Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Last Status Update

I've deactivated my Facebook account, and intend never to reactivate it. If reasons must be given to the (candid or otherwise) world, I offer only this, from Thoreau:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

How Astrology Works

I was having a conversation with an astrologer of my acquaintance when I began to formulate a hypothesis about how astrology works. That is to say, I began to sense how astrologers and their clients could come to believe firmly that the relative positions of stars and planets on particular dates can serve a predictive and explanatory function, shedding real light on character and motivation, in spite of the fact that the whole idea is (demonstrably) errant nonsense in the universe of Galileo and Hubble.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 3. Which Virtues?

Virtues are good or desirable traits or habits of character, cultivated tendencies to act one way or another in response to particular circumstances. The standard by which a character trait may be judged a virtue or a vice is human thriving in the context of the broader moral and political community.

Obviously, there is considerable room for disagreement about such judgments. Even so, I would like now to propose a partial list of virtues that seem to me conducive to the development of a sound energy policy and a sustainable civilization.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 2. Why Virtue?

I here offer three broad lines of argument for the necessity of personal virtue.

First, to dismiss any role for personal virtue is to take a one-sided view of technological systems, placing all causal efficacy on the side of technical hardware and institutional software while reducing ordinary people to passive recipients of whatever the system happens to allow them. This suggests a grim technological determinism, or at least an unquestioned hegemony for powerful players in business and government. Instead, I would opt for the view that technological systems are heterogeneous, with the choices and actions of ordinary people playing a part in giving the system its shape. To use the language of technology studies, technological forms are both cause and effect of social forms. [2]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 1. Outside-In Or Inside-Out?

[Here is the second installment of the paper. If you're just starting, refer to the previous post for the introduction.]

To get at the nugget of truth in the Vice President’s statement, it is worth attending to the situation of ordinary people whose part in the system of energy production and distribution is primarily that of consumers. I have in mind those of us who are not policy makers, scientists, engineers, corporate executives, nor holders of any position of apparent influence over the future of the infrastructure. These are ordinary citizens and consumers, watching and worrying about the price of gasoline or of natural gas, making decisions about how to get by with less.

What is energy policy to them?

A Case for Personal Virtue: Introduction

[This is the first installment of the paper I submitted to the IEEE Energy2030 Conference; I presented a poster based on the paper yesterday at the conference.]

In April 2001, Vice President Cheney remarked that “conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” His remark was widely read as a snide dismissal of environmentalists and other advocates of any alternative to a policy aimed primarily at increasing the supply of fossil fuels, especially petroleum.

I would like to start by acknowledging that the Vice President was correct on one count: personal virtue is not a sufficient basis for a comprehensive energy policy. That said, there is plenty of room to disagree with him on other points.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Today I attended the first day of the IEEE Energy2030 Conference in Atlanta, a gathering primarily of engineers with a few industry executives and government officials . . . and one philosopher. The general topic was the creation of a sustainable energy infrastructure, somehow, between now and 2030.

In the course of the day I detected a number of basic assumptions at work in the background, mainly unquestioned but, I think, eminently questionable.

1) Growth in per-capita GDP is good in itself.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Temporary Sustainability

I've had the strangest convergence of reading material today. I've suspended the atheism project for a while - I've read a lot, and am mulling things over - and turned my attention to the courses I'll be teaching in the fall. I'm re-reading Rousseau's The Social Contract at the same time I'm reading James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency.

At the end of the first chapter, in what may be some of his best prose yet, Kunstler offers an observation both moving and striking:

Thursday, July 3, 2008

An Open Letter to Senator Barack Obama

Dear Senator Obama,

I have to this point been an enthusiastic supporter of your candidacy for the presidency of the United States. I must, however, register a grave objection to your stance on faith-based initiatives, as articulated in your July 1 speech in Zanesville, Ohio. Not only is this a misguided policy, but I found your comments unduly dismissive of those who might object to it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Collateral Damage

I've been reading Hitchens' marvelous little screed, god is not Great, and brought it with me this morning on the train.

I did this with some misgiving, knowing that other people on the train might be put off, offended, or otherwise disturbed just being in the presence of a book with such a title. I've heard a reliable second-hand account of an otherwise reasonable person who was uncomfortable even having Hitchens' book in the house, as though its mere presence posed some sort of threat.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sticks and Stones

There's been some talk among atheists about what to call themselves, especially given the power of language to frame attitudes and debates. "A-theist" is negative, and maintains a focus on theism.

One effort at a redefinition is being pushed by people who call themselves "brights". Here is how they describe themseves on their website:
The noun form of the term bright refers to a person whose worldview is naturalistic--free of supernatural and mystical elements. A Bright's ethics and actions are based on a naturalistic worldview.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I've now started reading Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and already the book has allowed me to make explicit a useful distinction toward which I have been fumbling.

I think part of my concern about possible dogmatism at the heart of atheism comes down a sense that the natural sciences, whatever their evident power, are necessarily limited in scope. The empirical, quantitative methods of the sciences simply cannot tell us or explain everything that is interesting about the world. To the extent prominent atheists like Dawkins assume the question of God's existence or non-existence can definitively be settled by the natural sciences alone, they seem to have fallen into the dogmatic ideology of scientism.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is Atheism Just Another Dogma?

I've just finished Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I very much enjoyed the author's oft-noted wit and passion for his subject, but the book still leaves me with one of the nagging questions I had going into this project.

As a skeptic, I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, particularly concerning matters that transcend the world of common experience. As a corollary, I am suspicious of polarization and false dichotomies in public discussion.

The nagging question is this: To what extent is the "new atheism" of Dawkins, Harris, et al., a form of dogmatism? One way to get the measure of this would be to ask: To what extent does the "new atheism" either presuppose or promulgate polarization?

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Atheism Project

Though I have not been a Christian since before I graduated from high school, and have consciously thought of myself as a skeptic for at least the past decade, I have never really grappled directly with the question of whether my skepticism amounts to atheism.

I have usually been content casually to think to myself - and occasionally to write in this blog - that atheism strikes me as altogether too dogmatic, and its public proponents too zealous, shrill, and occasionally repellant for it to really be taken all that seriously.

But then, recent work I've done on the consequences of the Darwinian revolution for human self-understanding and moral experience has led me to think that I cannot remain as nicely neutral on, say, the relation between science and religion, as I might have hoped.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Life Without Newton

It's bad enough that most Americans don't believe in Darwinian evolution. Far worse is that many of us - at least in daily practice - seem not to believe in Newtonian mechanics. This thought occurred to me today as I watched yet another car pull out directly in front of yet another fast-moving bus.

The driver of the car seemed in that moment not really to believe the First Law of Motion, to wit:
Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Of Whales and Bitterness

This morning's online New York Times includes an article on Senator Obama's efforts to explain comments he made a few days ago about voters in small towns in Pennsylvania. As the Times has it:
“And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not,” Mr. Obama went on. “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Senator Obama has since admitted that he did not express himself very well, and he has clarified along these :
“So I said, well, you know when you’re bitter, you turn to what you can count on,” he added. “So people, they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community.”
My interest here is not in what Obama said or what he meant or the velocity at which he is spinning. My interest is in a reply to this from Senator Clinton. Here's how the New York Times presents it:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Saving the Earth, One Hour at a Time

This Saturday marks observance of the second annual "Earth Hour", an event foisted upon us by the World Wildlife Fund. The idea is that businesses and residences will turn off all "nonessential" lighting from 8pm until 9pm "to symbolize that each one of us, working together, can make a positive impact on climate change - no matter who we are or where we live." (

Now, I'm all for a serious and coordinated response to climate change, though I'm coming around to favor an emphasis on adaptation rather than mitigation. After all, even if we stopped emitting carbon altogether by late this afternoon, human-induced climate change could continue for decades. We should try to mitigate as much as we can, but I have no illusions that the path to a more sustainable form of civilization will be easy or straight.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Behind the Curtain

An important turning-point in my intellectual life occurred while I was washing dishes and listening to music - a combination, I might add, that is a reliable generator of good ideas. In this instance, I was standing at the sink in the kitchen of our apartment in New Hampshire, listening to Laurie Anderson's Big Science CD. It was, if memory serves, 1997.

I had been wrapping up work on one draft of my first book, casting around for a new direction for my research. I was a-jumble with vague hints and half-formed indications, nothing much to go on.

Then, in the track called "Born, Never Asked," a single question set up some kind of resonance, and I knew what I should do next.

The Return

Well, I'm back.

In a fit of pique against the dominance of technology in my life, I obliterated the earlier version of this blog . . . though not before saving all of the entries for my own reference.

But then there would be a story in the news about some rank hypocrisy, an editorial about climate change ridden by particularly sloppy thinking, yet another damned screed by a belligerent, dogmatic atheist (or anti-atheist), and I'd think: I'd sure like to be able to write about that in my blog . . .