Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)

News is coming out tonight of the death of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) and the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He was a legend in the skeptic, secular and atheist communities. I recall the first time I met him, back in the early 90s after years of reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I have a background in philosophy and he came across to me as the very definition of an avuncular, professorial presence: relentlessly upbeat, always trying to be cheery and helpful.

He was, truth be told, not the clearest or most succinct writer, nor the deepest thinker. And the organizations he founded functioned like Rube Goldberg devices. But he was a master motivator, always willing to look past a problematic present to something greater to come. His aim was to inspire, and at this he was tremendously successful. In so doing he as much as, and perhaps more than, anyone is responsible for the contemporary skeptical movement. It is his pathbreaking work on secularism that made 'new atheism' possible, much as he claimed disillusionment from it upon his retirement.

So let's celebrate the passing of a great man, and hope for a better future.


Einstein on the Beach

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the last New York performance of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's masterwork opera Einstein on the Beach. It's a rare thing since the production requires both an orchestra capable of performing Glass's meditative, minimalist music and a cast capable of performing Wilson's intricate, ritualistic direction. And famously it lasts over four hours without intermission, which can be a trial for audience members unused to non-narrative works.

Einstein is a successful melding of art and science, because it doesn't attempt to be too literal about the science. It's conceived as a progression of dream-scapes; there is no real dialogue. What words one hears are either digressive, strange monologues or repetitive strings of numbers and solfège symbols. At first this approach mystifies. But then, isn't it a valid, indeed precise, interpretation of the hermeticism of scientific dialogue, and its requirement for quantity and measurement? Singers count beats, name notes; it may seem overly literal, except that's just the point. The rest of the dialogue prods us to dream.

The opera proceeds towards its crescendo in several, apparently unrelated scenes or vignettes. Wilson's staging re-uses visual cues, such as clocks, moons, circles, compasses and a grand bar of white light, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that came out only eight years before the opera first premiered). The bar has several other resonances: its first appearance in the "Train" sequences clearly represent one of the bolts of lightning Einstein used in his famous thought experiment on special relativity, breaking simultaineity.

Later the bar appears on a darkened stage as a solitary line on the floor, that slowly rises to the upright position and then ascends offstage. This representation (apparently confusing to one recent New York Times reviewer) has profound representational possibilities: my preferred is the so-called "Doomsday Clock" kept by the Bulletin of Atomic scientists since 1947. As the minute hand ascends to the vertical, nuclear war comes closer to hand. The white bar, a simple and pure symbol, takes on immense resonance. And clocks, time in general, are themes that both Glass and Wilson refer to endlessly.

The bar may also represent a missile raising to the launch position and then ascending into the air. This melds with the next scene, which is of a rocket ascending. Then the opera reaches its crescendo ("Spaceship") in a darkened, mechanical atmosphere reminiscent of one of the grand scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Lang's MetropolisWilson's Einstein


In the 2012 version, the Spaceship scene included a devilish character who appeared to be directing the workers, clarifying the scene's sinister overtones. And at the end a scrim dropped before it with a 1960s era image of the effects of a hydrogen-bomb blast. I don't recall either devil or bomb-image from the last time I'd seen the opera, back in the 1980s. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, given the obscure nature of the opera's symbology, I felt these were welcome pointers.

They also served to deepen the final scene, with its strange and otherworldly turn to love, and one of the great final phrases: "fervent osculation."

It's a piece not to miss for any with an appreciation of Glass's minimalist music or Wilson's expressionist stagecraft. The piece is different enough to be unique in its impact. I believe it to be one of the greatest late 20th century operas, however only time will tell how it fits into the repertory. It's unlikely that many will attempt to copy Wilson's technically demanding direction. But is there Einstein without Wilson? If not, future performances will likely be limited to devotees. And that would be a shame. For the opera, difficult and demanding though it is, deserves a wide audience.


SBA Blog Post

A distant hurrah for my first blog post over at the Secular Buddhist Association's website: Cankī on Preserving Truth. I'll aim to shunt Buddhism-related posts over to the SBA and keep all the other tchotchkes around here.


Skepticism and Kindness

Scientific skepticism is brave and its aim is noble, but it tends to spoil in the doing. Perhaps it could be more effective with another component: what the Buddhists term "metta". It's usually translated "loving-kindness", but I prefer to call it "universal kindness" since the former has a saccharine taint, and anyhow there are many different sorts of love that are not appropriate to this approach.

To explain.

The aim of scientific skepticism is ethical: to provide benefit to humanity and the world. It's a position that says it is morally wrong to disseminate falsehoods, particularly those that are in some way harmful to our well-being. So for example, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to various forms of so-called 'alternative medicine' that have been shown to be ineffective when compared to placebo. People who sell such products profit by providing false promises and ineffective care to people who are sick or dying. This is not simply a matter of truth or falsity, as might be the case for example with an incorrect date in the newspaper. This is a matter of moral wrong.

Similarly, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to misinforming people about the state of scientific discovery: for example, claiming that global warming is a hoax or that creationism is a scientifically viable theory. These claims can and do have ill effects on the public's ability to tell right from wrong, which itself feeds into our inability to adequately confront global problems. In a world that is ever more ruled by democratic forms of government, such disinformation campaigns can only cause harm, on a massive scale. And when they are done to the benefit of small, wealthy elites they too are examples of clear moral wrong.

So the strategic aim of scientific skepticism is beneficial. It's tactics are another matter. Skepticism is often looked upon as a negative enterprise. It's aim is to criticize, knock down, poke holes, cross-examine and throw out. Many skeptics of all stripes come across as nasty, arrogant know-it-alls. I should know, since I'm one of them. But nastiness in itself, the critical attitude, is a psychological dead-end. Nobody can keep it up for long, except a handful of curmudgeons and a few special people with deep reservoirs of psychological well-being that ground them. For the rest of us, it's frankly difficult to bear the frown, and it causes us psychological harm to do so.

Worst of all, of course, negative tactics are some of the least likely to actually change minds.

Is there any solution? I don't know. However there is one practice that can be found in Theravada Buddhism that might be of some help, at least to re-ground the aim. Because so often when engaging in skeptical pursuits one misses the forest for the trees, or the strategy for the tactics: criticism and put-downs take precedence over actually intending to help others.

The practice of universal kindness is simple, though it's bound to feel alien at first. It involves intending kindness towards all people. This is done progressively, by making regular assertions of one's wish that oneself and others are happy, healthy, safe and free from suffering. For example, one may begin by thinking to oneself, "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe from harm. May I be free from suffering." The point is to aim towards sincerity as much as one can, and to do the practice as often as one feels comfortable.

One begins with oneself because without kindness towards oneself, true kindness towards others is impossible. One then takes in mind people close to one, and does the practice towards them. (To make it easier to visualize, best to take one person at a time). Then one takes in mind neutral people; for example, people one passes regularly on the way to work, those in the gym or local store. Finally, one takes those to whom one has negative feelings -- perhaps intensely negative feelings. In this way, slowly and over time, one expands the circle of one's feelings of kindness towards the people around one. At the very least one clarifies and sharpens one's goals.

The results are not quick, they are not absolute and they are certainly not magical. If you like, this is an example of Aristotle's notion that in order to be a good person one has to practice being a good person, even if it seems odd to do so. The problem with Aristotle's suggestion is that doing something odd even once is difficult enough. Before we can do it, we must be able to think and to feel it. This sort of Buddhist practice can give us a route towards thinking and feeling, which may itself aid in our doing.

A skeptical program better grounded in open kindness towards others, even those with whom we disagree, may stand a better chance of providing psychological fulfillment for the practitioners and more credible help towards others.


NASA Visualizes the Earth's Oceans

This is just too cool to pass up. The NASA website has lots of other format options, including 1920x1080, 30 fps.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholtz.


Ordinary and True Freedom

To be free in the ordinary sense is, at base, a matter of being able to do what one wants: I am thirsty. I know there is something to drink in the refrigerator, so I open the refrigerator. This is a freely willed act, as opposed to my being forced to do the same by a man with a gun, or to my being unable to do the same because I am tied down to a chair.

A "want", of course, is realized by a state of the brain. The human nervous system has osmoreceptors that detect changes in the osmotic pressure of the blood and other fluids. When they detect decreased volume or increased concentration of salt, they cause us to feel thirsty. The mediators of wants are biophysical. (Or to put it as I've put it before, robots -- at least, robots of sufficient cognitive complexity -- could have wants. And if being free in the ordinary sense is a matter of being able to do what one wants, robots could be just as free as us).

But there is another sense of 'freedom' that comes up, for example, in the famous Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Buddhist Pali Canon. Here we are told that "wants" or "desires" themselves are bonds! How could this be if freedom is, at base, being able to do what one wants?

Here is the relevant passage from the Sutta:

Monks, there are these five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Aromas cognizable via the nose — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tastes cognizable via the tongue — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. These are the five strings of sensuality.

And any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will. Just as if a wild deer were to lie bound on a heap of snares: it should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; the hunter can do with it as he will. When the hunter comes, it won't get away as it would like. In the same way, any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will.

The pleasures we get from the senses are like strings that bind us; desires based upon them can tie us down like a deer before the hunter.

But what sort of freedom is this? Surely we are free -- at least, free in the ordinary, everyday sense -- just insofar as we can grasp at whatever desires suit our fancy. Far from binding us in a heap of snares, this pursuit of pleasure is what gives our life whatever expansiveness it has.

This is the kind of Enlightenment freedom alluded to in the US Declaration of Independence: that we possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Our freedom comes not only in liberty from interference, but also in liberty to pursue happiness where we find it. If we want to indulge ourselves by looking at drip paintings, playing the violin or eating gourmet meals, then it is in their pursuit that we find freedom.

But then, wherein lies the snare?

Consider this phrase from the Sutta: "... without seeing their drawbacks". Is it really true that every pursuit of happiness leads to its attainment? Don't many lead to unhappiness?

It's not unusual for the pursuit of pleasure to lapse into dull routine or worse, obsession or compulsion. One buys the object, sees the show, climbs the mountain, drinks the wine, kisses the pretty face, not because it is pleasurable but because it ticks some box that says, "Not done yet." It fits into an empty space in the collector's book. And while filling that space may provide some modest frisson, the feeling cannot last.

Nor are such pursuits to one's benefit: being tied to sensual delights without seeing their drawbacks is a route to disappointment. Although all desires aim at pleasure, many misfire along the way, bringing unhappiness. Often we know this to be the case, we know we do ourselves no good by acting upon the desire, yet we indulge nonetheless. This is a kind of fetter.

A desire that brings unhappiness when acted upon is not the kind of desire that brings true freedom. A desire that brings unhappiness is, in that sense, a kind of fetter or bond that reduces one's true freedom even while providing ordinary freedom.

The "pursuit of happiness" is its own freedom just so long as that pursuit is well-aimed. The obsessive collector who drains his account in the purchase of pretty things, the lothario, the thief, not to mention the alcoholic or addict, all to one extent or another do what they do freely, in the ordinary sense of the word. (The addict or true obsessive less so, since mental illness is its own bind). But they rarely get the happiness they seek. To that extent, they are not truly free.


A Short Sketch About Aesthetics

What makes a piece of art worthwhile? What makes it good?

Is this simply a subjective matter of opinion? Or is there anything more we can point to?

If there were alien life forms on other planets, would they find the same things beautiful that we do? Would they find the same things artistically worthwhile? Or would they view our artistic taste as incomprehensible or worthless?

These are some of the questions that come up when we consider aesthetics.

There is little question that there are similarities in the way humans see beauty. Europeans love Japanese prints, Chinese youth pine after the iPhone. Human physical attractiveness follows certain set patterns, such as the 0.7-to-1 waist-to-hip ratio for women, or male facial symmetry. While some of this is doubtless culturally imposed, much of it is due to our ability to ferret out underlying biological characteristics such as fertility and partner suitability. After all, humans are animals, and animals (particularly females, who have the burden of gestating the young) are notoriously picky about mate choice.

Aesthetic sense in the animal kingdom extends from visible and auditory factors such as the peacock's plumage, the bird's song or the lion's roar, the gorilla's size or the seal's ownership of the beach, to the intricate hanging nests made by weaverbirds or the extraordinary collections of bowerbirds.

USA's Most WantedIt also extends to location. Animals have an instinctive sense of the best placement of home: one that is relatively safe and secure from predation, close to sources of food and water, with a good view of the surrounding territory.

The artists Komar & Melamid conducted surveys in countries around the world, asking people what they wanted most to see in a painting. The result was their People's Choice series of "Most Wanted" paintings. While there were local, cultural, discrepancies, the overall results of their polling reveal, in philosopher Denis Dutton's words, "serious empirical evidence for a natural, evolved universal aesthetic preferences." Viz., people tend to like open landscapes with a view out over water, much as non-human animals prefer territory with a view, close to sources of water. Americans like to add a president in there as well, somewhere.

Our aesthetic preferences extend to taste and smell, senses that enable us to find foods that provide sustenance and avoid those that may cause illness. It's practically a truism that people enjoy the taste of fatty, sugary and salty food, and tend to avoid foods that are perceived as bitter. (Bitter is one indication of spoilage).

One "post-modern" response to all this, of course, might be termed expressly anti-aesthetic: what is beautiful is suspect. Studies of universal taste reveal nothing more than narrow cultural brainwashing and therefore a universal lack of sophistication. And who can argue with that, when presented with Komar & Melamid's Most Wanteds? They're awful, looking like Hallmark Cards or cast-offs from any flea market in the country. But that's the point, isn't it? Any artistic subject that is universally appreciated is likely to be the sort of thing one find's everywhere.

Or, perhaps better said, it's the sort of thing one finds everywhere except in the places that have been taught not to appreciate it.

Because ironically it's the anti-aesthetic movement, the movement that views standards of beauty as simply passing cultural constructs, that is the prime example of constructing taste along cultural lines. If we are to give up on universal standards of beauty as our touchstone for artistic excellence, all we have left are passing fads, cooked up for us by today's cultural tastemakers.

Perhaps this is why so much contemporary art mystifies. Perhaps this is why to appreciate it requires detailed knowledge of context and background. It's far from obvious that a pile of detritus on the floor indicates some pungent social reality, or to see why this presentation is more pungent than simply stating the reality outright.

To appreciate such art reveals the extent to which one is culturally in-tune with the moment, the extent to which one has the time, money and interest to teach oneself what it's about, and indeed to teach oneself why it's art.

All art appreciation has an element of status indication, of course. Like the universal aesthetic pointed to above, awareness of status is a part of our evolutionary background. But ironically, by eschewing beauty, much of contemporary art has only managed to privelege status-indication in its place, by making art appreciation more rarified, more élite, more out of touch with anything but art study for its own sake.

And that, I think, is a dead end, at least for art.

The alternative, that all art at least contain some notion of beauty as an essential element, is not itself truly universal at all, of course. It depends upon our vague evolutionary heritage. But that, I am afraid, is the way it must be. For aesthetics apart from evolution is, it seems, no more than numerology.


Secular Buddhism

Thanks to Steven Batchelor's work most of all, space is opening up around the notion of a neo-Buddhist philosophy and practice that rejects the supernatural elements of the traditional religion: principally, reincarnation and karma.

Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is a good place to start with his work, as I think it's some of his most lucid writing. Note that it is a memoir, not a treatise on philosophy. Though it has philosophical aspects, basically it's the story of Batchelor's travels through various forms of Buddhist practice in India, Korea and Europe.

A number of Secular Buddhist organizations have sprung up around Batchelor's ideas, principally the Secular Buddhist Association, the website of which includes a number of interesting links.

After chatting with Ted Meissner from the SBA, it became clear that we were on the same wavelength about notions of science and skepticism informing -- and at times trumping -- notions of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. He suggested doing a podcast together with two denizens of our skeptical, secularist Forum who have similar interests.

The podcast is out now, and can be accessed and downloaded HERE.



Marketing a Clown: The Guggenheim's Cattelan

I read Dan Nadel's incisive review of the Maurizio Cattelan show at the Guggenheim several days ago, and wasn't sure what to think. Having seen the show now with my own eyes, I am inclined to agree with his somewhat jaundiced view.

But I don't think the problem with the show lies entirely in Cattelan's work. Cattelan is first and foremost a clown: a provocateur by pratfall and sight-gag. "La Nona Ora", the famous sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, is the kind of thing one would expect to see in a ten-second scene out of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or animated in the Simpsons.

Others of his pieces refer to the 'hanging' of artworks, to artworks as taxidermy, and make mild commentary on social themes such as race. It's very much gag art; funny for all that, entertaining as modern, ironic clown should be, but essentially light and ephemeral. Perhaps that's why it works as well as it does, hung before us like a mothballed circus wardrobe.

No, the real problem with the show isn't the work itself; it's the introduction by the curators Spector and Brinson.

So much of what's wrong in the art world nowadays is in the writing: overamped, overwrought prose that either obfuscates or sells. In this case, it sells. "This Work is Very Important!" it tells us. So, the silly piece involving the Pope is described as "incendiary" and "notorious". JFK in a coffin is "eleagic". And his work overall is described as "deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power". Really? Where? Not in this exhibition, anyway, nor in his prior ones, from the sound of it, such as his decision to make a show out of a locked door with a "be back soon" sign, or his idea to steal another artist's work and pretend it was his own. Silly gags? Yes. Profound statements about authority and the abuse of power? No.

Basically it's a light and humorous show, and light humor is popular. There's nothing wrong with that: we all need a little clowning in our lives. But please, let's not mistake clowning for profundity, nor cloak its essential modesty in marketing bombast.


XKCD on Jobs

A pretty remembrance:

xkcd: Eternal Flame


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