Friday, November 2, 2012

I Found Democracy!!!

Throughout most of my teenage years, I have been apathetic about politics. It has long since been my opinion, that corporate sponsorship of politicians has more or less destroyed democracy. Politicians never seemed to care about the topics they were discussing, they seemed like actors repeating well-rehearsed lines written by their analysts, played out on a stage, in a drama directed by their corporate sponsors.

For the past few months, I have found myself laughing condescendingly at everyone getting all caught up in the presidential election fever. Before one of the Obama vs. Romney debates, I posted the following on Facebook, “spoiler alert: they are both lying”. That sentence about sums up my feelings toward the whole “game.” I had no intention of voting.

Two weeks ago, I watched a three-part PBS series called “Commanding Heights.” It compared and contrasted the two competing economic theories of the 20th century, centrally planned economy vs. free market economy. This was the first time I had encountered economic theories in my life, and seen how they played out in the countries that implemented them. Now considering myself a “well educated and informed” expert on economic theory, having graduated the prestigious PBS school of economics, I decided to see what Obama and Romney were saying about the economy.

I watched the debates, read up on their respective opinions, and concluded that Romney had his head on straight in terms of the economy. However, I hated almost everything else he stood for. I disliked his views on stem cell research, mentioning god at public events, censorship, LGBT rights, and medical marijuana. I tried to see if perhaps, anyone could justify Obama’s economic policies, but to no avail. I found myself caught between two worlds. In addition, I still could not shake from myself the distrust that I had always felt towards politicians. The lying, the falsely portrayed passion for topics that they did not actually care about, all of those feelings were still there. Additionally, I found the debates very stale and lifeless; there was very little overlap between what people normally discussed and what the candidates were proposing. The whole debate seemed very one-sided, with no real new ideas. I still felt undecided, but I was leaning toward Romney.

In the wake of the recent hurricane, my school cancelled all of my classes, so I found myself randomly surfing YouTube listening to random lectures. I was watching a speech by Penn Jilette at Google when I noticed on the side another clip of him, this time discussing politics so I clicked on it. Two things really stuck out from that interview. 1. In game theory (I know nothing about it, so I can’t say that I know this is true) choosing the lesser of two evils always increases evil. 2. He introduced me to the Libertarian party. He described it as having a right wing economic policy with a left wing social policy (“make a right on economy, a left on sex, and head straight to utopia.”) After hearing him, I decided that rather than support the lesser of the two evils (Romney,) I would watch the “other” presidential debate, between the Green, Justice, Constitutional and, Libertarian parties.
The most refreshing thing I discovered in the debate was a real passion for what happened to America. There was a certain idealistic fervor, which sharply contrasted the other debate. There was audience participation; cheering and booing were fine. Democracy was alive, the people cared, and I loved it. New ideas were discussed, well they were not really, new ideas, I have heard most of these ideas in the past from friends, or read about them. It was new to see politicians discussing them in the public forum; it was exciting to see presidential candidates discussing these “new” ideas. It was refreshing to hear presidential candidates discussing the very problems that I have had with politics for years. They spoke about not allowing corporations to make political contributions, not allowing political action committees and limiting terms in congress.

There was another thing that they had that was lacking in the other debates, a certain informality, which allowed the focus to be on the ideas, not the people. Very little of “Mr this ” “Congressman that” it was almost all on first name basis. There was conversation, instead of speeches. There were ideas, not rehearsed party lines. Regular people were asking the question, through Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

The single greatest line I heard was from the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson “…wasting your vote, is voting for someone you don’t believe in, that’s wasting your vote…” and with that, I changed my mind. I liked that so much that I checked up on him, and his policies and I am considering voting for him for two reasons. Firstly, he meshes what I feel, is the best of the democratic and republican parties. Secondly, he seems passionate and honest, two qualities which are sincerely lacking in the mainstream candidates. As a disclaimer, I am still trying to understand the “Fairtax” which he is proposing, so I am not yet one hundred percent sure that I will vote for him.

In conclusion, if you, like me are feeling that something is lacking in the mainstream candidates, please go and check out the alternatives. If you feel that, why should I vote for him? It’s not like he is going to win. My response to you is this, firstly if enough people feel as I do, he just might. Secondly, voting is not betting on the right candidate so that you can tell all of your friends “I knew he was going to win.” It is not a sports team that you support because you think they will win the World Series. It is a chance to voice your opinion; it is a chance for you to tell America what you think. I will grant you that he probably will not win, but I will be part of a vocal minority if I feel that they are correct. Should he lose, then at least we made some noise for the right cause, and maybe by next election, the noise will have become loud enough, the minority will have grown large enough, and America will at least know enough to make an educated decision.

Third party presidential debate:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Get Nostalgic About Today

                Have you ever had the experience of looking back at your childhood, thinking about all the “major problems” you had? Do you remember being worried about stuff like will the other kids in the class make fun of me? Is the teacher going to hate me? 1st grade classroom politics? Who was popular and who was not? Do you remember the first time you fell in love? All the panic it caused you, the sheer terror, the sleepless nights staying up wondering, does she think of me the same way I think about her? Do you smile now as you think of those innocent times? How simple our lives were, how lucky we would be if only those were our problems once again. However, this is just a perspective we can only afford now, in the soft glow of nostalgic hindsight. It seems like with just enough time and perspective, almost anything can seem so sweet and cute. Now let me ask you another question. When was the last time you looked at your today’s life with the same perspective? When was the last time you looked at all your problems and smiled about how sweet and cute they are? When was the last time you viewed your problems as something enriching, something that gives depth to life, the central theme from which this beautiful story of life evolves?
                That last question may seem odd to you as some of us have serious things that are going on in our lives. You may argue that what you are struggling with today is much more serious than what you ever struggled with when you were younger. If so, indulge me if you will, and imagine yourself in that proverbial state of deathbed reflection. At the end of your life, knowing that you have not much longer left to live, doesn’t everything take on a different feel? How precious does every moment of life seem from that vantage point? How sweet is every problem that life has to offer when life seems almost no more?
                Life becomes very busy sometimes, and with everything going on it, is sometimes easy to forget that we are alive. I don’t mean that we think we are dead. I mean that we forget that WE ARE ALIVE!!! How often do we reflect on that fact? Everything is still possible so long as we are alive. You only get one life, everything you want to do happens now. Every dream you ever had can only take place here, on this world, in that short flash between the cradle and the grave. Today is the day for action, right here, right now, you are alive, did you know that? Celebrate that every day, live it every moment of your life, realize it right now. Close your eyes, and do not reopen them until this has saturated every fiber of your existence. Really, do it, close your eyes and do not continue reading until you have internalized this.
                It seems that we live in a culture that revolves around us being passive spectators. We live vicariously through TV shows, movies, rebbes, rosh yeshivas, and sports stars. We are not used to getting up and doing for ourselves. Our adventures and romances happen on big screens as we sit on the couch with our eyes glazed over stuffing our faces with popcorn. We have spiritual experiences by watching a rebbe or rosh yeshiva doing his “avodah.”  We change the world by going to a little box and pressing a lever to vote for one apathetic puppet over the other.
                What are we doing with ourselves, with our one and only life? Where is the pride that any animal should have of simply living life to the fullest? An antelope in the zoo might be safe, but its true majesty and beauty can only be found in the wild where even food becomes a matter of life and death.
                Get up, look around; you are alive on the most amazing planet for as far as the eye can see. You are alive, you can do whatever you please, just actually get up and do something. If you honestly tried doing something than you cannot have failed, because by just trying at the very least you succeeded at trying, you did something; and if something is just not working out and does not seem like it will, do not waste yourself on it, your time is too precious, go for something else, the options are limitless. 
               This is your life, you are alive, right now, and no matter how much life you might feel that you have wasted, do not waste another precious second of it anymore. The only thing we truly have in this life is time, and too many of us squander it as a billionaire wastes his pennies.
                Every problem your life throws at you is just another facet of this great and strange epic called life, so face it with your head high, it will pass, and you can become a better, stronger person because of it. You can easily tell if a person has mastered this concept, if he has you will see thathe views his problems as beautiful and sweet. Start doing it today, because before you turn around its all over.
                One day in the future you will view today with nostalgia, but why wait until then?
Get nostalgic about today.

Monday, August 20, 2012


               Since I was a young child, I can always remember looking at the stars in awe. Every summer one of the things I loved most about camp was going out after everyone was asleep, just to go look at the stars. It was a sight my city life had deprived me of, making it all the more special when I did see it. I never really thought about it, I never cared or wondered what drew me to the stars, or why no one else seemed to care as much as I did, I just loved the feeling of being in their presence. I never cared much for the names of the stars, or how far they were, or what they were made of, I was quite content just to stare and take it all in, as if it were some cosmic art show.
              When I was fourteen, my grandfather passed away. During the Shiva, I looked through some of his books and was thrilled to discover a book on stargazing. The name of the book was “The Stars” by H. A. Rey, yes, the same man who brought you Curious George. I t gave me the first glimpse of what these stars were, and some sense of the distances involved. I soon learnt some of their names, some of their patterns, and how to find them; however, as I was still young I soon lost interest and went back to just staring at them. I must confess though, it was never quite the same, I now knew that I was looking up at stars very similar to our sun. I now had some sense of how far they were, and consequentially how big they were. I also started understanding how small we (planets of our solar system) were, and how insignificantly tiny I, as a human being on the surface of a small planet was.
               As I grew up and my interest in physics developed, I started learning things about some of specific stars and about stars in general. How they form, what they do, how they die, and how much of our life we owe to them. This gave me a completely new set of eyes on the stars, and I now stare at them with newfound wonder like old friends whom I have just begun to understand. However, it never took away from the beauty that I had always felt; the sense of being a voyeur staring into an astoundingly beautiful universe. Like an art connoisseur at a museum, as I stared at the countless stars I felt like an outsider looking at a most beautiful universe not my own.
                A few months ago, I discovered a shocking and horrible thing. I read that the Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision course with our own Milky Way. Having long lost my stargazing book, I would go out and would stare at the stars like a teacher facing a classroom, knowing that one of them was getting ready to make some serious trouble, but not knowing which one. Last week I found one of my books, and brought it upstate with me with the hope of tracking down the troublemaker. Around an hour ago, I went out to go find him and was rewarded with a real treat. It was a cloudless sky on a moonless night; every star was shining like a halogen light bulb. The sky looked as if it was made of pure black velvet, and every star a most exquisite diamond, all spread out nonchalantly across it. I went down the road to get away from all the lights and get into the dark; it was heaven on earth. The entire night sky was lit up with countless stars of varying brightness. The Milky Way lay stretched out overhead. A shooting star danced through my sky as I pulled out my binoculars, and set out to find Andromeda. It took my ten minutes or so until I found that fuzzy spot in the sky that would not become any clearer no matter how much I adjusted my focus. I had found Andromeda. Alone on a dark road at three in the morning I let out a loud laugh. I had looked 2,2000,000 years into the past and I had seen the future of our galaxy, with my own two eyes.
                The night sky I realized, is the ultimate time machine. No star is as it appears now, the closest is around four light year away, so you see it as it was four years ago. This itself is enough of a treat, just that thought. I now KNOW that the universe is at least 2 million years old for I have seen 2 million years ago. How crazy is that? At the same time this time machine allows me to see the future, I have seen the destruction of our Milky Way. The beautiful stretch across our night sky exists only on borrowed time, it will end, as its collision with Andromeda is inevitable.
                Another thing crossed my mind as I stared at the stars. Stargazing must be one of the truly universal pastimes, transcending time and space. It doesn’t make a difference who you are, how old you are, or when and where you lived, for how can one stare at the stars and not feel that sense of awe? How can one be blind to the greatest show in the universe?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Can Judaism be Reconciled With Science? Part 3: Finishing Creation

                 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind, cattle and creeping things and the beasts of the earth according to their kind," and it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kind and the cattle according to their kind, and all the creeping things of the ground according to their kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth." And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth." And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.

                So, on day number six, god creates living creatures, cattle, creeping things, and finally, man. Before we go on to man, I just noticed something, whoever wrote this book lists "creeping things" on day six and "every living creature that creepeth" back on day five. Well, so much for constancy. In addition the bible views all other living things as a precursor to man and gives man lordship over them. This begs the question, what about living things that are around today (or will be around in the future) that did not exist 5772 years ago? The other problem with this is the view that man is the final product, when in reality, we are but a link in a chain, and we will evolve into much greater things than we are today. We shall one day be a species so far removed from "modern" man, as modern man is from the simplest amoeba.
                Here is another fantastic gem, when it says "fill the earth and subdue it,” the word for subdue in Hebrew that is used, is וְכִבְשֻׁהָ however it is missing the letter vav. Rashi explains this:

                And subdue it: The“vav” in וְכִבְשֻׁהָ is missing, [allowing the word to be read וְכִבְשָׁה, the masculine singular imperative] to teach you that the male subdues the female that she should not be a gadabout (Gen. Rabbah 8:12),

                But I digress; let us return to reality, with the true history of our planet. The first animals to walk on the land lived at the latest 415 MYA; however, these are not our ancestors. Our ancestors were more like today’s amphibians, having evolved from fish, they had both gills and lungs, they also had four legs so they could walk around, they lived somewhere around 360-370 MYA. However, these tertapods (tetra means four pods means legs) still lived half their life in the water and lay their eggs in the water. Tetrapods only began living fully out of water once their eggs grew a hard enough shell so that it was waterproof and retained everything inside. The first of these were known as Amniotes, they first arose somewhere around 314-330 MYA. They split into two groups, one, the Sauropsids, would later contain all reptiles, dinosaurs and later, birds. The other Synapsids would eventually contain all mammals. The Permian-Triassic extinction wiped out most life on earth, and surviving ruling beast soon thereafter became the dinosaur. These beasts varied in size from as small as a chicken to larger than a house, they ruled the earth, some ate plants some ate other animals. They reigned supreme from 199 MYA until 65 MYA, far longer a period than humanity's collective lifespan. While the dinosaurs roamed the earth, our ancestors, the precursors to mammals, were hiding out, mostly nocturnal, and survived on insects. However, this may have helped us out as this may have accelerated our evolution, by forcing us to become warm blooded, and start growing fur. The Cretaceous–Paleocene extinction 65 MYA wiped out most of life on earth, including the dinosaurs, the early mammals however, survived.
                Following this age of the dinosaurs, we now face an earth empty of large terrestrial animals, thus setting the stage for the rise of the mammals. Most animals such as the Artiodactyla ("even-toed" taxa such as cows and pigs) and Perrisodactyla ("odd-toed" taxa, including the horses) first appeared between 55.5 and 37 MYA.
And Hashem god formed the man of soil from the earth, and blew in his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living soul.
Firstly, we are made mostly of water, not earth, why the author chose to describe our creation like this, is beyond me. Secondly, we see clearly that the author of the bible did not think that man came of other animals; man was created on its own. So without further ado, let us once again, check back with reality.
The earliest primate fossils are from 55 MYA; however, recent discoveries in genetics lead us to believe that primates might have been around as early as 85 MYA. Hominids (the great apes), first arose around 15 MYA, of these there are few remaining survivors, only orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and ourselves, survived. The first species that we have evidence that they used stone tools was Homo habilis they lived around 2.3 MYA. However, their brain was the same size as a chimpanzee’s, over the next million years approximately, their brain size had doubled and they had left Africa. Homo erectus had spread throughout Asia and Europe, they had begun to use complex tools, and had mastered the use of fire, these were not our ancestors though. Our ancestors evolved from Homo heidelbergensis, and we remained in Africa until around 50,000-100,000 years ago. Homo sapiens evolved around 200,000 years ago and were anatomically modern humans; however, it was not until 50,000 years ago that our behavior changed to modern human behavior.
In our growth from primitive animal to modern human, we have grown a lot, both physiologically and behaviorally, and each complemented the other. The one aspect I wish to focus on is our brain, what I believe sets us above all other animals. This process of encephalization is what I believe truly sets us apart as humans. Homo hablis had a brain only slightly larger than a chimpanzee at 600 cc. Homo erectus had an even larger brain at 800-1100 cc Neanderthals had the largest with an average of 1200-1900 cc. Modern humans have a brain that averages around 1330 cc. However, our brains do not do all their growing before birth, our brains continue to grow even after we are born, and this allows us to learn language, and social skills for an extended period. As important as size, if not more important, is the structure of our brain. We have grown disproportionately large temporal lobes, and prefrontal cortex, this allows for advanced language, complex decisions, social decisions, and pattern recognition.
These skills served us well, we could not only better track and hunt our prey, we could also outwit our predators, we could plan ahead by better recognizing patterns, and realizing what follows what. We begun to understand more about nature than any animal on earth ever had, we were truly “sapiens” (wise ones.) However, these skills could also betray us; we would sometimes infer patterns that were not there, leading to paranoia, superstition, and religion.
We began to see everything as a tool to be used; this gave us incredible power and advantage over other animals, and over our cousin species. We developed everything, from clothing, to agriculture, to television we learnt how to use stone and metal for any and all uses, from hammers to iphones. We developed language and even written language; we developed art, music, and culture, science and religion, history and myth. We developed methods of traveling, from horses to cars to rockets; we mastered the physical world.
We best did this by trial and error and looking to understand how things worked, we wondered about things no other animal ever thought about, and we wanted to know everything. However, everything, is not readily understood. Sometimes when we could not figure something out, we would give it our best guess, and just assume that that’s how it worked. This is ok, except that sometimes another group of people had guessed something else, and both sides could get passionate about their beliefs. The problem was that people could not discern between truth and assumption, they simply did not have the tools. People made some very wrong assumptions, they thought that the earth was flat, gods existed, and humans lived after death. They thought that everything was made of four elements, and that the planets and stars were suspended in the air on giant glasslike domes, some even thought that stars were the tips of cigars being smoked by dead heroes. In science, we find a revolutionary idea, a new way to deal with claims about reality. This new method tells us to check reality, and see which theory made the most sense. This kicked off a revolution, this lead to everything that defines us as modern humans today from modern medicine, to technology. We have since discovered that reality is a lot crazier than we could have ever imagined.
In closing, I would like to once again, pose to you the question I have posed to you originally. Do these two accounts even resemble each other? If god wrote the torah, wouldn’t he know what happened? How many “metaphors” and “epicycles” must you add to make this readable? Do you, as a sane human being accept this is literal truth? If you do, please comment and we will discuss it. If you do not view this as literal truth, why then do you think that the rest of it is literally true? Moreover, who decides what is literally true and what is metaphor? Is your literally true god hiding only in the corners where science has not arrived yet?
How much more fascinating is the truth, as opposed to superstition and myth? How much more have we gained by growing past it?

For part one of this series got to
Part 2

In an unrelated note, I will be offline for the next month or so and will not be posting. Until then, go research everything I say, never take my word for it, correct me if you can, and above all learn as much as you can.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Tribute to Thomas Jefferson, The Visionary Who Shaped America And Reshaped The World

                In honor of the 236th birthday of the declaration of independence, I think it would be appropriate to say a few words in honor of its author, Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president, I am a strong believer in Jeffersonian democracy and I feel that our country, while maintaining the core structure might have strayed from his original goal. I hope that this will inspire some of you, my readers, to find out a little more about this great man, and who knows? Maybe this will inspire you to get up and get involved.
I believe the foundation of Jeffersonian philosophy is as he himself said, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others..." In other words, every man should have the right to do as he pleases, so long as he does not infringe on the rights of his fellow man to do the same.
Jefferson was uncomfortable with a big government, or a government that got too comfortable with its power. He knew that government was unavoidable and therefore wanted to keep it small and in its place. In a letter to Abigail Adams he wrote, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all." In another letter, this time to William S. Smith, he wrote, "And what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms." He felt that the needs of the people must always be the first priority of the government, and that people should be involved in the government. He called for a unified and educated America; he founded the University of Virginia and donated all his books to the library of congress.
Probably the single saying of his which I love the most is
“The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;" that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”
The honesty and humility, in that statement is why I admire him so much. Although he authored one of the greatest documents of all time, he was aware of his limitations as a human being. He knew that he could only ever say, that this seems to be the best idea that we have right now, and I will leave the door open for future generations who might have better ideas.
Jefferson was also a great supporter of human rights, as he famously stated in the declaration of independence “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” and the idea that people have “unalienable rights, that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Unlike most governments of his time, he truly tried, and succeeded, to create a secular state, and famously called for “a wall of separation between church and state”.
He was also a skeptical philosopher and his belief in god was limited to Deism. Although, in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr he famously wrote “Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. ... Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you. -- (Jefferson's Works, Vol. ii., p. 217)”
He was an inventor and a philosopher, he is quoted as saying that he would have loved to dedicate his life to being a natural philosopher but his duties to his country came first, a true American Marcus Aurelius.
I raise my glass to you Thomas Jefferson, my favorite president, and thank you for your work in the establishment of the ideals of this country, which has made my life so much better. While America may not be perfect, it is surly one of the freest countries in the world, it has been the leader and light bearer for many countries that followed suit, and thanks is due to you.
Happy Fourth of July!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Can Judaism be Reconciled With Science? Part 2: Creation, Early Life

I must be honest; I am running into a few problems here. The first is that I wanted to tell the two versions of the history of the universe (biblical and scientific) in parallel, however the two accounts are so drastically different in the order of what came first, that it now seems impossible I shall however try my best to keep it somewhat readable. The second problem, which is not as big as the first, is that I am leaving my comfort zone of physics and wandering into the unknown waters of biology and geology. However, please join me, as this will be a learning experience for both of us. If I say anything that is wrong, assume the mistake is mine, and I will try to give you as many references as I can.
Now where did we leave off? Ah, yes. Day Three;
“And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear," and it was so. And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas, and God saw that it was good. And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth," and it was so. And the earth gave forth vegetation, seed yielding herbs according to its kind, and trees producing fruit, in which its seed is found, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good. And it was evening, and it was morning, a third day.”
                The bible would have you assume that the earth was covered in water when it was first formed and then god miraculously pushed the water aside so that dry land would rise up. How did this work? Did he spilt the sea? We know he is good at this trick. Did he dig a deep hole in the ocean so that the sea levels will go down? Or did he just do it, and “stop asking so many questions about god already”? Anyways we also have the first life mentioned in the bible, plant life. Grass, fruit trees, and vegetation of all sorts arises on our lonely planet earth. According to midrash the trees were commanded to make their bark taste like the fruit, but they disobeyed. Tsk, tsk, tsk, the naughty trees did not listen to god, thus setting the stage for the rest of history. 
                Notice that this is the first life form mentioned in the bible, there is no mention of the most plentiful and earliest of all life forms, bacterium and viruses. It is also ignorant of the fact that there were many animals before plants and trees appeared on the land. An all-knowing god would know about this, Bronze Age herders would not.
However, let us go back to reality,
                We left off last week just as the earth was being formed. So let us begin with the earliest history of our planet. Our early earth did not resemble the comfortable friendly environment we live in today, the early earth was a ball of hot molten rock, and it looked more like hell than paradise. The first layers to cool down were the outermost layers around 4.4 - 4.5 BYA (billion years ago) the oldest detrital zircon crystals that we have today is from that time period. The early earth was hit by many meteors each one heating up the planet. According to the prevalent theory our moon was formed when an object the size of a small planet collided with the early earth, this is known as the giant impact hypothesis. Although we are not sure that this is indeed how the moon formed, we do know that the moon was formed 4.5 BYA. As the outer layers of the earth got cooler and the inside remained hot, the heat from the inside began flowing outward. Mantle convection, the process that causes most of the earthquakes and volcanoes we experience is due to plate tectonics, which in turn is due to the heat from the middle of the earth flowing outward.
We think that the first real life was formed somewhere around 3.9 – 3.5 BYA. How it came about is still unclear, there are many competing hypotheses all of them possible, some of them more likely than others, we just don’t know yet which one actually happened.  The most probable of them seems to be the "Primordial soup" theory which has been experimentally been shown to be possible. With all the false starts and different ways which early life had formed, around 3.5 BYA a single line of “protocells” seems to have been the source of all life currently on earth.
Early life was simple and lived in the water; it survived the next few billion years while the earth went through the process of freezing over repeatedly. The last of these freezing phases happened around 600 MYA (million years ago), it was after this that evolution began to take off in earnest. Around 542 MYA was the beginning of what is called the Cambrian explosion. This was one of the most exciting times in the history of our little earth. Life diversified and grew in leaps and bounds. The first animals with shells, the first vertebrates, and the first fish evolved in this phase. This lasted until around 488 MYA, however all this diversity of life was all in the water, nothing on the land yet.
The first life moved onto the land around 2.6 BYA, but these were simple single celled Prokaryote. Multi-cellular life, in the form of fungi and algae didn’t make it to the land until the late Cambrian or the early Ordovician around 500 MYA, the oldest fossils of this kind date back to around 470 MYA. We are not sure when the first creatures left the water, the oldest clear evidence goes back at least 450 MYA, however footprints have been found on land that date back to over 530 MYA indicating that animals may have been on land before plants were.
And God said: 'Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years. And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth' and it was so.  And God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars.  And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth. And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
Ok, so we have earth, water, oceans, sky, plants, THEN the sun and stars show up? This is impossible, for so many reasons, firstly, there are stars older than our sun, and the sun is older than the earth. Secondly, oxygen, which is an important part of water, cannot exist until after stars have been born and died. EARTH DID NOT EXIST UNTIL AFTER THE SUN WAS FORMED. Now, on one of these points I was not the first person to notice this absurdity,
                “Rav Pinchas ben Yair says, why did god command on the third day that grass plants and fruit trees should grow and on the fourth day god created the heavenly lights (sun, moon, and stars)? To show you the power of God’s strength that he can make the earth bloom without the heavenly lights.” ( it’s in Hebrew, I couldn’t find an English translation, the translation is mine as well and not perfect. The part I am quoting is on page 16)
                In other words in case you were wondering how plants can grow without the sun, don’t. God did it. This is a very important idea if you want to take the bible as truth.
Now the purpose of these lights were not so that we can stay alive, no. thpurpose of the lights were so that we can have days, and seasons, this could not have been written by someone who knew anything about how important the sun is to life, or else it would have mentioned it.
If you noticed it said that god created two great lights, meaning equal, then it refers to one as the greater and one as the lesser. Rashi explains this as follows
They were created equal, but the moon was made smaller because it brought charges and said, “It is impossible for two kings to use the same crown.” - [from Chullin 60b] Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this derash is based on the discrepancy of the two expressions, “the two great luminaries,” which intimates that the moon was a great luminary, and “the lesser luminary,” which intimates that the moon was smaller than the sun. To reconcile this difference, the Rabbis asserted that the moon was originally created equal to the sun, but, because of its complaint that the sun wielded the same power that it wielded, it was forced to relinquish that power.
If anyone knows anything about the sun and the moon, they know that this is impossible. The sun is a great ball of mostly hydrogen and a little helium, the moon is a small little rock made mostly of metallic alloy. These do not resemble each other at all; in addition, their ages are different as well by at least 10 million years. Rashi then goes on to explain the stars with this gem
 Because He diminished the moon, He increased its hosts, to appease it. - [from Gen. Rabbah 46:4 and Chullin 60b] i.e., The stars serve as the entourage of the moon. When it comes out, they accompany it, and when it sets, they too set. [Gen. Rabbah ad loc.]
So let us set up the timeline here first, there was the earth then the sun and the moon, then they have this fight, then the stars are created to accompany the moon. This is absurd for so many reasons, not counting the fact that the sun and the moon do not get into “fights.” First of all, the stars have more to do with the sun than the moon, secondly the stars are out during the day too, they do not set with the moon, you just can’t see them because the sun is too bright, finally as we have seen already so many times, the stars must predate the earth.
And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.' And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.' And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
WTF, sea monsters? As usual, rashi comes to the rescue
The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Caseroth V’Yetheroth , Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].
So at the creation of the world one giant leviathan was allowed to stay alive, so we should find one giant fish somewhere under the water that has no mate. Hmm, we should send out an expedition to find it. Well at least we know what the sea monster is.
Another interesting tidbit here is the idea that fish, flies, and birds are all lumped together. This is just flat out wrong. Fish are one of the first kinds of creatures on this planet appearing around 510 MYA. It is hard to define “every living creature that creepeth” since that covers way too much, however the first creature that creepeth, or anthropods first crawled onto land 450 MYA and evolved from fish. Birds on the other hands evolved from dinosaurs and first arrived at the end of the Jurassic period within the last 100 million years, after the animals described on day six.
I want to point out again, this is not my area of expertise anyone with Google can find everything I wrote here, it does not take genius to say that the emperor is naked, it takes courage and honesty. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Can Judaism be Reconciled With Science? Part 1: Creation, Until Life

If we look at the tanach, do we assume that this is the word of a god? Should we assume that it is absolutely true, as the rambam lists in the ani maamins:
6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses is absolutely true. He was the chief of all prophets, both before and after Him.
8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.
Should we assume that it knows better than everything we know? What about our holy books (mishna, gemora, midrash, rishonim, achronim…) to we assume any of these to be absolutely true? Do we assume as some many do that all seforim (up until and including rashi) were written with ruach hakodesh. Should we believe tzadikim when they say that their writings had been revealed to them by angels or eliyahu hanavi? Would we assume that all of them are correct, eilu veilu divrei elohim chayim?

Or rather should we assume that these are books written by fallible semi-evolved apes trying to make sense of this experience we call life. Consequentially, they sometimes get it right and sometimes, dead wrong. Does it contain “facts” that we know to be impossible? Do they reflect in a way a worldview and morality that made more sense a few thousand years ago? Have we grown past it? Should we grow past it?

I am going to try to present to you the case that it makes more sense to assume that the torah was written by people, and based on the morality and worldview that could be expected a few thousand years ago in a desert tribe, not the infallible word and wisdom of god for all the ages.

Before I present it, however I would like to tell you a story about a man named Ptolemy and his epicycles. Way back, when people believed that the earth was the center of the universe, there was a person named Aristotle who postulated that everything on earth was imperfect, and everything in the heavens were perfect, and since the sphere is ultimate perfect shape, everything in heave must be in perfect circles or spheres. This became accepted as truth for thousands of years. There was a small problem with this it is called reality. Aristotle never checked to see if this were actually true as this was not his way of going about things, he just thought about things without checking reality. Now although it makes some sort of sense to say that the sun and the moon are attached to large spheres floating around the earth, you run into a serious problem with the planets. You see, sometimes it seems (at least from earth) that the planets sort of go backwards for a little bit, and zig zag across the sky, this makes no sense if you are assuming that they are attached to great glass perfect spheres revolving around the earth.

So, in the second century a.d. our friend Ptolemy came up with a solution, “epicycles”. These epicycles are what would save Aristotle’s theory from instant destruction. An epicycle is, if you could imagine a small sphere attached to a large sphere and both are spinning. Therefore, he explained, the zig zagging and backwards movements are only due to the epicycles. Let us not forget no one had seen these glass spheres, no one knew them to exist, and however no one questioned it either. As time went on more and more observations came into conflict with the idea that the earth is the center of the universe and that these spheres existed. As observations became more accurate and contradicted the sphere/epicycle idea, rather than look for a new theory they just kept on adding epicycles even as it lost the beauty and simplicity that originally compelled Aristotle to present his theory, this however, made no difference. However eventually observations won out and most of us (except for a few nutjobs) agree that the earth goes around the sun and that there are no great spheres.

Why am I telling you this?

Because as I will present my case, there will be those who will defend the torah, defend the jewish worldview. At some point, without them even realizing it they have started to change the torah past anything its writers could have ever intended by any stretch of the imagination, just so that they can say that reality does not contradict their torah. When they start doing this, I will simply respond “epicycles”. If you should one day find yourself trying to explain to someone why belief in the torah as literal truth is absurd, and his only response is to change the torah so drastically that it is no longer the “torah”, just look them in the eye and say “epicycles”.

In a similar way, I have noticed a trend, and you may notice it too; as time goes on and we learn more about our world (through science) more and more of the torah starts becoming viewed as a “metaphor” and not to be taken literal. Conversely as we go further back in time more and more of the torah becomes viewed as literal, and claiming it is just a metaphor is seen as heresy (apikorsus). I applaud this trend and patiently wait until the entire torah, and god as well, ALL become viewed as metaphor and free us from this horrid superstition.

This will be part one; dealing only with the creation of the world until the first life, I will continue this in another post.

“In the beginning the lord created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was bewilderment and void with a darkness over the surface of the deep, and the spirit (breath) of god hovered over the surface of the waters.  And god said ‘let there be light’ and there was light. And god saw that the light was good, and god separated between the light and the darkness. And god called to the light day and to the darkness night. And there was evening and and there was morning, day one”

This is a very familiar verse namely Genesis 1:1-5, and the mistakes begin right there. Firstly, it assumes (arrogantly) that the first thing must have been the heavens and earth, because as Rashi explains right there that this verse teaches us that the world was created for the Jews. The next thing mentioned is water, finally god creates light, separates it from the darkness and gives both of them names, day and night.  Now let us check reality and see what the beginning of our universe looks like.

In reality, the first thing in our universe (immediately after the big bang) was energy, pure, roiling energy. The first change occurred at 10−43seconds after the big bang. That is a 1 preceded by 43 zeros preceded by a decimal (0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000001). The first thing to happen as the universe cooled down to a chilled 1027 degrees Kelvin (a 1 followed by 27 zeros) was that gravity became a separate force while our other three forces (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force) remained “unified”. No sign of a heaven, earth, or water anywhere.

Following this, at either 10−36 or 10−32 after the big bang the strong nuclear force also became a separate force. Also in this even cooler universe around 1020 degrees Kelvin, the first subatomic particles were formed from what was previously just energy and what we had is called a quark-gluon plasma. Quarks are what make up the protons and neutrons, which make up the nucleus of an atom, they are held together by the strong force using gluons. At this point though, it was all a “soup”, or a mishmash, for which the technical term is, plasma. In addition to this, the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force were still acting as one force, also not really getting anything done, and just part of this plasma. Still no earth, still no heaven, still no water, and dare I say, still no god.

Afterwards at around 10−12 seconds our final two forces separated, leaving us with the four fundamental forces that we have today, gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. At around 10−6 seconds after the big bang it had cooled down to a mere 1013 degrees Kelvin hadrons began to form. Hadrons are particles made up of quarks, there are two kinds, baryons, and mesons (baryons are made of three quarks, mesons are made up of two quarks). All of our atomic nuclei are made up of baryons, those are protons and neutrons. This is the first real matter, although there were no electrons, so no real atoms but at least we have the first atomic nuclei.

At approximately 1 second after the big bang leptons dominated the universe, leptons are the lightest of the subatomic particles the most common of which is the electron. Although the energy was too high for the nuclei and electrons to bond together, at least we had all the pieces of the atoms. Still no heaven, no earth, no water, no god.

LET THERE BE LIGHT! At approximately 10 seconds after the big bang, the energy of the universe was predominantly in the form of photons (the smallest quanta of light). This is the universe for the next 377,000 or 380,000 years until the universe cool enough for the first atoms to form.

As the first atoms stabilize, they also begin to attract each other because of their gravity. Under intense gravitational pressure the first atoms are squeezed together and when they stick together they form bigger atoms, this releases large amounts of energy (this process is known as fusion), these are the first stars. These first stars are formed during the first 150 million to 1 billion years after the big bang. Still no heavens still no earth still no water, but we do have light.

Let us not forget our cute children’s fable aka the torah. Where did we leave off? Yes, we just finished “day” one. Lets go on to day number two. Genesis 1:6-8

“And god said let there be a firmament between the waters, and let it separate between water and water. And god made the firmament, and he separated between the waters which were beneath the firmament and the waters which were above the firmament, and it was so. And god called the firmament ‘heavens’, and there was evening and there was morning, a second day.”

Does anyone have a clue what this is talking about? What waters? Has anyone ever seen a lot of water on top of the heavens? Are the heavens really stopping any water from coming through? So I googled it and was promptly sent to Wikipedia

this is what I got:

The firmament is the sky, conceived as a vast dome.[1] According to Genesis, God created the firmament to separate the "waters above" (the source of rain) from those below (in the underworld). The word is anglicised from Latin firmamentum, which appears in the Vulgate.
The word "firmament" is used to translate raqia, or raqiya` ( רקיע), a word used in Biblical Hebrew. The connotation of firmness conveyed by the Vulgate's firmamentum is consistent that ofstereoma, the Greek word used in the Septuagint, an earlier translation. The notion of solidity is advanced explicitly in several biblical passages.[4]
The original word raqia is derived from the root raqa ( רקע), meaning "to beat or spread out", e.g., the process of making a dish by hammering thin a lump of metal.[3][5] Raqa adopted the meaning "to make firm or solid" in Syriac, a major dialect of Aramaic (the vernacular of Jesus) and close cognate of Hebrew.[3]

Hey, guess what else they said about it,

The word is used in the Genesis creation narrative:The modern bible, and non-canonical related texts, present a cosmology that is incompatible with modern scientific knowledge.[8] The firmament was a great tent-like[9] ceiling made of solid crystalline-like material,[10] which, according to the pseudepedigraphic 2nd or 3rd century book of 3 Baruch, might be pierced by tower and gimlet.[11] It had many windows, some of which opened and closed for the sun and moon to travel through[12] or to let water, which was held above, fall through as rain.[13] On top there were also warehouses of snow and hail.[14] Stars were small objects that were attached tenuosly to its surface.[15]
The Jewish Encyclopedia describes the firmament as follows:
The Hebrews regarded the earth as a plain or a hill figured like a hemisphere, swimming on water. Over this is arched the solid vault of heaven. To this vault are fastened the lights, the stars. So slight is this elevation that birds may rise to it and fly along its expanse.[16]

How does anyone actually believe this?

Anyways, back to reality…
As more and more of these stars formed they themselves were drawn to each other, they began to draw closer together to form clusters of stars what we refer to now as galaxies. The oldest galaxy that we can see is 12.91 billion light years away, which means that the light we are seeing now 12.91 billion years to reach us, we are in a sense looking back in time 12.91 billion years. There is also a galaxy that seems to be 13.2 billion light years away, but there seems to be a dispute about exactly how far it really is. In any case, it seems that galaxies formed at least as early as the first billion years of our universe.

Now, stars die because they already compressed their light atoms into heavy atoms and they begin to collapse in on themselves. When they do this, they squeeze the already heavy atoms together forming even bigger atoms, and releasing more energy, so the star re-ignites and burns a little longer. This process can repeat a few times until eventually that star just blows up, but by this time, it has formed a whole plethora of heavy atoms. This is how, even though originally the universe only produced the lightest of atoms; we have today an entire periodic table of elements.

Around 9 billion years after the big bang, a cloud of mostly hydrogen (the lightest of all atoms) and some other trace elements, began to collapse in on itself. As the pressure grew, it eventually started the fusion process. Yes, this is our sun. Around the main star swirls of dust and dirt remained some of these also began to collapse due to gravity and the planets formed. You may wonder why they did not ignite and start fusion as well thereby becoming stars. The answer is because they were not big enough that the gravitational pressure would cause atoms to fuse together.

I will continue this in my next post but before I go, I must ask. Do these two accounts even resemble each other? If the torah was written by god wouldn’t he know what happened? How many “metaphors” and “epicycles” must you add to make this readable? Do you, as a sane human being accept this is literal truth? If you do, please comment and we will discuss it. If you do not view this as literal truth, why then do you think that the rest of it is literally true? And who decides what is literally true and what is metaphor? Is your literally true god hiding only in the corners where science hasent arrived yet?

For more info on the big bang process check out

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Celebration of Life

                I was at a sholom zochor last night and after a few beers, I found myself in middle of an intense argument about whether all goyim (non-Jews) hate all Jews? I could not believe that this man actually felt that all of them MUST hate us, from where would such a sense of fear and isolation come? Aside from feeling bad for him, it left me thinking. When I left there after forty-five minutes or so, I went on my weekly Friday night walk to the beach. The scene was breathtaking, not a cloud in the sky, no moon, and all the stars were out in their full majesty. As I looked out onto the endless vast dark ocean, I truly understood what it means to feel insignificant. I am tiny compared to this ocean and compared to a star the even this great ocean is not even a puddle. It is barely a mark on a speck of dust, and in true cosmic sizes, the star itself is no more than the smallest spark. Yet here I am. Alive. Taking it all in. I do not know a lot about reality but the little I do blows me away. I am left wondering, how amazing is this experience we call life? How much more so is what we refer to as the “human” experience?
From a big bang 14 or so billion years ago, an entire universe was born spewing forth a plasma of a subatomic mess. No atoms could have formed in these initial moments, it was too chaotic, and the closest thing resembling stability that I know of at this time was quark-gluon plasma. From this, the first atoms arose and the uniform plasma became individualized. At first, there was a very limited variety of atoms that were formed but it was enough for the first fireworks; the first stars. They were giant nuclear collectives, individual atoms working together putting on the greatest show in the universe for no one’s eyes at all. This is the true nature of nature; absolutely amazing, and yet she does not care who is watching or who will like it. Nature is as she is, that’s it. These atoms working together became something they could never accomplish themselves; they became the heavy elements. Only in the center of stars where gravity was at its strongest, could two atomic nuclei overcome their mutual dislike for each other and join to become something bigger and better, a heavier element.
The heaviest of elements however are only created in the intense pressures of the death throes of a collapsing star. After a series of collapses and explosions that is the death of a star, all the material that was in the star is blown around to be used again. As the matter cloud falls in on itself because of gravity it reignites but not all the dust makes it into the star. Some of it just stays swirling around and sometimes creates smaller lumps of matter. Sometimes this satellite has enough mass to ignite and create a binary star system and sometimes none of satellites have enough mass to ignite. A variety of satellites can form, and although most of them would not be able to support life as we know it, perhaps they are capable of supporting other forms of life, perhaps better suited to their environments.
Around one particular star, which we call “the” sun quite a few satellites were formed. Some were giant balls of gas, truly majestic in size; and some were small lumps of rock, not much in terms of size. One of these small rocks had a chemical composition and a favorable weather system that allowed liquid water and life as we know it. Within a relatively short time, the first life forms arose on that little rock, and began to multiply.
The conditions on that rock stayed in such a way that allowed the life to continue, and whenever it did change, the life was able to change with it. After doing so for many generations, the first signs of real change in the life began appearing. The life began to get more complex allowing for better chances at getting more food, and better chances of surviving longer. Although the changes were plentiful, only those best fitting the environment survived. As the life became more complex it began to evolve things like a nervous system with a main control center, it evolved all kinds of organs and limbs, each life form competing for the reward of survival. At one point, the greatest life form on this rock was a creature called the dinosaurs; they were giant lizards that lorded over all other life forms. These beasts came in many forms some ate plants some ate other animals some even ate other dinosaurs. However, they all died out when environmental situations became hostile to their existence and nothing remains of their powerful reign other than a few fossils.
After they died out the best creature adapted for survival was a group called the mammals. Being the dominant life forms on this small rock, they evolved into all sorts of species. Eventually there arose a sort of mammals we now call apes, these mammals had great brains, superior bodies, and started learning how to use their surroundings in a way previously unseen. They began making tools to help them to simple tasks; their form of communication was unsurpassed, with the exception of the dolphins perhaps. They kept on improving and evolving better brains until they could not only learn how to get food better, they could even predict the habits of their prey and each other, their language surpassed all other life forms, and they had tools for everything. They had this capability called imagination, which means they can understand things in an abstract way even if the thing were not there.
They could create things that had no survival purpose, and they could afford to as well, they were that good at survival. They created things for enjoyment, such as music, art, stories, and poetry. They started trying to understand everything, for they realized that the better you understood something, the better off you were in using that thing, or sometimes if it was a potentially dangerous thing, prepare for it. However, they were still limited, their method of understanding was still in its infancy and they arrived at many half-truths, and many false conclusions. When in their search to understand everything many times, they would reach something that they did not know. It was very uncomfortable to leave it as an unknown and so they guessed, many times incorrectly.
These limitations notwithstanding, they still were the best life form this rock. They discovered a way to keep record of their thoughts and knowledge on rock, then later paper that could in a sense “freeze” their words for a long time, to be accessed by anyone. They began to use tools in every imaginable way until they were able to have tools that could think for them. They built systems of understanding such as math and philosophy. They were also the first creature to realize that they were going to die, this made many of them feel that life was futile, so many of them postulated that they would live forever beyond their bodies. They also thought that the only way to understand many happenings was to assume conscious intentional governors of nature, with human wants and desires who could be reasoned with and be pleased. Unfortunately since they were only guesses different people made drastically different guesses.
They were nomads, spread around to many different parts of the world, and traveled in groups. In their obsession with their way of seeing the world, and their fear of the unknown they would demonize the “others”. ”Others” were those whose guesses about reality differed from their own. In their fear of the “others”, they began to fear each other, denouncing each other as being one of the “others”. This fear caused isolation, paranoia, distrust, and life again became the fear for survival.
Finally, after thousands of years of living like this there came two revolutions around a thousand years apart. The first was the Greek enlightenment, the second the European enlightenment. These led to better methods of understanding our world, better methods of understanding each other, the idea of respecting all people, the first real steps toward the elimination of superstition and baseless fear.
As a human being myself, I am thrilled to be living in this time in our history. I can appreciate the simple beauty of being alive, I do not fear superstitious nonsense, I can understand my universe, I can understand other humans, I do not expect them to be perfect, I understand that they evolved from other, simpler primates and sometimes act irrational. This is ok.
People are semi-evolved primates, that’s it. Bear this in mind next time you are confused about how people act. As semi evolved primates, we can do what we want and create our lives however we want. We were once amoebas, we can go anywhere from here. We can hold any opinion we want, however we should keep in mind that it is just an opinion. If we are extremely careful, we can sometimes know things almost for a fact, but it takes a great amount of gentle care and precision to know truth.
In between our opinions and the truth lies our worldview. This worldview of ours encompasses our entire humanity, world, and universe. We each have one, it is unique and individual. By remaining open and gentle with each other we can sometimes glimpse a parallel universe, entirely strange and ridiculous, yet hauntingly familiar. Sometimes we can get lost amidst all these ridiculous and entertaining universes, it does one well to bear in mind that we should also have a universe of our own, as beautiful and ridiculous as the next. In the arts, I sometimes glimpse the minds of other people and simultaneously am comforted in our similarities and amazed at our differences.
I see most people as simply wanting to live in peace, without fear, with love and happiness. Most people simply want their little corner of a world for themselves, do not want to bother people and do not want to be bothered. Most of us want to share the good we have with other people. Most of us are lovers of life, artists of our own lives, and artists of our own worldview. We are all born curious and some of us retain that throughout our lives. We love to share, love to be at peace with one another. Yes, fear and pain can distort this in people and make them hateful instead of loving, hoarding instead of giving, but given the chance, most of those people would rather go back to the good life. Life can get tough and we can grow cynical, yet I keep seeing people accomplish such greatness that I cannot help feeling optimistic. If history has taught us anything it is that, we can rise above our shortcomings.
I am a proud human being. Proud of what we have accomplished notwithstanding our shortcomings, if anything it is our shortcomings as people that make me the most proud of what we have still managed to accomplish. We have done so much with so little that I cannot wait to see where we will go from here. I see us rising above our childish superstition, above our senseless fear of each other. I hope we can appreciate the uniqueness of earth and learn to cherish and treasure her, instead of squandering the beautiful planet we have. I am a proud human being.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Power of Skepticism

Like a man trying to photograph a dream, I will try to describe in mere words the cascade of emotions and thoughts running through my brain as I sit here by the beach at 2 am. To do this I realize might be impossible but I unfortunately have no other means of conveying this to you, my dear reader other than words. Even as I reread my last blog post I am still not happy with it, I feel like words are a cheap medium for such powerful topics and I know that I will have to redo it again in the future, and perhaps with no better luck.
Having said that, come join me at the beach, it is two in the morning on Friday night, one or two small clouds, no moon, and seemingly endless stars. Someone once told me that the reason why we love the sound of the oceans waves is that it sounds much like the waters rushing around the womb in which we were born. While I may not know if that is true, what I must agree with is; the sense of calm that the sound of the waves conveys to me. I came here to escape my yeshiva and have a cigarette yet I find myself lost in space, gazing at the stars and lost among them. The awareness of how far the stars are, how big they are, and how insignificant even they are in the universe, is the truest humility I think one can ever truly experience. How tiny are we, evolved slime on a mote of dust orbiting a mediocre star in the outer neighborhoods of an average galaxy? How is it that we know anything? How is it that we CAN know anything? Do we actually know anything?
Last year after reading the meditations by Descartes, I remember having a long conversation with a friend over whether or not we could know if we are dreaming, and if we should even care. My conclusion was; that we cannot know and therefore I do not care, and this is my starting point for the nature of our knowledge. I agree with Descartes that “I think therefore I am” meaning since I am conscious and although everything might be an illusion, I must exist in some form to experience this illusion. However, I do not know that this is not an illusion so I cannot “know” more than that.
There are so many things that confound us in this experience we call reality, that seem so amazing to our semi-evolved mammalian brain. The problem though is that for each phenomenon there are so many explanations, each sounding better than the one before. Therefore, I believe the only proper initial attitude is one of equal skepticism to all claims. Upon further thought though, we may wish to ask that although they cannot all be true, and perhaps none of them are, can we say one is more likely than the other? The answer is yes, we do have a method for sorting out the truth of theories, and it we call it science. It cannot prove a theory correct but, by making predictions based on the theories and observing to see which theory is consistent with observation it can conclusively disprove theories. Once we have done this and weeded out the ones we know to be false, then by default the remaining ones are the most likely to be true. We cannot say more than that, we cannot say we “know”, we can say probably, more likely, less likely, and so on but anything more than that seems to me to be a denial of the nature of our knowledge.
To me when someone says, “I know” I squirm a little bit; I get very uncomfortable when people use such absolutes. I have noticed that the crazier a person is the more certain he is of things that he in no way can be certain about. Have you ever noticed that the person screaming that the world is going to end, or  that aliens implanted chips in his brain, or that god is speaking to him, will almost never use the word maybe. He is absolutely sure, he KNOWS this, as a fact. How many less suicide bombers do you think we would have if Muslims said, “Allah is probably the one god, and Mohammed might be his prophet”, but no, they are sure, 100%, no doubt about it.
I find the opposite to be true as well, the more sane and levelheaded a person is, the more likely he is to say, “I don’t know”. It is a truly liberating three words, it is an acknowledgement that we are human and limited and might not know everything. It is only with this attitude that we might learn new things. It is with this form of mental bookkeeping and keeping track of which things we know little, of which we know more, and of which we know nothing, that we can grow and learn. My hero, Richard Feynman once said
I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
This is why he is my hero, not for his Nobel Prize winning theories, not for his physics lectures (which I own and love), but for his common sense. His simple attitude of trying to figure out this puzzle called reality, not caring for anything more than that, here is another quote from him
People say to me, "Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" No, I'm not... If it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it — that would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers... then that's the way it is. But either way there's Nature and she's going to come out the way She is. So therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn't predecide what it is we're looking for only to find out more about it. Now you ask: "Why do you try to find out more about it?" If you began your investigation to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can't get an answer to that particular question just by finding out more about the character of Nature. But that's not my interest in science; my interest in science is to simply find out about the world and the more I find out the better it is, I like to find out...
                We must not forget how young we are as a species, and how new we are to this. Looking back through time to get a good picture of who we are can sometimes make us forget to look to the future and see who we will become. We are not the final result of evolution; we are a by-product on the way to other better and more intelligent by-products. We may know a lot compared to any other species we are aware of, but there are many species yet to come and they will build off our knowledge and will know so much more. We have discovered science a mere few hundred years ago; we have only begun this true quest for knowledge. 
                Compared to what is out there we might know very little, however we have accomplished a lot in very few years since the scientific method has become commonplace. We have mastered chemistry, electricity, and even some of the nuclear forces. We have discovered relativity and quantum theory. We have the standard model of elementary particles. We understand biology from humans and elephants down to plankton, bacteria, and viruses. We have mapped the genome. We have discovered how species evolve. We have made advances in medicine, increased the human life expectancy, and decreased infant mortality. We can make artificial body parts, we can help the deaf hear, and the lame walk.  We are making serious headway in our understanding of how the brain works. We have invented the car and the plane. WE CAN FLY! How amazing is that? We have gone to space, walked on our moon, and sent spaceships out of our little solar system. We have instruments that can see all the light that our blind eyes cannot, from radio to gamma rays. We have discovered black holes. We know the history of our solar system and to some degree of accuracy we know its future. We have invented the telephone and the computer and now we have them both in one in our cell phones. We have the internet, which allows the entire species communicate with one another (unless your mullah or rav banned it) and we all have access to all the collective knowledge of our species. We can compute on atoms. We have teleported. We can make our own atoms.
                We have accomplished a lot in these few years, yet accomplished almost nothing in comparison to what we can and will accomplish.