Scientifically speaking, the existence of God is an untenable hypothesis. It’s not well-defined, it’s completely unnecessary to fit the data, and it adds unhelpful layers of complexity without any corresponding increase in understanding. Again, this is not an a priori result; the God hypothesis could have fit the data better than the alternatives, and indeed there are still respected religious people who argue that it does. Those people are just wrong, in precisely analogous ways to how people who cling to the Steady State theory are wrong. Fifty years ago, the Steady State model was a reasonable hypothesis; likewise, a couple of millennia ago God was a reasonable hypothesis. But our understanding (and our data) has improved greatly since then, and these are no longer viable models. The same kind of reasoning would hold for belief in miracles, various creation stories, and so on.
Richard Bentall, a clinical psychologist, is a controversial figure in the field of mental health. An example of the hostility that his conclusions provoke among those practising conventional (that is, drug-based) psychiatry is given in the preface to this book, which raises serious questions about the treatment of mental illness. Bentall describes an encounter with an amiable-seeming psychiatrist who responds to a talk he has given as follows: “Professor Bentall has told us he is a scientist. But he is not! Nothing that Professor Bentall has said – not one single word – is true.”
The unlikelihood of a professor of psychology delivering, in the sober environment of an NHS conference, a talk in which every word is fictitious and every opinion fallacious gives a flavour of the threat that Bentall's theories pose. The response, as reported, sounds deranged and it is interesting to observe how debate among professionals over the causes of mental illness appears to induce its own version of madness, as if the topic itself were contagious. One sign of sanity, both in the individual and society, is the ability to deal with dissent.
In an earlier book, Madness Explained, Bentall was at pains to distinguish his approach from other anti-psychiatrists – for example, RD Laing, whose radical views were discredited because of his flamboyant lack of rigour and attendant inability to accept criticism. Bentall, as this book attests, is a different kettle of fish. With patient persistence and without recourse to rancorous diatribes, he has appraised the scientific evidence for the success of contemporary psychiatric treatments and come up with a dismal report. It is probably the very balance of his approach that drives his opponents crazy.
Friday, June 19, 2:12 a.m.: Loading up the trunk of my car with clothes hangers when approached by two transients… try to engage them in good-natured conversation about the benefits of wooden clothes hangers over metal ones, but they make me uneasy, say they want to go out to get a drink but I’ve got to go. In a city somewhere… looks like a post-apocalyptic Saint Louis.
Saturday, June 20, 4:47 a.m.: Was just now trying to return my dead grandmother’s cane to her. Took elevator to her apartment… meant to go to the 8th floor, but elevator lurched up to the 18th floor, swung around violently then shot back down. Could hear voices in the corridors outside elevator shaft…. a mother yelling at her child. Grandma then became my other grandma, also decesased, yet in a nursing home; doctors say she’s doing fine.
Sunday, June 21, 5:02 a.m.: On a floating barge in the sea trying to get to some other country, just made it, the dogs are running all over the place but seem more like rodents. Monday, June 22, 3.31 a.m.: Just learned that one of my colleagues died suddenly, everyone’s in shock (they say it was “an accidental overdose of oxygen from a breathing tank; he fell asleep”). Can’t believe it, was just talking to him today about death. Also something about an airplane delay… need to get home but can’t find my test results to submit, searching all over, trash cans, pulling out drawers… people preoccupied.
These are dreams, of course. Mine from the past few days, to be precise—and they are totally absurd. Why on earth do our minds conjure up such ridiculous imagery, such inane thoughts, such spectacularly vivid and surreal landscapes, intense emotions—such narrative trash?
There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age – and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.
But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.
I loved his music. His young voice was almost a miracle, his poise in retrospect eery, his joy, tempered by pain, often unbearably uplifting. He made the greatest music video of all time; and he made some of the greatest records of all time. He was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone.
As a new South African permanent resident in April of 1994, I stood in line to vote in the first multiracial elections. I was a small-time activist in Cape Town for the next ten years, so I certainly shared Breytenbach’s brain fever over the “rainbow nation”. The West’s fight against racism and authoritarianism was supposed to find its final triumph here. I dealt with the shock of my disappointment much as Breytenbach did, by nearly going round the bend, although my disappointment went in the opposite direction. It began with facts about Mandela that I learned from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Little Brown, 1994), and progressed to knowledge of his business dealings when the local investigative magazine noseweek put me on the phone to get dirt. I found myself interviewing a business manager of Mandela’s. This man had told the national and international press that the profits from the sale of lithographs Mandela had signed (but not created, in noseweek’s opinion) went to a children’s charity. We had proof that the money — probably amounting to many millions of dollars — went into a private family trust of Mandela’s, from which he might be making charitable contributions (as anyone might from his own means), although there was no evidence of this that we could find. The manager finally told me that, yes, it was Mandela’s money without restriction — he could spend it all on sweets if he wanted.
Sometimes, the soft literary citizens of liberal democracy long for prohibition. Coming up with anything to write about can be difficult when you are allowed to write about anything. A day in which the most arduous choice has been between “grande” and “tall” does not conduce to literary strenuousness. And what do we know about life? Our grand tour was only through the gently borderless continent of Google. Nothing constrains us. Perhaps we look enviously at those who have the misfortune to live in countries where literature is taken seriously enough to be censored, and writers venerated with imprisonment. What if writing were made a bit more exigent for us? What if we had less of everything? It might make our literary culture more “serious,” certainly more creatively ingenious. Instead of drowning in choice, we would have to be inventive around our thirst. Tyranny is the mother of metaphor, and all that.
“Ida” is a beautiful fossil. A few weeks ago, she became a very famous one, when the squashed-flat remains of this squirrel-sized creature that lived some 47 million years ago, in quasi-tropical forest around a crater lake in what is now Germany, were pictured on every medium known to mankind. Overcome by exhalations of volcanic gas from the lake’s depths, and apparently already weakened by injury, Ida had fallen in and found herself preserved, along with the bodies of a remarkable variety of other animals, in the accumulating muds of the lake floor. Like us, Ida was a member of the zoological group known as the Primates. Today, there are two major kinds of primate in the world: the very successful “higher” ones, consisting of monkeys and apes along with ourselves; and the now largely marginalized “lower” primates that include the lemurs of Madagascar and the lorises, pottos and bushbabies of the tropical Old World.
Creator Jack Dorsey was shocked and saddened this week after learning that his social networking device, Twitter, was being used to disseminate pertinent and timely information during the recent civil unrest in Iran. “Twitter was intended to be a way for vacant, self-absorbed egotists to share their most banal and idiotic thoughts with anyone pathetic enough to read them,” said a visibly confused Dorsey, claiming that Twitter is at its most powerful when it makes an already attention-starved populace even more needy for constant affirmation. “When I heard how Iranians were using my beloved creation for their own means—such as organizing a political movement and informing the outside world of the actions of a repressive regime—I couldn't believe they'd ruined something so beautiful, simple, and absolutely pointless.” Dorsey said he is already working on a new website that will be so mind-numbingly useless that Iranians will not even be able to figure out how to operate it.
Via my evil twin Richard Wiseman comes one of the best color optical illusions I have ever seen. The original was apparently posted on Buzzhunt:
You see embedded spirals, right, of green, pinkish-orange, and blue? Incredibly, the green and the blue spirals are the same color. At first I thought Richard was pulling our collective legs, being a trickster of high magnitude. So I loaded the image in Photoshop and examined the two spirals. In the two squares displayed below, the one on the left is colored using the same color from the blue spiral, and on the right using the green spiral.
Like I said, incredible! For pedantry sake, the RGB colors in both spirals are 0, 255, 150. So they are mostly green with a solid splash of blue.
The reason they look different colors is because our brain judges the color of an object by comparing it to surrounding colors.
At some point, the Mongol military leader Kublai Khan (1215–94) realized that his empire had grown so vast that he would never be able to see what it contained. To remedy this, he commissioned emissaries to travel to the empire's distant reaches and convey back news of what he owned. Since his messengers returned with information from different distances and traveled at different rates (depending on weather, conflicts, and their fitness), the messages arrived at different times. Although no historians have addressed this issue, I imagine that the Great Khan was constantly forced to solve the same problem a human brain has to solve: what events in the empire occurred in which order?
Your brain, after all, is encased in darkness and silence in the vault of the skull. Its only contact with the outside world is via the electrical signals exiting and entering along the super-highways of nerve bundles. Because different types of sensory information (hearing, seeing, touch, and so on) are processed at different speeds by different neural architectures, your brain faces an enormous challenge: what is the best story that can be constructed about the outside world?
The days of thinking of time as a river—evenly flowing, always advancing—are over. Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally. We all know about optical illusions, in which things appear different from how they really are; less well known is the world of temporal illusions. When you begin to look for temporal illusions, they appear everywhere. In the movie theater, you perceive a series of static images as a smoothly flowing scene. Or perhaps you've noticed when glancing at a clock that the second hand sometimes appears to take longer than normal to move to its next position—as though the clock were momentarily frozen.
Astronomers at Caltech say the Earth will last 1 billion years longer than previous estimates, which makes me wish I'd chosen the bedroom wallpaper more carefully. But Ron Currie's strange new novel raises the opposite prospect: “Everything Matters!” begins with an announcement that a comet will destroy our planet on June 15, 2010. That fast-approaching deadline raises “a question which men and women, great and not-so, of every color, creed, and sexual persuasion have asked since they first had the language to do so, and probably before: Does Anything I Do Matter?”
In a sense, every novel is a search for what matters, so posing the problem here in Caps and italics is not the subtlest move a writer can make. But there's something refreshingly youthful about Currie's eagerness to call out big existential questions that most of us have grown too embarrassed or cynical to ask since we scraped through Intro to Philosophy and moved on to matters of getting and spending. He's writing for the “Slaughterhouse-Five” kids (you know who you are), people who respond to that quirky mix of dark humor, moral imperative and science fiction. Like Vonnegut, Currie is an atheist — his first novel, just out in paperback, is titled “God Is Dead” — and that absence of faith seems to have left him with an intense curiosity about how we live in a world without divine oversight or intervention.
Zenobia Jacobs and Richard G. Roberts in American Scientist:
Even by archaeological standards, Blombos Cave is a modestly sized shelter. Yet artifacts recovered from just 13 cubic meters of deposit inside transformed our understanding of when our species developed behavioral attributes we associate with “modern” humans. From this cramped hole in a sandstone cliff on the Southern Cape coast of South Africa, Christopher Henshilwood and his colleagues unearthed evidence of symbolic expression, in the form of abstract designs (carved ochre bars) and personal ornaments (shell beads) at least 70,000 years old. That is more than 35,000 years before anything comparable emerged in Europe.
When these discoveries were first announced earlier this decade, they stood out as extraordinary and provocative—at odds with the prevailing wisdom about the time and place of emergence of symbolic behavior, a trait unique to Homo sapiens . Our modern anatomical features can be traced back almost 200,000 years, based on fossilized remains found in Ethiopia, but the making of the modern mind apparently lagged behind by more than 100,000 years. The remarkable finds at Blombos raised several intriguing questions. What triggered this watershed event in human prehistory? How geographically widespread was it? Did it occur simultaneously elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa? And what role, if any, did such innovations play in the first steps of the worldwide dispersal of our species?
If we want to know what torture is, and what it does to human beings, we have to look at it squarely, without flinching. That's just what a powerful and important film, seen by far too few Americans, does. “Torturing Democracy” was written and produced by one of America's outstanding documentary reporters, Sherry Jones. (Excerpts from the film are being shown on the current edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS – check local listings, or go to the program's web site at www.pbs.org/moyers, where you can be linked to the entire 90-minute documentary.)
Sherry Jones, a longtime colleague, and the film were honored this week with the prestigious RFK Journalism Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “Torturing Democracy” was cited for its “meticulous reporting,” and described as “the definitive broadcast account of a deeply troubling chapter in recent American history.”
Unfortunately, as events demonstrate, the story is not yet history; the early chapters aren't even closed. Torture still is being defended as a matter of national security, although by law it is a war crime, with those who authorized and executed it liable for prosecution as war criminals. The war on terror sparked impatience with the rule of law – and fostered the belief within our government that the commander-in-chief had the right to ignore it.
Hour by hour, day by day, Bill Buckley was just an exciting person to be around, especially when he was exhilarated by his love of sailing. He could turn any event into an adventure, a joke, a showdown. He loved risk. I saw him time after time rush his boat toward a harbor, sails flying, only to swerve and drop sail at the last moment. For some on the pier, looking up to see this large yacht bearing down on them, it was a heart-stopping moment. To add to the excitement, Bill was often standing on the helmsman’s seat, his hands clutching the shrouds above his head, turning the wheel with his foot, in a swashbuckling pose. (He claimed he saw the berth better from up there.)
I once saw the importance of his swift reflexes on the boat. We had set out for a night sail on the ocean, and Bill’s Yale friend Van Galbraith—later President Reagan’s ambassador to France—had got tipsy from repeated shots of Tia Maria in his coffee. He fell overboard while the boat was under full sail. In a flash, Bill threw overboard a life preserver with a bright light on it, and called for us to bring the boat about. We circled back toward Galbraith, found him in the darkness, and fished him out. It was a scary moment, one that only Bill’s cool rapidity kept from being a tragic one.