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Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Guest Blogger

In editing a piece of promotional work for someone one morning, I was reminded again of the many similarities between writers, who tell fantastic stories for a living and have no intention that they be taken as fact, and conspiracy theorists, who tell fantastic stories for a variety of reasons with every intention that they be taken as fact.

In Truther circles, as in plotting a story, the narratives often become increasingly elaborate as they expand. Take Jade Helm, for example, or the Birther Movement, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11 or any one of a number of conspiracy theories that have grown up over the course of the last decade. These theories often become increasingly byzantine as the conspiracists seek to answer the inevitable logistical and logical questions that their theories evoke.

For example, with regard to Jade Helm (which is either a mundane and regularly held military exercise or a plot to take over Texas) one might ask the following:

Where will the US military put the Texans they so fear while taking over that sovereign nation . . . er, embattled territory . . . uh, I mean, federated state?

Well, there are several empty Wal-Marts in various locations in various cities in Texas. That’s where the enemies of the Federal Government will be taken.

But how shall they be gotten to and from these centers without anyone noticing?

Ah, there are underground tunnels that connect the empty Wal-Marts to train yards or other points of dispersal.

Dispersal to where? Where would an incursion of prisoners not be noticed?

Obviously, to FEMA camps set up in unpopulated areas of the country so isolated that no one knows they’re there.

This line of questioning could go on for some time, but I’ll stop there.

battleshipAs I suggested in the previous post in this loose series, a question that is seldom asked (or, if asked, is treated superficially as if it, too, was a matter of simple logistics) is WHY? Why does the US military wish to forcibly “take over” one of the states that is already part of our Union?

Answer: Because the Feds want them to do it.

But this only leads to yet another WHY: why does the Federal government want to capture rank and file Texans?

Answer: Because the POTUS wants it to.

As you can see, we’re no closer to the Big WHY. WHY does the POTUS want to militarily take over a state that is already part of the Union of which he is the presiding executive, and imprison random Texans (at great expense)?

Answer: I’ve heard it’s because he hates America (why?) or that he wants ISIS (or the Chinese) to take over the country (why?) or because we suspect he’s a Muslim (why?) or because . . . Well, you get the drift.

At this point, “just coz” simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the real world in any real sense. It doesn’t even work in fiction. In fiction, far more than in real life, we expect coherent patterns to emerge and coincidence to be a non-factor. Above all, we expect to be able to understand the motives and rationales of the characters, else we cannot follow their story lines, much less empathize with them. There must be an actual motive that merits the scale of the events the writer proposes occurred.

diffuse-an-argument-800x800The trick to writing readable stories in just about any genre is to make the characters’ logic accessible to the reader even if that logic is flawed, based on false premises, ethically and morally bankrupt, or completely alien. A character’s motives—their Big WHYs—must make sense to readers on some level or readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief or follow the narrative. Their reaction may be much like my reaction to conspiracist logic: “Wha—? You’ve got to be . . . LOL. . . . Wait a minute. Seriously? OMG, I can’t even . . . Oy. Headache.”

A phrase that’s been floating around the blogosphere for awhile is “word salad”, which is the verbal outcome of thought salad. An article I read a while back referred to this verbal incoherence as a “sentence-like string of words”. It also described trying to extract real meaning or logic from these strings of words as “a category error”—as in, you are attempting to understand logically something that is not logical, but is merely a logic-like string of thoughts. The author likened it to attempting to polish a duck.

I believe writers of fiction and non-fiction (journalists, pundits, statesmen) owe their readers more than something that only seems like a logical thought because it’s set in what looks like a real sentence describing a real Thing.

Perhaps there are writers clever enough that they can get away with murder (literary murder, at any rate) because their sentence-like strings of words sound enough like the real deal to dazzle readers into thinking they have experienced a coherent idea, felt a particular emotion, or discovered a truth.

salad_platterSome polemicists, for example, make such good use of evocative phrases and emotionally charged words that they give the perception that they’ve said something factual, when no facts have changed hands. Some politicians are especially adept at stringing together evocative words that, if confronted with those words later on can—in all honesty—say, “No, I didn’t say that.” And, by golly, a careful reading of what they wrote or said reveals that they didn’t actually say what people thought they said. This form of plausible deniability allows every reader or listener to take away from the sentence-like string of words whatever they wish.

I’d like my stories—whether fictional or fact-based—to contain real sentences that grow out of coherent thoughts. I’d like to give my readers the real Thing, not a semblance of that Thing, even at my most ambiguous. And that’s why when I begin to turn ideas into stories, I ask myself WHY; why would my character do this, say this, feel this?

If the answer is “just coz” I’d like them to, I’m not doing my job.

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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

QuestionI commented in an earlier post that I have observed similar thought patterns and behaviors in some inexperienced writers and conspiracy theorists (or truthers, as they are often called).

In my first article on the subject, I explored some of the common elements in the narratives spun by truthers—specifically Sandy Hook truthers—and inexperienced writers I’ve worked with over the years in different contexts.

Some of those elements include:

  • The importance of time. For example, that video cannot be taken of an event before reporters or even people with cell phones have had time to reach the scene.
  • The continued existence of persons or characters involved in the narrative and their pre-existence before the narrative.
  • The interconnectedness of those persons or characters with other persons or characters.
    The marks that people leave where they live, work, go to school, shop, etc. In other words, paper trails and back story.

My interest in conspiracy theories as fiction narratives was piqued again more recently when an online colleague, Chris Hernandez, posted a couple of articles on the recent dust up over Jade Helm 15. Jade Helm 15, for those who may not have heard of it, was one in a series of war games that our military conducts in the US to prepare our soldiers for battle. It has precipitated a number of conspiracy theories about The Government’s real intent in holding these joint military exercises.

For me, the discussion crystallized a common element in both intentionally fictional narratives and conspiracy theories: the absence of a motive.

I became engaged in the online comment stream on Chris’ blog with those who insist that The Government has intent to (choose one or more of the following):

  1. Invade Texas and declare martial law.
  2. Send certain citizens or all citizens of Texas to FEMA camps via secret tunnels beneath defunct Wal-Marts. (There’s also a conspiracy theory about those camps being equipped with thousands of guillotines purchased from France, but that’s a different bouilloire de poisson.)
  3. Allow China to invade Texas.
  4. Allow ISIS to invade Texas.
  5. Make a show of force at the border to warn the ISIS terrorists in Mexico to stay the heck out of Texas (which, you’d think, would be a good thing).

Be it noted that Texas is only one of nine states that will host these exercises on private property.

It is an interesting facet of conspiracy theories that no two truthers agree entirely on the exact nature of the conspiracy and some may differ widely on what the reality is, hence the conflicting ideas above. Among Sandy Hook conspiracists there are groups who spend much of their time and effort in debunking each other; whether that will also happen with Jade Helm conspiracists remains to be seen. But, regardless of which of these scenarios a truther believes or a writer posits, there is an important question that must be answered in order for the scenario to make sense to others.

Many questionsIn a word: WHY?

I’d argue that this is more important in achieving buy-in in intentional fiction than it is in conspiracy theories because most readers demand a certain amount of veracity in the plot and character details or a narrative before they will suspend disbelief. Perhaps this is because conspiracy theories are free, but one must usually pay for a book. (Please, Dear Reader, pay for my books!)

Author Anna Quindlen has said that, in writing fiction, “Reality is in the dishes.” What she means by this is that a reader will cheerfully believe in unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos if a writer makes the human details realistic and believable or if, in the context of the fictional world, the writer can show that it makes sense for there to be unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos.

This is the standard I apply when I play Jedi Master to less experienced writers, and it causes me to ask, as I read a writer’s work, “Why? Why would X character do this? Why would this group function this way?” In other words, what is their intent or purpose?

In the case of both conspiracy theorists and some writers, that question draws a blank stare accompanied by the dulcet tones of crickets singing in the grasses. In one instance I recall vividly from a writers’ workshop years ago, I asked an aspiring fantasist why his character did something that was both out of character (as revealed in the story) and against the apparent magical rules of the fictional world. He looked at me with a completely perplexed expression and said, “This is fantasy. There are no rules. That’s why I chose to write in this genre—I can just make stuff up as I go along.” (Yes, you can hear eyes rolling if four people do it simultaneously.)

Similarly, conspiracists ignore the basic reality that in order for a person or organization to undertake a tremendously expensive and time- and energy-consuming exercise that requires exhaustive planning, they will have a pretty solid reason for doing so—at least a reason that makes sense to them and offers sufficient payoff to compensate for the expenditure of resources and energies.

jessica-rabbitI find that this inability to answer the basic question “Why?” is most prevalent in both writing and conspiracies when it comes to assigning rationales for the “bad guy”. The old school comic book or fairy tale villain was just evil ‘coz he was evil. Like Jessica Rabbit (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) he or she was “just drawn that way” because the writer said so.

In modern fiction, most readers want and even demand more than “just ‘coz” from an antagonist. They want characters that are nuanced, realistic, relatable. They want to be able to understand the motivations of the villain, even if they do not relate to them. They want the characters they read about to seem like real people with real motives.

I have come to realize that we are more demanding of the fiction we read than we are of the allegedly factual accounts we consume in the daily news.

The payoff aspect of the Big Why inherently raises issues of scale. Some of the most trying moments I’ve experienced as a ghostwriter and editor are ones in which I have been unable to make a client understand that a reader will not suspend disbelief if their characters are acting out of scale. That is, blowing up the FedEx truck that’s blocking your driveway instead of simply asking the driver to move their truck.

I’ve experienced a similar level of frustration when trying to get a conspiracist to understand the importance of a rational reason an individual or group would do something huge and heinous when there were simpler, legal, more straightforward ways of accomplishing the same thing … or the huge and heinous thing was completely unnecessary because the desired situation already existed. For example, that taking over Texas is unnecessary because Texas is already part of the United States, having been annexed in 1845—an event that set off the Mexican-American war. As Chris Hernandez put it, “All your Texas are belong to US.”

Essays & Articles

Personally, I think that everyone, especially writers of fiction, could benefit from at least a cursory study of conspiracy theories and conspiracist arguments. Having asked numerous questions about logical connections (most of which go unanswered) I’ve become hyper-aware of those connections in my own stories and, more profoundly, in my own real world thinking.

There is one way in which the naive writer and the conspiracist differ. When a writer neglects to answer questions about the logical connections in her fiction, it may affect her ability to publish or, having published, to satisfy readers. The most dire impact is on the writer, herself. When conspiracy theorists and those who buy into their theories fail to ask those questions, the consequences can be far-reaching and destructive to society as a whole.

Here, I invoke Anna Quindlen again.

“Ignorant free speech often works against the speaker. That is one of several reasons why it must be given rein instead of suppressed.”


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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 101

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 101

the thinkerI have recently participated in ongoing conversations online with Sandy Hook truthers. After listening to the litany of “reasons” that they have for suspecting a hoax or conspiracy of some sort (what sort varies), and hearing their questions, and reading some of their source material, a pattern began to emerge.

They seemed to have little awareness of a number of things that, as a writer, I must take into account in every story I write and every plot I conceive.

These include such things as:

  • The passage of time. Some of the truther suspicions centered around the lack of news footage showing events that took place during and immediately after the school shootings. There is no visual record of the escape of the children at the school, therefore that escape never happened and/or those children never existed.
  • That the people in the scene exist beyond the camera eye. There is a sense that the people depicted in the story freeze in place or disappear from reality when the camera is not trained on them. They exist only to populate the places where they can be seen. Otherwise they are in a sort of stasis and do not interact with others, which leads to…
  • The connections between people—the interconnectedness of everyday lives that goes far beyond where the people on camera physically touch. To the truther, those individuals who were direct actors in the events of the day are the only ones worthy of consideration—and of course, whatever Machiavellian Puppet Master is pulling their strings and writing their lines of dialogue. They are disconnected from family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, people with whom they share vocations, avocations or hobbies. In the mind of the truther, their outside connections do not exist. They are creatures of the plot.
  • That everyone leaves some sort of “paper trail”—or a electron trail, at least. Everyone has a back-story that includes mortgages, jobs, cars, subscriptions to magazines, Facebook pages. They must eat, clothe themselves and purchase other necessities. They have lives that go back in time. If they were part of a conspiracy, that paper trail would also exist, logically, between the individuals and the Master of the conspiracy.

It was as if every citizen of Newtown who was directly connected to the school shooting in some way, came into being when they walked “on stage” and froze or disappeared when they walked off again into the invisible wings. Between them and those whose lives were touched indirectly, there was an impermeable wall. The rest of Newtown existed in a stasis field.

I found this all strangely familiar. It is the same set of logical and logistical issues that I’ve found myself going over with writers I’ve mentored. An odd coincidence? Not really. Both the writer and the truther are attempting to lay out a narrative that seems convincing to their audience and is internally consistent.

Kilroy 062909Therein lies the similarity and the problem: some plotlines will only remain internally consistent if time, the continued existence of the characters, their interconnectedness, and back story are ignored.

There, the similarity ends. I have some new insights into what motivates truthers that may be beyond the purview of this blog. But with writers, I think inexperience and tunnel vision (Okay, and possibly laziness) may be to blame for stories that fail to ring true or which raise too many unanswerable questions. These are generally solvable for writers. For truthers, not so much.

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Health 101: Myth and Bloated Bureaucracies

Health 101: Myth and Bloated Bureaucracies

MD000613Myth #3: other country’s universal healthcare systems require bloated bureaucracies. 

This first of two related myths, as summed up by TR Reid, has it that the universal healthcare systems of other wealthy countries are run by bloated bureaucracies.

This is simply not true.

Every other system Reid cited is less wasteful than ours. This is true whether they are public or private systems. Our for-profit setup has the highest administrative costs in the world.

This is a major reason we spend more on healthcare and get less in return. Our insurance companies spend roughly 20 cents on the dollar (that is, 20% of every dollar they spend) for the non-medical, administrative costs required for a profit-making venture: paperwork, reviewing claims, rescission, marketing, etc.

In comparison, France, with its private, non-profit system, spends about 5% to cover every resident of France; Canada spends about 6%; Taiwan—which broke in its brand new system in 1995—spends only 2%.

Reid refers to Japan as the “world champion” of cost control. This, despite the fact that Japan’s population is aging. They have better health outcomes, as well, and have the longest-lived and healthiest population in the world, though they are spending half as much per capita as we are.

One of the chief reasons these systems are so efficient has to do with the very fact that they DO cover everyone—in most cases, even visitors to the country. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. There is a vast pool of healthy people who—through taxes or premiums—pay into the system.
  2. There’s no need for a claims adjustment staff who are charged with finding reasons to not pay claims (this means doctors don’t require people in their offices to handle claims either, by the way, which brings their costs down).
  3. There’s no need to spend millions for marketing and other profit-making schemes.
  4. There’s no need for a rescission department charged with finding reasons to cut people from the rolls … just when they need the coverage the most.

Actually, this ties into another myth:

empty pocketsMyth #4: if insurance companies covered everyone they’d go broke. 

They have to be cruel to stay in business, they say. If that’s the case, then why do the systems that cover everyone continue to exist? Because everyone is covered, as I mentioned. There are young and healthy people paying in to balance the older, sicker people. Then when those people are no longer young and healthy, they’re covered, in part, by the next generation of young and healthies coming along behind. It’s sort of “paying forward” … or maybe it’s paying backward. The point is that at some point, everyone will benefit from the system, so everyone pays in.

To balance this, in the other developed countries, if a doctor okays a procedure, it’s covered. Period. The costs are known, the claim is submitted, the sick fund or government agency or insurance company cuts a check. The doctors are paid within strict time limits. Coverage can’t be canceled or refused for any reason except non-payment of premiums in systems that use that method.

These plans don’t go broke; some, such as Switzerland’s fairly new privatized universal system, are doing very well indeed. Even if the government has to put more money in or raise premiums, they’ve still got massive amounts of headroom before they’d even be in the ballpark of what we’re spending.

Hey, today was a two-fer!

TR Reid’s next myth is that these plans are too “foreign” to work in our unique country. More later.

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Cosmology … Part 5

Cosmology … Part 5

Some of the cosmologies of the past …

Stephen Friberg, Aug 21, 2016 …

Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams (detail), 1623. Zhang Huang (1527-1608) Woodblock
Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams (detail), 1623. Zhang Huang (1527-1608) Woodblock

On the first day of my talk talk on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith at the San Jose Baha’i Center (Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It“), I will review some of the fascinating cosmologies of the past.

No era or culture, of course, can be characterized as having a fixed single cosmology and usually there are multiple competing worldviews. But a historical period or a cultural era can be characterized as having a cosmology with long-lived and commonly agreed-on features. Consider, for example, concepts like dao, qi, and yin and yang developed in China some 2300 years ago (Cheng “Dao (Tao): The Way”; Cheng “Qi (Ch´i): Vital Force”; Ames). All things, according to these concepts, are

interconnected and constantly changing. They arise spontaneously from an ultimate source (most often called dao 道, the way) that resists objectification but is immanent in the world and accessible to cultivated people. Vitality and growth is the very nature of existence, and nature exhibits consistent patterns that can be observed and followed, in particular patterns of cycles and interaction between polar forces (such as yin 陰 and yang 陽) (Perkins).

These concepts, and the closely associated “five phases” (wuxing) perspectives that emerged around the same time, evoked a continuity and overlap between the natural world, the social worlds, personal cultivation, and the heavenly worlds that has provided common themes for Chinese philosophy and religion – the three teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism – to this day. They are decidedly pragmatic, providing guidelines for harmonizing relationships in family, social, economic, and government spheres as well as promoting individual self-cultivation.

Astronomical diagram used by 15th century Muslim astronomer.
Astronomical diagram used by a 15th century Muslim astronomer.

Or consider the Islamic world sprawled across three continents and the Malay Archipelago. Incorporating ancient civilizations, including the oldest in our history books, and drawing on a rich and varied set of religious and cultural heritages, it might be expected to have multiple worldviews. Nevertheless, ruling classes, elite intellectuals, merchants, government leaders, military officers, and religious authorities from Spain to China similarly read and studied the Koran in Arabic, sharing a unifying text and a unifying language that made possible the widespread dissemination of ideas about law, scholarship, theology, education, and government. Islam´s common faith and language provided both the means and the impetus for translation of and the sharing of religious, mystical, philosophical, and scientific texts from preceding and neighboring cultures.

Cosmological Mandala with_Mount Meru
Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru.

The Islamic world inherited the Hellenistic, Sassanian, and Indian astronomies and their associated cosmologies. Motivated by religious requirements for accurate calendars and daily timekeeping, by curiosity, and by practical needs of navigation and trade, Islamic thinkers built the foundations of modern observational astronomy, mathematics, optics, and modern engineering sciences and technologies. These developments were integrated into a cosmology that saw the universe as created by God and shining forth with His guidance and sustaining power. The stars, the planets, the moon, the sun, the human intellect with its ability to see and understand, the outpouring of divine guidance from Moses, Christ, Muhammad: all were components of a worldview that saw the Hand of God in all things.

God the Geometer, Created circa 1220-1230. Anonymous.
God the Geometer, created circa 1220-1230. Anonymous.

Western Christendom, separated by language, politics, and religious differences from the Islamic world and the Greek-speaking peoples of orthodox Christianity, built its own cosmology from biblical sources, Latin culture and philosophy, and the tribal narratives of its diverse peoples. After coming under the spell of Islamic learning in the 11th century, it developed a cosmology that later evolved into modern science and then to secular modernity. Anjam Khursheed, in The Universe Within, describes some its salient points:

The medieval universe, so poetically described by Dante, was a universe where humanity’s moral salvation was objectively overlaid onto the physical cosmos. This pre-Copernican universe had the earth at its centre surrounded by the concentric orbits of the moon, the sun and the stars. Heaven was located beyond the ninth celestial orbit, and inner concentric rings within the earth converged on hell. Humanity’s spiritual salvation was mapped onto this cosmology: if a person chose to be a believer, he would rise heavenwards, ascending through the outer celestial rings to abide in blissful peace forever. If he chose to sin, he would take the route down into the earth’s core and be tormented eternally in hell. Medieval cosmology reflected man’s dual nature as half-angel, half-animal, in the intermediate position he occupied in the physical universe. Humanity stood at the boundary between two universes: The angelic universe above him and the animal universe below him.

It was this universe, one that was a ‟rich, multilayered, integrated reality open to divine interaction,” that would be replaced by a modern worldview which, until very recently, held the universe to be a ‟lifeless, autonomous clock-like mechanism closed to any `external´ influence.”

Next time, an overview of some cosmological themes in the Baha’i Faith.

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Cosmology … Part 4

Cosmology … Part 4

Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It

Stephen Friberg, Aug 14, 2016 …

Simulation of merging black holes radiating gravitational waves
Gravitational wave model.

The title of a series of talks on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith that I will be giving at the San Jose Baha’i Center is Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It.”

The goal is ambitious – to probe the roots of modern materialism and to find a work-around away from the problems caused by undue adherence to those roots. The view that the world – and our role as denizens of that world – is purely material is a big part of the problem, I believe. To the extent that modern cosmologies are how that view is promoted and maintained, they are also part of the problem. So, we need to understand these cosmologies and how they have deviated us so far from an acknowledgement of the spiritual, moral, and ethical aspects of our respective human realities.

A couple of things strike me. First of all, it looks as if cosmology – modern physical cosmology and ancient cosmology alike – function much as do myth and superstition. To the extent that religion was propagated to large numbers of people through shortcuts, tricks, and the encouragement of unquestioning acknowledgement of authority, cosmology was a major offender. Modern cosmology continues in that role, although its handlers and owners have changed.

The other thing that strikes me is that there is no going back – we can’t return to the comfortable cosmologies of the past. Instead we must, I suggest, abandon our adolescent embrace of cosmology and its mythical, inspirational character and turn to a wider, more embracing view of reality, one that takes into account our inner world and the role of human endeavor and activity as well, and one that honors, respects, and above all understands the multiplicity of perspectives of the peoples of the world.

This means that the modern physicist’s view of cosmology, so limited, so circumscribed, so tied to physical pictures of the universe, must be dethroned. Only when properly dethroned – and only when it takes its place as one among many ways of considering reality – will materialism give way to a more mature – and more ambitious – way of improving the world.

Cosmology as a Bedrock of Materialism

Aristotlian / Ptolemaic Universe
Aristotelian / Ptolemaic Universe

Cosmology – including modern physical cosmology – is in many ways the same thing as myth.  A myth, according to Wikipedia is “broadly, any worldview-based traditional story, or collection or study thereof.”  Myths come in many different flavors, including the “sacred narrative, which validates a religious system,” the “origin myth, which purports to describe the origin of some feature of the natural or social world,” and the “political myth, ideological explanation for a political phenomenon that is believed by a social group.” Of particular interest to us are origin myths, which include the “creation myth, symbolic narrative of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it”, and the “etiological myth, intended to explain the origins of cult practices, natural phenomena, proper names and the like.”

Briefly, what seems to have happened in the scientific revolution is that the scholastic and academic parts of the European religious establishment – the “natural philosophers,” the great theologians, the university professors, the leading ecclesiastics, and the like – were very much invested in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology as an origins myth and saw it not only as integral to their own worldview, but as a central part of their teaching and pastoral mission as well. Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology was not only the scientific, philosophical, and theological state of the art of the day, but it provided a powerful, readily pictured and easily understood picture of the universe that anybody, regardless of their educational level, could grasp and understand. Its political relevance – a lowly earth with its inhabitants at the center of a universe ruled over by God and the political establishment – was equally easily grasped.

Napoléon aux Tuileries - Horace Vernet
Napoléon aux Tuileries – Horace Vernet

Think about it! What an extraordinary prize! Take it – make it yours – and not only have you captured an important lever of power in religion, in philosophy, and in theology, but you have captured the levers of power in the universities and even in the rule of kings, popes, princes, and emperors. And take it they did. By the late 18th century, enlightenment thinkers were threatening the overthrow of the French monarchy – the leading political power in Europe – and the dominance of the French Catholicism. By the late 19th century, European colonialism, firmly anchored in evolutionary fitness narratives of white man’s superiority, controlled almost the whole of the earth.

Soviet Coat of Arms
Soviet Coat of Arms

Why is this the bedrock of materialism? The short answer is that religion in Europe underwent a period of collapse ending in its virtual disappearance, and science emerged as the owner of the high ground. Science, not religion, came to be seen as the arbiter of truth and power, and the new cosmologies that science proffered cut out the feet from under the old Aristotelian / Ptolemaic cosmology of the church and the ancien regime. And the science of the time was simple, material, and just in its beginnings. That, plus its extraordinary and continuing success and the lack of a robust, progressive, and world-embracing religion, has locked its material aspects in place (although that is starting to change as more complete thinking about evolution and things like ideas about information, creativity, social growth, and related ways of thinking slowly percolate up.)

Is it time to abandon these myths of origin, these cosmologies that seem to so hinder us?  Have we matured to a point where we don’t need them and confusion they sow? Good questions, and certainly we have to think about what is appropriate for our modern age and the future and not revel in cosmic perspectives – no matter how grand – that are rooted in the past. One need only glance at what is happening all around the world to see the dangers of that.

Next time, a brief review of some of the cosmologies of the past.

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Cosmology and all that … part 3

Cosmology and all that … part 3

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology – Part 3

Stephen Friberg, Aug 8, 2016 …

San Jose Baha’i Center

I’ll be giving a series of talks on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith at the San Jose Baha’i Center on Sunday, Sept. 11th, Sunday, Sept. 18th, and Sunday Sept. 25th. It is the adult class, and typically 12 or so people are there.  We have good discussions!

The title will be Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It“.  Part 1 will cover past and present cosmologies around the world, Part 2 will be about how the Baha’i Writings address questions of cosmology, and Part 3 will discuss implications for a future world society.

Here is the abstract:

Central to discussions about the universe and our place in it are questions about cosmology: What is the nature of the universe? How did it start? What is its meaning? What is the source of its laws? Has it always been here? How did life arise? Where does consciousness and the mind come from? Does the universe have a purpose?

In the past, cosmologies included both the material and the spiritual aspects of life, but modern cosmologies focus on the material aspect only, creating considerable confusion. Here, we briefly survey how the Bahá´í Writings answer questions about cosmologies and consider some of the implications for the future.

Is Cosmology Important?

There is a fundamental question about cosmology – an “elephant in the room” type of question – that must be asked right off.  Is cosmology important?

Looking into the Heavens

I think that the answer is that cosmology is not directly very important, at least to most people on earth. It doesn’t matter to us in any practical way if the universe was created 13.8 billion years ago or the earth 4.5 billion years ago. That’s probably why so many Americans don’t really care whether life is 10,000 years old or 3.7 billion years old.

But cosmology does matter indirectly, both emotionally and intellectually. In effect, it is our mental picture of everything that is. And, as such, it influences us about what we think is meaningful and important in life. And I think it usually does this in a way that short-circuits reason and our thinking processes. Like the animal aspects of our life – our biological impulses and our sociological impulses – it underlies much of our conscious and unconscious comprehension of what is going on. This, I think, is the major reason it is important: it affects, both in negative and positive way, our ways of acting and thinking.

I am saying that in the same way that our animal biology supplies the “biological substrate” of our individual and social lives, so our worldview or cosmology provide us with a “consciousness substrate” of our lives. It is the picture of the world as created by our imaginations.

Some implications …

Ptolemaic Universe
Aristotle’s Universe

If this is correct, it means a lot. It helps explain, for example, how ideological perspectives of the Islamic State and militant atheism, although different with respect to the existence or non-existence of God, can have such similar polarizing consequences. The cosmologies that inform each of them are both worldview maps residing in identical parts of the brain, and therefore tend to generate a similar spectrum of responses.

[Note: A hard truth, one that seems incorrect to many secularists, is that secular and atheistic ideologies in the form of nationalism, scientific racism, and communism have been much more violent than their religious counterparts if we look at the record of violence, war, and class conflict over the last dozen or so decades. It is likely that religion in many cases tempers the innate aggressive tendencies in leaders and their followers and that the weakening and the withering away of religion, as in Germany at the time of the World Wars, may loosen moral restraints against the “might is right” arguments of the nationalists, communists, and their fellow travelers.]

It helps explain, as another example, why modern Westerners and their cultures are so materialistic. Our modern cosmologies – our worldviews – are predicated on a scientific worldview that rejected the Aristotelian cosmology embraced by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and replaced it with a Newtonian world view that describes the universe as both a vast mechanism and as an empty space admixed with matter that interacts randomly to form us.

This worldview ignores us, our concerns, and things like how we interact with and comprehend the universe. It is, I think, a transitional worldview, one that naively views science as replacing religion, its cosmology still modeled on Aristotelian views that the heavens are where the divine resides. As we shall see, evolution shows a different, much more dynamical picture, one that includes the complexity and uniqueness of who we are as an important additional factor in the universe.

Of course, this raises additional questions.  We will explore those later.

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Cosmology – and all that … part 2

Cosmology – and all that … part 2

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology – Part 2

Stephen Friberg, July 22, 2016

For a paper I’m writing on Baha’i cosmology – an attempt to look at what a post-secular cosmology for the modern world might look like  – I’ve been reading a lot of books on the topic.

A book by Leonard Mlodinow – a Caltech physicist turned writer – illustrates something I’ve been seeing again and again. The book is The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos and I had been entertaining high hopes for it.  However, I just read his introduction, dashing those hopes. Let me tell you why they were dashed, and then say a few things in general about what I think is going on.

(Just so you know, I’m a physicist and an experienced experimentalist with a background in quantum optics, entanglement, optics, and I am currently working in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry. I grew up on a college campus immersed in the world view that Mlodinow inhabits and am looking for where we need to go as we move past science and technology’s adolescence. I think a lot of scientist – including Mlodinow – are doing this as well.)

The Upright Thinkers AmazonCosmology, Cliches, and Cluelessness

Mlodinow is not a bad writer, nor is he a slouch when it comes to understanding and conveying an understanding of physics. But, in the  introduction to this book he uses cliches, wrong “facts”, and seems either clueless about the non-scientific side of intellectual history or he ignores it. He sounds like a press agent for the non-thinking side of Silicon Valley. Here are two examples:

  • As an example of a wrong fact, he say that fastest way to travel between cities in 4000 BC was by camel. Camels, Wikipedia notes, weren’t domesticated until 1000 years later. This suggests poor editing and fact checking, not a good thing for a book on science.
  • His description of progress is (a) first prehistorical – evolution and all that – followed by Aristotle, then (b) a jump to science with Galileo, then (c) a jump to the modern world.  This is kid’s stuff!!

And, of course, very little to nothing about religion. Mlodinow seems to have not availed himself of any opportunity to learn what the experts say about these thing – not a good sign!  Or maybe he knows about these things and is keeping quiet about them – also not a good sign!

Now, interestingly, he does address some of these issues later in the text, and reviewers suggest he isn’t presenting the usual enlightenment story of the emergence of a science triumphing over all other forms of understanding as a kind of gleeful outpouring of northern European excellence (before its spasms of butchery known as the world wars). We will see.

Some Historical Background

Islamic Architecture in Spain

A bit of historical background is in order. Almost all of science until the last one hundred and fifty years was closely associated with religion, historians tell us. For example, Copernicus – inventor of the heliocentric cosmology that replaced geocentrism until it was in turn displaced by modern perspectives – was a distinguished and powerful Catholic clergyman with an education at elite Catholic Italian universities and an exposure to Islamic mathematical models of the universe. Galileo was a close confidant of cardinals and popes. Descartes – Jesuit educated – was intensely interested in theological truth and strove to put it on a sound physical and metaphysical basis. He was closely followed and supported by eminent French churchmen. Newton, the greatest scientist of all, was a completely engaged Christian who spent more time on religious issues than he did on science. He saw his science – as did Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and many very distinguished scientists to this day – as celebrating and revealing God’s creation and the divine lessons therein.

And, the impetus to modern science, as we have known for some time, were the advances in mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and in empirical methods of the Islamic world, the main inheritor of the Greek and Hellenistic traditions. It was in Muslim, Christian and Jewish Spain and the four centuries of nurturings in the great religious universities of European Christianity that the religious and philosophical traditions that gave rise to the modern science were laid out and cobbled together.

Has Religion been Erased from Mlodinow’s Radar Screen?

The University of Paris
The University of Paris

So we have to ask. Has religion been erased from Mlodinow’s radar screen? Is he cursed by the carpenter’s hammer syndrome? (For a carpenter with a hammer, all problems are nails.)

“The greatest triumphs of human intellectual history [are] writings and mathematics, natural philosophy, and the various sciences,” he writes. This is a carpenter speaking. Although he mentions religion in passing, there is no acknowledgement of, among other things, the intellectual brilliance and profusion of the great Buddhist and Hindu dialogues of 1500 years ago in the universities of India, of the extraordinary impact of Buddhism in China and East Asian intellectual life, or the incredible intellectual output of European Christian philosophy. Imagine if you wrote a history of relativity and ignored Einstein. This would be a bit like what Mlodinow is doing with intellectual history. Nor is there a mention of the freeing of slaves – an accomplishment of evangelical Christianity – or the civil rights movement. Are we to imagine that the moral virtues, the espousal of the unity of humanity, and that the emergence of modern democratic system of government and related topics are not triumphs of the human intellect?

Of course, he is not the only one from an academic background to have gaping holes in his or her version of the world’s intellectual history. And holes they are, because academics in the humanities – historians, for example – are very knowledgeable about this history. The information is, in fact, readily available to those who have the will to spend a little time and effort to learn.

Purposeful Ignorance

A Scientific Elite

To me, the enemy here is purposeful ignorance – a willingness to ignore realities outside the realms of the physical sciences and a dogmatic and blind belief in the grand narratives of science as the sole source of true knowledge. This, in my view, is a mindset lifted wholesale from the religious systems of humanity’s infancy and adolescence,  a carpentering perspective that holds that all problems can be addressed by the physical sciences with a scientific elite deciding what is true or not in realms far outside their areas of competence.  It is new wine in the old barrels of ideological intolerance

Scientists and their acolytes – if they believe in this one-sided ideological perspective – aren’t yet fully educated. Scientists – and science writers too – need training about what religion is, about its history, and especially about its narratives and traditions that were borrowed by the promoters of modern science and incorporated into their sales pitches. Only then will we start to see, I hold, the true flowering and full benefits of science for humanity.

Another Example and an Analysis

I’m being hard on Mlodinow here, maybe unfairly, and I shouldn’t single him out. The problem is much bigger than him, and is multiple-faceted. And Mlodinow appears to be sincere in his attempt to recognize that there are indeed problems and that they should be addressed.

Let me give you an another example, this from another recent book. Once again, there is a typical feeble, cliched introduction. Once again, after you get past this, the book is excellent.

Its Caleb Scharf’s The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. His introductory chapter on physics describes the life and significance of Copernicus in glowing and celebratory terms – deserved in my opinion, although the saints might blush at its excessiveness – and manages to totally ignore Copernicus’s day job as an elite Catholic cleric.

Once he delivers this seemingly obligatory half-baked sermon on the European origins of modern astronomy, he moves on to start his own excellent survey of the modern studies of the origins of the planets – and why we need to ignore some of the claims to our insignificance in the universe associated with the rise of the Copernican model.

So, what’s going on here?

Two things, I think. First of all, many scientists or science writers who write these otherwise excellent books don’t know the history of science very well, or the story of science in civilizations other than that of western Europe at all. Nor are they interested in it. They are interested, mainly, in what they find compelling and interesting in the new science they are describing. Once they get passed this seemingly obligatory homage to Copernicus and Galileo, they then start their story.

The other thing is that they are believers. The stories they tell of western science, beginning with Copernicus, then moving through Galileo, Descartes, and Newton – the religious aspects carefully subtracted out – is what they truly believe to be the case. This is their creation narrative, their story of the origins of their beloved sciences and signifying its importance in conquering the dragons of ignorance, superstition, and the church.

And here is the thing. Their view of science is wrong historically and unstable as a meaningful narrative in the 21st century. It doesn’t hold up. What we really need is something more than science – we need to know how to use it for everyone’s betterment. We need a story that encompasses all of humanity, not just northern Europeans. And the scientists and science writers who write these books all kind of know this in their bones and in their guts. And many of them are looking for a way to move forward that doesn’t abandon science’s very real accomplishments.


Scharf, Caleb. The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Vintage, 2016.

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Cosmology – and all that

Cosmology – and all that

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology

Stephen Friberg, July 22, 2016

I’m writing a paper on Baha’i cosmology – the relationship between the structure of the physical universe and spiritual reality as described in the Baha’i writings – and reading a lot of different books on cosmological topics. Here, I will be sharing some of my thoughts on those books and topics.

The "Eye of Sauron" Nebulae
The “Eye of Sauron” Nebulae

Cosmology – or at least modern cosmology – is a funny kind of animal. It is based on physics and astronomy, draws on an incredible set of visual images of stellar objects captured by our modern telescopic technologies, and almost always assumes that the universe is purely physical (modern western cosmologies differ greatly from the past in this respect). The nearly universal assumption is that the universe and everything in it is based on things like atoms, quantum fields, strings, or some similar fundamental entity. Another common assumption is that there is no purpose or direction involved. (To not make these assumptions is to be thrown vigorously out of the church  – so to speak – so deviation is rarely risked.)

Now, this immediately raises several serious sets of problems, the most immediate being the problem of the mind. Its a fact that the cosmologies that we build – the technologies we use to get the images that illustrate those cosmologies, all the efforts involved in doing the science, and even the very assumptions – are all product of our minds. The mind is the lens through which everything is seen, it is the prism that separates all the colors, it is the true universal acid and the only universal solvent.  All else – all theories, all speculations, and all accumulations of evidence – depend on it.

If everything is material, but every reason we use to argue that it is material is a product of the mind, then we have a conundrum. And it is in facing this conundrum where some of the interesting new efforts are being focused. We are, it seems, moving beyond naive atheisms – those of Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennett, Grayling, and others come to mind – that tell simplistic creation narratives that replace God with evolution and the big bang but retain the fundamentalisms. Such narratives, while still the bread and butter of everyday atheism, don’t seem to really cut it for the more sophisticated any more.

Leonard Mlodinow – a Caltech physicist turned writer – is one of the people I want to talk about. I’ve been reading his 2016 book on thinking about the cosmos. He starts out by describing how his father, imprisoned by the Nazis at Buchenwald, was stripped of everything except his will to think, reason, and to know: “He was imprisoned, but his mind was free to roam, and it did.”

Human beings. he argues, are beings whose minds rise above those of all other animals:

The nobility of the human race lies in our drive to know, and our uniqueness as a species is reflected in the success we’ve achieved …

Does Mlodinow go the next step and start to talk about this mind that is so “free to roam” as being a primary part of the universe in the same way that he sees it as a universal human attribute? This is what religion does. Or does he see it as a derived and secondary part of the universe and purely an accident – a rare stumble – of an all powerful non-God. I don’t know – I’m only starting on the book. It may be that he is celebrating his own intellect and those of fellow-traveling physicists – we will see. But another 2016 book, also by a CalTech physicist, does go the extra distance and it has become the talk of those who love to think about these things. The book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself and we will be delving into it quite a bit.


Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York, New York: Dutton, 2016.

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Vintage, 2016.

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