“Believing in Believing in God”

Baby Jesus: my grandmother loved The Baby Jesus, profoundly.

Do you “Believe in God?” Well, of course you do. It is almost impolite to say otherwise. But I mean, Do you “believe that God really exists?”, or better, answer yes/no to “Does God exist?” Does this second form of the question change anything?

Recently I decided to reread Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is a philosopher and “Theorist extordinaire.” In many different topic areas, he does not simple review the literature and speculate, he puts forth research proposals. That is what he is doing here for religion and he uses the phrase quoted in this title. He is laying out a wide-ranging theory of religion that he hopes will be empirically investigated. It involves aspects of cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistic behavior, archeology, anthropology and even economic history. On my first reading (2007 or so), I did not adequately appreciate that this book is Applied Philosophy!

Dennett contends there is an important distinction in the above two questions. The first mostly speaks to Your Beliefs, Your State of Mind. Yes, many of us do have a Belief in a god or even gods. But when you are asked, “Does God exist?”, this sharpens the issue a bit. It suggests “Where does God exist?” or “How does God exist?” or “What is God,” and “Can you point him out?” It suggests that maybe we are wrong to think in terms of “Him” and not Her or It.

The decoration of the dome of a mosque in Iran. God as suggested by a geometric pattern.

Orthodox Jews do not even speak a name for ‘god’, or write one; that would be too concrete, too much making “GD” like an ordinary thing. Muslims do not picture Allah, or even Mohammed; best to leave visual imagery of God to the beautiful arabesques that adorn their mosques. In fact, Dennett points out that today in many religions it is standard doctrine not to ask for, or expect, a lot of good specific answers on the character, nature, location and qualities of god or gods. Whenever very specific and invasive queries come up, the doctrine of mystery is invoked. God is infinite and incomprehensible, and therefore, by definition, ‘hard to pin down.’

Ganesha, Hindu god of connection to the universe’s basic and beneficial energy.
Ancient Egypt’s main god, Amon Ra. Carrying the Ankh, the symbol or key of life. The Sun is atop his head, his head depicted as a goat or a bird or a bearded man (I do not know why the variation). He eventually became know as the creator of all things, including himself.

The earlier human gods were much more specific and concrete in their looks and actions, than our current ones. They lived in specific places like atop Mt. Olympus or like the Norse god, Odin, in an enormous and majestic ceremonial hall called Valhalla. They looked like real things or combinations of things, a human body with a falcon head, for example. Even the god of the Old Testament became angry, jealous, and intervened in human affairs often and obviously, turning people into pillars of salt or strolling in the Garden of Eden. Consider the seven plagues cast upon Egypt forcing Pharaoh to “let my people go!”, all very concrete and accredited behaviors and events.

Charlton Heston parts the waters in The Ten Commandments movie. I wish God would act so obviously and boldly today! (This is possibly the most expensive special effect of all time. Director C.B. DeMille filmed the pouring of 300,000 gallons of water into a tank and then used that by playing it backwards). A good movie, the classic depiction of the Bible.

But with the triumph of Monotheism and more modern times, gods have become more abstract, more withdrawn from the world, and with this has come the problem of How, Where and even Why must God actually exist?

Belief in Belief

For some ‘believers’, any specific affiliation with a designated religion has been dropped, and a stripped-down sense of “Spirituality” is all that remains. For them, god need not even be “God” but now just a satisfying sense of “a higher power” with virtually no clarification or specificity.

For other ‘believers,’ it is now most important that they, and you and I, just Believe In Believing In God irrespective of whether he, she or it actually exists. It is more a social thing, than a real out-there-in-reality-somewhere kind of thing. It’s part of being good in company. You say, “Yes, I’m Catholic or Episcopalian…” and you wake up every Sunday morning and go to church. You see some acquaintances there and chat. When in distress you say a quiet prayer or two. You try to insure that your children believe the same as you. And that’s about the whole religion thing, for you.

In Dennett’s book, the above is described by some theorists as “a low investment”, “less intense” religious experience. The question of God’s actual existence tends to not come up. This mild form of belief is itself enough, and great doubt is generally not an issue. Other religions may exist and other people may believe differently but that is not an affront to you and your low intensity belief.

Going “High Investment”

But there is another way to deal with the modern problem of the actual existence of your god and you belief in him, her or it. That is to go “high intensity” and “high investment.” If you invest all your savings in one particular stock, that stock — whether it eventually succeeds or fails — is very valuable to you. Participation in a cult or sect is much the same. High investment in time, energy, commitment and even money makes your belief in that group very valuable to you. Any wavering in that belief is a crisis,; it puts in jeopardy all the previous effort.

So in groups like these, belief maintenance is a huge endeavor. A favorite device is “us against them.” “Circle the wagons’, we are under siege; they are all out to get us” is the mentality. Christian Fundamentalists and Evangelicals use this tactic. In an upcoming post I will discuss a sermon delivered by the pastor of a fast rising Columbus area “mega-church.” “As people who follow Jesus…who follow the biblical view of life…(Mathew tells us) ‘You will be hated not just by someone, but by everyone’,” Pastor Chad Fisher tells his congregation.

Fundamentalist Muslims have made great use of the claim that “western powers” seek to destroy Islam. Considering the history of imperialism there is some truth to it, though Islam’s very conservative doctrinal and sociological structure has also led to much tension with a modernized world.

The Qur’an, or Koran, is considered a highly specific and highly charged sacred object. Many of its passages begin with “I” or “we” indicating that it is the literal speech of Allah. Before the Koran is touched, a ritual washing of hands is to occur and it is always to be stored in a safe and respectful manner. If damaged or worn, it is to be disposed through burial or burning.

Finally, one of the other strategies to overcome the modern loss of specificity and intensity in religious experience: the return to (or maintenance of) a very specific religious symbol. To conservative Christians The Bible and its Jesus are literally, and in all its detail, taken as true and existent. Other forms of Christianity with varied beliefs are then simply wrong, mistaken, as are non-Christian religions to an even greater extent.

This is “a higher intensity” and “higher investment” religion. Not only have these believers placed themselves in opposition to other religions but also to other cultural forces and institutions that they see as a threat. Conservative Christians have objected to the aspects of science they see in conflict with the Bible: geology, evolutionary biology and even cosmological astronomy. Liberal Government has been one of their foes because of its support for tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation, support for some aspects of women’s rights, and the insistence on a stricter division between church and state on various issues.

Much the same can be said for more radical forms of Islam. In each case, the “value” of these religious experiences is high. Much time, energy, social status and even money is, and can be, invested in the maintenance of these tension-filled beliefs for you and your fellow congregants. These are some of the ways that vivid and strong belief is created. When other cultural forces are then also challenged, the ground is cleared for not only strong belief but the assertion of the existence of that god.

It is Intense, but I still it ‘True’?

What is curious about this analysis of religion is the question of its “Truth” is forestalled. When Religion is treated as a Natural Phenomenon, the mechanisms for its appearance and maintenance will be sought and it becomes less clear how an evaluation of its truth will occur and what it will be. It is natural. Religion starts to serve more of a function for people and for their society. The question may start to shift from its “truth” to how well religion does at its job. Is its job to “find” a “God” that exists independently of us? Is its job to create and maintain some different relationship between people that includes the universe beyond them?

My Wonderful and Long Gone Grandmother

Somewhere around the year of 1975, I came from college and dropped in on my family who were visiting my mother’s mother and her side of the family in Pittsburg Pennsylvania. I was decked out with my long hair pulled into a pony tale, wearing worn jeans with a fringe added at the bottom, and maybe even a tie-dyed tee shirt (if not I might as well have been, for that was the whole point, l guess). In those days I was determined to speak honestly and clearly to all people about my opinions, sometimes whether I was asked or not.

Steel mills in Pittsburg in the early 1900s.

My mom’s mom, Grandma Surenda, was the matriarch of the family. Her husband had died many years earlier when I was only 5 or so. He was an administrator with The U.S. Steel Corp., the largest steel company in the largest steel producing city in the world. He left them fairly well off.

She owned a large brown brick, perfectly rectangular, three story home, on a corner lot where two hills met. One formed a long flat stretch that was Middletown Rd while the other hill pushed on higher just beyond the intersection that ended with Grandma’s house. Four roads came together there, three of them were hills—two down, one up. Pittsburg is a city of hills. I remember laying in bed in that house as a child, listening to the city busses and large dump trucks roaring their engines, working to climb those hills. Trucks were always hauling something around Pittsburg, in those days.

In that house lived five adults for much of my childhood. Uncle Richard was a short round man who never married and worked at a large factory making industrial equipment. Aunt Thelma was my mother’s sister and lived in the large attic bedroom with her husband Bill. They owned three small dry cleaning shops that Uncle Bill operated, while Aunt Thelma did the books by day for a textile wholesaler and by night for the cleaning shops. They often had piles and piles of coins laying about that we would help them count. They never had children of their own, but when we visited they would adopt the whole crew of their nieces and nephews and take us nightly for ice cream, snow cones and to the amusement park with all the kids riding in the back of the dry cleaning delivery truck.

Of course, Grandma Surenda lived there but so did her mother, Great Grandmother Spirko! In her late 80’s and then early 90’s, she was actually the first on the matrilineal side to come to the US from Slovakia. I later learned that she told a story of how the Hungarian army arrived in Slovakia (in the mid 1800’s, I believe) and forced many changes including speaking and writing in Magyar only, not Slovak. Eventually she left as a teenager for America, as did many other Slovaks. When I was seven or eight, I remember her always sitting in her arm chair by the the large expanse of windows in the dining room taking in the sun. She was always dressed in a long almost ankle-length black dress, black stockings, white blouse, and black sweater mostly buttoned. It was the manner of dress for women in the old country. As I search my memory, I don’t remember her ever talking to me, simply sitting.

Pittsburg is a hilly city. It is here that the Monongahela joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio River. In the Iroquian language, “Ohio” means “good river”.

My Grandmother Surenda, eventually—later in her life after Grandma Spirko died, went to Catholic Church every morning for mass. In fact, she was the first there and was in charge of opening the doors even before the priest walked over from the rectory. To do this, she walked. She was in her seventies and walked about a quarter of a mile straight down the first level of the two hills that met at her house and straight back up when mass was over. The church sat at the bottom of that hill.

Grandma was a short lady but tough and very determined. She was generous, always helping her extended family financially in any time of need. I always remember her either cooking or doing laundry, though she did have her soap operas she followed and she loved local Big Time Wrestling. She would yell at the television as Handsome Johnny Barron (“a bad guy”) would pull an object from his trunks and poke it into Bo Bo Brazil’s eye (“a good guy”). Handsome Johnny would never get caught by the referee, and he always wore a net over his slicked-back silver hair when not in the rink. Grandma, by contrast, always wore a house dress with stockings and those prototypical old lady shoes that tied and yet had a short thick two inch (?) heal. That road down to the church and back had no sidewalk. It was two lanes with a narrow gravel berm on each side. She walked it five days a week in those shoes, on Sunday Uncle Richard drove her and often slept in the car while she attended.

The Nativity, the birth of Jesus in an animal stable, tale basic to all Christian religions. Very much like my Grandmother’s nativity scene.

Thelma and Bill, and most of the family, were very religious, also. When Christmas time approached out came a large Manger Setting that was placed in the yard at its most prominent corner. As a child we would frequently visit, making the five hour drive from Ohio, and I will always remember arriving in Grandma’s neighborhood from the very top of the second hill. Night had fallen as we drove, so as we drove down the hill suddenly Grandma’s house and its glistening manger scene would come into view. It sent a shiver through us all.

That setting was large. The stable itself was six feet tall (2m) and over ten feet (3-4m) long and made of wood. Some of the paper mache figures stood as tall as four feet (150 cm). There were several sheep and a shepherd boy, and an angel or two. There were The Three Magi, one kneeling, who supposedly “followed the star of Bethlehem” to join the birth, along with a camel a meter tall. Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus (scare quoted for several reasons), stood in the middle, and Mary, the virgin mother knelt. In the very middle, of course, was The Manger, the feeding trough that served supposedly as His bed; it was actually filled with straw and in it The Baby Jesus — The Son of God, God Become Man — depicted very much as the figurine at the head of this story. Straw was strewn across the ground and the scene was lit by three or four ground-mounted spot lights and a “star” lit at the apex of the stable. It was quite a crowd and quite a scene.

I believe that when my Grandmother thought of God and Jesus, it was in that form, as a baby, an infant. In her dinning room corner, year round, was also a plaster statue of the infant Jesus, standing and looking very knowing and mature for a two-year old. They dressed it in finely made garments and changed them several times a year. The child had a real diamond ring on a finger extended skyward. To my Grandmother, that was a very real God and one she believed in with all her might.

This was the God that my Grandmother loved and worshiped, and could not bear to think of its non-existence or my disbelief.

That was the house, the family and the situation I walked into those many years ago as a young man. One of our great family traditions was to gather many, many, family members around a very large dining room table for huge dinners. The centerpiece was often homemade chicken soup loaded with chicken, carrots, celery and onions. Served on the side, and indispensable, were homemade chicken liver dumplings. All the kids followed Uncle Bill’s lead and added ketchup to sweeten the soup. Almost twenty relatives could be in attendance on a Saturday night dinner such as that.

But it was Not on one of those huge evenings back in 1975, but a smaller lunch, that the topic came up and I broke the news. “I no longer believe in god,” I said. Maybe it was my mother that quickly tried to intervene and soften the blow and qualify my statement. I do not remember many of the specifics, but somehow I was led to say it. There was a pause, then Grandma burst into tears and rushed from the room. She hurried down the stairs, crying, into the basement from which arose a wail that was heard by all. “My heart is breaking,” she cried out. I looked at everyone, everyone looked at me. I slowly walked down into that basement intent on trying to console that dear old lady.

I do not remember what I actually said, nor much of the outcome. I believe I told her things would be OK, that I was a good person and that was what was most important. I may have tried to diminish the certainty of my disbelief; I just wanted that beautiful old lady to stop crying. She eventually did, and I hugged her. The topic was not brought up again. The family visit went on, though somewhat awkwardly.

“High Intensity Belief”

As I thought about this story and began writing it, I discovered a surprising fact. I had always thought that this adamant belief in Jesus as an infant was personal and idiosyncratic to my Grandmother. It was not. The Slovaks and the Czechs have a Catholic tradition going back to the 17th century based upon what they call The Infant Jesus of Prague. It is a 19-inch (48cm) wooden statue with wax coating and a silver-coated base. It is currently housed at The Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague.

The Prazske Jezalatko (in Czech, Infant Jesus of Prague) cared for by the Carmelite Nuns who possess hundreds of imperial-styled regalia donated by supplicants seeking the favor of The Infant.

The statue has received various Papal sanctions establishing its sacred status and is particularly venerated at Christmas and on the first Sunday of May when it is carried through the streets. Numerous miraculous events are attributed to it, including the rescue of Prague from the invading Swedish army in 1639.

Little did I know what I was getting into in 1975! I was attempting to diminish a high intensity, highly invested, very specific, long held religious experience and tradition. It was far different than the mild “belief in belief” or the vague but comforting affiliation to “a higher power.”

Virgin and Child, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau 1888, France. SOME CALL THIS GOD!

Some other background info:

In 1993 Czechoslovakia divided peacefully into two separate nations. In the northwestern region of the Czech Rep. can be seen the famous city of Prague located on the Vltava River. Adding to the curiosity of this connection is the fact that at the end of WWI the nation of Czechoslovakia was formed with an agreement worked out and signed in Pittsburg, Pa. —“The Pittsburg Agreement” — between Czech and Slovak political parties. The negotiations and meeting organization was accomplished with the help of their supporters in various Slovak and Czech American immigrant organizations, several of which were based in Pittsburg. Between 1860 and 1918, about one million Czechs and Slovaks left their homeland, many of them settling in the big industrial cities in the middle of the U.S — like Pittsburg, but also Cleveland!
The modern Eastern European map. See the middle for Slovakia and Czech Republic.
NATURERELIGIONCONNECTION.ORG : Islamic art from an Iranian Mosque.

“TrainWreck” Trump and the First ‘Debate’

Trump Off The Tracks!

And now, moments before the publication of this post, I have learned Trump has got The Virus. Well, he didn’t want us to wear that mask, now look! Here is my post, with no alterations made in light of the big news. “Trainwreck” Trump, he is.

The post.

Been talking to some people, watching and reading a variety of news sources, seeking their take on the debate. Seems a pretty common reaction that Both Did Bad: Biden and Trump. Some of the headlines and leads suggest something of the same: “Debate Chaos” and such. But this is misleading, I believe!

Granted, your frame of mind and reference point does have a lot to do with your final interpretation, and I’m glad I waited till Wednesday morning to view it because I wasn’t tired and had more patience than late Tuesday evening. But really, what else should you have expected from President Trump?

Here is a headline I like better, from The Columbus Dispatch as part of the USA Today Network: “Analysts: Trump hurt worse by chaotic debate.” And then soon in the article it gets to the heart of the matter, our President destroyed that debate!

“Doubling down on the steamroller tactics that helped him…in 2016, Trump repeatedly talked over Biden during (Biden’s) allotted time,” said the paper. “When moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly admonished him, Trump loudly talked right over (him) as well.” The paper then reported that Biden, in his own defense turned to the President and said, “Will you shut up, man?” Wallace then finally reminded Trump that “the country would better be served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions” and later reminded Mr. Trump that his campaign “agreed to the rules” that he was so poorly following.

That is the debate that I saw. Biden won that debate, in so much as it was one. He showed reasonable poise in the face of Trump’s attempts to bully, and actually had several fine moments when he turned away from his opponent and spoke directly to the camera and the American people. Granted, he did refer to Trump as a “clown”, but a clown, and worse, he was and is, in my opinion.

Mr. Trump continued to disparage and undermine our electoral process on Tuesday evening, and this is grounds enough to vote him from office, in my view. He does our entire nation and it’s history a grave disservice when he pretends our elections are not fair and accurate. This claim was aptly rebutted by Mr. Biden. Also, when the President of the United States cannot call out and unambiguously disavow an armed and violent group based in racial and other forms of hatred our country is in dire straights. Former Vice President Biden skillfully assisted in putting Mr. Trump in that spot in this debate, the spot from which he miserably stumbled.

I say, Joe Biden succeeded in that first encounter with this unscrupulous man. Let us not soil that accomplishment due to the dirt in which Trump placed that event! Apparently various Biden aides have labeled Donald’s performance, “a trainwreck.” I think that is an apt description but also a worthy monicker: “TrainWreck” Trump.

GoJoe, 2020!

He is not a very happy man, least of all now.

Why Republicans Should Disagree with The President

Every time the President says this election is “rigged” against him, he should lose more and more of the confidence and respect of his Republican Party backers. That is, or should be, one of the mortal sins of American politics. Our nation is idolized around the world for our electoral process. Following World War II, American foreign policy was based on the foundation of promoting democracy, or at least opposing communist totalitarianism. Mr. Trump says it’s a lie, that we don’t even have democracy here at home. By doing this he is tearing at one of the pillars of our greatness.

And there is no significant evidence that such a claim is true. Mr. Tump, himself, beat the odds in 2016. He beat the wife of a former president. George W. Bush beat Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Ronald Reagan beat Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. Why was not “the fix in” in all those cases? Mr. Trump’s own Director of the FBI just testified on Capital Hill that there is no evidence of organized ballot tampering, now or in the past.

President Trump’s contentions that he will be cheated of a victory is a deplorable tactic. It degrades our nation and makes him less and less a true proponent of the American people and the many achievements that is our historical legacy. When he suggests that he may not leave office if defeated, he is suggesting treason, and he has been rebuked for this by several prominent Republicans: Senators Romney and McConnell. So, you may support Mr. Trump for many reasons, but on this score, you should tell him to stop talking such garbage.

Thanks to Tom Toles and Washington Post for the use of the cartoons!
Flown outside the Michigan statehouse by health restriction protestors earlier this year.
The Nature Religion Connection.org

The American Presidential Election: What I Will Acceptably Insist Upon in Two Situations

The Leader! “Il Duce!”

What to say or do in the current American political situation?

We Americans are fortunate to have a solid democratic tradition. We can debate and disagree about politics, put different signs in our yard, go and vote, or even just ignore the whole thing. But this year, and this Presidential Election, seems different.

The stakes are higher than ever! Obviously we are plagued with this virus and it’s economic consequences. Obviously our lives have been and still are hugely disrupted. This past two weeks I have returned to teaching at a high school that has classes at less than half the normal size with the student body divided into three groups. One group comes to school Monday and Tuesday, another Thursday and Friday, and a third group has chosen to only work online from home. Sporting events have restarted but with no on-site spectators or only a few. My wife and I have eaten at a restaurant (on their patio) one time in six months! Things are very different and that is true in politics too.

I used to involve myself in a lot of political conversation. I often go door to door working for Democratic Party candidates. I have trained door-to-door teams and my wife and I have sent them out and coordinated them from our home. When substitute teaching, the topic often arises especially in social studies classes. In that situation I generally and carefully play ‘devil’s advocate’ to contentions made by students advocating various positions. With my wife’s brother, a very committed Republican, I was once able to carry on a polite, informative and ongoing conversation about politics, but no more.

The current Republican President, and candidate for reelection, has changed all that. (Well, kind of. Actually I believe that our election of Barack Obama, a black man with a different kind of name and a political progressive, scared right-wing Republicans and a portion of the population that feels itself threatened and ‘marginalized’. That is what gave Mr. Trump his opening.) Mr. Trump’s Politics of Fear, Denigration, and Division has made conversation very difficult, very tense, and easily nasty.

It is probably of little value to argue (debate) with most Trump supporters! In general, I have tried to point out the factual errors in many of their contentions, and this especially with his younger supporters at school. But with his adult supporters, I feel it is almost like a personal psychological affliction that leads many of them to their support of that psychologically disturbed man. Often discussion has come very quickly to, something like, “Boy, do they have you fooled.” And we each say this to the other! They believe I am ‘the sucker’ for believing “main-stream media”, and I believe they are sadly mistaken and kind of crazy for believing so many conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” (i.e. Fox News). It can even come to them regarding all progressives as Evil, and I being deeply concerned that many Trump supporters are racists, xenophobes and potentially violent.

This is scary! This very seldom happened when Republicans ran far more respectable and principled candidates like John McCain or Mitt Romney. Though let us not forget, Republicans do often turn to fear tactics to motivate their base which is — beyond many of The Wealthy who simply want to make more and more money — predominantly racially white, religiously conservative Christian, and many of them not well educated. Mr. Trump actually has said, “I love the poorly educated.” Please, Donald, let’s try Not to make that a virtue, but he does!

Our Democracy is Real and The Two Things I have Decided to Insist Upon

So, what to say in this unfortunate situation? Of course one could say many things, and most would lead quickly to hostility; but I will try to keep the conversation going by trying for two minimal points. First, I will propose that Mr. Trump is doing us all a disservice when he says, “If I lose, it is because the election is rigged.” After all, one of the spectacular realities about our country is that Our Democracy is Real.

When Trump surprisingly beat Democrat Hillary Clinton — the wife of a former president — in 2016, that election was not rigged (though the Russians did interfere and did coordinate with the Trump campaign to an unacceptable degree). When Republican George W. Bush beat Democratic Vice President Al Gore in 2020, in one of the tightest elections ever, that election was not rigged (though the voting situation in Florida left much to be desired). When Republican Ronald Reagan beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, that election was not rigged. No real evidence exists that our system is not overwhelmingly legitimate!

When Donald Trump casts doubt on the legitimacy of the American Electoral Process he desecrates (or even defacates) upon the very foundation he stands. For even Trump supporters, and those opposed to him, that is A Tactic that should not be tolerated! That is Not “Making America Great Again” nor will it “Keep America Great”!

SECOND, I am going to resist the claims that “All politics is dirty” and that “All politicians are crooked”. I usually do give some resistance to those who propose this as a self-evident truth, but this election cycle I will simply oppose it outright. It is not true, and Donald Trump has made it shockingly clear that in comparison to him, Many Politicians are Downright Saints! Mr. Trump has taken modern American politics to an all-time low and should not be allowed to continue. If you don’t see that, you haven’t been watching. Saying “All politics stinks” is too often laziness and a neglect of responsibility. In this election, that easy way out should not be accepted as legitimate for any American.

This point has also been made very clear to me by one of our own local politicians, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. He is a Republican and I have never voted Republican in my entire and long life. But, Mr. DeWine is a sincere and honest Public Servant! I do not agree with him on some very important issues like woman’s rights to abortion and often tax policy, but this man has impressed me and my wife with his honesty, courage, effort and intelligence in these very difficult times. He has run our state well –often in opposition to many in his own party– during this pandemic and following the tragic mass shooting that occurred in Dayton, my home town, in August of 2019.

The first in the nation to call off a large scale sporting event. The first to close all public schools in his state.

DeWine is an old school Ohio small town practicing Catholic who has remarkably remained open to the goodness of most people and to the honor of service. As Senator, he went to the funeral of every Ohio soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he did so without publicity and from his sense of obligation. Early in his political career his eldest daughter died at 21 in an auto crash. She had been involved in an orphanage and school in one of the poorest areas of Haiti, and in response to her death the DeWine family has taken responsibility for that school through donations, fund-raising, and many personal visits to the site. These are not commonly known facts about him; he does not publicize them. He is the polar opposite of that bag of self-aggrandizing wind, President Trump.

So this year, once again, I am gearing up to campaign and to discuss politics! The sign is in my yard; I have been in conversation with the local Biden campaign; I have already been discussing it some at school with students. There are two points I plan to push hard: one, Mr. Trump does Every American a Disservice when he attempts to de-legitimize our electoral process, and two, not all politicians are crooks, and certainly not to the degree that Mr.Trump is himself! I believe these are two minimally acceptable propositions that all Americans should be ready to face.

In following posts, I will let you know how it goes!


The Buddha Frog in Our Backyard Sanctuary.

No god is needed; My wife and I will do.
We split and weed, and plant seed.
We trim and choose, and rule our tiny spot,
but not --- like one such other.  
Mother Nature framed this scene,
and with her choices will be Queen.
But at least, I see my debt
and live to fill her coffers.

It is a special place, our world;
The world of life and persons.
It is our Response and Ability,
to keep it such and More.
And pass it to our future kind, 
for ashes soon we be.
For after all, we are a 'food'
in this Great Chain of Being.
Of what shall come hereafter,
we made our contribution, 

All photos by GWW

(For the original and added context of these thoughts, see The Nature Religion Manifesto under the category Religion. Stay Safe!)

Logo by Marty

9/11 and A Lesson I Almost Taught

9/11: A Tragedy Then and Now.

We are back to school many places in Ohio. I was going ‘to lay low’ for a while, and see how it goes. Being old, and having some lung issues, and being a retired teacher who keeps busy by substitute teaching fairly often, I figured why push it. If the schools have decent plans and the virus is largely kept out, then I would eventually give it a try.

But one of my favorite high schools in the school district I taught for 16 years called me and asked me back for a two week sub job starting the very first day of in-school learning. Our county is Franklin County and it is the most populated county in Ohio. Home of the state capital, The Ohio State University, world headquarters for Nationwide Insurance and the birthplace of Wendy and White Castle hamburgers, we had finally come down off “Red” in our Corona Virus Safety System. “Purple” is the worst, when a county has 6-7 of seven indicators of high spread. Red is next in severity (4-5 of 7) and Franklin had finally dropped back off red to “Orange”, 2-3 indicators of significant spreading; “Yellow” is the next and lowest level. My district planned to go to “a hybrid model”– a mixture of online and limited in-school learning — for orange. I mulled it over, consulted my wife, and then accepted the assignment. A month or two ago, Ohio had 10 to 12 red counties with Franklin on “warning” to go purple. This week we have 6 on red, and they are mostly rural counties. So, there is improvement here in Ohio.

“How long can one just stay at home?” I asked myself. I like teaching, and even subbing which has the interaction with young people but missing much of the work and responsibility (and pay) of a full time position. Our hybrid model brings 40% of students (my estimates) back for in-school instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays and 40% on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is to clean the schools. About 20% of students are choosing a totally online instruction program and assignments are given to the in-schoolers to be done and turned in online on their off days. I wanted to see the return for myself — not just read about it — and be a part of it, a helpful part.

So, this week, when the Tuesday after Labor Day appeared, we started back. It went well. Class sizes were small, students were all in masks and pretty cooperative. The biggest issue was masks worn off the nose and only over the mouth. That will be an issue of ongoing concern I fear. When asked to pull it up and keep it there (for a poorer, urban and somewhat more rowdy school populous as this one) all of them did it and kept it up at least for a while.


Friday of this week came around soon. For a first week of school, and one that had two ‘first days’ — one for each group — so far, all seemed well. I sat on my living room couch, drinking my coffee, and then realized it was 9/11. A rush of emotion came over me.

Nineteen years ago this day, I was early in the first year in a new program at a new school. I was teaching a class of “ED Students”, 7th and 8th graders with emotional problems (“alternative mind sets”, should we now call them?). Kids who have attention issues, hyperactivity, anger, trauma, and what we now understand as autism (usually those more high functioning). Just before students were starting to arrive, I was told that something bad had happened in New York and that I should turn on the television. It never occurred to me then, that maybe I should not turn it on considering the emotional states of my group, but they (and I) rose to the occasion and all went as well as it could on such a shocking day.

Soon, we watched as the second plane slammed into the second tower. We listened to the commentators and discussed it ourselves. I took the lead of course, and tried to provide a convincing and firm assurance that all would be well and that a calm and thoughtful response was what was required from us as a class and a nation. The principal spoke several times over the PA system and then after an hour or almost two, we tried to resume our normal class-scheduled day. The television went off, only to come back on during history class and once or twice elsewhere to get an update. We didn’t learn much math or science that day and I talked a lot, but we did make it through and did so with our emotional dispositions reasonable intact. It was one of the longest days of my life.

Several parts of that day are prominent in my memory, other than the horrific destruction we witnessed by television. First was a comment made by a student. In a class for “special needs” like this one, often there is a “Levels System” to monitor and reward a student’s progress and behavior. “The First Level” is for those students who need the most structure , attention, care and constant supervision because they are experiencing the most difficulty, the most social and emotional “unrest”. Early on that day one of our brighter and more ‘explosive’ boys (13 years old) who had been in special needs for years raised his hand and commented that today he felt like he “should be on first level.” I commended him on his self-reflection and said, “Today, I think we all feel that way.” He made it through the day, and did decline to actually receive first level attention but knew it was available.

The second memory was of the eerie quiet in the building, and of being interrupted from our work by the repeated calls over the PA for various small groups of students to gather their belongings and report to the office for dismissal. Their parents were picking them up early; the building was slowly being drained of its students and becoming quieter, more quiet than it already very much was.


So, I sat on my couch Friday morning with coffee in hand and decided I needed to do a variant of my lesson on 9/11. I was in a class where it was appropriate. I reviewed in my mind how the lesson would go. I looked on YouTube for a short video summary of the events in New York of that day nineteen years ago. I found one and was surprised to learn that I had forgotten that a third building in the World Trade Center complex had also collapsed due to falling debris that day, but was evacuated in time due to an order whose source is unknown to this day but was massively life-saving.

I realized I was not happy to be planning or delivering this lesson, but felt obligated to do so. Off I drove to school, anticipating the day and listening to NPR radio, when they aired a report on a survey of the emotional status of Americans and especially teenagers at this point during our current pandemic tragedy. Our emotional health is not good, and especially for young people. Significant rises in reported depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. And the light came on! One tragedy at a time is enough” I thought! No 9/11 lesson today! I immediately felt relieved.

That is the way the day went. The principal did ask for a moment of silence shortly after 9 am, but in class we focused on getting through the crisis at hand. In my opinion, my student’s lives were enhanced by The Lesson I Never Taught.

Stay Safe! The naturereligionconnection.org, drawing by Marty.

A Paleolithic Sex Symbol: “rocks off, rocks off”

Jagger touring in ‘72. “Rocks off.”

“Rock on!” Incredible to think that one of humanity’s first symbolic and representational efforts may have been the excessive and demonstrative shaping of stone hand axes!

Little did Jagger know how ironic it was that in 1972 The Rolling Stones released an album with a hit song — “Rocks Off” — and throughout the concert tour, that paragon of 60’s rock-sex, Micky Mick, kept mumbling in his Brit accent, “rocks off, rocks off.” I was lucky to see them in the Akron Ohio (world headquarters of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.) football stadium called “The Rubber Bowl.” The show opened with a guy named Stevie Wonder and his band and ended with riot police battling concert-goers in the outfield grass area. ‘Those were the days,’ we say, but only rivaled by these current crazy times! So, maybe we have not come very far after all!

‘Ordinary’ stone hand axes. Not enough to turn a girl’s head.
These Acheulean Stone Hand Axes, date back as far as 1.5 million years. Name derived from the Acheul area of France.

Equally, maybe Mick was not so much ‘on the cutting edge.’ There are some curious facts that have led to some curious speculation about Stone Age Hand Axes. In some areas of France disproportionate numbers of these have been found that seem to be meticulously done and show no signs of wear or use! An inordinate amount of these “tools” exhibiting no signs of use and exquisitely and painstakenly finished, what? Some anthropologists and biologists have been led to suggestion these axes may have “risen” to some symbolic value.

“Hubba, Hubba, Hubba, now That’s A Good Look’n Hand Ax you got there, buddy!” In every geologic period, some guys just really know what the girl’s are after!

(photos from Paleo Direct, price of the above stones $4,500!)

Ya gotta love a good caveperson joke!
Recreation of an adult female H. hablis. from an existing skull dated at almost 2 million years old. By Elisabeth Daynes, a French sculptor.

Dating back to the Lower Paleolithic era, these tools are preceded in the fossil evidence by only one previous tool technology associated with our Homo hablis ancestors. Homo hablis was likely to have been between 3 to 4 feet tall (100 to 130 cm) and weighted 40 to 70 lbs (20-40 kg). Homo hablis still spent time in the trees. It is suspected they traveled and lived in groups of up to 70 individuals. It is the first of the Genus, Homo, and evidence suggests its appearance is around 3 million years ago (mya).

The Acheulean Ax is found with the evidence for Homo erectus in most of Africa, some of Europe, and southwest Asia. Larger than hablis, its height was 4 to 6 feet (145-185 cm) and weighed up to 150 lbs (70 kg). It was the first human-like species to exhibit a flat face and walk with a modern gait. Less hair, also. Probably the first to use fire and hunt in groups, and the first of our ancestors to move beyond Africa about 2 mya.

The Guy, the stone shaper!
The Gal, the stone chooser.

These are our guys and gals. They found themselves driven to shape stone in an effort to impress each other.

Gorilla, of our taxonomic family.

All the above are Hominids, the Taxonomic Family of all Great Apes. That includes Orangutan, Gorilla, the Genera Pan which is Chimps and Bonobo, and the Genera Australopithecus (all extinct) and Homo which now includes only we modern Humans as remaining. Gorillas branched off in the vicinity of 9 mya; Pan around 6 mya.

Recreation of the famous Lucy skeleton, dated from 3.2 mya.

Australopithecus evolved in eastern Africa about 4 mya and was significantly bipedal. It was probably the first to use and make tools to a limited extent, both of stone and animal bone. They largely lived in the trees, though this is still debated. They are believed to be our direct ancestors, to have evolved into Homo hablis.

BUT, BACK TO THE STONES! How exceptional is this? Not very, in nature’s terms. Many animals, including the human animal, build artifacts and even their bodies, to ‘prove’ their worthiness. That’s what a lot of males are ‘in to’: the Peacock and the Peahen, the male Bower bird and the female. It can be a very expensive effort, in terms of time and energy; but it is what it takes in many species to keep their kind going. “I want it, I want it”, they seem to say, without ever really saying it.

Big Horn Sheep “in the rut” seriously butt heads. A very different way of going about it in our own Grand Teton Mountains.. (Photo from greekmountainman.com)

Biologists call this Sexual Selection and it usually involves males ‘showing off’ to gain the favor of a female. Of course, in many other species, males simply fight, even if ‘only’ ritually, other males for the dominant mating role.

Peacock and peahen: What ever it takes to get that gal! Sexual Selection.
The Bowerbird has one of the most elaborate nests of all birds. They decorate their nests with various colorful found objects to attract a mate. Some objects they have used include shells, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass.” Found in New Guinea and Australia.(thanks to u/OstentatiousSock on reddit)

There is speculation that processes akin to Sexual Selection, involving extravagant and excessive Ritual and expenditures of energy, may account for Various Human Practices—–including Religion.

“Who owns the Magic Bus? I want it, I want it!” The Who, lyrics from the 1968 song, “Magic Bus.” Saw The Who a few years later; great show, great showmen.
And the beat goes on” here at The Connection! “The drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain…La de da de dee, la de da de die.” Sonny & Cher

Strange Talk in “PLAIN TALK” Series: Infinite and Finite Minds!

Russian Cubo Futurism: “The Knife Grinder” by Kazimir Malevich (1913).

Well, my metaphysical speculations hit a high point in The Details Revised post. Many readers will be happy to hear that ‘my thirst has been quenched’ and we can return to more mundane topics. But first (!), I need to think about what was there said. After all, “Strange Talk” should be made “PLAIN TALK” for that series, or at least what best can be done.

I write this follow-up as much for myself as anyone. Our MetaPhysical situation has always been a strange one, so to write a recap of my position for “clarity’s sake” is as necessary as it may be unattainable. Here goes.

Poet Bill Blake was ‘out of this world’ with talents! “God Blessing the Seventh Day” pen and watercolor from 1805. He created his own mythology.

The Infinite Mind

Well, surely this gets me off to the wrong start, the odds are against me “making sense” of an “infinite mind.” Yet, Physics does have a traditional place for this idea! Physicist Sean Carroll* makes this clear in his use of Simone Pierre Laplace’s famous thought experiment ‘commonly’ known as “Laplace’s Demon.” Laplace knew Newton’s Theories better than Newton himself, contends Carroll, because he was born a generation after Newton and studied and thought thoroughly and solely in the Newtonian tradition. The French thought of Laplace as “France’s Newton” and he contended that this Newtonian Point of View assumed a Grand Intelligence that existed outside of the universe and ‘gazed’ at it knowingly and dispassionately.

“The Demon” was able to know the position and the velocity of all the particles of the universe at any single instant. That indeed was an infinite capacity that yielded an infinite payoff: Knowledge of the particle’s positions For All Time, past and future! And moreso, as if that was necessary, this knowledge rendered the Idea of Time irrelevant. Since all was known at once to this Infinite Intelligence, Time was really not a basic part of it. So, No Time, and Everything Worth Knowing about these participles was known at that instant to this “Mind.” It was a Complete Determinism, and if you should happen to feel that The Future existed, it was all locked in and nothing was new about it! Many of his commentators (physicists and philosophers), then and now, thought it frightening and so the infinite intelligence became known as “Laplace’s Demon.”

“Bombbardamento Aero” by Tullio Crali (1932). Futurist Art often has a focus on a bleak future.

It is worth noting that our access to this exulted Perspective occurs only through Mathematics. Though the mathematical relations were not all that complex in Newton’ s time, they surely represented a New Paradigm and a reframing of the old problem of motion both in the “heavens” and here at home. Today, some highly abstract and very complicated math is almost entirely the means to our understanding of the modern physic’s world. “Picturing it” in our normal everyday categories does not work, it is contended.

Physics does take seriously the universe it presents us (and so do I), and often also acknowledges its Paradoxical Character. Carroll makes clear to us that even among physicists there is great disagreement about how to think about, especially, the Quantum Mechanical Theory that they all agree is “accurate” or “true.” Carroll says his favorite is The Multiple Universe Proposal, that Q-Mech works because there are…?

But even for the classical Newtonian Mechanics, its implications were controversial. Laplace’s Demon was a product of that theory’s implications extended beyond our planet and Solar System to the universe at large. Carroll tells us that there never was, nor will there ever be, a mind capable of knowing enough information about the particles of the entire universe, at one moment, and also having the computational power necessary to analyze it. That if we think of that mind as a computer, it would “have to be a computer as big as the universe itself”, he says!

The value of “Laplace’s Demon” was always the point it made “in principle” about our metaphysical situation. Physics has shown us something “true” about the universe that is very disruptive to much of what we also want to believe is “true”. So, don’t blame only me for my “strange talk” and lack of clarity!

A Finite Mind

A Mars Rover, Designed to function largely on its own in carrying out its mission so far from Earth. It is a Finite Mind, in a certain sense.

But if we play along with this idea of The Infinite Mind and The Universe it presents to us, we then have an interesting contrast that can clarify Our Predicament as “Finite Minds.” What might be our limitations, for surely they exist?

If that expansive mind understood the universe as sub-atomic particles and a quantum wave, then A More Limited Mind such as Ours “sees it and understands it” in a more limited yet still effective way. Why would it still be effective? Why not totally illusion?

…..It Is Still A Perspective

The Finite Mind would still be a perspective on the world, but a more limited one. It is, therefore, grounded and not just illusion. It has a limited scope and is not universal in its purview. It is “an innocuous-seeming but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, writes Carroll.* It does not have the capacities of the Infinite Mind to absorb all the data and process it, so it must Economize and Rationalize. As a Limited Perspective it must only respond to some things as “stimuli” and not to others, and those are what we call “The Information” that is pertinent to it (contends philosopher Dan Dennett). Limitation is the ability to be automatically Selective! And surprisingly, that becomes A Very Good Thing because Why Should We Be Only Interested In The Most Universal Perspective On Things?

These young ladies are clearly not interested in The Most Universal Perspective on this pizza. Not only are they unconcerned with its atomic structure, but they probably are unconcerned with whether you or I (or Julia Childs) would find it as enjoyable. They like it!

…..It Is From A Different Position

No longer would a Mind have the entire universe As Its Object and therefore ‘stand’ outside the universe to understand it and view it all. A Finite Mind is within the Universe and is, therefore, a Participant in it. First, this means it has more limited Objects apparent to its limited Point of View. Second, a finite mind also has Larger Things of which it is a part. It must function in both of these contexts. Ultimately, the largest context is that of the physic’s world, but there may be other mediate contexts. Persons function in their own ways, but also in the ways of all Biological Creatures, and then finally as physical objects of chemistry and physics. For the Finite Mind to be Effective and therefore Real, it must maintain a variety of compatibilities.

There is even the possibility that from a redefined Religious and Moral Perspective a Finite Mind participates in these larger structures. Morality is our participation in, what I have called, The Human Social Organism. Humans are a herd species by design. This is true not only biologically but culturally. “Persons” are formed in a society and are intrinsically connected to other persons even if they are directly removed from their immediate company.

Religion can be our sense of our intrinsic connection to the universe and to reality itself. As much as we modern, secular, educated individuals have learned to appreciate (and dread) our own irrelevance and insignificance to “things” in the broadest sense, it is not completely true! To think and feel ourselves as irrelevant is to, once again, fall prey to confusion. We are not removed from ‘the world’ and gazing at it dispassionately, we are participants in it and full of passions and poignant with a sense of the direction to go and of activity worth accomplishing. This can be our new found religious sense!

…..It Creates A Phenomenal World

The World as It Exists to Physics is not immediately Apparent or Understood to a Finite Mind. Atoms, sub-atomic particles, quantum waves are hidden to it by Perceptions of its own. Things Look Different to us!

Finite Minds have a perspective appropriate to themselves, Their Phenomenal World. “Allegory of Air” by Jan van Kessel (1661). Kessel married into the Bruegel family and carried on many of its remarkable traditions in painting. No atoms or quantum behavior seen here!

Our scope as minds is limited by Our Size and Our Duration, not to mention geographic and historical traditions. Atoms and particles behave far quicker than we do and are much smaller. Finite Minds live in worlds with “Objects of Their Own.” We are well aware of our world of Macroscopic Objects, but also consider that of the paramecium. It is in most directly Designed to be aware of its other little competitors, consumers, and food stuffs; when a bulldozer covers over its wooded wetland to prepare for a new housing flat, it will only very indirectly and obliquely have a sense of that monstrous machine and the consequences of it. A Finite Mind has a “Phenomenal World” composed of the objects it is immediately aware of, and surrounded by, in its own terms. In biology, this has been referred to as “the Umwelt” (the self-centered world) of a plant or animal by biologist Jakob von Uexkull in the early 20th century and later adopted into Communication Theory.

…..It Is a Designed Object

But living things are not the only objects we can think of as having a phenomenal world. Computers are designed with great sophistication today. They play winning chess against chess masters and write music in the vein of Bach and Beethoven, and can more competently ‘understand’ language. If a computer attains the point of “seeming” to have sufficient Personality, then will it be a Person? That seems like a totally redundant question. I mean, how do you you known that I am not a computer? I sure seem to be a Person, but am I really?

Image of “Hal” the almost totally cooperative shipmate in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 Space Oddessy”, until he wasn’t! He spoke a lot more like a Person, than he looked!!!

But to defer the answer to that question, the broader issue is the similarity of a Finite Mind and Any Designed Object. We design and make many functional objects. Each is given its own Limited Perspective of ‘the world.’ Each uses that to Function appropriately and to have a Structure organized to do that. Hell, even my door lock carries out its function rather well! But in the terms of physics, my door lock, and myself, have no particular or significant individuality in the great causal background presented to us by that science.

But clearly, here we are. We are a ‘seeming’ whose reality seems hard to deny. If we are to accept the significance of an Infinite Mind, as physic’s would suggest, then therefore we should accept ourselves as more limited Minds with a world and a mode of operation worth regarding.

For Finite Minds, there is more than One Way to ‘see’ The World!
More of Bill Blake at the naturereligionconnection.org! Ya, gotta love it; Sex in the Middle of a Flower! Life is as good as fiction.

Logo by Marty

Open Letter to the People of Columbus and Our BIG TEN Family in general.

A Cheer We Do at Ohio State Sporting Events: “O—H—I—O”. In preseason polls The Buckeyes were ranked #2 in the nation in American-style football.

Recently there has been much talk about our conference’s decision (The Big Ten) to not play football this fall due to the pandemic. Most of it has been criticism, even anger. Conspiracy theories are common. How could we shut down football when Notre Dame, the SEC, and others are continuing to plan to play? In Ohio we are allowing some high school football, leaving it to individual school districts and leagues to decide, but the major colleges won’t play (the MAC conference is also shut down). How does that follow? That argument— “they’re playing”—may be a little like saying, “look, the guy in front of me just ran that red light, therefore I should follow!”

The Buckeye: the rather large (often about 4cm in width) and inedible nut that is our mascot. From the native Horse Chestnut tree.

Hey, I’m a Buckeye fan and I was very much hoping to watch them play. We have the best player in the country, and Coach Day said this could be a once-in-a-lifetime great team. It is probably not going to happen and that is very disappointing. Further, the league officials did not make clear their specific reasons for closure. It was left rather vague.

Could have been nation’s top player, Quarterback Justine Fields.
Our fiery young coach, Ryan Day.

I can understand the disappointment and even some disagreement, but not to this level! We should all really know by now, that this pandemic is a mess; if you don’t know that, then you are part of the problem. You are one of the reasons there will be no Big Ten fall sports! You doubted the scientists and doctors. You questioned Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton’s decisions. You did not, and may still not be, fully complying.

League officials did give some clues to their decision. The Columbus Dispatch reported (8/20 “Virus curve, testing issues problematic for Big Ten”) that league officials in interviews with the paper reported their concerns about community spread. Prior to that, the paper reported a league medical officer’s concerns that there was no national policy; no effective national testing or contact tracing, no reasonable and universal masking standards. He suggested that the situation was a chaos in which the decision to play would be no more than a roll of the dice.

That is correct. Imagine game day here in Columbus, and in Ann Arbor, East Lancing and western Pennsylvania, Iowa and Nebraska (Big10 country). No fans at games, and bars full. Neighbors gathering round TV sets, families, friends all together and rooting, shouting, drinking, high-fiving, and sharing food. Don’t even think about the teenagers in the campus dorms. It would be a royal cluster contagion in too many cases. Too many, as has now been proven, would not behave responsibly. The virus would spread.

So, unlike what I hear from many of my friends and family, who are determined that it is always about money and law suits, I believe that maybe these institutions of higher learning were holding on to something higher. The Big Ten felt that they should not go along with this mess. They are supposed to be about education, knowledge, and enlightened behavior. Maybe this time, they chose that over football. Go Bucks!

A male deer:The Buck! Our local indigenous people (driven off long ago), The Shawnee thought the Nut looked like “the eye of a Buck,” hence “The Buckeye Nut.”
Our mascot, “Brutus Buckeye.” He does a push-up for every point we score, and OSU is a high scoring team.


Dr. Coyne Wrong On “Observation”

The Classic Movie on the Importance of Context!

We are surrounded by Information! A modern, socialized, healthy, individual is incapable of making a ‘pure and simple’ observation. All our observations are culturally loaded and therefore informative to us in many of our predisposed ways. Biologist Jerry Coyne disagrees and maintains an outdated allegiance to what is called “Empiricism.” (http://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/07/27/more-on-scientism-and-ways-of-knowing/)

I’m sitting in my living room and observe that “my couch is burgundy.” First, what is a “couch”? That is a loaded term, and I do not know when it became popular and useful. It designates a kind of “chair,” but no kind that many human beings would recognize or have used in the past. Maybe some of the few very elite ancient Egyptians and Romans had used something like our modern “couches” and would have more or less recognized it and understood it if standing in front of one today. But even today, there may be some cultures to which such a ‘chair’ would be quite alien.

Is this a “couch”, “sofa”, “divan”, “settee”, “davenport”, “chaise lounge” ? Just to add to the confusion.

And “burgundy.” Even I have to pause and think a moment, “what kind of color is that?” I’m not that good with color words: “fuchsia”, “chartreuse”, even “maroon” tend to confuse me and I have to think of their relation to more common colors to “picture” them. “Burgundy” is a kind of purple, or brownish red; but how different is it from maroon?

Words like “burgundy” and “couch” work like that. Individually, they have no clear reference to any one obvious thing in our environment that they “correspond to.” In fact, I’m contending that all our words work that way and that is why it is a myth to think that “observations” can be individual and simple and context free. Every observation is loaded with context and culture, that is how they “makes sense.” Culture directs our senses. Any one particular thing does not naturally jumping out at us from the crowd of all the things that naturally surround us. Our language is a network of contrasts and we use all these distinctions to identify any one thing “meaningfully.” It is our Culture and Society that train us, socialize us, to to live a particular way and notice and care about particular things.

A Color in The Context of Color.

Cultural Relativism and Biological Orientations

But here I am obviously getting into some trouble. I’m a Cultural Relativist so far, but now I am going to take this a step deeper. Some things do “naturally jump out at us.” Take a bird in flight or a young bird learning to fly. They almost automatically “know how.” It is built into their physical structure. Flying for them is a “know-how;” it is not a “knowing that” it involves many aeronautical principles and laws of physics.

Recently we have been watching some Wrens in our backyard nest in a bird house. The young birds are now starting to spill out of the nest, and I think “spill” is an accurate term. We have so far found three young birds on the ground and unable to fly. Yet, we see them flapping their little wings as if working at it, and I am trying to follow their progress. They are ‘biased’ toward flight. There is no “observation” that is not oriented.

This little Wren needs to grow some feathers, fast! Out of the nest and waiting to fly. (photo GWW)

Human infants, likewise, are biologically prone to respond to human faces, suckle, and learn language. These basic biological structures orient human infants. Later in life adult humans are also oriented in their observation and behavior by our cultural institutions. They are know-how. Our traditions of Art, Science, Religion, Law, Politics, Entertainment, and the Crafts, orient us daily. These Paradigms do change but it is a process more complicated than “observation”, “hypothesizing” and “testing,” the so called Empirical Method.

Dr. Coyne has a favorite example of this empirical method as he envisions it in its broadest form. After all, he contends it to be the basis of All Real Human Knowledge! His example is The Plumber facing a leak. He/she observes it, speculates, tries a solution. Did it work? And this is well enough, but no plumber brings to ‘the plumbing situation’ a claw hammer, nails, or an electric sander. They bring their plumber’s wrench and new washers. They bring their life time experience of plumbing going as far back as their toilet training and their daily experience of leaning over a sink and brushing their teeth. Plumbing is as much a “know-how” as it is a “knowing that” a wax toilet mount is needed or plumber’s putty. We all are far from any pristine innocence —and the observations that would bring— about the workings of plumbing.

It is our familiarity with THE TRADITION OF PLUMBING that allows us to do it. Imagine someone unfamiliar with it totally, trying to make sense of this job! Not even the tools are obvious in their use. Like a Coke bottle completely out of context. We could observe, speculate, and try/test all the way through it. Would we ever get done? Would it ever work?
In the Kalahari Desert, the story of a Sans village disrupted by the appearance of a Coke Bottle that came from the sky! (Comedy, 1980)