Jim Jones, Critical Thinking, and the Mass Suicide of the Mind

The problem. 2018 will mark the 40th anniversary of the collective suicide of the Jim Jones cult. In 1978, over 900 people left California, set up a commune in Guyana in South America, and ultimately died there together, notoriously drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

How does one make sense of this? How do you get 900 individuals to do something so extreme—and obscene—as to collectively kill their children, their spouses, their other relatives, and themselves? And why, in general, do so many people believe and do such weird things?

Critical thinking and rhetoric. Perhaps what happened at Jonestown can be demystified—at least a bit—by thinking about the nature of critical thinking and rhetoric. We live, after all, in a culture saturated with messages—everybody’s trying to sell something—from consumer products, to services, to political candidates, to religions. Like the followers of Jim Jones, we’re all susceptible to being conned, in large and small ways, and being taken-in by messages.

From Josephus to market bubbles. So when I think about Jonestown, my first thoughts go to Josephus—the Jewish historian of the first century CE—who gave us the famous tale of Masada, in which a group of Jews, high on a mountain fortress, held off the Romans, until finally, when their resistance could no longer be sustained, and so as not to be taken into slavery—committed a collective act of suicide. I also think of the collective delusions that have gripped people throughout history, from millennial madnesses to witch crazes; from tulip manias to housing market bubbles. People have long jumped on bandwagons and suspended their critical thinking in fundamental ways in the service of beliefs, greed, and collective projects.

The question is why.

Self-destruction. Think of collective and individual self-destructiveness, and the psychology that underlies self-destructive behavior. In the 40 years since Jonestown, suicide has become an ever-more shocking feature of global culture. Examples range from Japan to England, and include the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego. Most virulently, suicide takes the form of suicide terrorism. And even democracies can commit collective suicide, handing their collective wills and the rule-of-law over to the whims of authoritarian, alpha-males. In some sense, Jonestown weirdly marked itself, 40 years ago, as being a canary in the coal mine of our collective unconscious—foreshadowing an era of new and murderous religious and political manias.

But how might we demistify such human self-destructiveness? Why, for example, did so many Americans give Donald Trump the keys to America’s nuclear codes? Do we chalk-up such behavior to imprecisely defined causes, such as collective hypnosis, spell, or magic–or can we get some genuinely rational grasp on this matter? I think we can find rational ground here.

Pleasure and pain, harmony and confusion. To get our heads around human self-destructiveness, it might be best to start with evolutionary psychology. First, we can safely say that human beings have a highly evolved mechanism for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain—and one way this manifests itself is in anxiety reduction. When our environment seems to us in harmony, whole, and safe–and when we seem to understand what’s going on around us–we tend to enjoy a feeling of calm. This is deeply rewarding; it signals to us that we are okay. But when things around us seem out of harmony, confusing, and potentially dangerous, our anxiety-system is aroused, and we seek some way of feeling harmonious, whole, and safe again. Few human beings can live free of anxiety without this feeling that the world around them makes sense—that there is, at some level, meaning and harmony and purpose underlying the world.

Liquid times. Though we long for anxiety reduction, we live in a world that is highly fluid and alienating. It’s full of big cities, technologies, forces, and complexities that we can scarcely comprehend. The internet, for example, is larded with contradictory currents of information that resist harmonization or full sense. And the cosmos itself is packed with mysteries that resist our sense-making—as when our loved ones die or we try to contemplate the vast emptiness between the stars.

The world, in short, is, to echo Wordsworth, “too much with us.” The more we think about it, the more confusing and scary it can become. It’s a place where change is constant; where stability is not the norm.

Daddy, daddy. For a time, in our infancy and childhood, we may have had a strong father who guarded our innocence, protected us, and gave us simple and calming answers when we had questions about the world. But the invariable movement from innocence to experience, from childhood to adulthood, leaves all of us in a state of Mel Brooks-like, high anxiety. And because we are social animals, and there is strength in numbers. It makes sense for us to join a group where the individuals in it will look after one another as brothers and sisters. And so it hardly seems surprising that people might flock to religious, political, and social movements that promise to reduce anxiety, to make sense of the world, and to bring us into a place of safety, wholeness, and harmony.

And these movements are not likely to be terribly rational because reason takes a great deal of effort, both intellectual and in terms of discipline. To remain in the realm of the rational, you have to research things, and think about things, and read books, and live with your anxiety. To be reflective necessarily means you don’t know all the answer yet. And oftentimes reason does not bring you to a harmonious, satisfying, or conclusive answer to your concerns. Indeed, it often raises as many questions as it solves. And so it is extraordinarily difficult for people to live genuinely rational lives; lives that do not run primarily on oversimplifying cognitive maps and heuristics (rules of thumb). The temptation is to gamble on the easiest, nearest-to-hand, and most emotionally satisfying answers to anxiety-inducing questions.

Advertisers recognize this—and so rarely appeal to reason as such—but offer all sorts of shortcuts to persuasion: flashy colors, attractive images, sing-song slogans, etc. And likewise, religious, political, and social movements engage in similar appeals. Thus, what might at first seem mysterious—how could people follow Jim Jones—actually makes a good deal of sense. Jim Jones came across as someone supremely confident, and with a utopian vision of a better life. He had an authoritarian, father-figure ethos that can be extremely appealing to frightened people. He represented a short-cut to anxiety reduction.

A father for your thoughts. So the reasoning runs as follows: If I follow the father figure, I don’t have to think. My anxiety will be reduced, and he will lead me to the Promised Land (however that gets defined). If I join Jim Jones in his vision, I will have a community of brothers and sisters to look after me, and for me to love and look after in return. I’ll sing with them; I’ll dance and work with them. I’ll never be alone or lonely. The world will make sense, and life will have a purpose.

Family dynamics. But of course, once you enter into a relationship with a father and a family, all of the psychological dynamics of childhood come into play: desire to please the father, guilt at disappointing the father, and peer pressure to conform to the norms of the family. And once you are in such a dynamic, it’s tricky to get back out, for there are all sorts of ways that the group has for suppressing your legitimate questions and doubts. You sing each day harmoniously together, enforcing your connection to the group; you listen to the same sermons of the father-figure; you go out together and tell others about your way of life. And by telling others how great your life is, sharing your testimony, you reinforce the story for yourself.

And when you are in a group where miracle claims are being made, it becomes a bonding mechanism to solder you to the group. Miracles seem to be heaven’s warrant for the very existence of the group. How can you leave a group that heaven is showering with such powers? And how can the group be wrong if miracles are happening in the midst of it in the first place?

Ganfalloons and the stages of commitment. Another thing binding one to such a group is what the novelist Kurt Vonnegut calls ‘granfalloons.’ These are cultural markers that seems to make people imagine they have more in common than they do (as in all wearing similar clothes). Still another thing binding you to the group are the stages of commitment. The more you give to a group or family, the less you want to admit to yourself that you are wrong and over-committed. So each step of commitment may be small compared to the last step, but each step brings you, in an ever more extreme fashion, into the group. It’s like a frog in hot water. You might end up reaching a point where collective suicide is a relatively small step, given how far you’ve already come with the group.

The sacrifice of minds before bodies. So as we reflect in 2017 and 2018 on what might seem to be incomprehensible and rare–a mass suicide of over 900 people 40 years ago–it is in fact actually an all too human occurrence. The bodies of large groups of people may not be sacrificed en mass, but their minds might be. There are groups all around us in which the price for belonging amounts to the suicide of the critical faculties. Jonestown is an extreme example of the human ability to be swept-up in movements that are hyped, utopian, father authoritarian, and function as a kind of extended family. Jonestown is remarkable for the sacrifice of bodies, but all around us are groups that daily lift up on altars of sacrifice, and in vastly larger numbers, human minds.


Posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, edward feser, philosophy, science, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and Checking Your Premises

Rhetoric and critical thinking. In classical rhetoric, the central appeal is not to the emotions (pathos), but to reason (logos), and Aristotle’s rhetorical invention categories—his topoi—are heavily weighted to rational appeals (appeals to logic, evidence, comparisons, definitions, examples, and so on). You can have everything else going for you rhetorically—an interesting topic, thesis, and genre; an engaging title and opening paragraph; a tone and style that matches your audience’s sensibilities; and a thoughtful arrangement of paragraphs—but if you don’t reason well, your ultimate success will remain in doubt. Like poor grammar, poor reasoning clangs to the ear, leading the reader to say no outright to your statements or to murmur, “That doesn’t sound right.” Benjamin Disraeli once cast shade on another parliamentarian by saying, “I was with you, sir, till I heard your argument!”—suggesting that his fellow parliamentarian was doing his own argument damage by supporting it poorly. It is not always enough to appeal to an audience’s existing desires and prejudices, but to support your claims with good reasons. Thus argumentation entails the study of critical thinking.

Critical thinking. To write clearly is to think clearly, and to think clearly is to think critically. Critical thinking is the attempt to arrive, as nearly and objectively as possible, at the truth of a matter. In 1946, George Orwell, the author of the novel 1984, wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled, “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he laid out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” It’s a funny observation, and it rests on a powerful syllogism (two premises accompanied by a conclusion): (1) our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; (2) they rarely match reality; therefore, (3) our conclusions rarely match reality. In the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In these two sentences, Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out one’s eyes.

Where to start objective thinking? Is there a First Idea that can assist one in reaching objectivity as reliably as in mathematics; something that can function as a North Star for reasoning, conferring on it powers of clarity for writing, and empowering individuals to begin a process of confidently and steadily thinking out issues for themselves, arriving at conclusions it would be unreasonable to ever doubt?

Well, no. Or, if there is, there’s never been a broad consensus as to what that First Idea might be, exactly. Perhaps if we agreed on that First Idea, we’d all reach the same conclusions—but then again, maybe not. For example, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and Protestant philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, all powerful minds and careful logicians (studiers of logic), started their reasoning with the ultimate Big Idea—God. In each of these thinkers’ thought, God functioned as the ground of being and for thought—and yet they did not reach the same conclusions as to what this Big Idea implied for the nature of their existence and what should be regarded, ultimately, as the true, the good, and the beautiful. Though they attempted to reason to a broader certainty in life by taking God’s existence as their First Certainty, they nevertheless ended their processes of reasoning in different places.

One reason for their diversity of opinion has to do with definition. None of these men defined God in exactly the same way, so they didn’t really start their arguments in exactly the same place. As with the butterfly effect in chaos theory (even a small flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Asia can make exact weather prediction on a particular date six months later in California uncertain), so a small difference in definitions or premises can have largescale effects for ultimate conclusions. Exact starting and stopping points for arguments are crucial to notice.

Noticing starting and stopping points. Oftentimes the Oz curtain of a person’s way of thinking, if it appears mysterious, confusing, or suspiciously unsupported, can be drawn back by simply asking, “Why did this person start his argument exactly where he did, and why did he stop it exactly where he did?” If this question cannot be inferred or explicitly answered to your satisfaction, it may be because the author has misread you, his audience, expecting you would treat his points of departure and conclusion as your points of departure and conclusion, granting his opening and closing claims as in need of no additional justification because you are, at those points, at yes with him. (Recall that rhetoric is about getting to yes with an audience.) Perhaps he assumes that you have the background knowledge he does, and are part of his community, sharing his general sensibilities, assumptions, and beliefs, knowing where questions can generally start and stop without a lot of justification or explanation. But perhaps you’re not part of his community. Perhaps you don’t share his way of talking about things, and so you’re unwilling to start and stop arguments where he does. If, for instance, you do not take as axiomatic (self-evident; foundational; something not in need of additional argument) that all human beings are created by God and created as equal, as Thomas Jefferson so famously claimed in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”), then you are in want of additional convincing. You have not reached yes with this message sender, sharing his premises.

What are premises? Premises are those explicit and implicit claims that support another claim or conclusion. They are the things you assume in argument—and that you hope your audience assumes. An example can be found in any enthymeme. Aristotle called a sentence containing a claim and support an enthymeme: “I didn’t get on the plane because grandma dreamed the night before that it would crash.” An enthymeme includes one premise and one conclusion, but relies on the reader to fill in the second premise: the dropped premise. In this case, the dropped premise is that the dreams of grandmas have predictive power—which is obviously a dubious argumentative assumption, and a nice reminder as to why one should always check a writer’s or speaker’s premises (including one’s own). Putting it more formally, an enthymeme is an argument that leaves the reader to supply the missing premise: “Grandma dreamed the plane would crash [first premise]; grandma’s dreams foretell the future [the dropped second premise]; therefore, I didn’t get on the plane [the conclusion].” Support is about getting to the because of your claim—and an enthymeme achieves this in a single sentence. Any sentence with because in it is an enthymeme (whether it appears at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere in the middle), and any sentence with because in it will have a dropped premise that the writer expects the reader to supply without the writer having to make it explicit.

Circular reasoning and question begging. If the writer means to communicate specifically to you, and yet fails to address your fundamental doubts, requests for clarification, or objections by offering additional and substantial premises, claims, or arguments to bring you into agreement with him, then you can rightly accuse him of circular reasoning or question begging (assuming as true what is not yet agreed on between the message sender and his audience): “How do you know all people are created equal?” “Because God created them that way.” “But how do you know God created them that way?” “Because they’re equal. God would only create people equal.” “But how do you know that?” “I just do.” Round-and-round it might go if no additional, substantial claims are on offer. If, however, the person is not talking to you (that is, if you’re an audience crasher, butting-in on an argument being made to another audience)—and the audience being addressed indeed accepts his initial claims as self-evident—then it’s not really fair to call the starting and stopping points for his arguments circular or question-begging, but as, rather, axiomatic (things neither he nor his audience call into question, such as, say, the reality of human equality, the authority of Jefferson, Buddha, or the Bible, etc.). As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wryly observed, “Arguments have to stop somewhere.

But also note that Wittgenstein’s claim itself can be question-begging if you don’t accept it, and he’s talking to you, and nowhere in his writings does he offer further justification for his claim. Question begging is audience dependent: it is question begging from the vantage of whom, exactly? Any explanation or justification might invite an additional flurry of “But why?” follow-up questions from somebody in an audience, as when a child asks a parent why, exactly, the sky is blue, again and again, never satisfied with the parental explanation. If you ignore the “But why?” question, or arrest it with something akin to “Because I say so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” you’re carrying on with your argument when premises are unclear to your audience or in dispute. You’re assuming what is, in fact, in question (and thereby begging the question). Begging the question begs a reader or hearer to go with your argument absent additional reasons or evidence; to grant your premises, even if just for the sake of argument.

But let’s say we agree with Wittgenstein; let’s grant him his premise: we’ve all got to start and stop our narratives and arguments somewhere. If so, then where an author begins and ends tells one a lot about what an author thinks can go without saying and when enough has been said—and what the author believes an audience will let him or her get away with. If you can’t say everything—or justify everything—then you’ve got to guess what can safely go unsaid.

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Trump’s America Is Not My America

I don’t like the phrase “not my president.” I understand the sentiment, but I think it would be a more accurate reflection of that sentiment to say, “not my America.” Trump’s America is not my America in exactly the same sense that Nazi Germany was not Einstein’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy was not Umberto Eco’s Italy. Authoritarianism, Nazism, and fascism may be overlaid onto America, Germany, or Italy, and when a person is imprisoned or dies fighting these overlays, he or she has been imprisoned or died for America, Germany, or Italy.

This thought was inspired by something I read recently of a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany whose dying breath was, “For Germany.” That is, her death was for a vision of Germany that included her–which is the very sort of Germany that in fact exists today.

Those of us in the Trump resistance are keeping alive the torch of America–the America that will once again embrace all of us as equal citizens, with no individual deemed an “enemy of the People” or rendered suspicious for being a journalist or scientist, or for not having the right religious beliefs or skin color, or for being oppositional to presidential or federal power, or for exercising the rights guaranteed in our Constitution and First Amendment.

I like the cover of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. It shows a symbol of America–El Capitan in Yosemite–overlaid with a Nazi swastika. The swastika is America’s foreign element, not its native element.

We need to remember that in–what shall we call it?–TrumpAmerica.

Posted in aesthetics, atheism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, feminism, God, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Tools of Manipulation vs. The Tools of Critical Thinking

In a recent article at The New York Times (“Why We Believe Obvious Untruths”), two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, claim that dispersed knowledge is a ready and overriding explanation for why people profess belief in foolish things (Noah’s ark rests on Ararat, global warming is a conspiracy of the Chinese, vaccines and genetically modified foods are dangerous, etc.). In other words, the authors claim that humans have a natural, evolutionarily favored, habit of thinking thusly: So-and-so in my community knows this, so I know this. It’s part of what makes us successful as a species. If we cast our lot with group reason, as opposed to individual reason, we’re likely to be more successful than otherwise.
But this strikes me as an inadequate explanation for why people believe weird and ridiculous things. Certainly, it’s a piece of the puzzle, but a bit too glib as a total or near-total explanation, functioning as the key signal in the noise. I’d like to suggest that if humans were taught the tools of critical thinking (Occam’s razor, etc.) and practiced them from a young age (say, starting around ten), then we could do better than the current, sorry state of affairs.
But perhaps I’m too optimistic about the possibilities of basic education, and the toolbox of intellectual strategies it offers, as resistance to fanciful claims. Clergymen, politicians, and advertisers all have an interest in people not thinking too clearly or closely, and maybe there are enough manipulative tools in their own toolboxes to guarantee that most people don’t.
Clergymen, politicians, and advertisers–like the poor–will always be with us, perhaps. But must they win the arms race between their manipulative tools and our critical thinking ones? Resistance is not futile. I hope we won’t cede the field to the Kellyanne Conways of this world, but instead find ways for people like Steven Novella and Michael Shermer to win an ever larger audience.
Is it too late in history to rediscover the optimism of Emanuel Kant in his 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, in which he writes, rousingly, the following:
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is the tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sepere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’–that is the motto of enlightenment.
The Promethean milk has spilled. The intellectual tools are there. We live after the Enlightenment, not prior to it. Rationality doesn’t have to be in the back seat the way it is. We need only to share intellectual tools with one another and pick them up ourselves.
Do you suppose I am a fool to believe this?
Posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, david hume, donald trump, edward feser, feminism, God, hillary clinton, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

“A Neutral Color Or Yellow?” A Poem On The Problem Of Fence Sitting In The Age Of Trump




If the emperor

Says he has clothes,

And has no clothes,

Is silence suspended

Judgment or cowardice?



Per Wikipedia: “On 10 May 1933, in an act of ominous significance, the students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books, thereby presaging an era of uncompromising state censorship.”

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What Time Is It? (Another Poem for Daniela Vargas)



There are times

When silence

Does not mean


Nor fairness,

Nor indecision,

Nor open-mindedness,

But consent

And approval;


And cowardice.

Our time is one

Of those times.


Posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, meditation, philosophy, poetry, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Question (a poem for DREAMer Daniela Vargas, in the United States since age seven, arrested in retaliation for exercising her free speech, 2017)


What does it mean

If a tree falls

In a forest

On a person

And no

One makes a sound?


Posted in aesthetics, beauty, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, meditation, philosophy, poetry, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Camille Paglia Trolls the Oscars

Camille Paglia has, it seems to me, a persistent issue with confirmation bias. In the linked article below, she once again arrives with a dubious thesis that she then (predictably) locates a few snippets of anecdotal evidence for, rarely (never?) considering contrary instances. And the cultural narratives she purveys are tidy just-so stories that coincidentally line up with the youthful glory days of her own biography: how much the young have missed by not being young when she was young! (They’re the outsiders, she’s the insider.) And she manages (surprise!) to see exactly what she wants to see. Her readings are creative and contrarian, but what relation to reality do they actually have? And why, after pumping Trump up against Hillary throughout the election season, has she now fallen silent on his election? She shows up in public again, at a moment of astonishing contemporary upheaval, to tell us her analysis of…the cultural magnitude of Elizabeth Taylor in 1961. Seriously.

I do like the Faye Dunaway image that accompanies the article, though.


The social critic and author of the upcoming ‘Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism,’ writes that Elizabeth Taylor’s 1961 win was “a huge cultural watershed,…
Posted in aesthetics, beauty, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

African American Sculptor Edmonia Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra

I was stunned when I first saw this, thinking it the best “death of Cleopatra” themed sculpture I’d ever seen, then learned it was done by a 19th century woman I’d never heard of–Edmonia Lewis–who also happens to have been African American. So I post it as part of African American history month, 2017.


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Let Gorsuch Through

This is the wrong fight. Let him through. Let the Democratic senators express their concerns and make their points, but this is not the man to filibuster. Don’t behave like Republicans have over the past eight years, supporting left-leaning iterations on Ted Cruz. In the age of Trump, this guy is a win for liberals. Yes, for liberals. Why? Because Trump has much, much worse options for Supreme Court vacancies–political hacks who can pave the way for a deterioration of the separation of powers, the First Amendment, etc.

Gorsuch is not one of those. He can be reasoned with. He will protect the core values of the Republic and the Constitution that both (non-authoritarian) conservatives and liberals revere. He is not the pick we would expect from a non-ambivalent authoritarian; he’s not the sort of rubber stamp judge that, for instance, Putin would pick for a court appointment in Russia. Gorsuch will act independently. He knows what his job function is in a liberal and democratic Republic. If we want to get out the other side of the next four to eight years with our Republic and Constitution functioning and in tact, we better reward Trump when he doesn’t go with his worst impulses. Recall that Trump also didn’t appoint a torture proponent as Secy of Defense. When Trump gets it right, don’t pretend he didn’t. This is good for him and good for the country.


For a party that has often strained to match the fury and zeal of its base during the wave of anti-Trump activism since the election, a full-scale showdown may prove…
Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Steve Bannon’s Vision in a Nutshell–and California as the Counter-Model

Steve Bannon’s chief goals are outlined in the link below to a recent Washington Post article. Among them is a large strategic vision grounded in national sovereignty. Bannon thinks that Western countries have surrendered ever increasing degrees of sovereignty to international agreements and that the United States should take the lead in showing nations how to recover their autonomy. Thus Steve Bannon wants to renegotiate trade agreements nation-by-nation, with each one having to pass through the Senate on votes, so that they get debated openly. Steve Bannon thinks this is what the founders of the Constitution would have wanted for the country, not international agreements that cede sovereignty. That sounds plausible, even rational. And Donald Trump seems to be exactly the sort of hard-nosed businessman who might do well with such a renegotiation task.

But the psychologically darker side of Steve Bannon’s vision is border-closing to immigrants. He thinks that the world will be more peaceful if nations get hold of their distinct racial and religious essences as nations, and that those differences come to be recognized and respected, not blithely ignored. No more intruding on each other’s national and cultural sovereignty. And he wants to halt the multicultural goal of urban elites (“the Davos crowd”) to transform their countries into mirrors of their largest urban centers, where they end up looking like a United Colors of Benetton ad. So there’s a decidedly racist and Christian nationalist component here; a Karl Schmidt component.

A second component on the dark side of this is a second Cold War, this time with Islamic and/or Confucian civilizations.

So this dual formula–retake sovereignty via newly negotiated trade agreements and closing borders to Muslims, Hispanics, and Chinese–also turns out to be the way, in the United States, for Republicans to pick the lock on rust belt states. Trump won the election: (1) by animating blue collar workers on the matter of trade and sovereignty (who doesn’t want to feel in control of their destiny?); and (2) by animating racists and evangelicals surrounding border-closing and religion.

How successful is this likely to be as electoral strategy and policy in the long run? I suspect that, over the course of fifty years, such a vision cannot sustain itself. Demographers insist that, by the end of this century, 90% of humans will live in cities, and that doesn’t lend itself well to nostalgic and reactionary nationalist politics. Cities tend to be liberal places. And if sea level rise takes on the nature of crisis because of accelerated global warming, international agreements will have to be a key way to address it. Also, if the global economy begins to contract because free trade has become too difficult, the new nationalism will be seen as folly. But over the next decade, this sort of politics will be tried, and its limits for the 21st century tested. (I’m guessing Bannon would say that if individual countries negotiate trade agreements with one another, and that both sides are happy with the results, trade will grow, not be constrained. But I’ve got to wonder what happens if a country gets locked out of a larger trade pact and has to work something out individually with each country in that pact. The logic of trade pacts is strength in numbers, is it not? Or am I missing something?)

As we witness how this plays out, Calfornia will function as a counter-model to Bannon’s vision, with its large population of Muslims, Hispanics, and Chinese Americans–and its media and tech internationalists in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.


Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Robert Young is Probably Wrong. Trump Neutrality Endangers Resisters. And That’s Why Scientists Should March on Washington

The more people who peel off, the more dangerous it becomes for those remaining in the streets who resist. So this is hard for me to read. I post a link to the below article by Robert Young, not because I agree, but because I want to think about it some more. I’m wondering how his piece will read six months from now. Four years from now.

My first response is: stop pretending that scientists won’t have to resist what’s coming; that they can adopt an above-it-all neutrality that will be effective against a Putin-like authoritarian supported by sophisticated propaganda and the levers of the state. Before this is over, scientists are going to be arrested, lose jobs, and may even be killed (either by rogue enthusiasts for Trump, as with the Quebec shooter, or by the state itself). Scientists are going to have to fight alongside the rest of us, and take the slings and arrows of malicious accusations surrounding the so-called “politicization of science.” It comes with the territory of our growing crisis. The alternative is silence. Stop pretending neutrality is possible in this environment. Of course scientists will be on the side of the Anglo-French Enlightenment vision of humanity, the First Amendment, and reason. Of course.

And there’s a psychological passivity at work in adopting a neutral position that does Trump’s bidding, and perhaps serves an unconscious wish for Trump to prevail. It’s the same attitude that some (most?) in the military are taking at the moment. It’s how we ended up, after WWII, with the Nuremberg defense (“I was just obeying orders”). At some point people who pride themselves on being neutral professionals will have to join the rest of us in the streets–or see a dwindling resistance movement culturally isolated and ultimately mown down in the streets. We will hang together, or hang separately.


Posted in atheism, atomism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, david hume, donald trump, hillary clinton, Lucretius, Politics, science, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Felony Charges Brought Against Six Journalists

Fascism? What else do you call this? Six journalists–journalists–reporting on the inaugural protests have been roped into the felony charges brought against some of the property damaging protesters themselves. This should be extremely alarming for anybody who cares about the First Amendment. I would bring this right to the top of the post-inaugural “Holy Shit! It Really Can Happen Here!” pile.


The six journalists charged with felony rioting were among 230 people detained in the anti-Trump demonstrations.
Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Can President Trump be Checked?

If liberal democracy is to survive this time of testing, we’re all agreed that Trump needs to be, at minimum, checked, but in terms of how to do that effectively, well, that’s a very difficult question. So far, the complexity of resisting an authoritarian and illiberal nationalist like Trump has proven so difficult that opposition to him has been pushing and pulling against itself. Hopefully, this won’t be the pattern for four years–or eight–and we’ll figure out how to be effective against him, his movement, and the levers of power that will be at his disposal, which will be considerable. I don’t think the country will be the same out the other end if we can’t pick the lock on how to effectively resist him, and then hold smartly and bravely together.

I recall Schopenhauer once writing of Christianity that its most effective argument had always been the stake. That’s true of all anti-rational discourses, of course (Islam, Maoism, etc.). History suggests that whenever an alpha male spearheading an anti-rational discourse can reach the pinnacle of power–whether by hook or by crook, by democracy or palace coup–he stays there, not by recourse to reason, but by obfuscation and force. If you don’t have reason on your side to justify power, there’s always fog and coercion. We’ve seen the fog side of Trump all year. We are about to enter an era of fog and coercion. It’s going to cost something to resist Trump–maybe everything.


Ms. Oates said that closing cultural institutions to oppose President-elect Donald J. Trump “would only hurt artists.” Lively Twitter exchanges followed.
Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, donald trump, God, philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

A Checklist for Skepticism, Doubt, and Critical Thinking

We are all subject to flawed reasoning. Any one of us may catastrophically misread the landscape we’re navigating, whether literal or metaphorical, causing us to arrive at false beliefs that end in our deaths. We may also be thwarted in our purposes by setting them too high or low. Someone might outmaneuver us. We may make all the wrong allies—and find ourselves with all the wrong enemies. There are so many ways, and at so many levels, our critical thinking can fail, and so it is that we bring questions to the claims that people bring to us for our consideration–questions like these: (1) Does this person have any real evidence for the things they believe—and what is the quality of that evidence? (2) Are there converging lines of evidence supporting these claims? (3) Is the person an expert on the matters in question, or do they rely on authorities and experts to support their claims—and how reliable are those authorities and experts, exactly? (4) If the person doesn’t have direct physical evidence or data to support their claims, do they at least have other good reasons for believing what they do? (5) Given the quantity and quality of the evidence and reasons available to them, how strongly should they actually hold their beliefs? (6) What indications are there that the person is actually competent to weigh evidence and arguments (do they apportion their beliefs to the evidence, for instance, or do they seem overconfident, believing things without sufficient warrant)? (7) Are their beliefs coherent with other things that are well-known and established (the things we think we already know about the universe and how it works)? (8) Has the person actively sought out disconfirming evidence and arguments? (9) Has the person weighed alternative beliefs or explanations and really come to the best beliefs or explanations on offer? (10) What roles are group belonging, self-identity and esteem, financial interest, temperament, and desire—desire of any sort—playing in this person’s conclusions? (11) Is this person under the spell of a narrative that they’re telling themselves and others about their claims—and are there other ways—better ways—to tell the story of this matter that might break the spell? (12) Why does this person start their stories and claims where they do, and why do they stop their stories and claims where they do? (13) Do the explanations for these starting and stopping points amount to, when push comes to shove, question begging (circular reasoning)? (14) Are the heuristics (the rules of thumb, models, maps, narratives) the person overlays onto reality too simple? Too complicated? Is this person open to reality testing them? (15) Is the person introducing any static into their arguments (things that are beside the point, emotional appeals, logical fallacies, etc.)? If so, why are they doing that? What’s the signal in the noise here?

The critical reasoner brings such skeptical questions, not just to others, but back upon the self. Skeptical questioning directed outward, toward others, but never back upon oneself, is not skepticism. Do you have the capacity, not just for bringing criticism to others, but for self criticism–and the hearing of criticism?

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Atheist Bart Compolo, Meet Joseph Koerner

Pretty darn interesting. Bart Compolo, a former evangelical minister who evolved intellectually toward atheism, has discovered the world needs some of the same basic things that he did as a pastor, so he’s doing them in a low-key way at the University of Southern California, ministering (is that the right word?) to humanist students. It reminds me of Joseph Koerner’s book on art during the German Reformation (The Reformation of the Image, University of Chicago Press), in which Koerner notes numerous parallels between the Protestant pastor and congregation of the 16th century and the college professor and college class of today. Anyway, a life affirming article about what happens when a person does their level best to be true to themselves (exercising their temperamental gifts, their honest beliefs and interests, etc.) and stays honest with others. I wish there were more people who would simply risk telling the truth, living vulnerable in the world, admitting their honest doubts.

Here’s the link to Koerner’s book:



The son of a famous pastor, Bart Campolo is now a rising star of atheism — using the skills he learned in the world he left behind.
Posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, david hume, God, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

This is Colonization, Not Immigration

In the video below, what we’re seeing is civilizational colonization, not immigration. Muslim men in France are literally driving women out of public spaces. Imagine a suburb of France that was majority Calvinist asserting the authority of Calvin’s “Institutes” over the Enlightenment inspired French Constitution in this way. The Anglo-French Enlightenment constitutes a civilization, and one of the things our civilization means is women’s equality, which includes access to cafes and streets without harassment or intimidation. Blacks fought for a similar right in the American South in the 1950s and 60s. Immigrants who come from Islamic dominated parts of the world shouldn’t be able to abuse Anglo-French tolerance for freedom of religion to trump hard won individual rights. It can’t be allowed to simply take over a community in this way, leaving no room for non-Muslims to live freely, according to their own lights. If this is allowed, France will become essentially a balkanized country where women are free in some areas and not in others. If you seek to immigrate to a liberal democracy, then you’re breaking the social contract if you don’t respect individual autonomy and choice. It should be a condition of entry that you agree to respect women’s autonomy and the autonomy of people whose beliefs are not your own. Otherwise, you’re colonizing the host country, not assimilating to it. You’re exploiting the law to make of yourself, locally, the law.

Posted in atheism, brexit, david hume, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | 29 Comments

Information and Entropy for Beginners

Information. Physicist Brian Greene, in his book The Hidden Reality (Knopf 2011), gives a three word definition of information: “Information answers questions” (252). Curiously, in physics you can give a three word definition for entropy as well: entropy measures questions. (That is, entropy tells you how many logically possible questions the system being attended to can actually answer, and whether those questions have been answered.) Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. If disorder is high, entropy is high. If disorder is low, entropy is low. So when you ask, “Where’s my pen?”, and you know exactly where it is, the entropy (disorder) in your life, at least surrounding pens, is probably low. You’ve got a system around your home that is ordered in such a way that you can answer your question. Entropy measures questions. Information answers questions.

But what exactly does entropy measures questions and information answers questions mean? Greene writes: “[T]he most useful measure of information content is the number of distinct yes-no questions the information can answer. […] A datum that can answer a single yes-no question is called a bit–a familiar computer-age term that is short for binary digit, meaning a 0 or 1, which you can think of as a numerical representation of yes or no.”

What Green is describing here can be illustrate by flipping a coin twice. If you ask, “What’s the result of the two flips?”, and I say, “Two heads,” your knowledge of what we might call the “two coin flip system” is 100%. It has four bits of information, and you know all of them. You know the order of the flips (heads, heads) and the content of the flips (heads, heads). But if I say, “Heads on the first coin, but I don’t know on the second,” then your knowledge of the system drops to 50%. You know two of the four bits of information. Like losing a pen, the system is getting chaotic for you. You want to know your relation to where and how things are.

The implication here is startling. When we’re talking about information, we’re talking about entropy. Information and entropy are one. If you want to know what maximum chaos is, enter a system where you have no information; where what you’re looking for could be in any logically possible place within the system; where all the information is hidden. Here’s Greene again: “[A] system’s entropy is the number of yes-no questions that its microscopic details have the capacity to answer, and so the entropy is a measure of the system’s hidden information content” (253).

Entropy. The relationship therefore between entropy and information is inverse: the more entropy (chaos) you are presented with, the less you can definitively say at that moment about the system; the less you can map; the less you can control. There are lots of logically possible ways a system can be—that constitutes its hidden information content—but there’s only one way that a system is in reality. That’s its actual configuration of answers to your yes-no questions. Your mission, should you accept it, is to find out the way the world is by asking it questions. (Where’s your pen, again, exactly?)

Think of fog and ice. When you know little, you are in the fog of a highly entropic information system. But once you acquire definite information, and get some control over it, such as in a physical system when fog turns into ice (a much less entropic form of water because it takes on a definite shape), entropy comes down, at least for you locally. You get definite answers to your yes-no questions (that molecule of ice belongs to that snowflake, it’s not just anywhere in a fog, etc.). Your intellectual fog thus congeals into something more certain, akin to ice crystals. There are now definite bits of information that you can link-up with your other bits of information. (The philosopher David Hume would call your discovery of ice and your interpretation, experience and inference. The data you have access to and the connections you make out of it constitute your interpretation.)

Thoreau and Hume. Henry David Thoreau in Walden quotes Confucius as saying the following: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” That’s also true information. Hume, skeptical of a priori reasoning (armchair reasoning absent investigation), put it this way in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding:

The existence […] of any being can only be proved by arguments…founded entirely on experience. If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits.

In other words, when asking a question of the cosmos, trying to derive a bit of information from it (“Can a man’s wish effect the orbit of a planet?”), lots of things may be logically possible, but only one thing is true. Don’t presume to know what that thing is before you really do; before you have a basis for induction (inference) from experience; before you bring down the entropy.

Posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, God, philosophy, science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trump’s Secretary of State Pick, Rex Tillerson, on Global Warming

Below is a clip of the future Secretary of State on climate change. His argumentative maneuvers in the attached clip are predictably glib: (1) climate models possess a wide range of uncertainty; (2) the problems look manageable to him; and (3) we can adapt.

Translation: if we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate: (1) maybe things won’t be as bad as some models predict; (2) if they are that bad, we’ll adapt; and we’ll do so by (3) engineering (which means moving our harbors and cities deeper inland, which translates into passing the costs, in the trillions, of our global warming, to future generations).

Simple. I feel so much better.

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What Will Be Donald Trump’s Reichstag Fire?

This election is hopelessly tainted. Trump won by just 80,000 votes spread across three swing states–and lost the general election tally by a full 2% (three million votes). Hillary got 48%, Trump 46%, and Stein/Johnson basically the remainder–which means 54% of American voters didn’t want Trump–yet here we are with Trump. And Russia’s interference almost certainly achieved far more than that 80,000 vote swing, so we’ve literally been hacked as a democracy, getting the president that Putin wanted, not the American voters. And now we learn that the head of Exxon-Mobile, with deep ties to Russia, is Trump’s most likely pick for Secretary of State.

So what can be done at this point? It’s like a storm. Hunker down and hope the Republic and planet survives in tact the next four to eight years. But I’ve never felt so despondent about the prospects for the Anglo-French Enlightenment, liberal democracy, and ecology. Trump seems to be setting the clock back, not to the 1990s, say, but the 1890s (a period of nationalism that culminated in two world wars). And he’ll have the nuclear codes, let’s never forget that. Any day over the next four years we could wake up and learn Trump has decided to arrest the conspirators in a conspiracy he has “uncovered,” or used a nuclear weapon to “solve” a problem somewhere on the pretense of some crisis. What Reichstag fire awaits us? It’s really a hostage situation.

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Uncategorized | 3 Comments