Our world seems to be mired in anxiety and fear, and civic discourse has degenerated to accusations, outright lies and rhetoric. While we hear calls to “drain the swamp,” any common understanding of what that means, and a willing consensus required to achieve it, seems to eludes us. Perhaps we are looking at the situation from too narrow a perspective. It is not just our politicians that are lost in the marsh. It is our spiritual life, too.
Science has been losing its mojo. Two generations ago, scientists were revered as truth tellers and bringers of progress. Today, science is often viewed as fallible, obscure and, in some cases, untrustworthy. Many factors are blamed for the falling star of science including failures in science education, religious superstition and broader social changes. Yet much of the problem rests with science itself.
“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Walt Kelly 1970
Sexuality seems to be a simple binary characteristic of human and animal physiology. But modern science has begun to unravel some extraordinary complexities in the way male and female physiology and behavior develops, and reveals a wide variety in how individuals experience their sexuality. Many of our cultural ideas about sexuality need to change.
Biologist Stephen J. Gould in 1989 (Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History) theorized that evolution is essentially random, and that if “the tape of life” for evolution were to be rerun, the end result would be entirely different. New research is increasingly challenging that view. Certain evolutionary outcomes have emerged more than once — and some appear to be inevitable. These are not exceptions to the laws of nature, but essential outcomes of mathematical and environmental constraints. Purpose seems to be deeply ingrained in the fabric of life.
Privacy is not a simple concept, as we discussed in our previous post. The moral implications of privacy are complicated — “it depends.” In a spiritual context, privacy, or the illusion of privacy, is an invitation to the temptations to lie, cheat or steal! So how are we to decide between the claims of law enforcement and the claims of the tech industry when it comes to the Bentonville and San Bernadino cases? The answer boils down to a simple question – what do you fear most? (more…)
In 2016, two high profile police investigations triggered major fights over privacy with two of the world’s biggest tech companies, Apple and Amazon. In both cases, one a terrorist attack, the other a murder, investigators requested access to data from digital devices potentially relevant to the investigation. The Tech companies refused the court orders secured by investigators on grounds that this was an undue intrusion into personal privacy. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s worth taking a closer look. (more…)
On November 16, the Oxford Dictionary announced it had chosen “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. After Brexit, the recent US election and the increasingly isolated and polarized nature of online communities where fake news stories get equal play or better than the real ones (see: Buzzfeed Facebook Probe), the choice seems entirely appropriate. This forum has posted 13 articles on the difficulty of knowing what is true and an extended series on the challenges of being rational. So perhaps being “post-truth” is no big deal? Nothing could be further from the truth! We ignore true facts of our experience, our science, and our spiritual teachings at our peril. The fate of the world, and the fate of our souls, hangs in the balance.
Human beings are often credited with intuition, the capacity of knowing something without being able to explain where the knowledge comes from. Intuitions are inherently inscrutable, even to ourselves. Interestingly, as Artificial Intelligence researchers have tackled the challenges of interrogating big data with “deep learning” algorithms, they are finding the algorithms great at scouring through masses of data to make good predictions, but programmers can’t explain how the algorithms reach their conclusions. Like their human creators, algorithms are becoming inscrutable. <MORE>
Imagine 100 monkeys typing (presumably randomly) on 100 typewriters for a limitless period of time: Eventually, hidden somewhere in the seemingly endless streams of nonsense, they would produce all of the works of Shakespeare. This popular thought experiment has been around for more than a century (longer than typewriters!) and demonstrates interesting features of both randomness and infinity. It is a useful starting point for discussing unique problems now being encountered with large data sets.
I’m a big believer in science and the significant benefits it has brought to human civilization. However, I’m also a skeptic when it comes to the “science knows all” attitude that has been so prevalent in modern culture. Ancient cultures and practices have great wisdom to share, as well. We should be willing to question the conventional modern “scientific” mythologies — and be open to the possibility of finding truth in ancient wisdom.
On August 29th, the Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ (AWG) reported its summary of evidence and provisional recommendations to the 35th International Geological Congress. They conclude that this new epoch has replaced the Holocene (which started approximately 12,000 years ago), and is characterized by the dominant influence of human activity on the earth’s geology and climate.
Recently, I’ve wondered about the way humans relate to the things of the material world – including each other. There are two ways of approaching these relationships. One way focuses on the value the relationship provides to the human – what is the good that accrues to me from my relationship with that person, or that thing? The second approach is to consider the value, if any, of the person or thing independent of its usefulness to me – the value of the thing-in-itself. The first could be called the instrumental value and the second the intrinsic value. I’d like to suggest a thought experiment: What if humanity refocused its collective attention away from the instrumental value of things and people to their intrinsic value?
I read some shocking news recently about the rising epidemics of compulsive hoarding and obesity, and I wondered – are these related? It is hard to dispute the significant benefits of material and technological advancement and convenience. In much of the world today there is an abundant supply of relatively cheap and high quality food, housing, transportation and a vast array of goods and services. While there continue to be pockets of terrible deprivation and hardship (due more to political factors than technical ones), the world is, overall, a significantly easier and healthier place to live than in centuries past. Yet, there are negative side effects of material success – side effects that more “stuff” will not solve. (more…)
My nephew Cody and his wife Natalie began a food blog called the Gantzery about a year ago focused on healthy and nutritious recipes, but with a strong personal flavor. It often contains interesting philosophical remarks. This week, these remarks asked about one’s “personal lens” in how we approach the world in the search for knowledge and understanding, and it inspired some deep personal reflection. What is my lens? My Big TOE!
Photo courtesy of The Gantzery. (more…)
As noted in the Economist (2-27-16, p71), Michael Desai and his colleagues at Harvard (article published in Nature) report that “Sex Speeds Adaptation by Altering the Dynamics of Molecular Evolution.” The findings arise from Desai’s research with yeast, which reproduces both sexually and asexually. This feature has allowed Desai et al to experiment with the evolution of mutations in yeast populations that are limited to either one or the other reproductive modes.
Desai Lab, Harvard
We have spent some time in this forum on the issues of bias and uncertainty, and recently included posts dealing with these challenges in medical testing and reproducibility in psychological research. All these findings support the call for humility in claims about what we know and, more importantly, what the experts think they know. Drs. Adam Cifu and Vinayak Prasad have recently addressed the extent of these problems in the practice of medicine in their book: Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives (2015). (more…)
I recently read a series of articles dealing with conscience and culture posted under the Questions for a Resilient Future project of the Center for Humans and Nature. At about the same time, I also read a briefing in The Week on the CRISPR technique that has vastly simplified gene editing – the headline is titled “Editing the human race.” (See also the post in this forum: “Engineering Better Babies” November 20, 2015.) CRISPR is one among many technologies that, by their very existence, test our collective conscience. (more…)
Like millions of others this past holiday season, I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”. The movie brought back fond memories of the first wave of Star Wars movies in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s (when my kids were young), and rekindled that sense of yearning and pride associated with the valiant underdog and the heartfelt joy in the triumph of good over the evil dark side. Yet, the Economist magazine also points out (Leader and Briefing December 19, 2015) that the movie is a financial tour de force for the Disney empire, which has become modern society’s master myth-maker and increasingly controls the stories told to our children. What if Disney turns to the dark side? (more…)
Modern humans tend to be afraid of fire, as it can be such an uncontrollable and destructive force. At the same time, our modern comforts all depend on the energy of controlled fire, and we retain a romantic fascination with fire, whether it’s a cozy fire in the living room, a campfire in the woods, or the pyrotechnic display of fireworks on July 4th. Only rarely do we think about fire as a creative, inspirational and transformational force. Yet that may be its ultimate, defining characteristic in nature, in economics and in human spirituality.
As the recent flap over the remarks of Presidential aspirant Ben Carson demonstrates, the controversy between science and religion is alive and well. As usual, it is focused on the theory of evolution, which postulates that the world, and man, is the result of evolution by Darwinian natural selection and not the ordination of God. While many, myself included, affirm both perspectives as true — evolution is simply the natural unfolding of divine order — there are those in both religious and scientific communities that reject one or the other. These opposing polarized views continue to dominate the controversy. However, there are other aspects of the God vs. evolution dialogue that are worthy of discussion. There may even be room for common ground. (more…)