Sunday, September 06, 2015

Global Warming

Let's just discuss global warming for a bit. The science itself is pretty well settled at this point. The earth is indeed warming and human activities are the culprit. CO2 levels in the atmosphere are higher today than they have been in likely millions of years and do act in a greenhouse fashion. The recent increase is strongly correlated with the onset of the industrial revolution and the explosion of the human population. None of this is realistically in doubt.

Although this has been generally known for decades, the global will to do anything to counteract the trend of global warming has been, basically, a dismal failure. The Kyoto protocol, so celebrated in its time (back in the 1990s), was, with all its faults, a wonder of international diplomacy. Yet there were major national polluters who never adopted it at all and others who never acted within its principles in a serious fashion. And the reason for this is obvious. In a competitive world, to ask the nations of the world to voluntarily gear down on their economic engines, is wasted breath at best. Indeed, knowing a little bit about human behavior, it should be obvious that just asking the world to try to cut down on its energy use, is a strategy of minimal efficacy.

To my mind, it kind of like asking a severe diabetic to, y'know, try to cut down on the sweets. That strategy might work on a minority of well-motivated patients, but will far and large be an abject failure. Global warming is just like many modern human diseases - they are problems stemming from human behavior. Granted, they could be fixed by simply changing people's behavior, but that just ain't going to happen. I think that continuing to harp on trying to reduce carbon emissions are well intentioned, but just are not going to cut it. The world's appetite will not slake and the CO2 will continue to rise.

So, why aren't we trying other things? There are plenty of drugs that exist which treat and control diabetes, heck there are even surgeries which may even offer a cure. Sure, most type-2 diabetes is caused by human behavior, but so what? We can treat it by intervening in other ways. Can the same be said about global warming?

Yes! The issue is not that humans are releasing too much CO2 into the atmosphere. The issue is that it stays there and causing too much warming. But there are things we can actively do which can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it in safe places. This is little different from pulling sugar out of the bloodstream and putting it back into cells where it's safe. For one, a major carbon sink are the world's forests. When trees grow they grab carbon from the air and use it to grow. Granted, stopping active deforestation is the simplest and cheapest way to maintain this carbon sink, but the world could also be actively reforesting millions of acres of unused flatlands. It's so simple, but adding millions of trees to our world would be awesome for our ecology, biodiversity and would suck in billions of tons of CO2 from our atmosphere. Why is this not already being done?

Iron is an excellent fertilizer for ocean algae. With carefully selected ocean sites, we could be dropping tons of cheap iron particles which would create huge algae blooms with loads of carbon dioxide stuck within it. The algae would eventually die and then sink to the ocean floor, taking all of that carbon down with it. This literal carbon sink could keep the carbon safely out of the atmosphere for millennia. There are numerous other hypothesized mechanisms to trap carbon out of our atmosphere. Some are higher tech and may cost more, but are still worth considering. I don't need to list all of them here. If you are truly interested, the internet is available to all for perusal.

Now, managing the carbon is just one side of the equation. The other major variable is simply the heat itself. Even if atmospheric carbon levels remained unchanged, is there something we can do that would cool the Earth? Of course! What killed the dinosaurs? Global climate change set off by a meteorite which on impact released huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere which blocked the Sun's rays and cooled the Earth. It's also been shown that the release of sulfate compounds from volcanic eruptions cause climatic cooling effects. Could this be done artificially? Sure. There have even been more imaginative proposals to modify sunlight by placing mirrors or lenses in orbit.

The bottom line is that global warming is happening. The best solution would be to cut down on our emissions, but that just ain't gonna happen - and even if it did, it's probably too late. The next best thing is to make some alternative interventions. Like in medicine, there may be side effects, but I'd rather brave those than to just allowing global warming to happen.

[Plus, keep an eye on this venture. It's the most reasonable engineered mechanism for fusion power that I have yet to see.]

Friday, June 19, 2015

Matir Issurim

"Using mail-order DNA, they’re tricking yeast cells into producing a substance that’s molecularly identical to milk. And if successful, they’ll turn this milk into cheese. Real cheese. But vegan cheese. Real vegan cheese. That’s the name of the project: Real Vegan Cheese. These hackers want cheese that tastes like the real thing, but they don’t want it coming from an animal."

Interesting project and so clearly to be the food of the future. Making meat and animal byproducts like milk in the lab has clear benefits in the long run in simple terms like financial costs and environmental preservation. It'll just be quicker and easier with better quality control to make this stuff in vitro than with actual animals. With advances in food science what they produce may be indistinguishable from the natural version. It also has the added benefit of limiting the cruelty to animals, which is an endemic problem in modern factory farming. In the future it will be bizarre and backwards to eat something that comes from actual, unsanitary animals.

But besides all the above benefits, what will it do to the kosher food industry? Is it meaningful to talk about the kashrut of single cells or the byproducts of micro-organisms? If the whole world will be eating foods made from GMO bacteria or yeast - what exactly would ever not be kosher?

Perhaps it is in this way that the midrash about pigs one day becoming kosher will actually come true.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Shabbos in a Pepper Shaker

Found this product recently. Interesting idea, but it also emphasizes one of the greatest incidental benefits from shabbos observance in modern times.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Is Belief a Jewish Notion?

Gary Gutting: You say you’re a naturalist and deny that there are any supernatural beings, yet you’re a practicing Jew and deny that you’re an atheist. What’s going on here? What’s a God that’s not a supernatural being?

Howard Wettstein: Let’s begin with a distinction between participation in a practice and the activity of theorizing, philosophically and otherwise, about the practice. Even an advanced and creative mathematician need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers. Richard Feynman, the great physicist, is rumored to have said that he lived among the numbers, that he was intimate with them. However, he had no views about their metaphysical status; he was highly skeptical about philosophers’ inquiries into such things. He had trouble, or so I imagine, understanding what was at stake in the question of whether the concept of existence had application to such abstractions. Feynman had no worries about whether he was really thinking about numbers. But “existence” was another thing.

It is this distinction between participation and theorizing that seems to me relevant to religious life.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Philosopher of the Week

This is my favorite modern Jewish philosopher this week: Samuel Lebens. I came across his work actually by accident just recently, but what I've seen so far appears intriguing. [It doesn't hurt that he kind of looks like Ted Mosby and has a great English accent.] I thought it was worth sharing, especially given the paucity of jblog material lately.

He also has separate paper which I found rather interesting about  the epistemology of religious experience, which I quote below:

"My intention in belittling the role of belief isn't to adopt the fashionable desire to replace Orthodox Judaism with orthopraxy. [...]I claim that that epistemology places very little emphasis on classical propositional belief and is generally much more interested in attitudes, postures, make-belief, and non-propositional knowledge. Orthodox Judaism, indeed religion, so conceived is at once more demanding – because it asks for much more than mere belief and practice – and more human –in that it embraces attitudes and emotions that more autistic conceptions of religion ignore."
The paper is worth reading in full and I linked to it above. It gives a rather different perspective on traditional Jewish belief and behaviors and how propositional beliefs, though he surely considers them critical, are hardly the focus and are in fact among the weakest points of contact for those invested in religious life. He argues that "make-believing" that certain ideas are true is important than merely holding certain propositions to be factual. Worth a read, check it out.
I'm going to read more of his material when I have some time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Where is Everybody?

Where is everybody? I know I've been out of the loop for awhile, but I was just checking out how things were going recently in the old jblogosphere and it seems like all of the old skeptic blogs have gone silent or have closed. Basically all my links to other blogs from this site go to places where the blog no longer exists or hasn't had a recent post in years. Why?

Did all the angst, confusion and cognitive dissonance that had been brewing from the crash of modernity and orthodoxy just dry up? Are all the issues resolved and have those old bloggers simply lost interest? Was the community held together by a couple of heavy bloggers like Mis-nagid or Godol Hador and once they moved on the other people left as well? Or did the party move elsewhere and nobody left directions?

I get it that hashing and rehashing issues is unfulfilling and ultimately boring, but was there no curious young people around to keep the conversation fresh? Or not enough of those who were willing to delve deeper into these issues to come out with something more productive on the other end? Maybe those deeper delvers went and became the founders of sites like (a very good site by the way, which I recommend), with a much more professional appearance compared to the casual coffee shop-like venue of a personal blog.

I thought that a few years ago the "Orthoprax" were getting all this attention from rabbinic articles and published papers. Not good attention, mind you, but attention nonetheless. Presumably, the goals of those articles were to quash orthoprax sentiments among the ranks - and if so, perhaps the quiet out there is evidence of their apparent success.

As for me, my time of relative blog silence coincided with much novel busyness in my personal life. This did not leave much time for metaphysical introspection, much less for an involved blogging hobby. But that's just me - where did everybody else go?

Come back.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Moral Landscape

I've just finished reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I had been hoping to read it much earlier, like in 2010 when it was published, and when I was actively involved in the Jblogosphere discussing critical topics including the legitimacy of objective morality. But real life has a way of interrupting these extracurricular activities.

Since my last post, I've gotten married, I now have a year and a half year old son and have been working hard in my surgical residency - which I am just now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Suffice it to say that my recent life has seriously curtailed my elective reading.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I liked the book for the most part. Besides for one odd chapter where he seem to tangentially go off on Francis Collins, Sam Harris does a good job defending the concept of a secular objective basis for morality. He does this by identifying the common values of humanity being human flourishing and wellbeing and that there are acts and social policies, etc, that objectively either progress or regress on those goals. Morality is then that which moves us towards greater human wellbeing; immorality that which moves us further from it.

Here's Harris giving the general argument in a TED talk:

It also helps that before my hiatus I had made some very similar arguments on my own. Much of my discussions were found on the now defunct blog of XGH, but as I wrote in the comments of this blogger post from 2009:

"Morals are made in response to human nature and the human condition - objective facts. People may disagree on methods and mechanisms but the goals are always to do what is in the best interests of man. And unless you believe all interests are equally rational and valid, i.e. to eat an apple is as valid a choice as is swallowing a gallon on bleach, then you must recognize a hierarchy of objectively correct decisions: that some acts, some moral codes, make more sense than others. The value of human life makes sense whereas it's non-value is self-defeating.

With that recognition and the assumed goal that rules be made to lead to the best interests of man then it becomes potentially able to be studied scientifically - objectively. Does a given moral in a given society lead to the wellbeing of man in that society? By the mere process of evolution of human civilization, we have already learned how a great deal of once-idealized moral behavior is in fact counterproductive."

Of course different people can converge on similar ideas, but it makes you wonder if Harris was a Jblog fan himself...

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Paul Davies' God

"[A] deistic god, a sort of god of the physicist, a god of somebody like Paul Davies, who devised the laws of physics, god the mathematician, god who put together the cosmos in the first place and then sat back and watched everything happen…one could make a reasonably respectable case for that." - Richard Dawkins (@3:25)

What Happened Before the Big Bang?

By Paul Davies

It is often said that science cannot prove the existence of God. Yet science does have value in theological debate because it gives us new concepts that sometimes make popular notions of God untenable. One of these concerns the nature of time.

Many people envisage God as a sort of cosmic magician who existed for all eternity and then, at some moment in the past, created the universe in a gigantic supernatural act. Unfortunately, this scenario raises some awkward questions. What was God doing before he created the universe? If God is a perfect, unchanging being, what prompted him to act then rather than sooner?

The fifth-century theologian St. Augustine neatly solved the problem by proclaiming that the world was made with time and not in time. In other words, time itself is part of God's creation.

To make sense of Augustine's concept, it is necessary to place God outside of time altogether, and the notion of a timeless Deity became official church doctrine. However, it is not without its own difficulties. How can a timeless God be involved with temporal events in the universe, such as entering into human history through the Incarnation?

Today, religious people like to identify the creation with the Big Bang of scientific cosmology. So what can we say about the nature of time in the scientific picture?

Albert Einstein showed us that time and space are part of the physical world, just as much as matter and energy. Indeed, time can be manipulated in the laboratory. Dramatic time warps occur, for example, when subatomic particles are accelerated to near the speed of light. Black holes stretch time by an infinite amount. It is therefore wrong to think of time as simply "there," as a universal, eternal backdrop to existence. So a complete theory of the universe needs to explain not only how matter and energy came to exist, it must also explain the origin of time.

Happily, Einstein's theory of relativity is up to the job. It predicts a so-called "singularity" at which time abruptly starts. In the standard Big Bang scenario, time and space come into being spontaneously at such a singularity, along with matter.

People often ask, What happened before the Big Bang? The answer is, Nothing.

By this, I do not mean that there was a state of nothingness, pregnant with creative power. There was nothing before the Big Bang because there was no such epoch as "before." As Stephen Hawking has remarked, asking what happened before the Big Bang is rather like asking what lies north of the North Pole. The answer, once again, is nothing, not because there exists a mysterious Land of Nothing there but because there is no such place as north of the North Pole. Similarly, there is no such time as "before the Big Bang."

Of course, one can still ask why a universe popped into existence this way. Cosmologists believe the answer lies with the weird properties of quantum mechanics, a topic beyond the scope of this essay.

We can now see that Augustine was right, and popular religion wrong, to envisage God as a superbeing dwelling within the stream of time prior to the creation. Professional theologians acknowledge this. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) does not mean God pushing a metaphysical button and making a Big Bang, then sitting back to watch the action. It means God sustaining the existence of the universe, and its laws, at all times, from a location outside of space and time.

Can science give any credibility to such a notion? Mostly, scientists either are atheists or keep God in a separate mental compartment. However, there is a strong parallel in the scientific concept of the laws of nature. Like the theologians' God, these laws enjoy an abstract, timeless existence and are capable of bringing the universe into being from nothing. But where do they come from? And why do these laws exist rather than some different set?

Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Miracles are not allowed. This implies that there should be reasons for the particular laws of nature that regulate the physical universe. Atheists claim that the laws exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted. Is this rational ground like the timeless God of Augustine? Perhaps it is. But in any case, the law-like basis of the universe seems a more fruitful place for a dialogue between science and theology than focusing on the origin of the universe and the discredited notion of what happened before the Big Bang.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Mandan

"The Mandans said that there were four stories under the earth and four stories above; before the flood they lived in a village under the earth near a lake, and a grape-vine grew down through, letting the light into the underworld. They wanted to come up and sent the mouse, badger, a strange, mythical animal and a deer to dig out a hole. Then they climbed out by the grapevine till half were on earth and a very corpulent woman broke the vine. A flood came when they were first coming out and the first tribe (Tattooed Faces) perished almost wholly. All this happened near a lake to the east. If they are good the Mandans go back to this old village under ground when they die. They now found themselves on the surface of the earth. The people were led by a chief and they kept walking till they reached the Missouri at the mouth of the White River. They ascended it to the Moreau, here they found enemies in the Cheyenne, and they went to war and killed and scalped for the first time. The great chief who led them out of the earth1 together with his sister and brother taught them to make shields, and then he divided them into bands and led them against the Cheyenne. After a long struggle he performed a miracle by which the enemy were nearly all slain."
-The Mandans: a study of their culture, archaeology and language, Volume 3 By George Francis Will, Herbert Joseph Spinden, page 140


"The Mandans (people of the pheasants) were the first people created in the world
2, and they originally lived inside of the earth; they raised many vines, and one of them had grown up through a hole in the earth overhead, and one of their young men climbed up it until he came out on top of the ground, on the bank of the river, where the Mandan village stands. He looked around, and admired the beautiful country and prairies about him—saw many buffaloes—killed one with his bow and arrows, and found that its meat was good to eat. He returned and related what he had seen, when a number of others went up the vine with him. and witnesseth the same things. Amongst those who went up, were two very pretty young women, who were favorites with the chiefs, because they were virgins, and amongst those who were trying to get up, was a very large and fat woman, who was ordered by the chiefs not to go up, but whose curiosity led her to try it as soon as she got a secret opportunity, when there was no one present. When she got part of the way up, the vine broke under the great weight of her body and let her down. She was very much hurt by the fall, but did not die. The Mandans were very sorry about this, and she was disgraced for being the cause of a very great calamity, which she had brought upon them, and which could never be averted, for no more could ever ascend, nor could those descend who had got up;. but they build the Mandan village, where it formerly stood, a great ways below on the river; and the remainder of the people live under ground to this day.'" -
-< -->South Dakota historical collections, Volume 4 By South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota. Dept. of History, page 521


"The Numangkake [aka Mandan] now resolved to go up. The great chief with his medicine and his schischikue in his hand, went first. They climbed up, one after another by the aid of a branch of a vine; and when exactly half their number had ascended, and a corpulent woman was half way up the vine, it broke, and the remainder of the nation fell to the ground. This happened in the neighborhood of the sea shore. Those who had reached the surface went on till they came to the Missouri, which they reached at White Earth river. They then proceeded up the Missouri to Moreau's river. At that time they knew nothing of enemies. Once, when a Mandan woman was scraping a hide, a Cheyenne Indian came and killed her. The Mandans followed the traces of this new enemy till they came to a certain river, where they all turned back with the exception of two, the husband and the brother of the woman who was killed. These two men went on till they discovered the enemy, killed one of them and took his scalp with them. Before they got back to their village they found some white clay which they had never seen before, and took a portion of it with them. When they came to their great chief, the first man who had climbed up the vine, and whose skull and schischikue they still preserve, as a relic, in the medicine bag of the nation, they gave him the white clay, with which he marked some lines on his schischikue. The name of this chief was, at first, Mihti-Pihka (the smoke of the village), but when he ascended to the surface of the earth he called himself the Mihti-Shi (the robe with the beautiful hair). When he had received the clay and the scalp, he commanded all his people to shoot buffalos, but only bulls, and to make shields of the thickest part of the hide, which they did. When this was done, they asked the chief what were his next commandments. To which he replied, 'Paint a drooping sunflower on this shield' (as a sort of medicine or amulet), on which the sister of the chief said, 'You are fools; paint a bean on it; for what is smoother than a bean to ward off the arrows.'

"The chief now introduced the establishment of the bands or unions, and founded first that of 'the foolish dogs.' He made four caps of crows' feathers, and commissioned the Mandans to make a number of similar ones. He then gave them the war pipe and song, and exhorted them to be always valiant and cheerful, and never to retreat before the point of the arrow. He also gave them the strips of red cloth which hang down behind, and added that, if they would follow his directions, they would always be esteemed as brave and worthy men. The chief then made two of the bent sticks covered with otter skins, and gave them the kanakara-kachka. and then two others adorned with raven's feathers^ which he also presented to them. The first represent the sunflower, and the latter the maize. 'These badges,' said he, 'you are to carry before you when you go against the enemy; plant them in the ground, and fight to the last man, that is to say, never abandon them.' He next founded the band of 'the little foolish dogs,' and assembled many young men. whom he ordered to paint their faces of a black color, and gave them a song of their own, with the war whoop at the end. and said he would call them the 'black-birds.' He afterwards went to war with his people against the Cheyennes. They reached the enemy and laid all their robes in a heap together. The chief wore a cap of lynx skin, and had his medicine pipe on his arm. He did not join in the action, but sat apart on the ground during the whole time that it lasted. They fought almost the whole day, drove the enemy into their village, and were then repulsed, which happened three or four times, and one of the Numangkake was killed. When the chief was informed of this, he ordered them to go to the river and bring a young poplar with large leaves, which he planted in the ground near to the enemy, and challenged the Cheyennes to attack him; but they answered, they would wait for his attack. As he would not commence the combat, the enemy shot at him, but their arrows only grazed his arm and robe. He then held up the poplar, which suddenly shot up to a colossal size, was thrown, by a violent storm which arose, among the enemies, crushed many of them, and obliged the Cheyennes to retreat across the Missouri."

-South Dakota historical collections, Volume 4 By South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota. Dept. of History, page 569

1. Emphasized to demonstrate that the climbing up to the surface was not something that happened "a long, long time ago" but in the understood real history and recent past of the people as the same chief who lead them out of the ground, also lead them on the surface and lead them against their enemies.

2. Created chronologically first, but not as ancestors to all mankind. Other people came to be via separate, special creations. Quote: "The cattle were sent back to the east, where Lone Man also created white people. Lone Man created more humans, who grew and flourished. The first people he created were the Mandan." - link.

This is the Mandan nation's story of how they came from their subterranean world beneath the Earth via a vine (ala Jack and the Beanstalk) where they had lived for a very long period of time. It is their origin on the surface and the start of their history along the Missouri River. They have had this national tradition told orally for their entire known history. Further, along with their momentous origins, they get into quick conflict with the Cheyennes - who they manage to defeat by way of a miraculous poplar - another national tradition.

As Rabbi Gottlieb says, "Any national miracle that would create a national tradition is unforgettable. So, if a nation believes in such a miracle, we have sufficient reason to accept that belief as true." -link

Or do we?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

From the Mail Bin

"I've been reading your blogs and i find them quite intriguing. I agree with u regarding the many myth and fable like stories in the Bible. The part that i find more difficult is that if the Torah was not given as a Divine Revelation then how did we get such a complex and vast Talmudic system. I mean the laws in the Talmud seem so far fetched and abstract that its difficult to believe that God didnt have some part of it. I dont thing there is any other man made system of laws that is as vast and complex as the Talmud. what r your thoughts?"

Whether God had a part in it or not is not the question, since most would agree that the Talmud was composed l'shem shamayim and with God in mind. The question is whether Talmudic law requires supernatural intervention to explain itself. I don't believe it does. I don't know if you've studied the Talmud but it's essentially an effort to justify and further clarify the rules of the Mishna from the text of the Torah with proof texts, allusions and the like.

Many times these proof texts work very well and are indeed impressive and clever, but that should be expected since the Mishna itself was composed with the Torah in mind. Other times though the efforts of the Amoraim (the Talmudic scholars) seem pretty strained and they have to go through several iterations of hair-splitting or "this-case-is-an-exception-because..." in order to come to some conclusion when an apparent contradiction arises. And there are also plenty of times when the Talmudic discussion ends in "Taiku" - where they can figure out no resolution.

Add in the fact that the Talmud itself occasionally cites natural "facts" that are now known to be false to make arguments or simply as side discussion, complements the conclusion that it is a great but still an eminently human work.

If you're looking for another vast and complex system of laws, I'd refer you to the United States' tax code. For comparison, the Talmud is written formally on less than 6000 pages, while the tax code is now more than 16,000, 70,000.