Two Arguments Against Thomism

I think of metaphysics as akin to poetry. If you can’t ground arguments in empiricism and experience, you can’t really say with certainty whether what you’re claiming is in fact true or merely clever.

So my first argument against metaphysical philosophy of the Thomistic sort is that it is poetry. It’s a way of framing the world; of narrating it; of making some parts of it central and seen, and other parts marginal or not seen. This is what poetry, especially epic poetry, does.

And this is fine if you aren’t under the spell of your metaphysical system. But when you translate your metaphysics into dogma, you’ve stopped taking your poetry with a light touch, and you’re now in the realm of treating your deductions and system with 100% certainty. This is akin to the way a fundamentalist reads the Bible or Quran. The system is impermeable to reality testing even in principle, and you believe it 100%.

But this is folly because of our existential situation. We are evolved primates on a tiny planet adrift in the vast ocean of space. We necessarily inhabit the realm of probability; a realm of fog; of life “beneath the moon” (the sublunary).

Shakespeare, for this reason, is a better philosopher than Aquinas. And even Charlton Heston gets closer to the truth than Aquinas in the 1960s version of Planet of the Apes (“It’s a mad house! A mad house!”).

Camus is also superior to Aquinas. The cosmos is absurd from our vantage; it does not answer to human longing. But Camus tells us that we still have solidarity and rebellion against the absurd (making collective and private meaning for ourselves). Camus’ The Plague is a better guide for living than Aquinas’ Summa.

And we’ve got reason as a tool to help us along. We know, for instance, that if the premises of a deductive argument are true, the conclusion is 100% certain. That’s a great tool to have for coming at the world. But it’s often difficult to know, absent experience and empiricism, whether the premises put forward in an argument really are true. And this means that a philosophical system that cannot reality test even in principle is akin to speculating about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My second argument against Thomism is that it pretends to transcend history. For example, I think it’s quite obvious that the starting point for Thomistic reasoning about sex is a contingent historical byproduct of an age in which maintaining population size was difficult and the priests writing the laws of sexual conduct were sexual innocents themselves (and all male). Rather than procreation, Thomistic philosophizing about sex could be started with love and (gender and orientation) equality.

So what Thomists don’t seem to acknowledge is that the premises from which their reasoning proceeds is historically situated. Aquinas started his project as an attempt to escape the contingent and transcend it with an act of pure reasoning. He appealed to divine authority (the Bible, etc.) absent experience, and this was an early mistake.

I like the way Bertrand Russell contrasts the theologian with the scientist in his A History of Western Philosophy (1945, p. 517 in the 2007 Touchstone edition): “[I]t is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.”

I’m with Russell.

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Soft on Islam?

Andrew Sullivan notes an irony in the Islam debate:

It’s a little amazing to me to watch some liberals who get extremely upset at religious people refusing to bake a cake for someone else’s wedding on religious grounds, suddenly seeing nuance when a religion believes that anyone who leaves it should be executed. If you’re against fundamentalism of the mildest variety here, why are you so forgiving of it elsewhere?

Good question.

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Jeremy England on the Origin of Life


More on Jeremy England here.

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Your Genes Made You Do (Half) Of It

Relax a bit. Much less than we probably imagine is really under our control. Note this quote, for instance, from two psychologists recently summarizing at Slate some findings on genes vs. environment: “Genes influence not only our abilities, but the environments we create for ourselves and the activities we prefer—a phenomenon known as gene-environment correlation. For example, yet another recent twin study (and the Karolinska Institute study) found that there was a genetic influence on practicing music. Pushing someone into a career for which he or she is genetically unsuited will likely not work.”

In other words, genetic factors significantly influence not only the degree of talent we’re likely to display in a particular discipline (music, math, literature, etc.), but the temperamental energy and patience that we’re likely to bring to it in the first place.

So chill out. Less guilt seems to be in order if you’re a parent, or if you’re berating yourself for not rising to what you believe is your potential. It’s okay that you’re temperamentally anxious, or not a scientist or screenwriter. It’s not your fault. You did your best. Let it go.

I like this (I think I recall it from one of Jack Kornfield’s books): “I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that’s okay.”

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Fox News’ “boobs on the ground” vs. Fox News’ “balls on the ground”

Fox News anchors apparently refer to women in the military as boobs on the ground, but if the old farts at Fox News were in the military they’d be balls on the ground.

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A Modest Multiverse Proposal

Start with lemon,

olive oil,


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The Elijah Song: American Marines Mix Religion and War

I’m conflicted about the below video. On the one hand, it’s great to see the free exercise of religion. These American Marines are obviously wonderful human beings, and the world is fortunate to have them. And it’s crucial to democracy that the religious and irreligious are free to live their lives exactly as they please, and according to their own sensibilities.

And this is obviously not a military sponsored event, so there’s no mixing of church and state. On the other hand, history has taught us that wedding religion with war is highly problematic; it can generate vast suffering and destruction.

Ideally, just as there is a separation of church and state, there should also be a separation of religion and war, for being pro-social and protective of one’s religious group can lead to the demonizing of outsiders. (Who would Jesus or Mohammad bomb? etc.)

Lastly, the Elijah song calls to mind a rather ugly biblical passage, in which Elijah is in a contest with the priests of Baal. The story ends with cultural extermination (hundreds of priests from a non-Israelite culture destroyed by fire from heaven). So too often, eliminationist mentalities accompany religious enthusiasm. And with regard to the war on terror, the United States is not (and should not consider itself to be) at war with Islamic civilization as such, but the video can leave one with that impression.

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An Honest Religious Believer

I sometimes ask people who tell me they believe in this or that religion the following question: “When you doubt, what do you doubt, and what do you say to yourself to make the doubt go away?” The most common reply is, “I never doubt.” This answer used to bewilder me. Whence the unwarranted certainty? I still don’t understand it. But I am no longer surprised by it.

And this is why I like the below story. The Archbishop of Canterbury doubts. Of course he does. His honesty is like coming up for air. How in the 21st century can one not doubt the ludicrous claims of religion?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tells an audience that he too has moments of doubt VIDEO
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Somebody on Crenshaw

Hit on a bicycle

And they are dead.

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Awareness (A Poem for Michael Graziano)

Still pond of attention.

Frog represents it,

announces it,

jumps in.


Strange loops.

From the deep dive,

frog breath rises,

bubbles to the

surface. Pops.

Poet represents it,

announces it,

jumps in. 

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Uncertainty v. Certainty (or Bayes’ Rule v. the Bible)

What’s the major premise I live my life from? I’m not outside the system I’m trying to explain, I’m inside it; I’m an evolved primate in a vast and ancient cosmos. That’s my existential situation. I can’t get a God’s eye view on things–I can and do readily mistake ropes for snakes all the time–so I can only work with probabilities (with grayscale judgments; with inductions from evidence) and maintain an open mind to incoming data (keep Galileo’s telescope up and pointing). “For now I see through a glass darkly.”

So when fundamentalist Bible believers speak of “waking up” to things they regard as certain (God’s existence deduced from metaphysics; the resurrection; young Earth creationism, etc.), I am in awe of their confidence, which, given their limited vantage on the world, is unwarranted, and therefore hubris, folly, emptiness, and vanity (Ecclesiastes and Socrates).

But I understand why they make these confidence moves: they’re grounded in anxiety (their fear of damnation) and narcissism (their desire to live forever). Religion’s chief stick (hell) and carrot (heaven) have arrested their attention psychologically, and they’ve become hostage to The Stockholm Syndrome (in this case, threat and love coming from the same source: the Bible). So the tension between myself and fundamentalists is Bayes v. the Bible. I wish I was as certain of anything as they are of everything.

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Michael Graziano: Awareness Is “A Schematic Description Of Attention”

Michael Graziano teaches neuroscience at Princeton, and his theory of consciousness sounds plausible to me. No woo, with a sound explanation for how and why evolution would have brought it into existence in the first place (as a schematic modeling device for managing computational information and communicating it across social settings).

A taste from his article for

[T]o control its own state of attention, the brain needs a constantly updated simulation or model of that state. Like the general’s toy armies, the model will be schematic and short on detail. The brain will attribute a property to itself and that property will be a simplified proxy for attention. It won’t be precisely accurate, but it will convey useful information. What exactly is that property? When it is paying attention to thing X, we know that the brain usually attributes an experience of X to itself — the property of being conscious, or aware, of something. Why? Because that attribution helps to keep track of the ever-changing focus of attention. I call this the ‘attention schema theory’. It has a very simple idea at its heart: that consciousness is a schematic model of one’s state of attention. [...]

If I am looking at a blue sky, my brain doesn’t merely register blue as if I were a wavelength detector from Radio Shack. I am aware of the blue. Did my neurons create that feeling? [...]

Consciousness isn’t a non-physical feeling that emerges. Instead, dedicated systems in the brain compute information. Cognitive machinery can access that information, formulate it as speech, and then report it. When a brain reports that it is conscious, it is reporting specific information computed within it. It can, after all, only report the information available to it. In short, Arrow A and Arrow B remain squarely in the domain of signal-processing. There is no need for anything to be transmuted into ghost material, thought about, and then transmuted back to the world of cause and effect. [...]

When you look at the colour blue, for example, your brain doesn’t generate a subjective experience of blue. Instead, it acts as a computational device. It computes a description, then attributes an experience of blue to itself. The process is all descriptions and conclusions and computations. Subjective experience, in the theory, is something like a myth that the brain tells itself. The brain insists that it has subjective experience because, when it accesses its inner data, it finds that information.


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A Very Zennie Ad Slogan: “You’re Here. The Hard Part is Over.”

Saw an ad slogan this morning that said, “You’re here. The hard part is over,” and thought, “Wow, that strikes me as very Zen!” What I was thinking of is what zennies (Zen hippies) call “spontaneous Buddha mind.” The groovy qualia of directly experiencing, say, red paint on a wooden fence, is effortless; it just happens. And shifting again your attention, perhaps you next notice a sunflower overhanging that fence. Again, effortless; it just happens. One experience of qualia follows another. Spontaneous Buddha mind.

What you don’t see is the unstable, dynamic, mutually interdependent time and space that went into having that experience in the first place: the neurons sending chemical and electrical signals across your brain; the blood cells supporting your neurons; the dancing atoms supporting your blood cells; the energy from the sun that went into making the tree that became a fence; the dying star, long ago and trillions of miles away, that exploded and expelled the carbon that makes life possible on Earth; the billions of years of evolution that led to a sunflower and you at this moment, together; your act of awareness collapsing (or splitting into two universes?!) the quantum wave function. “You’re here. The hard part is over.” Are you missing it? What are you seeing in this moment? Carpe diem. Momento mori. Carpe momento. Be here now. Spontaneous Buddha mind.

Here’s William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

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What I Believe

I’m an agnostic. No superstitions. No spooks. I think there’s one world. No evidence for minds apart from brains. The form of theism that seems vaguely plausible to me is simple deism. I think it’s logically possible that there is a ground of being that ends all regressions (a Being at the beginning of beings).

I have no idea whether this “Thing” is conscious or lacking in consciousness, but if it exists it somehow grounds the possibility for physical law, time, space, mind, and energy-matter. It breathes fire into the equations. I simply don’t know what to call it; I don’t know that it even exists.

Perhaps I should get a puja table and light a candle to this unknown God, for the cosmos is beautiful on many levels, but empirically that’s as far as I can get with religion. I call myself an agnostic for this reason. I don’t know if the Hindus are right, contemplating their way to the One (Atman), or the atheist Buddhists are right, contemplating their way to the Zero (Anatman, no-self). It’s math at the end: a one (being) or a zero (emptiness).

All information, curiously, is ones and zeroes. Not even the cosmos, it seems, can make up its mind about God. The poet Wallace Stevens calls God “the palm at the end of the mind.” I’m not smart enough to know what the end at the end of the end is, but I can give it a name as a place marker, so I’ll call God the “Metazeroone.” It whispers a singular taunt to me, the only thing it tells me about itself: “Anything you can do, I can do meta.” (That, by the way, is Daniel Dennett’s boast to his fellow philosophers.)

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The Stockholm Syndrome and Religion

The Stockholm Syndrome is where love and threat are coming from the same source; it’s a form of hostage taking, and it’s what religions do emotionally with people when they make God the source of love and acceptance if you conform, and exclusion and eternal torture if you don’t (heaven or hell, turn or burn). It’s a source of extraordinary emotional pain in our culture, religious Stockholm Syndrome. It plagues the psyche, often for decades. And it’s everywhere, and almost never gets discussed. It’s near to taboo to discuss it. Discuss it.

Think of the victims. The walking wounded are everywhere. (Maybe this is part of our culture’s fascination with zombies; with being hijacked inwardly.) The religious zombie is someone abused by religion, frightened into conformity with the stick of hell and the carrot of love coming from the same group of friends and relatives, stunting the vulnerable person’s interaction with the world. Religious Stockholm Syndrome causes a person to be in the world, but not really. The world becomes spiritually dangerous. It’s there for you, but also not. And you’re there for the world, but also not. The zombies are in and out. “We are in the world, but not of it.” That’s the voice of a zombie.

And then you bite others, infecting them. You’ve been terrorized and tormented–and still are–but you’ve come to accept the abuse, internalizing the love-threat formula, and now you’re terrorizing and tormenting others with it. (“You’ll be part of a community that will love you forever and will do anything for you, and God will be your loving Father, if you believe, but if you don’t believe, well, I pity your fate, and I’ll be praying for you.”) That’s the bite.

The love-hell formula is abuse all around. It’s wrong, ugly, hateful. It’s a way of controlling people. It disrespects the dignity and autonomy of individuals. If God exists, God is not like that–and if God is like that, then God is wrong. You shouldn’t believe in God, in my view, if this is what it means; if you turn God into Hitler; a devil; if you let a religious community make of you a hostage.

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Two Pens Are Better Than One: Why I Write

For me, I get writing energy from other people, responding to what they have to say (or to questions they might pose). If they respond again in turn, I hope to be surprised by the angle they take in the counter “chess move.”

I write, therefore, to dialogue. When I read a book, I find myself (for example) writing notes in the margins–essentially arguing with the author. I then might flesh out my reflections more fully in a blog post, which a stranger from some other part of the world might respond to. I then respond to that. “They say, I say.” It becomes my next writing project for that day.

So the first product of my writing is not the end, only the beginning. “Words are birds,” Ram Das used to say (perhaps he still does), and in the Gospel of John it says, “The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it’s going” (3:8).

That’s the pleasure I get from writing; the constructing of sentences and ideas, seeing what others think in response, seeing what I think of that, etc. The genre might change–it could be a short story, a poem, an article, an opinion shared–but the word construction and interactions with other people are the same; that’s what pleases. It’s writing as surprise; as collective jazz.

So my writing for me is like a pick-up game in basketball. I might start shooting at the park all by my lonesome, but I hope others will join me. That’s when it gets interesting.

Claustrophobic garret writing or writing as performance (where people politely smile or applaud, but don’t actually comment directly, honestly, specifically), are not especially interesting to me. In writing, I’m hoping at minimum for dialogue with myself or an author–and best of all, dialogue with living others, for mutual growth. Two pens are better than one.

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Will Hillary Run on a $12.50 Minimum Wage?

I favor a $12.50 national minimum wage, and would like to see Hillary Clinton make it a platform position in 2016. Why? Because globalization has put enormous downward pressure on American wages over the past 20 years. This means that those white collar and business-owning Americans with professional and higher education skills–and who make, say, $80,000 a year or more–need to think about what sort of society they want to live in going forward. The fate of the majority of Americans, however intensely and dutifully they work in the 21st century, is to be stuck in service oriented jobs with low or stagnating wages (even as those with high-end skills see their incomes rise substantially).

Under these circumstances, what’s the minimum floor for wages going to be for average people in this country? I don’t think $12.50 an hour ($500 dollars a week for 40 hours of work) and access to Obamacare subsidies are unreasonable propositions. And I’d make the $12.50 an hour inflation adjusted. A lot of Americans are going to be doing low-end service work their whole lives, and it maintains social order to make it possible for a 40 hour per week service worker to have an apartment, food, and health care. $12.50 an hour means that the poorest full-time workers in the country would have some degree of dignity and stability even as the rich and highly educated get much, much richer over the next several decades. We don’t want the country to bifurcate so dramatically in terms of income that the fates of the top 20% and the bottom 80% have little real contact with one another. It’s bad for society as a whole to disrespect the working poor. Nobody wants to reward freeloading, but the working poor are not freeloaders. They are, instead, people caught in the vortex of some very large historical forces.

And recall that most people (by definition) are average in intelligence, creativity, and energy-level. (Statistically, for example, only 1 person in 400 has an IQ above 140.) This means that there are only so many individuals in a culture who can rely solely on their creativity, intelligence, entrepreneurship, and motivation to outdistance the larger economic forces exerting downward pressure on them (in this historical moment, that would be globalization and technological innovations that are rendering the future of whole employment sectors in the U.S. insecure). Globalization is a good thing, technological innovation is a good thing–but this also means a $12.50 minimum wage with Obamacare is a good thing. In a dynamic time like this, they all go together. Hillary would inspire my active support if she would run on issues like this.

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A Prophetic Film from 1940

It’s title: To New Horizons. The logic is sunny and simple, but it has proven (thus far) to be pretty much dead on.

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Bayes Rule, Julia Galef, and TAM 2014

I went to TAM 2014 in Las Vegas over the weekend and saw Julia Galef of the Center for Applied Rationality on a panel with philosopher Daniel Dennett. I’d never heard of Galef before this weekend, but she has a luminous intelligence, and more than held her own in discussion with older critical thinking colleagues. Anyway, below is one of her videos at YouTube, and I assume her panel appearance with Dennett at TAM will also be on YouTube at some point.

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God and Evolution?

As an agnostic, I never have any problem with somebody who says, “13.7 billion year-old cosmos and evolution, yes, obviously, but not, ‘It all happened via the combination of chance and natural selection.’ Something more is up, and I think that’s God (some sort of Ground of Being or Mind underlying the cosmos).” This, to me, is a plausible hypothesis that respects what science has discovered over the past 200 years. I’m not quite prepared (myself) to endorse it, but I understand it.

My own view is that the sheer vastness of the cosmos, combined with the multiverse hypothesis, may account for the long odds on evolution on our particular planet, and so I’m open-minded to outright atheism as well, but I don’t know. What I find depressing is when someone says, “Noah’s ark and 10,000 years. I read the Bible literally. It says it, I’m done. Scientists have conspired to cover-up the evidence for this because they hate God.” When a person says this, it makes me despair of human rationality because it has no more merit than believing the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

But here’s the kicker: probably more than two billion people on Earth (the vast majority of Muslims and perhaps half of Christians) affirm young Earth creationism outright–or at least entertain it seriously. The mentality behind this is akin to that of the theologians who wouldn’t look into Galileo’s telescope.

And yet here we are. It’s the 21st century and there are something like two billion YEC believers in the world–150 million in the United States alone. That’s a lot of people. Think about it.

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