21 December 2006

Carl Sagan, gone for "ten trips around the Sun"

Carl Sagan was one of the strongest and most enduring influences on my choice to pursue teaching and then science. His view of humans as "a way for the universe to know itself" echoed and extended themes I'd read in Alan Watts. Carl's many books and shorter articles guided and inspired me up through his untimely death. They shaped my interests and led me to specialize in the science of the solar system. Many were critical of what they saw as Carl's excessive participation in the cult of personality through the media. But from my perspective, Carl was the ultimate modern renaissance man, with interests that spanned the universe in a way that few others came close to expressing. He excelled not only in communicating the excitement of science to the general public, but also led a generation of scientists in seeing the broader relevance and impact of their work, helping us to get beyond the mentality of the cold war. David Morrison agrees. Carl is deeply missed.

There is a detectable web competition for the title of "Next Carl Sagan". It's a very tough act to follow on the world stage. But we do need others to tell us how wonderful is the world as revealed by science, how little we really need our illusions and superstitions, and how much more sound is a simple reverence for life and all the forces that have created it.

"We are made of star stuff." -- Carl Sagan

19 December 2006

Star of DNA Sighted

This picture of the day from Wikipedia (17 Dec) really struck me, so I used it to make a holiday greeting card this year. It's a molecule consisting of three long peptide chains arranged into a star shape with a circular inner ring. It evidently plays a clamp-like role as it travels along a DNA molecule during replication, sort of a zipper function, if I get it correctly. According to the article, the clamp speeds the rate at which the unzipping/zipping of DNA occurs by a large factor. So this star shaped molecule (one might say "snowflake-shaped") plays a key role in human reproduction. The coloration used by the molecular modeling software to generate this visualization struck me as festive as well, as did the loopy structure of the molecular strings.

09 October 2006

Leibniz and Spinoza

A recent book by Matthew Stewart: "The Courtier and the
Heretic", 2006, has proved most interesting. This paragraph from the introduction really struck me:

"..., the two greatest philosophers of the seventeenth century remain unsurpassed, and should perhaps be considered the twin founders of modern thought. We live in an age defined by its reaction to Spinoza and to all that he recorded in his philosophy. And there is no more compelling expression of this reaction than the philosophy Leibniz developed in the long years after his return from Holland (after visiting Spinoza). Contemporary debates concerning the separation of church and state, the clash of civilizations, and the theory of natural selection, to name just a few examples, are all continuations of the discussion that began in November 1676. Even today, the two men who met in the Hague stand for a choice that we all must make and have implicitly already made."

And a summary paragraph:

"... The two men who met in 1676 in fact represent a pair of radically different philosophical personality types who have always been part of the human experience. Spinoza speaks for those who believe that happiness and virtue are possible with nothing more than what we have in our hands. Leibniz stands for those convinced that happiness and virtue depend upon something that lies beyond. Spinoza counsels calm attention to our own deepest good. Leibniz expresses that irrepressible longing to see our good works reflected back to us in the praise of others. Spinoza affirms the totality of things such as it is. Leibniz is that part of us that ceaselessly strives to make us something more than what we are. Without doubt there is a little piece of each in everybody; equally certain is the fact that, at times, a choice must be made."

NB: Leibniz independently developed the calculus a bit later than Newton, and his notation won out eventually to become the one we use today. Spinoza the Jew who was excommunicated in his early 20s, has been credited with inspiring Thomas Jefferson and other Founders of the US Constitution in regard to the "establishment" clause and other key aspects of the constitution and bill of rights, as well as inspiring the perpetrators of the French Revolution, and the rest of the secular, liberal, democratic order of today.It's interesting to track these ideas back before 1776; which I don't recall my world history or philosophy classes ever having done. All this material from the book made The Pope's recent controversial statements about Islam reverberate loudly in my head. Nevertheless, caveat emptor is appropriate and one should perhaps have a look at some of the more negative reviews of this book as linked in the title of this entry. It may be that the scholarship is a bit lacking in this book, in the interests of spinning an entertaining tale.


I've posted a musing at the link on an idea that's been bugging me for a long time. We like to think we are pioneering new things with the internet tying humanity into a huge new network of information. But I hold that information is only part of the story, and we haven't yet begun to tie ourselves together with a common approach to processing information. That may require a new standard for processing algorithms, and a way to browse them, which I call HyperPage. Please have a look and comment here if you like.

02 September 2006

Spinoza, Credited

A public radio show (Speaking of Faith) recently featured Rebecca Goldstein, author of a new book on Baruch Spinoza, "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity." It has reignited my interest in the original pantheist philosopher. I previously read his "Ethics", which I found pretty dense though intriguing.

It's amazing to me to see Spinoza credited as the inspiration for much of the enlightenment, inspiring the founders of the USA, and the separation of church and state, as a meme. To me, this is an incredible confluence of interests. The book has inspired quite a bit of commentary, including a review in the NYT. We recently passed the 350th anniversary of Spinoza's excommunication by the Jews of Amsterdam, around 28 July it seems.
Spinoza was cited by Einstein as having defined a God with which he could identify. Spinoza's God is the God of Nature, or in Einstein's view, the God of natural law. It's easy to appreciate that this was taken to be blasphemous in the 17th century.

Though the book is not in our library so soon after its release, I did find another book that may be as good, and certainly is of great interest if one seeks to know and understand Spinoza: "The Heretic and the Courtier: Spinoza, Leibnitz, and the Fate of God in the Modern World", by Matthew Stewart. Not content to chronicle Spinoza alone, Stewart casts a spell by comparing two figures who could not be more different: Spinoza the optician and lens grinder by day and philospher by night; Leibnitz the polymath prodigy who defends religioin against the tide of Spinoza's thinking, all the while harboring strong sympathies for Spinoza. More when I finish it...

13 July 2006

Alzheimers and Consciousness, Clarified

George Will engaged in some philosophical thinking triggered by his Mom's passing after a long bout with Alzheimer's. The title links to his column in the Washington Post (which requires free registration). Since Gwen's Nana passed recently, this column was very close to home for us. The first paragraphs:

"NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The long dying of Louise Will ended here recently. It was time. At 98, her body was exhausted by disease and strokes. Dementia, that stealthy thief of identity, had bleached her vibrant self almost to indistinctness, like a photograph long exposed to sunlight.

"It is said that God gave us memory so we could have roses in winter. Dementia is an ever-deepening advance of wintry whiteness, a protracted paring away of personality. It inflicts on victims the terror of attenuated personhood, challenging philosophic and theological attempts to make death a clean, intelligible and bearable demarcation.

"Is death the soul taking flight after the body has failed? That sequence -- the physical extinguished, the spiritual not -- serves our notion of human dignity. However, mental disintegration mocks that comforting schema by taking the spirit first.

Therein lies a significant realization concerning death and mortality. Perhaps this is why Alzheimer's is so very incomfortable for the living. If there is an immortal soul, it cannot be lodged in the brain or any process dependent upon the brain. Or it can escape the body before death.

But surely we know and understand, after having a loved one develop Alzheimer's, that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, yet it depends on many of those parts, and especially the brain, for wholeness. George Will brings reality to our dealings with death by reflecting so eminently and eloquently on this, and I think one has to marvel at the ability of his mother to express her situation to us all, through her son.

09 July 2006

The Disbeliever

Interesting article/interview at Salon.com about an atheist, buddhist, neuroscientist author who defends paranormal phenomena against treatment as "intellectual pornography", and has an open mind about consciousness existing independently of the brain...

I too find his critique of religious moderates dangerous. We must depend on moderates to rein in the extremists, because only they have the numbers to do so. Also, I have no use for Harris' sympathies for paranormal phenomena, and I believe studies of them indeed to be "intellectual pornography". But he does seem to have some interesting things to say, and I plan to get a copy of his book "The End of Faith", because I do hold that "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away" -- Phillip K. Dick

05 July 2006

Humanism and Naturalism

This is inspired by the linked page describing Humainism (with a bar over the a). That got me thinking about Humanism in relation to Naturalism, which had me all over the web looking for connections and disconnections. The bottom line is that I'd really like to see a fusion of the two, into something called Humanaturalism, which is going to be the topic of this blog.

There are the several secular humanist groups, which don't have the naturalist emphasis I like, and sound too human-oriented, whereas I prefer to see myself as part of the larger web of life. I hadn't really appreciated this dichotomy between humanism and naturalism, but it has been noted in a most unflattering way by the Moonies

A slogan that comes naturally once you get past the bastardization of language:
"Humanaturalism: makes you feel like a natural (human)..."
(apologies to Carole King)

From there, we could have a look at the lyrics of Carole's song, adapted to the present purpose:
Like a Natural Human
Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel uninspired
And when I knew I'’d have to face another day
Well, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But your love was the key to my peace of mind

Cause you make me feel, you make me feel,
You make me feel like a natural human

Now when my soul was in the lost-and-found
You came along to claim it
I didn't know just what was wrong with me
Till your voice helped me name it
Now I'm no longer doubtful of what I'm living for
Cause if I make you happy I don't need to do more

Oh, baby, what you've done to me
You make me feel so good inside
And I just want to be
Close to you, you make me feel so alive!

And from there, it's a small leap to a description of what Humanaturalism might entail:
1. Belief in the inherent grace of the universe
2. Belief in human imagination, myth, dreams, hope, humor, love
3. Immortality of the genetic and human literature of life
4. Service to the web of life with reverence and wonder
5. Wisdom through reason and open scientific inquiry
6. Legacy of healthy children in a healthy environment
7. Peace through compassion, tolerance and respect
8. Democracy and rule of law in human relations
9. Courage and serenity through wisdom
10. Balance of passion and conservation

So what do you think?