The End of Faith by Sam Harris – book review

Tags

, ,

I read The End of Faith by Sam Harris as a preparation for a discussion of this book at the Bend, Oregon, main public library this coming Sunday. The Wikipedia article on  Sam Harris gives a good post-view of much of this book he published back in 2004 and it is even more clearly focused on his argument. This first book of his makes clear the observation that there can be no peace in the world with each of the various religions demanding adherence to their particular form of faith. Monotheism is particularly contentious on this point as every individual is inherently different and they each will have a uniquely personal point of view on what the details of God and religion should mean and be. That can only result in interpersonal conflict and group conflict and ultimately religious wars on subtle points of doctrine.

It appears that the Classical Romans had the right idea about separation of state and religion when they legally forbade people from promoting religion and particularly monotheistic religions. They permitted everyone to practice their personal religion and seem to have encouraged everyone to have household idols to their personal gods. The Roman problem with the Jews and later Christians was their proselytizing and thus creating conflict within the body politic. Harris compares the thousand years of Christianity that arose after Emperor Constantine made it a state-controlled entity to modern Islam. Making monotheistic religion into a state entity with a military inevitably creates wars and that is where he finds fault with the current Muslims.

Religion and especially monotheistic religions must be abandoned or humanity which now possesses superweapons will destroy itself.

Advertisements

People don’t make decisions based on facts

I have been working on a new book presently titled Love Our Life, and as some of that love concerns our food diet I have been reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas Campbell. That is an excellent book loaded with powerful science and insider information on both the scientific community and the political process on how to get things done. Campbell is a convincing writer telling a profoundly important story of humanity’s medical crisis and what to do to fix it. I am now reading the 2016 edition and had already read the 2006 edition which already had the major suggestions.

My problem and humanity’s problem too is that there are now about 1.6 billion overweight and obese people and two-thirds of Americans are overweight. My problem with that problem is that Campbell’s book gives scientific evidence for exactly what needs to be done to correct obesity and other diseases of affluence and that book is being ignored. Much of the problem comes from the bottom line of business and especially corporate business. Their goal is to make money and to press the legal institutions to their limits to satisfy that goal. The foods that will make the most profit on the monetary bottom line are addictive and unhealthy. It is a replay of the smoking tobacco controversy, but it’s more difficult to define what is unhealthy about food because almost anything that can be digested is healthy in small amounts. Who’s to say liter-size sugar drinks are unhealthy? Let the consumer decide.

Consumer choice is risky enough, but they must include in their decision making the influences of a huge advertising industry supporting extravagant claims for the health of foods that should be consumed in small amounts. The public, which is billions of people, buys millions of tons of promoted stuff that will make them obese and sick. Campbell shows that anything beyond tiny amounts of animal protein bring on the problems of affluence which include obesity and early death. The business world has convinced us that eating the maximum amount of animal protein at every meal is a good thing to do. Campbell proves it’s deadly.

If Campbell, with perfect credentials and awards for excellence and perfect presentation of perfectly performed science and two million books sold proving his methods for correcting this multi-dimensional epidemic, has failed to even slow the obesity epidemic, what can I, with none of those qualities, hope to do? The present introduction to my book speaks of using control of one’s personal diet as an illustration of learning how to control one’s whole life. But billions of people have proven that they cannot control their diet, so how can I expect them to control these other less tangible qualities of their lives? In Love Our Life there isn’t a direct reference to diet in the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece’s 147 list of suggestions for good behavior.

Perhaps # 136 – Live modestly and shun excesses includes diet.

At every moment do the right thing.

Tags

, ,

At every moment in your conscious life to have the intent to do the next indicated right thing is a great way to live. The world is an infinitely complex place and it is impossible to know what will be happening in the next moment, and thus to decide in the moment what the next indicated thing will be can be difficult. But decide we must because the moments inevitably move on and doing nothing is as much an action as is continuing to do what one is already doing as a perceived inertia of the moment. Inaction is an action too. However, doing something totally unique in response to the perceived situation usually requires some kind of preexisting habits that will assert themselves as thoughts in response to what is perceived.

Thus, to successfully do what turns out, on later consideration, to be the next right thing is to some extent dependent upon an accurate perception of the situation presented to one’s consciousness. That perception is itself dependent upon what came before the moment which itself is dependent upon not only the physical reality but the potential ones and it vanishes into complexity. In interpersonal situations, such as typical conversation, this isn’t much of a problem but when we are reacting to professionally produced media, in all its forms, that has been carefully programmed to control our perceptions, their setup becomes critical. Advertising and political presentations are carefully honed to manipulate our perception of reality. Those people want us to react positively to what they present to us and thus to behave at their whim. They intend for us to buy their commercial product or to support and vote for their view of what is a public benefit.

How to do the next indicated right thing isn’t always easy to discern. There is a slight variation on that idea that we have been discussing that attempts to define the right thing. The right thing is a human value judgment that is defined by human values. The right things are themselves infinitely variable. Sometimes we are talking about the Earth environment, and sometimes about the planet Saturn’s environment. That is why the Cassini spacecraft was intentionally collided with Saturn in such a way that it was incinerated. That was to kill any possible transfer of an Earth life form that might be on the spaceship. That was a very remote right thing to do.

Usually, it is in face-to-face interpersonal relationships that we are concerned with the right thing to do. But it is complicated, and perhaps a better thought to cultivate into a habit is when facing a situation to always do the kind thing. That thought will, when cultivated into a habit, automatically take the other person’s needs into account and thus when behaving that way you will be doing the right thing, at least in that person’s reality, and in yours. Perhaps to do the right thing …

Be kind. Always be kind.

How to be boring.

Tags

,

I have no idea if you are boring but I know that I am. I will get excited about something I am talking about and I see people’s eyes glaze over and I realize that I am boring. Perhaps you’ve noticed that or perhaps not. I’m not accusing you of being boring or dumb if you haven’t noticed people getting bored with what you have to say; maybe it’s the exact opposite and you are really smart. Probably you have led a fascinating life and everyone hangs on every word of your adventures. I know people who have traveled the world and every time I mention a place, anyplace, New Zealand, Thailand, Madagascar, New York, anyplace, they will talk endlessly about their fascinating experiences there. It’s amazing.

There is another possibility for being boring. Perhaps you haven’t traveled anywhere or done anything or known anyone, but you are so caught up in your own stories that you don’t notice people becoming bored with what you have to say and they are constantly trying to interrupt. If you have a naturally loud voice you can keep talking and those interrupters will go quiet, after a while, and soon they will find something else to do with their time and wander away. Alternatively, there is usually the option of directing your eyes and voice to someone else who is present who will listen and then you can keep talking to everyone present, but if you are focused on that single person the others will politely sit quietly.

If all else fails and people are refusing to listen to you, you can stand up, say you have an important meeting, but keep talking as if what you say is your concluding remarks. That tactic will get you a couple of minutes more ear-time. Practice talking to the mirror in the morning to help you hone your boring presentations.

If you follow these simple procedures and practice diligently you may become acknowledged as a profound bore.

Do I matter?

Tags

, , ,

The great existential question of our personal existence always comes back to, “Do I matter?” That can be subdivided into several categories, such as, do I matter to myself, my family, my friends, my species, my Earth, my Universe? This hierarchical relationship is based on propinquity, that is, closeness to my physical being, and generally, we feel our responsibility to be more relaxed for those categories with the greater physical distance from our bodily selves.

But, no, that can’t be a good definition because we are infinitely bound to our Universe, and only a few of us ever break the bonds to our Earth such as the astronauts, and they are more dependent on civilization functioning quite well even to survive. Most of us can get along physically for a while with modest help from our species by just behaving ourselves. Our friends can give us the conversational social support that we seem to need to be comfortable living within a society. Our family shares with us the physical things like shelter, food, and physical security to maintain our physical lives.

Then we come to ourselves. But, what is that? Our body? Yes, that’s important; for without that functioning reasonably well we couldn’t exist. Is it our brain that is the thing that really matters? Well, yes that’s important too, but isn’t that just part of our body and no more important to our functioning than any of the other vital organs? Is our brain any more important than our spleen? Perhaps it’s the mind that is critical to our mattering, that is, the thoughts and habits that we have self-created through our biological heritage, our social environment while developing and our ponderings over our actions in response to our environment that turn into habits that create our importance … at least to ourselves.

Or, does our real life satisfaction come from our relationship to others, at least to others who are important to us and whom we feel that we are important to? We can have many different kinds of relationships with others and every one of them is going to be unique. We want our relationships to be unique but not so unique that they feel dangerous. We want to feel comfortable with what is happening but not so comfortable that it is boring. We want to feel that we are interesting to those people we are relating to so they will be willing to interact with us.

All of this requires a balancing of a potential infinity of variations, but those must be within the bounds that I can cope with, but they must be interesting to matter to me.

It always comes back to I and we, but where do our dogs and cats fit in?

Something odd about today’s 7.1 earthquake in Mexico

Tags

, , , ,

We have an overabundance of natural disasters happening here in North America at this time. These events are inevitable in the long run but random in the short one. Major hurricanes, extensive forest fires, and now major earthquakes don’t usually overlap but now they just happen to be doing just that. As PT would say, Sad.

Today, here in Bend, Oregon, we are having some rain and the first smoke-free day in months. The smoke was bad enough that I was wearing a 3M 8511 – N95 face mask a few times, although most people weren’t. The folks at the University of Puerto Rico are expecting a direct hit by an (M) major hurricane tomorrow afternoon.

Seventy miles south-east of Mexico City experienced a 7.1 earthquake today. I track these events because I wonder how people react to threats to their existential existence. — National Hurricane Center — EARTHQUAKES — FOREST FIRES — Perhaps my interest in these natural things was piqued by living on the Hayward Fault for fifty years. It is a major earthquake fault and it is past due for a major event. It was a small part of my motivation for moving to Bend six years ago, but nature caught up with me and felled a large Ponderosa tree on my house this April. Tata … so much for foresight.

One of my friends, visiting Bend last week, moved to a place within the shake zone of the quake below last year but went back in time to experience today’s quake. (Click the pictures for bigger views.)

7.1 quake Mexico 2017/09/19

USGS presentation of the quake lat/lon 18.548, 98.399

I went to the site of the quake on Google Earth and noticed the smooth round hill to the left, in this view the yellow push-pin at lat/lon 18.548, 98.399. It struck me as strange because all of the nearby hills were very irregularly shaped.

A Google Earth photo of today's earthquake site in Mexico

Note the smooth round hill to the left of the pushpin.

A Google Earth picture of quake area

A wider view of the area showing more eroded valleys.

An oblique view of 2017-09-19 quake

An oblique view of the area with distant Popocatepetl.

The bottom picture shows the area around the quake site as being covered with an eroded landscape. The hill to the left of the yellow pushpin is smooth with little weathering as is the one directly above the pushpin. Everything else is either flat as formed by ancient lakes or eroded hills from a distant past. What do we make of the origins of that smooth hill anomaly? My first guess is that those two hills are the beginnings of a future mountain. They are being pushed up by the forces that created the earthquake, and as they are aligned with Popocatepetl and the more distant volcanos these little hills might become volcanoes themselves.

Check back in a couple million years to see if I’m right.

The Seven Sages of Ancient Greece – line 99

Tags

, , ,

Okay, I’m being outrageous by my modifying the sayings of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece in any way. Those sayings, or suggestions if you prefer, are usually only two words long and thus to my mind beg for interpretation. Line number 99 was  particularly challenging for interpretation, having something to do with glory and one’s personal relationship with an emotional response to that kind of public acclaim. Perhaps Alexander the Great, who spoke that same language and conquered most of the world known to him only a few hundred years after those things were written down at Delphi, would not have had a problem understanding what struggling with glory would be like. I don’t have that problem!

I’ve done things but never anything that would bring glory to me. In actual fact, the closest I’ve come to having to cope with glory recently was getting a bouquet of flowers last week, where I finally get an award. I have very little desire for acclaim or even attention and generally avoid even speaking up when there are more than a few people present. I avoid seeking or accepting positions of power or responsibility and generally reject them when about to be forced upon me. Thus it seems strange to me that I am writing this book Love Your Life which includes these rewrites of the Sayings of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece. But that is what I am doing, so when I come to my own line #99 it gives me more of a mental pause than most of the others.

Do your work with skill and diligence. What can that mean to me? What does it mean to do the mental preparations which I recommend in preparation for the future activity? I have known people whom I would call skillful and diligent but I usually associate those qualities with old tradesmen. One of my old friends was a carpenter and I marveled at his scrap pile of the pieces of wood he threw away after cutting what he was making for the job. Even his discarded scrap pieces were beautifully formed. That demonstrated skill with a saw. I saw this again a couple of months ago when a lineman was working on top of the utility pole above my house. These two people were like master piano players at their chosen craft. When thinking of this trait in a social realm where you can see skill and diligence in action, on TV watch some of the old politicians or newsmen recover from difficult situations. These things require years of careful and dedicated thought and honing of skills.

I ramble on but I do think that cultivating skill and diligence in your chosen activities is a worthwhile thing to do. Sloppy uncaring actions must lead to an uncomfortable relationship with other people and with one’s entire reality.

I reject things that don’t make sense to me.

Tags

,

Isn’t it is fair and reasonable to reject ideas that don’t make sense to me? That seems like it ought to be at the core of all honest mental operations and yet there is a problem. Just because something doesn’t make sense at the moment doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t make sense if I pursue the background information and reasoning that leads to the idea. I remember in high school being confronted with the Pythagorean theorem that in a right triangle the sum of the square of the sides equaled the square of the hypotenuse. It was presented to us after we had worked through some other more elementary problems and I wasn’t comfortable with the details of some of those ideas. However, when I worked out the problem in physical drawings moving from the extremes at either end of the angular setups and compared them with the obvious 3 x 4 and 5 setups I then felt more comfortable with the intervening angles that were more difficult to compute.

I am wondering if this same process might not get me through many other ideas, perhaps non-mathematical ones. A big one for example: is it necessary for there to be an intelligence to create and maintain the processes of the Universe? When I think on the mechanical processes of the environment it appears that they obey the principles of mechanical laws. The processes of biology are much more complicated, but when looked at they too seem to obey their natural proclivities. Even mental processes which are more obscure in the details of their operations seem to obey the laws of nature and of their particular natures. Even complex human social activities are based on human mental operations, and those on animal proclivities, and those on natural mechanical processes. Those social things are based in beings that are impossible to dissect without destroying their functioning and so are difficult to make any form of absolute sense out of. But just because it is difficult to the point of impossibility to lay out their natural development to where we can totally understand its processes doesn’t mean or imply that those natural processes are not there. We don’t need to resort to fantastic and usually simplistic explanations to satisfy our minds.

Taking some social event as complex as say World War II and saying that it was God’s will makes it too easy to say that America’s response to North Korea’s provocative firing of potentially atomic bomb-tipped missiles toward us is also controlled by God’s will. Terrible events might be triggered by minuscule irrational miscalculations made by humans that might be easily avoided by a moment of rational thought and caution. But, if there are people involved in the decisions who make their decisions based on flimsy evidence and fall back on blind faith, then catastrophe is much more likely. Eventually, the attitude to risk that lets the dice fall as they may will be much to the detriment of the people involved. When the situation becomes too complex to think through all the possibilities, the best rational solution is probably to…

Choose to move toward everything that will bring health and happiness.

What makes us become responsible people?

Tags

, ,

I see people doing a lot really foolish things and there must be an answer to why there is so much of that apparent stupidity. If we start with the premise that individual humans are not very smart, that they are not very observant and not very able to link cause and probable effects consistently, it would make sense. 

The counter-argument to that idea would be the challenge to look around and observe the wonderful things that we humans have created. It is obvious that we humans have collectively made many wonderful things, but as a challenge could you create this computer you are using, or even the data on this amazing screen you are looking at, or even the glass that supports the glowing field of information, or even a single glowing pixel of the millions you are looking at, or even have a clue as to how to make that tiny speck of the pixel glow? Can you do any of that, or even any part of any of it? As I look around my desk I can make that same challenge about everything I can touch or see or hear or smell. Yes, even smell. I have a collection of about thirty bottles of aromatic essential oils here, and of all of this stuff I only have an idea of how to create peppermint oil because I ran a peppermint still back in 1962, but even that was only a tiny part of the whole process of creating the smell.

My point is that we as individual humans are not very smart and we appear to be super capable because we have access to the combined experience, learning and skills and products of billions of not very smart people. In this moment I have only to reach over and pick up a small glass bottle, twist a plastic cap and sniff peppermint, or musk, or wintergreen or grapefruit or many other bottled odors. It’s amazing because my great-grandmother, whom I knew quite well, would have almost witnessed the first twist top jars, and that cap is a trivial thing compared to this computer and yet it is essential to the convenience of modern living.

It is more difficult to compare social things, like being responsible and cautious about random events and careful about the operation of everyday things like cars or bicycles  or walking on the streets. But all of these marvelous things require their special awareness and an appropriate caution by each of us in their usage. The problem arises because our modern devices have built-in safety features to prevent injury, but that very feature means that people don’t get feedback from minor pains and injuries. When what are now common things fail in even a tiny way the whole complex structure becomes useless. When we fail in a tiny way we sometimes become useless.

What we need is immediate feedback to our actions and our thoughts too. We learn from doing things and seeing what happens, and as we acquire experience with cause and effect we grow in knowledge, and with feedback to our knowledge, some of which isn’t very effective, we hone in to what works best. If we are paying attention and pondering over what we see and do, the cause and effect of our actions become obvious and we are able to project into the future the probable effects of the potential actions that we might perform.

We need positive feedback to see cause and effect to become responsible people.

Response times triggered to within a heartbeat

Tags

, , , ,

This is speculative but I want to give some thoughts on how to improve athletic response times and some other things where a tenth of a second makes a difference. I can observe a phenomenon and I suspect you can observe it too if you do this experiment. It requires you to be sitting still in a place where you can see clouds drifting visually past some still object such as trees or utility poles. The poles should be about thirty yards away and the clouds should be drifting quickly directly across them. Sit quietly without moving for a minute and watch the sharp edge of a cumulus cloud drift behind the pole and reappear on the other side.

Watch carefully and you will see that the cloud doesn’t move smoothly but noticeably speeds up and slows down. It is impossible for a cloud to behave that way, and therefore it must be your perception of velocity and of time that is creating the phenomenon.

I have performed this experiment many times sitting in my living room and have realized that the speeding up and slowing down of the clouds is synchronized with my pulse. My pulse rate is usually about fifty-five beats per minute and that gives me ample time to see the phenomenon. Standard 35mm movies are shot at a rate of 24 frames per second (fps) because if they are run at a slower rate most people perceive a flickering effect. Some modern movies are shot at 48 fps and a few even faster.

My point is that the variation of the speed of the moving clouds is well within our ability to see if you have a fixed foreground reference point.

There may be a use for this knowledge. If our brain speeds up and slows down a perceptible amount, as I have observed, and the pulse can be monitored with an EKG machine, or a pressure detector as in a home blood pressure testing cuff, then it would be possible to gain an advantage over competitors in computer gaming situations. There may be a tenth of a second, and possibly a fifth of a second advantage if the stimulus of an event could be linked to the pulse. It has been observed that a human can react more quickly to a sound, like a starting gunshot that begins a foot race, than a visual flash. Apparently, this is because the brain has fewer operations to do between the stimulus and the signal to the body to react.

Although the variation of the speed of a moving cloud has been observed in the visual system the timing for initiating events for an action could be timed to the heart pulse and given as an auditory signal.

Response times triggered to within a heartbeat could gain a winning advantage.