Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Imagine a world...

**The story of how I lost faith in any religion because it finally occurred to me that there is no God, is detailed in posts here over the years. I know I should consider that subject closed, but it won't close completely because theism prompted and sustained some of the most devastating decisions I ever made. They tore up my life so deeply that I still feel the ravages of it, like a burn victim whose scars inhibit free movement. Yes, one can, and should, exercise effort to overcome those stiffnesses in areas of human life that come so naturally to most people. I suppose I can't lay it all at the feet of theism. There are plenty of other "nurture" and "nature" reasons why I'm a hobbling psychological wreck even as I approach the age of eighty.
I can—and have— wrung and washed my hands, and strode forth into what's left of my opportunities. So far, so good—and I'm surprised and pleased with how much good I've experienced as an atheist. But that doesn't preclude standing aghast at the magnitude of my error and its consequences, especially when I suffer a setback that challenges my self-worth. Then the enormity of the deception that commisioned me to be an evangelist for the right brand of religion, the right concept of God, and the foolish hope in the sublime harmony of a world filled with those who would accept what I hawked.
Around 2006, I encountered the writings of the so-called New Atheists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Paul Bloom. If my faith hadn't been already on the edge and sliding away, I might have withstood their arguments and hung on a little more. But down it all went, and I emerged from the rubble a stunned and wounded man. Some ten years later, a book came out that has had a more lasting impact on me, one whose arguments and language gain my continuing respect.

The Big Picture by Sean Carroll was published in May 2016.
I bought the book and made copious notes in it on my Kindle, but somehow forgot about it until about a year ago. I now listen to the audiobook every night when I awake—as we oldsters tend to do. It puts me back to sleep, not because it's boring, but because the ideas still intrigue and overwhelm me. If I should wake up again later, I'm usually surprised to hear a section I don't remember. So, it's like reading a new version of the book every night.
Today, I came across Carroll's itemization of why atheism is a more valid view than theism. I post them here as a reminder of how weak the concept of a God is, and how amazing it is that so many people, especially I, took that concept into some outrageously stupid extremes:

  • So imagine a world that is very much like ours, except that evil does not exist. People in this world are much like us, and seem able to make their own choices, but they always end up choosing to do good rather than evil. In that world, the relevant data is the absence of evil. How would that be construed, as far as theism is concerned? It’s hard to doubt that the absence of evil would be taken as very strong evidence in favor of the existence of God. If humanity simply evolved according to natural selection, without any divine guidance or interference, we would expect to inherit a wide variety of natural impulses—some for good, some for not so good. The absence of evil in the world would be hard to explain under atheism, but relatively easy under theism, so it would count as evidence for the existence of God. But if that’s true, the fact that we do experience evil is unambiguously evidence against the existence of God. If the likelihood of no evil is larger under theism, then the likelihood of evil is larger under atheism, so evil’s existence increases our credence that atheism is correct. Put in those terms, it’s easy to come up with features of our universe that provide evidence for atheism over theism. 
  • Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all. 
  • Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently came up with precisely the same doctrines and stories about God. 
  • Imagine a universe that was relatively small, with just the sun and moon and Earth, no other stars or galaxies. 
  • Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information. 
  • Imagine a world in which human beings were completely separate from the rest of biological history. 
  • Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living, telling compelling stories of life in heaven. 
  • Imagine a world that was free of random suffering. 
  • Imagine a world that was perfectly just, in which the relative state of happiness of each person was precisely proportional to their virtue. 
  • In any of those worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as evidence for God's existence. It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism.
  • How strong that evidence is, is another question entirely. We could try to quantify the overall effect, but we’re faced with a very difficult obstacle: theism isn’t very well defined. There have been many attempts, along the lines of “God is the most perfect being conceivable,” or “God is the grounding of all existence, the universal condition of possibility.” Those sound crisp and unambiguous, but they don’t lead to precise likelihoods along the lines of “the probability that God, if he exists, would give clear instructions on how to find grace to people of all times and cultures.” Even if one claims that the notion of God itself is well defined, the connection between that concept and the actuality of our world remains obscure. 
  • One could try to avoid the problem by denying that theism makes any predictions at all for what the world should be like—God’s essence is mysterious and impenetrable to our minds. That doesn’t solve the problem—as long as atheism does make predictions, evidence can still accumulate one way or the other—but it does ameliorate it somewhat. Only at a significant cost, however: if an ontology predicts almost nothing, it ends up explaining almost nothing, and there’s no reason to believe it.
  • There are some features of our world that count as evidence in favor of theism, just as some features are evidence for atheism. 
  • Imagine a world in which nobody had thought of the concept of God—the idea had simply never occurred. Given our definition of theism, that’s a very unlikely world if God exists. It would seem a shame for God to go to all the trouble to create the universe and humankind, and then never let us know about his existence. So it’s perfectly reasonable to say that the simple fact that people think about God counts as some evidence that he is real.
  • Imagine a world with physical matter, but in which life never arose. Or a universe with life, but no consciousness. Or a universe with conscious beings, but ones who found no joy or meaning in their existence. At first glance, the likelihoods of such versions of reality would seem to be higher under atheism than under theism. 
l

Friday, September 20, 2019

Spoiler alert: the future


**I admit to being a snob. I manage to control it somewhat but I get extra snobbish when I read a book that requires some thought, some re-reading, some dictionary or knowledge base inquiries. But overall, one that requires time, a resource few people I know—and would recommend a book to—have.

I came from immigrant parents with scant education who yielded me up to the educational establishment of their time like good Catholic wannabe Americans, to educators who applauded me for every micro-fathom of comprehension into the complex, context-rich arguments they exposed me to; which education—even just the fact of it—set me apart from the ignominy of my lower-class origins, indeed, apart and above and OUT of that bland ghetto resting on its prodigious accomplishments. Yes, though I long ago eschewed the theology, I retain that old-time Jesuit hubris, am a snob who instinctively disdains those who cannot, will not, read extended treatises of urgent importance, like "The Uninhabitable Earth," by David Wallace-Wells. I am also a fool, hence, this post.

I fear that most of the educators of Gen-X, abetted by technologists, did not train them to be patient as they faced books layered with information and nuance; in other words, that lifelong they have subsisted on scraps of wisdom from the bumper sticker, the headline, the tweet, the 2x-speed podcast, the mantra—in other words, that their minds have dined mostly on the polished rice (so-called high points) of complex issues sans their hard but sustaining husks—in other words, because they think skimming is enough—in other words, because they don't have the time or inclination for such—in other words, that they will not understand and therefore will not contribute to resisting the ineluctable flaming grindstone that is rolling toward them—in other words, that they will not read the deeply context-rich arguments that stir me, and therefore be themselves stirred. They will make a snap judgment and go on heedless, rushed, preoccupied with vamping into an obsolete future. Even so, for the curious, I've plucked and polished a few grains of rice from the book and strewn them at the end of this screed.

It does not gladden me to know I will not have to endure the consequences of my (and their) generation's ignorance and inaction. Even if I live the vaunted "long" life," I will not suffer as Gen-Xers will, won't have to stand aghast as the foundations of their lives crumble and the superstructures cave.

It should sadden them, too, but more keenly. Because they have kids and grandkids who will have so much to cope with that they may deem themselves unlucky to have survived the catastrophes, even as they adapt to roles in a dusted-off diorama of primitive human history. Life does not necessarily go on, and that could be a good thing.

Review of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. In addition to the engaging urgency of the content, the book is masterfully written. It's not an easy read for those used to the leniencies of something like "ZIP reads," but it's a good workout for the brain, maybe even for one's character. If these tidbits induce anyone to take it on full-strength I will have succeeded. In any case, I will get back to dying my way out of the spoiled future.

Quotes:

  • This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.
  • The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. 
  • The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary resetmore than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.
  • Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that  killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.
  • A hotter planet is, on net, bad for plant life, which means what is called “forest dieback”—the decline and retreat of jungle basins as big as countries
  • the optimists have never, in the half century of climate anxiety we’ve already endured, been right.
  • technocratic faith, which is really market faith 
  • in the coming decades many of the most punishing climate horrors will indeed hit those least able to respond and recover. This is what is often called the problem of environmental justice; a sharper, less gauzy phrase would be “climate caste system,” environmental apartheid.
  • mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue are flying through the streets of Copenhagen and Chicago
  • We have all already left behind the narrow window of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, but not just evolve—that window has enclosed everything we remember as history, and value as progress, and study as politics. 
  • That has been the work of a single generation. The second generation faces a very different task: the project of preserving our collective future, forestalling that devastation and engineering an alternate path. There is simply no analogy to draw on, outside of mythology and theology—and perhaps the Cold War prospect of mutually assured destruction.
  • In folklore and comic books and church pews and movie theaters, stories about the fate of the earth often perversely counsel passivity in their audiences, and perhaps it should not surprise us that the threat of climate change is no different
  • Marshall Islands and Miami Beach, each sinking over time into snorkelers’ paradises;
  • The project of unplugging the entire industrial world from fossil fuels is intimidating, and must be done in fairly short order—by 2040, many scientists say
  • Species individuated over millions of years of evolution but forced together by climate change have begun to mate with one another for the first time, producing a whole new class of hybrid species: the pizzly bear, the coy-wolf. The zoos are already natural history museums
  • Because the planet is as big as it is, and as ecologically diverse; because humans have proven themselves an adaptable species, and will likely continue to adapt to outmaneuver a lethal threat; and because the devastating effects of warming will soon become too extreme to ignore, or deny, if they haven’t already; because of all that, it is unlikely that climate change will render the planet truly uninhabitable. But if we do nothing about carbon emissions, if the next thirty years of industrial activity trace the same arc upward as the last thirty years have, whole regions will become unlivable by any standard we have today as soon as the end of this century.


                                        Monday, September 09, 2019

                                        Farting in the wind

                                        **My friend, Stu Forman, runs climatchangegazette.com where he regularly posts thought-provoking articles. His latest is about AOC, Cows, and the Green New Deal where he cites the contribution cows make to global warming from their "enteric fermentation." I wrote the following in response, though the links and formatting might not carry over, owing to the comment tool on his site,

                                        People tend not to believe scientists as readily as they believe novelists. Scientists thrill to facts. People thrill to stories. That's just the way we are. But that doesn't mean people can't be reached by facts. Of course, novelists have been writing on the subject of climate catastrophe since before it became fashionable as a topic of conversation, sermons, and political platforms. You've mentioned a few in this space. I recently finished "New York 2140" by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I heartily recommend it, not only for its riveting writing but for how it makes climate issues real.
                                        Today I came on a piece by the novelist Jonathan Franzen, but it isn't a novel. It's an article in the New Yorker, that expresses the opinion that I, a novelist, have quietly held for a long time:

                                        What If We Stopped Pretending?The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.
                                        Though Franzen lauds efforts to fight climate change, he does so for reasons other than their effectiveness.
                                        If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
                                        For those of us in neither category—face it, we're invisible—it's sad and scary. Sad for what our kids and grandkids will have to go through. And scary because we're so old we'll only foresee it and not have to live through it. Or much of anything.

                                        So yay for AOC and the GND and all the greening going on. But the salvation train left the station a long, long time ago. There's something to be said for the preppers who at least recognize the futility of stopping the ignition of our earth-size furnace, though I wonder to what extent even they can survive it.

                                        Friday, July 26, 2019

                                        Crazy about Climate Change

                                        **Once again, the South provides me with a like-minded friend. This one is also a neighbor, living within a couple miles of our place. This never happened in ten years in northern California (Bay Area). Stuart Forman is a Climate Change activist of my generation, who runs a website with deep thoughts and information about the existential crisis facing the globe. He's in my blog list so check it out.

                                        Stu's most recent post is about "Mental Health and the Climate Crisis." It struck a responsive chord in me (more like a leaden thud) and I wrote the following comment to his post:

                                        Your post points out a salient and intractable issue with anyone trying to comprehend the current climate crisis. I’m sure climate change is just one of the factors generating the depression to which you refer. Speaking for myself, other factors include: the insanity that spawned the present US (and UK) governments; the ascendency of monied interests in compromising the quality of life—and this includes the travesty that is our health care system and its evil twin, the pharmaceutical mafia. Add to those global issues, one’s own increasing physical limitations of function and energy and the measurement of all predictions against the actuarial tables.
                                        And yet, here we are, each in his own sphere fighting back, or attempting to. We’re doing something.
                                        Not sure of your personal motivation but I’ll tell you mine; it mitigates the horror. Never has the entire human race faced the prospect of imminent catastrophe. It’s one thing to have to cope with personal bodily insult, say, a dire medical diagnosis. It’s quite another to have to include oneself in the “body politic” whose condition has been pronounced “terminal.” It’s… it’s…well, depressing, to echo the theme of your post.
                                        If there’s a bright spot,—and it’s not so bright—it’s that we who have been labeled “The Silent Generation, will not have to bear the terror of full global ignition. We’ll succumb to our own age-related extinction before the race itself feels it as a whole. Small consolation.
                                        Most of us have progeny who will feel the teeth of the onrushing Tiger with its orange and black hunger. I recently became a (not so) great grandfather, ancestor of someone who will probably look back at the map of his family tree and plant a dagger beside my name. I have no defense—other than lack of attention (caused by the exigencies of life as a citizen, parent, employee, slow-evolver.) I have known for decades that the planet is being sabotaged in the interests of “the economy, stupid.” And “peace.”
                                        So, you and I, and our ilk are off the hook, ignominiously, but still sentient (more or less). Sentient but almost flat-line depressed. My children, grandchildren, and now, greatgrandchildren, are inheriting our legacy of burning coals. From us. Dammit FROM US!
                                        I know you’re going to meet a lot of environmentalists next weekend in Minneapolis. Do us a favor, Stu. Take the psychic temperature of those attending, especially those giving presentations. Tell us what you detect in their psyches. Are they optimistic, and if so, why? My guess is that if they’re honest they’ll be pessimistic. Like me, and maybe you. If so, should we at least shut the door and mumble into our beards (virtual or not), that we give up? Tell us, if you have evidence (as opposed to rhetoric) why we should not be depressed, why we should not slam the door on hope. What skyhooks are out there that will lift us out of this cauldron and its attendant depression?
                                        While it may make some of us feel virtuous, even proactive, to recycle our trash into the seven or ten categories the recycling companies desire in order to make a go of their business, we know these individual efforts—from a limited number of individuals anyway—are not what’s going to produce the kind of change that will turn around the mega-ship of earth. It takes a strong arm of global proportions to do that. Any observer of human history and psychology knows that the most effective motivator for humans is FEAR. And the only way to attain the level of fear that will lead to even the feeblest counter to the effects of today’s pace of climate change is outright catastrophe. People won’t act until they’re scared, damned scared—scared shitless. When you’re in the jaws of the Tiger, you have no alternative than to act, even futiley.
                                        So, thanks for this post, and its diagnosis of my persistent foul mood.

                                        Monday, June 24, 2019

                                        What a novel idea

                                        **I just published my book. It's available in ebook, print, and audiobook formats.
                                        Book

                                        Sicilian Gothic - The Convergence of Carmelo and Nellie

                                        Website



                                        Here's the description from the Kindle and other stores:

                                        "Novels don't have footnotes," said a friend. True, but most novels aren't overtly based on real people. This one is. Carmelo and Nellie Tosto were my parents.
                                        Why is it a novel, a work of fiction? Because there wasn't enough documentable evidence about them to constitute a typical biography. Unlike today, with its surfeit of personal data – photos, videos, correspondence, diaries, and the like – the period between 1901 and 1939 afforded few opportunities, especially for lower class immigrants, to leave tangible evidence of their presence on earth. 
                                        Before converging in an arranged marriage, the lives of Carmelo Tosto and Nellie Cascio were on divergent paths. 
                                        Carmelo's history is particularly sparse as his documentation originates at an institution for abandoned infants in Catania, Sicily in 1901. He grew up in a nearby fishing village and at the age of fourteen went to work as a merchant marine sailor until 1925 when he jumped ship in Baltimore to escape Mussolini's naval conscription. 
                                        Nellie was born in Sicily but grew up from infancy in America with serious aspirations to become a Catholic nun. There's much more evidence of her early life, but her character and story need some enhancement. 
                                        After diligent gleaning using today's powerful internet search tools, I amassed a trove of facts about them. I added to those findings whatever I could collect from personal reminiscences, family lore, and some artifacts. It was exciting to see the early days of my long-gone parents taking shape in my mind. But also frustrating. Like scrapbooks retrieved from a flood, the tide of time had dissolved much detail about them. 
                                        As the first fruit of their convergence, I didn't know them personally until they were well into their thirties. By then, like most of us, they had changed markedly from their youthful personas. I felt the best way to present their story was to assemble my collection of fact fragments with the connective tissue of fiction. So I invented much of the material, most of which is based on plausible inferences from the facts. 
                                        That's why a "NOTES" section is included at the back of the book. Some of these notes will resonate with my family. Some will add more dimension to the narrative. And, for those interested, some will identify most of the differences between fact and fiction. I hope none are necessary for the advancement and enjoyment of the story. 
                                        In writing this book, my parents became more fascinating and more charming to me than when we made each other miserable in the 1940s and 1950s. I hope this book will help you appreciate them better than I did then, and as much as I do now. 
                                        ALERT: There are some Italian words sprinkled into the story, especially in accounts of the earliest times. Don’t be stymied by these. To me, they evoked the worlds of my parents and kept me in the mood. To translate each of them would be interruptive and tedious, and none are essential to understanding the meaning of the context in which they are used. If you’re interested, look them up – I often used collinsdictionary.com — but be advised that many of these words may be a bit “spicy” for some palates. Otherwise, just think of them as flecks of red pepper in the sauce. Buon appetito!

                                        Thursday, December 20, 2018

                                        Hello again, Blogger

                                        **Well, that didn't work out. First, I didn't keep blogging. Then, Tumblr took a tumble in the news, so it looks like it's not the right site for this material. The posts here record a significant part of my life in the 2000s so it has some possible historical value. I don't know if I'll continue blogging but if I do, it'll be from this site. Until I find another option.

                                        Tuesday, June 06, 2017

                                        Taking the Tumbl

                                        **mt_space is now on Tumblr

                                        Hi there, lonesome blogspotters. When I started this blog in 2002, blogging was a hot new publishing option, and Blogger by Google was one of the hot new venues for those creations. So I started writing about stuff that was in my head at the moment and kept it up for a number of years, though with some long lapses. As a matter of course, mt_space became a chronicle of some of the most important changes in my life, the major one being my break with theism in general and with the CS belief system and institutions in particular. A perusal of these posts shows that it was a time of great stirring and some might say trauma.

                                        My interests always included politics, technology, and (real) science, as well as events in my life and the lives of friends. Though I wasn't as faithful a blogger as I was told I should be, I didn't mind because I knew hardly anyone was interested in keeping up with my thoughts. So it became a somewhat safe nook on the Web to vent. Plodding along this way, I managed to go fourteen years without noticing that not only had I changed, but the blogosphere had also changed.

                                        I got invited by a friend to participate in a blog she was setting up. It was on Tumblr. I asked, why Tumblr, and she replied it was the hip new blogging venue that came with a larger potential audience. This made me think about whether I want a larger audience. It was nice having a semi-private room to noodle and doodle about things in the space that is my consciousness. On the other hand, why not try something new? And if it gets too rowdy, I can always crawl back to the boonies of Blogger and indulge in semi-private writing.

                                        I haven't yet been able to get the 450 entries of this blog to transfer to Tumblr so until I do, I'll just continue there.

                                        I've also moved my collection of poetry from Blogger to Tumblr