Reflected Pensiveness

beneath the leaky pipe of thought.

Book Review: The Science Before Science — A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century (Rizzi)

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The Science Before Science: A Guide To Thinking In The 21st CenturyThe Science Before Science: A Guide To Thinking In The 21st Century by Anthony Rizzi
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is an epistemological nightmare. Rizzi asks the reader to take on radical and unfounded views, sometimes without even a loose explanation or logical construction beyond “That makes sense, right?”

Even though I disagree with nearly every tenet of Rizzi’s philosophy, I still would give it a respectable two or three star rating if it weren’t for:

  • His obvious lack of a copyeditor;
  • His entire disregard for even addressing other points of view;
  • His attempt to tackle complex issues with a poorly developed philosophical toolbox; and, most importantly,
  • His total lack of logical flow or structure beyond asking the reader to accept things on his authority.

Though no doubt a great physicist, Rizzi seems to have lost his notion of rigor in trying to invent a new realist approach to the philosophy of science. His biggest flaw, in my opinion, is in his confusion of the nature of words; he oftentimes seems to think that he can pull universal truth out of the English language.

Unfortunately for him, the English language is neither an authority on nature nor a system he’s totally mastered himself.

All in all, avoid this book — especially if you don’t have the scientific grounding to understand why it’s wrong on your own.

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Written by Matthew Daniels

May 29, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Glowing Russet

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Your auburn tresses are scrambled.
The grass, like time, separates the strands,
Your scalp, our lune final above us,
And we scrimmage in phrase-space, weaving
Fairy tales of an amulet, a carpenter,
And a skeptical young girl. Hey!
Your messy, umber hairstrands taste funny!,
Swallow.

Written by Matthew Daniels

May 8, 2011 at 4:10 am

Posted in Personal

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Room 101

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Sleeping turquoise on my pearly desk
Smiles tritely at the misfortune
Of your departure –

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Written by Matthew Daniels

March 27, 2011 at 5:26 pm

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Speculations on the phenomenon of prayer

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Praying for Japan

Damage from tsunami near Sendai, Japan

Damage from Tsunami near Sendai, Japan. In this article, we'll examine whether prayer or labor can help; more importantly, we'll discuss whether prayer contributes to or detracts from the amount of assistance provided.3

As the situation continued to worsen in Japan a little over a week ago, many of witnessed Wall posts and tweets and blogs and so forth where people sent their thoughts and prayers to the Japanese. We listened to our friends and our parents and grandparents — and perhaps, for some, ourselves — pray for the victims and ask God to look on them with mercy and compassion and healing.

And many of us laughed at those who thought it would do any good to pray.

Neurological Benefits of Prayer and Meditation

But prayer is a complex phenomenon, and I had a lengthy discussion with my friend, physicist, and Christian Kemper Talley about what prayer is and how it affects us as humans.

Prayer has likely been around as long as religion has been… perhaps longer, even. We have written records of prayer rituals that are at least 5,000 years old. 1 But, rationally, what does prayer do to us? Why do we feel the way we do after prayer? Intense prayer, usually by those who are serious practitioners (like nuns and monks), activates the frontal lobes and shuts off the parietal lobes, which are traditionally thought to process sensory input and create subjective reality for the owner of that particular brain. 2 It turns out meditation — even secular meditation — has the same neurological effect.

So prayer does affect the pray-er, in a way that most would consider positive and clarifying. But does prayer have an immediate external effect? Does it help enact magical action at a distance? If enough people pray together, can the power of that prayer somehow be channeled for good?

I must resoundingly say “no”, and many rational Christians I know would agree with me. Even if prayer affected the “will of God”, God could only affect the world by urging people to do good things (impossible by Judeo-Christian doctrine, as that denies someone’s free will) or by enacting a physical miracle. Even those who believe that miracles exist typically agree that they’re rare. So what’s the point in praying?

Positive Prayer

My friend argues — validly, I think — that the internal clarification provided by prayer or meditation mediates positive work by the believer. Sure, one might argue, the prayer itself may not work magic: but the now-motivated servant of God now has impetus and will power to get up and go affect real physical change. This could be done my any means, from donating money to the Red Cross to helping coordinate relief efforts online to flying straight to Japan and picking up a shovel. I won’t deny that this is a valid argument in favor of prayer — or, at least, meditation (which I’ll consider a superset of prayer).

But I know of many people who don’t pray — and even many people who are atheists — who do the same things. They go out and help. They donate. They contribute. So prayer isn’t the exclusive course to motivating oneself to enact change. In a perfect world, a secular rationalist who loves humanity first might even help more than a faithful believer who loves God first.

But all of this is pretty obvious, so here’s what I really want to talk about: what are the negative effects of prayer, and are they outweighed by the positive effects?

Negative Prayer

Here’s a problem that I perceive with prayer (in this context): those who believe that prayer truly does work, that prayer has a material, action-at-a-distance, miracle like capacity to affect change may feel that prayer is a substitute for real service. I know people, especially adults in their 30s – 50s, who pray every night for Japan’s recovery but have never donated a cent (let alone flown to Japan to do service, but that’s more understandable). Whether prayer here is a facade of caring these people hide behind or a genuine impression that they’re doing good things by praying, it remains that they’re relieved either the social pressure or the divine edict to contribute to the community by replacing it with prayer. (I’d be interested to find a study on this, but don’t feel like doing too much research: someone send me an article if you can find work investigating this question! In the meantime, read this article from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion for a somewhat related and interesting study.)

Is there a balance?

I’ve occasionally been accused, upon revealing myself as an atheist, to necessarily be a self-centered nihilist. But this certainly doesn’t follow. I love humanity; in fact, I think I love it more than many religious believers do. More than anything I want to see us keep maturing as a species. I want to reach for the stars, to disassemble the quantum, to live in a state where resources aren’t a problem and menial tasks are provided for us by our artificial intelligences, by our critical thinking and our advances in science. I feel that devoting ourselves to various sky-wizards (as my friend Mark calls God and kin) holds us back, and takes up the precious time we do have in our lives to enjoy the people we love, work on fulfilling projects for the pursuit of truth and happiness, and enjoy the spectrum of experience available to our sensory apparatuses.

There are many who think likewise.

So is prayer worth it? My fundamental question is one of an inequality; does it hold that:

good[prayer] > bad[prayer] ?

More precisely, does

good[prayer] – bad[prayer] ≥ good[non-prayer] – bad[non-prayer] ?

I’m not sure that it does. In fact, I’m personally pretty sure that it doesn’t. This is a question for anyone to think about, but I ask that, if you do, you do it objectively: take an unbiased look at those around you, note who prays, note who volunteers, note who donates. Note who the atheists are, who the lazy Christians are, who the serious religious believers are.

And ask yourself if it’s worth it.


[1] – Stephens, Ferris J. (1950). Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Princeton. pp. 391–2. (via https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Prayer#Forms_of_prayer)

[2] – Prayer may reshape your brain… and your reality. NPR News, 2009. This is a layman’s overview of a particular journalist’s experience, but there are many studies using functional MRI’s to map brain activity during prayer or meditation that are easy to find on the web.

[3] – By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory), via Wikimedia Commons [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/wiki/File:2011_Earthquake_and_Tsunami_near_Sendai,_Japan.jpg]. This image is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.

Written by Matthew Daniels

March 25, 2011 at 2:48 am

Posted in Philosophy

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Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)

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The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I was supposed to read this in high school, but I just didn’t feel like it then. They made a big deal about it being a great novel, you know? My teacher was in love with it. That kills me. It really does. But the rest of the class was just full of goddam phonies.

All that aside, this really was a great novel; I’m glad I finally read it! It’s hard to classify what this book is: at times you feel like it’s a coming-of-age novel, but by the end it seems that Holden hasn’t really learned much; he has, however, been saved by the overwhelming power of kin selection. The end of the novel begs the reader to hypothesize about Holden’s future, which is left open. Mr. Antolini’s prophesy seems avoided, but despite his narrow escape from destroying his life he unaltered in his perception of “phonies” and a pessimist can do little but suppose that Holden will have the same experience at his next school that he has at the previous few.

On the other hand, Holden is growing up. Even if he doesn’t show it in the story’s narration, we know that kids get older and wiser. We know that eventually he’ll be more clear minded and realize what’s going on around him. And the experiences throughout the novel may just be the foundation he needs to take a firmer stand on life and step boldly into a more lucid future.

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Written by Matthew Daniels

March 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm

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Book review: The Mystery of the Aleph (Aczel)

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The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for InfinityThe Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity by Amir D. Aczel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a captivating read… but not exactly what I was looking for when I read it. Though flavorful — and I can appreciate that this is book is written for a specific audience that I might not be a part of — I felt that Aczel could have dared to present a little more mathematics in a few places. There were about two or three pages devoted to silhouetting Cantor’s diagonal proofs for the countability of the integers and reals, but besides occasionally inserting a statement of the continuum hypothesis he shied away from presenting anything much deeper than a layman’s explanation of some very important mathematics.

I’m glad I read this book, and I still would have if I’d known more about the content ahead of time. It was well-composed and gave me lots of interesting trivia and historical context. Just know that if you’re looking for something that tells you much more about infinity in the mathematical sense than the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page, you’ll want to find a different book.

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Written by Matthew Daniels

February 7, 2011 at 5:59 pm

“Final Reflection” on my Mediation and Relaxation LS class

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I’d meditated many times before I took this class, and I knew how to breathe properly before this class. So I think that I took something very different away from this course than many of the students here. I’ve taken away exactly what I wanted from this course: a regularity imposed on meditation practice. It’s difficult being a college student to fit even a 15 minute practice into the day… even when you have *plenty* of time, it feels like you never have enough time. You have to keep yourself busy. It’s unfortunate that that’s how (my, at least) brain works, but it does. This course has made meditation coursework, and somehow that made it fit better into my schedule. It’s been fantastic. And now that I recognize the benefit, I can maintain that practice. What I really needed was for it to be set up. My favorite meditation, if you’re curious, was either the yoga nidra or the restorative yoga; although, had I been able to make it to the Friday class, I’m quite confident that the botanical gardens would have been my favorite meditation. Quite confident.

As an intriguing side note, I had a very strange introspection during our yoga nidra, which I partially shared in class. When we were (in meditation, of course) walking through the forest, I realized that — looking on myself from the third-person — I had someone with me. It was my friend Samantha, who sort of tragically died at the beginning of the summer. She followed me to the temple, and was even looking in through the windows when I told her to stay outside. I interpreted this experience as my inability to let go of her, and I think that that self-analysis was extremely helpful over the following weeks to clear some things up for myself in a personal way.

The thing I most feared going into this class was the potential for over-mystification. But I was pleasantly surprised with the objectivity by which you (Anita) presented material that had to do with neuro- or physiological effects related to meditation. I’m glad you went about it that way; the one day we had a substitute, I could ocassionally couldn’t concentrate through the unsubstantiated metaphysical dogmas that were being attached to the practice (don’t get me wrong, it was a good practice… but I’m a scientist, and I’ve overly analytical from time to time, and it’s not a peaceful meditation environment for me when I’m listening to things that are wrong, unsubstantiated, or based on faith or myth).

So overall, it was great! Thanks so much for the class and for your expertise that you shared with us!

PS (this wasn’t included in the actual “final reflection” note I posted): I didn’t write this while sober.

Written by Matthew Daniels

December 2, 2010 at 4:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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