Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Welcome Freshmen

Renée will soon be heading off to college. It's a trying time for every freshmen, but I'm not sure they want this kind of help:

"Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Freshmen. Each and every one attached to this university is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at them with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever physically or severely, any, who are called freshmen, in the market, streets, courts, colleges and living houses, or any place whatsoever, and particularly in the present college, when they have entered in order to matriculate or are leaving after matriculation."

Leipzig University Statute (1495)

(from Ask the Past)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Science is Special

Scientific knowledge (repeatable, i.e. testable, experience) is the most accurate knowledge we have (to date).

[I originally wrote, "Scientific knowledge is the best available knowledge we have.", but, of course, that is not true. For example, the "best" knowledge may be that your mother (or other appropriate person) loves you—which is not scientific at all. So, rather than "best", I have to settle for most accurate.]

Most everyone has heard of the Monty Hall problem. If you haven't, you're in for a real treat. It is a simple guessing game derived from the "Let's Make a Deal" TV game show with host Monty Hall. There are three closed doors on stage and you are the contestant. Behind one door is a brand new car! Behind each of the others is a goat. After much overt consternation, much to the enjoyment of the crowd, you choose a door, say, door No. 1. Then, without opening your door, Monty opens one of the other two doors, say door No. 2, revealing a goat. (Monty always reveals a door with a goat behind it.) Now, Monty asks you if you want to switch your selection. Should you stay with door No. 1, your original choice, or should you switch doors to the remaining door No. 3? Or, does it make any difference?

This problem was originally posted to the American Statistician magazine in 1975 in a letter by Steve Selvin, but went viral (before the WWW) when Parade magazine columnist Marilyn vos Savant presented it in 1990. 

After Marilyn gave her answer with a short explanation, she was inundated with cards and letters proclaiming her mistake. In a later column Marilyn writes, "I’m receiving thousands of letters, nearly all insisting that I’m wrong, including the Deputy Director of the Center for Defense Information and a Research Mathematical Statistician from the National Institutes of Health!" Marilyn, however, stuck with her answer offering more explanation.

Here are a few samples of letters:

Since you seem to enjoy coming straight to the point, I’ll do the same. You blew it! Let me explain. If one door is shown to be a loser, that information changes the probability of either remaining choice, neither of which has any reason to be more likely, to 1/2. As a professional mathematician, I’m very concerned with the general public’s lack of mathematical skills. Please help by confessing your error and in the future being more careful.
Robert Sachs, Ph.D.
George Mason University

You blew it, and you blew it big! Since you seem to have difficulty grasping the basic principle at work here, I’ll explain. After the host reveals a goat, you now have a one-in-two chance of being correct. Whether you change your selection or not, the odds are the same. There is enough mathematical illiteracy in this country, and we don’t need the world’s highest IQ propagating more. Shame!
Scott Smith, Ph.D.
University of Florida
Your answer to the question is in error. But if it is any consolation, many of my academic colleagues have also been stumped by this problem.
Barry Pasternack, Ph.D.
California Faculty Association

Human nature has not changed in the past 20 years, and, just like responses on today's internet, the responses to Marilyn were not just declaring her error but declaring her the butt of error and ridicule.

Maybe women look at math problems differently than men.
Don Edwards
Sunriver, Oregon
You are the goat!
Glenn Calkins
Western State College
You made a mistake, but look at the positive side. If all those Ph.D.’s were wrong, the country would be in some very serious trouble.
Everett Harman, Ph.D.
U.S. Army Research Institute

The last one was more prescient than he realized. There are many lessons here. "Why Smart People are Stupid", "Failures of Kindness", "The Bliss of Ignorance", and Stuart Firestein's talk—all previous In Progress topics. 

However, I wish to emphasize the lesson of science. Marilyn wrote that 92% of the general public logically concluded her answer was wrong, including 65% of the responses from universities. I don't know how many mathematicians (nearly 1,000 PhD's) argued against her solution, but there were many. One in particular was renown mathematician Paul Erdös. He was arguably the most prolific publisher of papers in mathematical history, "comparable only to Leonhard Euler" (Wikipedia), and one of the greatest mathematicians of this or any age. He died in 1998. If you wish to see a fascinating movie, watch "N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös". He, with all his logical and mathematical knowledge, disagreed with the answer Marilyn presented. 

The only way Paul Erdös was convinced that the solution stated was correct was by seeing it tested. Do the experiment a hundred times or so and you will see that you should always switch doors, as Marilyn stated. Your chance of getting the car is double than if you don't switch—66% to 33%. Of course, goatherders may wish to take a different path.
EDIT: Martin Gardner (who else) introduced a version of the problem (before the Monty Hall show) in his Scientific American column in 1959. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Observations on Seymour Glass

We’ve spoken before about J.D. Salinger and the impact he has had in our lives.  On a personal note, growing up, I couldn’t help but see connections between the Glass family and my own.  There were seven Glass children; we had eight.  Like the Glass family, we were headed up by a strong-willed Irish Catholic woman.  And, like the Glass children, we “were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards,” who to this day, can’t help but think that we are better than everyone else. 

But the biggest connection I saw was between Bob and the eldest of the Glass family, Seymour.  Both were war veterans.  Like Seymour, Bob was the oldest, and, in my view, the wisest, “the most intricately calibrated” and, had he ever appeared on “It’s a Wise Child,” like Seymour, he would have been the most rewarding to hear.

Indeed, I hear echoes of Bob in the things that Seymour said.  Not that they say the same things but they say the same sort of things – koanlike comments that end up sticking with you.  Most of these have already appeared in the blog, but here are a few.  Once when we were skiing with Bob and Marie, Marie said then when she starts to get tired, and her legs get wobbly and out of control, that’s when she comes in from the slopes.  Bob replied, oh no, I like to ski most when I’m my legs are wobbly and I’m out of control.   Or, take his observation that, not only were there plenty of atheists in foxholes in Vietnam, but God seemed to be altogether absent from the country.  Or, his reminder that it’s important to keep the crisis in Christmas.  Or, his theology:  God is so unlike anything we can imagine that perhaps the truest thing we can say about him is that he does not exist.  Or, his simply stated comment to me when I chided folks at a funeral luncheon for talking and laughing:  people can only be unhappy for so long.

Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next.  At another time he said, “If I'm anything by a clinical name, I'm kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”  It’s not hard to imagine Bob here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Man Francis Part Deux

Meanwhile, you no longer have to choose between same sex marriage and your local church:  The Quiet Gay-Rights Revolution in America's Churches.  As Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute put it: "This debate has gone from a debate between nonreligious and religious Americans to a debate dividing religious Americans."   Interestingly enough, the article matter-of-factly refers to Catholicism as "the Christian sect most supportive of gay marriage," and says that Catholic support of gay marriage has risen from 36 percent in 2004 to 57 percent today.  I can't help but think that some of the reason for this is that Catholics in this country know what it is like to be an outsider.  "You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt."  Deuteronomy 10: 19.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Failures of Kindness

George Saunders gave this convocation address at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. In a reference to his book, The Tenth of December, the New York Times Magazine's cover story about him was simply entitled "George Saunders Has Written The Best Book You'll Read This Year."   It's a bit long for a blog post, but stick with it.

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”  And they’ll tell you.  Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked.  Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret?  Being poor from time to time?  Not really.  Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?”  (And don’t even ASK what that entails.)  No.  I don’t regret that.  Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked?  And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months?  Not so much.  Do I regret the occasional humiliation?  Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl?  No.  I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.
One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.   If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment.  You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.  That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today.  One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes.  Can we succeed?  Can we build a viable life for ourselves?  But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition.  You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….
And this is actually O.K.  If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers.  We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable.  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now.  There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really:selfishness.  But there’s also a cure.  So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been.  I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
Congratulations, Class of 2013.
I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are You a Possibilian?

First off, I hope that I'm not stealing Jim's thunder. Based on a discussion over the weekend of Dave and Cara's wedding, I know that he was ruminating over a blog post discussing the task of science in the face of the vast amount of uncertainty we face about just about everything. I suggest that Jim look at this post perhaps more as an introduction.

Here we have David Eagleman once again. And now he proposes a new philosophy -- or maybe it's a religion -- of Possibilianism. Possibilianism rejects the explanations of the world of traditional theism, the position of certainty in atheism and the passivity of agnosticism -- in favor of another view which favors active exploration of all the possible explanations. Here is Eagleman's own definition of Possibilianism:
Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I'm hoping to define a new position -- one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.
I pretty much agree with everything Eagleman says here, except this: I still don't think he fully understands the complexity of religion. Religion is not simply an alternative explanation to science for natural phenomena for us to consider alongside of science.  As Terry Eagleton (not Eagleman) points out, to say that religion is botched attempt to explain the world is like saying that a novel is botched sociology or ballet is a botched attempt to run for a bus.

Part of the problem is that nobody can agree on a definition of religion. This is what Alfred North Whitehead said:
Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.
J.M. Yinger calls religion "... a system of beliefs and practice by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problems of human life."

Daniel C. Maguire, Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University, defines relogion as follows: “Religion is the response to the sacred. So what is the sacred? The sacred is the superlative of precious. It is the word we use for that which is utterly and mysteriously precious in our experience. Since there is no one who finds nothing sacred, religion is all over the place.”

Some argue that religion doesn’t really exist — there is only culture. Jonathan Z. Smith writes in Imagining Religion: 
...while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.
In any event, no one defines religions as any patently ridiculous explanation of natural phenomena.   Indeed, none of these definitions place religion in conflict with science, unless science is prepared to prove that nothing is sacred.

I think that religion is closer to art and literature than it is to science.  Certainly, religion has produced plenty of literature and art.  Where science seeks to provide explanation, religion attempts to provide insight.

Anyway, Eagleman is marvelously entertaining -- another well-spent 20 minutes.

David Eagleman on Possibilianism from PopTech on Vimeo.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Many have probably seen this Fox interview with Reza Aslan. While certainly not a flattering picture of Fox or the particular interviewer, a more recent article by Prof. Laconte from King's College in NYC, provide a far more nuanced (and perhaps damning, although that could be too harsh) review of Aslan's Jesus. As is true with all histories, we can often learn a lot more about present day conditions than we can ever know about the pasr

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Man, Francis

I doubt that I would still be involved in the church today at all, had it not been for Pope John XXIII.  He became pope at the very age I was being introduced to religion.  Although he died when I was only 10, I later benefitted from his efforts to, in his words, “throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”  Vatican II changes to liturgy and -- let's face it -- attitude came into being during my teenage years.  It was tremendously exciting and pretty much hooked me on theology and philosophy for the rest of my life.  (I remember that when I was in in high school, one year of CCD consisted of hearing outside speakers on various topics, one being on -- as I particularly remember -- situational ethics.  The entire project would be unheard of today.)  Anyway, I look back on the golden age of Catholicism as the period from 1965 to 1980.

Now, for the first time in many years, I'm getting excited about Catholicism again.  It has hasn't reached my local chuirch and and probably won't for many years, but something new is definitely happening with Francis.  He won't change the rules, but -- and this is more important -- he's changing the focus.  When was the last time we heard something like this from the Vatican:
Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one's own human potential.  This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless (emphasis mine).
Anyway, for one person's account of the Francis' papacy so far, here's  WHO AM I TO JUDGE? FRANCIS REDEFINES THE PAPACY.

Pope Gives In-Flight Press Conference