Saturday, May 22, 2010

David Chalmers - Constructing the World

Cool offering from David Chalmers, at his fragments of consciousness blog. His work with Andy Clark on the extended mind, or extended consciousness is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand that consciousness is not confined to the brain. In all fairness, it's more Clark's theory than Chalmer's, but the paper is good.

This new selection is from Chalmer's John Locke Lectures (at Oxford University) on Constructing the World, which seems to be a book in progress, with lectures posted online as they are given.

Constructing the World

For the last couple of weeks I have been in Oxford giving the John Locke Lectures on Constructing the World. The title is an homage to Rudolf Carnap's 1928 book Der Logische Aufbau Der Welt. The lectures are based on a book I have been writing for the last couple of years, trying to execute a project that is reminiscent of Carnap's in certain respects. I haven't put this material online until now in order not to pre-empt the lectures, but I will be putting chapters online as I give the corresponding lecture each Wednesday. So far you can find the introduction and the first three chapters. Also, the Oxford website has audio for lecture 1 and lecture 2, as well as slides and handouts. More of this material will go online each week, and I'm told that there will eventually be video too. It has been very good to be back in Oxford, and I'm grateful to everyone here for their hospitality to date.
Part of the book is online, apparently added to since the post was put up - there are four chapters now.

Constructing The World

David Chalmers

This is the current table of contents for my draft manuscript Constructing the World. I'll be putting the chapters online weekly after I've given them as John Locke lectures in Oxford (over six weeks starting May 5). The lectures correspond roughly to chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 (with a few bits and pieces of the introduction, chapter 2, and chapter 7 worked in). N.B. These chapters are very drafty (e.g. no bibliographies yet) and also haven't been updated to mirror various recent (mostly minor) changes in the lecture versions.


1. The Scrutability of Truth

  • Postscript: The Scrutability of Reference

2. Varieties of Scrutability

  • Postscript: Knowability, Determinacy, and Scrutability

3. The Cosmoscope Argument

  • Postscript: Totality Truths and Indexical Truths

4. The Case for A Priori Scrutability

  • Postscript: The Fregean and the Russellian

5. Revisability and Conceptual Change

6. Hard Cases

  • Postscript: Scrutability and the Unity of Science

7. Minimizing the Base

  • Postscript: From the Aufbau to the Canberra Plan

8. Whither the Aufbau?

  • Postscript: Structuralism and Skepticism

9. Verbal Disputes and Philosophical Progress

  • Postscript: The Joys and Sorrows of Conceptual Analysis

10. The Roots of Scrutability.

  • Postscript: Reference Magnets

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. - Your Wise Brain Blog: 5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair

Rick’s most recent book is Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.).

5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair

How much change in the brain makes a difference in the mind?

That’s the issue raised by a very interesting comment regarding my previous blog, “The Brain in a Bucket.”

So I’ve taken the liberty of posting the comment here (hoping that’s OK in blog etiquette; still learning as I go), and then responding. Here it is:

I was pondering your statement that long term meditators show a thickening in certain areas of the brain. As I understand it, the volume of the skull is fixed in adults. This would seem to require that if one part thickens, another part must be reduced. I am curious as to whether anyone has considered what the implications of a loss of volume in these other areas might be. I enjoyed your article, and look forward to more on the topic of neurology and meditation.

While the size of the skull is indeed fixed in adulthood, we can both lose gray matter volume due to the normal effects of aging and gain it through mental training of one kind or another. For instance, one study showed that the hippocampus (really hippocampi, since there is one on each side of the brain, but convention is usually to refer to neural regions in the singular), of London taxi drivers is thicker after their training, which makes sense since the hippocampus is deeply involved with spatial memory.

But the size of these changes in volume is very small, so they do not “bump up against” the skull. For example, the increased thickness in the brains of meditators – seen in one of the cooler studies in this field - amounted – to about 1/200th of an inch. This may not seem like much but is a BIG change in the density of synaptic networks when you can fit about 5000 synapses in the width of a human hair.

The point is that small changes in daily activities – meditating instead of sleeping in, driving a cab instead of working in an office – can make changes in the brain that seem small but actually create big changes in the mind. And that fact opens the door to amazing opportunities.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, author, and teacher. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, he founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and teaches at universities and meditation centers in Europe, Australia, and North America. His work has been featured on the BBC and in Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and other major magazines.

Rick’s most recent book is Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.), which has been praised by numerous scholars, therapists, and teachers, including Tara Brach, Ph.D., Roger Walsh, Ph.D., Sharon Salzberg, and Fred Luskin, Ph.D. Considered an expert on self-directed neuroplasticity, he edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and his articles have appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Insight Journal, and Inquiring Mind; his Your Wise Brain blog is on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. He has a chapter – 7 Facts about the Brain That Incline the Mind to Joy – in Measuring the Immeasurable, as well as several audio programs with Sounds True. His first book was Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin, 2002).

Rick is currently a trustee of Saybrook University. He also served on the board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and was President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a community agency. He began meditating in 1974, trained in several traditions, and leads a weekly meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. He enjoys rock-climbing and taking a break from emails. He and his wife have two children. For more information, please see his full biography at

Big Idea: The Expanding Mind by Pete Estep

This article from Seed looks at the ways technology might be used to enhance brain function in the coming decades. There is also some interesting speculation on the ways in which movement and thought might be interconnected in our evolutionary history (a la Rodolfo Llinás).

I have no problem with this as long as it's safe - but will it be made illegal (just like steroids) because it gives some people a mental advantage (i.e., cheating) the same way steroids give people a physical advantage?

The Expanding Mind

Big Idea / by Pete Estep

The technological progress that revolutionized computing, electronics, and robotics in the 20th century will transform our bodies and enhance our brains in the 21st.

Scarcely a decade has passed since scientists painstakingly sequenced the first bacterial genome, yet today automated human genome sequencing is becoming routine, heralding a new era of medicine. Replacement tissues and even organs can now be grown from a patient’s own cells and used without risk of immune rejection. Genetic therapies for a plethora of debilitating conditions are on the horizon; brain and body imaging technologies allow early discovery of potentially harmful pathologies. But as these developments have unfolded, another area of research has simultaneously matured to rival them in its dramatic potential to help people. It’s called neuroengineering.

My colleagues and I have expected these events for years, but we are still awed by the results; some things are so powerful that, even if you know they are coming, they remain breathtaking when they actually arrive. Watching a person move a robotic limb or control the functions of a computer, through thought alone, we have little choice but to stare in amazement. These breakthroughs were made possible by prototype brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which allow direct communication between the brain and external devices.

Prototype BCIs now facilitate basic motor control of prosthetic limbs and hands, computer keyboards and cursors, and even some features of computer games; new sensory BCI can restore damaged hearing to acceptable levels, and to a limited degree, speech and vision. Though much work remains to be done, many who have witnessed these recent successes are confident that similar but more sophisticated BCI technologies will eventually become routine and widespread.

As these neuroengineering capabilities have emerged, powerful computers, digital storage devices, software, and networking technologies have also relentlessly improved, and these dual progressions now offer a remarkable synergy. Although our minds are quite good at certain things, they absorb, process, store, recall, and share many types of information very slowly and inaccurately. In contrast, computers and digital storage devices excel at these tasks, but our eyes and fingers combined with current computer interfaces (touchscreens, keyboards, mice, and monitors) still provide extremely inefficient exchange of information. Consequently, vital questions lie before us: Should demonstrations of sensory and motor BCI technologies give us reason to expect we could use computers in an analogous manner, to extend cognitive functions, such as learning and memory, in a way that seems as natural as using our own minds? Can we move beyond sensorimotor BCI to create cognitive BCI?

Envision far more efficient learning, allowing the rapid accumulation of or access to knowledge it now takes years to learn. Picture a memory that behaves exactly as you’d like, even in middle age and beyond, where recollections normally begin to lose their edge. Imagine simply remembering all the important information you’d like to recall.

These speculative excursions where we are relieved from our modern state of information overload and forgetfulness allow us a glimpse, a taste of what sophisticated cognitive BCI might enable. From our current vantage point, such spectacular developments are not on the immediate horizon. Indeed, some eminent neuroscientists have suggested we’ll need to understand far more about higher brain functions, and perhaps consciousness itself, to even consider tackling cognitive BCI. But there are sound, compelling reasons to believe the task may not be quite so daunting.

First, sensory and motor functions are thought by many leading researchers to be very similar mechanistically and physiologically to cognitive functions, which is unsurprising since they both may share evolutionary origins in basic motor functions. In the words of Rodolfo Llinás, one of the founders of modern neuroscience, “that which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement” and “it would be a strange brain if it used different global strategies for motion and cognition.” Another reason is that sensory and motor functions are dependent upon cognitive functions such as learning, storage, and recall of relevant memories; sensorimotor BCI technologies have been demonstrated despite our ignorance of the underlying mechanism(s) of how these memories are learned, stored, and recalled.

Of course, similarities between sensorimotor and cognitive functions don’t mean that we’ll be able to use identical approaches to achieve cognitive BCI, or that the way forward is completely clear. In fact, there is considerable puzzlement among experts on how to proceed, and one reason for this is clear: We possess far less obvious feedback by which we can monitor performance in order to extend and close the “cognitive loop.” In sensorimotor BCI loops, feedback is essentially immediate, and highly similar to lost function. Consider as an example a prosthetic limb. A natural limb has nerves that inform the brain of spatial position. Eyes connected to the same brain are able to visually monitor the arm, confirming nerve feelings but also providing a separate sensory channel for feedback surveillance. If the limb is lost and replaced by a prosthesis, nerves will no longer transmit information, but visual feedback will remain, allowing the user to control the arm’s movement and position. Similarly obvious feedback mechanisms guide the development and use of most other sensorimotor BCIs.

Now, let’s consider a third reason to doubt that we must deeply understand higher brain functions or consciousness to achieve cognitive BCI: Although extension and closure of the cognitive loop is difficult to imagine and implement, evolution accomplished this feat through the blind, iterative application of natural selection. Of course, we must do better in many respects. We’d like the development of cognitive BCI to be fast, we’d like the results to be highly optimized and easily improved, and we must avoid creating unnecessary pain and suffering, as often occurs in nature’s tinkerings.

While the specific paths scientists and engineers ultimately will take to develop a cognitive BCI are not yet clear, research in this area is progressing rapidly as comprehensively reviewed in a recent article in Behavioral Brain Research written by Mijail Serruya and Michael Kahana, both of the University of Pennsylvania. The article is entitled “Techniques and Devices to Restore Cognition,” and its survey of new developments in neuroengineering reveals the tremendous potential for cognitive BCI and related technologies.

There are too many important projects to list here, but recent highlights include work by many leading companies, engineers, and scientists. BCI pioneer Philip Kennedy of Neural Signals, Inc. has been working with increasing success to give “locked-in” patients control of an outboard speech synthesizer, a technology that lies at the intersection of sensory, motor, and cognitive BCI. Theodore Berger of USC is leading a project to create an artificial hippocampus, the so-called “librarian of the brain.” Ed Boyden and Hugh Herr of MIT have established the MIT Media Lab Center for Human Augmentation, and Dr. Boyden’s research team has produced and demonstrated the first optical control device and optically responsive circuit elements for brain engineering. Steve Potter of Georgia Tech has made the first clear demonstration of “synthetic learning” by computer training of living neuronal networks to control robot behavior.

This diversity of highly experimental research contributes to the overall advance toward cognitive BCI, but at least one better established area of biomedicine, functional brain imaging, has also begun to make important contributions. Functional brain imaging is a collection of technologies used to visualize changes in the behaving brain; it expands the repertoire of approaches for using machines to move information into and out of our heads. One very important approach in recent years has been functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which was used in several landmark studies last year to “read minds.” These studies demonstrate a growing ability to infer or predict what is in a person’s mind and strongly suggest that reconstructions of sensory experiences, memories, mental imageries, and dreams are within reach.

Even with these and many other recent successes, the neuroengineering community remains relatively small, and funding for important but unconventional research is lacking relative to the field’s potential. As a scientist and technologist, I felt dwarfed by the enormity of the technical challenges of artificially extending and closing the cognitive loop. I thought it important to enable and support many researchers and leading technologists working together to solve the problem, rather than attempting to solve it directly myself. So my colleagues and I started the Innerspace Foundation to help fund the world’s most talented and visionary researchers, empowering them to produce what we believe will be the most highly leveraged of all humanitarian technologies. The foundation is a hybrid organization that includes aspects of both a typical research funding institution, and a prize-creation and management organization, all designed to reward those who most effectively translate their ideas into functional technologies.

We have adopted this unique organizational structure to accelerate the responsible and ethical development of these uniquely important technologies, because we believe, in the long run, cognitive BCI and related technologies will have a profoundly positive impact. But these developments likely lie on—and a bit beyond—the visible technological horizon, so we also are focused on more near-term and tractable technologies, like basic memory-assist devices, which have the potential to improve the lives of those with serious memory inabilities and disabilities. The Innerspace Foundation intends to be an active participant in funding and guiding the maturation of these and other enabling technologies, and in the conversation to help ensure that they will be developed responsibly for everyone.

Ajahn Chah - Meeting the Dharma Alone

This is a great article from the Tricycle archives.

Meeting the Dharma Alone

A late Thai master's final advice on walking the path to enlightenment

By Ajahn Chah

Spring  Nude People may look at you and feel that your way of life, your interest in dharma, makes no sense. Others may say that if you want to practice dharma, you ought to ordain. Ordaining or not ordaining isn’t the crucial point. It’s how you practice.

Laypeople live in the realm of sensuality. They have families, money, and possessions, and are deeply involved in all sorts of activities. Yet sometimes they will gain insight and see dharma before monks and nuns do. Why is this? It’s because of their suffering from all these things. They see the fault and can let go. They can put it down after seeing clearly in their experience. Seeing the harm and letting go, they are able to make good sense of their position in the world and benefit others.

We ordained people, on the other hand, might sit here daydreaming about lay life, thinking how great it could be. “Oh yeah, I’d work my fields and make money, then I could have a nice family and a comfortable home.” We don’t know what it’s really like. The laypeople are out there doing it, breaking their backs in the fields, struggling to earn some money and survive. But for us, it’s only fantasy.

The laypeople live in a certain kind of thoroughness and clarity. Whatever they do, they really do it. Even getting drunk, they do it thoroughly and have the experience of what it actually is, while we can only imagine what it’s like. So, because of their experience, they may become tired of things and realize the dharma quicker than monks can.

You should be your own witness. Don’t take others as your witness. This means learning to trust yourself. People may think you’re crazy, but never mind. It only means they don’t know anything about dharma. But if you lack confidence and instead rely on the opinions of unenlightened people, you can easily be deterred. In Thailand these days, it’s hard for young people to sustain an interest in dharma. Maybe they come to the monastery a few times, and then their friends start teasing them, complaining: “Since you started going to the monastery, you don’t want to hang out or go drinking anymore. What’s wrong with you?” So they often give up the path.

Others’ words can’t measure your practice, and you don’t realize the dharma because of what others say. I mean the real dharma. The teachings others can give you are to show you the path, but that isn’t real knowledge. When people genuinely meet the dharma, they realize it directly within themselves. So the Buddha said that he is merely the one who shows the way. In teaching us, he is not accomplishing the way for us. It is not so easy as that. It’s like someone who sells us a plow to till the fields. He isn’t going to do the plowing for us. We have to do that ourselves. Don’t wait for the salesman to do it. Once he’s made the sale, he takes the money and splits. That’s his part.That’s how it is in practice. The Buddha shows the way. He’s not the one who does it for us. Don’t expect the salesman to till your field. If we understand the path in this way, it’s a little more comfortable for us, and we will do it ourselves. Then there will be fruition.

Teachings can be most profound, but those who listen may not understand. Never mind. Don’t be perplexed over profundity or lack of it. Just do the practice wholeheartedly, and you can arrive at real understanding—it will bring you to the place the teachings talk about.

Don’t rely on the perceptions of ordinary people. Have you read the story about the blind men and the elephant? It’s a good illustration. Suppose there’s an elephant, and a group of blind people are trying to describe it. One touches the leg and says it’s like a pillar. Another touches the ear and says it’s like a fan. Another touches the tail and says, “No, it’s not a fan, it’s like a broom.” Another touches the body and says it’s something else again from what the others say.

There’s no resolution. Each blind person touches part of the elephant and has a completely different idea of what it is. But it’s the same one elephant. It’s like this in practice.

Continue reading.

Friday, May 21, 2010

TED Talks - Craig Venter Unveils "Synthetic Life"

Figure 1
Life re-created. Blue colonies (top) indicate a successfully transplanted genome, with self-replicating bacteria revealed in an electron micrograph.

This is a major, Nobel Prize level break-through in biology. One of my clients - who is a high level cancer researcher - thinks Venter will be known as the Oppenheimer of biology. Funny that he encodes an Oppenheimer quote into the bacteria.


Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome

Daniel G. Gibson,1 John I. Glass,1 Carole Lartigue,1 Vladimir N. Noskov,1 Ray-Yuan Chuang,1 Mikkel A. Algire,1 Gwynedd A. Benders,2 Michael G. Montague,1 Li Ma,1 Monzia M. Moodie,1 Chuck Merryman,1 Sanjay Vashee,1 Radha Krishnakumar,1 Nacyra Assad-Garcia,1 Cynthia Andrews-Pfannkoch,1 Evgeniya A. Denisova,1 Lei Young,1 Zhi-Qing Qi,1 Thomas H. Segall-Shapiro,1 Christopher H. Calvey,1 Prashanth P. Parmar,1 Clyde A. Hutchison, III,2 Hamilton O. Smith,2 J. Craig Venter1,2,*

We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including "watermark" sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.

1 The J. Craig Venter Institute, 9704 Medical Center Drive, Rockville, MD 20850, USA.
2 The J. Craig Venter Institute, 10355 Science Center Drive, San Diego, CA 92121, USA.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Received for publication 9 April 2010. Accepted for publication 13 May 2010.
Science has made the article available for free (download the PDF). You can also read a free summary article at the Science site, written by Elizabeth Pennisi.

It took 20 years and an around $40 million to get to this point, which is revealed online by the journal Science.
Craig Venter and team make a historic announcement: they've created the first fully functioning, reproducing cell controlled by synthetic DNA. He explains how they did it and why the achievement marks the beginning of a new era for science.

Venter, the man who led the private effort to sequence the human genome, is hard at work now on even more potentially world-changing projects.

First, there's his mission aboard the Sorcerer II, a 92-foot yacht, which, in 2006, finished its voyage around the globe to sample, catalouge and decode the genes of the ocean's unknown microorganisms. Quite a task, when you consider that there are tens of millions of microbes in a single drop of sea water. Then there's the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to researching genomics and exploring its societal implications.

In 2005, Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, a private company with a provocative mission: to engineer new life forms. Its goal is to design, synthesize and assemble synthetic microorganisms that will produce alternative fuels, such as ethanol or hydrogen. He was on Time magzine's 2007 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

In early 2008, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had manufactured the entire genome of a bacterium by painstakingly stitching together its chemical components. By sequencing a genome, scientists can begin to custom-design bootable organisms, creating biological robots that can produce from scratch chemicals humans can use, such as biofuel. And in 2010, they announced, they had created "synthetic life" -- DNA created digitally, inserted into a living bacterium, and remaining alive.

"Either he is one of this era's most electrifying scientists, or he's one of the most maddening." ~Washington Post


Dr George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor: "It's been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. It's a milestone that has potential practical applications."

David Baltimore, a geneticist at Caltech, in the New York Times: "To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this. [The result is] a technical tour de force. He has not created life, only mimicked it."

Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally."

Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College, Portland, Oregon: "[This is] a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology".

Dr Helen Wallace of Genewatch UK: "If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good. By releasing them into areas of pollution, [with the aim of cleaning it up], you're actually releasing a new kind of pollution. We don't know how these organisms will behave in the environment."

Professor Julian Savulescu, of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University: "We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm."

Interview with Antonio Damasio: Looking for Spinoza

Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain came out several years ago, but I just found this cool little interview with him about the book.

It's curious to me how little the psychology world has adopted his clear explanations of the differences between feelings and emotions - the first is a body-level experience while the second is an interpretation of that experience. So often I hear people talk about feelings (when they mean emotions) or about emotions (when they mean feelings) and, as often as not, they use the words interchangeably.

Between the lines is from Harcourt Books, the publisher of Damasio's books.
Between the Lines

Interview with Antonio Damasio
Looking for Spinoza
Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

Antonio Damasio

Completing the trilogy that began with Descartes' Error and continued with The Feeling of What Happens, noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio now focuses the full force of his research and wisdom on emotions. He shows how joy and sorrow are cornerstones of our survival. As he investigates the cerebral mechanisms behind emotions and feelings, Damasio argues that the internal regulatory processes not only preserve life within ourselves, but they create, motivate, and even shape our greatest cultural accomplishments.
Antonio R. Damasiois the Van Allen Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center and is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego. DESCARTES' ERROR was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and has been translated into twenty-three languages. His most recent book, THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS, was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and has eighteen foreign editions. He lives in Iowa City and Chicago.

Q: Much of the work you have done in the lab and with your previous books explored the role that emotions play in decision-making and in the construction of the self. In your new book, LOOKING FOR SPINOZA you seem to be presenting a progress report on our understanding of the nature and significance of feelings. What is new here? What have you found out?
A: Neuroscience is advancing at a fast pace. As of four years ago, when my last book was published, we had a reasonable hypothesis regarding the brain basis for feeling, but no certainties. Now, we can speak with confidence about "what feelings are" - where they come from, how they happen, what they are made of biologically. That is why the book's subtitle is the "feeling brain." We have identified brain areas and brain pathways necessary to feel emotions. Armed with the new knowledge we can even venture to say what feelings are for. The new knowledge broadens our view of human nature. We can not really know who we are if we do not understand the brain mechanisms behind emotion and feeling - what causes emotions, what leads to feelings, how they affect our decisions, social behavior, and creativity, and where they fit in evolution.

Q: What value does understanding the difference between emotions and feelings have?
A: Understanding the difference between emotions and feelings removed a barrier to research on the nature of affect, and opened the way to elucidating the origin and content of feelings.

Q: Are there neurobiological foundations for Ethics?
A: Yes there are. One of the payoffs of the new understanding of emotions and feelings is the realization that moral behavior does not begin with humans. In certain circumstances numerous non-human species behave in ways that are, for all intents and purposes, comparable to the moral ways of human beings. Interestingly, the moral behaviors are emotional -compassion, shame, indignation, dominant pride or submission. As in the case of culture, the contribution of everything that is learned and created in a group plays a major role in shaping moral behaviors. Only humans can codify and refine rules of moral behavior. Animals can behave in moral-like ways, but only humans have ethics and write laws and design justice systems. Animals can show attachment to others but as I discuss in the book only humans love in the proper sense of the term.

Q: Why bring Spinoza in to this?
A: Because Spinoza prefigured in a remarkable way some of the ideas on emotion, feelings, and ethics that are now taking shape as a result of modern neuroscience (Spinoza's views on the mind body problem are especially modern). Also because Spinoza's uncanny foreshadowing of modern views on biology and mind have not been recognized by contemporary science and deserve to be so. Finally, as I studied Spinoza with the purpose of giving him his due, I became intrigued by the person and the times, and both found their way into the book.

Q: Are there any case studies that illuminate your argument?
A: There are many such cases. For example, children who suffer brain injury in certain regions of the frontal lobe in their first year years of life develop major defects of social behavior in spite of being otherwise intelligent. They do not exhibit social emotions (compassion, shame, guilt) and they never learn social conventions and ethical rules.

Q: Is it possible to locate the spiritual in the human organism?
A: It is indeed. The spiritual is a special feeling state and, as other feelings states, it can be traced to the particular operations of several brain and body regions. We might say that the spiritual is the ultimate state of well-being—there is a maximal ease, harmony, and balance of organism functions. Spiritual states are most conducive to survival.

Q: People who have read Looking for Spinoza were surprised to find it hopeful. Do you think it is hopeful?
A: The book does have a message of hope. This may be unexpected, given the bleakness of today's headlines, but I believe it is justified. The message emerges naturally from several sources. For example, I am suggesting that knowing about the workings of mind and brain can help us deal more effectively with the social problems we face today. Part of our failures in the past may well be due to underestimating the positive and negative power of emotions. On a purely practical level, the new knowledge will also let us develop new medications to cure causes of human suffering such as pain and depression. No less importantly, perhaps, the book shows how Spinoza, alone and marginalized, was able to achieve happiness by cultivating curiosity, knowledge, and goodness of character.

Rick Hanson, PhD: Your Wise Brain: The Brain in a Bucket

[I'm catching up here on a few older posts from Dr. Hanson, so there will be a couple of more posts over the next couple of days.]

Rick Hanson, PhD: Your Wise Brain

Dr. Hanson, a neuropsychologist, author, and teacher, is the author, most recently, of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.)
The Brain in a Bucket

Have you ever seen a real brain?

I remember the first time I saw one, in a neuropsych class: the instructor put on rubber gloves to protect against the formaldehyde preservative, popped the lid off of a lab bucket, and then pulled out a brain.

It didn’t look like much, a nondescript waxy yellowish-white blob rather like a sculpted head of cauliflower. But the whole class went silent. We were looking at the real deal, ground zero for consciousness, headquarters for “me.” The person it came from – or, in a remarkable sense, the person who came from it – was of course dead. Would my brain, too, end up in a lab bucket? That thought gave me a creepy weird feeling completely unlike the feeling of having my heart or hand in a bucket some day – which gets right at the specialness of your brain.

That blobby organ – just three pounds of tofu-like tissue – is considered by scientists to be the most complex object currently known in the universe. It holds 100 billion neurons (see the schematic illustration just below) amidst another trillion support cells. A typical neuron makes about 5000 connections called synapses with other neurons, producing a neural network with 500 trillion nodes in it. At any moment, each node is active or not, creating a kind of 0 or 1 bit of information. Neurons commonly fire five to fifty times a second, so while you’ve been reading this paragraph, literally quadrillions of bits of information have circulated inside your head.


Your nervous system – with its control center in the brain – moves information around like your heart moves blood around. Broadly defined, all that information is the mind, most of which is forever unconscious. Apart from the influence of hypothetical transcendental factors – call them God, Spirit, the Ground, or by no name at all – the mind is what the nervous system does. So if you care at all about your mind – including your emotions, sense of self, pleasures and pains, memories, dreams, reflections – (and who doesn’t?) then it makes tons of sense to care about what’s going on inside your own brain.

Until very recently, the brain was like the weather: you could care about it all you wanted, but you couldn’t do a thing about it. But new brain imaging technologies like functional MRI’s have revolutionized neuropsychology much as the invention of the microscope transformed biology. According to Dr. Alan Lesher, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, our knowledge of the brain has doubled in the past twenty years.

These breakthroughs have informed – and been informed by – practical applications in psychotherapy. For example, trauma therapies have been improved by research on memory, while the results of interventions such as EMDR have suggested new lines of investigation. Like other therapists, I feel clearer about a client’s mind because more is known about his or her brain.

I’m also a meditator – started in 1974, at the tail end of college – so it’s been inspiring to see something similar happening with contemplative practice. Some of the most interesting studies of brain function have been done on long-term meditators, the Olympic athletes of mental training. For example, experienced meditators actually have thicker cortical layers in the brain regions responsible for self-awareness and the control of attention.

This illustrates a fundamental point with extraordinary potential: when your mind changes, your brain changes, both temporarily – with the momentary flicker of synaptic activity – and in lasting ways through formation of new neural structures. Therefore, you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being – and every other being whose life you touch.

The new neuroscience, combined with the insights of clinical psychology and contemplative practice, gives you an historically unprecedented opportunity to shift your brain – and thus your mind – toward greater happiness, love, and wisdom.

And that’s what this blog is about: skillful means – from the intersection of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice – for relieving distress and dysfunction, increasing well-being, and deepening mindfulness and inner peace.

We’ll focus on scientifically informed but eminently practical tools, skills, and perspectives – things you can use in the middle of daily life: on the job, in traffic, raising kids, when you’re nervous or mad, or working through a sticky conversation with your mom or your mate. For example, the next several entries in this blog will look at the power of gratitude to undo the threat reactivity of the brain, how to weave positive experiences into your brain and your self, and the three neural circuits of empathy.

With just a little understanding of your own brain, you can reach down inside the enchanted loom of your very being and gradually weave greater strength, insight, confidence, contentment, and loving intimacy into the tapestry of your life. That’s the great opportunity here: your brain is not in a bucket, it’s alive and pulsing with possibility, waiting for the skillful touch of your mind to guide it in increasingly wonderful directions.

I hope you’ll join me on this incredible journey.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, author, and teacher. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, he founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and teaches at universities and meditation centers in Europe, Australia, and North America. His work has been featured on the BBC and in Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and other major magazines.

Rick’s most recent book is Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.), which has been praised by numerous scholars, therapists, and teachers, including Tara Brach, Ph.D., Roger Walsh, Ph.D., Sharon Salzberg, and Fred Luskin, Ph.D. Considered an expert on self-directed neuroplasticity, he edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and his articles have appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Insight Journal, and Inquiring Mind; his Your Wise Brain blog is on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. He has a chapter – 7 Facts about the Brain That Incline the Mind to Joy – in Measuring the Immeasurable, as well as several audio programs with Sounds True. His first book was Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin, 2002).

Rick is currently a trustee of Saybrook University. He also served on the board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and was President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a community agency. He began meditating in 1974, trained in several traditions, and leads a weekly meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. He enjoys rock-climbing and taking a break from emails. He and his wife have two children. For more information, please see his full biography at

Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen - A Parable of Merit


by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen
edited by Khenmo Trinlay Chodron


Dharma Quote of the Week

[At the time of Buddha, a farmer asked to be ordained as a monk. Shariputra did not see his merit. But, with a great, compassionate mind, the Buddha took his hand and said, "I will give you ordination. You do have a seed to attain arhatship...."]

The Buddha explained, "Thousands and thousands of kalpas ago, this man was born as a fly. He was sitting on a pile of cow dung when a sudden rush of water caught the cow dung, along with the fly, and sent them into the river. Downstream, someone had placed a prayer wheel in the water, and that cow dung and fly swirled around and around it. Because of that circumambulation, this man now has a seed to attain arhatship in this lifetime."

Cause and result are so subtle that only omniscient wisdom can perceive every detail. That is why we must be very careful that our actions are truly beneficial.

Reciting just one mantra, protecting the life of even one small bug, giving a small thing--we should not ignore such actions by saying, "This is nothing; it makes no difference if I do it or not." Many small actions will gather and swell like the ocean. These are not merely Buddhist beliefs; these are the causes that create our world no matter who we are. Our study and practice give us the opportunity to understand this and to be sincere with ourselves even in small things.

--from A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen, edited by Khenmo Trinlay Chodron, published by Snow Lion Publications

A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through May 28th).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dr, Rick Hanson - Your Wise Brain: About Your Wise Brain

Rick Hanson, PhD: Your Wise Brain

Dr. Hanson, a neuropsychologist, author, and teacher, is the author, most recently, of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.)

About Your Wise Brain

Your Wise Brain is my blog, posted at Psychology Today, Huffington Post and other major websites.

It’s about how to take charge of the caveman brain in the 21st century by using practical methods from the intersection of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice.

With a new post every week or so, I’ll showcase cutting edge research on the brain, present new and powerful methods for healing and transforming the mind and heart, and share fascinating insights from the world’s great paths of contemplative practice.

My focus is on news and tools you can use to manage stress, keep your wits about you in turbulent times, heal the psychological bruises and cuts no one escapes in this life, keep your heart open no matter what others do, assert yourself with strength and dignity, steady and quiet your mind, and open to liberating insight.

The historically unprecedented meeting of the modern sciences of psychology and neurology, with the ancient contemplative traditions, offers wonderful ways to change your brain and thus change your life, and even the world.

I hope you’ll join me on this rich and rewarding journey.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, author, and teacher. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, he founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and teaches at universities and meditation centers in Europe, Australia, and North America. His work has been featured on the BBC and in Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and other major magazines.

Rick’s most recent book is Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (with Rick Mendius, M.D.; Foreword by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.), which has been praised by numerous scholars, therapists, and teachers, including Tara Brach, Ph.D., Roger Walsh, Ph.D., Sharon Salzberg, and Fred Luskin, Ph.D. Considered an expert on self-directed neuroplasticity, he edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and his articles have appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Insight Journal, and Inquiring Mind; his Your Wise Brain blog is on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. He has a chapter – 7 Facts about the Brain That Incline the Mind to Joy – in Measuring the Immeasurable, as well as several audio programs with Sounds True. His first book was Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin, 2002).

Rick is currently a trustee of Saybrook University. He also served on the board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and was President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a community agency. He began meditating in 1974, trained in several traditions, and leads a weekly meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. He enjoys rock-climbing and taking a break from emails. He and his wife have two children. For more information, please see his full biography at

Patrick J. Deneen - The Dead End of Contemporary Liberalism

Patrick J. Deneen, writing at Cato Unbound, offers up a brief but interesting article, The Dead End of Contemporary Liberalism. The argument is that the Western notion of human individuality - radical individualism - is fundamentally flawed, and as long as we base our notion of liberty on this idea, as do both political parties in different ways, we are doomed to repeat the same silly political pissing matches over and over.

More to the point, however, this premise allows the State (liberalism) and the Market (conservatism) - both of which rely on and promote self-interest - to dictate the cultural conversation and keep people from exploring and accepting our more interpersonal and communal natures.

The Dead End of Contemporary Liberalism

by Patrick J. Deneen
The Conversation
May 18th, 2010

Phillip Blond’s diagnosis of the pathologies of our age is as perceptive and piercing as any that I have yet encountered. He follows in a long tradition of independent thinkers, willing to break with — or at least to bend his relationship to — party and partisans with a clear-sighted analysis of the failings of the contemporary political alignments. Echoing earlier analyses that call attention to the unholy alliance of State and Market such as those of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Wilhelm Roepke, E.M. Schumacher, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Alasdair MacIntyre and Wendell Berry, Blond has captured the centralizing logic of this alliance in our own time with clarity and chilling insight. He calls to account the consistent core of radical autonomous individualism that lies in the deepest commitments of many on today’s Left and Right, noting that the seeming political battles that are daily waged through shouting matches on the television or in the pages of newspapers in fact obscure the deeper philosophic alliance that underlies the degradation of the civic life in modern nations.

At base, Blond recognizes that the great error of the age lies in the embrace of liberal anthropology, the theory of human nature advanced at the advent of the early modern period that underlies many Left and Right versions of liberty. The normative claim that human nature is to be understood (through the conceit of “the State of Nature”) as consisting of radically individuated selves motivated fundamentally by appetite and fear is in fact based on a fundamental falsehood, essentially denying the social and political nature of humans and requiring active State intervention for its purported realization. In Red Tory, Blond writes that

liberalism has promoted a radical individualism which, in trashing the supposed despotism of custom and tradition concerning the nature of true human flourishing, has produced a vacated, empty self that believes in no common values or inherited creeds. But in creating this purely subjective being, liberalism has also created a new and wholly terrifying tyranny. For, in order to strip people of their cultural legacy and eliminate the idea that people should enjoy degrees of prestige according to their nature and capacity for virtue, and by making everyone instead the same sort of individual with basic needs and rights, an excess of centralized authority is required. The rule of the virtuous person is displaced by the explicit control of the centralized state.

Ironically, modern forms of collectivism are the result of this radically individuated theory of the human self: “the extreme individualism that underpins the liberal account of human nature in the end demands collectivism as a means of preserving the sanctity of the singular when confronted with the reality of others.”

Blond recognizes that it is this liberal anthropology that underlies both the Left’s infatuation with the State as an agent of liberation, as well as the Right’s embrace of the Market as the primary engine of human liberty. While seemingly opposed, both agents are understood to derive from, and ultimately support, the maintenance of the autonomous, freely willing self. Both are curiously anti-social entities, relying on impersonal mechanisms for the supply of human goods. Both ask little of individuals by way of actual concern for, or deep involvement with, the lives and fates of others. Our relationships, either through the State and the Market, are rendered abstract and theoretical, with each serving respectively as the impersonal replacement for actual human relations and commitments. Each relieves selves of the burdens and obligations of care, and instead derives from an understanding of polity and society in which the self can be only truly liberated when relations are rendered fungible, voluntary and contingent. To resort to the taxonomy developed by Albert O. Hirschman, such anthropology requires a society structured around “exit” over “loyalty,” and thus, one in which “voice” is replaced by the sound of an exit door closing.

In his remarks at Georgetown University, at the invitation of the program that I founded and direct — The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy — Blond briefly offered a short intellectual history of this tradition, attributing the origins of this radically individuated autonomous self in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I fear that this brief synopsis of Rousseau’s argument — in which he suggested that it is Rousseau’s depiction of “society [as] primordial imprisonment” that underlies a libertarian-collectivist axis — provides too much comfort to Anglo-American thinkers who are accustomed to thinking that the American constitutional order — based in the liberal philosophy of Locke, Smith and the Founding Fathers — offers a bulwark against the collectivizing spirit of subsequent progressive thinkers like Rousseau, Marx, or the American progressives like Croly and Dewey. A school of thought now popularized by Glen Beck has arisen to explain that all of America’s woes lie in our betrayal of the Founder’s Lockean vision for the Siren song of Progressivism.

While left underarticulated, Blond’s argument implicates the anthropological assumptions of classical liberalism as well, indeed suggesting that there is a profound continuity between the thought of the likes of Hobbes, Locke and Smith and the apparently opposite philosophies of Rousseau, Marx and Dewey — and that we are now reaping the consequences this combination in the unfolding events of our time. Blond’s insight is that both classical liberalism — beginning with an anthropology of the radically individuated self — and progressive liberalism — aspiring to the overcoming of alienation that such anthropology fosters, aimed ultimately at the absorption of the individuated self into a collective whole, whether as “species-being,” “the religion of humanity,” or “the general will” — are both profoundly hostile to and destructive of those intermediary institutions defined as “civil society.”

The contemporary Right — most often the defenders of free market capitalism — aid and abet the destruction of civil society by advancing the liberal anthropology through its individualistic economic assumptions, while the contemporary Left defends radical individualism in its defense of “lifestyle” liberalism through an equally ferocious defense of individual rights. In both guises, the defense of anthropological liberalism in the economic or personal sphere requires a corresponding displacement of inherited or cultivated loyalties and commitments to intermediary commitments in the civic realm — family, neighborhood, community, Church, fraternal order, guilds, unions, and so on. Both require a re-education program that renders us mobile and relatively uncommitted, regarding the ties of family and community as obstacles to fulfillment of the self, whether economically or toward the end of “autonomy” or “self-realization.” Both encourage the ethic of “voluntarism” and “preference neutrality,” defining us most fundamentally as individuated selves, and displacing the central role of civil society in fostering a more expansive conception of the self, one interpenetrated and defined by relationships and thereby fostering an ethic of mutuality.

The other intellectual figure missing in (but friendly to) Blond’s account is Tocqueville, who understood with prophetic clarity that this form of individualism would lead not to a libertarian paradise, but a collectivist nightmare. Conservatives (and libertarians) have long been sympathetic with Tocqueville’s warnings about the rise of “democratic despotism” (for instance, Paul Rahe’s recent book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift is the newest, post–Cold War iteration of this embrace), yet have generally been remarkably willful in ignoring his explicit analysis connecting individualism with collectivism. In Vol. 2, Book 4, Ch. 3 of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote

As in periods of equality no man is compelled to lend his assistance to his fellow men, and none has any right to expect much support from them, everyone is at once independent and powerless. These two conditions, which must never be either separately considered or confounded together, inspire the citizen of a democratic country with very contrary propensities. His independence fills him with self-reliance and pride among his equals; his debility makes him feel from time to time the want of some outward assistance, which he cannot expect from any of them, because they are all impotent and unsympathizing. In this predicament he naturally turns his eyes to that imposing power which alone rises above the level of universal depression. Of that power his wants and especially his desires continually remind him, until he ultimately views it as the sole and necessary support of his own weakness.

The contemporary conspiracy between State and Market — apparently locked in battle, but more fundamentally consonant in their hostility toward, and evisceration of, the institutions of civil society — mutually reinforce each other, strengthening simultaneously commercial and State concentrations of power that recent events reveal to have been deeply intertwined. Both are based upon the radically individuated anthropology of classical liberalism, an anthropology that both necessarily precedes and ultimately succors the progressivist liberalism that it purports to oppose. Blond’s analysis follows a line of analyses that inferred the same deeper complicity, from that of Tocqueville to Bertrand de Jouvenel, from Robert Nisbet to Pierre Manent. Yet, for all the insight of this piercing recognition of the deeper complicity between our two “parties,” we continue to engage in the sound and fury of a shadowboxing match in which the only winner is concentrated economic and State power and the only loser is liberty. The only true locus of human liberty is to be found in the institutions of civil society, yet our dominant philosophies both regard its requirements for stability, self-sacrifice and generational continuity as an obstacle to individual liberty. So long as we continue to define liberty badly, we will continue to lose it.

Ugo Uche - Empathy Promotes Emotional Resiliency

This is a cool little article from the Psychology Today blogs on the resilience that comes with experiencing empathy. This is good reminder than when we are our best selves, we tend to benefit from that experience.

Empathy Promotes Emotional Resiliency

by Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.

Survival of the fittest is out and caring is in.

In the last five years, I have been witness to a movement led by psychologists and mental health clinicians, spreading a message that main stream child rearing practices unintentionally create children who are psychologically fragile. A favorite theme for this movement has been, "We are creating a nation of wimps." This movement has been born primarily in response to the idea of anti bullying rules and laws being passed to prevent students saying hurtful remarks to their peers.

While I have agreed with the psychological fragility most youths in today's culture struggle with, I do not believe the problem lies with a lack of psychological toughness in today's youth. Rather I believe the problem lies with a fundamental lack of understanding and practice of conscientiousness and empathy.

There is strength in caring, past one's own needs and wants. Children and teenagers, who understand and practice the concept of being empathetic, do a lot better in communicating with their peers. They experience significantly less conflicts with their peers, even with would be bullies. So why is this?

In an article by Maia Szalavitz, titled kindness 101, she writes about a Canadian program called Roots of Empathy for third and fourth graders. The program is actually one of a number of experimental bully prevention/anti bulling programs in North America that uses the teaching of empathy to reduce bullying. The article goes on the address that while human nature has historically being characterized as being innately selfish, researchers in the field of social neuroscience in recent years have discovered evidence that suggests the human brain is innately wired to be empathetic.

Survival of the fittest is out and caring is in.

The idea of human beings hard wired to be empathetic makes a lot of sense, especially when I consider my professional experience. Consider this, as part of my therapeutic approach; I always begin my treatment plan with an adolescent or child client with the one-two approach of understanding the use of feeling words and teaching the concept of empathy. To date, every adolescent client of mine who has bought into this therapeutic approach, have experienced the unintended but welcome side effect of improving their academic grades. In every exit interview with these clients, they would report experiencing a desire to become more curious about others and the world around them, a departure from their previous sense of being self-centered and entitlement. One former client even referenced a Jimi Hendrick's quote, "I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see."

Empathy is strength, and an asset towards surviving and thriving in any environment. It promotes genuine curiosity about others, which facilitates a desire to teach and learn. It allows a would be bully the opportunity to gain insight into how his behaviors would affect others negatively- in regards to both the potential victim and witnesses and it also affords the would be bully the ability to enlist the help of his peers in getting his needs met in healthier ways. With empathy, a potential bully victim wouldn't be a victim of bullying. Because such a person would be able to assertively address a situation where his or her boundary had been crossed and take measures to ensure his or her rights are respected. With empathy such a person while addressing the situation, without missing a beat would regard and treat the potential bully as a fellow human being.

Techniques towards addressing conflicts with others, are usually very effective, however they only work if the person using the techniques is genuinely empathetic.

So how does this all tie in the concept of psychological fragility? Children and adolescents who understand and practice the concept of empathy don't personalize setbacks. They readily accept when things are not going their way and they are cognizant that there are always other perceptions, different from theirs.

John Willingham on Sarah Palin's Authoritarian Religion

Yesterday afternoon, I posted a rather long rumination on how religion is seen from various worldview perspectives, all in an effort to show that the new atheists are throwing out the baby with bathwater.

And so I find this article last night at provides fairly clear explanation of just the type of religion the new atheists hate to fervently - the Bible is the One True Way version of Christianity, and Sarah Palin may be it's loudest and most visible exponent these days.

Willingham brings in William James and Alfred North Whitehead, so it's hard not to like his point of view as expressed in this article.

This article comes from Religion Dispatches Magazine.

Sarah Palin and the Static God

For Conservatives there is no doubt that the Unum in E Pluribus Unum is the Biblical God.

By John Willingham

One one-hundredth of a dollar. A close-up.

In a recent interview on Fox News, commentator Bill O’Reilly asked Sarah Palin what she would tell an America that “has, as they say in California, evolved” to become a “much more secular nation than we were back in 1776.”

Palin responded that we “should kind of keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. It’s pretty simple.”

Much has been written about the extent to which religion, especially Christianity, influenced the founding fathers and the documents they created. But the even larger debate on the relation of the Many and the One—the Pluribus and the Unum—of America is more in the province of philosophers. What do they tell us?

Palin cited the national motto—In God We Trust—as an indication of how strongly “we do base our lives, our values, on the God of the Bible.” She would be perfectly comfortable on the Texas State Board of Education, where social conservatives have likewise emphasized the importance of In God We Trust and promoted a tilt toward the “One” in E Pluribus Unum—Latin for “Out of the Many, One.” There is no doubt that their One is the Biblical God.

One of the best-known American philosophers is William James, author of Pragmatism, Varieties of Religious Experience, A Pluralistic Universe, among others. Because of his work, and that of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, pragmatism is the philosophy most often associated with America.

In Pragmatism, James wrote that to some people ideas are true whenever they conform to “what God means we ought to think.” As Palin made (more or less) clear, the God whose ideas “we ought to think”—the God in whom we should trust, to use the more familiar phrasing—is the God described in the Bible.

James wrote that for such people “…truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.”

But is the One, the Unum, the God set forth in the Bible and the Ten Commandments? Or is the One the aggregation of American experience—religious, political, good, bad, ambiguous—to which we as individuals (the Many) stand in relation?

Recall that James wrote of “an inert static relation.” It was no accident that he did so, for the pragmatists, other pluralists, and process philosophers all tell us that the One is not literally monistic, but rather is all that has come before, all that is our past, and we are connected to it by dynamic relation.

For the pragmatists, what is “true” from that aggregation of experience is that which “works,” and is useful when set against our present, helping us to make sense of our lives as we move into the future. It remains true so long as it works. There is arguably nothing more American—not religious impulse, not political principle—than our belief in what works in our actual lives.

This commitment to history or, more accurately, to experience, is not necessarily antithetical to theistic beliefs, Christian or otherwise. Influenced to some extent by William James, but more systematic and precise in his philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead (most notably in Process and Reality) conceived of a God who is part product-of-all-actual-experience and part repository-for-all-possible-experience. This God stands in relation to individuals, the Many, who in “drops of experience”—a term used by both James and Whitehead—interact with the One in the present.

The essential element in this relation is that God, the One, in its contingent sense, is a participant in these drops of experience, and, more profoundly, is changed by them in a continual process. Therefore, the One relies on a communion with the Many for its own definition, and ultimately, for its own completion.

In the case of Palin and the God of the social conservatives, this means that their attempts to promote a static One and expect that the Many will or should accede to it are not only contrary to reality but also in some ways un-American, given that most Americans embrace what actually works in the changing world of experience.

~ John Willingham writes about the Texas State Board of Education for HNN, The History News Network.