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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Changing the Brain

A fascinating new article by Sharon Begley has appeared in the Wall Street Journal called, "How Thinking Can Change The Brain". The article explains how the Dalai Lama is helping scientists understand the power of the mind to 'sculpt our gray matter'.You can read it at MoneyWeb HERE. If that link has become nonfunctional, I have also archived it on the Humanist Contemplatives website HERE. Many thanks to my friend G. Alan Robison for bringing this to my attention on our local Humanist group's email list.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Goings Ons

Well it is yet again time for another blog entry. I've decided to be a little more traditional and 'blog-like' in this post and talk about what's happening with me lately. This shouldn't be too far out of place since what's been happening with me has a lot to do with philosophy.

Firstly, I'll just mention that my certification from the American Humanist Association as a Humanist Minister will be going into effect very soon. Already, there is a couple inquiring about a secular wedding ceremony. Fortunately for me, there is another experienced Humanist Minister nearby (who actually married my wife and me). His name is Ross and he's agreed to help me out on this first wedding. We are both meeting with the couple next week to discuss the content of the ceremony with them.

In addition to this, I've been elected as President of the 'Humanists of Houston' (HOH). This local Humanist group has been around since 1978 and many of its members are my elders and much better educated than myself. So it's a big honor that they would see fit to elect me - I hope I do HOH well.

Although HOH has been around a long time, it's still a fairly small organization. This is partly because through much of its history there have been a variety of ideas on just what sort of group it should be. As it stands today, the membership is disproportionately 'gray'. We could also stand a few more females in the mix. HOH has, at least in recent years, become somewhat of a 'scholarly' type group with book clubs and lectures and such.

While we'll always keep the academic options, my aim is to do more outreach to a younger more diverse crowd. In order to be more attractive, we'll need to be a fully robust Humanist organization. That means we need to have more activities outside of the meeting rooms, and more activities that involve more than lectures and book clubs. I'm hoping we can get a Social club going which will include movies, plays, game nights, outings, and more. I also hope that we can establish a Women's club. We will be reformatting the monthly meeting to have a reception and be geared more toward positive Humanist values that are practical and applicable for people, rather than so much religion-bashing which has been the focus of late.

Second to making HOH more attractive to a wider variety of people is letting them know about it. I have high hopes for our outreach efforts which will include newsletter ads, T-shirts and other merchandise, and maybe radio spots. Getting more active on the web is also crucial. I've begun by refurbishing their website, which should be going live in the next few days. Eventually I hope to get us more involved with MySpace, YouTube, and more. One of our members has already been part of a growing Humanist group in Second Life.

In addition to these other efforts, we hope to have more public events, the first will be a Darwin Day celebration at a local bookstore. So, I'm quite excited about the possibilities for HOH and fortunately, the current members seem to like these directions. Tomorrow we'll be having our first planning meeting to get things going.

HOH hopes to get out in the public eye a little more and promote Humanist philosophy and values while at the same time provide a home for humanists, nontheists, and freethinkers in this area. This is a good example of living, applied philosophy (at least, one type of philosophy) so I thought it might make an interesting post for this week.

As a bonus post, I plan to soon complete something I'm calling "Simmias' Harmony". It's a detailed examination of the arguments Socrates uses for a distinct soul - the basis of which went on to inspire Stoicism, Gentiles, Christianity, and the modern conception of souls. I hope to be able to post this in the next few days.

Soon after that, I have another article in the works which will take a look at what seems to be an explosion of secularism, religious criticism, and/or atheism among the youth over the web. As always, thanks for reading :)

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Remarkable Woman Discusses A Remarkable Man And Their Remarkable Ideas

Ann Druyan is the widow of Carl Sagan and so much more. Not only is she a gateway to learning about Sagan the man, but Druyan is a remarkable woman herself. She has produced great media productions and lectures, and contributed greatly to many causes.

I recently heard this month's episode of the webcast, Point of Inquiry, which interviewed Druyan. It was amazing to hear her eloquently explain the perspective she shared with Sagan on the universe and spirituality, as well as her defense of that approach in the light of modern issues. It seems to me that she is ahead of her time in terms of science, religion, and spirituality. Many of her thoughts are exactly what I am aiming to do with the notion of the Humanist Contemplative. Lastly, to hear her descriptions of the person who was Carl Sagan was both inspiring and amazing. Surely, it was one of the best webcasts I've heard and I highly recommend it.

Point of Inquiry: Ann Druyan - Carl Sagan and The Varieties of Scientific Experience

You can also catch Ann Druyan at the Beyond Belief '06 event on YouTube:

Beyond Belief '06 - Ann Druyan (part 1)
Beyond Belief '06 - Ann Druyan (part 2)
Beyond Belief '06 - Ann Druyan (part 3)

Either/Or's and Iraq

I had been thinking of this very thing, and intending on posting, when I saw Senator John Cornyn (R- Texas) just now on MSNBC perfectly (but unintentionally) encapsulate the error everyone seems to be making regarding the President's so-called 'plan'.

Senator Cornyn said something to the effect of (paraphrasing), 'There are two options here: we can win or we can lose, and we can't win if we don't even try. So I'm in favor of giving the President's plan a try.'

It's amazing to me that grown men who are capable enough to become Senators can make so many logical errors in a single thought - or, even worse, that they have such a low opinion of their constituency and such a loyalty to their party that they can willfully make illogical statements like this in the hopes of passing them off as genuine arguments. I have no idea which is the case here, but I suspect a little of both. I'll only spend time on one of the logical problems with Senator Cornyn's statement.

On July 22, 2005, I made a post on this blog titled "Too Many Either/Or's". This is a case where people are falling into the trap of thinking there are only two alternatives: (1) go with the President's plan, or (2) 'fail' in Iraq. Now I have the chance to take my Either/Or post from 2005 and apply it to real life...

Whenever faced with an either/or situation, or one where you feel cornered by two unattractive alternatives [in this case, sending more troops versus losing in Iraq], consider the following:

1) Question the definitions being used. It could be that the two alternatives aren't really opposed or limiting if each uses a different sense of the same words.

In this case, what do we mean by 'failure' in Iraq? Could the definition of 'failure' also include the loss of even more troops, further escalation of hostilities, and an even more disastrous outcome from troop increases and an extended conflict? In such a case, both apparent options might be a path to failure and not really be an either/or at all.

Conversely, could 'success' mean starting our exit from Iraq, thus pressuring the Iraqi government to get its act together to fill the void, and perhaps deescalate the tensions our very presence is causing? If so, then the apparent 'failure' option may not be anything of the sort.

2) Consider how the either/or's might co-exist or both be true.

As explained above, increasing troops might lead to failure just as a complete and instant withdraw might. Similarly, not increasing them (or even decreasing them) might be a part of a plan that leads to success. The increase/decrease variable and the success/fail variable are not inherently tied together as many presuppose.

3) Could the two alternatives be rooted in a shared principle or motive?

Of course, both of the options with regard to troop levels share the same motive: a stable, free Iraq and a secure America. Efforts to link those proposing one plan or another to other motives are plainly political rhetoric.

4) Think of how the either/or may be the same thing in some sense.

Many would argue that following the President's Plan is the same thing as failure in Iraq. Others would argue that not following the plan is part of a plan for success.

5) Consider whether there really are just two options - try to think of 'third options'.

If we don't increase troop levels, it doesn't mean that our only alternatives are to keep going as we are or withdraw on an artificially quick time table, allowing Iraq to fumble into whatever state it does. There are many more options.

One 'third option' might be the following:

- Increase funding, support, and personnel training and recruiting Iraqi army and police.

- Given the to-be new levels, estimate the maximum rate at which Iraq might be able to increase its levels if really desperate.

- Reduce all U.S. forces at a rate that forces Iraq to hustle to fill the void, but not so fast that they have no hope of it.

- Make exceptions to avoid the disastrous consequence of a forceful coup. This would include leaving a strike force inside the Green Zone, which could be called into action if the very existence of the elected government came into danger of being assaulted or ousted by force. It could also include a continued presence out in the countryside along the Syrian and Iranian border.

The important thing in this 'third option' would be that we get out of the business of walking urban streets, busting down doors, and so on - and yet do not risk the elected government falling by force and still continue training of Iraqi forces and monitoring the borders. There are many other 'third options' which get into details of military tactics, political maneuvering, diplomatic initiatives, unorthodox approaches, and so on.

It could very well be that a troop increase is the best option, but to believe that we are stuck between accepting the President's shift from "stay the course" to "more of the same" or accepting chaos and defeat in Iraq is nonsense. It may be helpful to those pitching the plan, but not very close to the truth of our situation. Of course, we all know that truth ranks low in matters of politics and war.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Am A Believer

I was thinking recently about the labels 'believer' and 'nonbeliever'. I have decided not to use them anymore for the very simple reason that the labels imply an unstated default phenomenon in which we are to believe or not believe. However...

  • I believe that the natural universe is an amazing and wondrous thing.
  • I believe that life is beautiful and valuable.
  • I believe that all human beings are worthy of compassion and concern.
  • I believe that reason, including science, is the best tool for understanding nature.
  • I believe that a virtuous life is the best path to a happy life.
  • I believe that ethics are best based on their effect on human wellbeing.

In my book, I am not a nonbeliever - I am a believer. Those other people:

  • the superstitious who disbelieve in the use of reason and evidence for claims,
  • the dogmatic who disbelieve in freethought,
  • the credulous who disbelieve in healthy skepticism,
  • the extremists who disbelieve in humility and limits to our knowledge,
  • the intolerant who disbelieve in universal compassion

- they are the nonbelievers.

Note: this post was edited on January 4, 2008 for bullet formatting.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Modern Persuits of Eudaimonia

Just as Socrates, Epictetus, and the like thought greatly about 'the good life', today the field of Positive Psychology is the study of what allows a person to have a fulfilling and happy life. It is an offshoot of the Humanistic Psychology of the 60s and 70s. It began in part as a response to the realization that psychology was always used to address illness, but never toward wellness. Positive Psychology attempts to gather hard scientific data on the consequences of our choices when it comes to behaviors.

Sounding not too dissimilar from Marcus Aurelius' list, the "Character Strengths and Virtues" manual lists six core virtues: Wisdom & Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence (for the naturalists among us, that last one speaks to the appreciation of beauty and excellence, rather than transcendence to a supernatural state).

The Positive Psychology Center lists, in their FAQ, several interesting facts psychologists have determined:

  1. Wealth is only weakly related to happiness both within and across nations, particularly when income is above the poverty level (Diener & Diener, 1996).
  2. Activities that make people happy in small doses – such as shopping, good food and making money – do not lead to fulfillment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns (Myers, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  3. Engaging in an experience that produces ‘flow’ is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal. In such an activity, concentration is fully engaged in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and sense of time is distorted (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
  4. People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress toward goals, well-being, and help others more (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
  5. Trying to maximize happiness can lead to unhappiness (Schwartz et al., 2002).
  6. People who witness others perform good deeds experience an emotion called ‘elevation’ and this motivates them to perform their own good deeds (Haidt, 2000).
  7. Optimism can protect people from mental and physical illness (Taylor et al., 2000).
  8. People who are optimistic or happy have better performance in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people. Further, optimism can be measured and it can be learned (Seligman, 1991; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005).
  9. People who report more positive emotions in young adulthood live longer and healthier lives (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001).
  10. Physicians experiencing positive emotion tend to make more accurate diagnoses (Isen, 1993).
  11. Healthy human development can take place under conditions of even great adversity due to a process of resilience that is common and completely ordinary (Masten, 2001).
  12. There are benefits associated with disclosive writing. Individuals who write about traumatic events are physically healthier than control groups that do not. Individuals who write about the perceived benefits of traumatic events achieve the same physical health benefits as those who write only about the trauma (King & Miner, 2000). Individuals who write about their life goals and their best imagined future achieve similar physical health benefits to those who write only about traumatic events. Further, writing about life goals is significantly less distressing than writing about trauma, and is associated with enhanced well-being (King, 2001).
  13. People are unable to predict how long they will be happy or sad following an important event (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg & Wheatley, 1998; Wilson, Meyers, & Gilbert, 2001). These researchers found that people typically overestimate how long they will be sad following a bad event, such as a romantic breakup, yet fail to learn from repeated experiences that their predictions are wrong.