and second, to form careful and logical habits of mind that make our involuntary acts of belief reliable.[6]

However, this objection applies only to belief type number one: belief as a mental act. If someone offers you a million dollars to believe mentally that three and four make eleven, then you’re out of luck. But if all that’s required is for you to say that three and four make eleven, then I’d suggest that you take the money unless significant countervailing evil would result.

Likewise, some members of a community might mentally disbelieve (or, with statements about God, simply not understand) some of the community’s most cherished articles of faith. But as long as they give their verbal and behavioral assent to those articles of faith — as long as they “believe” in senses two and three — then harmony will be preserved and everyone in the community will benefit. In that case, the verbal affirmation of the belief serves as a badge of membership in the community and as an expression of loyalty to the other members of the community.

It’s true that some articles of faith should not be believed in any sense at any time, such as beliefs that counsel harm or denial of human rights. But since belief types (2) and (3) are justified by the good they produce, such beliefs are automatically excluded from our duties.

But Are Belief Types (2) and (3) Hypocritical?

Another obvious objection is to point out that this argument seems to endorse hypocrisy. Hypocrisy means either or both of two things:

  • Saying something while mentally withholding judgment about it or mentally believing that it is false.
  • Saying something while behaving as if it is false.

Let us not evade the issue: Yes, if you mentally believe not-X while saying that you believe X, or while acting as if X is true, then you are acting hypocritically.

But in humility and with no small amount of trepidation, I must insist that hypocrisy is not always and everywhere a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be a very good thing. Sometimes, it can even be morally obligatory.

We can agree that truth is good and honesty is a virtue. But truth is not the only good and honesty is not the only virtue. Likewise, expressing mental beliefs is not the only function of belief statements and believing behavior.

Consider a question that most husbands[7] have faced at one time or another:

Does this dress make me look fat?

You know that only one kind of answer will keep peace in the family. If you give any other answer, you do so at your peril. Even worse, you cause unhappiness to your wife. But before you feel guilty about your hypocrisy, think for a moment about the real significance of that question. Is your wife asking for an objective statement of fact? No. In spite of the words she used, she is asking for your affirmation, encouragement, and support:

Dearest, that dress makes you look beautiful. You always look spectacular, and you make me glad to be alive.

In this case, your wife neither asked for an objective factual statement, nor should you have given one. You looked beyond her words and understood the real question, whose answer is “I love you.” To say otherwise would have been honest, but wrong. Hypocrisy was the right choice in that situation.

Like any human practice, hypocrisy can be used for evil purposes. However, it can also help sustain communities and cooperation. When a group of people all affirm the same articles of faith, the essential function of their statement is not to assert facts. Instead, their affirmation expresses loyalty, solidarity, and shared values with the other members of their group. In such situations, hypocrisy is often a virtue rather than a vice.

Belief as a Form of Human Action

Let’s sum up. Belief is a special kind of human action. It has at least three different types. It can serve different functions, both individual and social. It has its own logical obligations, but it is also subject to the same moral obligations as the other kinds of human action.

That being so, our obligations to believe or disbelieve are not purely logical. They also involve considerations of social benefit, personal character, group loyalty, and self-definition. We may believe things for logical reasons only, moral reasons only, or for both. In some cases, moral reasons outweigh purely logical ones — especially when our logical duties are not settled by the available evidence and the moral reasons are of great consequence.

Footnotes

  1. I’m using “wife” for concreteness and simplicity. Readers may substitute “husband” or “spouse” if they prefer.
  2. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, West Hunter, loc. 589 of eBook. Self-published compilation of the authors’ blog entries, mostly about genetics and anthropology.
  3. Ibid, loc. 591.
  4. Although “God” appears to be a proper name, it is actually an abbreviation for a description, i.e., “The God of Abraham.” Unlike “Joe Smith,” to whom we can point, we cannot perceive God in any normal way and therefore cannot name Him. Moreover, saying that the name “God” abbreviates a description only pushes the problem back a step. Either the description uses the word “God,” in which case it repeats what we already said, or it uses some other term, such as “the Being,” in which we again have a term (“the Being”) that is undefined and undefinable.
  5. Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief, p. 402. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1973. The book is based on his Noble Lectures at Harvard in 1948 and his Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in 1952-53.
  6. Ibid, p. 403.
  7. As before, readers may substitute “spouse” or some other term if they prefer.

Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 20, 2013

Application to Be My Girlfriend

By N.S. Palmer

Thank you for your interest in being my girlfriend. I look forward to reviewing your application.

Compatibility is important, of course, beyond the mere fact that we’re both stunningly good-looking.

In order to be considered, please answer the following questions. You may use a calculator, but do not use reference materials or look up the answers on the Internet.

  1. What is the value of e (Euler’s number) to six digits?
  2. What is the main function of the hippocampus?
  3. How many books are in the Pentateuch?
  4. How many symphonies did Beethoven write?
  5. Who painted “The School of  Athens”?
  6. Why are the Greek and Hebrew alphabets so similar?
  7. Who wrote “The Whore of Mensa”?
  8. Who was Chaim Nachman Bialik?
  9. What is the difference between an atom and a molecule?
  10. (Essay) Explain the significance (in terms of anything you choose) of Genesis 1:3: “God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light.”

Don’t forget to print your name clearly at the top of the page and include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) with your submission. I’ll let you know in a week or two.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 28, 2013

Standing Outside the Universe

By N.S. Palmer

Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Our everyday words and ideas work just fine for getting things done and understanding our normal world. But what about for understanding God?

The ancient Greeks had it easy. They believed that Zeus had a physical body and lived on Mount Olympus. He was just like a human, except for being immortal and more powerful. When they talked about Zeus, it was mythology but it made perfect sense.

We, on the other hand, do not have it so easy. We believe that God is infinite and that He transcends our universe. He doesn’t have a physical body. Unless we resort to crude anthropomorphisms like the Greeks did with Zeus, we can’t form a concept of what He is like. When we use the word “God,” to a large degree, we don’t know what we mean.

The inevitable conclusion is troubling: In terms of our normal world, statements about God are meaningless and unprovable. But sometimes they are also true.

The same applies to any other statements about transcendent realities.

Therein lies a seeming paradox:

If such statements are meaningless, then they don’t say anything that could be true or false.

If such statements are unprovable, then we can’t know if they are true or false.

So why do most of us think that such statements mean something? Why do we think that we can know if they are true or false?

Even atheists and materialists, in order to claim that such statements are false, must believe that they are meaningful and that they assert facts.

Whether we believe or not, almost all of us have an inchoate sense that statements about God are meaningful and important. Why is that?

I have a hypothesis. It’s meaningful but unfortunately, it’s not provable. All I can do is offer it for your consideration.

Two Statements About Euclidean Geometry

Let’s consider a relevantly similar example. Euclidean geometry is the geometry of normal space. It doesn’t apply over interstellar distances, at great speeds, or at the sub-atomic level. But it applies in our everyday lives. If you pick up a pen off the desk, you’re doing it in Euclidean space.

Euclidean geometry got its name from Euclid of Alexandria (ca 325 – 265 BCE), who wrote The Elements as well as numerous other books, most of which have been lost.

Though Euclid’s name is on the book, most of the geometry in The Elements wasn’t new: people had already been solving geometric problems for centuries. Euclid’s contribution was to consolidate and systematize earlier knowledge, add some new insights of his own, and to give proofs of geometric ideas that had previously been taken on faith. He also went beyond geometry into number theory, for example, giving the first known proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers.

So let’s examine a couple of true statements about Euclidean geometry:

  1. The sum of a triangle’s internal angles equals 180 degrees.
  2. Euclid of Alexandria wrote The Elements.

What Euclidean Geometry Is

Before going any further, you need to understand what Euclidean geometry actually is. We’re talking about the system defined by Euclid, not about the space it describes.*

Euclidean geometry starts with some primitive, undefined ideas (point, dimension) and some logical rules. It uses the logical rules to combine the primitive ideas, thereby generating new ideas and proving things about them.

For example, suppose you start with the idea of a point and the idea of a dimension. You have an intuitive sense of what those ideas mean, but you can’t define them because they are fundamental. There is nothing more primitive that you could use to define them (at least, without circularity). Euclid defines a point as being “without extension,” but that’s just an indirect way of using the idea of a dimension.

So you’ve got a point and you’ve got a dimension. What happens if you move along the dimension and add another point? Then those two points define a line segment. If you extend the line segment infinitely in each direction along the dimension, then you have a line.

Line-segment-01

If you add one more dimension, then you can move a little way in that direction and add another line. Those two lines allow you to define a plane. (In fact, any three points define a plane. We’ve got more points than we need here.)

Line-segment-02-plane

If you add one more line in the plane, and none of the lines are parallel, and no point in the plane is in all three lines, then you’ve got a triangle. Each line segment is rotated a certain distance from the others in the plane. We measure that distance in “degrees,” so a complete rotation is 360 degrees. The rotational distance between two intersecting lines is the angle between the lines.

Line-segment-03-triangle

Now, we’re ready to prove our first statement: The internal angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees.

Let’s add one more line segment that intersects the top of the triangle at point A. Make the new line segment parallel to the line segment BC at the bottom of the triangle.

Line-segment-04-triangle-line

Our proof goes like this:

  1. Draw a line segment DE through point A so that DE is parallel to line segment BC.
  2. The angle defined by line segment DE is 180 degrees. Notice that if we rotate around point A from D to E, we’ve done half of a complete rotation, so the distance is 360/2 = 180 degrees.
  3. Angle DAB + Angle BAC + Angle EAC = 180 degrees. Together, those three angles add up to the angle defined by the line segment DE. From (2), that’s 180 degrees.
  4. By (3), Angle B = Angle DAB, and Angle C = Angle EAC. Euclid previously proved that alternate interior angles of parallel lines are the same. We apply that here.
  5. Angle B + Angle BAC + Angle C = 180 degrees. By (4) and (3), substituting Angle B for Angle DAB, and Angle C for Angle EAC.

We’re done! The triangle was arbitrary, so our proof applies to any triangle in the Euclidean plane.

So now we know that in Euclidean geometry, the internal angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees. It’s true, and we have proven that it’s true.

Considering Our Second Statement

Now, let’s consider our second statement about Euclidean geometry: Euclid of Alexandria wrote The Elements.

Uh … wait a second. Euclidean geometry starts with the ideas of a point and a dimension. It doesn’t say anything about people, Alexandria, writing, or books.

If our “universe” is limited to what’s defined in Euclidean geometry, then our second statement is meaningless. It doesn’t use the primitive ideas with which we started, and it doesn’t use any of the ideas that we derived from them.

A being who lived within the system defined by Euclidean geometry would say:

“Wrote”? “Alexandria”? Can you translate it into points, lines, planes, and angles? Those I understand. That other stuff is nonsense.

In addition to being meaningless within Euclidean geometry, the statement is also unprovable within Euclidean geometry.** There is no way to start with fundamental ideas such as point and dimension, then deduce the existence of a man named Euclid who lived in Alexandria and wrote a book. It’s not happening.

And yet, we know that the statement is both meaningful and true.

Both Meaningful and True

How do we know that the statement is both meaningful and true?

Because we don’t live inside the system defined by Euclidean geometry.

We have access to other knowledge. We see people, books, and cities. We know what it means to write.

Where We Do Live

But we do live (mostly) inside the physical universe.

The things we see, the ideas we form, and the logical principles we use are based on the physical reality around us. They are ill-adapted to talking about or understanding anything “outside” that system*** – including God, the soul, eternity, or even moral laws, to the extent that they transcend the merely physical. As Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder put it in his book The Science of God:

The laws of nature exclude the possibility of seeing outside our universe even if there is an outside. It is a theory that can never be tested by observation. (Loc. 578)

When it comes to statements about God or any other transcendent reality, we’re in a position similar to the Euclidean being. Those statements talk about things that aren’t defined within our physical universe. The system of knowledge derived from the physical universe, and the principles of logic that work within the physical universe, do not apply — or at least can’t be known by us to apply.

How Do We Know — or Do We?

Given those limitations, why do we sense that statements about God and the transcendent are meaningful? That they can be true or false? That they are vitally important?

I can’t give you an answer that’s provable in terms of this universe, but I can offer a hypothesis.

In 1964, physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Labs discovered a relatively faint cosmic microwave background radiation that is now believed to be a remnant of the “big bang” – a huge explosion about 13.8 billion years ago that created the physical universe.****

They were trying to eliminate radio interference with communications satellites, and they discovered it by accident.

The cosmic microwave background is a faint echo of the universe’s beginning. We can’t normally detect it, but if we point the right instruments in the right direction, we can.

What about our own built-in instrument: our own minds? We can’t normally detect any transcendent realities. But scientific evidence shows clearly that our minds have abilities far beyond those we currently understand. The exact nature and causes of those abilities are disputed, but that they do exist is beyond any reasonable dispute.

If we point our minds in the right direction, and through prayer, meditation, or other means we tune them to just the right spiritual frequency, do we detect a faint echo of a reality that transcends what we see around us? Does that enable us to stand partly outside of the physical universe and to perceive beyond it? Is that what Moses and other ancient prophets did?

I can’t answer those questions for you. Neither can atheists, at least not based on evidence of the kind we use to understand the physical world. The questions have no answer within our universe: Just like statements about Euclid’s authorship within Euclidean geometry, such answers are meaningless and unprovable in terms of the physical world.

It comes down to whether or not you believe there’s a kind of “spiritual background radiation” that we can detect at the extreme outer edges of our perception – and if so, what that background radiation means. Logic and normal empirical evidence can’t settle the issue.

I believe that it means the universe is created and sustained by a loving God, an infinite Consciousness, who cares about each and every one of us.

What do you believe?

——————————

* I’m giving the essence of Euclid’s system as a modern analytic philosopher understands it. This isn’t exactly how Euclid explained it.

** I was deliberately vague when I said that the two statements were “about” Euclidean geometry. Only the statement about Euclid is about Euclidean geometry. The triangle theorem is a statement in Euclidean geometry and is about Euclidean space.

*** Obviously, “outside” is a spatial metaphor for an idea that can’t be expressed literally in our language.

**** Analogies to “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) are obvious but, as Schroeder admits, are unverifiable.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 2, 2013

How to Change Your Past

By N.S. Palmer

Would you like to know how to change your past?

Bad things sometimes happen to all of us. We all sometimes do or say things that we regret. We all wish that it could have been different.

In a way, it can be different. The past is still with us every day, affecting how we feel, how we act, how we treat others, and how we see ourselves.

You can’t change what happened, but you can change its meaning and moral significance.

If you did something wrong in the past, then do everything you can in the present to rectify the harm you did.

If an event in the past haunts you and stops you from being happy, then re-examine it in the present. Try to understand what God meant you to learn from it. Tell yourself a new story about it: a story in which you are no longer a victim; a story in which you suffered but became a better and stronger person as a result.

By doing those things, you re-frame your sins, errors, and negative experiences into assets that foster goodness and happiness in your life.

Your past is what it is. But what you do with it in the present is something you can control. You can turn something bad into something good.

Give it a try. You might be surprised by how much power you have over the past.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 1, 2013

Talk About Syria, or (N)ever (S)ay (A)nything

By N.S. Palmer

President Obama’s determination to attack Syria over implausible allegations that its government used poison gas continue to provide a lot of — pardon the expression — black comedy.

The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would invite U.N. weapons inspectors into Syria and promptly use illegal weapons a few miles from their location is laughable on its face.

The idea that the U.S. government cares if Assad violates international law is laughable on its face.

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein celebrate U.S. support of his regime.

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein celebrate U.S. support of his regime.

The same U.S. government gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein to use against Iran, used white phosphorus and depleted uranium in its war on Iraq, refuses to sign the treaty banning cluster bombs, and constantly commits illegal acts of aggression around the world — acts of which attacking Syria would be only the latest case.

The United Nations hasn’t approved and Syria isn’t imminently going to attack the United States, which would be the only international-law justifications for an attack. The British don’t want to have anything to do with it. The Russians called “bullshit” on Obama’s claims. The American people don’t want it. The Constitution requires a declaration of war by Congress, but as Bush regime consigliere Alberto Gonzales would say, that seems so “quaint.”

Most of the rest of the world won’t touch it — or us — with a 10-foot-long depleted uranium shell. They remember the lies that preceded the aggression against Iraq. When John Kerry went on television to say “trust us,” everyone who saw it had an eerie flashback to watching Dick Cheney tell the same lies about Iraq.

But most of all, it’s not about Iraq and it’s not about Syria. It’s about what Washington insiders call “No Such Agency” — the NSA.

The reasons for a U.S. attack on Syria are so thin that even George W. Bush would have had a hard time believing them. But they have done one important thing: They changed the subject.

As long as people are talking about Syria, it doesn’t matter if they support a U.S. attack or oppose it. If they’re talking about Syria, then they’re not talking about the Obama administration’s illegal spying on Americans, its serial lying to the American people, its deception of Congress, or its apparent decision to “bug the world.”

And the illegal NSA spying does confer some benefits. When Mr. Obama goes to Congress, finally, embarrassed and under pressure, his people will have some interesting arguments to make:

“Senator X, we certainly respect your principles. But sadly, a rogue intercept discovered that you’ve been cheating on your wife. It would be a shame if that information became public.”

“Congressman Y, we understand that your constituents don’t want an attack on Iraq. They probably also wouldn’t want a Congressman who’s downloaded porn. And you do such fine work that we wouldn’t want cable news to get leaked stories about your activities.”

“News editor Z, we know you have integrity. We also know you have an 18-year-old boyfriend with a drug problem. It would be hard for you to keep your job if your boss found out.”

Plans to attack Syria are a classic case of misdirection. Their main purpose is to change the subject. And they’ve succeeded.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 15, 2013

A Short Course in the Scientific Method

By N.S. Palmer

Let’s have a short review of the scientific method, shall we?

Most people have heard the phrase but have only a vague idea of what it means. It’s something about men and women in lab coats fooling around with test tubes, torturing white rats and such.

Fortunately for white rats, that description is almost entirely inaccurate.

Even scientists, however, often misunderstand the nature of what they’re doing and its limitations. Popular science writers are even worse. So a review of the basics is in order.

How the Scientific Method Works

The scientific method is a process consisting of observation, hypothesis (“suppose that X is true”), testing (“If X is true, then we’ll see Y”), and repeated testing (“Yes, in this case, we see Y” or “No, in this case, we don’t see Y”).

Here’s an example of the scientific method in action:

  • I observe that an apple is red.
  • In the next five cases, I observe apples and they are all red.
  • I form a hypothesis: “All apples are red.”
  • I and other people test the hypothesis under different conditions, in different places, at different times, and with different types of apples.
  • We find one of two things: Either (a) all the apples we look at are red, which confirms our hypothesis; or (b) we find at least one non-red apple, which disproves our hypothesis.

As long as we’re on the subject, notice the different words used in cases (a) and (b). If we find only red apples, that confirms the hypothesis. It doesn’t prove it. There could still be some non-red apples, but we just haven’t found them yet. On the other hand, if we find even one non-red apple, that disproves the hypothesis that “all apples are red.” Then we know that the hypothesis is false.

When a hypothesis has been confirmed by all known observations, we consider it well established. At that point, we might promote it to the status of a generalization, law, or theory. A theory differs from a generalization or law because it doesn’t just summarize observed facts: it also tries to explain them in terms of other facts that we haven’t yet observed. When we go looking for those unobserved facts, we’re testing the theory.

But whether something is a generalization, law, or theory, it’s still only been confirmed, not proven. Even a “law” can be revised or rejected in the light of new evidence or a more insightful analysis.

Human Nature Distorts the Process

Sometimes, new observations aren’t even needed. For broad theories, there are often little observations at the margins that don’t quite fit the theories. In those cases, most people tend to follow the theory. They either ignore the observations that don’t fit, they dismiss them as unreliable, or they try somehow to cram them into the theory so that they fit.

What most people don’t realize is that human beings, even scientists, are not purely dispassionate thinking machines. If they’ve spent years researching and confirming a theory, they’ve got both their egos and years of their lives invested in it. So do other scientists. To question conventional wisdom is to question the validity of one’s own work and risk ostracism by one’s peers. Understandably, and quite reasonably in terms of their own mundane self-interest, most people just don’t want to do that. So even if they have private doubts, they defend conventional wisdom against all comers.

This human tendency isn’t a new thing. You’ve probably heard of the Pythagorean theorem: in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (the longest side) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. What you probably haven’t heard is that Pythagoras and his followers believed everything could be explained by integers (whole numbers) and ratios of integers (fractions). “Ratio” is where we get the word “rational,” so in other words, the Pythagoreans believed that the world was rational. Note that any whole number can also be expressed as a ratio, such as 15/15 or 1/1.

But Pythagoreans had a terrible shock when they discovered that some quantities could not be expressed as whole numbers or ratios. In particular, if a right triangle’s shorter sides each have length 1, then the hypotenuse length is the square root of 2. The square root of 2 cannot be expressed as a whole number or as a ratio: it is irrational.

And the Pythagoreans did what most scientists do when they run into an observation that conflicts with a cherished theory: They ignored it. They still believed that they could explain the world entirely by rational numbers (integers and ratios), but there was also this “other thing” (irrational numbers) that they just tried not to think about.

The same thing happened at the end of the 19th century. With classical mechanics, essentially a more sophisticated and developed version of Isaac Newton’s worldview, scientists — and pretty much everyone else, if the truth be told — thought that they had the world completely figured out. But there were these little observations at the margin. Odd things that the theory couldn’t quite explain: for example, that according to observations based on the theory, the earth wasn’t moving through space. But even the greatest scientists of the era, such as Lord Kelvin, tried to ignore those results on the assumption that someday they’d be explained.

And Albert Einstein did explain them, but he explained them in a way that the scientific community didn’t like: He said that classical mechanics was wrong.

Einstein didn’t do any new experiments. He just took the marginal observations seriously and came up with a new way of looking at space and time. Most scientists thought he was a crank.* Einstein’s theories didn’t gain wide acceptance until the old generation of physicists died off: I still have a book from the 1930s called Back to Newton, by an old-guard physicist who tried to debunk Einstein’s view. After that, a new, more open-minded generation embraced Einstein’s ideas.

Paradigm Shifts

What happened when mathematicians finally accepted irrational numbers, and when physicists finally accepted Einstein’s relativity theories, is called a paradigm shift. It’s not just a little change in this theory or that theory. It’s a change in our whole way of looking at the world: that is, it’s acceptance of a new worldview.

That worldview provides the context for development of theories about more specific aspects of reality. It provides a foundation for new theories, but it also biases them in the same way as the Pythagorean view and classical mechanics biased people when they were the dominant viewpoints. So even under the new paradigm, there will still be little observations around the margin that don’t quite fit. The process starts all over again.

Sooner or later, those marginal observations lead to a new paradigm that’s slightly more accurate, and then to another, on and on. Reality is infinite, so we never get to the end. What would be the fun in that?

What the Scientific Method Does Not Tell Us

Let’s get back to the example of the apples:

  • I observe that an apple is red.
  • In the next five cases, I observe apples and they are all red.
  • I form a hypothesis: “All apples are red.”
  • I and other people test the hypothesis under different conditions, in different places, at different times, and with different types of apples.
  • We find one of two things: Either (a) all the apples we look at are red, which confirms our hypothesis; or (b) we find at least one non-red apple, which disproves our hypothesis.

So far, so good. That’s all entirely justified and reasonable. But what if we then wanted to draw a further conclusion:

  • We’ve observed apples.
  • Therefore, only apples exist. Grapes, bananas, and oranges are figments of deluded people’s imaginations. Those observations aren’t reliable at all.

In the case of grapes, bananas, and oranges, the suggestion seems ludicrous. But when our reigning scientific paradigm is at stake, it seems much more reasonable:

  • We’ve observed the physical universe.
  • Therefore, only the physical universe exists. Thoughts, feelings, near-death experiences, and psychic phenomena are figments of deluded people’s imaginations. Those observations aren’t reliable at all.
  • Oh, and by the way, you’re an idiot if you take those things seriously.

That last point is usually implied rather than stated explicitly. But it’s clear from scientific materialists’ hostile response that more is at stake than just facts and theories. Their egos are involved. They’ve spent years of their lives looking at the world in a certain way. They’ve written books and articles about it. They’ve taught it to their students. Their professional reputations and their self-respect are on the line.

What if they were wrong?

That’s a very uncomfortable thought, so in fear and frustration, they push it away and denounce anyone who brings it up.

Our Current Paradigm Misleads Us

Our current paradigm sees the world as matter and energy. Period. Nothing else exists. Thoughts, meaning, and “information” are redefined out of existence, cast instead as configurations of matter and energy. For doing physical science, that paradigm has a certain utility. But there are those observations around the margin: first and foremost, the fact that each of us is conscious and knows it. There are also things like near-death experiences and psychic abilities. Under the reigning, materialistic paradigm, you can “explain those things away,” but you can’t really explain them adequately.

So for the most part, people who are committed to the reigning paradigm — who have invested their self-esteem and years of their lives into the reigning paradigm — simply try to ignore conflicting observations. And they get rather upset when people suggest that the reigning paradigm might be mistaken.

The stakes are high. Remember the earlier discussion about observations to test a hypothesis? No matter how many observations you make, you can never conclusively prove a theory, once and for all time. But even one single conflicting observation, if you take it seriously, can disprove a theory. If any of the little observations around the margin are true, then our dominant materialistic paradigm is wrong.

What the scientific method tells us is valid and important. It describes, analyzes, and enables us somewhat to control the physical universe.

What the scientific method does not tell us is that “only apples exist.”

If someone believes that only apples exist, or that only matter and energy exist, that conclusion is not based on the scientific method. It’s based on an act of faith. It should be recognized as such.

____________________________________
* Einstein won a Nobel prize not for his relativity theories, which most people didn’t believe, but for his 1905 paper on Brownian motion. Previously, most scientists believed that atoms were a useful assumption but didn’t really exist. His paper convinced them, for the first time, that atoms were real.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

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