June 28, 2013

Childhood innocence

What is it that's so appealing about children? Is it their youthful physical beauty? Perhaps their openness to loving and being loved? Their playfulness? Beyond these things, from where I'm sitting, children are beautiful because they possess something we've all lost—the quality of innocence.

Innocence is more than lovely, though. It's also heartbreaking, because it represents Housman's "blue remember'd hills" ... the "happy highways where I went / and cannot come again."

The gap between innocence and experience is infinitely explored, like a gap in a tooth, by artists and writers. I've had a faint feeling of exile ever since childhood—not as a result of some traumatic experience, but simply the slow dimmer switch of time passing and my imagination coarsening.

But what is innocence? It's a lot like time—we all understand it, but no one can seem to explain it.

When I look at children playing for hours on end, or dancing as if no one is watching, I know I am seeing it. But it is ineffable.

It is, to a degree, a kind of ignorance. To not grasp imaginatively that death will come someday. Likewise, to be ignorant of sex. To believe in the irrational—Santa Claus, mermaids, monsters under the bed. And of course, the myth of the infinite power and goodness of parents.

But innocence goes deeper than ignorance. It is some mysterious operation of the imagination, the part that can enter into mental universes from which one is soon to be forever excluded. I have a clear recollection of this.

Every year at Christmas, my parents (Santa) traditionally left me a stuffed animal of some kind atop another wrapped present under the tree. The stuffed animal was always the first thing to meet my wonder-filled eyes, and I grabbed it and squeezed it with passion, suddenly immersed in a new friendship. Then one year I picked up the stuffed animal and could not "get into it." Suddenly it was just a stuffed animal. I could no longer enter its portal and inhabit its world.

Even now I can feel the sting of disappointment.

Innocence is also the growth of self-consciousness, perhaps the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" from the story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps you are thrown into a world devoid of color and meaning and spend your life trying to regain it.

But can you regain it? Certainly not in its original form. But sometimes I feel shadows of my passed innocence in the night sky, in the song of birds, in the blooming of flowers every spring—the ones my mom used to plant in her garden.

As we get older and start to unlearn all the things we've been taught in life, perhaps this, as well as the more tragic meaning, is what Shakespeare referred to when he described the final age of man as: "Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion."

June 27, 2013

Rejecting reality in favor of falsehood

I've always been fascinated by the ways our Old World primate brains make it difficult for us to understand many basic things, such as probability and risk, geological time, extremely large- or small-scale events, and so on.

Here's another one: an excellent psychology article about why we resist some scientific ideas more than others. Essentially, research shows that:

[...] even one year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naive physics") and the social world (a "naive psychology"). [...] These intuitions give children a head start when it comes to understanding and learning about objects and people. But these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn.
However, some concepts don't work that way, even when they're far from obvious:

 [The existence of germs and electricity] is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist.
That's interesting, because our evidence for things like those is pretty indirect: light switches and televisions work, and washing your hands helps prevent infection. But most people have never seen a germ, much less an electron. It would seem that being able to watch the patterns of a coin flipped over and over, or observe the similarities and differences between chimpanzees and humans, would make concepts like randomness and biological evolution easier to understand than electricity or germ theory.

But that's not the case. Our brains are remarkable things, and one of the most remarkable things about them is that we can, with a little work, help ourselves get around our own cognitive limitations.

June 22, 2013

Super moon reflections

I’ll never forget that last late-night truck ride with Mr. Ron Fowler. We made the trip from Lawrenceburg to Hamilton together every Sunday night for the better part of a year. The 45-minute drive usually consisted of deep, intellectual discussion—we talked about everything from religion to science and politics. A favorite topic of ours was what a small part of the universe we are, and what our purpose within that universe might be. I tend to connect better with people older than me, and his 70 years of wisdom taught me more about life than probably anything else.

This truck ride was different, though. Ron was strangely silent, and our conversation didn’t stretch far beyond whether we wanted the windows up or down. I remember very well the enormous “super moon” over the horizon on that early-May eveningmuch like the one occurring tonightand the way its reflection appeared in his inquisitive eyes as he observed it. Cornfield after cornfield went by, as did every shop and business I had grown accustomed to passing with him each week. Few words were spoken before we reached our destination, where he told me simply to take care, without making his usual mention of our plans for the following weekend (thus leaving me something to think about for the rest of my life). Little did I know when I slammed the door behind me that that had been my last truck ride with him. He passed away two days later.

Given the chance to return to one specific time in my life, that truck ride would have to be it. I would’ve liked to enjoy one final life-pondering conversation with Ron, almost as a means of saying goodbye—an inadvertent, foreshadowing goodbye—just to have learned a little more from him. But of course everyone wants more when something is gone—everyone wants to have better known the dead man—and my gratitude for the experiences I did have far outweigh my regrets about the ones I didn’t. He taught me about life, and—unexpectedly—quite a bit about death as well.

Thoughts on the PS3 update issue

It just doesn't make sense.

June 1, 2013

I'd rather be uncomfortable than wrong

Lots of interesting discussion around this piece on Eric MacDonald's blog. It discusses something that often gets missed when people talk about New Atheism:

New Atheists [...] are really not skeptical about the existence of a god or gods. We have no question about it at all, and this, not because of unwarranted certainty, but because we have no idea what a god is, and we don't think that religious believers know either.

There are a lot of mysteries in our universe, and there always will be. However, there's really no reason to believe that religion or theology explain or solve these mysteries.

MacDonald on theists:

Of course, like real disciplines of knowledge they engage in rational discussions, but at the basis of those discussions lie propositions which are not based on any evidence.

They are based on scripture, but, in examining the origins—whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise...

...We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Yet theology is founded upon them. Theologians are governed by them. So are whole societies! Not only that, but they can neither be added to nor subtracted from. These are the very words of God—whatever that is assumed to mean within the structure of various theologies.

What puzzles me is that in the absence of evidence-based knowledge and understanding, it wouldn't be my first choice to make up an answer, or to rely on an answer someone else made up a few hundred or a few thousand years ago.

Of course I would prefer to have a good explanation, a truthful one backed by reliable evidence. But I would much rather say "I don't know"—accepting that we are ignorant about many things—than to accept a poor answer with no evidence, just to be able to have an answer at all. As far as I'm concerned, theological "explanations" are based on ideas someone made up many generations ago, usually with what we would now consider a very superficial, misguided, and incorrect understanding of the world.

No one knows (yet) what exactly dark matter and dark energy are. Likewise, no one knows (yet) how life started on Earth.

These are big questions. Maybe we'll know the answers someday, but as of now we do not. Researchers have plenty of ideas, but those ideas need to be tested against reality before we can accept them as truth. Not knowing is uncomfortable for me, but I'd rather be uncomfortable than wrong.