Category Archives: Musings
The title of this post comes from an autobiography by Isaac Asimov published posthumously by his widow, Janet, and brings up a topic I’ve written on very little before: My accident in 2007, about a year before I started blogging.
I was struck by a vehicle while at a crosswalk on my way to a nearby bus stop, planning to do some writing when I got home, though the collision and its several month-long period of recovery weren’t the important part — it was the change in my thinking up until then.
It was, to my perception at the time, a close brush with death — I was pretty messed-up by the accident, though after the stitches for the head injuries, the major damage was a broken arm and fractured hip, both now healed with time and physical therapy.
During my recovery, especially the first ten days of bedrest, I thought long and deeply about life and what it meant — and not once did those thoughts involve a return to anything resembling religious faith.
As I lay on the gurney in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital only moments after being struck, I was aware that this could be it, that this could be my end. But fear of death wasn’t involved — I was angry.
I was angry at this inconvenience that would set my writing project back months, angry at my not seeing the car before it struck me, and concerned about how this would affect my family.
If this was what it is like to die, then it wasn’t so bad. I just sat back and relaxed, and let the paramedics do their job. I might come out of this, I thought, or I might not. Either seemed perfectly acceptable at the time.
My several-hour stay at the hospital was touch and go, but I survived. And over the next few days I came to this:
Life’s been more than fair to me, much more, I think, than to many others who never had the fullness of existence I’ve had.
After my accident, it’s not that I fear dying anymore, though it would be a great inconvenience. There’s a lot I would like to do first, projects to complete. It would be irritating, but not frightening, to die sooner.
I don’t fear dying because I’ve no reason to believe in an afterlife, neither hoping for reward in paradise nor fearing perdition in an imagined (and as far as I’ve reason to think, imaginary) eternal torture chamber.
But even then, life has been very good to me, and I think it has a lot going for it. There is much good to be done, much to accomplish, and life is precious, made more so with my relinquishing any belief in reward or punishment to come after.
To repeat the title, it’s been a good life, and I thank all those I’ve known, friends and family, online and real-time, past and present, for making it so.
But when I’m gone, that’s it. Lights out. No more me. Anywhere.
When I’m gone, the energy content stored up in my body’s molecules will go back to their source, returning to the Earth and the Cosmos whence they came.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but that doesn’t imply anything spiritual, not in a supernatural sense.
But it’s cool that the atoms I’m made of, which cycle in and then out of my body even now, have almost an immortality of a sort, and will eventually find their way into the bodies of new life arising long after my death. And you know what?
I think that’s kind of neat.
The above was something I’d posted to Facebook earlier today, though in plain text, on the wonder felt even — no, better — especially by religious nonbelievers toward our connection to the universe, not the trivial sorts promised by mysticism or supernaturalism, but our actual, deeper connection and our awareness of it.
This feeling of the sublime I think is something that anyone who’s seen the night sky, or beheld a waterfall, seen the Earth from orbit, or better still, seen it from the orbit of another planet in our solar system though a spaceprobe’s camera, can relate to.
There’s the serious misconception (I think it’s myopic) that reality is dull, lifeless, drab, uninteresting, and that another world, an ideal perfect world beyond this one, is far better and much to be preferred over this life, this ‘vale of tears.’
I understand this, but I also think it’s wasteful and shameful — reality has both beauty and horror, not one or the other — and the phrase “none are so blind as those who will not see” applies just as easily to dogmatic belief as dogmatic denial, and many times in the same individuals.
The desire to believe fantasy as truth, to denigrate the real, and to spead this desire and denigration to others by indoctrinating the young and vulnerable, is one of the greatest — if you’ll excuse my use of the word — sins — against the human mind, crippling its ability to appreciate what actually is over what never was nor likely will be.
Supernaturalism promises wonders, but it only promises them — there is no instance it it ever having fulfilled that promise — and I think it would take better evidence than someone’s favored holy book to show otherwise.
In the entire recorded history of our species, brief flash of time though that’s been, no mystery that has ever been adequately looked into and explained has ever been shown to have an occult or supernatural cause, and the cases that haven’t been explained are just that — only unexplained, and only through a lack of data — not vindication of anyone’s pet doctrine.
Supernaturalism poisons the mind, and dulls the imagination, starving it of and blinding it to the real wonders and feeling of awe that comes from understanding of what is, supplanting these with unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of centrality to the universe, imposing on us a false sense of purpose and meaning rather than letting us find our own, endangering our personal integrity and intellectual honesty in uncritically accepting tales told originally by those ancients whose knowledge and understanding of the world pales before our own in the modern era.
To be frank, even with what little I’ve learned about the worlds discovered through science and philosophy, I find reality far more interesting and preferrable to believing the evidently unreal. As a former religionist, I’ve thrown off the chains of doctrine and dogma, freed my mind from its demons — and its gods — and my only regret is not having done it before I did.
I’ve no reason to believe in anyone’s god, least of all the one I walked with as a child and now without as a man, no idols, no gods, no devils, no celestial saviors nor tyrants, no myths except those I may free myself of whenever they are brought to my notice.
It seems so strange now, having been so focused on an imagined hereafter that both the awesomeness and terror of the world around me seemed dull and distant, but now seems so sharp and clear.
I’m not a scientist, not yet, but from what I see now, reality, however it turns out to be, is far preferrable, far stranger and for more interesting that anything any human mind can imagine.
Even mine….especially mine.
And to me, the unending search for truth is far more important than the supposed guardianship of it by those absolutely convinced they’ve already found it in millennia-old books or the claimed revelations of bronze-age hermits.
No one owns a sense of the numinous, no matter their belief or conviction. Appreciation of the truly wondrous can happen to anyone, and belongs to us all as a species.
Faith, of the sort involved in religion, is said to be free from doubt, as many fathers of the early Christian church have asserted.
Faith is certain.
Faith is without questioning, perhaps beyond it altogether. Indeed, many major religions, particularly the Abrahamic ones, forbid any questioning, any doubt, of their core tenets and punish those who do accordingly, often harshly in fundamentalist or conservative sects.
Doubt is seen in a mostly negative light. Certainty of conviction is often thought virtuous. Faith is often thought superior to knowledge for its lack of doubt.
As a former religious believer, I once thought this way myself. I was frightened by doubt, fearing eternal punishment for it. Terrified by it. Doubt was a thought-crime. Or so I thought.
Now, I disagree. Now I embrace doubt.
Doubt is seen in some sects as something that should be applied only to alien religions or to religious nonbelievers and dissenters from one’s own group. This sometimes includes vilification of ‘the wrong religions’ in disputes over even minor points of doctrine.
Science, however, uses doubt and questioning as tools, as ways essential to its process of inquiry. Philosophy does likewise, though in a different manner. But disagreement and dissent are important to both.
Science asks questions about testable reality, those things that at least in principle can be known, and be shown to be when they are in fact known. It then uses a set of tested, reliable methods to answer the questions it asks of nature…methods of querying the universe and noting the answers we get by careful observation and measurement of what the Cosmos tells us.
Throughout this process, both creativity and reason are at various points involved: Creativity to spin new and original explanatory hypotheses, a creativity limited only in that the explanations proposed must conform to as well as explain the data uncovered, and the use of the best reasoning at the time to infer what it is we have found and what it means, in finding the best answers to our queries.
All human beings can fall victim to confirmation bias, but convincing yourself that it is a good idea, even worthy of praise, much less respect, to reject facts in favor of what seems good is never an effective way to succeed in life, however reliable it is at comforting you, and those who believe likewise.
Sooner or later, we must all accommodate facts that confute our intuitions, our gut feelings, our faith, our wishes, or be held accountable by an implacable universe that neither knows of nor cares anything for us or what we believe.
There’s that whole thing about stopping, looking, and listening at railroad crossings even when we intellectually and vocally dismiss reality as a humbug…
Science, however, while useful, and being very effective at what it does — to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, “It works, bitches.” — isn’t a font of endless blessings either.
Science is morally neutral, a double-edged sword, and while both powerful and essential to the upkeep of a global civilization like ours with billions of people, it is dangerous when misused, or used with harmful intent — especially for use in warfare or the dangers of industrial pollution and waste disposal.
But that does not mean we are free to dismiss or reject it altogether — we have let the efreeti free from its lamp, and it will not be put back, not without serious consequences. — any problems caused by science’s use will not be solved by promoting ignorance of it in the people of those nations so dependent on science and technology for their economic future and well-being.
Each and every faith-claim made, on the basis of authority, of revelation, of intuitive ‘gut feelings,’ or of mystical experience, has its rivals, and there exists to the best of my knowledge no reliable way within such faith itself to distinguish true faith-claims from false ones.
Unfortunately, outside the confines of a given belief system, faith claims subjected to testing by something other than faith, (and they must be…) have a distressing tendency to be shown wrong. Those that cannot be tested at all do not even merit the honor of being wrong.
There is the expression “the gods will not be tested,” but what’s really being tested here is not gods, but the claims we make, including our claims about gods, all special pleading aside.
I’ve learned since my deconversion that there is no non-ideological reason that any claim should get a free pass, no free ‘get out of jail’ card.
Faith and science. As ways of thinking, and of gaining knowledge; no two things could be more opposed. The former brooks no questioning, and admits no error. It’s claim to certainty absolute.
The latter thrives on questioning and depends on its ability to seek out and find out error so that it may correct itself with newer, better information and sharper reasoning than before. It depends on probabilistic matters of contingent fact rather than deductively certain truths.
Both can be and often are riddled with error. But at least science has ways of letting us know this so that we may pick up the pieces and put them together somewhat more soundly than before, to build a stronger foundation of knowledge that needs no absolute self-justification by logical necessity.
With faith alone, we are left with no worthwhile way of telling truth from falsehood, save by whim, or prejudice, or the commands of an authority, guided only by a subjective feeling of certainty and never really knowing our way outside the sometimes rigid confines of our own beliefs.
I know, because I’ve been there, and I know personally, as Plato noted, what a tragedy it is to be afraid of the light.
I don’t often generate my fractals from scratch, unless I’m sure I know what I’m looking for in a piece or feel adventurous and prone to fooling around.
But there’s nothing mystical about the process. Nothing to elicit awe save the resulting image itself when it’s fully rendered.
Usually, with Fractal Domains or Mandelbulber, I’ll use a previously saved set of parameters, or software settings ready-made for whatever I happen to have in mind. It saves me time and effort. But I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting similarity between my use of parameter sets, the process I use to create, keep, alter, and sometimes delete, with biological evolution.
The selective pressures for this evolutionary process, of course derive from the perceived coolness and beauty, according to the beholders, of the images…that particular set’s fitness for continuing to generate the best images over time. This selective pressure involved rests on esthetic evaluations and tastes, and tends to shift over time.
This has led to my continuously updating my stock of parameter sets to maintain image fitness by varying my content, whether by gradual modification accumulating into major alterations, micro-evolution that builds into macro-evolution.
And for other sets, there is relative stability over time punctuated by sudden and major changes, as with switching a set from one distinct fractal type into another with Mandelbulber by tweaking menu buttons.
Some sets exhaust their possibilities, or just aren’t viable for making good-looking images, and so lose their fitness, becoming ‘extinct’ by being sent to the trash folder and deleted, or by using the terminal window to delete them directly.
Others continue to evolve, but adjusting to the shifting in personal judgements of what’s cool and what’s not. I’ve come up with a term I use to refer to the best images, from those sets that continue to remain adaptive:
It refers to the cold, stark, sometimes weird, and reportedly, the occasionally erotic ‘feel’ of the images, those whose coolness keeps their set of origin fit, and thus ready to pass its data to an update or when using one set to create another as its descendant, unless and until it is eliminated by unfavorable shifts in the selective pressures.
That, and my finger on the delete button.
I probably won’t need parameter sets for anything but the most data-heavy images using very complex code to generate them, but it’s really cool how an artistic endeavor, hobby or professional, so nicely fits with biology, and sometimes the images themselves have almost a life of their own.
- M is for… Mozambique (buddhakat.wordpress.com)
- W is for… WIND LAYERED (buddhakat.wordpress.com)
- D is for… Dance Galactica (buddhakat.wordpress.com)
- Darwin’s Cladogram Tree With Finches 3D Printed Object @ Shapeways (adafruit.com)
- Fractal Biology As a Structure (pdjhudonblog.wordpress.com)
- 14 amazing fractals found in nature (mnn.com)
It’s been argued that one who wears his position on his sleeve, rather than hiding it by a cloak of clever, reasonable-sounding rhetorical deceit is more to be trusted, that open and guileless unreason is preferable to rational trickiness.
Well, maybe, but it’s not that simple.
It isn’t necessarily the case that someone with an extreme position or unreasonable stance will display it openly, nor are any discussions with him likely to be effective. Not all unreasonable types are guileless simpletons…In fact many are quite intelligent and indeed, quite tricksey.
I’d personally prefer dealing with reasonable people when at all possible, as I’ve enough logical literacy to pick out and identify most of the fallacies they might commit. But against a skilled bullshit artist, one may have to apply a bit of care to avoid being taken…
…and equating open unreason with trustworthiness is not the way to do this.
Let’s examine why, by examining hypothetical unreasonable people having a goodly amount of intelligence:
Firstly, the unreasonable are more likely to make unreasonable demands in negotiations or discussion, demands so unreasonable as to be difficult and costly, or impossible to meet even in principle.
Secondly, the unreasonable, in making any offers or claims, they are more likely to make ones that are too good to be true, and which cannot be fulfilled or be factually correct.
Neither of these things will be obvious, when done by canny extremists.
This is why any such offers and claims should make one instantly suspicious no matter who makes them. No authority is infallible, no matter how venerated or prestigious or amicable.
Thirdly, and finally, the unreasonable are more likely to hold an extreme position, one difficult to negotiate over or otherwise rationally discuss for any number of reasons, and if intelligent, they will know this, and be even more likely than a more reasonable sort to use flawed logic to cloak his unreasonable stance and make it seem less extreme than it really is.
This is typical in those cases where a rationally indefensible position is being advocated, and the advocate has a vested interest in convincing others, especially by masking his arguments and making them appear stronger than they really are.
Logical fallacies are the tools of unreason and first line of attack of the dishonest.
Given these assumptions, I’d much prefer discussing things with more rational types, as they are less likely to make unreasonable demands, make unreasonable claims and offers, or have a need to resort to clever-sounding fallacies to obfuscate their true intent and position, all other things being the same, including intelligence.
You can, after all, reason with them. Not so for unreasonable types, even when their extreme views are obvious. That just means that they’re more dangerous and disagreeable, not more trustworthy.
A reasonable individual would probably have a more defensible position, a more justifiable stance, and is thus likely to have a better command of good arguments, or at least more reason to use them, and less of an incentive to resort to clever rhetorical tricks to mislead the unwary about the quality of his arguments.
I understand the reluctance of people to trust who they may see as deceptively shrewd, reasonable-sounding-but-tricky people, and prefer the more open, seemingly guileless, simple folk as more trustworthy no matter the leanings of their stated position and attitudes, but this is a simple, and simply misleading false contrast.
People with extreme positions and views aren’t necessarily open about it — the intelligent ones often aren’t.
But it’s not their intelligence that should be mistrusted, it’s their extremism, which may be expressed as a dangerous, dogmatic ideology that lets them to deceive, defraud, kill, or otherwise harm others with a clear conscience.
The Nazi deathcamps, the Killing Fields of Cambodia (now Kampuchea, I think), the ethnic cleansings of Kosovo, religious wars throughout history, etc… are all classic examples of the things people are motivated to do when they are convinced of having absolute knowledge. That belief is itself an extreme view, and in the history of science and philosophy has shown to be a fruitless and failed pursuit.
I don’t distrust reasonableness or intelligence — these things in themselves are nothing to fear — instead, I’m wary of possible aggression, manipulativeness and general dishonesty from those with extreme views no matter their level of intelligence.
So extremism to me does not scream “TRUSTWORTHY!!,” open or not, instead it’s a warning sign to keep my distance and alert others that this individual may be dangerous in some way and is not to be trusted.
I value reasonableness as a virtue, and if you are afraid of someone who may feign that combined with deceit to scam you, it’s not the reason you have to look out for, it’s the deceit.
And that, mein fiends, requires a healthy dose of skepticism, not a knee-jerk rejection of rationality.
No one ever said not being fooled was easy, except those who then get fooled.