What Images of the After-life Did We Have When We Were Young?


At our next meeting, on November 13, we will examine the writings of Epicurus. Some of the questions that are sure to come up will concern the possibility of an after-life — or the lack thereof.

In anticipation of this meeting, I would like to invite members of our group to share with the rest of us some of the most vivid images of the after-life that come to your mind…

Take a moment to meditate on those images that, for whatever reason, traced themselves deeply in your neural networks when you were a child. The more unexpected and strange the better!


Why am I asking the group to share these images?

I have a hunch that, at our meeting it may be fruitful to examine some of our assumptions and fears regarding what happens after death by way of visual, non-verbal cues, rather than getting bogged down in words.

You can add your images in the comments below, or email them to me and I’ll post them.


To get us started, here are some of mine…

Probably my first strong encounter with death was when I saw the movie “King Kong” (1976)… I must have been about seven when I saw it. Remember when Jessica Lange must say goodbye to Kong?

There was no suggestion of an after-life. But I remember feeling shocked that everyone else in the movie would go on with their lives, while King Kong would never breathe again.

When my family moved to Hong Kong (we lived there between 1977 and 1981) I remember visiting a monastary where there was, on display, a dead monk covered with gold leaf. That made an impression.


Does this qualify as an after-life?

Then there’s that scene of Purgatory in the movie “Heaven Can Wait” (1978; I was nine), which stunned and terrified me (full disclosure: my childhood dream was to play quarterback in the NFL, so it cut particularly close to the bone).

Here’s the clip that set my mind racing:

But probably the most powerful image of an after-life that I encountered was in an art history class in my senior year in high school (I was 17, I think). My teacher put up a projection of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, and something strange happened in my head.


(For a short video about this work, click here.)

I felt a surge of joy, and I couldn’t look away. It was all there: life… death… and the after-life, such as it is.

At odd moments during the day, for years after that, the image of that skeleton lying at the bottom of this image would come back to me. The Latin inscription above his reclining figure is:


Thank you, Masaccio, for clearing that up!

What else, let’s see… Crazy as it sounds, the Pixies’ “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” actually moved me with the finality of the end for the eponymous “monkey” (aka “an underwater guy / who controlled the sea / got killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” aka a symbol of humanity?)…


Okay. That’s what I can come up with right now. I’ll keep adding more as I think of them. How about you?


From Sheri

I was six and in love with our two puppies, “Nip and Tuck”.  After school one day I could not find “Tuck”.  They were always together.  We lived on an island in a lake in Wisconsin.  My mother said that she had no idea where he was, and suggested that I ask all the neighbors on the island if they had seen Tuck.  After
making those rounds with no sightings, I returned home miserable, teary, and desperate.  It was then that my mother admitted the truth:  Tuck had been hit by the milkman’s truck as he swung into our driveway and was dead.  “I want to see him dead”, I said.  Very reluctantly she led me to the row of garbage can outside our gate.  In an old cardboard box my Tucky lay, eyes open, flies covering his eyes and body.  This is it then, death?

Red eye fly - ugly-800

From Claudine







From Jeanne

Some of my wishes for an afterlife was having my own private angel, like Clarence in “It’s a wonderful Life”  Well maybe a bell won’t ring when my angel get’s his wings, but it is still one of my favorite films with a beautiful message about appreciating what you have.
Even as an adult, I was really affected by the beautiful paintings, and supernatural world after death,  and finding solace that things will be OK, for the departed  in “What Dreams May Come.” A good friend worked on paintings for this film, and her description of her creative process in painting the images affected her in a profound way. She entertained the possibility that this could be the reality of afterlife.  There was a moment when I asked myself, Could this be true?” But , I just could not let myself go there, I could not see how a being could actually enter an alternate world. The truth was, and still is that I wish it were true, but I know that it is not.  


Notes on Our Second Meeting — EPICUREANISM


There was much good cheer and buzzing conversation as members of our group arrived, so it took some effort to move everybody into the living room to begin our discussion.

But we managed! At about 8:35 pm, with our glasses refilled with wine and the fire roaring, we began meeting #2.

1. An Overview of Epicureanism

Before we began in earnest, I thought it might be helpful (particularly for those who had not had a chance to look at the readings), if I briefly summarized the philosophy of Epicurus.

I mentioned that, along with some other thinkers of his time in 4th century BCE Greece, Epicurus believed that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, indivisible particles — which they called “atoms” (a term that would be co-opted by chemists and physicists in the 1800s, so as to become familiar to us today).

From this Epicurus concluded that our universe is entirely material.

Despite his materialistic understanding of nature and the larger universe, however, Epicurus was not a determinist. He accounted for free will by way of something he called the “swerve,” in which one atom unpredictably changes its course. (At least in a poetic sense, this notion of a “swerve” brings to mind the discovery in quantum mechanics of wave-particle duality, i.e. whether a photon expresses itself as a wave or a particle will change, depending on what we do to it. Though, we might note, the question of free will is no closer to being clarified today than it was in ancient Greece!)

But enough of these speculations about the physical world… What did Epicurus have to say about how we should live our lives?

Epicurus argued for a simple, streamlined life, with a focus on friendship and reflection.

His famous four rules are:

i. Gods, if they exist, are not relevant to human life. He acknowledged that gods may exist, but he dismissed any possibility that they might be willing to intervene, or even show concern for our needs, in any way.

ii. There is no afterlife. When we die, that’s it… Sorry if you had your hopes up for mingling with Achilles and Patroclus in the Elysian Fields!

iii. Pleasure is available to us with minimal effort. He maintained that almost all of us have enough resources available to us, already, to secure our pleasure — a little water, a little barley, and you’re good! The rest of it is a distraction, not necessarily to be shunned (that extra piece of caramel is fine, take it!) but best if understood as such.

iv. Pain is not worth getting worked up about. As for suffering, Epicurus reassured his followers and readers that it is very rarely chronic and intense at the same time — so it shouldn’t cause us too much anxiety.

This notably human-centered, pleasure-seeking, materialistic philosophy was almost lost, following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 CE and the triumph of the monotheistic traditions during the Dark Ages.

Except that it wasn’t lost entirely. It happened to get smuggled into the Renaissance — in a beautiful form! In the year 1417, a well-to-do adventurer and budding humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, set out from Italy to look for old Latin manuscripts. Poking around the library of a remote German monastery, he came upon a manuscript called “On the Nature of Things” by the Roman poet Lucretius, who had lived in the first century BCE.

By bringing Lucretius’ poem back to his circle of friends in Florence, Poggio preserved for us a faithful rendering of Epicurean thought, and one infused with great feeling. Copies of “On the Nature of Things” were passed, hand to hand, person to person, country to country, until Lucretius, and through him Epicurus, influenced such thinkers as Montaigne, Bacon, Shakespeare, Galileo…

Yet the story doesn’t end there, either.

For Stoics in the Roman era, and Christians and monotheists of all kinds ever since, the materialist philosophy of Epicurus posed a threat to their invisible orders (the “logos” or “universal reason” for the Stoics; “God,” “Allah,” “Spooky Electric,” or what have you for the religiously inclined). Hence, despite the discovery of Lucretius’ poem, the dominant discourses in our world have come down very hard on Epicurean philosophy for all these years, turning it into the caricature we know today.

As a result, it is associated in many people’s minds with a lavish meal, or with a dissolute life-style. For most of us the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry” comes to mind when we think of Epicureanism.

Escargot, swimming in garlic and butter. A rich creme brûlée…

The gout.

That kind of thing.

Yet many have managed to look past this caricature, too, and they have found themselves drawn to Epicurean thought.

Thomas Jefferson, who called himself an Epicurean, managed to slip the words “and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. No small feat, that, with no small consequences for American culture. In recent times the ubiquitous contrarian Christopher Hitchens liked to describe himself as an Epicurean. In London, the School of Life, founded by Alain de Bouton, and The Idler, have even attempted to build institutions around the ideas and practice of Epicureanism.

So what do we think of this earliest recorded effort to develop a non-supernatural outlook on life? What did members of our group learn from reading Epicurus?

2. Does Epicureanism Lead to a Passive Life?

With the overview done, I wanted to launch the group into discussion.  So to provoke a reaction, I mentioned one aspect of Epicureanism that particularly nagged at me over the past few weeks, namely the question of whether the tenets of Epicureanism lead to a passive life.

For if we are merely seeking pleasure… and the highest pleasures, according to Epicurus, are to be had in friendship and reflection… then, if given the resources, wouldn’t we all retire to our own version of his “Garden”? Wouldn’t we all just lounge around all day sipping water, eating barley, and engaging in idle chit-chat?

What about leadership? What about risk-taking? What about courage?

What about — I don’t know — ISIS? The Keystone XL pipeline? Do we care? Or does the larger world just fade away?

Luis spoke up to say that when he was doing the reading he too sensed that there was something lacking in the Epicurean outlook on life.

He pointed out that it seems to have, as its basis, a kind of narrow, individualist point of view. Epicurus wants each person to seek to rid himself or herself of anxiety and pursue pleasure. But this ignores that we are social by nature, and always intermingled and connected with others. We care deeply about our immediate families, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens, our world… even our biosphere. And these concerns will sometimes weigh against our private pursuit of pleasure. “For example,” Luis cried out (impressing us all with his sincerity — lucky Sara, Julia and Marina!), “I would sacrifice my own pleasure, willingly, for the good of my family!”

Renée countered that, on her reading of Epicurus, he was not suggesting that a person should act selfishly on all occasions. Rather, Renée understood him to be saying that, by simplifying and streamlining your life, you will free yourself to enjoy your choices more, whatever they may be (including taking care of your family).

On a given occasion you may want to take a risk (like singing in public) or sacrifice for a relationship (like working ungodly hours to pay your children’s school tuitions), but these actions will be available to you precisely because you aren’t confused about gods or afterlife. You will pursue your choices and your life while being clear-eyed about the costs and rewards of your actions.

Yes, you can eat that caramel, or you can give it to your daughter (as Luis surely would), because you know you don’t need it; either way, now you know that it is a choice.

Gerry compared Epicurus’ teaching to the concept of “flow” developed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. As Gerry explained it, if you are a skier at first moguls seem overwhelming but later they become part of the enjoyment. Losing your self-consciousness and getting directly into the act of living allows you to focus on the right challenges instead of getting caught up in useless anxieties.

3. The Finality of Death

Next, we got into a discussion about how our acceptance of the certainty of our death affects our the way we live our life. Is Epicurus right that when we recognize death as mere oblivion it… loses its sting?

Yann mentioned that he wakes up every morning with a sense of enchantment at the details of the world — the leaves, the sunlight streaming through them, the seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure. He thinks that his awareness of death increases this pleasure in that it encourages him to cherish each opportunity as it comes. For example, all summer he overcame his natural resistance to putting on a bathing suit and getting wet. because he knew that the pleasures he gained from swimming will not always be available to him.

Ken, too, suggested that knowing that our time on this planet is finite gives our lives more value. He mentioned a poem that made a strong impression on him — about a rare white orchid that blooms only once a year…

I objected to this line of reasoning, though. I explained that for the life of me, so to speak, I just can’t appreciate this notion that the certainty of our impending deaths gives our lives more meaning… that the flower which blooms only once a year is all the more exquisite for it, etc. etc.

To me, life is exquisite while it is lived for the obvious reason that I am experiencing it. Anything outside of this consciousness experience is, really by definition, the least interesting thing in the world to me. So death’s limitation of my experience does not enhance the quality of my experience in any way, it merely… limits it. How about a thousand white orchids blooming, every day? I have no problem with that picture.

I read the following line from Nabokov to the group:

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”


This brief crack of light, I argued, is all we have. I understand that, and like Epicurus I don’t expect more. But I would be quite happy to see it extended into a vast sea of light. Immortality would be wonderful. I can’t imagine feeling otherwise.

Walden suggested that he was more bored when he was young for the very reason that he felt an abundance of time ahead of him. Now that he is older, and he feels more scarcity of time, he is never bored. He suggested that the approach of death has added greatly to his interest in life.

I responded that for me the dynamics are quite different. When I was young I too was more often bored, it’s true. Yet I don’t think this was because I felt an abundance of time: rather, I suspect it was because I didn’t know what to do with my time! As I have grown older I am happy to report that, like Walden, I am never bored, but that’s not at all because I sense the certainty of death approaching me. In fact, I resent death because I can now fill time better, giving more love, paying more attention to details, doing more thinking about the complexities of the world. Let it go on! Death impinges on the abundance of time I crave.

To me, then, death does not lose its sting in any case, whether we praise it as a motivation and a limiting device (as Yann, Ken and Wadlen do) or dismiss it as a mere state of oblivion (as Epicurus did). It is still… terrible, awful… a source of (what an apt phrase!) mortal terror.

Manon agreed with me on this, sharing that she fears it and does not welcome it on any terms.

4. More on Dealing With Death

This got us into a discussion about the toll of death on the living.

Epicurus urges his followers not to worry themselves with thoughts of death, since after all it will not trouble us at all when it comes (since we will be gone). But he seems to leave out the fact that, for those still living, the death of loved one is devastating. Devastating. Again, to Luis’ point, his philosophy seems geared to the perspective of each individual alone, but doesn’t consider our entanglements with others.

Dean cited findings that show that, on average, people’s baseline happiness bounces back after the death of a loved one within a matter of months (this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “hedonic adaptation“). “So I’m with Epicurus,” Dean announced, “We shouldn’t worry about it.” (Dean admitted that he had dressed up as Epicurus for Halloween, and spent the evening in a toga ridiculing the flights of fancy of religious people… Hey kids, look, it’s Epicurus… Run! He doesn’t fear death!)

I pushed back on this. “Dean,” I said, “I think you are being a little cavalier, aren’t you? Yes, people’s self-reported “happiness” might bounce back, but that particular data stream is only a measure of one aspect of their experience. Even in cases where a person facing grief can find some equanimity, the death of a loved one will often reorient his or her outlook on life in a fundamental way, right? Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. A wife may never regain her former ambitions after the death of her husband, or a father may find himself oddly drawn to stories of loss and heartbreak, seeking to help those in need. Or those who have lost someone close to them may begin to cherish their friends and family more than ever. These changes may not be recorded by a study of self-reported mood or ‘happiness.’ But that doesn’t mean that they don’t count!”

Jeanne emphasized that, as a hospice nurse, she has witnessed many people who are near death coming to accept their fate. The ones who suffer the most, she said, are the people still living.

Karoline mentioned that she felt jealous, sometimes, of religious people whom she has witnessed recovering from something as devastating as their own child’s death, based on their belief in an afterlife where they will meet that child again. Dean said he didn’t wish for that flimsy tissue of lies in his life; he didn’t feel jealous of them at all but would rather face facts honestly.

I agreed with Dean… and I wondered if Karoline would really wish that kind of mythology upon herself despite its false comforts. Just to be difficult I gave her an hypothetical… “If I told you that I believed strongly in little dust-men floating at the ceiling of this room,” I asked, “and you could tell that they gave me a great sense of reassurance that everything would be okay (because they were hovering in the form of a triangle! or some such claim), would you really feel jealous of that consolation? Religious convictions are just as absurd as the dust-men, of course — only more familiar and protected by taboos from mockery. So why should their false consolation be any more worthy of your jealousy?”

Karoline clarified that even if she could not conceive believing in dust-men, or any of that supernatural stuff, her point was that it amazed her how comforting such fabrications can be. At least on a temporary basis, they are extremely effective in providing a buffer to the emotional havoc that experience can bring. In other cases, she added, she has witnessed parents without such beliefs unravel completely when faced with the death of a child.

Marie-José had a different story to tell. She explained that in his work her father used to attend the death-beds of many people in their region in Southern France. She has always remembered that he told her once, quite in passing and without further explanation, that the people who took an untimely death the most hard were the nuns in a nearby nunnery. So for these nuns anyway, religion did not provide the consolation it promised — or not enough.

I had witnessed the same, I mentioned, when my grandmother faced death. She had always been very adamant that we would all meet Jesus when we died. (And if we had not accepted Him into our hearts, she had warned, Jesus would shake his head and say, “I don’t know you.” My sister and I used to reenact the telling of this to scare each other.) As my grandmother lay in her hospice bed, however, she showed a great deal of anxiety. Contrast that with my grandfather, who did a few years later. He had never bothered too much with thoughts of an afterlife. Instead he sang fake Puccini arias in fake Italian during his last days.

In the end, faced with these contrasting stories, we concluded that whether you believe in an afterlife or not perhaps plays little role in whether you have anxiety about death… Who knows, maybe there are other factors at play, of which Epicurus and the faithful aren’t even aware?

Walden mentioned, in this respect, that after the sudden death of his mother, he and two of his sisters were able to absorb their loss over time, while the third, who had not been able to reconcile with their mother while she was still alive, still feels anguished by a sense of irresolution.

5. Do We Extend in Both Directions Outside of Our “Brief Crack of Light”?

Looping back to Luis’ comment at the beginning of the meeting, I mentioned that it seemed to me that Epicurus gets it wrong to focus so singularly on this life, this “brief crack of light,” as Nabokov so memorably put it.

Our concerns do extend past our own life. For surely we care deeply about our immediate loved ones even after they die. More than that, we care about our ancestors, our colleagues, our heroes, our friends’ parents, our neighbors. We research our genealogy and our language group. Yet it’s not even restricted to our own personal connections. We care about history. For example, as Yann knows (we have an endless debate going on this), I care deeply about the ideas behind the American experiment in representative democracy, about Lincoln’s understanding of human fallibility as the basis for this experiment (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…” or as he meant to say… to the extent that evolution has provided our particular species of bipedal primate with the capacity to see the right…).

Likewise, Yann and Dean and many in our group have already made abundantly clear how much they care about the future, even after they personally will be gone. We care about the effects of climate change, for example, on generations to come. We care about children that we don’t know personally and will never meet.

So our concerns and interests extend into the “eternities of darkness” on either side of us, into the past and the future.

Can we then live a kind of… modified Epicureanism?

Can we adopt Epicurus’ useful outlook in terms of our own lives (letting go of fables, grudgingly accepting that death is final, living simply, recognizing that pain will be manageable), but extend a more active and engaged outlook towards other lives around ours?

To do this, though, we will need a new way of telling stories. For the impact of another person on each of us, in most cases, is based on our living connection to that person. It can be unnerving to realize how little we care about the deaths of people we don’t know, for example. (No doubt that’s why statistics are often said to be “mind-numbing”!) We need something to bridge this gap, to expand the area of our interest.

How many people can we actually get ourselves to care about, looking back and reaching forward?

Once we do care for people, for how many years out can we expect this care to reach?

At what point will our willingness to devote our energies to something beyond our own brief life begin to flag?

In other words, what are the limits to our capacity for love, primates that we are, with brains and bodies adapted for the more narrow purpose of replicating our own DNA?

Does love have limits?

Maybe not?

6. Art and Death

This brought up the final area of discussion. Walden started us off by stating that he has come to the view that art does not need religion, but religion needs art. In other words, without the awe-inspiring Catholic cathedrals with their flying buttresses, without the aching beauty in the cadences of the Muslim morning call to prayer, without the rich colors of the cave paintings of Ajanta, religion would lose its power.


“Yes!” I said. “But that is true for the secularist, materialist, non-supernatural viewpoint as well, isn’t it? We need a new art!

“One that supports a scientific and naturalist angle into love and loss and the whole gamut of experience in between. We need an art that expresses our blissful sense of belonging with other people. We need an art that expresses sorrow and rage and confusion in the face of suffering, so that even people we don’t know can be seen as more than a statistic.”

I noticed Renée looking at me sideways, as if to say, “What are you on about now, honey?” But I kept going…

“As it is, art is experienced, more often than not, as separate from meaning, in a realm of its own. Sure it can stun us with beauty, or shock us, or make us wistful, but it usually doesn’t inspire us to action. We don’t expect it too either.

“That’s fine. I am all for art for art’s sake too. I distrust propaganda or heavy-handed meaning in art as much as anybody. But maybe, just maybe, in this context of asking ourselves how to live, art can do more?”

At this, Claudine shouted out: “Why do we need a new art, Tom? When I see time-lapse photos showing the melting of ice in the Arctic, I feel ready to take action. When I see a documentary on polar bears leaving their hunting grounds, I don’t need more than that. What do we need art to do in addition to that?”

“Well, you may be unusual, Claudine,” I answered, “I think most people need more than photographic documentation, more than the blunt facts of the matter. They need engagement. Again, not propaganda, but at least a direct acknowledgement that love is at the core of the work, as well as pain. That we aspire to preserve good things, gentle things, kindnesses, ambiguity, gratitude. It seems to me that most secular art does support these values, but it does so almost haphazardly. Is there a place where it could be done more intentionally, just as traditional religious art has done, for the purpose of increasing understanding, growing love, reducing suffering?”

Heléne emphasized that it all comes down to storytelling. As a marketing executive, she explained that she knows this is always the key to conveying information. (But is it only better marketing we are talking about? That struck me as depressing. Isn’t there more at stake here? An aspiration to love one another in a more lasting way? Isn’t that beyond a marketing plan, even while it demands it?)

Walden said that although he didn’t want to be cynical, he didn’t believe any art could make a difference in people’s actions on issues such as climate change. He expects us to continue emitting carbon into the atmosphere, until the younger generations end up taking to the streets in mass protest. No art could change that. Dean agreed and spoke of how ephemeral our emotional states are, our feelings of empathy most of all. They won’t last, he insisted.

“But certainly it’s worth a try!” I said.

Someone asked provocatively: “What good can a painting do, Tom? What has art ever done?”

I stood and hung my arms out to the sides. “Are you kidding me? When people walk through the Uffizi Gallery and gaze at paintings of Christ being crucified, I think when the painting works they look right through the dogma of religion. They see a human being suffering unjustly. They see his mother and friends in agony, helpless, as they look on. These images stay with them, lodge in their hearts, one might say despite the religious indoctrination that limits and squelches their meaning. Art can change the world. Has. Over and over.”

Renée mentioned that while hearing a countertenor sing a Bach Cantata last Sunday at a concert in Berkeley, she felt changed in a way that is lasting. Or staring at Monet’s haystacks a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum.


Sometimes you can’t put it into words, but you are expanded in a way that you hadn’t been before the experience, and it alters how you act in the world.

7. Winding Up

It was getting late so we had to end. I realize, writing this, that in two meetings we have already set a high bar for what we do!

In our first meeting, we came to the realization that we need a new origin story, to supplant those of religion, one that accords with the latest science of primatology, anthropology, neuropsychology and prehistorical archeology.

Oh, and in the second meeting we realized that we needed a new art that allows us to reach into the two “eternities of darkness” — i.e. reach into the past and the future — surrounding our brief lives. We need to live with Epicurean simplicity and modesty, yet, nevertheless, with the assistance of art, learn to dream, grandly and ambitiously, outside of the narrow experience-frame of our own lifespan.

Alrighty then!

Got our work cut out for us.

See you all next month when we meet on the Winter Solstice. More on that to come.

As always, if you remember something from the meeting that I overlooked (and there are surely many things) please add it in the comments!

Art That Means Something


Following on our discussion on “Art and Death,” which arose at last week’s meeting, over the weekend I happened to read an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine on the artist Olafur Eliasson. I was breezing along when this passage in particular got me to put my tea down and sit up straighter on the pillows:

“There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.”

Ah-ha! A non-ironical artist! Just what we were talking about in the Old New Way.

(On a sidenote, while reading this article I suddenly remembered that about seven years ago Renée and I took our kids to an Olafur Eliasson exhibit at SFMOMA. It was memorable. One room held a car entirely made of ice. But as we walked through the exhibit and gazed at the art, our son Cole, who was two, kept repeating the word “pine-cone.” “Pine cone?” Renée and I asked, looking at each other quizzically. “Why pine cone, Cole?” It wasn’t until we came to the final room of the exhibit, a small chamber that held the materials that Eliasson had collected as the inspiration behind his recent work, that we got our answer. At the center, in a clear lucite box sat… a single pine cone. The accompanying text stated that all of the work we had seen was, in Eliasson’s mind, a variation, a kind of riff, on its structure. For a moment we were speechless. “Pine cone!” said Cole, pointing to it with a look of deep satisfaction. “That’s right,” I finally answered him. “You had it right all along.”)

And Yet It Moves…


A recent media kerfuffle strikes me as an appropriate post for The Old New Way (particularly since at our next meeting we will be addressing the impact of the Scientific Revolution on our world).


So… in case you missed it.

A few weeks ago an ESPN baseball writer, Keith Law, found himself defending evolution against some silly talk spouted by another ESPN contributor, Curt Schilling.

Law pointed out, for example, that homo sapiens have not descended from any monkeys or apes now living (though we share a common ancestor).

In response, well, what did you think would happen in contemporary America? His Twitter account was promptly suspended by ESPN. Apparently, defending science is still a dicey career move in some corners.

When ESPN reinstated Law’s account a week later, his first Tweet was a beauty:

Eppur si muove.”

This is, according to legend, what Galileo Galilei muttered when he was sentenced to house arrest (for arguing that, based on the evidence, the Earth moves around the sun — and not vice versa).

“And yet it moves,” Galileo said, quietly.

A novel concept: humans don’t get to dictate to nature because we are part of it. Nature happens, whether we like it or not.

Click here for an article covering the great ESPN Twitter controversy of November, 2014.



On Sunday morning, December 21, join our group as we celebrate the sunrise.

From this Sunday forward, as you surely know, our nights will shorten and our days will lengthen — well, at least until the Summer solstice in June.

For, as it happens every year, the axial tilt of our planet ensures that the Northern Hemisphere will begin to get increasing amounts of sunlight for the next six months. You can picture it this way: we are entering the part of our orbit in which the earth will be leaning in…

Go yellow dwarf star we call the “sun”! Go ball of iron and magma with a mantle and a crust we call the “earth”! Go repeating pattern of sunlight and shadow and all the carbon-based lifeforms dependent on it!

Including us. Wow it’s good to be alive.

Here’s the plan. Bundle your family in the brightest most rainbow-colored clothes you can find. Scarves, blankets, jackets, gloves, anything.

Get them in the car, while it’s still dark, and meet us at Inspiration Point in Tilden Park at 6:45 am. There is plenty of parking.

We will be walking out along the paved Nimitz Way at 6:50 SHARP. After about a 10-minute walk we will reach a rounded hill, where there is a small dirt/mud path leading to the crest. Bring shoes that can grip the earth, even when muddy. At the top we will have a view both to the East and the West.

At 7:21 will greet the rising sun, wonder at the clouds, watch the light catch the far-off waves of our dear Bay.

I plan on bringing a big Pete’s coffee, with milk and sugar, for grown-ups. I will also bring cups. (Or you can bring your own travel mug if you like.) Who can bring a big thermos of hot chocolate for kids? They will certainly deserve it. More than one may be needed.

See you on Sunday morn. Extra points for those who know why winter lasts another three months even though the days get longer… I

Notes on Our Third Meeting — A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION!



(Three girls running arm-in-arm down a hill in the fog. Can anything be more beautiful?)

So — the report for those who couldn’t make it.We found one another in the dark and misty parking lot and headed out through fog-shrouded trees. We were quite a sizable group, but perhaps we were outnumbered by the huddle of  “new pagans” and Wiccans we passed along the way. Oddly, they were singing Christmas carols (and burning sage) while looking out in the direction of Mt. Diablo.

Up a muddy hill and we reached the top. The sky glowed ever brighter as kids and adults mingled. More and more boys acquired muddy palms as the minutes passed by.

A few minutes after the sunrise (undetectable except for the brightening in all directions), I announced that I had a “sermon” — to some (surely well-deserved) mockery from my wife, who was wearing a fetching pink wig.

I spoke of our human “triumph of scale” (as opposed to the usual phrase, the “problem of scale”). In other words it struck me, sleepless in the night, how wonderful it is that we can scale up or down almost at will (up, for example, to the orbit of our planet around the sun… or down to the smallest moments of pleasure while sliding in the mud). This capability allows us to keenly appreciate what are, after all, cosmically irrelevant events (she smiled at us just before she closed the car door — did you see that?!). Or, when needed, it allows us to recognize those little events to be trivial compared to the big things in life (we were born! We have air to breathe!).

I suggested that we should try to demonstrate our own “down here” triumph of scale by reproducing the orbit of the planet around the sun with our very bodies — the “solar system” that counts most for us. With this in mind, I asked the parents and grandparents to cluster in the center of a patch of grass, and the kids ran around us like so many planets…

Okay, it sort of worked… It was fun anyway to see the kids running in circles — which was, in a way, the point, right? Which was a more important orbit at that moment, Earth’s or Felix’s?

Then Nathalie improvised some simple and gorgeous songs to the four elements — wind, earth, water, fire. She swayed and sang in a flowing tie-dyed dress and opened our hearts a little more.

There was a lot of chaos, many cups of coffee and hot chocolate and a great deal of — what’s the word? — fellowship. Affection.

Then people begin peeling away, or rather, sliding, away. Vanishing into the fog.

It was memorable in its own way. Christopher biked from his boat in Emeryville, which I will always remember.  For a moment I thought he was wearing nothing but plaid boxers — which struck me as especially cool. But they were shorts.

Let the longer days begin to do their work on our vast oceans and bring us Spring. Let love flood our hearts with the brightening days.

Enjoy the holidays everybody. See you in January.

The Fool is Dead! Long Live the Fool!


When Islamist terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charles Hebdo in Paris and murdered 12 people — editors, writers, an economist, a security guard, even the policeman on the sidewalk outside — they wanted to hurt people for what they wrote and the cartoons they drew.

The slogan “The pen is mightier than the sword” is often spoken in a kind of aspirational sense, without too much attention paid to whether it is true or false… But in the days that followed the killings in Paris we have seen thousands upon thousands gather all around the world, in an expression of sorrow and support for the dead journalists.

Thousands, millions of us are gathering, raising pens above our heads and saying, no.

You do not touch the fool. The fool is sacred.

The fool is dead. Long live the fool.

Our Old New Way group sent a bunch of emails back and forth yesterday, as we tried to come to grips with what happened in France. Here they are:

From Tom:

There are those events that seem like something remote… but then you realize they are something else too. Something personal.

The killing of 12 journalists in Paris (11 of them editors and writers and employees of a satirical magazine, 1 an economist and journalist who happened to be visiting) is, for me, one of those events.

Satire goes to the core of civilization. To be able to question, to mock, even to insult, the verities and taboos of your time, is a crucial aspect of being alive. It has a rich tradition. Voltaire. Swift. All the way to Aristophanes. (And surely back to our beloved prehistory.) This is how people call out hypocrisy. This is how people say no to false certainties.


Look at the images below in the email forwarded to me by Florence. I love this magazine. I don’t need to agree with it. I love it. There is a difference.

Tonight at the French consulate in San Francisco there will be a gathering in support of this magazine and the brave, and regular, just-like-you, just-like-me people who died.

I’m going. Trying to arrange babysitter now (Coley is at Board Meeting). Flo is going. Anybody else?


Salut cher Amis,

L’année démarre avec un grand coup porté par les cons sur les drôles à neurones. J’ai un peu le moral en berne, une occasion de rire et de réfléchir qui s’envole.

J’ai du mal à savoir si je leur en veux plus d’avoir fermer un robinet à rire et à mauvais esprit ou si c’est pour leur manque de courage et d’intelligence.

Pourvu que le stylo reprenne rapidement le pas sur les balles! Ce serait la meilleure réponse à faire à ces cons.

Amicalement, Philippe.

Raphaelle wrote in response:

I would love to join – will be with you in my thoughts.
Have been tearing up all day.

Not only were they amazing artists, they were icons of our country and what it stands for. We will miss those voices dearly.

Yet, we will not be defeated. We will stand for freedom of expression, liberty and justice.

We will not blame all Islam for this, as it’s less than 2% of extremists who are, as we are now unfortunately used to, the visible & harmful face of an Islam we don’t want – neither the 98% of moderate or liberal Muslims or the rest of us.

We will hopefully find those responsible, bring them to justice and make sure they serve full sentences without possibility of parole.

This is what Charb, Cabu, Wolinski and their colleagues would have wanted.

Setenay sent a link to an article about a Turkish satirical magazine:

As someone who grew up in Turkey which has a very strong satirical magazine tradition I’m appalled and immensely saddened. The below article appeared in today’s Hurriyet Daily News before the incident and I read it with nostalgia, pride, and warm thoughts. How ironic!

 (click for article)

I wish I could come. Too last minute to organize kids etc.


I will be there in spirit with you all.



I am so glad you are all going.

Yet again… I can’t understand… In shock.

Big hugs.


So sorry to miss it tonight; we had lots of intense discussion at the dinner table about the importance of satire in a healthy democracy, and fears about a backlash from the right over this.

Charles Hebdo seems like a cross between Mad magazine and John Stewart….priceless.


I am with you in spirit. The pen will not be silenced!


I heard it on BBC news just a little while ago!

Shocking and sad.

With you in spirit and conviction.  The world must learn tolerance and acceptance of diversity

Of thought as well as how one appears and speaks!  words And deeds

Will leave lasting impressions on our souls.

Stay well and in peace.

This photo was taken from Phil’s newsroom of Agence France-Presse.

It was one of the front page photo series used in the Guardian  http://www.theguardian.com/uk


This is an emotional time for all and especially for journalists.

This cowardly act of terrorism target editors, journalists, cartoonists of political satire and all of us who wish to openly discuss issues, seek truth and hold sacred our right to the freedom of speech.


Dear Friends,

Thank you. I really enjoyed Wolinski and Cabu (his “Beauf” and “Grand Duduche” characters will be so missed in the Wednesday edition of “Le Canard Enchaîné”) , and even Charb’s caricatures.

They were even more representative of what makes French culture and humor unique, more so than Tintin and Asterix’s authors, because they were subversive, terribly incorrect, revolutionary, and terribly funny.

Honestly, it can compare to having Doonesbury, Charles Schultz, the New Yorker’s most famous caricaturist, all slaughtered on the same day.

A video of the former head of the newspaper : http://www.franceinfo.fr/actu/faits-divers/article/philippe-val-l-ancien-directeur-de-charlie-hebdo-vient-d-exterminer-une-facon-de-parler-628167

Thank you Phil and your colleagues!


I remember where I met Charlie Hebdo the first time, in the home of my lefty activist aunt. A pile of magazines was sitting where it belonged. In the toilet.

Last time I visited her 40+ years later, they were still there.

Charlie survived Coluche, Devos, Prévost, Le Luron and so many who demonstrated that nothing and no-one was immune from la “fauche à rire” and least amongst them religion, politic and those who represent them so well. Like Camus before them, they went on to demonstrate that it is not the ridicule that should be ridiculed, but the absurd, and as tragic as these events are, remember how absurd they are by the very reaction they generate in us.

Charlie will survive Charlie.


Thanks for your kind words Etienne.

This cowardly attack touches on something primordial in our culture that is to be cherished and nurtured. I am talking about the right to laugh, poke fun, mock and ridicule. Our society needs the naughty boy at the back of the class throwing bottles and asking difficult questions without fear of reprisals.

We take these values for granted sometimes. I am extremely proud of the work we do here at Agence France Presse, but I am also painfully aware I have also lost two people working for me in the past year to the same bigoted thugs who attacked Charlie Hebo.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie – it sounds a simplistic social media catchphrase, but in fact it touches beautifully on the core issue. If our society does not believe in the idea, we are surrendering to the hatred.

Best, Phil

Reading for our Fourth Meeting — THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION


So our next meeting is going to be on the stirrings of the Scientific Revolution in the late 16th and 17th centuries. We are going to focus on what this rise of science meant for our world and our way in it.

Science is alternatively portrayed as a threat, as an impersonal technical achievement, as the great engine of civilization, as our only possible salvation, etc., etc.

Which is it?

(No doubt, a lot depends upon which Arnold Schwarzenegger movie you happen to be watching at the time.)


We admire scientists who are friends.

We sometimes fear scientists we don’t know.



The way science is taught in the classroom can seem dull and repetitive, like following a recipe in a cookbook.

Yet sometimes even a brief exposure to an idea derived from science can lead us to stop everything and wonder about the nature of our very existence.

Is science just a method, a technique for acquiring practical knowledge? Or does it mean anything in itself?

What are the values it promotes?


What does science fail to capture about your lived experience?

What does science get wrong, despite all the evidence arrayed in its favor?


I am putting together a few readings to get us going for discussion. (Please feel fee to send your own suggestions in by email. Or bring them to the discussion.) I plan to keep adding to this as the day of our meeting approaches, so please keep checking back for more.

1. Excerpts from Scientific Method by Barry Gower (click on title for the chapters on Galileo and Bacon)

2. A sonnet by Edgar Allan Poe:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
   Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
   Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
   Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
   Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
   And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
   Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

3. Another poem questioning the value of science, this one by Robinson Jeffers:

Man, introverted man, having crossed
In passage and but a little with the nature of things this latter
Has begot giants; but being taken up
Like a maniac with self-love and inward conflicts cannot manage
his hybrids.
Being used to deal with edgeless dreams,
Now he’s bred knives on nature turns them also inward: they
have thirsty points though.
His mind forebodes his own destruction;
Actaeon who saw the goddess naked among leaves and his hounds
tore him.
A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this infinitely
little too much?

4. Excerpts from The Scientific Revolution: A Brief History with Documents by Margaret C. Jacob. (I have included the introduction, which tells the story of the Scientific Revolution and puts Galileo and Bacon in context.)

5. Some brief excerpts from the The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, edited by Markku Peltonen

6. Excerpt from Francis Bacon From Magic to Science by Paolo Rossi

7. Excerpt form Time Reborn by Lee Smolin (read this for its interesting take on Galileo and Newton’s — and science’s — possible limitations)

8. Excerpt from Sympathetic Vibrations by K. C. Cole, on the “Sentimental Fruits of Science

9. Excerpt from The Silence of Animals by John Gray (questioning the role of science in contributing to “progress”)

Happy reading!


Notes on Our Fourth Meeting — THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION


At 8 pm we gathered over wine and cheese and bread and a delicious pesto pizza that Don and Anne brought. At 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin our discussion.

1. An Overview of Our Reading on the Scientific Revolution

I started by giving a rough overview of some of the materials that we had read for the meeting, particularly those focusing on Galileo and Francis Bacon. (I thought it would be worth it to take a few minutes to do this, for those who had perhaps not had a chance to get to all the reading.)


Galileo Galilei, 1564 – 1642

So we began with Galileo.

For more than 2000 years before him, I reminded the group, from the ancient Greeks and Romans on through the Middle Ages, natural philosophers had used their vaunted power of reason to generate universal principles. As a kind of afterthought, they would sometimes seek to demonstrate these principles by way of experiment.

Galileo respected this more traditional, deductive approach to science.

But he also employed a new approach.

Namely, Galileo began to perform experiments and collect data first, and from these experiments he would derive a universal principle – which he would then confirm by way of reason.

Put this way, this is only a difference in the order of steps, right?

Reason → Experiment


Experiment → Reason

So what?

In fact, as we all know, this change would have profound ramifications for the world.

For experimental data come directly from nature (and not from the error-ridden presuppositions of the mind).

Data are accessible to anyone.

Data cannot be imposed from above. Data may surprise and astonish and offend, and they are not afraid.


Francis Bacon, 1561 – 1626

In this way, Galileo inaugurated a new era in thinking, by his use of mathematics and thought experiments (and even a few hands-on experiments) as a way to investigate the world.

Francis Bacon did something important too. He was the first to attempt to articulate, in a cohesive fashion, what we recognize today as “the scientific method.”

A contemporary of Galileo, Bacon was not a scientist, but rather he was… a lawyer. His importance to the development of the scientific method lies, accordingly, not in any of his discoveries, but in the way that he formulated a new approach to inquiry.

Bacon advocated starting with nature, and generating exhaustive lists of observable facts, or “histories,” not unlike someone preparing a case for court.

Based on these histories, he argued, certain questions could be framed, and – importantly — experiments conducted, from which conclusions about the world might be drawn. Bacon’s approach is one of induction (as opposed to deduction), trying to understand nature from the bottom up, as it were.

It turns out that Bacon had a big influence on the course of science, and much of it after his death.


A meeting at the Royal Society, Somerset House, London, 1843

He died in 1629. But in 1662 a group of his admirers formed the Royal Society, with the explicit goal of advancing Baconian principles. And over the centuries that followed, the Royal Society proved to be a formidable engine of scientific discovery. It was, for example, the venue that fostered Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, more than two hundred years after its founding.

2. Tom’s Presentation: Are the Values of Science All We Need?


Overview of the readings done.

At this point I pivoted to make a more personal point.

Why did I want us to read on Galileo and Bacon, anyway? I explained to the group that, to my mind at least, this is not dry, dusty history at all.

I have the strong sense that the underlying values of science, so long obscured to the public by the productions of science, are now, some 400 years later, more important than ever.

For many years, I pointed out, science has meant… stuff. The steam engine, the cotton gin, chloroform, the screw propeller, the telegraph, the telephone, the machine gun, the airplane, central heating, penicillin, nuclear fission, the computer — you name it, the changes wrought on our lives have been overwhelming.

As a result, science has been (and to a large extent, remains) synonymous, in many people’s minds, with technology. Out of a sense of caution, people have kept everything personal and emotional and sacred in their lives away from it. They have the reasonable urge to protect those things that they associate with deeper meaning from these baffling technological changes. (See C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 essay, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution for a discussion of the division between science and the humanities that runs through our education system as well.)

But now something new, something big, is happening, I think.

And we are lucky enough to be alive to witness it.

After some 400+ years, the saturation of science into our world has reached the point that even non-scientists are beginning to grasp the value of the scientific method as more than… stuff, but a meaningful perspective on life itself.


When you think about it, in fact, the values of science are pretty much exhaustive of the values of a well-lived life.

I mean, let’s consider the threshold requirements for doing science…

Everyone is equally welcome.

Doubt everything.

Tell the truth.

Rely on evidence whenever possible.

Use parsimony (Occam’s razor) to distinguish between contrasting interpretations.

Accept the demand of verifiability (or more accurately, falsifiability).

Insist on public confirmation of private results (submit to peer review).

Feel comfortable with uncertainty.

These, I would suggest, are not merely a batch of coherent values – they are exactly the values we need for a good life! They pretty much will do it for us, if we are willing to live by them.

Oh — except they leave out one, perhaps the most important: love.

Which, I suggested, we can add, like so much gold dust, sprinkling it over the top of the others…


Doubt. Parsimony. Truth-telling. Turning to evidence.



What more do we need?

Nadine spoke up first to say that the scientific method reminded her of how children play.

They explore first, without taking a principled approach or even making a hypothesis. They bend an object, twist it, taste it, bite it, and so on — until it breaks. So perhaps the inductive, bottom-up method behind science is innate in us, and it has only been blocked for so many millennia because of pre-conceived notions (which adults make up and force upon their children)?

Don suggested that, perhaps, until recently we were ill-equipped cognitively to apply ourselves in the rigorous, doubting, highly attentive manner that science requires. He referenced research (Don — can you give us a name of the study?) on the toll that our poor diet took on our capacity to engage in the processes of higher reasoning. “When all you are eating are stems and roots,” Don said, “You can’t do much more than get through the day.”

Ken brought up the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn to call into question the idea that the underlying values of science are so important and effective after all. Kuhn famously argued in his work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, that progress in science is not as open-ended and driven by discovery as we imagine it. Instead, as Ken explained to the group, Kuhn details how the prevailing paradigms in each scientific field are highly rigid — and consensus is strictly enforced by scientists upon one another. A culture of groupthink prevails right up to the moment when the data contradicting this paradigm (let’s say the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton) make it no longer defensible, at which point the paradigm shatters and someone else picks up the pieces to build a new paradigm (e.g. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity). If Kuhn’s theory is true, Ken suggested, then it should cast doubt on the idea that humans are engaged in some high-minded pursuit of truth by way of the scientific method.

Setenay also mentioned that there are always questions of resource distribution, exclusion of unwanted groups, academic politics, flawed assumptions in basic models, and many other factors that make science less of a pure, universally accessible, truth-seeking enterprise than my remarks might suggest. “Pure science,” she offered, “may incorporate many of these great values you mentioned, Tom. But very few scientists, in my field of environmental engineering, for example, practice this kind of pure science. A whole slew of personal, social, economic and even political considerations inevitably enter into our work, our projects, even into our models and interpretations of data.”

Anne, who is a science journalist, gave a rousing defense of the ideal of science, saying that despite corruption and bias she believes that science does prevail in the end. And if you are rejected from one journal, or squelched in one area of research by the prevailing “paradigm,” there will be other journals, other resources, over time. Truth will out. The scientific method prevails.

3. Is Science More Open to ‘Miracles’ Than Religion?

I was with Anne. While fully admitting that my view of science is romantic (I see science through the rose-tinted spectacles of someone who reads about it, but doesn’t do it), I felt compelled to defend it too.

In my attempt to do so, I presented the following “thought experiment.”

With as much drama as I could muster, I began…

“If Jesus of Nazareth were to descend from the ceiling, this moment, and hover a few inches above this… this… dias…” (I was pointing to a small, circular coffee table, marred by stains from years of tea mugs) “…what would we do?”


Yep. This guy.
In mid-air above the coffee table.

My voice began to quiver with ersatz rapture as I continued…

“You see the light, streaming from His head. The white robe, rippling around Him… He gazes at us with fierce eyes…

“I have no doubt — do you? — that we would be open to accepting Him, despite not being religious!

And here’s why: after we got over our initial shock, we would receive this visitation of Jesus of Nazareth as observable data, just like all the rest of the data in our lives. Considering how remarkable this vision was, we would, of course, be absolutely curious to know more about it! We would want to examine it in all its particulars, have teams of scientists conduct studies on it, converse with it (if possible!), record the event on HD video, etc.

“Once we had managed to establish that there were no hidden projectors or magicians tricks involved (in other words, once we had assured ourselves that it was based on evidence; could not be falsified; that there was no more parsimonious explanation available; etc.), we would be happy to consider the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth’s Second Coming really happened in a living room in Berkeley, California, at a meeting of the Old New Way, in the year 2015.”

(Most of us anyway. Maybe Dean would be a hold-out?)

“For something would have changed our (scientific and therefore always provisional) worldview: the arrival of the convincing sense-data of a floating figure in our midst, a creature previously unrecorded in the annals of science!

“The appearance of Jesus, in this case, would not represent a miracle; we would not be succumbing to a religious point of view. On the contrary, it would represent a fact!” (Mind you, this would take multiple, double-blind studies on the phenomenon, peer-reviewed in respectable journals, before we could call it, even colloquially, a scientific “fact”. With that we are with you, Dean.)

“And here’s what is really interesting, I think. I am convinced that a group of religious people would be more likely to look aghast at this apparition, run away, scream, curse it as the work of the Devil, than us scientific-minded folk. Okay, okay, maybe if this Jesus just so happened to act and look precisely in the manner that they expected then they would accept Him faster even than us. (Surely most evangelical Christians in the U.S. would accept that fair-skinned, blue-eyed, goldilocked guy we all know so well with minimal friction.)


“But if he did not match their preconceived picture, I think that this floating figure would be seen as a terror, a threat. I suspect that their lack of curiosity about the material world, their lack of familiarity with the inductive approach of Bacon et al. would hamper them from exploring the particulars of this event standing before them. Indeed, they might face a kind of psychological paralysis, or traumatic event, considering that their private certainties would be overturned. Jesus is not supposed to look like this! Jesus would not appear now, here, in this random living room in Tom and Renée’s house on a Thursday night! I didn’t imagine it this way.”

When I was done, Renée spoke up to say that this “thought experiment, whatever it was,” struck her as… “not useful.” She wanted to move on.

Taken aback by her vehemence, I briefly made an effort to explain why I had brought it up:

“But, but — what I’m just trying to say is that those who have absorbed the values of science are actually more open to facts in the world, even including seeming ‘miracles,’ than religious people!”

But it wasn’t working. She gave me a look as if to say, “Are we done?” So we moved on.

4. Dean’s Assertion of Scientific Facts — and His Frustration with the “F-ing Idiots” Who Refuse to Accept Them 

At this point Dean could no longer contain himself.

He argued that it was all well and good to admire the values of science, the doubt, the provisional nature of its findings, and so on.

But there are certain findings that are really irrefutable and should not be questioned. Scientists are their own worst enemies when they constantly talk in a muddled way about the uncertain and provisional nature of scientific facts, because it feeds the idiocy of the deniers and nuts who subscribe to mystical and religious pabulum of all kinds.

“The universe began approximately 13 and a half billion years ago. Period,” Dean stated. “It started with the Big Bang. If you deny these facts, then you are a fool. So my question is: what should we do when we encounter people who live with a completely different worldview which denies the scientific consensus on things like this? Or even worse, when they deny things with direct consequences… like, say, the relationship between the release of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere and climate change? What do we do, ignore them? Try to convince them? I want to put that out there for the group to answer.”

Heather argued that we would not be able to convince them because their “attachments” align them otherwise. Their emotional and personal needs position them on the other side of the science community in these cases, and therefore they select only those findings that fit with their own narrative.

Yann mentioned a study (click here for the link) in which it was shown that, in the United States at least, it is actually the more highly educated, in areas of the country in which majorities deny the effect of human activity on climate change, who are the most inflexible and adamant in their position. This is counterintuitive, he acknowledged, but it is revealing too. More education, more facts, he said shaking his head, will not sway opinion.

I tried to reframe the argument — as a way of answering Dean’s question of what we can do when faced with such obstinacy. As Heather and Yann are suggesting, I agreed, we can’t meet their certainty with our certainty and have any hope to convince them.  They have a narrative in their heads about God’s glorious plan for the earth. And our own certainty about the damage being inflicted on the planet by the burning of fossil fuels isn’t going to change that one bit. That kind of approach is a losing battle from the beginning. And we will lose it every time, I argued, because with Dean’s approach we have already ceded to them the frame in which we are talking!

When you meet one certainty with another certainty, you are tacitly accepting a quasi-religious claim to what knowledge is.

Instead, I argued, we have to get it through their heads that there is no capital-T Truth, and none of us will ever have certainty. There is only evidence… probability… and yes, degrees of consensus, which in the case of scientific inquiry really means nothing more than “the consensus of a many people who have looked carefully at this question and checked their work against one another’s.”

We have to ask them: what’s your method? Private revelation? Appeal to authority? We have to get them to try to defend their method against ours, and insist that ours is more public, more open-ended, and ultimately more humble.

Dean is concerned that we weaken our argument by resorting to talking about the preponderance of the data and provisional claims — that is, when we use the language of science. Yet I would argue that we should actually double-down on this kind of talk! We need to insist that our claims for, say, the age of the universe or the danger of carbon emissions in the atmosphere ARE provisional and uncertain, but they are also THE BEST HUMANITY CAN CURRENTLY DO.

In fact, seen this way, our framework, the scientific worldview, encompasses theirs (all of their talk of God’s glorious plans and the Garden of Eden, etc., are equally viable as research subjects, just as much as anything else). All we are saying is that if you can convince others who are willing to check your facts and your reasoning, then even your religious-infused interpretation of the temperature trends of the planet has a fair shot! But you can’t refuse to subject your judgments to scrutiny, and then turn around and say that all those interpretations and judgments which have been subjected to scrutiny are no more valid than yours.

Nadine brought up, in this context, her concern that ultimately those of us who are not scientists (or even if scientists, are not specialists in the field in question), are compelled to take much of what we read on “trust” — or even, dare we say it, “faith.” So what is the difference, she asked, between the faith of the religious person and the faith of those who are willing to accept scientific findings?

Luis pointed out that the difference is one of willingness to revise if necessary. The person who accepts the age of the universe to be 13.798 billion years old because he or she understands that it is the scientific consensus (based on measurements of electromagnetic waves, “red-shift” etc.), will be willing to revise this to 14 billion years, or even, hell, one day, if the scientific consensus shifts accordingly. We are admitting the possibility of error. So our “trust” or “faith” is in a method, not in a particular answer.

I was tempted to bring back the Second-Coming-of-Jesus thought experiment here, to illustrate once again the willingness of scientific-minded to admit error. But one glance at my wife and I knew better.

5. Do the Monsters Unleashed by Science Rightly Undermine Its Appeal?

At this point we branched into a different discussion.

I felt it was important to acknowledge the serious costs inflicted on humanity and the earth by technology, which is, after all, made possible by scientific method. We can praise the underlying values of science all we want, and perhaps they have done much good (particularly in the fields of health and agriculture). But then we have the threat of nuclear extinction, a planet which may be heated beyond what is sustainable for human life, the acidification of the oceans, and so on. Don’t the various productions of science discredit the whole project?

My own answer to this was that you don’t reject love entirely, just because of the harm done in some cases by… divorce. There are bad consequences of some good things, but those consequences can and must be distinguished from the thing itself. (Marie-José, having no idea what I was talking about, heckled me from her position on the other side of the room, “Love makes divorce? What?”)

Yann was more hopeful that the monsters will be managed. He spoke of an “arc” of progress, which has been demonstrated in many fields, according to which a new practice or method “self-corrects” itself over time. (I would like to see some study on this, Yann — please send us a link.) If he is right, then not only can we distinguish the good of science from its more unfortunate productions, but we can expect science to get it right over time and reduce the number of errors it makes along the way. Though Yann admitted that there is a risk that it won’t self-correct in time, and we will face extinction.

Heather sighed somewhere in this discussion, “Oh, I have had about enough of this…” (She can’t stand talk of extinction, annihilation, apocalypse.)

6. Where Love Fits In With Science

We had fallen into the trap, so common in our culture, of discussing the values of science merely in terms of the effects of science. As if science must be cordoned off to its own sphere.

So, as it was getting late, I steered the group back to the conversation that we had at the beginning of the meeting. Do scientific values apply to other aspects of our lives? Should they?

Marie-José spoke up to say that she felt science may be able to describe the biological and chemical processes of love, but it can never capture the actual experience of it. Therefore it doesn’t satisfy as a worldview — we need poetry and music and other unquantifiable depictions of first-person experiences to guide us too.

Dean said that he believed that all of it is measurable and quantifiable — even our love for our children, which can be reduced to an evolutionary impulse to protect our DNA.  And yet this still leaves us feeling these things. Science does not drain life of meaning because of its descriptive and explanatory power.

Heather offered her view that we need illusions. That the raw and ugly truth offered by an exclusively scientific outlook would be too bleak. (She was still recovering from all that talk of annihilation and extinction.)

I countered Heather’s point to say that I did not think that truth, when exposed, is necessarily raw and ugly. Her comment reminded me of my problem with John Gray’s book The Silence of Animals, an excerpt from which we read for the meeting. Gray suggests that scientists and liberals generally are trapped in a myth of human “progress,” and that without this myth we would be bereft. As I read him I kept thinking, “No. Not true.”

I don’t have any conviction, any myth, of progress! (Do you?) I see us as animals, with a  drive for consumption and even hoarding of energy and resources. Our intellectual capacities are no doubt fascinating, but limited. In the end, we may very well sabotage the only planet we inhabit (as Dean memorably put it, humans ‘shit in their own soup and eat it, again and again!’).  Yet I’m not bereft. To my way of thinking, the lack of absolute meaning does not lead to a nihilistic worldview. When you let go of your myths you soon come to terms with all the changeable, small meanings in your life, and you get quite attached to them without making a myth out of them.

But the point of Marie-José that love’s subjective experience lies outside the reach of science did resonate with me, I added. I had talked at the start of the meeting about sprinkling the values of science with the “gold dust” of love — but what if this is a combination that just doesn’t mix well?

How do we mix the third-person “objectivity” of science with our first-person subjectivity? How do we know when to move from one habit to another? What’s the trigger, for example, during an argument with a friend, that we might use to move from our impartial assessment of the evidence and the application of the rule of parsimony (in scientific values mode with him)… to a decision to simply, silently, hear our friend’s hurt, not with the aim of recording it as data but instead just hearing it (love mode)? How can science tell us when to make that switch in our approach?

7. Wrap-Up

Close to the end of the meeting Gerry shared his own experience as a cardiologist, circling back to the skeptical view of the scientific method. Although he recognizes the great achievements of science (after all, the entirety of his work is based on them), he has also seen over the years how much the scientific consensus is shaped by distortions in the health care market, by the whims of editors in scholarly journals, by trends in the field. He has learned to adapt to the point that five years from now he expects to be doing very different things than he does now, some of them in direct opposition to current practices. That was a useful cautionary note from the field.

Luis mentioned that famous quote from Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” He said that he thinks of the scientific method along these same lines: flawed, but the best we have.

By the end of the meeting I, for one, realized that we have a long way to go before we determine that the values of science are all we need for a good life.

They are surely valuable (I’m still enamored of them!), but perhaps they are more applicable to social, external, even political settings? Perhaps at our more private and internal moments we need another source of guidance?

Interesting, that back in November we found Epicurus to be too individualistic in his philosophy. For example, he struck us as too focused on the insubstantiality of his own death while not acknowledging the enormous suffering and loss that his death might cause in the lives of others (and, similarly, the suffering and loss that the death of friends might cause in his life). And here in our next discussion we find science to be perhaps too outward-looking in its outlook! It looks to public confirmation, evidence, verifiability, but it leaves out the subjective and unique experience of each person.

Onward. More investigating to do in the months ahead.

It is such an honor to be part of this open and searching (and loving, gold dust and all!) group.

See you in February.

More on Values and Science


For almost 300 years now, one of the most widely shared understandings in philosophy has been the distinction between facts and values.

That is, you can’t logically make the leap from a description of the world as it is…

Look, cows in a green field!

to a prescription for a certain relationship between us and that world…

Cows in a green field are good!


Citing David Hume, philosophers will often speak of the is-ought distinction (aka “Hume’s guillotine”).

But like most widely shared understandings of our species… this one is breaking down over time.

Aided by neuroscience and other advances, every day we are learning more about the brain and its relationship to our lived experience. And as we do, we can actually see that some courses of action, some facts in the world, lead to outcomes that most human beings would prefer (if given the choice). Whereas others lead to outcomes that most human beings would reject — for example, behavior which causes a surge in cortisol, which in turn leads to persistent feelings of anxiety and agitation.

In other words, at the level of biology we are finding descriptive statements blurring with prescriptive statements, and vice versa. For example:

 1. You talk to your child rather than spank him.

2 Your child’s limbic system handles conflict without triggering aggression.

3. A lack of unnecessary aggression makes your child (and you!) happier.

Where, in these three statements, did we move from mere facts to values? But we did, didn’t we?

An article I read recently discusses this question — in regards to spanking specifically. Check it out.

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the author may not realize just how deeply subversive his piece is. For really, how far does it go? You can start with spanking, but you might end up with… what? …a Universal Bill of Rights for Children, saying that some cultures around the world have it right and others wrong? The science isn’t there yet — but in theory it could be, no?

Will science someday be able to tell us whether, in fact, cows in a green field are good? (After all, the question is, ultimately, “How do cows in a green field affect our brains, to our advantage or disadvantage?” And this is, in theory, measurable!)

Two books address this breakdown of Hume’s is-ought distinction more generally:

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice and Freedom by Michael Shermer (very recently published — I haven’t read this one yet).

Next month, when we look at the Enlightenment and its dream of “progress,” we will explore some of the strongest critiques of this way of thinking. For of course there is a downside to seeing values as facts. In the last 100 years we learned that all too well from watching the overreach of fanatics like the Nazis and ISIS.

Is there a way around this danger? Are values that are confirmed as facts by science safer than other values? Or is it useful to keep the is-ought distinction, just to keep us doubting ourselves, even if the invention of the functional MRI has made it a relic?