How Cats Domesticated Us….

July 7, 2009

This post doesn’t conform to the blog’s normal fare but, as a felin-o-phile (if that’s a word), I couldn’t resist.

New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade writes (in TierneyLab) of a study on the origin of domestic cats in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

All the other species, in the authors’ view, were bred by people for their desired qualities. Cats, being without utility, were not. Instead, they domesticated themselves and chose their own mates without human interference.

It all came about, the researchers concede, because of wild cats’ powers of observation. They had the wits to notice that the first human settlements were full of uncleared garbage strewn about by their slovenly inhabitants and so were overrun with rats, mice and sparrows.

I knew my cats were in control of my life but it’s nice to have a scientific study to back that claim up

As to the “no utility” claim, my cats keep me amused, help relieve stress, keep away rodents and redecorate the sides of my sofa.

Advertisements

In Polling We Don’t Trust: Follow the Money

July 3, 2009

Charles_Darwin_seatedThe Freakonomics blog at The New York Times, in it’s continuing quest to point out problems with misusing statistics and polls, wrote yesterday:

According to a Zogby poll taken this year, Darwin’s 200th anniversary, Americans favor intelligent design over Darwinian theory. According to the poll, 33 percent of respondents said they agreed with Darwinism, but 52 percent agreed that “the development of life was guided by intelligent design.

A slam dunk for the ID crowd? Not necessarily. Read on.

The poll was commissioned by The Discovery Institute, which advocates intelligent design. This is the kind of thing that gives Gary Langer fits.

That’s the kind of thing that should give all of us fits. Langer, by the way, believes bad poll modeling is often a culprit in inaccurate polling rather than the perceived truthfulness of the respondents. He writes in a 2007 blog:

But why admit that you built a bad model, asked the wrong question, asked it badly, forgot the follow-up, or just can’t figure it out, when, heck, you can just blame the respondent instead

Even if the Zobgy poll was slanted due to improper questioning or other shenanigans, it may not that be far from reality. The freethinking and scientific community must do a better job in educating the public on the reality of evolution and the inconsistency of intelligent design. Ideas?


The Wheels on the Karma Go Round and Round

July 3, 2009

Although I don’t see the need for the ancient rituals, robes and other traditions, I have found the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun to offer a more secularized version of Zen (or Chan) Buddhist practice that really provides me with real-world, practical insights.

One of the order’s best online articles is an essay about the Buddhist/Hindu concept of reincarnation or rebirth. The concept seems to take on a mostly supernatural flavor in most Buddhist and Hindu traditions but I found myself agreeing with the more practical explanation offered by ZBOHY teacher Chaun Zhi Shakya.

He writes:

[I]n Zen, questions about reincarnation just don’t arise… we have no use for a system that teaches us that we will be reborn as another creature. That system won’t help us attain our freedom now. Zen encourages us to awaken to ourselves through our own efforts, to understand our true nature as human beings, and to live our lives in that nature.

While many Zen Buddhists will likely say “that’s not the Zen I learned,” I find his explanation compelling and that’s one reason why I consider Zen an effective practice to help me bring about happiness in my life and the lives of others. It’s not a magic formula but the techniques seem to help me better understand the true nature of reality — to the limited degree my “meat computer” can comprehend such a concept.



A Step in the Right Direction

July 3, 2009

I usually find Tibetan Buddhism to be filled with mystic woo-woo (like the idea of directed reincarnation — i.e. some kid ends up being proclaimed a new lama)

However, it’s encouraging to read reports like this one in the New York Times about a college physics class for Tibetan Buddhist monks.

And while I’m not sure he practices what he’s preaching, the Dalai Lama said, of the program:

Yet the Tibetan spiritual leader views science and Buddhism as complementary “investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth,” he wrote in “The Universe in a Single Atom,” his book on “how science and spirituality can serve our world.” He stresses that science is especially important for monastics who study the nature of the mind and the relationship between mind and brain.

While it’s encouraging to see a major world religious leader promote a scientific worldview, I can’t help but wonder how he can scientifically explain his belief that the soul or energy of a previous lama inhabited him as an infant. How does one test such a thing?  However, I agree the study of meditations potential benefits to  brain functions is a valuable mixture of science and Buddhism.


The Human Brain: A Fertile Place for Prayer?

July 2, 2009

Writing in a Scottish humanist magazine, blogger Friendly Humanist recounts an experience with Mormon missionaries seeking to convert him. FH gave them a fair hearing and even allowed them to conduct an “experiment they asked us to try after our first meeting.”

They asked us to pray.

I found myself facing a dilemma. On the one hand, praying feels like a betrayal of my values as a humanist. How could I sincerely ask for an answer from a god whose existence I believe to be improbable, undiscoverable, and irrelevant to living a good life? On the other hand, free thinking is at the heart of humanism. Prayer is an experience I had never tried before

FH tried the prayer. It’s a common Mormon tactic to ask people to pray until they feel the “stirrings of the Holy Spirit” or “God’s Voice” which is supposed to affirm whatever the missionary has explained about their faith (in short, Mormonism is divinely inspired by a known charlatan who “saw” ancient writings on a golden plate hidden in his hat).

FH recounts: “Nothing that could be interpreted as a message from a god – not even a little thrill of what-if. Later, I related this experience to the Mormons. They were undeterred. They encouraged me to keep trying: “God is not always heard the first time.”

As they are trained to do, the missionaries kept pushing, unperturbed:

[O]ne of the Mormons promised, “If you keep trying, eventually you will get an answer.”

FH countered with this:

Well, I have tried the experiment. I have set aside my reservations and sought the truth, true to my humanist values. And I have an answer. There probably is no personal god.

The reason the Mormons use this technique (pray until you feel something) is based on the idea (and my brain science is a little fuzzy here but I think I have the general idea) that the human brain will fill in the blanks if given an “assignment” absent any other stimulus (like “Brain, locate the voice of God”).

We have evolved as creatures who use our intricate brains to fill in any gaps in our understanding almost automatically. When we were hunter-gatherers and competing with other predators, it was to our advantage that our minds looked for patterns in the wilderness and could quickly interpret a blurry image as a possible killer and experiences often confirmed these patterns. It’s no surprised that, if we asked to not think of the pink elephant or asked to look for a divine presence, our pattern-seeking apparatus immediately goes into hunt-and-seek mode — elephants appear unbidden and divine flashes spark across our synapses.

Someone who is not as philosophically aware as the Friendly Humanist is bound to eventually feel a presence of hear a voice given all the positive reinforcements by the missionaries. From a technical standpoint, the Mormons have developed a pretty smooth tactic.

The reason the Mormons use this technique is based on the idea (and my brain science is a little fuzzy here but I think I have the general idea) that the human brain will fill in the blanks if given an “assignment” absent any other stimulus (like “Brain, locate the voice of God”).

We have evolved as creatures who use our intricate brains to fill in any gaps in our understanding almost automatically. Traditional Easter philosophers have called this the “monkey mind” functioning of the brain.

I found it fascinating that Friendly Humanist used an almost Zen technique during his prayer experiment —not actively seeking, just keeping his rational mind and his monkey mind still.

I sat in a comfortable posture in a quiet room, closed my eyes, and asked aloud, “God, do you exist?” I quieted my thoughts to make room for even the softest suggestion from an external deity.

Although I’m not a skilled meditator, I have found that, when I take time to keep my mind still, I’m much less tempted to behave in an irrational manner. For those who pray without some skepticism, it seems as if they already, Fox-Mulder-like, want to believe.
Someone who is not as philosophically aware as Friendly Humanist is bound to eventually feel a presence or hear a voice given all the positive reinforcement offered by the missionaries. From a technical standpoint, the Mormons have developed a pretty smooth tactic.

For a copy of a Mormon missionary handout revealed by an ex-Mormon, click here.

2008-12-01-prayer-vs-hard-work