Class Warfare Blog

October 31, 2019

The Meaning of Meaning and Purpose of Purpose

I have been having a running disagreement over two words with John Branyan. This disagreement emerged, I think, from my opinions that life has no intrinsic purpose, nor an intrinsic meaning either. These opinions were mocked by Mr. Branyan, who is very good at mocking. (Hey, some opinions should be mocked . . . yes, I am talking about you, Flat Earthers.) He apparently wanted to debate those opinions and I did not, which created another point of disagreement.

Actually, to clarify my opinion I expanded upon my original comments and shared that I thought all “purposes” and “meanings” were quite synthetic, that is fictional, that we make up such things to provide a narrative for our lives.

Consider the following scenario.

*** Start of Scenario ***

The Earth seems to be about 4.543 billion years old. If some aliens happened to fly their spaceship by 300,000 years after Earth’s Birthday (EB hereafter) they would have seen a planet still very, very hot but also covered to some extent with water containing possibly some monocellular life. Puzzled, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? They decided to come back later.

When Earth had it’s 1500 millionth anniversary of its birth, the aliens dropped by again. Their records showed their prior visit and now this planet had cooled considerably and the surface water, much in abundance, was teeming with monocellular life but nothing else. Again, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later, which they did 3 billion EB. Everything was much the same: no plants, no animals, vast oceans, but now they discovered that there was some multicellular life present. And, as before, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later. This time they waited until 4 billion EB and voila, there were plants and animals, some very, very large. Some of the animals ate the plants others ate the animals that ate the plants. Some animals walked, others ran, some swam and some even flew. The land was very green, the animals multitudinous. What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . they decided to come back later. They did so 4.542 billion years EB (1 million years ago). Life had become very much more diversified. The very large land animals were largely gone and smaller animals had grown much more numerous and varied. But none of these species possessed a language they could comprehend so communication with any of the denizens did not seem possible. Wondering what all of this meant and what its purpose was, they decided, since the pace of change seemed to be accelerating, to come back shortly, which they did just now. They found the planet covered by this one species of mammal, which had languages and cultures, oh my. Excited, they established communication with several of these cultures independently so they could compare notes afterward. Once mutual communication was established, each contacted group understood the questions “What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose?” but had completely different answers to those questions, so no consensus existed as to why this planet existed the way it did and what its future might hold. Puzzled, the aliens decided that they had better things to do and decided not to come back.

*** End of Scenario ***

So, just when did the meanings and purposes of “all of this” get created? Did they exist earlier than that last visit? Is great puzzlement.

John asked (I am paraphrasing) “If meanings aren’t real, what are dictionaries, then?” Words have meanings, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. A word I thought “meant” one thing and you thought “meant” another would make communication difficult, especially if there were a great many words being used that fit into this situation. But do your meanings and my meanings line up, exactly or even at all? Are they the same? If you ask college students to write definitions for a list of words, you will find amazing variation in those definitions, almost to the point of unintelligibility. If you ask two of those students to defend one of their definitions to one another, a conversation would take place, information exchanged and usually the two agreeing that they “meant” the same thing or that the word “means” different things in different contexts.

As an example of this consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Mom: How was the game DeSean?
DeSean: It was okay.
Mom: How did your friend play?
DeSean: He was bad, very bad!
Mom: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
DeSean: No, we won, and he was great!

So, for at least a sizable fraction of this culture, “bad” has become “good,” the usual exact opposite of what bad “meant” at some point in recent time. Apparently we allow people to make up meanings, even contradictory ones, as they wish.

And dictionaries, well, they are for when we encounter words whose meanings are obscure or just unknown. But, if you read a dictionary definition of a word, do you then know what it means? How about when “bad” meaning “good” hadn’t showed enough legs to get included in a dictionary? And, you may have noticed that all of the definitions found in dictionaries use words found elsewhere in dictionaries! These meanings are not objective, they are subjective! Oh, my, oh, oh, oh. . . .

We make up the meanings of things to be able to communicate. Enough good will exists that if there are misunderstandings we negotiate what was “meant” so as to be clear about that . . . and this happens a lot because what one person’s meaning for a word is can be quite different from another’s. (Especially when you consider there is more than one language.)

Christian and religious apologists believe that each of our lives has a purpose. This is linked to their belief that we have been “created” as only created things have purposes and only the creators know what those purposes are, although they may try to communicate, aka share, that purpose with the curious. When sentient entities create things, they often do such things “for a purpose” that is “for some reason or use later.” Other times we create with no purpose (doodling, noodling, whittling, etc.) A whittler may be making shavings of wood for the purpose of using the shavings to kindle a fire . . . or . . . they may be just passing the time doing something rather than nothing . . . or . . . they wish to create something pleasant to the eye to give as a gift . . . or. . . . The very same activity could have a multitude of purposes and no one by the whittler can tell you which was the “actual purpose.”

So, the belief that “life has meaning” that “life has a purpose” is tied to life being created by someone or something that can articulate what their purpose was in making the creation, but . . . but just because the creator had a purpose, the creation doesn’t inherit that purpose as its own. A painting, deemed to be a lovely piece of art, originally was created to get paid and satisfy the aesthetic senses of the painter and patron, can become an investment or a gift or symbol of a decadent society or whatever. Similarly, if we were created by some creator god, that god’s purpose in creating us also puts us under no obligation to accept that as a guiding principle to live our lives. We are not bees or ants, we are not created to be anything in particular.

And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives. If we want our life to have a purpose, an inner, conceptual guide for our life, we are free to create one . . . or not. But, unlike “meanings” no one has compiled a “dictionary” of generally accepted purposes for us to consult when we are confused. We are on our own.

And that is good . . . or bad . . . or, well, you know what I mean.

October 30, 2019

WTF? (World Series Version)

Filed under: Sports — Steve Ruis @ 8:42 pm
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I have been listening to, watching, or following in the news the World Series of Major League Baseball (MLB) for about 65 years. Setting aside the misnomer of calling an American national tournament the “World” Series, there are basic views of these contests currently being shredded.

Most obviously, the concept of “home field advantage” is being ridiculed. The so-called home field advantage is that the team playing in their home stadium has an advantage. The advantage is substantial. The “home team” bats last and the team with the most runs after nine innings (five minimally but rain sometimes truncates games) wins. So, no matter what the visiting team does, the home team has “last licks” and a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. If the home team is ahead after eight and a half innings, they don’t even have to play the bottom of the ninth inning; they just win.

In addition, the home team is more intimately aware of the quirks of their ball field (all MLB fields are unique and all have quirks for which there are lists of official “ground rules” that only apply at those stadia), players and coaches get to sleep and eat at home. The home team’s locker room is often quite lavish and the visiting team’s room is often a dump. And the home team isn’t jet-lagged from travel or getting kinked up from sleeping on poor beds or eating poor food or. . . .

The home field advantage is so substantial that teams struggle mightily to acquire it through the quality of their record. MLB, to great uproar, thought that giving the league that won the All-Star Game the home team status in that year’s World Series. Purists were outraged, that such a valuable thing, such as home field advantage, would be awarded based upon the outcome of an exhibition game, and not upon the records of the teams playing in the Series. The practice of alternating years between leagues to receive the advantage was considered more fair in assigning home field advantage, than that travesty.

So, explain to me why in this year’s World Series, between the Washington, D.C. Nationals and the Houston Astros, the home team has lost every game of the six played so far. WTF?

I can remember chatter between series announcers discussing what happened to the home field advantage as the series advanced. If the home team lost a game, the advantage switched to the other team as a majority of the remaining games were played on the other team’s field or at least those games were played first. The usual pattern was 2-3-2, although others were tried, with the team with the advantage getting the first two games and the last two games at their field. If the team with the advantage lost either of the first two games, then the other team could win the series (it takes four wins) at their home stadium by winning all of those “home” games. So, the minimal goal for the visiting team was to win one of the first two games and “steal” the home field advantage. If this were to happen the team which had lost the advantage then had a goal of winning at least one of the next games and “stealing” the advantage back. This was a tried and true discussion topic for every World Series I can remember . . . until lately.

So, when the Nationals beat the Astros on their field . . . twice to start the Series, some commenters said “This Series is over.” implying that their advantage was now too great to overcome. Then the Nationals lost all three of their home games. Amazing.

Currently there seems to be no discussion of home field advantage at all. I wonder what has changed. Have modern athletes with modern training and modern diets overcome this basic advantage? I don’t think so, statistics still show the better teams win more games “at home” than they do “on the road.” That is the basic manifestation of the home field advantage. If I had the energy I could do a study to see if home and away records of teams have changed much over the years.

This is one of the joys of baseball, that there are statistics available going back centuries. This is one of the pains of baseball, that there are statistics available going back centuries.

Thus ends my annual baseball post.

~30~

October 28, 2019

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Filed under: Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:31 am
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Theists often claim that their god(s) is “beyond space and time.” Once again this is made up bullstuff to explain the lack of footprints of their god where all could see them. But consider the following argument:

[God] endures always and is present everywhere, and by existing always and everywhere he constitutes duration and space.” Basically this argument is reiterating the claim that the Christian god (the one under discussion) was omnipresent (“He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, He knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake!”) and eternal. So Yahweh is always looking over your shoulder because he is everywhere simultaneously. And since he has been since the beginning, he is infinite, so time (duration) and space are also infinite.

This argument was made by none other than Isaac Newton, who was defending his new theory of gravity (which knocked the pins out from under the Church’s view of the cosmos). Newton was still a devout believer but he was not buying the current opinion of the church-favored that the universe could not be infinite. According to Newton, for Yahweh to be Yahweh, space and time had to be infinite. And, I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of an argument from Isaac Newton (outgunned, seriously outgunned, I would be).

So, there are still people apologetically claiming that their God is “beyond space and time” and I am willing to play the game far enough to consider that possibility, but at the same time he is within space and time, everywhere and everywhen. So, that he can be beyond space and time is not an explanation for why we are completely lacking in evidence for him within space and time since he is also here now.

This post won’t stop apologists from making this claim (and making up even more contradictory bullshite) because they didn’t reason their way into their belief and they can’t reason their way out of it, so my aim is to prevent people from adopting such silly, false beliefs in the first place and then hope that the believers just die off (like the Shakers had the grace to do).

The Differences Between Science and Religions

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:25 am
Tags:

Burn, baby, burn!

From the blog of the Center for Inquiry of the Freedom From Religion Foundation: “It’s therefore unsurprising that Pastor Greg Locke, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from a Tennessee church chose to burn a copy of the excellent book, The Founding Myth, by FFRF’s Andrew Seidel. It’s a great book, exposing the nonsensical lies spread by the religious right in their claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I didn’t expect Pastor Locke to read the book, though I am jealous that apparently homophobic, bigoted bible thumpers warrant a free copy and secular movement lawyers don’t (yes, that’s a hint, Andrew). But burning the book, and posting a video of it on Twitter, is a particularly nasty and frightening step beyond simply using it as a paperweight or re-gifting it at Christmas.

Ah! On one side you have “wherever the evidence leads” people and on the other you have “Blah, blah, blah . . . (with fingers in their ears) people who do not want to hear evidence, unless it supports their biases.

Can you imagine a scientific opponent to the theory of evolution burning a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species or The Descent of Man? Or maybe performing an exorcism on a college science department?

Who in their right mind would not think that “burning books” has very bad optics, as they say, so videoing the activity for posting on YouTube is what, cluelessness squared?

I don’t know who I am quoting but “there is no cure for stupid.”

PS It is a very good book, as reviewed here. Highly recommended.

October 26, 2019

Interweaving Threads of Thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 9:19 am
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I don’t know about you, but I read a great many books simultaneously. I start a book, read it for a while and then put it down to read something else. Later I pick it up (or not) and read some more. Rarely do I read a book straight through.

Currently in my pool of books I am reading are The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom and A Native’s Return, 1945-1988 by William L. Shirer. Two more disparate books would be hard to find, although there are some touch points between the two.

In The Lucifer Principle, the author is addressing various scientific points behind human history that people tend to forget. The first point, made strongly and almost irrefutably is that humans are equipped by nature with both “good” and “evil” tendencies. One of his arguments involves the tendency of male mammals to kill the children of their competitors during conquests. Not only do we see this behavior in nature but also in human societies. A lactating female is naturally resistant to getting pregnant again, so removing the children, makes the female capable of having babies again, the babies of the conqueror this time. (This discussion gave me more than a few twinges of male guilt, but this practice is observed in both males and females and also seems to be hard-wired into the drive to procreate. The females getting preferential treatment for her offspring by the social exclusion or even killing of other females offspring.)

Here is a sample from this book:

“Hugo Grotius in 1625 published De Jure Bellis ac Pacis, or Concerning the Law of War and Peace, a book that tried to make Christian war more humane. In it, Grotius justified killing children. He cited Psalm 137, which says, “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” Thus, Grotius was well aware of two things: that killing enemy children was common in the days of the Old Testament; and that it remained as common as ever in seventeenth-century Europe.”

I was drawn to A Native’s Return, 1945-1988 because the author of this memoir also wrote the quite famous book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a book I have read several times.

Here is a sample from that book:

“Every person’s life is of importance to himself, of course; it is the only one he has and knows. But in the universe of infinite space and time, it is insignificant. “Qu’est-ce qu’un homme dans l’infini?” asked Pascal (What is a man in the infinite?). Nothing. Perhaps Carl Becker, the historian, and one of the most civilized men I ever knew, grasped best our piddling place in the infinite. Man [he wrote] is but a foundling in the cosmos, abandoned by the forces that created him. Unparented, unassisted and undirected by omniscient or benevolent authority, he must fend for himself, and with the aid of his own limited intelligence find his way about in an indifferent universe. And in a rather savage world! The longer I lived and the more I observed, the clearer it became to me that man had progressed very little beyond his earlier savage state. After twenty million years or so of human life on this Earth, the lot of most men and women is, as Hobbes said, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Civilization is a thin veneer. It is so easily and continually eroded or cracked, leaving human beings exposed for what they are: savages.”

Such coincidences occur often enough in my reading and almost always are worth paying attention to. In this case, we tend to use the word “civilized” to describe thoroughly socialized human beings, people who use words and not weapons to get their points across. People who are “civil” and not brutish and violent. But my recent reading has shown me that civilization was and is based upon oppression of the many to provide ease and resources to the few. So, while there are many nice things to say about the veneer of civilization, at its heart, as at the heart of capitalism, is exploitation for gain, not any of the touchy-feeling nice things we claim for “being civilized.”

If you will allow me another quotation from yet another book currently in my stack:

“Bacon was not thinking of the labouring people, but one hundred years later Bernard Mandeville, who was quite as convinced as was Bacon of the “Tyranny which Custom usurps over us”, was a great deal less well-disposed towards any universal provision of education. It was necessary that “great multitudes of People” should “inure their Bodies to Work” both for themselves and to support the more fortunate in Idleness, Ease and Pleasure: Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (Harmondsworth, 1970 edn.), p. 191: also p. 334.

“‘To make the Society Happy and People Easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor. Knowledge both enlarges and multiplies our Desires. . . The Welfare and Felicity therefore of every State and Kingdom require that the Knowledge of the Working Poor should be confin’d within the Verge of their Occupations and never extended (as to things visible) beyond what relates to their Calling. The more a Shepherd, a Plowman or any other Peasant knows of the World, and the things that are Foreign to his Labour or Employment, the less fit he’ll be to go through the Fatigues and Hardships of it with Chearfulness and Content.’

“Hence for Mandeville reading, writing and arithmetic ‘are very pernicious to the Poor’.”
(E.P. Thompson Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture)

Note The poem “The Fable of the Bees” was published in 1705, and the book first appeared in 1714. The poem suggests many key principles of economic thought, including division of labor and the “invisible hand,” seventy years before these concepts were more thoroughly elucidated by Adam Smith. And a clearer statement of purpose for exploiters has rarely been seen.

And, I close with yet another quote, read quite recently, from one of my favorite philosophers:

Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents. (Bertrand Russell)

We do not need to invent gods as the sources of good and evil (Yahweh claims both, by the way) but rather an act of scapegoating to make us look better in the long run.

Over and Over and Over. . . .

In the news yesterday were a couple of stories showing that our “justice systems” are anything but. The first involves a trial concerning the actions of a group of Catholic peace activists, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7. In April 2018, they broke into the Trident nuclear submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia, where they carried out what they claimed was an act of symbolic disarmament in protest against the U.S. military’s continued possession of nuclear weapons. As Sam Husseini wrote in The Nation, “[they] brought hammers, small bottles of blood, spray paint, and crime scene tape, which they strung across the facility.” Charged with several federal crimes, they face more than twenty years in prison if convicted. (Source: Rewire News web site).

The second item, well the title tells it all “Video shows officer shooting fleeing Fresno teen in the back of the head.” (Go ahead, guess what color the teen was . . . I’ll wait.)

In the first case . . . twenty years in prison for vandalism? The focus of the piece was on whether a religious exception for their behavior should be allowed, but I say it should be on whether the possible sentences fit the crime. No real property damage, just a janitorial bill, and no people were hurt. What say we publicly shame them for their poor choice of actions and make them clean up the mess, while video taping it for public distribution? How about putting them in a situation where if they do it again, they will be automatically punished more severely. Twenty years of someone’s life for an act of vandalism is bizarre.

In the second case, police officers seem to be willing to employ lethal force at the drop of a hat. The oft-cited reason for this is that if an officer fears for his life, he may use lethal force justifiably. This, “fearing for one’s life,” is a bogus justification for anything as it cannot be verified by anyone outside of the officer him/herself. Plus this creates a legal standard based upon a fear level that cannot be quantified or even examined. Plus, isn’t the job basically to manage one’s own fears to keep society safer? In this case, the 16-year old victim was a member of a small group already in custody, so it should have been a priority of those officers to make sure they were unarmed, no? Then the kid bolts and runs away, only to have one officer calmly put a bullet in his head from 35 feet away, then walk up to his unmoving body and handcuff him.

There is a very short list of criminal offences for which the death penalty can be applied (after due process, of course). Why then do we allow police officers to mete out the death penalty for trivial offences? In this case the young man was wanted for “questioning.” We need to change that rule for justification of lethal force. Lethal force should only be available for crimes for which the death penalty is available. If that kid had pulled out a gun and shot at the officers, they would be justified in shooting back because he would have been attempting to kill an officer of the law, for which the death penalty is available in many states. Running away from the police should result in him being chased, not shot and killed.

How many of these cases showing our criminal justice systems are really quite broken must we see before we take reformation of these systems as a serious priority?

October 25, 2019

How to Pay for Medicare for All

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 1:30 pm
Tags: ,

Right wing commentators are whining galore (while wringing their hands greedily) because according to estimates, Medicare for All will cost roughly $28-32 trillion over a decade. Oh my god, oh my god . . . my hair is on fire . . . how will we ever pay for it? OMG!

None of these ordinary potatoes (common taters, get it?) will stop, take a breath and then ask, “Well, what are we paying now?”

“Well, what are we paying now?”

As of 2017 in the U.S. we are paying $3.5 trillion per year for healthcare ($10,739 per person as compared to in Canada where $4974 per person is paid (as of 2018)). According to my very powerful calculator, that means, absent any inflation (Yeah, right, cough, cough . . .) we will spend $35 trillion over the next decade assuming nothing changes. And, of course, no inflation in drug prices, no inflation in hospital costs . . . right, we are going to pay more that $40 trillion over the next decade if the previous decade was any measure.

So, there are the comparisons:

Cost of Medicare for All . . . $28-32 trillion (10 years)
Cost of Status Quo . . . $35-40 trillion (10 years)

And the winner is?
Any idiot can see that universal health care is a winner, which is why so many other countries have it.

But people are whining and crying about how to shuffle around the money we already have committed to pay for something cheaper. (OMG!)

How about these ideas:
1. The money that employers have been paying for employees healthcare goes to the employees. The federal government taxes 80% of this. The employees have more money and guaranteed health care.
2. Now that the corporations are out from under the specter of ever increasing health insurance fringe benefit costs, a flat tax of 5-7% is charged to help pay for the uninsured, etc. (Please no whining about how they can afford it in that corporate profits have been at record levels for decades now.)
3. Health insurance corporations are now free to offer add-on coverage to anyone who wants it.
4. We order our drugs from Canadian pharmacies (by making it “more legal” and easier) until American providers comply and lower their prices. For my right-wing friends, this is called “competition” and “the free market.” (I get my drugs from Canada and they are made by the same corporations that make them here, they just charge less for them in Canada . . . “Ich bin ein Canadienne.”

Any questions?

PS Just in case you weren’t paying attention.
• Will ordinary citizens see their taxes go up? Yes.
• Will ordinary citizens have more disposable income and guaranteed health care? Yes.
• If you are concerned about the quality of care, ask anyone on Medicare if they would rather go back to what they had before Medicare kicked in or ask any real Canadians how they like their system. (Hint: they like it way better than the fictional Canadians in the stories told by the common taters.)

PPS If you want to know why none of the news types on TV aren’t discussing these obvious facts . . . follow the money.

How to Study

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 9:49 am
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A recent article on The Conversation web site (How to avoid distractions while studying, according to science) addressed several studies that showed which things are distractions for studying students and which are not. For example, listening to songs being sung is a distraction, listening to orchestral music is not. Some of these studies were surprisingly simple. In one they took the usual apparatus for monitoring eye movements and monitored students reading while people nearby were speaking to one another (“irrelevant background speech” in science-speak). They found that people reading under these conditions had to go back more frequently to re-read passages . . . because they were distracted.

Most of the things they discovered were not at all surprising to me (no TV, no ear buds in an iPod unless you are listening to classical or jazz music with no words), etc. But as I have argued before, none of this makes any difference unless students want to implement such things.

When I got serious about studying (didn’t happen until in college) I developed a routine. While I did study in the library during lulls between classes, I saved the hard stuff for the evening. Since basketball practice went until 6 pm and then I either had to travel home and eat or go back to the dorm cafeteria and eat, I usually didn’t get to my studies until late. (I was committed to a consistent sleep schedule, so “lights out” was at 11 pm.) My final routine was to turn off all of the lights in the room and turn on my desk lamp (creating a small zone for my attention). There was no music playing, no TV, no food, no drink, as few distractions as I could find. Then I worked my way through assignments until they were completed. (All my study tools were at hand: pencil, pen, slide rule . . . hey, this was before personal computers; heck, it was before handheld calculators.)

As a teacher I encountered more and more students who claimed they could multitask (they can’t, this has been shown to be just an illusion of task-switching), they could study with music playing, the TV playing, etc. This, I think is a consequence, an unintended consequence of “grade inflation.” One could participate with all of those self-imposed handicaps and still get Bs and even As.

I tended to cruise on my native smarts. But over and over I ended up with the highest scoring B in my classes. (this pattern was observable all through high school and into college; observable to anyone who looked . . . I didn’t). I eventually decided that I wanted to do better, which is when I addressed my studying deficiencies. It wasn’t just those which were the causes of my lack of better performances. I was attempting a difficult major and playing a sport, so I had three hours of basketball practice daily for six months out of the nine month school schedule on top of taking class work loads above normal. My program was a four and half year program and after four years, I had only three course left to take . . . and I had run out of basketball eligibility. As luck would have it, of those three courses, two were “Fall term only” and the other was “Spring term only,” so I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to graduate mid year. I tool a 12 credit hour load in the Fall and nine credit hour load in the Spring (“normal” is 15 hours and I was used to more than that). This year felt like a vacation and my new study habits and the lightened load and no basketball allowed me to get all As save one B.

Now, I am telling you this, not because it is exceptional; it was not, but that this was normal. Each and every serious student has to “personalize” their education so that it suits themselves. This is not something that can be done for them, they have to do it themselves. It starts with “wanting to” and includes “being challenged” and some ability at introspection. This where I think we have been failing our youths to some extent. We keep thinking of an education as something we “do to them” as if it were some industrial process. Feedstock goes in here, then flows through converters A, B, and C and voilà, the finished product comes out there. But this is wrong, just as we do not want our doctors to just work on us as a veterinarian would, we want to be included in the process of maintaining or regaining our health, we feel the same way about our being educated. Teaching is what teachers are responsible for, learning is what students are responsible for. Figuring out how to learn most effectively is the responsibility of students, with teachers being, I hope, helpful.

I saw so many young people being cheated out of a good education by low expectations . . . by teachers, and teachers are at fault here—for giving out above standard grades for below standard learning, students do not end up being pushed to “trying harder.” Students have part-time jobs, study distracted if at all, and are sleep walking intellectually. Do not get me wrong, the best of our students are better than they ever have been, but those students check off all of the boxes (high expectations, high standards, and they “wanna”). I am talking mostly about the mass in the middle.

By the way, as an aside, it is well-known that Asians students perform better than other cohorts in college. Various conjectures have been offered as to why and the one that stood up to scrutiny? It was time on task, nothing else, they work harder, the “work ethic” that supposedly made American great.

I used to ask my classes “If you are taking a course and the teacher says, “Just chill, you’ll get a good grade” what do you think of that class? Most of the comments were along the lines of “Sign me up!” So, I continued “So, you like being cheated? Cheated out of a good education?” I said “I would immediately withdraw from that course and sign into one I could learn something in.” Education was apparently that rare thing that people wanted less of what they already had paid for.

I also went to the trouble (eventually) of clearly specifying what the expectations for the course were. Examination question examples were provided, with answers that would be given max scores, that sort of thing. Some students didn’t twig to the fact that all of these objectives, sample test questions, topic summaries (Chemistry 1A Cliff Notes, they were), etc. were provided until the very end of the course. One student asked in the final exam prep session whether it was worthwhile to read the syllabus I had been referring to all semester, to bewildered looks of the other students. These are things that frustrate teachers, but we all knew that students had to go through making such mistakes . . . and suffering the consequences . . . to wake up and smell the coffee/roses/etc.

So, I applaud the researchers who have identified things that work and things that don’t but the application of these can only be made by students. And I can’t tell you how many times I recommended them to turn off the TV, iTunes, etc. while studying, only to have them look at me as if I were an idiot and say “But I have been all along and getting As. . . .” but it was a great many times. (Students obey the Real Rules™ religiously. These are not the rules claimed to exist by most teachers.)

I must say, however, that when the light came on for a student, it was glorious. I told students that a study observation of mine that was really helpful was that Miller Time™ started on Friday at 6 pm. Since most of the college kids had no classes after, say, noon on Friday, the weekend started at noon. They would go home and watch reruns on TV or . . . whatever. So, I told them that in that Friday 12 Noon to 6 pm slot, their goal should be to get their homework for the weekend done. If they accomplished that, then their weekends would be truly free. There would be no nagging thoughts of “I gotta do that reading” or “I have to start that paper.” They would be done for the weekend and would start every week prepared.

I was coming back to my office one Friday afternoon to find a former student sitting at the table in the hall outside of my office door. He jumped up and shook my hand, smiling, and told me that he remembered what I said about using Friday afternoons and he had taken it to heart (He was doing it right then!) and that his grades were skyrocketing. I was so happy for him and while this wasn’t a frequent occurrence, it happened enough to keep me going and trying.

 

October 22, 2019

Possibilianism?

Dr. David Eagleman is one of my favorite public scientists. (He was the writer and presenter of the six-hour television series, The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS (highly recommended).) In this lovely YouTube video (God vs. No God – And the Winner Is? ) he address what we know versus what we do not know (a theme of my last several posts) and introduces his idea of possibilianism. He prefaces that introduction with a description of the “debate” between “strong atheists” (anti-theists) and fundamentalists being carried out in books. He feels that the extremes are being represented in that discussion, but not the vast middle ground. Dr. Eagleman suggests that there is a vast possibility space between the extremes and that these possibilities are being ignored in the “great debate.”

He gives some examples of possibilities, a number of which are far-fetched but he addresses that by indicating that he was asked if he meant that “anything goes” when defining this pile of possibilities. His answer was “No . . . anything goes at first. Then we use the tools available to us to address them.” And those things that are disproven need to be crossed off the list. He gives the example of the religious claim that the earth is 6000 years old and contrasts that with the evidence that it is 4.5 billion years old, give or take.

He reinforced his call of possibilianism with a call for intellectual humility. His presentation is engaging and entertaining as always and. . . .

This is a lovely idea and it has been implemented in public discourse, just not in a systematic way. People share all of their ideas with others. We are a social species, after all. So, the ideas of crystal power, vaccinations are evil, aliens have been manipulating our DNA for millennia, etc. have been out in the open and are being discussed along with practical means to address climate change, wealth inequality, providing healthcare for all citizens, etc. In fact so of the somewhat dubious ideas seem to get more attention that the serious ones. I suggest that our possibility space is actually well populated at this point.

But the flaw in this idea is that it is based upon people making a commitment to submit their “possibilities” to the process and to abiding by the outcome. I suggest that this is not something most people are interested in. Why submit my cherished beliefs/private conjectures/unproven theories to a confirmation process, one that may show them to be correct, but may also show them to be nonsense? I don’t think so. As much as people want to be shown to be “right” they are vastly more driven to show that they are “not wrong.”

The history of Christian churches shows this often enough. Look at how resistant the Catholic Church was in allowing the Shroud of Turin to be tested scientifically. The same is true for a great many other “miracles” they claim are valid. If they don’t play the confirmation game, they can’t lose because they can have it however they want without fear of disconfirmation by not playing.

For people whose ideas are arbitrarily placed in the possibility space and tested, without their permission or confirmation, there are several procedures to follow. Discrediting the people, the process, and the data are all tried and true approaches to keeping their cherished beliefs sacrosanct. And, then, human gullibility always reigns supreme . . . after all Jim Bakker still has a ministry.

And, on top of it all, this is an inefficient use of effort. If trying to get from Point A to Point B for a vacation, for example, what do you think about the process of establishing all of the possible routes first, then evaluating them to find the best one? Rather we take shortcuts to find a sensible option, whether it is optimal is not important. We decide to take our car, then get out a road map and look for lines (roads) on a map connecting A with B, starting by leaving A in the general direction of B (not in all possible directions) and having road characteristics that appeal (freeways if time is short, back roads if the journey is paramount). Part of the attraction of possibilianism to rational people seems to be based upon getting some of the intellectual garbage we have created and culturally kept into their cross hairs, so it can be dispensed with. I don’t think the owners of those “ideas” will play that game.

October 21, 2019

Brilliant Thought on the Meaning/Purpose of Life

I have written a number of time on the “purpose” or “meaning” of life. This answer to a question on Quora really rang a bell for me. Enjoy!

What is the purpose of life?

by  Richard Muller, Prof Physics, UC Berkeley, author “Now—The Physics of Time”

Updated Dec 21, 2017 · Upvoted by Elsa Álvarez Forges, B.A. Philosophy, University of Barcelona (2006) and Ingrid Harris, Ph.D. Existential Phenomenology & Hermeneutics, Philosophy (1996)

Let me answer the closely related question: Why do we seek to find a purpose in life? The pursuit of purpose, in my experience, is found only in individuals who are overly self-centered. Sometimes I joke that the search for purpose in life is God’s punishment for those who care more about themselves than about others.

I once suggested to a student who felt his life was meaningless that he volunteer at a local kitchen that feeds the poor, just one day a week. He gave it a try; a few months later I spoke to him, and he had not found his purpose in life; he just no longer cared about the question.

Parents who focus on their children, above career and success (except to the point that some level of success helps in the rearing of children) don’t ponder the purpose of life. Nor do people who are deeply interested in others. It’s not that they’ve found the purpose, but (like my student) the question no longer bothers them.

Seek out others. Try to help them. It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, just a few will do. Listen to them. Interact. Take their thoughts and concerns seriously. Be a part of a larger community. It’s remarkable how the deep philosophical and bothersome search for meaning in life fades and itself becomes meaningless.

 

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