Science and Math

The Genius of Chickens

I have lived around chickens all my life. My grandparents had a small egg farm, and when they retired, they always had a couple dozen chickens and ducks around for no other reason than that they liked their character. I live in the suburbs now, but we are allowed three hens, and their vicissitudes form a steady beat of panic and joy amidst the routine of Human Stuff that needs dealing with. So, when I came across Carolynn L. Smith and Sarah I. Zielinski’s article in the most recent Scientific American about new evidence for intelligence and even empathy in chickens, I rejoiced at scientific attention finally being focused on the complex social life of these wonderful animals.


Smith has been running experiments to test how chickens use their language in different situations, and the results show a degree of cunning that one usually only associates with humans or, let’s face it, cats. For instance, they have a call which means “there is a predator coming down from the sky” but they are very selective when they use it. As Smith explains, “A rooster that sees a threat overhead would make an alarm call if he knows there is a female nearby, but he would remain silent in the presence of a rival male.” More than that, if the rooster is in cover and sees a rival out by himself in the field, he will go ahead and make the call anyway, knowing that it will draw attention to his rival while costing himself nothing. That’s some meta-level calculation going on there, and speaks of a depth of consciousness not often associated with these animals.


More endearingly (though, I suppose if you’re a fan of devious critters, the above was rather endearing), they have a marked capacity for empathy and concern. I notice this all the time at home – when my daughter takes one of the chickens out of their run area to pet for a while, the other two will pace back and forth making panicked little noises until their friend is returned. Those three are an inseparable unit very invested emotionally in each other’s welfare. Organized research has substantiated these ideas, showing that mothers who see their chicks in unusual situations will exhibit stress signals and clucking noises until things are set aright – they have the ability to imagine what another chicken is dealing with and to empathize with it appropriately.

Chickens… they’re pretty neat. Let’s stop being dicks to them.

All of which should make humanity feel like proper asses for the way we treat these smart and affectionate animals, shoving them into factories with no room to move, injecting them with growth hormones and then slaughtering them at a tenth of their usual life span, before too much inflicted malformation sets in. It is a practice unworthy of an enlightened species, as we claim to be. If ignorance of their mental capacity was our excuse before, that won’t serve now.


If you want to help this species out a bit, here is an easy first step, a petition to end factory farming in Canada. If you must buy ten minutes of stimulated taste receptors at the cost of another sentient being’s life (and, to be frank, every time you eat meat, that’s the grossly uneven trade you’re making), you can at least make sure that that life is as decent as possible.


This isn’t a trend which will reverse itself any time soon. The more we learn about animals, the more we find neural structures that enable them to experience bits and snatches of our own rich emotional life, and the harder it will be to justify our millennia of abusive and callous stewardship.

Culture Gaming

Let Us Larp While We May

Nerds are destined to save secularism from itself.  In our unreasonably, some might say disturbingly, passionate hearts lies the missing factor in the grand equation of a new age.  A time when reason is married to a life worth the living.


That life is coming, and in the creation of it, we could learn a lot from a larp.  Larping, once the dirty secret of the gaming community, is busting out in a big way.  With documentaries like Darkon, feature films like Unicorn City, and books examining the past-time like Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania, larp has overcome its self-consciousness and is aimed straight at the hearts of a generation looking for a new sense of community.  For those unfamiliar, larp stands for live action role play, and encompasses a robust variety of rich mystical escapism.  At its most organized, it allows you to flee reality for a weekend and, dressed as a bard or goblin, live in a different universe for a while, playing your character in an elaborately crafted and exquisitely organized scenario with a couple hundred other similarly minded folk out in a forest or campground.  In terms of immersive interpersonal experiences, there’s really nothing comparable this side of, well, church.

It’s a beautiful thing, really, the crossroads of so many skills that we don’t get to exercise on a daily basis.  Leadership and drama, costuming and music, set design and social networking, all meet in this one concentrated burst of creative output that I think anybody with the slightest historical or whimsical instinct can’t hear about without secretly longing for.  In every way, it is that realm of total human recreation that the 1950s thought we would have accomplished twenty years ago, but which our own misplaced sense of quietist dignity has prevented us from acting on.


People cannot do without people, and since we no longer particularly need each other on a day to day or community-wide basis, something must fill the void.  Secularists, guided by their own lights, have come up with some notions, but the suspension of disbelief required to keep these secular “churches” afloat has been mighty, greater even than the relatively simple matter of believing that the forty two year old guy in a cat mask drinking Kool Aid across from you is, in fact, the King of Cats.  We secularists place so much stock in our intellectual purity that we tend to instinctively eschew situations where we might come off as silly, but in the long run that’s really only hurting ourselves.


Perhaps you don’t have a weekend a month to spare.  I certainly do not, and won’t anytime within the next decade.  You could still try a gaming convention near you, dip your toe in just for that brief bit of time and see what you end up doing when wearing a different face for a few hours.  It might give you a notion of what sorts of interaction you are missing that perhaps you were unaware of, what you need psychologically but were not willing to admit out of dedication to your stoic self-conception.  There are even purely online variations that attempt to capture the essence of the escapist-yet-somehow-more-psychologically-true-than-reality feel of live larping (or live-arping, as the case may be).  Whatever your commitment level, there’s some sliver of the experience available to you, and for creatures of a finite life-span, experience is the whole game.


Life is short.  Imagine vigorously.  Because if you don’t feel just a bit embarrassed about your passion in mixed company, then it’s hardly a proper passion, is it?


Humans Are Great 9: Drag Queens: Super Heroes of the 21st Century

Seventy years ago, amidst a world tearing itself apart every way it knew how, we needed super heroes of granite – unmovable objects of pure virtue to anchor ourselves in the thick of our diminishing trust of ourselves.  Well, we weathered that storm, and many since, and have finally come back around to the conclusion that, basically, we’re an ok lot, humanity.  And our new conception of ourselves requires a new set of super heroes.  I humbly suggest the Drag Queen.

I am completely in earnest – watch an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and, somewhere in between the cat fighting and tucking, you’ll find something utterly new and entirely necessary for our road forward: plasticity.  As Catherine Malabou has pointed out in her philosophical works, this is the trait which will, more than anything, define success in the coming world – the ability to take on any role at any time, as opposed to the “I worked for this factory for 42 years” stick-to-itsmanship of the twentieth century.  We need to conceive of ourselves less as unalterable units etched in stone, and more as exquisitely fluid creatures of chameleonish identity.

The question, of course, is how to do that while still maintaining a core that is, essentially, yourself.  Just as our grandparents might have looked to Superman and Dick Tracy as stalwart exemplars to light their way in moments of doubt, so can we hoist up Pandora Boxx and Jinkx Monsoon as the heroes we look to when we need reassuring that we can change just about everything peripheral to us while still maintaining a fundamental core of self that is engaging and well-defined.

At the moment, the drag queen phenomena is riding high.  Drag Race is the flaship program of the Logo network, pulling in wonderfully high numbers, but phenomena have a way of dissipating in the cultural wind, and the lessons we can learn are too important to let that happen.  It would be easy to just allow distraction to dictate our next focal point of collective interest, leaving behind our fascination with drag queens as something “SO 2012″, but we stand to lose much if we allow ourselves that facile luxury.  These are brilliant, creative, emotionally aware individuals with a more solid conception of who they are than most of us are ever going to be likely to possess.  They are larger than life, and at the same time central to a notion of what everyday life might be.

They’re super heroes, if only we will let them be.

Books Science and Math

Humans are Great 8: Feynman’s Mirror

One of the unfortunate things we humans tend to do is rate a genius for invention as superior to a genius for explanation.  We stand with (rightful) awe before the original insights of a Bernhard Riemann but shrug off the efforts of people who took brilliant but convoluted existing ideas and found a way for the mass of humanity to gain some purchase on them.  But if something like calculus, which stumped a continent at its first unveiling, is second nature to sixteen and seventeen year old high schoolers now, it is largely because of those people who had a genius for reforming the clunky and abstract into something graspable but still faithful to the rigor of the original.

To be either a creative or explanatory genius is quite enough to earn our dazzled esteem, but to be both is to enter a slim minority of world figures indeed.  Charles Darwin was one such, and I would rank English mathematician GH Hardy as another, but for most science-y people, if you say the words “brilliant explainer” and “genius scientist” in the same breath, they will respond, “Oh, you mean like Richard Feynman?”

And deservedly so.  Yes, he’s been rather – merchandized – as of late, and with that over-exposure has come something of a backlash.  “Oh, Feynman?  I’m so done with that guy.”  But if we step back, away from the t-shirts and novelty coffee mugs, maybe we can recall for a bit what made us fall in love with him in the first place.



For me, there is no better demonstration of him at his very best than the Mirror Example in his QED series of lectures.  It is the quintessence of everything admirable about Feynman’s mind – the ability to take a vastly thorny concept and craft a physical example that retains all of the essential features of the original while smoothing out the parts that contribute formally but not comprehensibly to the whole.

What Feynman is trying to illustrate with the example is how Quantum Electordynamics weighs and combines different possible interactions for a given set of particles to calculate expected observable values.  He asks us to consider how a mirror works, and starts off the way every good science explanation should, with a confidence builder.

He reminds us of the law of reflection, which says that the angle of reflection for light bouncing off a mirror is equal to the angle of incidence (the angle it came in at).  “I remember that!” we all say, and feel that excited willingness to push on that only comes with an initial burst of confidence.  Also, we now have an anchor to come back to if we feel ourselves getting lost.  These are fundamentals of good explanation practice that Feynman just intuitively felt, and are what make him so compelling to read still, a half century on.

Having established a solid base, he starts branching outward.  What if I told you that, in fact, the path where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection is just one possible option, the one that takes the least time to travel, granted, but that there are many more paths which light can, and does take?


We get excited – something that we knew for sure was right turns out to have a little bit of devil living inside of it.  And Feynman uses that excitement to start talking about probability vectors, something that most people wouldn’t have immediately found themselves interested in, but that now, eager to resolve the mystery, they will pay rapt attention to.  He tells us how to construct vectors for different possible pathways (say, A-D-B or A-E-B in the above figure from the foundational Feynman Lectures), and uses those vectors to construct a total picture of all possible reflections off the mirror:



What was an obscure concept involving vector addition and complex exponentials thus transforms, through his flair for turning mathematical machinery into physical representation, into this picture which beautifully represents how reality works.  Yes, there are lots of alternate pathways, but the ones at the edges of the mirror tend to cancel each other out, since they all point different ways, so the behavior that we witness is primarily created by the middle of the mirror, where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.  So, at the end of the day, the law we learned in high school is largely true, from a certain point of view.

But then, like all good magicians, he saves his last trick for the moment when we feel comfortable and reestablished in the world.  We can, he informs us, by scraping away the parts of the mirror that cancel out the contributions from the edges, make those edges contribute again.  So, if we wanted, we could purposefully construct mirrors that break the law of reflection after all.  Thank you, quantum mechanics.

And so, from safety, through excitement, to comprehension to safety to daredevilry, Feynman has taken something outside the veil of everyday thought and brought it home to us all.  It’s that willingness to take some time to work on MERE explanation that I love about him, and about those generations and generations of teachers who sit up at nights trying to find new ways to illustrate our scientific heritage to coming generations.

Culture Uncategorized

The Republican Atheist: Lost Cause or Missed Chance?

There is no way to start this piece without a confession.  Until the age of nineteen, if you asked me which political party I identified with, I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer Republican.  Having grown up first on a farm and then in the lap of Babbittish San Diego isolation, I didn’t even see my first Democrat until high school.  The only thing I really knew was that it was a Democrat who led the charge that killed the Superconducting Super Collider project, and that was enough to earn wrathful ire from a kid with grainy hand-scanned pictures of atomic physicists lining his wall.

To give an idea of how much things have changed, my justification for identifying as Republican was that I felt they were pro-science, as demonstrated by their support of the SSC and distrust of anti-positivist academic trends, pro-environment in a Roosevelt conservationist mold, and pro-reason, as I heard in their relentless snickering at the vogue of popular spirituality drifting about in the late eighties and early nineties.  I was president of our high school’s Teenage Republicans Club my sophomore year, and one of the first things I did was dedicate a meeting to the proposition that “Under God” should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, a notion that the four or five people gathered there didn’t really have any problem with.



My atheism and Republicanism seemed like natural allies.  I heard the pundits rage against self-indulgence, and nothing seemed to me more intellectually self-indulgent than Christianity.  Surely, all Republicans must be dead-set against an ideology which so blatantly pandered to people’s laziest fantasies of revenge and reward.  I was so sure, and received so little correction from my immediate environment, that I assumed it was the case nationally, when a pundit spoke of the need for more God in schools, that they were doing it out of a sense of historical antiquarianism, not an actual deep-seated belief.

The Republican Party claimed a profound respect for hard work over entitlement.  Again, atheism seemed the clear choice.  Atheism is hard.  You have to believe things you don’t really want to believe.  To maintain yourself against world opinion, you have to study science and math, philosophy and history, comparative religion and foreign languages.  It is a massive effort to maintain a set of ideas that you wish wasn’t true, and tends to produce rather straight-laced nerds who might talk graphically about the luscious hedonism they could theoretically partake of, but who in practice spend their time learning about Fourier Transforms and passive periphrastic structures.  Christians and atheists have the same basic sense of morality on everything that matters, but atheists have a towering academic responsibility on top of that which I felt was necessarily a draw for any self-respecting Republican.

The Republican Party I knew also had a keen sense of rigor and standards, that the road to truth was a scrabbly and difficult one, and all assertions made must be tempered in the fire of intense scrutiny.  Truth isn’t something a vocal gathering of people feels ought to be true, it’s something that has survived every possible test put to it.  When the Republicans hooted at the state of nineties academia, it was that very lack of standards they bemoaned, and whether or not they were right (I come in at a very unhelpful “sometimes”), it seems natural that that distaste for squishy epistemology should transfer to the realm of religious thoughts as well.

In short, the virtues of the perfect early 90s Republican (self-discipline, willingness to believe things that work against your own interest if they are logically plausible, intellectual rigor) were the virtues of the atheist, and it was utterly unthinkable to me that, secretly, the entire party wasn’t fundamentally atheistic in outlook.

I was, of course, hopelessly naïve.  I listened to Rush Limbaugh and, with all the concentrated narcissism of the teenager species, heard only the things that happened to apply to my small sphere of interests and none of the ones I had no direct experience of.  I knew nothing about larger social and lifestyle issues having never looked past my zero-diversity surroundings, rationalized away the growing presence of fundamentalists at party events, and carried on expounding a Republicanism that I pasted together out of invisibly thin strands of reasoning and wishful thinking.

But I was soon disabused of my fanciful notions.  The first election I had a chance to vote in was the 2000 contest between Gore and a candidate selected by my party as if explicitly to drive away people like me – a religious extremist, anti-intellectual, barely coherent, historically uninformed, massively self-indulgent, environmentally callous slug of a man who showed to me all in one moment how far the party was from the things I had believed it stood for.

My first vote in a presidential election went to a Democrat.

But here’s the thing – I left the party, as much for the selection of Bush, Palin, Hannity and other fumbling indulgence monkeys as the party’s pantheon as for what I learned about the world once released from my isolated cocoon.  About different people, their struggles, and how they deserve to be treated.  About my own over-bearing arrogance in judging certain areas of human achievement as “better” than others.  And about how human history actually works and what direction we need to go.  I left for good, but many stayed, and are there still, waiting quietly for a return to an environmentally responsible, scientifically literate, philosophically sophisticated platform that they can embrace again.  They say they believe in God, because that is what they have grown up with and because the public image of atheism frightens them.  But, intellectually, in terms of the virtues they claim to honor, this is where they need to be, and we need to realize that, not giving up every Republican as a lost cause and waste of resources.

They’re there, and they’re largely unhappy living a double life of constantly frustrated ideals.  And now that we’ve settled down a bit as an intellectual movement, maybe it’s time to reach out and say what we have to offer them and hear, perhaps, what they have to offer us that we didn’t even know we needed.

Culture Gaming

Humans are Great 7: Cooperative Board Games

“Hey guys, I’ve got a new problem.”

Back in college, those were the words that energized a hall.  People would stop what they were doing, grab a whiteboard, and all join together for a moment to try and break whatever thorny problem one of us managed to stumble across.  Sometimes it fell quickly, sometimes it took hours, but in those moments of working through a mathematical or scientific puzzle with a bunch of other nerds while shoveling candy and over-caffeinated soda into our maws, life was perfect.

There is nothing better than getting together with a small group of like-minded folk and tackling a problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything actually useful.  Unfortunately, life after college doesn’t present too many opportunities to engage in such activities.  Friends specialize out into their own branches, move off to different places, and so that singularity of purpose and expansiveness of time dissipate.

But humans are clever primates, and some of the substitutes we’ve come up with can, at their best, entirely approximate the cooperative intellectual rush of bygone days.  For a long while, that’s the place that tabletop roleplaying games occupied – Dungeons and Dragons, Changeling, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, and dozens upon dozens more all gave adults the chance to meet a few hours every week and put their resources together in a creative, spontaneous setting to solve the problems concocted by their much put-upon Dungeon Masters.

And those were (and are) fantastic, and if you are refraining from looking into them out of pride, you’re missing out on some truly memorable times.  However, the start-up on these games is pretty hefty.  You have to create your character, familiarize yourself with the often weighty core manuals, and get comfortable with carrying out character dialogue at a candle-lit kitchen table.  For those who love problem-solving but didn’t quite have the time to go in for the whole RPG experience, then, there rose the cooperative board game.

It used to be a somewhat rare breed in the board game genre, but has steadily grown in recent years so that a well-stocked game closet can now have a good half dozen quality co-op titles.  The rules are usually pretty simple to pick up, but the coordination and cleverness required can often deliciously strain a room full of the brightest brains.  Here are my top four picks, and if you have a favorite, do drop me a line!

4. Shadows Over Camelot:  You and your friends take up the role of the Arthurian knights as take on the manifold challenges threatening Camelot.  It can be a BRUTAL experience, as no sooner do you tie up one quest than three others go absolutely critical requiring all of your combined mental dexterity to resolve.  Definitely the hardest coop game I’ve played, but every time you end up winning you feel like you definitely EARNED your bowl of pretzels.

3. Ultimate Werewolf:  Sort of co-op, sort of not.  It’s basically the old campfire Mafia game (sit in a circle around the fire, two people are secretly appointed as mafia goons, and one as a police officer, and the game is to communally find out who is who) but with a supernatural twist and a lot more specialty roles, so that the game can actually support up to 68 players.  When I had game night with my students, we tried it out and had a marvelous time piecing together the bits and pieces of psychological clues we found, or thought we found, in each other’s behavior, leading to wild accusations and much fun.

2. Arkham Horror: A classic in the Cthulhu universe, in which you and your fellow investigators have to navigate the twisting hellscape of a city slowly giving way to the invasion of the Old Ones, trying to stop the incursions of monsters and corruption before a supreme embodiment of evil awakes and wipes you off the board.  Like Shadows, there’s a lot here to punish you if you’re careless with your abilities and movement, which means that every turn is open for intense discussion about how to achieve mutual optimization.  So, there’s that same intense manipulation of lots of variables, but in a really cool, creepy setting.


1. Pandemic:  You and a team of disease specialists are running around the world, trying to cure outbreaks of four different diseases as they arise and spread across the globe.  The rules and actions are much simpler than Shadows and Camelot, so it’s a good game for people who aren’t used to board games, the challenge being how to pool your limited array of abilities to halt the steady spread of plague.  It takes all of 5 minutes to explain, and a typical game only lasts about an hour, but there is a lot of subtlety there so you always feel that you are being challenged as a group to find the most elegant use of moves possible, making it the ideal starter co-op game.

So, there you have it.  If a bit of group intellectual challenge is something you feel missing from your life, grab any one of those, two or three friends, and have a go if only to taste  again for a moment those days when all you had was time and all you needed was a delectably devilish problem to while it away with.


Atheism’s New Year’s Resolutions

It was a fine year for atheism.  At the risk of being a bit tartish, I’d even call it VERY fine.  American Atheists celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Sylvia Broeckx made a beautiful film showing the world the day to day struggles and triumphs of your average atheist, Tombstone da Deadman and Shelley Segal both released elegant albums on atheist themes… we even got ourselves a new Doctor Who (not directly related to atheism, granted, but Whovianism seems to be the new common denominator amongst Our Kind, doesn’t it?)

There were, however, some embarrassing moments amongst the general progress, and as it’s a time of resolutions, here are three notions that might serve us well moving into 2014:


  1. Let’s stop letting ourselves get drawn into petty fights.


Obviously, I’m thinking of the Billboard Wars.  I wrote about this in the last Freethinker – how we let a stupid, stupid billboard (“Thank God you’re wrong!”) draw us into responding with a monumentally stupider one (“OMG: There is no God!”).  As atheism grows more successful as a way of looking at the world, it’s also grown cockier, and one of the unfortunate side effects of cockiness is that it occludes your ability to figure out what fights are worthwhile and which are not.


My hope is that, in 2014, we’ll be able to watch Christians do deliciously self-destructive things in mis-guided attempts to regain their groove, and resist the urge to respond in turn at the cost of dignity.  Clever we might be, but nobody is clever enough to enter that battleground without looking the worse by scuffle’s end.


2. Argue less, live more.


One of the peculiar things which has happened with atheism is the drawing of a causal link between two events that were merely temporally proximate.  We saw that the numbers of atheists surged as more books came out Arguing about the weakness of theism’s proofs, and thought that the latter must have caused the former, and that the way to grow even bigger is to be seen to argue MORE.


Arguing is fun, and familiar, and changes minds just often enough to keep the whole structure rumbling onwards.  It is lifestyle, however, more than argumentation, which have swelled the ranks of the non-believing.  A surging mass of humanist sentiment refined to perfection in the 19th century, dashed upon the rocks of the 20th century’s excesses, and only now coming back into its own.  It’s about the personal thrill of engaging with humanity face to face even as the maw of mortality threatens to swallow you, the planet you’re on, and everything else.  That boundless, dark-edged optimism of a Doctor Who that is infectious and life-sustaining in a way that our arguments never have been.  Enthusiasm, happiness, curiosity – the sight of people living by those watchwords is intoxicating and attractive, and we need to be seen doing more of that.


3. Support our pragmatic efforts via a mass of creative ones.


This really goes with #2.  After decades of slogging up the political and legal hill, our intellectual forefathers having fought and scraped for every bit of ground, we are finally just able to poke our noses into the rich valleys of pure creativity beyond, to evaluate who we are, what we mean, and how we WANT to live.  And the proper medium for those questions is the creative arts – in movies and novels, comic books and songs.  These aren’t fluffy side-pursuits that distract from the Serious Work that atheism has before it.  Rather, they form the absolutely crucial foundation of self-understanding without which all of our future pragmatic acts can’t sensibly constitute themselves.  They’re the place where we’ll find out what is, fundamentally, important, and thus will form the rudder for future action, galvanizing the movement (though I hate, hate that term) in ways we can scarcely imagine now.

In short, we need to live, and to create, and do both with the dignity of the humanity whose virtues and vices we have made our business.

Books Culture Music

Humans Are Great 6: Stopping Time with Anton Bruckner and Knut Hamsun

“One of the things you’ll never know without God is what it feels like to be completely outside of time, submerged in something both boundlessly immense and profoundly personal.”

It’s one of those things you hear at the end of a long, circular night – all of the standard arguments and counterarguments have been batted about the table, all the requisite statistics recapitulated, and, bleary-eyed and hoarse, the real issues that separate believers from non-believers start making their quiet voices at long last heard.  And what those issues often amount to is a personal unwillingness, on both sides, to renounce a whole category of human experience as merely the phantoms of neural fancy.

For the religious, that depth of feeling that they get when they feel Jesus over their shoulder must be real, and they cannot comprehend how we stumble through our day without its eternally fortifying presence.  For us, that wild rush of pure intellectual freedom that stands before the towering maw of entropy and says Go Ahead, Bring It, and which we can’t imagine another thinking creature mangling in the name of comfort.  These are experiences that each side thinks as unknowable to the other, experiences that keep them reconciled to the rest of the intellectual contract they’ve signed.

The experience of altered time is one I hear rather a lot, and have always felt as something well within the confines of secular culture to accomplish.  Some of my favorite bits of artistic production revolve around just this ability to take our experience of time and twist it, alternately suspending us in pure timelessness or otherwise diverting our sense of its pressing linearity.  For the former, you can hardly do better than the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.  There is a great deal of wonderful classical music out there, but no composer has his ability to craft a tonal landscape that simply arrests time in its tracks.  You stop noticing the things that Desperately Need Doing, stop even really analyzing the music as music, and instead just let it grow over you, an insulating layer of lush moss that keeps space and time at bay for an hour.

You can really pick any symphony to feel this (though 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are perhaps slightly more effective than 1, 2, 3, and 5), but for me it doesn’t come any better than the third movement of the 8th symphony (and if you’re of an impatient sort, but want to hear an absolutely perfect musical moment, fast forward to 1:58):

I would pit that against the most intense moment of prayer any day and never feel myself the loser.  But it’s perhaps easy to hypnotize with music, to do so with words on a page is a whole different level of artistic sorcery.  And precisely that is what Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) achieved on a regular basis throughout his long career.  From the scratching, morphing staccato of Hunger to the sense of cyclical death and regrowth in The Growth of the Soil to the drifting euphoria of Wayfarers, Hamsun is the guy to go to when you want mere sentences and paragraphs to change the very beat of your heart, the way you walk through time after having put the book down.  And not a word of it relies on the neurological cocktail that religion leans on to pull off its hallucinogenic spurts.



We are, persistently and mostly fortuitously, creatures of linearity.  We armor ourselves in the past to deflect and absorb the shocks of an unknown future we cannot reach fast enough.  But, from time to time, it doesn’t hurt to place ourselves in the experienced hands of one of our great creative minds to know time’s flow in a way that defies the strictures of pragmatic necessity.  Religion can do that, but never forgets to charge heftily for the pleasure.  Bruckner, Hamsun, and the dozens of others who found in them models for a new temporal sense in art, give us variations upon lived time of exquisite refinement, and the only criteria for admission is Being Human.

Philosophy Science and Math

William Lane Craig’s Seven Reasons for God’s Existence

William Lane Craig has a surprise for us.  In the newest (Nov/Dec 2013) issue of Philosophy Now, he announces that, not only is philosophical theism not dead, but it is actually the most vibrant part of modern American philosophy, beating archaically positivist atheists back in chaotic retreat whenever it unfurls its revolutionary new arguments for God’s existence.

And what’s more, Craig confidently claims, in the space of four pages he is going to present us seven of the freshest, most undeniable arguments that point towards the existence of God yet produced from this flourishing legion of great minds.  I admit to being rather excited to read something new at long last, something that would really shake the foundations of my weaker assumptions and force me to grapple again with my philosophical principles.  Sitting up with anticipation, I proceeded to the first of these brand new, entirely irrefutable arguments….

And it was the First Cause Argument, stated substantially the same way it was when its inner contradictions were revealed as such a century and a half ago.  Gaze at these two initial steps, if you would:

1.  Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.

2.If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.

Imagine my disappointment that, not only isn’t this version an update or improvement on what has gone before, but it slips into the non-qualitative equivalence trap that the better versions of this argument have at least attempted to address for a while now (namely, that the first step sets up an analogy, but the second introduces (or, “slips in” if you’re feeling uncharitable) a qualitatively different event that breaks the chain of analogical reasoning).

Fine, then, the first argument doesn’t precisely break revolutionary ground.  Perhaps the second will:

2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.

Or, he could just restate the structure of the first argument with a little bit different evidence.  Which is what he, in fact, does.  The new evidence is the Vilenkin Theorem that the universe must have a definite beginning.  Again, it’s a modified Aristotilean argument by analogy, and again the same problem of hidden qualitative distinctions rears its head.  We can give him that it’s possible the universe had a definite beginning and that cyclical or chaotic models might ultimately prove untrue.  But that doesn’t give quite the stretch-room he needs here.  He needs creation from nothing to be qualitatively similar to the re-configuration of existing matter that usually brings “new” objects into existence, otherwise the analogy doesn’t work, and unfortunately those two acts are about as dissimilar as can be, and to argue from the prerequisites of the latter backwards to the implied prerequisites of the former is just irresponsible.  And that’s been common knowledge for a while now.


Moving along, the third and fourth arguments, because they both come from the same place and suffer from the same problems:


3. God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

4. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.


Argument three evinces a distinct disregard for the work in the philosophy of mathematics done over the past century.  It over-emphasizes math as a static body of knowledge and fails to mention anything about mathematics as a method, its assumptions and techniques, and how those might or might not be effective at engaging with the universe.  Only by confronting the research done in that field can you even start making statements about how “coincidental” the correspondence of certain parts of mathematics as they are currently understood with the physical universe as it is currently understood might be, and how much of a miraculous intercession is necessary to cover that supposed coincidence.  To make these statements without mentioning the work of Pickering or Plotnitsky is to hold up an easy and uncomplicated ideal in place of messy reality, which is lazy at best and consciously deceptive at worst.


As to four, it’s the Sweet Spot argument writ universal, and, of course, the problem with it is that it is devastatingly myopic.  He says that the constants of the universe are so arrayed within the thinnest sliver of possible values to make life as we know it possible, and therefore the life-sustaining nature of the universe is a sign that it has been designed for life, by somebody.  God.  Ignoring all the more obvious problems of circularity that the argument has dragged with it for the better part of a century, what I always find a curious oversight is the fact that, just as surely as human life exists in this universe during this slice of time, so will it surely not exist in another slice of time, not too far removed from our own.  The sun will explode, and even if we escape that, there is an expiration date on matter’s cohesion in an expanding universe that is running a race with entropy to wipe us out no matter where we go.  The universe is a short-term life sustainer, but a long-term life destroyer.  To favor the former aspect over the latter is understandable if you think that Jesus is going to show up and whisk everybody away before all of the bad stuff happens, but if you’re starting from a blank slate of belief, the construction of the universe seems so overwhelmingly against the long-term existence of humanity that only a God with the sadistic instincts of a house cat would have so designed it.


5. God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.

This argument supposes that mere materialism cannot account for the Aboutness of human thought.  It absolutely can, and a fair number of the neurochemical pathways that allow us to access and coordinate memories in conjunction with received stimuli have been mapped in loving detail by an army of quietly diligent heroes whose names we’ll never bother to know.  Yes, thoughts seem like they are very subjective and outside of your mere physical matter.  But they’re not.  They’re a chain of chemical reactions pushed by other chemical reactions, and our experience of believing ourselves to be having a thought is itself, you guessed it, a recursively sustained chemical reaction, a war of inhibitors and neurotransmitters all galloping along with our primate DNA to sift through the world’s offerings for the most important bits of data.  But, hey, at least this argument is merely five decades old.  So, progress.


6. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.

This was CS Lewis’s big starting argument in Mere Christianity, back in 1943, and of course goes back before then.  It was a somewhat forgivable argument for the forties, but is utterly indefensible in the face of what we have learned since about the origins of empathy from primatology, and of the nature of our decision pathways from neurobiology.  We have discovered more and more instances of supposedly Human Exclusive moral behavior in our research of animals, pushing the uniqueness of our ethical behavior into a narrow scope so obviously linked to what came before that to suggest the need for a divine source is to be astonishingly unwilling to engage with the past half century of research on the subject.

Thence to the big finale…

7. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.

Yep, the ontological argument, that revolutionary new idea from the eleventh century.  A part of me was hoping that Craig would save his most daring and interesting argument for last, and the groan of disappointment I uttered upon reading that line resonated through the house.    Craig adds nothing we haven’t seen before, and this argument has been dealt with too many times to even bother with a recapitulation of its manifold flaws.


What started off with bold and heady claims for originality, for a new wave of Christian theology which would blow the lid off everything we thought we knew, turned out, then, to be little more than a limping through common ground that, at its freshest, grazed the 1960s, but mostly kept itself safely with centuries-old wisdom firmly restated with all the long-observed warts still manifestly in place.  A decided letdown.

Culture Music Science and Math

Humans are Great 5: Mathematicians and their Music

I was chatting with a Ukrainian friend the other day when she asked me, “Do you play any musical instruments?”  I admitted that I could, by certain not terribly high standards, be called a piano player.  “A-ha!  I knew it.  Math people are always music people,” she responded triumphantly, and started to list off all the people she knew who had a combined love of math and classical music.

Of course, we in the United States are bound to take all utterances from Ukrainians on the subjects of music, math, and ballet as unquestionably true.  But there’s a lot of supplementary evidence as well, from great mathematicians and physicists who either played an instrument or had a deep and profound love of music, to the necessary connections between what is great about math and what is great about music that attract one and the same mind.



It’s the structural similarities that get me.  Mathematics is the art of saying a universe while bound by formalist fetters of the toughest stuff.  Every word, every turn, has to bear the scrutiny of an epoch of rigor.  When you find something new to say within those confines, you’ve pulled off an unparalleled act of creation.  A stunning proof can get me positively teary-eyed, and it’s that exact same structure of finding creativity in the face of impossible restriction that touches me in classical music.

I’m going to take an extreme example because, hey, it’s the Holidays.  Consider the last movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata.  It is from his stormy middle period and is often used in film when they need a piece of piano literature for an unhinged virtuosic criminal mastermind to thrash out in the solitude of his mountain fortress.  Or maybe I just feel like it should be.  In any case, the restrictions are profound.  Leave out a note, and you’ve ruined it.  Ignore a dynamic marking, and you will be dropped from all men’s esteem.  Considering the freedom that you have as a pop star when covering a song to do pretty much whatever you damn well please as long as something like the melody of the chorus creeps through, it seems like there would be nothing left to individual human creativity when playing this piece of music.  We should have a hundred recordings, each a metronomical copy of the other, the only difference being the quality of the sound equipment employed.

And we do have a hundred recordings, but the amount of variation that the performers have squeezed out over the years within the constraints set by Beethoven is astounding.  Here is Wilhelm Kempff, one of the greats, performing it with his immaculate attention to the possibility for dynamic change within each measure (fast forward to 15:43 to get the third movement):


Now, compare that to Sviatoslav Richter’s performance, which basically conceives of the movement as an exercise in titanic thrash metal.  He is about speed and ferocity.  All the notes are the same, but the philosophical center of the piece is wildly different.



As I said, these are two extremes of an already extreme piece of music.  Part of the endless joy of classical music for my math-snuggling mind is sniffing out moments where performers do something unspeakably subtle that is entirely within the rules but that changes utterly the flavor of a piece, savoring that human ability to express individuality in the most seemingly unpromising situations.  Those moments have all the thrill of finding buried treasure, precisely because they are so hard to accomplish.  Further, once that new variation is discovered, it is added to our total experience of the piece, always there in the background, defining what comes after, so that each new performance is really a communication with all those that have come before.  Just as a mathematical proof is a conversation with Euler and Lagrange and Hilbert, so is each new Appassionata recording a piece of art that bears with it the decisions made by Kempff and Richter and thousands of others, and the more records you listen to, the better and richer each new record becomes.

So, get listening!