Sunday, December 29, 2013

LETTER TO MY CHRISTIAN FRIENDS

Dear Friends,

You really are my friends, despite the different ways in which we view the world.  We have grown up together, gone to school together, worked and played together, enjoyed good times and not such good times together.  And most of you probably didn’t realize that I saw things that differently from the way you did.  Until, that is, more recently when I decided to start speaking up.  

I have decided to put my Skeptic Reflections blog on hiatus for now.  I have plenty more to say, but I thought year-end might be a good time to give things a bit of a rest.  Some of you may be relieved; others of you may have just decided to stop reading the blog because it was so different from your own point of view and you really weren’t interested in questioning your perspective at this point in time.  But before I suspend my writing, I thought I would summarize some of the more important points I have been attempting to make.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

THE MEANING OF "MEANING"

Does life have meaning?  

Atheists are routinely accused of denying that there is any meaning to human life.  This accusation is based on a couple of characterizations.  First, atheists do not believe in a creator who has established a long-range plan for humanity.  Therefore, there is no ultimate goal--heaven, salvation--to work for or to look forward to.  Second, most atheists accept that we are nothing more than sophisticated collections of chemicals whose behavior and destiny are driven by the same blind laws of chemistry and physics as everything else in the universe.  That means that our lives are short and when they are over, they are over, and it doesn’t matter what happens after we are gone--we won’t know about it.    

I would agree with both characterizations, but that is not the end of the story.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

EIGHT POINT EIGHT BILLION

For years astronomers have speculated about the abundance of other intelligent life in the universe.  Recently a study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting that an estimated 8.8 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy have earth-like planets orbiting in their “habitable zone,” where the star’s energy would permit the existence of liquid water at the planet’s surface.  The researchers made this conclusion based on a survey of some 42,000 sun-like stars in our local region of the Milky Way galaxy.  Only a few years ago the existence of so-called exoplanets--planets orbiting stars other than our sun--was still just theoretical.  Now astronomers are routinely discovering exoplanets, and their numbers are already in the hundreds.  Hence this study.

Monday, December 16, 2013

THE CHRISTMAS POETRY CONTEST

The following recollection doesn't really have much to do with religion or skepticism.  It does, though, reflect a facet of my mother's character, and she surely had a major influence on who I am and how I think, though not in the way she might have wished.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I would include it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

TESTIMONIAL TIME

Every three years or so our Seventh-day Adventist church would schedule a series of revival meetings.  These generally featured preachers who had found their calling because of the charismatic and emotional quality of their delivery style--real showmen.  They were from out of town and probably traveled a circuit around the country, most likely giving the same series of polished sermons again and again.  And for these events they came into town accompanied by an entourage of assistants and musicians who specialized in this sort of evangelical appeal.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

WHY I OPPOSE RELIGION

I recently attended the monthly meeting of SWiFT, a freethinkers group for the Milwaukee area.  The group uses the term “freethinkers” I believe to widen the range of members and interests, but I think most of the members would consider themselves to be atheists.  They hold meetings on Sunday mornings . . . of course.  The December meeting included a good deal of discussion on a broad range of topics of mutual interest.  And the thread of discussion that most caught my attention concerned the issue of the extent to which freethinkers should actively oppose religious belief. 

I NEVER BELIEVED IN SANTA CLAUS

I never believed in Santa Claus.

I do know of one time when our mother took my sisters and me to one of the department store Santas when I was perhaps four years old.  I even have a photo that was taken on the occasion.  I recall being very afraid of the Santa and crying and not wanting to sit on his lap.  But I didn’t believe he was real.

And as for Christmas presents, my parents always succumbed to my and my sisters’ pleas that we open our presents on Christmas eve, not Christmas morning.  So Santa never had a role.  Nor did my parents ever try to convince me of Santa’s existence.  I was the youngest child in the family, and it may be that our parents had simply tired of trying to sell the Santa story by the time I was around.

But my wife and I taught our two children to believe in Santa Claus, and I’m glad we did.  Here’s why.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

FAITH VS. SCIENCE: AN EASY WAY TO KEEP SCORE

As children, most of us were taught that the world was created and is governed by a personal God who attends to our individual actions and who can answer prayers but who doesn’t always give the answers that we are seeking.  So how do we know that God is actually there, that he is paying attention, that he answers prayers?  Those of faith reply that the Holy Spirit or other agency speaks to us internally and that we need to rely on that internal voice.  

But there’s another approach, and that is to rely on science and rational thought.  This approach makes no assumption that something is true because an authority (viz., scriptures) has stated it is true.  Instead, it relies on objective observation, rational analysis, and the scientific method to gain a better understanding of the world and to find solutions to the problems we confront.  

And there’s an easy and objective way to see which approach actually works, to compare the efficacy of reliance on faith and prayer with reliance on a scientific, rational approach to furthering knowledge.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

HUMANIST MANIFESTO

I had occasion recently to review the Humanist Manifesto.  I know it sounds like some sort of subversive political tract, but it is actually a set of fundamental philosophical principles of those who call themselves Humanists (or sometimes Secular Humanists).  The Humanist movement was formalized over 70 years ago.  Essentially, it is an effort to identify an ethical and moral philosophical position that does not rely on any supernatural authority for its justification.  The Manifesto is now in its third iteration.
The Manifesto’s principles can be broken down into two components.  One is a list of ethical and moral standards--how Humanists believe we should order and live our lives as members of the human community.  The other component can be viewed as the beliefs that underlie and inform those standards.  
I thought it might be interesting to conduct a little test.  I have done my best to make a list of the ethical standards that are delineated in the manifesto but without including the beliefs that underlie each of those standards.  My suggestion is that you read each of these and decide if they are consistent with your own ethical and moral standards.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

EXIT STRATEGIES

On occasion I have observed the actual rotation of the earth’s axis.  I’ve done this by sitting quietly and watching the movement of a shadow cast by an object, such as the railing of the deck on the south side of my home, as the sun makes its way across the sky on a cloudless afternoon.  If I look carefully, I can even watch the slow, steady movement of the shadow.  I always find the experience just a little saddening.  It’s a little reminder of the inexorable passage of time and of the fact that my participation will come to a close at some point.  

But in another sense that melancholic feeling is good because it means that life continues to be an enjoyable, exciting experience for me and I regret that at some point it will have to end.  And that brings me to the point of this essay.  A friend recently asked me what, as a secularist, I thought of exit strategies.  Exit strategies?  Yup, that was what he was asking about.  He and his wife have discussed whether it might ever make sense to “leave before the show is over,” so to speak.  A heavy conversation without a doubt.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A CHRISTIAN THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Albert Einstein was famous for using thought experiments to explore ideas in theoretical physics.  He would describe a situation that, while not possible to create given current technology, was nevertheless theoretically possible.  A famous example of his concerned trains flashing lights while passing each other at close to the speed of light.  Not possible practically but we can easily imagine the situation in our minds.

So here’s a thought experiment for Christians:  What would happen if you no longer believed in God?  How would that affect the way you conducted your life?

Friday, November 22, 2013

THE RATIONALE FOR CHRISTIANITY

I need some help.  I attended Christian schools from first grade through college and was immersed in Christian beliefs throughout my early life.  Even so, at this point in my personal journey I am embarrassed to say that I simply do not understand the rationale, the logic behind the very fundamentals of the Christian message.  None of it, really.  As a child I never questioned it, but now it no longer makes sense to me.

Monday, November 18, 2013

TRUTH, BELIEF, KNOWLEDGE, FAITH, AND EVIDENCE

Sometimes disagreements occur simply because individuals have different meanings for the same terms.  Then they can wind up talking past each other and get frustrated just trying to understand what the other person is saying.  And in responding to comments to some of the ideas I have expressed in my blog, I have used a number of terms that often get thrown around in discussions about religious and secular beliefs.  So I think it might be helpful to clarify what I mean by those terms.  This isn’t just a “housekeeping” essay, though; I do have a few points to make along the way.  And as I have indicated before, I’m always “open game” for any comments, so long as you keep it civil.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

THE TIME OF TROUBLE

On one early fall day of my senior year at Battle Creek Academy, I was beginning to panic.  Mr. Young, the principal who also taught our senior religion class, had decided to poll each of us in the class as to when we thought the Second Coming would happen.  By my senior year I had become a closet agnostic, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to respond when my turn came.  Most of my classmates estimated that the time was very short, perhaps months or a few years at the most.  One girl only wished that it would be postponed until after she had gotten married, since she knew that there would be no marriage (read, “sex”) in heaven.  Another classmate hoped that it would not happen until after the World Series was over.  No one was suggesting that it could be even decades off.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

ADMISSIONS OF A SECULAR EVANGELIST

For almost 30 years my license plate has read “SKEPTC,” but that’s only because when I first applied for it I was limited to six letters and so left out the “I.”  I have a photography blog that I’ve named Skeptic Photo, and of course I have this Skeptic Reflections blog.  But worse, one of my good friends, who happens to be Catholic, told me that I am one of the most evangelical of all his friends, not in a religious sense, of course, but in a “freedom from religion” sense, if you will.  Further, I confess that I have done more than simply admit my secularism; I have done it with the hope that others might agree with my point of view.  In short, I confess to being a secular evangelist.  But why?

Friday, November 8, 2013

THOMAS AND THE QUESTION OF FAITH

As any observant Christian might have guessed, my favorite disciple by far is Thomas.  He is distinguished from his colleagues by the fact that he openly questioned whether Jesus had actually risen from the dead.  The account is found in John 20:24-29.  In short, Thomas stated that unless he saw and felt the mark of the nails on Jesus’s hands where he was nailed to the cross and felt the wound in Jesus’s side where he was speared, he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the tomb.  A week later Jesus appeared to the disciples, including Thomas, and offered to let Thomas feel the wounds for himself.  Only then did Thomas proclaim his belief in Jesus’s resurrection and divinity.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

ALTRUISM AND ORGANIZED RELIGION

Nearly all organized religions have divisions devoted to doing good works.  Because of my background, I’m most familiar with Christian groups, but I believe the same is true for other faiths, as well.  In Christian faiths, at least, a primary rationale for such good works is based on Christ’s teachings, particularly his admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  But what about secular groups?  They don’t treat Christ’s teachings as an obligation of faith.  Nor are they concerned that a failure to live up to such an obligation could jeopardize their chances for salvation.  So how do secularists compare in terms of their commitment to altruistic activities?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

WHEN MY MOTHER ALMOST JOINED A CULT

When I was 12 years old, my mother, ever a devout Seventh-day Adventist, nearly joined a cult.  The cult was predicting the destruction of the Adventist church and the slaying of most of its members by angels of God in a three-day period.  This was to be followed immediately by the miraculous transportation of the cult members, then to be numbering 144,000, to the Holy Land, where they would live in perfect peace in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ.  To join the cult, we would need to sell all of our earthly belongings, turn the proceeds over to the cult, and move to a commune in Waco, Texas.  Yes, weird but true, and here’s the story.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

WHENCE MORAL STANDARDS?

A major argument that my Christian friends make is that Christianity is responsible for the moral and ethical standards we have in place.  They often admit that it is sometimes difficult to reconcile much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament vision of a jealous and at times vindictive God, with the Good News of the New Testament.  Instead, they focus on Christ’s teaching, his vision of love, forgiveness, respect, and acceptance, and argue that our system of ethics and morality is in large part the consequence of that vision.  I disagree.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

ABRAHAM, ISAAC, AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL NORMS


The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, his only son, is presumably intended to teach the lesson of faith in and obedience to God.  But I feel that there is a very frightening side to this tale.  Moreover, the lessons that it teaches us today may have more to do with the relationship between religion and cultural norms, about how scripture is interpreted--and reinterpreted--in light of advances in cultural norms.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

OUR TOWN

I just finished reading “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.  This year marked the 75th anniversary of the play’s debut, and it is still regularly performed, although probably more often by high school theater groups than by professional theater companies.  I know that I have seen the play performed at least two or three times and have read it once or twice before as well.  And each time I have been struck by the play’s power.  It’s a power that does not derive from a suspenseful plot or from the play’s use of language or turns of phrase.  Rather, the play’s power comes from its utter simplicity.  Why am I talking about a classic American play on a blog devoted to skepticism and religion?  Let me try to explain.

[Spoiler Alert: “Our Town” is not really plot driven and I think reading what I have to say would not ruin things for you.  But if you haven’t seen or read the play and are concerned that reading about some of the plot elements would spoil it for you, then I would rather that you skipped what I have to say than to have you upset with me.  Hmmm . . . . ]

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

THE MISPLACED COMMA


There is a seemingly unassuming verse in the Bible that creates all kinds of problems for a number of Christian faith traditions.  The text is Luke 23:43.  The setting is the crucifixion scene where Jesus is flanked on either side by so-called thieves, who are also being crucified.  One thief remains unrepentant, while the other has had a change of heart and recognizes Jesus’s righteousness.  He asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus sets up his kingdom.  According to the King James version, Jesus responds, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”  The problem is with the placement of the comma in that verse, and a great deal has been written about it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

MY CHRISTIAN EDUCATION


I attended Battle Creek Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school located in, yes, Battle Creek, Michigan, from 1st grade through high school.  Earlier this year my BCA classmates and I celebrated our 50th year reunion.  There were only 16 in our graduating class, and 3 of those have since passed away, but happily a majority of us still around made it to the reunion in April.  We had a great time recalling our experiences together.  At the time some of those escapades were frankly embarrassing, but from a distance of 50 years it becomes a lot easier to talk about them and to laugh off that embarrassment.  

One of the comments that I have heard over the years from some of my fellow classmates is how thankful they are for the Christian education that they received at the Academy.  I can’t share that sentiment.  In fact, I still get upset when I think about my educational experience there. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

THE NATURE OF RESPONSIBILITY


The idea of personal responsibility has posed major problems for me.  I believe strongly that we do not have free will.  (See my essay on “A Matter of Choice,” posted on 8/25/13.)  If that is the case, how can it be said that individuals nevertheless have personal responsibility for their actions?  If all of our actions are ultimately the result of causes that we do not have control over, then personal responsibility would seem to be just as illusory as free will.  Put another way, how can individuals be held responsible for actions that are, at the most fundamental level, beyond their control?

Monday, September 30, 2013

ANGELS


Our third grade teacher at Battle Creek Academy warned us to keep our eyes closed during prayer because sometimes our guardian angels became visible during prayer and shone so brightly that we could be blinded.  I believed her, sort of.  Then one day I opened my eyes during prayer because a couple of the other boys in the class were jostling each other and making noise.  There were no angels--at least visible--and no blindness.  Moreover, it was pretty obvious that these boys had regularly had their eyes open in the past and they didn’t seem to be having any vision problems because of it.  I don’t think that affected my religious faith at the time; I was only in the third grade.  But it did affect my confidence in what my teacher told me, which was more important, perhaps.

THE ROLE OF HEAVEN IN CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANITY


For many of my Christian friends, the central message of Christianity is all about how we conduct ourselves in this life rather than how to get to the next.  If that is the case, then perhaps I have been creating a straw man in lampooning Christian notions of heaven.  If Christians are not concerned with heaven, or at least the idea of heaven that I was taught, then perhaps my criticisms have been unfair.

So I decided to do a bit of research into Christian beliefs, both in terms of what are the official doctrines of the major denominations and in terms of what individuals who describe themselves as Christians actually believe.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

THE GREAT CONTROVERSY



Recently a friend wanted to comment on my blog by posting an article written by a Seventh-day Adventist theologian.  I always welcome comments on the essays that I have posted to this blog, as long as they are germane to an issue that I may have raised in the essay.  Ordinarily, I would prefer that comments not include articles written by third parties, except as links.  I did take a look at the article that my friend wanted to post and decided that it raised, even if tangentially, a number of questions in my thinking that I felt might be interesting to discuss.  So, first of all, here is a link to the article, which was written by Graham Maxwell back in 1987:  http://www.pineknoll.org/home/1211-how-god-won-his-case

Friday, September 20, 2013

CONFESSIONS OF A SABBATH SCHOOL DELINQUENT


I’m sure things have changed now, but 60 years ago attending our Seventh-day Adventist church was a dress-up affair, and even small boys like me were expected to wear a jacket and tie, if not a suit.  Everyday school clothes weren’t an option.  Our family was poor and I was the only boy, so all of my clothes were either bargain basement or secondhand castoffs that my mother purchased for pennies at rummage sales.  I don’t remember all the various outfits that I wore, of course, but I do recall one brown suit that had missing buttons.  My mother had jars of random buttons of all kinds--color, composition, size, and shape--and she had found some that were “sort of” like the remaining ones of my suit.  “No one will notice,” she said.  But of course I noticed and what made matters worse was that she had sewn the buttons on with thread that bordered on orange.  Was she colorblind? 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

THE STUBBORNNESS OF BELIEF


When I began this blog a while back, I had two primary goals.  First, I was looking simply for an outlet to express myself regarding my beliefs, particularly concerning skepticism and religion.  Second, I wanted to explore the reasons that I arrived at those beliefs.  I felt that by writing about my beliefs and my personal journey, I would come to understand better what it is that I believe and the events that led to my adopting those beliefs.  I was also hoping that others would find reason to comment on my little essays and that those comments would help to clarify what I believed and perhaps even lead to refinements to those beliefs.  At the least, I was hopeful that the overall process would help me to be more articulate in saying what I was thinking.  My tertiary goal, if you will, was that I would have the pleasure of discussing my views with others, whether or not we were in agreement.  And, finally, I had the (perhaps fond) notion that on occasion someone would actually acknowledge that I had expressed one or more valid points.  Hmmm . . . .

So how have things gone? 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

AN ATHEIST'S BUCKET LIST


I’m not terminally ill.  I don’t have a fatal disease.  But I know that I am going to die and I am confident that this life is “it.”  There will be no second volume.  So from time to time I think about those things I would like to accomplish before I die--a bucket list.

One question I have asked is whether an atheist’s bucket list would differ from a Christian’s. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

THE EFFICACY OF PRAYER


Among my all-time favorite TV ads was one that came out at the time that the technology was developed that allowed the viewer to pause and then resume live TV.  The technology  seemed amazing at the time.  The ad featured a football fan watching a game the outcome of which was coming down to a last second field goal.  The fan put the screen on hold just before the field goal try, ran to his church to pray, returned home, resumed action on the TV, and watched his team score the winning field goal.  

The ad was great on a number of levels.  The acting was first-rate.  The technology, now routine, seemed almost, well, “miraculous” at the time.  In addition, the ad raised, at least superficially, a number of puzzles about the meaning of time: Did the prayer in fact occur before or after the field goal?  And finally, the ad addressed the question of the efficacy of prayer.  And that is what I want to talk about.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

GOD'S BIG BLUNDER


I just reread the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3).  It’s pretty straightforward, really.  God created Adam and Eve and set them up in the Garden of Eden.  He gave them only one rule: They could eat of anything in the garden, except God forbade them to eat of one tree in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Eating from that tree would be considered disobedience to him.  Here they were in paradise--no pain, no problems--perfect people in a perfect place.  All they had to do was remain obedient to God’s one requirement.  The test seemed pretty easy, frankly.  And presumably they knew that God was the creator and that without him, they would not have existed.  Even so, they failed--and miserably--first Eve and then Adam.  So God kicked them out of paradise, and there’ve been problems ever since. . . So the story goes.

Monday, September 2, 2013

I DON'T WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN


For most Christians, Heaven is a big deal.  Otherwise, what is the point of “salvation” anyway?  After all, in this life we are sure to encounter disappointment, failure, heartache, pain, suffering, and certain death.  Oh, sure, there are the good times too, but realistically it’s a very mixed bag and it always ends badly.  The Christian may rejoice in God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice, but what would be the point if in the end there were nothing after this life?  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A NOTE ON SCIENCE VS. AUTHORITY


In one of my responses to a comment on a previous essay, I used an illustration from the history of theoretical physics to make a point about the difference between reliance on authority and reliance on scientific reasoning.  I thought it might be good to expand that illustration into a separate essay in the hope that it will get a bit more exposure.  

By the mid-1920s a new area of theoretical physics was developing that went by the name of quantum mechanics and that concerned the behavior of subatomic particles.  [OK, let me stop right there.  If you feel that the following paragraphs are hard to follow or just plain boring, then go ahead and skip to the fifth paragraph.  I don’t want to lose your attention.]  Research in this area had been yielding some very strange results that seemed to call for a fundamentally different view of the world. 

A FEW DEFINITIONS

I’ve been using a number of related terms in this blog and thought that it might be helpful to describe a bit more carefully what I mean by each of those terms.

Agnosticism.  Originally, this was an epistemological term.  It stood for the idea that we cannot know whether God exists or not.  This follows from the idea that the only “truth” we can know with certainty is mathematical truth, because we make up the rules. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

THE PASS/FAIL EXAM


In the religion in which I was reared, the Seventh-day Adventist church, this life was viewed essentially as an entrance exam, and it was going to be scored strictly pass/fail.  Moreover, you only got one shot--no retakes.  If you passed, you got into heaven to spend eternity in a state of bliss.  If you failed, the news was not so good.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

THE PROBLEM OF PAIN


I live in the upper Midwest, and I suppose we have our fair share of natural disasters.  There can be bitter cold and an occasional blizzard in the winter and tornados and flooding rains in the spring and summer.  But we seem to escape the truly massive disasters--the earthquakes in California, the hurricanes of the Gulf and Atlantic Coast states, and the brutal tornados common to the Plains states.  

Again and again, in interviews the victims of major disasters make comments such as the following:  “We lost everything, but we still have each other.  We were praying to God and He must have been watching over us.”  Undoubtedly, those individuals were fortunate not to have suffered injury or loss of loved ones, but it is also clear that the disaster had been devastating in terms of their personal loss of property and the disruption of their lives.  That suffering is written plainly on their faces. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A MATTER OF CHOICE


In the initial post I said that becoming an agnostic was not a choice that I made.  Rather, it was a choice that occurred to me.  Let me try to explain what I meant by that.

First of all, by choice I mean free will.  I know that I spent entirely too much time my freshman year of college arguing with friends about free will versus determinism.  But I have to admit to fond memories of those nights spent sitting around dorm rooms interminably debating these things.  Each of us, I’m sure, felt that he had the better argument, but no one convinced anyone else and no one changed his mind--at least not at the time.  Sound familiar?  

By that point in my life, I always found myself arguing on the side of determinism or at least the denial of free will. 

GIDEON, THE REAL STORY


Growing up, we were taught the story of Gideon at least two or three times over the course of our elementary school years, and he was something of a hero of mine.  A natural born leader, Gideon became a commando of sorts, routing the Israelites’ arch-enemies, the Midianites, with a relatively small band of hand-picked warriors.  But what kept my attention were his unusual requirements for a sign from God.  When I decided to write an essay about those signs, I felt I should reread the Biblical account, which is located in the book of Judges, chapters 6-8.  But when I actually read those chapters, I was surprised to learn some of the aspects of the account that had been omitted in the story we were taught as kids.  So instead of just telling Gideon’s story from a skeptic’s point of view (my original intent), I decided to compare the story we were taught with the “real” one in the Bible.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

WAITING IN LINE AT BURGER CHEF


After I graduated from college I attended Michigan State University, where I ultimately received a masters in psychology.  As a single student, I lived in Owen Hall, the on-campus dorm for graduate students.  The dorm had a cafeteria, but all they served was, well, cafeteria food, and I and my friends would frequently go off campus for dinner and to talk.  All of us being in our early 20s with our lives ahead of us, we did a lot of serious talking.  

My friends were other graduate students in psychology, also single, also living in Owen Hall.  This was 1968 and 1969, and the thing on most of our minds, the thing we talked about almost incessantly, was the Vietnam War.  But that’s not what we were talking about on the night in question.  That night we were talking about God.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

PEEKING AT THE ANSWERS


When I was growing up our local paper, the Battle Creek Enquirer & News, ran a daily quiz of 10 questions.  The quiz was entitled, “How Smart Are You?”  I’m sure it was a syndicated feature that the paper just picked up.  Naturally, I was eager to test myself. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

ANESTHESIA, DREAMS, DEATH, AND FRUIT FLIES


I don't believe in an afterlife.  Death represents a permanent end to consciousness.  Sometimes people ask me if I therefore fear death, and my answer is, Not at all, but sometimes it makes me a little depressed.  Let me explain.

Monday, August 12, 2013

POINTS OF BELIEF


My favorite class in high school was geometry.  One of the things that I took from that class was the idea that there are certain premises that are to be accepted as true without proof.  These are generally referred to as postulates or axioms.  Additionally, there are certain rules of logic for working with those postulates; for example, propositions that lead to contradictions are not allowed.  And then the whole system is built from those postulates and working rules.  I loved the course in part because it introduced me to the concept of formal logic but probably more because the terrific sense of satisfaction that I got when I was able to prove something using that system.

If only the everyday world were as neat and tidy as mathematical systems are.  When we are discussing something like, say, religion, if we could all agree on our starting points and the rules of logic to be applied to those points, perhaps we could also agree on the conclusions about  how the world works. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

CREATING LIFE


If we were to fabricate a human brain, would it be alive?  Be conscious?  Have free will? 

Einstein would have referred to this as a thought experiment.  I’m not asking if we have the technology to do this.  I’m not even asking if we will ever have that technology.  I’m just asking what it would be like if we could.

Friday, August 9, 2013

PLAYING BRIDGE


One of the people who taught me how to play bridge was blind, not just legally blind, but totally blind.  We played with a braille deck.  The cards were fairly heavy plastic but otherwise looked normal, except that they had the braille bumps in one corner that only he knew how to read.  Whoever was dummy had to announce the cards in the dummy hand, and then we would just state what card we were playing.  He had to keep all of the cards straight, those that had been played as well as those that had not.  Pretty impressive, really.

Monday, August 5, 2013

PSYCHIC COINCIDENCE


I became a grandfather for the first time on May 31st when our son Jeff and his wife Bei welcomed their son Stanley into the family.  A few days later I was speaking with our daughter Michelle about the new addition to the family, and she related to me an interesting incident.  Michelle knew that Bei’s due date was in late May but she didn’t know that in fact Bei had gone into labor on the night of May 30th.  Nevertheless, on the evening of the 31st Michelle had had a sudden thought that perhaps Stanley had arrived.  She later learned that Stanley was born at very nearly the same time that she had been thinking about him.  Psychic phenomenon?  I think not. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

ASTRONOMY


My parents usually drove us to school each morning, swinging by to drop us off at Battle Creek Academy before they headed to the appliance store that they ran.  Generally they weren’t able to pick us up from school in the afternoon, and beginning in about the fourth grade I took a city bus home from school each day.  The Academy had school buses, and I’m not sure why I took public transportation.  Perhaps it was less expensive or perhaps it got me home faster.  In any event, I would pick up the city bus a couple of blocks from the school and ride it downtown.  I would then need to transfer to a different bus that would take me past my house.  Occasionally I would get lucky and the connection between the first and second buses would be fast.  But most times I would have a wait that could be as long as 15 minutes or more.  Because the city library was only a block or so from the downtown bus stop, I began regularly to check books out of the library between bus transfers.

The library used the Dewey decimal system for classifying books, and soon I found myself most afternoons in the stacks numbered in the 500s, science and math, eventually gravitating toward astronomy. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

TURNING POINT

Battle Creek Academy is a small school run by the Seventh-day Adventist church that is located in, yes, Battle Creek, Michigan.  The school, which includes classes from first grade through high school, has always been unapologetically committed to providing its students a Christian--and more specifically a Seventh-day Adventist--education.  Prayer, hymn-singing, religious services, and religious instruction are an integral part of each school day’s activities.  It is where I went to school from the first grade through graduation from high school.  

On a warm and sunny day in the early fall of my junior year of high school my friend David and I sneaked off campus over the lunch hour to visit a small natural history museum located just a few minutes north of the school grounds.  Leaving campus during the school day was forbidden, but it was easy to do, so we did.  

Many people can’t identify a specific point in time when their view of the world shifted or was clarified, but I can.