I recently read Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll (2019). The book hints at an ambitious undertaking to examine some profound ideas, including the derivation of space, time, and gravity from a proper understanding of quantum mechanics, but on this point it falls short. I suspect the real reason for the book is to lay out the case for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. On this point, it succeeds brilliantly. I’ve always thought Everett’s approach to QM was the most intuitive and this book makes the clearest argument for it yet.
Some say that the many-worlds approach breaks Occam’s razor by positing millions of additional, parallel universes that can never be detected, but the reverse is closer to the truth. Other interpretations of QM need to posit additional, so far unseen mechanisms to “collapse” the wave function. Some believe it random. Others believe consciousness plays a role. After observation, what happens to the other parts of the wave? Many-worlds assumes only that the wave that once existed continues to exist even when parts of it no longer interact. The idea is that you and your instruments observe a particle in the quantum state you do because the part of the particle’s wave function in that state is entangled with your own, while the part of the particle’s wave function in other states are entangled with the other parts of your wave function.
Once this is thoroughly explained, Carrol moves on to speculate chaotically about where gravity might come from and be made compatible with QM. He mentions the idea that space could be emergent from an abstract sort of space where objects of similar values interact stronger than objects of dissimilar values. This would be indistinguishable from how we experience space. He subtly hints that the wave function of the universe has broken its symmetry, allowing “position” to exhibit locality in this way, but not “momentum.” These two attributes might actually be fundamentally the same, but momenta have lost their ability to interact when holding similar values. The problem is that he proposes no mechanism for this to happen, gives no reason why we have three dimensions of space, and gives no reason why this approach would be more insightful than simply assuming space as foundational.
Carrol mentions Ted Jacobson’s 1995 paper suggesting that the entropy of a region is proportional to the interactions it has with other regions (and therefore surface area), and therefore reducing entropy might reduce surface area, warping space not unlike gravity. The problem with this is that gravitational collapse actually represents an increase in entropy.
He mentions Stephen Hawking’s work and that of his successors suggesting that a black hole’s information is encoded on its event horizon, meaning that the information of a three-dimensional volume can be stored on a two-dimensional surface. The problem is that there is still a lot of debate about this.
He mentions conformal field theory and the proof that a quantum field operating in a five-dimensional spacetime with a negative cosmological constant is mathematically equivalent to a quantum field operating on the four-dimensional surface of such a spacetime. The problem is that our universe has a positive constant and only four dimensions that need to be representable by three, not five.
Finally, he points out that the more degrees of freedom a system has, the more entropy it has, and therefore the more energy it has, and therefore the more gravity it has (m=e/c^2). Because gravity does something weird to collapse three dimensions into two, the degrees of freedom of a volume of space is limited at the Plank energy. The implications are that Hilbert space is not infinite (though still enormous), and that there is a limit on how many “worlds” can exist in the wave function simultaneously. This is the same reason I have heard elsewhere for why the vacuum energy is not infinite.
He never did explain where gravity came from.
My main criticism is that too often he would take up to ten pages explaining the same simple concept over and over when I got it the first time, and then suddenly cover twenty steps in half a paragraph. It was jarring. I simultaneously felt really smart and really dumb.
My takeaway observation is that this book confirms what I have heard elsewhere of big-name scientists over the generations accusing each other of fuzzy thinking and conceptual errors when it comes to QM. It gives me hope that my ideas might be just as valid even though I’ve never had to compute an eigenvector in my life. If the scientists can’t support their models and they get attention anyways, why not me?
I recently read the 2020 book Jesus Politics by Phil Robertson. I like Phil. I’ve seen his various shows a little bit. He has really made something out of himself by hard work. He remains connected to nature. He speaks firmly the truth about sin and redemption, but does it in love. He is not afraid to take on the leftist activists who are always stirring up trouble. I saw through the lies people told about him years ago. That is why I found his book so disappointing. It seems like he is falling into some of the stereotypes.
Before I bought it, I somehow thought the book’s message was going to be one of giving up on looking to politicians to solve our problems and instead putting our energy into spreading the gospel. Instead, it is the opposite. Phil apparently thinks we haven’t been putting enough energy into getting the right people elected, and through negligence have allowed Godless politicians to take over.
There is much we agree on. We are both pro-life. We understand that the root of violence is not guns, but hate, and that broken families feed into this. We do not elevate nature over human needs. We are both skeptical of government-run health care. We are both sick and tired of the hateful attacks on public figures when some minor mistake they made twenty years ago is brought to light. We agree that we need to act with more mercy and teach truth gently. He rightly sees that in order to better society and spread the love of God, Christians must be free to speak about their faith and free to spend their own money to help others. By extension, we both believe in free speech and capitalism.
Where I have trouble is the sloppy thinking around what he thinks are the solutions. I am fully against any government-created obstacles that would hamper the advancement of the Kingdom, but I see an important difference between a government that allows advancement, and one that would attempt to aid such an advancement. You can’t legislate morality. Threatening people with state punishment for sins will not make them better people inside, even if they act better on the outside. It will also create resentment, which can lead to retaliation and even more sin. Depending on just what it is we are talking about, it might create an underground black market for sin. Finally, giving the government so much power to regulate our lives creates the risk that it will be used to encourage sin and punish righteousness when the sinners win in the next election cycle. Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.
Throughout the book, it is never clear whether he is talking about a government that allows advancement, or one that aids. He cites some examples of leftist overreach, where government was used against the Kingdom, such as the time a Christian baker was forced to make gay wedding cakes or lose his business, the time a Christian foster care organization was forced to recommend gay couples, and the time that a school was forced to remove from display a copy of the Ten Commandments that a previous graduating class had gifted to the school. On these, I am with him totally that we must put a stop to such injustice, but then he goes on to say stuff like this:
Speaking of Jesus, he says, “he asked us to bring the Kingdom into the world around us through every means possible, including, if possible, political means.” Do we bring forth the Kingdom or does God do it, drawing all men unto himself when we show Jesus? Are we to bring forth the Kingdom by sinful means? What does it mean to “render unto Caesar”?
He says that Godless politicians removed God from public schools. In some cases, they tried, but in most cases, they merely stopped inappropriately bringing him into it. Just as you would never go to a dentist to buy flower seeds, you wouldn’t go to a school to learn about God. That’s what churches are for. Schools are for math, science, and geography. The real problem is that there is no way that we could bring God into the schools that would be acceptable by Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and everyone else in the community. We shouldn’t be so arrogant to think we have the only correct model.
He says we should vote for politicians that will “promote policies designed to strengthen families.” Strengthen families? Or get out of the way and stop breaking families up? Families should never be allowed to become dependent on the government.
He says, “through politics the government liberalized sexuality, removing it from the confines of marriage.” Did government do that? Or did individual sinners do that while government did nothing to stop it? There is a big difference. He talks a lot about how no-fault divorce made our culture worse, but which is worse? A modern divorce? Or a spouse who commits abuse or adultery first in order to have grounds for a divorce they wanted anyways? Keeping people trapped in marriages does not make them better people. Only Jesus can make them better people.
I bought the book hoping for JESUS politics; what I got was Jesus POLITICS.
I recently read The Sun Is Still Rising (2018) by Scott W. Rasmussen. The basic premise is that voting will not fix our problems, but community can.
Politics doesn’t work. Politicians are too spineless to act when there is a divided electorate and the regulatory bureaucrats that actually run things are unelected. This is a driving force in the rise of partisan conflict, as a quote from page 66 makes clear:
“Partisanship doesn’t matter so much when the formal government is a distant abstraction and we are generally free to live our lives as we see fit. It matters a lot when the change of government from one party to the other impacts our day-to-day life. It matters even more when nothing can be done to prevent the bureaucrats from imposing their own hand-book for redemption. The more that government assumes sole responsibility for governing, the more polarization will increase.”
The lessons of the book are that the public sector can be just as greedy as the private sector and that the private sector also regulates (governs) society through a network of clubs, businesses, and informal relationships. Rasmussen believes that the culture of America is basically good and that politics flows from culture. He has great hope that the politicians will eventually follow the changing attitudes of the people, but in the meantime we must solve our problems without government aid.
What are these problems and what are the solutions? It is never fully spelled out. Rasmussen hints that the poor can find food, shelter, and jobs through the actions of businesses, charities, new technology, and simply by being more connected and fostering community. He also mentions that the increased ability to move our home address creates competition between states for our business. Beyond this, there are only platitudes and vague assurances.
Of all the problems I care about and that make the news, ninety percent of them necessarily involve the government because the problem is that government won’t allow the private sector to do what needs to be done. Unless we get the government fixed first, there will never be any community solutions.
Furthermore, I don’t have the faith in the citizenry that Rasmussen has. I agree that politics flows from culture. That’s why I think our problems are only going to get worse. There are millions of people that demand it.
I also find it borderline comical how at his late stage in life he seems to have suddenly discovered what libertarians have known all along and he thinks it is something new. Of course the public sector is greedy! That’s why it was created. Of course the private sector regulates society! That’s called the invisible hand of the free market. The whole book reads like its author is an 18-year-old that has just discovered politics and thinks he knows everything. It’s not necessarily wrong, but there is no depth of insight. Even though women do it too, some would call it mansplaining.
Of all the chapters, chapter 11 was the most irksome, so I feel like I have to single it out for special criticism. It was a sloppy mess that only muddied the water around the conversation over states’ rights and the trouble with Trump. It was borderline dishonest.
Though I understand the terminology is problematic, there is a such thing as states’ rights and it has next to nothing to do with racism or slavery. The concept has been invoked in debates over gay marriage, abortion, immigration, the drawing of voting districts, the electoral college, prohibition, health insurance, taxes, and education. Just because at one point in history there were some that attempted to use the argument to protect slavery doesn’t mean we should do away with the term any more than we should ban cars worldwide because one guy once rode over a dog.
The idea that modern blacks distrust rolling back federal power because they think it means an increase in state power and they don’t trust the states not to revert to racism without federal checks is silly. The federal government is the sum of the people from all the states. They are no more trustworthy. Furthermore, the idea that blacks dislike Trump because he wanted to reign in federal power clashes both with the facts that blacks supported Trump more than any Republican since the sixties, and that Trump in some small ways wanted to increase federal power, even while shrinking it in other ways that would be beneficial to blacks (and everyone else).
The words in this book fed into the narrative the Democrats have been pushing that Trump is racist, without clearly saying it one way or the other. It’s irresponsible.
It’s not a bad book overall; it’s just disappointing.
I recently read The Rational Optimist (2010) by Matt Ridley. What Ridley is so optimistic about is capitalism, while he still finds plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about other trends, such as overregulation by big government.
A quote from page twenty-one sums up the theme of the book:
“…ask how long you would have to work to earn an hour of reading light – say, the light of an 18-watt compact-fluorescent light bulb burning for an hour. Today it will have cost you less than half a second of your working time if you are on the average wage…in 1950…you would have had to work for eight seconds to get the same amount of light. Had you been using a kerosene lamp in the 1880s, you would have had to work for fifteen minutes to get the same amount of light. A tallow candle in the 1800s: over six hours’ work. And to get that much light from a sesame-oil lamp in Babylon in 1750 BC would have cost you more than fifty hours of work…”
The first half of the book is history from the time our lineage split off from the great apes. Apes might sometimes trade when taught, but only by giving away something they do not value for something they do, not by giving away something of value for something more valuable. Even our closest relatives, the now-extinct Neanderthals, appear to have traded very little and only used materials from nearby, whereas humans from the same time period were passing goods from tribe to tribe along trade routes hundreds of miles long.
According to Ricardo’s law of economics, so long as one can more efficiently trade one resource for another than make it oneself, trade will be advantageous, even if the ones harvesting the second resource cannot do so as efficiently. Thus, Portugal was happy to trade wine for English cloth, even though Portugal could make cloth more efficiently than England, because Portugal could make wine more efficiently still. Since trade that is free only occurs when all parties agree that they are better off after trading, free trade is always good.
Over the centuries, growing markets made reforms possible that bettered everyone’s lives. Repeat business on an everyday basis conditioned people to become fairer, eroded the advantage of theft and drove down crime, conditioned people to learn to risk trusting strangers (raising our oxytocin levels), provided the excess wealth and free time to make charities and advocacy possible, provided the incentive to invent and produce new technologies, and made cities and agriculture possible. Ridley briefly covers some rival theories about the origins of trade, cities, and agriculture before rejecting them in favor of his own.
Ridley also explains why for so many millennia progress was so slow. There were three enemies of progress: isolation, birthrates, and greed:
Some societies, such as those in Australia, became fragmented into small units with little contact with each other. Having to rely on their own experts to make the technologies they needed, there was a gradual loss of knowledge over time as masters sometimes died before they had taken an apprentice.
For most of human history, when there were surpluses of food and other resources, we simply made more humans. Family sizes increased until the land could no longer support the exploding population. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, this is no longer true. Instead, living standards are rising while family sizes are getting smaller. The world population is expected to peak at nine billion before plateauing.
Wherever there is wealth, there are thieves and con men. The most successful of thieves are governments which tax, rent-seek, and support monopolies. It is during times of centralized, unified government that living standards and technological progress stagnate. It is during times of geopolitical instability that these things flourish. Examples are given from Europe and China over the last thousand years.
The bottom line is that capitalism is good and will continue to be good into the foreseeable future. It has already ended slavery and animal labor as we have learned to make use of alternative energy sources. It has already lifted most societies out of poverty.
On the other hand, attempts to rein capitalism in over environmental concerns are misguided at best. The claim is made that organic food is worse for the environment because it requires more acreage to produce the same amount of useable crop; it is fertilizer that has saved us from a Malthusian fate. The claim is made that concentrating people in cities supported by specialized farms is a more efficient use of land than spreading people out the way we used to live. The claim is made that “renewables” are especially destructive, and that most “green” initiatives are very much anti-green.
A quote from page 239 and 240 sums it up:
“Wind turbines require five to ten times as much concrete and steel per watt as nuclear power plants…Hundreds of orang-utans are killed a year because they get in the way of oil-palm bio-fuel plantations…Not even Jonathan Swift would dare to write a satire in which politicians argued that – in a world where species are vanishing and more than a billion people are barely able to afford to eat – it would somehow be good for the planet to clear rainforests to grow palm oil, or give up food crop land to grow biofuels, solely so that people could burn fuel derived from carbohydrate rather than hydrocarbons in their cars, thus driving up the price of food for the poor. Ludicrous is too weak a word for this heinous crime…”
Finally, Ridley wraps it up by reporting on the state of pessimism. Every generation since Plato has thought that the world was getting worse, yet polls show most people are optimistic about their own lives. This is similar to a phenomenon I have noticed among churched people: They are so keen on encouraging each other to have faith that our prayers will be answered on a personal level, yet are convinced in their interpretation of prophecy that the world is going to get worse and worse and worse until Jesus returns. I don’t understand it. The state of the world is merely the sum of states of the individuals living in it.
Another line of thought I found interesting was when Ridley was discussing how ideas beget ideas when inventing new technologies. It might not merely be a function of need and the limitations of physics. There might be some sort of metaphysical structure to “ideaspace” that guides technological development. That’s something to wonder about.
Ten Global Trends by Marian Tupy and Ronald Bailey is a collection of graphs with short commentaries on each. The world is getting better, not worse, is the basic premise. We are more efficient at using natural resources than ever, we are richer than ever, and the birth rate is dropping fast enough that we will likely never reach ten billion. Democracy is on the rise, wars are smaller and fewer, and the internet is educating billions. Tree cover is increasing globally and only in South America is it decreasing. While property damage from natural disasters are increasing (largely because of where people are choosing to build), deaths from natural disasters are down. While the total number of people living in slums has increased (due to increased urbanization), the percentage of city dwellers in slums has dropped. Literacy and communications technology are on the rise. The average workplace is sixty times safer than it was in 1910. Every doom-and-gloom prediction of last century has failed to pass.
The book was basically good, but slightly disappointing. Not all the graphs were explained well. Deaths from cancer are down, but is this because it is being diagnosed sooner, meaning people are living longer with it known to be there? This was never explained. Are less people dying in general? Are they living longer? What is killing people if not cancer? I had heard that heart attacks and strokes used to kill a lot of people in their 50s and 60s, but because of medical intervention such as defibrillation, more people are living long enough to get cancer, making it the new number one killer, meaning the rate was up. Is this true? The data lacks context.
Some graphs covered too short a time period to extract a meaningful trend. For example, the number of smokers went from 25% to 20% during the period 1980-2020. Death by homicide went from 6.5 per 100,000 to 5.1 per 100,000 during the period 1990-2015 – although there was a big jump in the middle to 7.5. Child labor is down twenty percent since 2000.
Some trends claimed as good were questionable, such as increased urbanization and decreased trade protectionism. While much good is associated with both, so is much bad and the jury is still out on whether good or bad dominates. Also, while I believe increased internet use is generally a force for good, it also increases risks of dependency and privacy violations. These things are very complicated.
Some trends are framed in such a way to sound better than they are. For example, while military expenditures are up, as a fraction of GDP they are actually down. A better way of saying this is that most countries are finally rich enough to spend money on something other than the military. That doesn’t mean we aren’t still on the brink of world war.
I was also surprised to see that economic inequality was decreasing globally. I had always heard it was increasing. I never saw this as a very big problem so long as the poor were steadily getting richer too (which they are), but I had thought it was agreed by everyone to be increasing. It’s even part of the extended Kuznets curve. The graph was poorly explained, so I can only guess that there is a stronger income clustering of most people (2000-2010) even while the tiny number of super rich have become proportionally richer. Is this true?
Overall, the book does provide some food for thought and helps counter the claims of the alarmists, especially when it comes to things such as resource depletion. On balance, the world is doing quite well.
Move! written by practicing pastor Tim Hatch is his appeal to Christians to never stop growing spiritually. The overall tone is encouraging rather than admonishing. He models what it means to stay positive, to be always wanting more of God in our life, and to take risks when necessary.
What I like about the book is that unlike many authors of spiritual subjects, he does not shy away from the complexities and exceptions:
After telling us to be positive throughout chapter three, he admits near the end that this is very difficult and we are bound to fail (after 36.5 hours, by his estimation). Then he explains that God is so patient and so powerful, that even when we turn negative, there are still mercies poured upon us. That knowledge alone can keep some people positive just a little longer.
At the end of chapter five, he tells a story from the life of Corrie Ten Boom, to illustrate how even when we don’t feel up to some challenge, God can still come through for us at the last minute. Whatever weaknesses or sins we might be struggling with will not stop God from acting at the appropriate time. Nothing can stop that. The bottom line is that there is nothing holding us back and no reason not to move forward into our calling.
One part I was not entirely sure how to apply to my life was the idea to look for opportunities rather than follow dreams. Sometimes the opportunities are many, yet just out of reach, and the dreams are themselves an opportunity of the same kind. My life is messy and complicated. Some things you just have to figure out yourself.
Hatch also has a YouTube Channel and Podcast.
I read Freedom, The End of The Human Condition, by Jeremy Griffith. I had been looking for a better model of the relationship between good and evil and an explanation of where evil comes from when I saw the book advertised. Since the PDF version was free, I got it. I quickly discovered that the writing style made it almost impossible to wade through and that the author was absurdly megalomaniacal, but I knew that even fools sometimes have good ideas because they think outside the box. Reading a bit further, I found that he actually did have a plausible hypothesis of human behavior after all, so I kept reading. The core of his thesis very well might have immense value. By the time I was halfway through and had gleaned all the insights I could, I kept reading out of morbid curiosity. I seriously think the guy is losing his mind.
The writing style is incredibly annoying and often a detriment to understanding. Nearly every paragraph is filled with stressed words. He uses bold, italics, capitalization, and underlining even when there’s no reason for them. How am I supposed to pay attention to anything when I’m supposed to pay attention to everything? There are numerous parenthetical statements breaking up sentences. He uses every word in the thesaurus at once in long hyphenated chains of synonymous words. He repeats entire paragraphs in every chapter, sometimes more than once per chapter, such that the book is three times longer than it needs to be (597 pages). Instead of saying things in different ways from different perspectives until the reader can understand one of them and thereby understand the others, he repeats the same vague idea over and over and over the same way as the first time. He also repeats quotes from other authors very many times and he reuses the same graphics over and over. He also jumps around a lot instead of following a linear argument. It’s exhausting. I can’t imagine anyone else finishing the book. Fortunately, I read it so you don’t have to. I should be given a medal.
The guy comes across as completely nuts. He has the incredibly narrow idea of reality that a six-year-old who has never seen the world might. He thinks that of all the centuries of music ever made, only the 1960s had special music that captured the true yearning of the soul. He seems to think it is universal across all individuals and cultures that 21 is the age that people are considered fully adjusted to society. The guy sees vibrant emotion in cave paintings and in his own terrible scribbles, going on and on about how well they capture some aspect of reality. I don’t see it. Not one of the pictures was helpful to illuminate the text. They are distractions. They only made me legitimately wonder whether he is going senile and how it is that his editor (which he mentions by name, so I know he has one) let all this slip through.
He tries to explain too much with his theories, claiming too much of human behavior as the result of psychosis. The reason we pursue materialism? To feed our egos and make us feel better about ourselves. The reason we tell stories and create art? To distract ourselves from our guilt. The reason we developed language? To justify our actions to others. The reason science is reductionist? To avoid looking at the whole of nature and feeling convicted by its perfection and our imperfection. The reason we chop and burn wood? To attack nature for being innocent and thereby exposing our guilt. The reason we hunt? To attack nature for the same reason. The reason we wear sunglasses? To block out nature and protect our egos. The reason rich people attack the poor and start colonial empires? Jealousy that the poor are relatively less corrupted and more connected to nature. The reason poor people attack the rich and engage in terrorism? Jealousy of the material wealth of the rich hurting their egos. The reason parents punish children, men dominate women, and the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice? Also jealousy. The reason we swear, make jokes, and wear ritual masks? This is not to protect our egos, but is actually our true selves leaking through the façade. The reason we get tattoos? Because when the world around you is ugly, why not give in and become ugly yourself? Hasn’t he ever heard that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar?
He wonders whether a certain tribe of ancient cave artists never drew faces because they were already so alienated from their true selves by that point in history that they could not stand to look at themselves. The problem is that according to his theory, we are even more self-alienated now and yet we draw faces. He then tells the story of how he suggested this to a tour group and they “shuddered” and “made choking sounds” because he was too close to the truth. I think it is obvious even to those of us that weren’t there that he was being laughed at and didn’t even realize it.
What stands out most of all is his paranoia, deflection, and double-standards. Using the term “affiliative” to describe primate behaviors he calls evasive and dishonest, but then he uses the term “friendly-cohesive-social-loving-integrative.” Calling consciousness “the ability to think abstractly” he calls evasive and dishonest, but then he goes on to describe consciousness as nothing more than the ability to remember, compare strategies with results, and plan ahead. Of course, if you have any difficulty in understanding what he writes, he says it’s not because he is a bad writer, or because he is writing nonsense, but because you are suffering from “the deaf effect,” meaning you are in denial because you don’t want to understand and therefore have to confront your own corrupted soul. He goes on about how special he is to have alone made such a grand insight in a world of people running away from truth, while at the same time denying being egotistical by claiming that if he was egotistical he couldn’t have made such an insight.
However, once I was able to get through his abrasive delivery to the meat of his arguments, I saw that there might be something there – just not as much as he seems to think there is:
According to Mr. Griffith, all our troubles are the result of our conscious mind fighting with our instincts. This is because the nerve-based conscious mind learns by doing and our instincts come from genes, which have “learned” by trial and error over many generations. Being conscious is a “good” thing, but it leaves us feeling condemned by our cooperative, selfless, altruistic instincts when we behave competitively and selfishly. We might not always know why we violated our instincts, yet we somehow know that we are good anyways or else we would kill ourselves. Thus, a child might take all the cake and then lie by saying “it fell into my lap,” because even a lie like that is closer to the truth than the partial truth “I am bad.”
I know from personal experience that I have many times felt bad about something I did (or didn’t do that I maybe should have), only to analyze my memory of what happened and realized there was no way I could have done anything differently at the time. Juggling all the sensory inputs and making decisions is difficult when there are so many distractions. So far, I think he might be on to something.
Once we feel condemned by our own instincts and by those around us, our conscious mind also condemns us by noting we are not following the pattern of nature to fit into an ordered whole. People react to this stress differently. Some lash out in anger. Some pursue means of stoking the ego to make them feel better about themselves, leading to selfish and competitive behaviors. Some of these behaviors make them feel worse, leading to vicious cycles. Some become addicted to drugs or commit suicide, while others become addicted to power over others and commit genocide. Some deny the truth, and once one begins to lie to themselves, there is no telling how far the delusion will spread. Even facts that indirectly remind us of the moral code are covered up and rejected in favor of lies. This also tends to lead to more stress and more condemnation.
This also makes sense. Much of the ideas he claims most of the world is in denial of are actually common and non-controversial. For example, the idea that hurt people hurt people is an internet meme. The idea that those who have never seen love modeled are unable to give it is related to the old idea that criminals are “victims of society,” and to the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis of autism. The idea that we are fundamentally good and only conditioned to be bad was espoused by Rousseau two hundred years ago. Modern psychology has discovered that even very young children try to be helpful without ever having been taught. Most people would agree with all these ideas. All people would agree with most of these ideas. They might quibble over the details, but not much is fundamentally new here. What is new is tying them all together into a single narrative attempting to explain the entire human condition.
He further claims that everyone goes through the same life development stages as it pertains to the problem of knowing evil. First, they live carefree without rules. Then they try hard and fail to live up to the rules, making them grumpy. Then they become resigned to their fate, making them grumpier. In the third stage, everyone is in denial and cut off from their instinctual selves. This isn’t very controversial either. It is very similar to Kierkegaard’s model. What it lacks is the saving grace of Jesus.
Going on, once the first generation of humans ever to become conscious alienated themselves from their own instincts and from each other, they passed on the affliction in various ways, compounding the problem. Angry, sad, ego-distracted, or otherwise preoccupied mothers could not give their infants the level of attention and true care the infants’ instincts expected, and they grew up into angry, sad, ego-distracted adults. Angry fathers inappropriately disciplined their children, failing to recognize when children were trying to be helpful, or when they had been poorly educated in social norms, causing the children to resist learning and disrespect authority. Parents got the idea that children need to be “toughened up” to face the harsh world, but this form of parenting only created children who grew up to make the world even harsher. Over the past two million years, the level of denial and upset has grown. Living in cities surrounded by other people exposed us to the badness of others. Due to the level of clustering, different cultures aged at different rates. Thus, Indians and Chinese are more upset and wise in the ways of the world than Europeans, who are more upset/wise than the Aborigines and Bushmen. To succeed, a society must not be too cooperative or too uncooperative. It must not be too trusting or too cynical. This is why Europeans took over the world, but now that the world is so connected, the Asians are winning.
This is all certainly very plausible, but the book cites no evidence and there are many ways that culture could have evolved differently and many other plausible explanations out there for every phenomenon he mentions. I remain skeptical.
Anyways, he says that to solve this problem we must have self-understanding. To simply go back to obeying our selfless instincts without ever knowing why we sometimes don’t obey will leave us in a state of insecurity and perpetuate the problem. We must know for certain that we are not bad creatures. We must know that it is our consciousness clashing with our instincts that gives the illusion of badness. We must know that we have been heroes for going on with life while suffering from psychosis. We must understand that everyone is equally good.
This also makes some sense. In Christianity, we are told that God loves us, that we have value and are made “in the image of God,” that our sins are forgiven, and that we are to forgive ourselves and forgive others, but I know from experience that judgment cannot simply be suspended when wrong is done. Depression/anger accumulates until a convincing argument can be made that bad isn’t bad. We must understand where sin comes from and the Eden story doesn’t really explain much. Wouldn’t Eve have to sin first to eat the fruit before sin entered the world through the fruit? I have my own ideas about this that will be in a future book that I think are superior, but in the meantime Jeremy’s ideas are better than nothing.
Jeremy describes the violation of our instincts as the search for self-knowledge, which I’m guessing is roughly equivalent to the knowledge of good and evil, which can only be grasped by a conscious mind. Thus, we are helping others understand themselves when we introduce them to evil. It is a good thing to abuse children – or at least some good can come of it. I’m not suggesting we go out of our way to commit more abuse or that we stop punishing abusers, but it might be helpful after the fact for those who have lived through it to find the good and see it as a necessary step in our development as a species. The issue touches on one of the common explanations given for why God allows evil in the world: Without the experience of evil, we would never truly know good.
The explanation of human behavior doesn’t even have to be strictly true to bring healing. It only has to be true enough. This is the idea of psychoanalysis: Childhood memories are dredged up that might be misremembered or even “suggested” by the psychiatrist, but we are who we are and do what we do because of the imprints we have from the past, not the past itself. So long as it works and the explanation is plausible, it doesn’t have to be true. Depending on how they are applied, Jeremy’s ideas could be used for good even if he can’t prove them.
I’ve noticed that forgiveness is easier when I understand what the wrongdoer was going through and what they were trying to accomplish. Sometimes people are going through stressful times and desperately need to get away, so they clumsily lash out at those annoying them. Even if it isn’t the real reason, it’s better than nothing. It provides a platform to build a new, stronger relationship on top. It lets us know that we are cared about enough to be forgiven.
I was familiar with jealousy, but the idea of attacking someone because their mere existence showed it was possible to be less corrupt than the attacker was a new concept to me. It might explain some of the unexplainable evil I have been seeing…except of course that it explains it without explaining. How is it possible to be in such a corrupted state of mind in the first place? I can’t imagine it.
While his paradigm might have some value, he seems to be of the impression that merely reading his book will cure everyone. Somehow the instinct-versus-intellect claim itself is supposed to solve all the world’s problems. How? He makes a big deal about his model being “scientific” and therefore superior to religious explanations, but I don’t think most people could distinguish between the two.
Jeremy also gives no standard by which to measure good and evil. In his model, both the instincts and the intellect are “good,” yet they conflict with each other. This is a paradox. It is also “good” to align ourselves with the moral order of the universe and group ourselves into ever-larger wholes, yet animals behave selfishly and they are not considered bad. Also, competition can often be a good thing (as in sports) and cooperating with a villain to hurt others isn’t being very cooperative. Morality is complex, but Jeremy simply skips over it, keeping things very vague.
It is still not clear to me why it is our conscious minds violate our instincts. Do instincts guide us or only condemn us after the fact? As an adult, I am warned before I make a choice, but that might be my experienced intellect talking. Is it possible that baby Dan had no warnings? If baby Dan made an innocent mistake, why would he feel condemned rather than merely educated? Since I do not remember those times, and child psychology is such an unsettled field, I have no way of evaluating these ideas. I have some ideas of my own, that might be compatible with Jeremy’s, but because he gives so few examples (over and over and over), I am not sure I understand his model at all.
The Moral Order of The Universe:
Though he does not believe in a literal deity, Griffith believes in a moral pattern in nature. He claims it is obvious that matter is arranged in ordered wholes and that the parts behave selflessly to preserve the collective. Because other matter does this, so should humans.
Later in the book, he paints a more complex (and therefore less obvious) picture. Molecules can only grow so large before becoming unstable, no longer “cooperating.” However, a self-replicating molecule like DNA is able to organize the matter around it to make even larger structures. However, genes are necessarily competitive and therefore so are organisms. However, cells of the body and workers in an ant colony can be selfless because competition happens at the level of reproduction.
Because there are so many examples of competition in the world, there is no reason that it would be obvious to ancient humans that they were supposed to cooperate. I’m not sure I understand the “ordered wholes” concept anyways. Isn’t the current selfish arrangement of humans itself an ordered whole? Are some ways of ordering better than others? Who decides? Is the solar system an example of cooperation between planets to make an ordered whole? Or the result of the sun winning the competitive race for accumulating matter? Are atoms cooperative wholes? Or do fermions compete for the lowest energy states? How does increasing entropy fit into this model? I don’t know how to apply it.
Everyone agrees that we have both cooperative and competitive inclinations, but propose different origins for them. Evolutionists claim that our competitive inclinations arose because any organism that lacked the competitive drive in a world with those who had it would have either starved or failed to mate, meaning only those with competitive instincts would have had offspring, and they would have passed those traits on to their offspring. Animals behave competitively, and so do we.
As for the origin of altruistic instincts observed in humans, evolutionists have proposed many theories. The most often cited idea is that natural selection happens at multiple levels, not only on the level of individuals, but at the level of groups too. Groups with altruistic individuals do better than those constantly fighting among themselves. The problem is that competition within groups is always greater than competition between groups, so there is no way for altruistic genes to catch on.
Another theory is that plenty of food led to larger group sizes, leading to more time for females to “talk” and form large alliances, allowing the females to dominate the tribe and only mate with who they wanted, which ended up being non-competitive males. This raises the question why this doesn’t happen in more animal species and why the females wouldn’t then become competitive, as they have in hyenas.
Another theory is that defense against predators required cooperation between members of the tribe and that this drove cooperative instincts. It is not clear that there were enough predators of early hominids to make a difference.
Religious creationists reject all these arguments (and evolution itself) and propose their own theories. Depending on the religion, they either believe that God gave us both competitive and cooperative instincts, or that God gave us only cooperative instincts and that competitive instincts are a result of sin entering the world. How exactly this is supposed to have happened is a bit confusing.
Griffith splits the difference between the evolutionists and the creationists, claiming that while our distant animal ancestors were competitive, our more recent hominid ancestors were purely cooperative because of a rare confluence of conditions, and our competitive drives are purely the result of a psychosis that arrived later. His proof that we are fundamentally cooperative is that the thought of being competitive or living in a competitive society bothers us, but not being cooperative or living in a cooperative society. I think he makes a good point, though how good it is depends on just what is meant by “cooperative,” which he never expands on. For example, communistic, interdependent societies terrify me just as much as hypercompetitive, selfish societies. Harm can be done to me “for my own good” just as easily as “for the good of others.”
Griffith’s idea is that a bipedal gait coupled with a relatively predator-free and food-rich environment allowed mothers to carry their offspring for years after birth, giving them complete attention and love. This “love-indoctrination” process worked on the infants to create a race of loving creatures. Love was passed down not through genes, but through good parenting. In such a loving culture, the females dominated and began selecting males with more cooperative, less competitive behaviors, so that over time even the genetic makeup of the tribe became cooperative. Since these behaviors are closely correlated with neoteny, humans eventually lost fur, shrunk their canine teeth, and gained brain. At some point, the conscious mind emerged, leading to conflict with the instincts, causing us to become competitive again. This gave us a drive to understand ourselves, which required even more brain, somehow driving up our brain size even more, though he does not explain how this was an evolutionary advantage. Oddly, he also characterizes the search for knowledge as “fighting” ignorance, which is a “non-loving” thing to do, driving up our level of upset.
According to Griffith, the reason kangaroos haven’t become cooperative is because they require too much grazing time given their food source and pouches don’t require as much interaction as arms. The reason that no other animals have become conscious is that any animal having such an awakening would notice the order of nature, decide to become cooperative, and lose out in the highly competitive worlds other animals live in, thereby failing to pass on the genes for consciousness. Only those animals with genes suppressing consciousness survive. He never mentions that meerkats and other non-primates have been observed with altruistic traits. He never mentions the one species of Argentine ants that do not engage in inter-colony warfare. These examples do not seem to fit his model.
Griffith repeatedly accuses modern science of being dishonest so as to cover up the truth he has uncovered. He accuses scientists of overstating the levels of prehistoric conflict in humans and downplaying the cooperation seen in our closest relatives, bonobos, by falsely claiming they do not share food. I don’t know what to think of this. I know that evolutionists of generations past were not above overextrapolating from very incomplete data sets, and in some cases committed outright fraud. These are things that creationists are fond of pointing out. How can we trust anything?
Another thought I had is that the prophet Isaiah mentions a future time when the wolf and lamb lie down together, and some thinkers have suggested that this is how Eden originally operated, meaning that both carnivory and competition are results of the fall. If it is possible to transmit psychosis among humans, and all animals with memory have the latent capacity for consciousness, could it be that humans also passed the psychosis to animals, who then entered into such a competitive environment that genes suppressing consciousness were selected for until they lost it completely? Perhaps the process worked faster in animals due to their shorter generation times and/or their lower general intelligence. Could this process also be reversed through human behavior?
Thoughts on Sex:
Jeremy also has a lot of ideas about sex. Don’t we all? Allegedly, sex is inherently corrupting, and what attracts men to women the most is the opportunity to destroy innocence and make women as psychotic and upset as the men are. This is the real reason that men prefer neotenous features, not that younger women have potentially more child-bearing years. Genes have nothing to do with it. At the same time, already psychotic women feed their egos by presenting themselves as pure, uncorrupted youths, and pursuing men that treat them as sex objects. While women are more sex-aware than men, women are less aware of their own corruption, and it is men that are more egotistical, which is why they talk less. The perversion of homosexuality occurs when men are tired of being the corrupt ones and want to be the object of admiration instead – or when women are tired of being admired and want to take the male role. There is no “gay gene.”
I have so many questions. Why do men like hips and breasts if they prefer neoteny? Why aren’t all men pedophiles? How is being a sex object synonymous with being uncorrupted and innocent? If the sex roles are determined by ego, and both sexes have egos, why don’t they behave the same? Do men really talk less? My life experience has been the opposite. Wouldn’t having a big ego lead to being more talkative in any case? If sex is corrupting, and women are more sex-aware, how are they less aware of their own corruption than men?
Stages of Life:
Griffith tells about how we start out as innocent, instinct-driven creatures, gradually become angrier as we become more conscious of the evil around us and in us, and then eventually become resigned to our fate. This makes sense, but he seems to think that everyone follows the same path and reaches each stage at the same age. Later, he contradicts himself by giving different ages.
While he never mentions the “terrible twos,” he does mention the “naughty nines” as the time when children lash out, saying they later become resigned in adolescence. Later, he talks about the “naughty nines” again, saying children are civilized at 11 or 12, but then become difficult again at 14 or 15. Later, he talks about how it is only at 21 that people are fully resigned to adult life. Later, he mentions that those aged 10-19 are animals following instinct, those aged 20-29 are lunatics following a cause or a set of rules, and those 30 and up are failures and frauds, which I can only guess means that is the age they resign. I can make no sense of it.
Science and Religion:
Griffith has much to say about science and religion. He says that science is deeply flawed because it treats evolution as random rather than following the “obvious” moral order of nature to group matter into ordered wholes. Yet, his explanation of how these ordered wholes originate is based on processes such as chance events (which are random) and natural selection (which is not random, but is also widely accepted by scientists), so I don’t understand his problem with science.
He says that while religion gets it right that there is a moral order to the universe, it inappropriately deifies it, thus keeping it distant and not so convicting. Wouldn’t believing in a literal deity whose rules we have broken be even more convicting? Doesn’t the concept of “purpose” or “supposed to” require a mind behind it? Why should we follow the pattern of other matter just because other matter is doing it? I don’t understand.
He also says that belief in a literal deity is irrational and doesn’t go into it much more than that. I disagree, of course, for reasons too many to get into now.
Most strangely, he sees religion as a cowardly and treasonous escape from our responsibility to search for self-knowledge. By simply following the rules of our religion, we might appear outwardly better, and trick ourselves into thinking we are better, but so long as we have a standard of right and wrong without an understanding why wrong happens, we are still psychotic and upset. It is misguided utopianism. He includes within his definition of religion communism, which expects us to behave cooperatively but does nothing to solve the problem of ego-driven materialism, and post-modernism, which alleviates our consciences by denying truth itself, keeping us permanently alienated from ourselves.
He might be on to something with some religions (such as communism and post-modernism), but most religions have long and deep traditions of self-understanding and true healing. He even acknowledges this in the book, contradicting himself again, but still insists his “scientific” instinct-versus-intellect model is the final model that will save the world. The problem is that knowledge alone never saved anybody. Even the demons believe Jesus is the son of God, and they shudder. Christians say that it is not knowing the right doctrine that changed their lives, but the power of Jesus.
Griffith makes many good points and provides plausible reasons for bad behavior that should make it easier for us to forgive others and ourselves and increase social harmony. At the same time, he sounds like a senile megalomaniac cult leader and I don’t trust his organization. The man is an enigma.
Most authors delivering a “bitter pill to swallow” will sugarcoat it. They “dress up” their harsh ideas to make them more palatable. Jeremy does the opposite. He takes some ideas as good as candy, coats them in tar and glass shards, then hides them in a garbage dump, and gives really poor directions how to find the place. I still don’t know what to think.
I read The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns. It lays out the case for something I noticed long ago: Too many Christians idolize their own faith, believing that believing the right things and believing them hard enough is what wins God’s favor, rather than trusting in God’s loving nature to cover our genuine ignorance. Enns goes through things he learned over the course of his life that made him doubt what his church had told him was the correct interpretation of the Bible, and sometimes make other people drop out of Christianity altogether. It’s a short, easy book I read in one day.
While I agree with the conclusion, I noticed that part of Enns’s trouble is that he has too readily accepted the credibility of secular scholars, who are at least equally guilty of false certainties. We should question everything.
I recently finished reading Brilliant Beacons, a history of the American lighthouse, by Eric Jay Dolin (2016). The book covers the upgrades in lantern technology and changes in management from colonial times forward. It mentions some of the more interesting examples of special construction on submerged ground or on the sides of cliffs. It even mentions a strange case of geese crashing through the windows of one lighthouse by the hundreds.
The book is packed full of anecdotes from the lives of the lighthouse keepers. There was the crew that stayed in the lighthouse even as ice floes broke it free from the ground and carried it around the bay. There were the many keepers who rescued people from drowning on multiple occasions. There were the keepers who got into a fight over how they wanted their potatoes cooked.
Reading the book makes one think that lighthousing is a dangerous job, since so many of them have been destroyed by weather, war, and one was even destroyed by tsunami. That seems to be the theme.
I recently read Love Your Enemies (2019) by Arthur C. Brooks. The main premise of the book seems to be that Americans are addicted to outrage. Most of them want to quit, but can’t. When people know little more about another than their party affiliation, it is easy to assume motives and think the worst. Brooks claims we should not only tolerate our enemies, but love them and cherish the valuable insights they bring by disagreeing with us. The process of disagreeing peacefully is the best way to get to the best ideas.
This is the extent to which I agree with the book. Beyond this I run into problems:
Brooks claims that we all agree on the why, but not the what. We agree on the goals, but not on the best policies to get us there. This is what I used to believe. Then I made extra effort to reach out to people and allow them to explain themselves. Ten years later, it is now overwhelmingly clear to me that we agree on nothing.
I care about removing obstacles to progress. If an individual woman wants to go into business or politics or journalism or whatever, she should be able to because everyone should be able to. On the other hand, if she wants to be a full-time mother, she should be able to do that. I care about individual liberty. Other people don’t want individual women to have the option of pursuing full-time motherhood. It is as though they feel they are “letting the team down” when women on average make less money than men. That they personally are doing well means nothing. That other women that pursue wealth are doing well means nothing. That those who make less do so by choice means nothing. They care about group parity so much that they end up hating liberty. I care nothing about group parity. Don’t tell me we want the same things!
Another claim made by Brooks – so wildly false that I dropped the book in shock – Is that while people get angry disagreeing over politics, they do not get angry when disagreeing over ideas (page 297). He does not clearly define the difference between politics and ideas, but I gather that politics to him is about what party or candidate is in power, while ideas are ideas about policies or the underlying values behind those policies. These we certainly do disagree on, and these are what make me (and my opponents) several orders of magnitude angrier than I ever could be over who holds what office.
Holding that the term “free market” is inherently racist is an idea I cannot tolerate (and shouldn’t). The idea of Marxism is abominable to me. It makes me mad. At the same time, my opponents get mad at me when I espouse capitalist ideas. My opponents get mad at me when I state my idea that the word marriage is heterosexual by definition. My opponents get mad at me when I state my idea that men are not women (and vice versa). People I know have stopped speaking to me over this.
Another claim I found very confusing was his idea – based on the research of Johnathan Haidt – that the people on the other side aren’t evil; they simply have different moral foundations. What does the word “evil” mean, then? The word exists in the English language, so it must refer to something. I have always used it to refer to those operating on different moral foundations. This is the way everyone else uses it.
Another claim that I used to believe myself is that a kind word turns away wrath. Brooks gives an example of how he responded to a critical email that worked out well for him. In my life, things rarely go so smoothly. People will twist my words over and over when I am trying to be nice. I have even been charged with harassment for nothing more than offering my emotional support and friendship to someone going through a tough time. I only contacted her once! At this point, there is absolutely no loss if I just go ahead and insult people like they deserve.
On the level of national politics, being nice gets you destroyed. When Trump supporters were attacked and beaten by Antifa, unfairly targeted by law enforcement, and then watched their votes be overrun by proven fraud, they had every right to defend their lives and livelihoods by violence, yet they trusted the system and challenged the vote peacefully. As the process played out, Antifa attacked the capitol and Trump supporters were blamed for the violence anyways. There is truly nothing to lose anymore. Being nice didn’t stop the Nazis. Being nice didn’t stop the Japanese. Being nice didn’t stop the British. It won’t stop the Democrats either. Being nice has never worked in all of history.
Speaking of being nice, Brooks also cites psychological studies to make his case. He cites a study showing that nice people get ahead in the workplace and in romance, while meanies do not. I have heard of studies claiming exactly the opposite. He cites a study showing that faking a smile even when we don’t mean it can make us happier in the long run than frowning. I’ve heard this study many times before, but it seems to backfire for me and I have read other studies claiming that fake smiles are not the same as the real thing (physically) and that repressing emotion only makes it stronger. He cites a study that listing our blessings will make us more content. This doesn’t always work when our blessings only exist in relation to our troubles, and I have read studies showing exactly the opposite. It seems that for every study supporting one psychological phenomenon, there is an equal and opposite study supporting its inverse. I don’t believe anything coming out of psychology.
Brooks also seems to be of the mistaken impression that political strife today occurs because people do not know each other as whole persons first, but by their ideological labels first. This does not apply to my life. I not only knew people pretty well, I actually liked some of them and thought of them as friends, and I thought they knew me, but then they started to get into politics and turned against me.
It’s another useless book.
A while ago I read Them, the thought-provoking 2018 book by Senator Ben Sasse. It is a book on political polarization in the United States. The main point seems to be that our policy differences are only part of what makes us who we are and that too many of us have allowed party to become dominant, pushing away those in the other party without even listening to them. People support parties the way they support sports teams. Furthermore, voices in the media keep us divided on purpose because outrage is big business. It sells ad time. They will also seek out the rare nut on the fringe to represent a whole group, giving false impressions.
Sasse claims that all this partisanship is just a symptom of a deeper problem: We are so lonely we can’t think straight. Normal human relationships are so strained and people are so desperate to belong to something that they will join groups defined only by being against other groups. They are bound not by love, but by shared hate.
Sasse claims that to feel whole, people must be connected to other people, must be rooted to a place, and must have meaningful work. All of these things are being changed and disrupted by the digital revolution.
People move much more often than they used to, losing all feeling of allegiance to a place and sometimes losing any friends they made. Because they know they might move again – and because anybody else might move – they don’t even put in the effort to forge permanent friendships. People become expendable.
With the ubiquity of smartphones, people are easily distracted. The moment an interaction turns a bit boring, people withdraw into the digital world. They may be connecting with others in cyberspace, but this is superficial and ultimately unsatisfying. No effort is put in to maintain a conversation because so many other conversations are waiting to be had almost immediately.
Because of the demands and luxuries of the modern world, our brains are being trained to have shorter attention spans and poorer memories. There is even a phenomenon called pornography-induced erectile dysfunction, meaning that some men have become so acclimated to easy pornography that they can no longer be aroused by real women.
Note: Speaking from my experience, I am surprised how many people can’t go anywhere without a speaking GPS and how few people are able to give directions. They can’t even get from the workplace back home without them. I’ve never used the things. Whatever happened to maps?
Sasse suggests several solutions. He says to invest in tough relationships, to have a home base to return to even if living elsewhere for a few years, and to create a small group of people that promise to keep contact no matter where life takes them. His group commits to meet once a year. Most importantly, join clubs or other groups that define the members as something other than political party. See people by their other roles in society than their party affiliation.
The book is pretty good. It is well-written. The message seems to make sense, except of course that there is no point telling the individual all this when those around him/her haven’t read the book. I’ve always had trouble both making and keeping friends and many of my friendships stay very superficial.
More importantly, politics can’t simply be swept under the rug. Just because someone might be an excellent biking partner, grocer, cobbler, cook, brother, or father in no way protects them from my wrath if I find out that they actually support a political party that terrorizes people into submission to their narrow, ill-informed vision of how life should be. Politics is simply war by other means. Because government is by definition the use of force – and because it involves itself in every aspect of human life, there is nothing more defining or revealing of someone’s heart than their political affiliation. Nothing is more important. Only religion – which deals with the next world as well as this one – could be argued to be more important. It is absolutely impossible to be friends with people that actually wish you harm. Sasse assumes that our current political climate is a symptom of our social problems, but I think that it is mostly the other way around; our social problems are a symptom of our current political climate. Maybe it’s both.
A while ago I read Mindwise (2014), written by Nicholas Epley. The subtitle is: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. I bought and read it, hoping to learn how it is that certain misunderstandings occur so that I might help prevent some of them or at least better fix them afterwards. Unfortunately, the book explains absolutely nothing. It does not at all cover why misunderstandings happen, it only shows evidence that they happen – sometimes even without us realizing it. The only advice given is near the end of the book and can be summed up extremely well by this quote on page 174: “If you want to know, ask rather than guess.”
Of course the way to know what someone is thinking and better understand them is to ask! That goes without saying and is what I always try first. Without some sort of communication at the beginning, how am I to know that there is even an issue to discuss? My problem is that people often will not explain their positions to me or else they explain them in so incoherent a way that I can make no sense of them. I read the book in order to learn how to avoid and/or fix misunderstandings that occur during conversation, not the unfounded assumptions that occur because no conversation is even attempted. Never have I been so angry at an author before for wasting my time.
There are many other things wrong with this book too: There is supporting evidence that is explained poorly, issues that are approached backwards, and hints of strange biases. It might be the worst-written non-fiction book I’ve ever read (I have read some fiction that is much worse).
Explaining Things Poorly:
It was reported that people are better able to discern emotional states from audial stimulus than visual, the evidence being a comparison between those listening to a tape of someone talking and those watching a video without sound. What is not mentioned is that by far the best way to know of someone’s emotional state (other than them directly telling you) is to know the situation they are in – and this can be known from what they are saying. Unless one is a good lip-reader, this information will not come from a video. The experiment as described is not even remotely a fair comparison, as it would be if the language of the speaker was unknown to the listener. Is this the way they actually did it?
It was reported that when shown statistics from two imaginary countries and asked which they would rather live in if their socioeconomic strata was chosen at random, liberals tended to choose the more egalitarian country and conservatives tended to choose the less egalitarian country. The point of the passage in the book was to show that while stereotypes often have a bit of truth to them, there is actually very little difference (barely measurable) between groups. What confuses me is why anybody at all would ever choose the less egalitarian one. That the results were anything other than 100% of liberals and conservatives choosing their best chance not to be poverty-stricken bewilders me. I must have missed something.
Could it be that there was more to the experiment than that? Could it be that the less egalitarian country also had more economic freedom? Perhaps it had a better climate or lower crime rates. This was never mentioned.
Also what bothered me is that people don’t assume liberals care more about equality because it is a stereotype, but because that is often part of the definition of liberal. Could I have misunderstood? Were these cultural or foreign-policy liberals that then fit the stereotype of also being economic liberals? If you are going to throw around terms like conservative and liberal, it would help to define them.
Another thing about stereotypes the author seemed to miss is that they are often not known from unfounded prejudice or personal experience, but from having read reports from sociologists. That people might think blacks or whites to be a certain way could simply mean that they are educated.
Another thing reported as having some sort of meaning was that people often assume that God believes the same way they do. This was mentioned in the larger context of claiming that people are quite overconfident in their ability to “read minds,” knowing what others are thinking and knowing whether another being even has a mind. However, it should not be surprising that people assume God agrees with them. The opposite should be surprising. If by “God,” people mean an infallible, omniscient being, then such a being always has the “right” beliefs. What beliefs do people have themselves? The beliefs that they believe to be right – by definition. Thus, whatever one’s set of beliefs and how they came by them, they must believe that they and God have the same beliefs. It is impossible for it to be otherwise. To say that God has a different belief than oneself is to say that one is wrong, and to say one is wrong is to say that one actually believes something other than what one believes, which is a contradiction. Am I missing something that should have been included in the text?
I also have questions about the three-truck experiment. When asked to hand the small truck by someone who could not see the smallest of three toy trucks from their vantage point, requiring people to reason that they must want the medium-sized truck, was it always made clear to people that the other person shouldn’t have any knowledge of the hidden truck? Where did the people enter the room from? How were they introduced? Could it be that children reaching for the wrong truck were not actually any worse at “putting themselves in others’ shoes,” but worse at understanding language and had assumed the other person lived there and had set the whole wall up? How many people verbally asked about the hidden truck before handing any of them over? How many asked why the other person couldn’t reach it themselves and became suspicious? Were the askers looking in the direction of the wall and possibly giving visual cues which truck they wanted? How many people might have assumed that any small truck would do and the smaller, the better? How many reasoned that if it was the wrong truck to give, they would be corrected and no long-term harm would come of it? I’m not sure that anything has been proven here.
Approaching It Backwards:
Other times, the author was not only confusing, but maddeningly deceptive. In one place, he accused people of assuming that intent matches action, meaning that when one’s actions are observed, people generally assume they meant to do it. After giving several examples of this assumption being wrong, including the assumption that people stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane because they were foolish rather than too poor to afford transportation or lodging elsewhere, I realized that the problem is not that intent does not match action, but that an action can be matched by more than one intent. The problem is that people wrongly assume one intent is in play when it is another, but nobody is wrong to think that people mean to do what they do. The author plays word games worthy of a great comedian to prove his absurd case and make the reader feel stupid.
After going on and on about how taking the other person’s perspective does little good in understanding them, which came as a great surprise to me, near the end of the book the author then springs the suggestion that we not “take perspective,” but “get perspective.” Again with the wordplay! How is one supposed to “get” without “taking?” What he finally explained was that the best way to know what someone is thinking or feeling is to ask. Of course it is!! How else is one supposed to take a perspective without first asking questions and listening? It goes without saying! Did he really think that his readers were so stupid that they were hoping to “put themselves in the others’ shoes” without first finding out where those shoes were, what they were made of, how many there were, and if they even had shoes? All along I had been wondering why the perspective-taking tactic was faring so poorly in the experiments done and at the very end of the book I find that it was because they weren’t even doing the most basic, foundational part of perspective-taking!! This is like wondering why your car won’t start when you are still sitting on the couch and haven’t even put your keys in it! At that moment I wanted to reach through the pages back in time and strangle Epley as he typed into his computer. I would have done it too, if not for physics.
Then there are all the strange offhand comments that peppered the pages that kept distracting me and making me wonder if the author was a total crackpot.
On page 25, he suggests that nobody but a trained evolutionary psychologist knows that symmetry is attractive. This might have been true at one time, but the word has been out for decades now. In fact, this commonly-cited dogma is beginning to be questioned by recent studies.
On page 62, he suggests that those who see evidence of purpose and intelligence in nature, inferring the existence of a deity, are spotting a mind where none exists, thus stating directly that there is no God. Epley isn’t just skeptical of claims of God’s intervention, thinking people often read too much into random events (I’m with him there), he’s a full-blown atheist!
On page 63, he lists a bunch of questions philosophers debate, such as whether animals and unborn fetuses have feelings. Hidden among the sensible examples is the question: “Are corporations persons, with rights to free speech that must be protected?” Who is out there claiming corporations are persons? They are persons in a limited legal sense having to do with ownership (which is what the recent court cases were all about), but nobody suggests that they are actual persons. Corporations have a right to free speech not because they are persons (though they are made up of multiple persons), but because the government is prohibited from regulating speech in the first place, whether the speakers are persons or not. The important issue is that the listeners are persons and they have a right to gather as much information from as many sources as possible. Since this is something only those on the far left make a big deal of, grossly misunderstanding the legal issues involved, I began to wonder if the book was nothing but socialist propaganda.
On page 65, he asks, “How was it possible for California residents to vote, in the very same election, to treat gay people less humanely by denying them the right to marry but to treat animals more like people by requiring farmers to house their pigs in more humane conditions?” The ignorance of why people oppose gay marriage was overwhelming to me. He has obviously not followed his own advice to ask conservatives what they think, but has tried to figure it out from afar. On second thought, it isn’t possible to be that dense. It is only the most intellectually dishonest hard-core leftists that even frame the issue this way, making me wonder if it was time to throw the book in the trash.
On page 165, he suggests that belief in microexpressions – brief flashes of our true emotional state before our conscious control takes over – is an egocentric illusion. Why egocentric? I only believed in microexpressions because I had been told from what I thought were reliable sources that they existed, in spite of my ego hoping that I had more body-control and body-awareness than that. I’m confused.
On page 168, he suggests that BP CEO Tony Hayward would never have made the comments he did if he had considered the perspective of all those affected by the oil spill. He is called “World’s Dumbest” and accused of making a “let-them-eat-cake” apology. Why? Is there more to his words not mentioned in the book? I can’t for the life of me see a thing wrong with them. What am I missing? Does the author just hate the rich?
It is little things like these that yank me right out of reading and get me wondering about the biases of the author.
The Good Parts:
After I finished throwing my tantrum, I remembered that the book was not only for me, but for the multitude of people out there who cut off ties with those they disagree with and aren’t interested in the slightest in having their sacred beliefs challenged. Those are the people that need to read it. It has some good parts.
The book suggests making your positions clear even when it might hurt you. For example, admitting a mistake could be used against you in court, but not admitting one could be worse. A quote from page 183 explains:
“In fact, this program actually reduced overall liability costs by roughly 60 percent. The bigger problem had been requiring patients to imagine what their doctors were thinking, or having to sue to find out, rather than just allowing doctors to explain how a mistake happened.”
There is also much in the book relevant to misunderstandings between ethnicities and political parties, as these quotes from page 132 and 133 show:
“The sad fact is that real partisanship increases partly because of imagined partisanship on the other side.”
“When groups are defined by their differences, people think they have less in common with people of other races or faiths or genders than they actually do and, as a result, avoid even talking with them. When groups are defined by their differences, the minds we imagine in others may be more extreme than the minds that actually encounter.”
Overall, the book has an important message worth reading for somebody.
Humans Are Stupid:
I also learned of many, new, interesting reasons to believe humans are stupid. If the studies are right, people are a jumble of preposterous contradictions. If the studies are wrong, it makes me wonder why scientists (all people) so easily jump to conclusions. Either way, people are idiots. Maybe we are better off not understanding them.
Allegedly, people are good at knowing how the average person thinks of them, but very bad at knowing how individual people think of them. This cannot be! The general reputation is simply the average of all the individual reputations. One cannot know the former without first knowing the latter.
Allegedly, even flattery known to be insincere works a little bit. Is there no backlash effect?
Allegedly, those tapping out a tune actually expect others to recognize it, even though they should know that timing alone without pitch, volume, and other differences should never be enough to identify it.
Allegedly, people consistently rate others as having both less emotion and less self-control than they do. Aren’t those attributes usually thought of as opposed?
Allegedly, when asked to choose which of two faces is more attractive, and the asked why they chose the face that they didn’t, only 27% of people catch the switch!
All these studies and more are used as evidence that we don’t know ourselves (or others) very well at all, which begs the question: Why bother asking people what they think and feel then? This undermines the main message of the book.
Most alarmingly of all, doctors used to believe that infants could not feel pain – even doing surgery without anesthesia and arguing with a straight face that crying was just a reflex. This is the most inexplicable and disturbing by far. Since I know that I feel pain, and that other adults appear to react the way I do and are designed the way I am, the default is to assume all adults feel pain. The burden of proof is on those claiming otherwise. Taking the argument one step further, it is highly probable that children and animals also feel pain, but not sponges, trees, stones, and robots. While it is possible for any of these assumptions to be wrong, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I can’t believe for one moment that there was ever a time in the history of any country that any serious professional ever actually believed babies to be pain-free. Even after looking it up and confirming it, I still can’t believe it.
A while ago I read Difficult Conversations (1999), written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. I had hoped it would help me to have more productive negotiations and reduce the misunderstandings and strife that seems ubiquitous in my life. What I found was that I am already following most of the authors’ advice very well and that this advice is utterly useless unless all parties involved in the conversation are doing it.
The basic ideas in the book are as follows:
One: None of us knows all the relevant facts and we each bring our own baggage to every situation. Oftentimes, the conflict is not between two opposing viewpoints, but between two incomplete and complimentary viewpoints. The most important thing we can do is listen. To get to the bottom of things, have a “learning conversation.”
Two: Most people are too quick to assign harmful intent to another’s actions or words. In most cases, people do not intend to hurt us. Instead, they have made a mistake or else we have misunderstood. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Three: Problems exist in a complex matrix of causation. In order to best understand the source of problems and ensure they do not happen again, one has to look at every contributing action (and inaction). It is counterproductive to assign blame too soon. Much of the time, there is no reason to assign blame ever.
Four: It is not enough that everyone has the opportunity to tell their version of events; they must also express their feelings and have them acknowledged.
Five: It is not enough to acknowledge everyone’s feelings about the events in question, they must also have reassurance that how they see themselves will remain unchanged. For example, one is more likely to admit to a mistake when told that even really good employees such as themselves make mistakes sometimes.
All of this sounds pretty good and I have done all this instinctively for much of my life. Unfortunately, no one else does it and so I inevitably lose my patience and give people what they want when they have made it abundantly clear that all they want to do is fight.
Also, I have some concerns about the details:
There are example conversations throughout the book of what to say and what not to say. Of course, the ones where the protagonist says the “right” thing always work out because the authors control both sides of these imaginary conversations. They tell what to avoid saying to avoid misunderstanding, but what they tell us to say instead could also lead to misunderstanding! I can imagine things going wrong in so many ways. My experience is that humans are endlessly clever at distorting my obvious meanings into truly absurd caricatures of what I said.
The authors say to repeat back what someone has said, paraphrasing it, so that they can correct you if you have misunderstood, but some of the examples they use can also sound like attacks – and they can become frustrated if you paraphrase it wrong. The authors also say that expressing our feelings without passing judgment on the other person will avoid putting them on defense, but I know that expressing feelings alone can still put someone on defense.
Speaking of feelings, if I ever responded to a complaint by talking about the complainer’s feelings – as the authors coach us to do in their imaginary example conversations – nine times out of ten the other person would think I was changing the subject. If anyone did it to me, I would think the same, and I would then think I was being accused of being oversensitive. Don’t you dare tell me I sound frustrated when the real issue is your lousy service! Just listen to my complaint and then fix the problem! If I am misjudging the situation, then you may certainly enlighten me with objective facts; I will listen. Just don’t change the subject by talking about my feelings!
The authors suggest asking open questions rather than narrow ones in order to get more information. They have obviously never tested this on real humans. Asking a question that is too vague will get no meaningful response whatsoever. The other person won’t know where to begin. As far as they are concerned, their position is already obvious; that’s why the conversation is difficult! By asking very specific questions, it gives them information about why I’m not seeing it the way they do. That way they can correct me.
Furthermore, the examples of open questions they suggest to use in chapter twelve sound a lot like the examples of “easing-in” they told us not to engage in in chapter ten. Easing-in is when someone asks a question in order to make a point, often an accusation or a judgment. The authors claim it comes across as an attempt to hide the intent to accuse. However, I have always seen the intent as so obvious that I never thought there was any attempt to hide anything.
Finally, the authors suggest not to defend ourselves too soon in the conversation. I worry that my silence will be seen as tacit admission of guilt. While rare, this has happened to me before.
I only wish the real world were as easy as the difficult conversations in this book.
In addition to fiction and non-fiction books featuring the natural world, Hal Borland once wrote columns for newspapers and magazines. Then in 1967, he compiled many of his old columns into a book, Hill Country Harvest. In it are 136 anecdotes about life on his small farm. He covers science, childhood memories, holiday traditions, etymology, farming, weather, differences in cultural attitudes of the city and the country, and most of all his encounters with the plants and animals of north-western Connecticut. He observes the interactions of birds and squirrels at his feeder, the behavior of swallows nesting in his garage, and the trends in plant life from year to year. His stories remind me of those found in Country Magazine.
I can’t quite pin down why I like the book. Hal is not particularly eloquent. His descriptions are not especially vivid, nor do they capture a slice of life that inspires my nostalgia. He has no detectible sense of humor. His anecdotes are not particularly insightful, unusual, or exciting. They are so simple as to be almost boring, but something keeps them just above that line.
I think what caught my imagination was the idea that if he can be successful with such a venture, so can I. Hal reminds me a lot of myself. He has taken a relatively normal life and picked out the best parts, ordering them like a sequence of adventures. Thinking about my time in Rhode Island so far, I realize I definitely have enough material to start a similar book. I am going to start keeping a journal. I might have a relatively normal life, but it is real, and nothing about me can ever be boring. I’m my own favorite subject.
There’s a lot that happens to me that doesn’t quite rise to the level of what I normally put on the blog, such as the time I saw the rabbits in the yard, the rainbow at sunset, the hummingbird, the deer, the woodchuck, the Baltimore oriole in the lilac tree, or my take on all the local coffee shops around here. These will go in a book.
I recently read The Lost City Of The Monkey God by Douglas Preston, the account of his 2015 visit to the newly discovered (2012) ruins in the mountains of Honduras. Very little is known of the city at this time except that it is not Mayan and was probably abandoned shortly after the Spanish landed. It is believed that not one human had been there in five hundred years.
It had long been rumored that structures existed in the area, remains of a city abandoned when the people lost favor with the gods. The place was believed cursed, and that anyone who set foot there would either be bitten by a snake or contract some horrible disease. Over the years, a small number of people would claim to have seen white stone structures filled with statues of monkeys. The lost city was either called “the white city” or “the city of the monkey god.” In reality, there were likely many real cities being conflated with each other and exaggerated into legend. There were even some tales later shown to be hoaxes.
The dense vegetation, rough mountain terrain, jaguars, and most of all the numerous venomous snakes prevented many expeditions from confirming these stories. Government permitting processes, drug traffickers, and hurricanes stopped others. Finally, in 2012 a LIDAR-equipped airplane was flown over the area. Enough lasers penetrated the gaps between the leaves in order to form a topographic map showing unnatural shapes. This is how they discovered not one, but two cities. The 2015 visit confirmed the LIDAR readings. There were stone structures, including much use of quartz (making it a “white city”), although most of it seemed to be earthen mounds and terraces now so overgrown with vegetation that they could be easily missed for what they are.
Almost nothing else is known. The book dives into a little bit of speculation at the end about religious practices and the connections between various people groups in the area, but it is very speculative. More study is needed.
The Sea Of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick is the true story of incompetence, jealousy, ego, needless conflict, revenge, and abuse of power for personal gain. Either the leader of the six-ship American expedition Ex Ex in 1838 Charles Wilkes was the worst manager in history or his officers were the most petty and intractable members of the navy ever – or maybe it was both. In spite of Wilke’s often misguided orders and abrasive personality, the crew miraculously escaped death several times, succeeded in charting the Fiji Islands, the coast of the Oregon Territory, and confirmed the continental size of land south of sixty degrees latitude, naming it Antarctica. Wilkes and four of his officers returned home to courts martials. All were found guilty of some charges and acquitted of others. All held grudges against each other the rest of their lives. It was very nearly forgotten what they had accomplished together.
The Sea Of Glory is a microcosm of human society. We have poisoned our seas, fought wars of global scale, exterminated entire races, protected slavery, twisted justice, outlawed speaking the truth, and cheated each other our dues at every socioeconomic stratum. I’ve worked with terrible managers who couldn’t give good instructions and terrible employees who couldn’t follow good instructions. It is truly a wonder we haven’t gone extinct a dozen times over, let alone that anything gets accomplished. Yet in the past few thousand years, we have eradicated polio, created the internet, and put a man on the moon.
What have you accomplished?
I love truth. Rather, I love what I perceive to be the truth. While not all beautiful things are true, all truth is beautiful. When stated well it reaches its purest form. I will sometimes meditate on some precept for hours without getting bored. While I rarely read books twice, and I make an effort to seek out new ideas and viewpoints I do not share, sometimes I just enjoy the comfort of hearing someone else speak my exact thoughts.
I recently read On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill, published in 1859. To summarize, he argues that opinions are private possessions – not fit things for control by society, whether by government coercion or peer pressure. As an extension of this, the expression of opinion should also be free. Towards the end, as an extension of this free expression, he argues for all manner of private activities to be free. He carefully parses purely private activities from those that do involve society at large and gives examples where liberty can be misapplied, answering every possible objection. He uses big words and very long sentences, yet his writing is understandable and beautiful. Check it out for yourself:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
“But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to any human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without.” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
“If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employes of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.” – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
A literal reading of Genesis would imply the stars to be well under seven thousand years old, but then how is it we can see light from galaxies so far away that the light should have taken billions of years to get here? Several explanations have been presented.
Could the stars not be as far as we think? Distance is measured in different ways. The closest stars can be measured by parallax. When Earth is on one side of the sun, we see the star at one angle relative to the background stars. When the Earth is on the opposite side of the sun six months later, we see the star at a slightly different angle. Determining the distance is then a matter of trigonometry. It is hard to see how this method could fail. Determining the distance of farther stars is done using various other methods (such as the relationship of color to brightness) that are proven accurate in those cases where the stars are close enough to use parallax also. It doesn’t seem possible for astronomers’ estimates to be off by enough for all the billions of stars we see to fit into a sphere less than seven thousand light-years across.
Could God have created the light from those stars already on route to us so we could see them right away? God can do anything, but putting false images in the sky makes him a liar. Astronomers have observed stars explode that were much further than a few thousand light-years. The light should not have reached us yet from whatever is left there now, which would not be a star anymore, yet we saw it as a star for many years before we saw it explode. This means that if God put the light there in the sky, he planted images of stars that never existed. If God is omnipotent and a liar, there is no hope that anything in science is true and we might as well just give up trying to learn anything about anything. This is not a very satisfactory explanation.
Could the speed of light have been higher in the past? This is very unlikely. Pulsars are stars that spin very fast, sometimes thousands of times per second. They hold themselves together by being as dense as an atomic nucleus. This means they are only a few kilometers across yet have mass in excess of our sun. At those scales, gravity is able to keep them from flying apart. If the speed of light had dropped in the past, the pulses seen from these incredible stars would arrive slower than they were sent out, meaning that pulsars actually spin faster than we see. In order for light from objects fourteen billion light-years away to have reached us, the speed of light must have dropped so much that pulsars would be spinning so fast that there is no way under known physics for them to exist.
Could Genesis be meant metaphorically? Might the days of creation week be longer than twenty-four hours? Perhaps, but each “day” is divided from the others by a night cycle. Also, the Genesis account has plants being created before the sun and moon. While there was already light for the plants to possibly live, the lack of a sun to produce this light just raises more questions. The most likely interpretation is that the days are very short – literally twenty-four hours.
Could Genesis simply be wrong? Might the mainstream scientists be right that the universe is well in excess of ten billion years old? This is by far the most popular explanation, and I’m willing to entertain it, but could there be another?
Starlight And Time: Many years ago, Dr. Russell Humphreys published a short book titled Starlight And Time, suggesting that due to the shape of our spacetime, six thousand years on Earth might have been twenty billion years at the edge of the observable universe. We know from Einstein’s theories of special relativity and general relativity that time need not run at the same rate for all observers. Whether his model makes sense I cannot tell. His book is packed with math that he never explains. This makes my crackpotometer go off. I need someone reputable to take a look at it, but I already know from overwhelming experience that mainstream scientists are heavily biased against anything that might threaten their pet theories. They are just as bad. This continues to leave me hanging. Fortunately, I don’t need to know. It isn’t as if believing the wrong thing will send me to Hell. I don’t believe that. It’s just fun to think about the possible forms reality can take.
This brings me to one other possibility I thought up myself. What if time has more than one dimension? Stephen Hawking writes of something called imaginary time, which would be at right angles to normal time (think imaginary numbers on the complex-number plane). I’m not sure if that applies here, but if there is another dimension to time it could mean that billions of years passed on Earth while God experienced creation lasting only a week sideways. His ways are not our ways. Could it be that all of history is like a novel God is writing and continually refining, going back and changing the past in order to make a better story?
What do you think?
I read Quantum Evolution by Johnjoe McFadden and I’m not sure what to make of it. The writing isn’t the best. In several places it seems that he began to write one sentence, then changed his mind and edited it, but didn’t finish deleting the old. Sometimes he says the opposite of what I know he means to say from the context. He also cites statistics unimportant to his point, but unnerving because they are inaccurate. The sun is only millions of degrees in the center, not billions. He repeatedly refers to Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, as Michael Bethe. It is these types of things that make my crackpotometer rise, but McFadden is a professor at the University of Surrey and has a strong background in infectious diseases. Of most annoyance to me, the first half of the book is just an overview of basic biology completely unnecessary for understanding his major argument and can be safely skipped.
When he does finally get to his major argument, he claims that something called the quantum Zeno effect gives mutations a greater tendency to be beneficial rather than harmful without ever really explaining how it works. My crackpotometer rose even more. Since I had never heard of the phenomenon, I had to look it up. Apparently, when a particle has a probability of changing from one quantum state to another in a given time (e.g. an electron jumping from one orbital to another), its “timer” can be reset by “measuring” it – almost as if the particle exists as something more than a mere probability matrix that has to “move” from one state to the other in that time. The electron will not move if you keep looking at it. The problem I still have is that my understanding was that there exist pairs of properties that cannot both exist above a maximum level of precision (such as position&momentum and time&energy). By looking at the electron and knowing its position, doesn’t it then have a very uncertain momentum, thereby giving it an uncertain position in the next moment? Also, why have I never heard of this before? I was very surprised.
Other studies I was very surprised to hear of was the study by John Cairns that purportedly shows the very same mutations happening more frequently in a strain of bacteria differing from the control group strain only by its environment making such a mutation more beneficial, and the study by Wolf Singer that purportedly correlates awareness with synchronous neuronal firing in cats. These are huge findings that could revolutionize evolutionary biology and psychology! How have I not heard of these? What else don’t I know?
As far as I can tell, the book’s main point is this: Molecular configurations normally exist in quantum superpositions until the molecules must interact with other molecules thereby taking on a fixed state. This is called decoherence. Should an enzyme find itself in a state that causes an interaction, rapid repeated interactions of the same type with multiple molecules (this is what enzymes normally do) will force it to remain in the fixed state due to the quantum Zeno effect. When unused for a period of time, enzymes are again able to enter superposition. Whenever they next interact with another molecule, there is a small chance that they will enter a new configuration state with brand new properties. Since the parts of the RNA molecule that code for creating the enzyme (and the parts of the DNA molecule that code for creating the RNA) interact so infrequently with their environment (as opposed to other parts of the RNA or DNA molecule), it is possible that it (and the DNA) will too remain in a set of superposed states entangled with the set of superposed states of the enzyme microns away. Should the enzyme hit upon some novel mode of interaction that is rapidly repeated, forcing it to hold the new configuration, it can retroactively rewrite the DNA through quantum entanglement to have a brand new mutant gene that codes for it in the future. This is how organisms are able to evolve whole new classes of enzymes (and other proteins) without wasting time with intermediary steps with no evolutionary advantage to retain them. This is therefore a rebuttal to intelligent-design enthusiasts who are fond of pointing out that the probability of any given protein arising by chance mutations in DNA is equal to one divided by the number of available amino acids (in the case of Earth life, 23) raised to the power of the number of amino acids in the protein (which can sometimes be hundreds).
Note: The actual probability is even smaller since each amino acid is coded for by a triplet of nucleotide sequences and some triplets code for the same acid.
I get the gist of it, but I am still left with many questions. First, even if an enzyme finds itself interacting with other molecules only by bumping into them and altering their trajectory, why is this interaction not good enough to be “frozen in” by the quantum Zeno effect? McFadden seems to suggest that there is a bias for those types of interactions that will cause the greatest long-term effect. Why? Greatest effect measured in what, exactly? Number of particles? Mass? Volume? Information qubits? Even mere bumping can propagate an effect throughout the universe, though we are unlikely to notice the difference in the same way we would notice the difference of a new species being created – but does this mean that biological evolution actually represents a greater difference? Or is this only according to our arbitrary way of measuring difference? Could a mutation leading to a novel enzyme configuration in turn leading to cancer that wipes out a species ever be considered a great enough difference? Or will the lack of the mutation for cancer thus allowing life to continue altering its environment always be a bigger difference?
McFadden seems to suggest that these types of mutations have a tendency to be beneficial. Why? If molecules can evolve so easily without intervention from an intelligent designer, why don’t we see new life arising spontaneously in nature all the time? Why do we not see life in the laboratory when scientists attempt to replicate the conditions of early Earth? Why do the computer algorithms meant to model evolution only show adaptation by the loss of information but never by getting more complex? He himself brings up these points but his only answer is that these other systems aren’t “quantum enough.” Why? I think I understand why the computer programs fail. Their behavior is defined rigidly by a computer operating on the “classical” level, and I have read somewhere that a classical computer can never simulate a quantum system (different type of math). But the laboratory gunk? It’s made of all the same stuff as life. Why doesn’t it grow?
Finally, even if I accept that whole new proteins can arise this way, how does one explain the emergence of entire new organ systems in animals (and plants), which require the coordinated mutations of many proteins at once (not to mention differences in chromosome number, and more)? Such a large system could never remain in a coherent superposition for long (at least relative to the rest of the universe – there is the idea that the entire universe is entangled, but being a part of this same universe there is no way for us to sense this. In any case, this would place the directing force of evolution in the hands of the entire universe as a whole, making genes superfluous.).
There is another thought that occurs to me. Since nobody knows how creative thought actually works, and some have suggested it might have a quantum basis (Roger Penrose, McFadden himself, and many others), perhaps this combination of quantum superposition and quantum Zeno effect literally is the intelligent designer it supposedly makes obsolete. Could God be the wave function of the universe?
I read The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose and my mind is still spinning. The book has just shy of 600 pages and covers subjects as diverse as neurophysiology, fractals, quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, black holes, crystallography, topology, and computer science.
The first third of the book covered Turing machines, non-recursivity in the Mandelbrot set, and non-computability in lambda calculus. Supposedly the phenomenon of knowing/understanding/consciousness is proven by Gödel’s theorem not to be possible to explain in terms of an algorithm, but I didn’t understand the argument. I found it very confusing. I am used to authors that do not explain things well, but in this case I got the impression that many of the subjects were just too much for me. There were too many moving parts for my brain to juggle at once to be able to understand. I was impressed.
The second third of the book covered subjects more familiar to me, such as relativity, quantum mechanics, and phase space. At this point the feeling of being inadequate was gradually replaced by a feeling that the subjects were being explained rather poorly. After applying myself for some time and making guesses as to what the author probably meant, I believe I finally understand Hilbert space (a term I had heard before, but had never had explained to me), but I am still totally lost when it comes to the Riemann sphere. Here, the author went down numerous tangents unimportant to his case, including Newtonian mechanics, special relativity, tessellation, tidal forces, non-Euclidean geometries, and numerous details as to exactly how quantum superpositions are calculated. Everything that could have been covered in one page was covered in three or more.
The final third of the book wrapped up his main argument and contained fewer diagrams and equations than the first two thirds. He continued to go down numerous tangents (such as mapping out all the major parts of the brain) and also take a long time getting to his point. He would break things down unnecessarily, yet still without explaining it. Instead of merely claiming that general relativity is time-asymmetrical, he first breaks it down into its WEYL and RICCI components, explains neither, takes time to claim RICCI time-symmetrical, takes time to claim WEYL works one way forward in time in a collapsing body, one way forward in time in an expanding body, one way backward in time in a collapsing body, and another way backward in time in an expanding body, and only then concludes that general relativity is time-asymmetric before moving on. Also, several times it would seem as if he would conclude something to be impossible, only to raise an objection I had thought was already answered, only to then claim that this was in fact equivalent to the old objection (still without explaining well or proving his claim) and conclude the something to be impossible again, only to then raise yet another equivalent objection.
Even now, I am left confused about several things. At one point, he dismisses one of the alternate interpretations of quantum physics (there are several), saying the collapse of the wave function is deterministic and non-random, but later in the book he requires that it is random to make up for the information loss thought to occur in black holes. At one point, he claims that black holes are miniature equivalents to “the big crunch” and white holes are merely black holes in reverse, while “the big crunch” is merely “the big bang” in reverse. Later, he argues that white holes are impossible, but that “the big bang” is not and in fact almost certainly happened. Why isn’t “the big bang” just a very large white hole? In one part of the book he claims that there is nothing in known physics to explain the asymmetry of time (which is why his hypothesis is needed), yet later claims that the WEYL component of general relativity (a part of known physics since 1915) does just that.
Despite all this, I still give the book four stars for sheer ingenuity in tying several things together to explain several persistent problems in physics. His solution (though he admits it still needs some working-out in the mathematical details) simultaneously makes compatible gravity and quantum mechanics, explains how quasicrystals (non-periodicity!) can form, explains how it is we live in a universe with such low entropy, and paves the way for an understanding of consciousness. It would be impossible for me to fully explain it in writing in any reasonable amount of time, but here is the gist for those with some prior education on the subject: To make general relativity compatible with quantum mechanics, he proposes that whenever two quantum states in a superposition evolve to the point that the difference of energy between them is enough to produce one quantum of gravity (1/100000 gram), it is then that the wave function must collapse and behave classically. By remaining in a superposition for an extended time, multiple calculations can be performed in parallel in a quantum computer, only to take the partial information they provide and combine it to compute the uncomputable in a non-algorithmic manner (and in a finite time). He argues that the brain might act as a quantum computer and in this way gives rise to consciousness, which he argues is fundamentally non-algorithmic and non-computable. The same phenomenon can explain how quasicrystals form, since (unlike in a true crystal) each atom acting individually must be able to carefully plan dozens of steps into the future so as not to mess things up for future atoms and destroy the pattern. He argues that the non-periodic "lattice" must exist in a superposition to only be collapsed when the "right" configuration is obtained. The collapse of the wave function is probabilistic and contains an element of randomness, thus creating information that is balanced by being lost in black holes. Related to this is his model of history cycling between the universe collapsing into black holes, evaporating into Hawking radiation, becoming high-entropy gas, and collapsing into black holes again. In between the gas-state and black hole-state, the universe briefly passes through the low-entropy states that life is possible in and time has any measurable meaning.
I was also intrigued by his insistence on the reality of the Platonic realm and its relationship to consciousness. This is as much a philosophy book as a physics book and I see no reason not to include it on the same shelf as the works of Descartes, Aristotle, and Berkeley.
I recently read The Farfarers by Farley Mowat. In it, he lays out his case for his belief that a pre-Celtic people from the British Isles arrived in the new world not only before Columbus, but even before the Vikings. The names of the various peoples can be rather confusing, so before I continue they require a brief introduction.
Alb is an Indo-European root word meaning white. Later, it came to mean snow-capped mountains, then mountains in general, then people that lived in the mountains, and then any people groups that lived in any wilderness areas. The Alps and Albania come from this. In the British Islands, there were Albans. Later, the Celts invaded and settled in Ireland, England, and Wales. After that, Armoricans fled Gaul (France) and settled in southern Scotland. The largest tribe of the Armoricans was the Picts and after settling in Scotland, they were all just called Picts. Later historians would even come to call the Albans northern Picts and the real Picts southern Picts. After the Romans conquered the Celts (then called Britons) and started to fight the Picts (then called Caledonians), pressure from the Celts, Picts, and Norse (Vikings) forced the Albans to resettle in Iceland (some had already followed the walrus there). Iceland was also known as Thule (or variants on it) or as Tilli. This should not be confused with Thule-culture Inuit, named after artifacts found in Greenland in a town named Thule. The Inuit are Eskimos of eastern Canada, whereas the Eskimos of western Canada are called Eskimos. So, while it is wrong to assume that Thule and Thule are the same, it is okay to assume that Eskimos and Inuit are the same. Later, the Norse (Vikings) would force the Albans out of Iceland into Greenland (then called Crona). Generations later, they would force them out of Greenland and into Newfoundland. After that, the Greenland Norse would split with Europe before dying off. Later, the Vikings (Danes) would arrive and find Greenland empty. In eastern Canada, there were not only Inuit, but Beothuks, Innu, and Tunit. The Tunit may have either been the same people as the Albans or they may have intermarried with the Albans. Viking records also mention a people in Canada called Skraelings, which may have referred to any of these groups or may be a totally different group. Eventually the Inuit killed or absorbed all others in Canada before the English, French, and other Europeans arrived.
Phew! All right, that introduction wasn’t as brief as I was led to believe…
The author claims that the official history of Iceland is that the Vikings discovered it empty, yet Viking records, Roman Church records, and Greek explorer records directly indicate otherwise. In addition, there is the question of why the Vikings settled in the most inhospitable areas first if Iceland was truly devoid of humans. It is also pointed out that what are thought to be house foundations are very similar in north Scotland and certain parts of Canada. The author even tries to support his timeline of migration by taking into account climatological and ecological changes over the centuries.
For the most part, the book was well-written and captured some of the feeling of mystery, though a few parts were tedious. I also felt that the dramatizations of historical events in every chapter were unnecessary. Much of it was interesting, such as the technology of the ancients, including skin-boats, boat-houses, seal tar, cairns, brochs, and duns. I give it four stars.
A while ago I read Parker J. Palmer’s 2014 book Healing The Heart Of Democracy, a book about political strife and incivility in America, much like my 2012 book, The Nutcase Across The Street. I bought it because it speaks to my interests.
Part of his proposed solution to our partisan problems consists of learning to let our hearts “break open” rather than “break apart.” This is poorly explained, but I think he means that after having our hearts broken we are then able to empathize with others, including those whose hearts are broken over issues we don’t care about or would prefer to be settled in ways they would not. This is the main theme running through the whole book.
Another part of his solution consists of learning to connect with others outside of our immediate circles of friends, learning not to fear strangers – especially those of different races, socio-economic classes, etc. Simply living in an urban area where one has to negotiate a path through crowds can help one develop the habit of respecting others and Palmer also suggests numerous other ways this might be done formally and informally. He claims connecting with others also has the added benefit of making us less dependent on centralized power for our needs, making us less vulnerable to manipulation and fascism. He claims individualism leads to despotism because when people no longer need others, they stop caring and are easily divided by those that would overpower and subdue us.
Most of this makes sense to me, but in my experience the only way to keep the peace sometimes is for people to separate. Rather than trying to push everyone into working together or living where there are crowds, people should be able to escape and live as they want without interference. Individualism may lead to despotism, but it seems to me much more likely for the lack of individualism to lead to despotism. One cannot rule alone (or else I’d already be doing it) without widespread allegiance to a system – allegiance that could not exist if more people were more independent.
Other proposals include leading by example to change hearts rather than change the law, seeking consensus rather than majority (or plurality), respecting the rights of minorities, respecting the democratic process, and respecting the constitutional system of checks and balances to slow down change to the point that society can safely absorb it. He wants us to “live in the tension” of never having any issue permanently settled.
He seems unaware that the main problems with our current political situation are that we cannot agree on what is constitutional, what is democratic, and which minority rights to respect. Do we respect the reproductive rights of the mother? Or the right-to-life of the baby? Do we have greater respect for a president elected by the states through the Electoral College or for a congress elected by much smaller (and often gerrymandered) districts? Did Bush commit an unconstitutional act by ordering troops into Iraq? Did Obama commit an unconstitutional act by signing the ACA? The problem is not that we can’t settle our disagreements; the problem is that we can’t even agree on the process to go about settling our disagreements.
In my book, I propose that we talk more to each other in order to eventually reach an agreement on these issues. Palmer expects us to live at peace without ever reaching an agreement. My solution may very well be too impractical and idealistic, but Palmer’s solution is no solution at all!
Overall, it is a very interesting book packed with numerous nuggets to think over. I have already pointed out above why I think it is incomplete, but his ideas could still be an important first step to get us to negotiate honestly. It also gives an important historical perspective to our connection with strangers that most people (including myself) seem to lack. The book is actually about much more than politics. It is about getting along, socialization, intimacy, and communication. I give it at least four stars.
I discovered Sylvia Engdahl on the Independent Authors Network. She writes the Children Of The Star trilogy, made up of three books (This Star Shall Abide, Beyond The Tomorrow Mountains, The Doors Of The Universe) previously published traditionally.
Children Of The Star might be the best novel I’ve read since Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov. It is my new favorite. It is similar in many respects. There is a mysterious and reclusive group (the scholars) subtly guiding society. There is mention of telepathy. There are secrets that must never be told or else they would endanger the survival of the entire human race. There are secrets inside of secrets inside of other secrets wrapped around and twisted through still other secrets. Everybody has secrets they aren’t telling the others.
It goes much further than sociology and political science. The book is heavy on spirituality. The main character, Noren, learns through his heartbreaks the meaning of faith in a way I would not have even understood myself just six years ago. There are also moral dilemmas on every other page, such as when and when not to interfere in the affairs of other cultures, reminiscent of the prime directive from Star Trek.
The only thing I can say against the book is that at times it seemed to drag just a bit while Noren thought through every possible facet of an issue before making a decision. The book is more philosophy than action. At the same time, this additional detail really helped me to identify with the character and feel everything he went through. In the end, it becomes worth it.
Engdahl also makes excellent use of foreshadowing.
A while ago I read the 2003 book Finding God Where You Least Expect Him by John Fischer. It is about the current state of Christian culture.
Fischer argues that Christians have too much isolated themselves in fear of “the world” when they should be engaging it, not only to expose evil, but also to expose good. God is everywhere and in everything, not only in “Christian” music and “Christian” books. Worse, most Christians have ceded their authority to discern right and wrong to the professional clergy, accepting much of what they say uncritically. This is why so many are against the Harry Potter series but haven’t read it. They edit out swearing and nudity in movies while leaving in suggestive or violent themes. Meanwhile they miss clearly biblical themes in secular movies and complain when a “Christian music” artist doesn’t mention Jesus enough in his/her songs.
He further argues that American Christians in general have unbiblical attitudes against the physical world (which God created and said was good), especially the human body and basic human psychology (including negative feelings of any kind). By ignoring the bad, they lose the opportunity to learn of an even greater good, such as redemption.
By withdrawing from the world, the Godly influence they could have had is gone. Could it be that the reason our public schools have so many problems is that whenever possible, Christian parents remove themselves and their Christian kids to send them to Christian schools, which also draw away Christian teachers from the public school system?
Instead of keeping quiet, maybe we should keep reaching out.
I bought this book in the hope that I would understand how certain political ideas are spread enough so that I might sabotage some of them and spread some of my own ideas. Unfortunately, very little in the way of marketing advice can be found in these pages. Written in 2005 by David Kupelian, The Marketing Of Evil is more about what he considers evil than about how evil is marketed. He covers topics such as the ineptitude of our educational system, fraud in the Kinsey Report, the long-term effects of no-fault divorce policies on society, and tax evasion in abortion clinics.
Throughout the book, he also bemoans marketing techniques that appeal to our subconscious emotions, claiming that such techniques treat people like animals without souls and breed attitudes of contempt for human dignity. He forgets that such techniques could not work if humans were purely rational agents and that marketers would not use these techniques if there were known a better way to sell products. The truth is that in many ways humans are like other animals and appeals to reason often do not work. The way to fight evil being marketed is not to complain about the marketing techniques, but to market good, and market it better than the competition markets evil.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.