Given the increasing shrillness of debates about religion in the public square and in the schools, and over what children should be taught about evolution in the public schools, last night's Nightline debate among several leading thinkers (including Deepak Chopra and Michael Shermer) on religion, philosophy, and science was of interest. Here's a link to the debate if you'd like to hear it again or if you'd like to hear it for the first time.
In a burst of interest in why otherwise rational people go off on wacky streaks, I've been reading books like Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational (2008) and Stuart Sutherland's Irrationality (reprinted 2007). Dr. Sutherland (1927-1998) writes academically but accessibly and cleverly about misinterpretations, false inferences, and missed connections, and in one chapter takes on the paranormal. An inexpensive paperback and recommended, especially for those who like Dr. Ariely's book and Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things (2002).
Another article (from 2008) on "magicology," the newly named study of the interaction of neuroscience and magic. It's Devin Powell's "Magicology: Casting a Spell on the Mind," New Scientist, Dec. 24, 2008. The author says in part,
Over the past couple of years, neuroscientists and magicians have been getting together to create a science that might be called “magicology”. If successful, both sides stand to benefit.
By plundering the magicians’ book of tricks, researchers hope to develop powerful new tools for probing perception and cognition. And if they find any tricks they can’t explain, that could lead to new knowledge about how the brain works.
Similarly, magicians hope that the collaboration will lead to new magic tricks by alerting them to perceptual or cognitive weaknesses that they didn’t already know about. “The real proof that a science of magic has come of age will be when we can use science to build a better magic trick,” says Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK.
Interesting. I'd suggest that some of the additional value of a real science of magic might also be in explaining why and how the brain continues to accept (rationally) fakes and understandable but error-prone identifications, for example. That could be helpful in prosecuting fraud and other crime. The study of "seeing things that are not 'there'" encompasses more than just the study of magic and neuroscience. Check out David Eagleman's "Visual Illusions and Neurobiology," from 2001. There are lots of studies of optical illusions and their effects on the brain. I would suggest that if adherents of "magicology" are really talking about just the active creation of magic effects, deceptions, and illusions primarily for entertainment purposes, they're missing out on an opportunity to help out with some really valuable insights into social and legal issues. Why do people who "know" that something is impossible believe that it "could" be possible after seeing a magician perform a trick? What effect on critical thinking? Why do children believe as they do after seeing a magic trick? Two researchers, Karl Rosengren and Anne Hickling, have published some interesting material on how children as young as 4 or 5 perceive magic tricks. Contrast it with a publication by Andrew Shtulman and Susan Carey on how children think about unusual events.
According to the Metro Transit authority, it will accept ads that don't contain nudity or offensiveness. Other than that, its walls are open.
According to the BigAppleCOR (get it?) website, the organization that make up the coalition are
[C]ommitted to a more compassionate world; we are working for a more reasonable citizenry and a higher level of discourse; we are striving to increase the quality of life for all; and we find fellowship an integral part of the human condition. Theists and nontheists alike are the same people: we go to work everyday; we have families and friends; we are involved in our communities, state, and country; and we care deeply about life.
Big Apple COR aims to inform New Yorkers that there is a community of people who share a rational basis for their worldviews, who attend intellectual public lectures, enjoy philosophy discussions, and socialize. We invite you to visit our various websites, to contact any of those in which you are interested, and to feel free to attend the public gatherings of any of our organizations.
One supporter of the BigAppleCor is magician Jamy Ian Swiss.
On NPR's All Things Considered, discussion with Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, of Jay-Z, and his interest in things metaphysical. There's something of a link, says Mr. Horowitz, with the Freemasons, and with our Founding Fathers, although it might be tenuous. Interesting.
The Blog of Legal Times points out a gem in retiring Justice David Souter's opinions, suggesting that we should read his work more closely than we have been. Justice Souter believes in giving a lot of leeway to the plaintiff when she states a claim, as in the Iqbal decision, recently released.
The sole exception to this rule lies with allegations that are sufficiently fantastic to defy reality as we know it: claims about little green men, or the plaintiff's recent trip to Pluto, or experiences in time travel. That is not what we have here.
Citing Twombly, he goes on, "Under Twombly, the relevant question is whether, assuming the factual allegations are true, the plaintiff has stated a ground for relief that is plausible. " Justice Souter finds no suggestions analogous to the little green men kind in the allegation that Attorney General Ashcroft et al., might have known of and condoned the policy complained of by the petitioner.
Must be that New Hampshire pragmatism. It will be missed.
J. David Velleman, Department of Philosophy, New York University, has published "What Good is a Will?" in Action in Context (Anton Leist and Holger Baumann eds.; de Gruyter/Mouton: Berlin/New York, 2007).
As a philosopher of action, I might be expected to believe that the will is a good thing. Actually, I believe that the will is a great thing - awesome, in fact. But I'm not thereby committed to its being something good.
When I say that the will is awesome, I mean literally that it is a proper object of awe, a response that restrains us from abusing the will and moves us rather to use it respectfully, in a way that does it justice. To say that the will is a good thing, however, would imply that having a will is better than not having one, or that using it is better than not using it - neither of which I am prepared to assert as a general rule.
Speaking metaphorically, I would say that the will is like a magic wand. In fairy tales, the character who looks upon a magic wand as an unalloyed good is destined to be sadder but wiser in the end. Being a magician isn't better than being an ordinary human, just different; and a magician must value his powers by respecting them and therefore using them appropriately, even sparingly, not by using them as much as possible.
According to a new poll conducted by researchers at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, the number of Americans who do not identify with a particular established church is increasing, as is the number of Americans who do not believe in a personal deity, and the number of Americans who do not accept the existence of any deity at all. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) for 2008 is out, and it makes for interesting reading. About fifteen percent of Americans say they have "no religion," up from just over fourteen percent in 2001, the last time the survey came out. Many more people are investigating NRMs (New Religious Movements). Could some of this interest and change account for the popularity of works by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and others? At the same time, we see more and more First Amendment challenges to traditional marriages of the secular and the religious: consider the recent Summum lawsuit heard in the Supreme Court. A loss for Summum, but interesting nonetheless.