Friday, December 19, 2008

Everything counts in large amounts

Today's xkcd comic:

That set me off wondering, what was most influential or valuable in my high school days? Being enrolled in two philosophy courses this semester, I've lately found myself thinking about an art teacher who caught me reading How the Mind Works and how what he said was so far off the mark: I'm definitely not more the philosophy type than the scientist type. If someone who knew me quite well at the time could miss that badly, I wonder how far off the curriculum was? What did I do that really counted during my college career?

Books that counted
Principia Discordia by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, Zenarchy also by Kerry Thornley, and T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Peter Lamborn Wilson writing as Hakim Bey. Oddly enough, these were all books that I only found out about and acquired due to their distribution on the fledgling world wide web. I can't decide which was more important, but all three influenced me politically and religiously by means of presenting something simple and completely outside the box of 90s revivalism.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman et al. Made me appreciate both comics and fantasy again and convinced me that they could be written and analyzed at a more theoretical level than I had been exposed to.

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. I may not have grown up to be an evolutionary psychologist or even a bona fide cognitive scientist, but it's largely due to this book (and subsequently reading its prequel, The Language Instinct) that I became aware of linguistics.

Classes that counted
Latin: I was a B/C/D English student my first two years of high school. Then I took a semester of Latin and shot back up into the A's where I'd spent my elementry and middle school years. Through making syntactic and semantic arguments explicit, Latin made me interested in the structure of language and convinced me that something was wrong with our language arts education program. I would go on to study English education mostly as a result of this class and reading How the Mind Works.

Music Theory: I didn't go on to study music formally, but that class taught me the vocabulary (literal and musical) behind all the things I had only implicitly known before.

Activities that counted
Jazz band. Playing jazz showed me the horizons of music and kept me from being satisfied with three chord rock (even if I did and still like it).

Reading. Seriously. So many high school students stop reading for fun. I learned a lot that way about dozens of subjects that wouldn't be presented to me in class until college (if then).

Not doing drugs. Yeah, ok, it's no more of an activity than not-stamp-collecting is, but class issues aside, it's amazing the difference in outcomes between those students who do and don't.

Records that counted
I think I'll save this for a future post and go into more detail.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shorts: It's Tricky

  • Over at Mr. Verb, a state senator-elect in Arizona wants to rewrite the history of good (aka white) immigrants.

  • Over at Echidne, Suzie tackles media language and rape, focusing on the use of victim. Part 1 here and a followup here.

  • Good Math, Bad Math reviews what tautologies are, being a benefit for Dr. Egnor.

Secularism and Anti-Science

This Los Angeles Times opinion piece by David Klinghoffer sparked the interest of Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking. I recommend reading them both or at least the latter if you're short on time.

It was pointed out to me at a CFI conference last summer that atheists/secularists/etc devoting too much time to religion. A member or two of the Secular Alliance of IU has spoken up that complementary and alternative medicine should become a focus of ours (a potentially controversial move in this town). I agree and would add that CAM is in general part of larger issues in the public understanding of science.

Anecdotes from Australia and the not-too-long ago study that showed people who reject traditional religion are more likely to hold other paranormal beliefs (such as astrology). A fair number of people do not reject religious beliefs because of the philosophical, scientific, or historical arguments that persuaded many of us. They reject traditional religion because it is pompous, self-righteous, and fails to make the mysterious personal. Criticisms that they frequently lob at science as well.

As seen in the Klinghoffer piece, there's a pervasive belief that science either fails to address or cannot address vitally important aspects of the human condition. While we can easily point out where an individual misunderstands the scientific literature on a topic, what is difficult to persuade mystery-seekers of is that no one can address some of these issues. The failures and blind spots of contemporary science are not a license to invent other explanations or a means to justify of "ancient wisdom."

The critical thinking tools that we use as non-theist naturalists champion are applicable to both religion and paranormal beliefs that haven't been as codified. I am not suggesting that we abandon critiques of religion. I believe religion does need to be opened up to critique, particularly where it interferes in politics, education, and scientific progress. But given the current numbers, we are far more likely to find allies among theists who belief in ghosts than among atheist ghost-hunters.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Shorts: Science Brings Out the Big Guns

Clearing up some open Firefox tabs. Which means it's time for shorts again!

  • William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument received attention from J. Brian Pitts and the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. See it here (requires Acrobat). Craig responded here.

  • Michael Egnor and Steven Novella have been going back and forth over physicalism, neuroscience, and the hard problem of consciousness. See Novella's recent post for the update. Recently, notable philosopher David Chalmers has chimed in to comment on Egnor's misuse of Chalmer's more famous arguments. Egnor responds here.

Heretics on This American Life

A recent This American Life episode focused on the fascinating story of Reverend Carlton Pearson. Pre-final madness kept me from posting this first and Daylight Atheism got to it first. The episode comes highly recommended.

Pearson's ministry's website is here.