Category Archives: free thought

A Mantra for Surviving American Politics

Repeat something from this list aloud at least once a day:

  1. No matter how intelligent and informed I am, some of my beliefs and opinions are wrong.
  2. Listening to others doesn’t mean I agree with them.
  3. Hearing only what I already believe does not help me understand the world.
  4. I only learn new perspectives from people with different opinions.
  5. Some things are obviously true only because of the assumptions I carry.
  6. I want to understand why people have opinions so different from my own.
  7. People who believe things I dislike are not necessarily evil or stupid.
  8. Diversity of opinion is the foundation of a constitutional republic; we can’t exist without it.

Design vs Adaptation

More than once, I’ve heard an argument that reduces to this: “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore there must be God.” I understand the premise and the conclusion, but I’ve never seen the logic that gets us from one to the other. These two options do not partition the entire space of cosmic understanding. Of course there are things in the universe that I can’t explain. Almost certainly, there are truths that are beyond the ability of the human mind to understand; but that doesn’t mean there exists an omnipotent, omniscient God who runs the whole show. There’s no connection from one to the other.

Some say that the exquisite complexity — the unbounded interconnectedness of the universe — is proof of conscious design, yet that defies everything observed throughout all of human existence. Everything designed and constructed — whether by humans or any other species — is limited, approximate, and compromised. Anything designed can be improved with better tools. What nature shows is the glorious efficiency of adaptation rather than design.

Designed things are static. Once made, they cannot be made again. Natural things are dynamic. They adapt to everything they can and end when they cannot. The products of organic growth, the dance of subatomic particles and fields, the forces that move stars and planets in intricately connected harmonies — these are not static, designed things. These are natural things. To look at this and see a cosmic designer and creator is to miss the whole point. Organic growth is of a higher order than design and construction. Not because it is designed and constructed by a higher intelligence, but because it arises from forces more complex and subtle than intelligence. Time and chance and the chaos of everything asserting its effects on everything else, submitting in turn to the influences of everything else — these are powers of a higher order than intelligence, design, or construction.  Compared to this, the machinations of gods and demons cannot be taken seriously.

Strange Creatures Among Us

My wife and I adopted two cats recently. It’s not the first time we’ve had cats, but it’s been several years since the last one died. Yes, they’re cute and fun, but that’s not what I want to write about now. It’s possible that aspect of cats has already been covered elsewhere on the internet.

What strikes me now is just how alien these strange little creatures are. People play with cats, but to the cats there is only one game — hunter/prey, the game of life and death. Our cats have distinct personalities, but the gray tabby is the most single-minded predator I’ve ever watched. Destined to an indoor life, she carries the jungle within her. She attacks every lure presented to her with a ferocity that would be terrifying if we existed on her scale. Even our other cat retreats to a safe location when Smokey is on the chase. Nothing stands in her way; she’ll carom off the walls and furniture, leap higher than our waists, and twist in mid-air to capture the prey. Lying in wait behind the glass patio door, she stands alone to secure us from the total squirrel apocalypse which surely would result without her diligent protection.

Watching the cats convinces me that their existence is as alien to ours as any extraterrestrial civilization could ever be. What a great disservice we do in films and books when we portray animals as small, furry people with human thoughts and concerns. Teaching children to look at animals this way is a terrible waste of a profound learning opportunity, but it’s nearly impossible to do otherwise. We can only think from a human perspective. Even if we could really understand their perspective, how could we ever describe it? Our tools of description are words and concepts completely outside the animal experience. Casting their lives into human terms would be a poor translation, at best.

Even the lives of ancient people, far removed from our own experience, may be easier for us to understand. With them, we share the life of reason, words, hopes, and dreams. With cats, we share our living space, but what that means to us may bear little resemblance to what it means to them.

Of course, it’s also possible to go too far this way — to say that their wordless life of instinct means they have no actual consciousness as we know it. I think that would be a mistake. Any efficient predator must be able to anticipate the reactions of the prey. That implies at least some ability to imagine the perspective of another creature, which is a sophisticated act of conscious behavior. In this regard, the difference between us may be more a matter of degree than of kind.