Sunday, April 25, 2010

Religion, Science, and the inneffabile

[Note: Several statements in the first paragraph no longer reflect my current opinion, see the next entry above for an explanation.]

There are the things of the world we are able to sense directly or detect with sensitive apparatus, and the things we cannot.  Those things we can sense are useful in making and carrying out sound decisions, those things we cannot detect cannot be used for making sound decisions.  I think it is inappropriate to make decisions based on ideas that cannot be independently tested and confirmed.  One of the reasons I believe this is so that the rights of everyone are respected.  That way if someone asks "Why?" They can be given a reason that they can confirm or prove wrong.  Everyone can have a say, the facts are available for all.  Basically this means rules should have some basis in science.  Science sounds like a very modern idea, or even a futuristic one, but it's roots reach deep into the past.  It is a way of looking at the world much like philosophy, with curiosity and the willingness to learn new things.  It is the spirit of invention and creation.  It is useful, but has no ends other than those we give it. 

Can we detect everything?  It would be sheer hubris to say we can.  Laozi had a simple solution for this, what he could not detect could not be described.  It remains mysterious and ineffible.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Beauty is also mysterious.  We can choose whether or not we want to fear the unknown.  I think it is essential to the scientific and philosophical attitude to recognize the limitations of each endeavor, without negating the importance of their contributions, and for any person to reconsider their position if they find their claims to have exceeded their abilities regarding the subject on which they speak.  Right now, too much self interest and not enough science based explanations are used in decision making.

But then, one wonders if the sciences offer a consilinece of knowledge, as per E. O. Wilson, or if, as Feyerabend would have us believe, the actual condition is one of epistemological anarchy due to fundamental incommensurability.  It is liberating to realize the world cannot be seen through any one lens.  Though all are not equal, neither is one the best.  I had imagined there may be a theory of everything, but now I am not as sure.  Everything is unique and special, each experience and person is fundamentally different from the next.  I approach everything anew each time.  Doesn't reality resist categorization as much as I do?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A second bill of rights?

The other day I saw Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story".  While it's subject matter is not directly related to my job, it affects all of us.  I was introduced to names and ideas that I am not very familiar with, but am curious to learn more about.  The critical experts introduced in the film included: Wallace Shawn, William K. Black, Elizabeth Warren, and Christopher L. Hedges.  The film seemed to suggest that we could be living in an alternate reality if Franklin D. Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights had been acted upon here in the U.S., and not just implemented in Japan and Continental Europe when their constitutions were re-written in the aftermath of WWII (Cass Sunstein wrote a book about the second bill of rights).  If this had happened, we might never have seen such memos as Citigroup's Plutonomy Reports.

The second bill of rights, an "economic bill of rights", looks much the same as the lower half of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  If people are to reach their potential, their immediate needs and safety must first be provided for.  The documentary also reminded me of Noam Chomsky, who promotes a line of thought that began as early as Zhuangzi (see the first paragraph of chapter 11 in The book of Zhuangzi). 

When a global plan for reducing pollution could not be agreed upon, the mayors of major cities created their own plans of action.  The same can be done for the second bill of rights, if not enacted on the federal level, we could work on a local form at the community level. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


On Monday Terratrike, a recumbent tricycle company, announced the introduction of its latest model, the Rover.  Billed as "man's best friend" it has garnered mostly positive reviews, detractors usually point out that it is not performance oriented.  But that would defeat its purpose.  This is a very accessible, utility oriented tricycle that reminds me most of the Anthrotech, a German recumbent trike with very similar geometry.  Among its advantages are included: affordability (as far as recumbent trikes go), ground clearance, load capacity (400 lbs.), and potential for future add-on accessories.  Terratrike is a big player in the recumbent industry with solid reputation.  I would love to see what I could load up this bike with.  With tricycle stability I could add a big electric motor, several racks for luggage, and head out for long distance touring.  The tadpole orientation of the wheels allows one to keep a relatively shorter wheelbase, low bottom bracket, and larger wheels (20 inch) without any concern for feet interference with the steering.  (My delta EZ-3 trike has a 16 inch front wheel.)  I guess I would buy this trike only if I have a realistic plan for electrifying it, an EV project is something I have never tried before. Then again, I could just try to electrify the EZ-3, or something more like this with its clean fully enclosed drivetrain.  Meh, I should probably stick with whipping tops! 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

autotrophic animal

PZ Myers commented on the negative reaction of others to an article by Freeman Dyson about bio-engineering and the potential of a techno-utopia.  It was this article that came to mind when I read about Elysia chlorotica, a photosynthesizing mollusc.  It is so extravagent that it seems to be the product of bio-engineering rather than nature!  I used to think it would be great if I could photosynthesize.  Certainly this would be a welcome ability for Jain monks and nuns, or any vegan, liberating them from consuming other organisms to an extent they have hitherto only dreamed of.  What a fascinating animal!  (A similarly life altering symbiosis exists for the bacteria-symbiotic gutless oligochaetes, such as Olavius algarvensis. But Olavius is still a heterotroph.)

While on the subject of animals, the sort of images revealed by microscopy- the structure of crystals and small biological structures- are amazing!  When I look at a scolex or a placoid scale, I see art.  (The scolex looks like it is dessicated somewhat.)  And the movement of amphisbaenians (mimizutokage = worm lizard) is hypnotic, what other vertebrates move in such an invertebrate fashion?

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Masolow is perhaps most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, but he seems to have talked much more about the qualities of a "self actualizing" person (see personality psychology).  In the second edition of his book Motivation and Personality he describes about fifteen different characteristics.  While I cannot weigh the relative importance of each, the characteristic of "problem centering" (pg. 159-160) caught my attention.  Recently I was concerned with how I can help others, convinced that compassion and the work of assisting others is a worthy "higher calling" to which I find myself repeatedly drawn, and in the service of which I continue to struggle.  So this passage held a lot of meaning for me:
Our subjects are in general strongly focused on problems outside themselves. In current terminology they are problem-centered rather than ego centered. They generally are not problems for themselves, and are not generally much concerned about themselves, i.e., as contrasted with the ordinary introspectiveness that one finds in insecure people. These individuals customarily have some mission in life, some task to fulfill, some problem outside of themselves which enlists much of their energies.

This is not necessarily a task that they would prefer or choose for themselves; it may be a task that they feel is their responsibility, duty, or obligation. This is why we use the phrase "a task that they must do" rather than the phrase "a task that they want to do." In general these tasks are nonpersonal or "unselfish", concerned rather with the good of mankind in general, or of a nation in general or of a few individuals in the subject's family.