Real occurrence: While out in my backyard one day reading FI (and somewhat smugly contemplating my None status), I noticed this insect (see photo) commonly called a “walking leaf.” As I looked closely at it, my astonishment increased exponentially. Yes, of course, Darwinian camouflage—mimicry driven by survivalist evolution—but this particular example gave me chills. The effective appearance of the extremely accurate details evident here are compounded by the creature’s swaying side to side, as if in a breeze! Mind boggled. This, to me, requires a secular, biological explanation (that a lay person could fathom) before I go mad. This creature’s evolution seems to demand some sort of (dare I think it?) observation to achieve such astonishing accuracy. I appeal to any of FI’s readers who possess a relevant background in biology for a much needed reply.
Jackson, New Jersey
As usual, Tom Flynn’s editorial, this one on the need for cosmocracy or a planet-wide government, (“Cosmocracy, We Hardly Knew Ye,” FI, October/November 2019) was spot on. In it he decries the concept of nation-states with their attendant nationalism, patriotism, and military clashes. He has had good company on this topic down through the centuries:
From Diogenes (412–323 BC): “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”
From Tom Paine (1737–1809): “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” (Never, never, has more been said in such few words.)
From Albert Einstein (1879–1955): “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
As you can see, Flynn has some fine company on this topic. Four men who have been able to step away from the trees to view the forest. We need a planet-wide government (cosmocracy) now more than ever, and it may well be that we will either get it or perish.
R. C. Gibson
For a government to deserve the title of “cosmocracy,” it would have to include representatives from every inhabited planet in the universe. As a science-fiction writer, Tom Flynn probably has some idea about how to create that. But on this planet, the key to the problem of world unification is found in one of his quotations from Paul Kurtz: “We have not yet learned to control warfare between … nation-states, for there does not exist any supranational sovereignty with sufficient moral authority to keep the peace.”
Social scientists’ term for the moral authority of sovereign state is political legitimacy. My reading of history leads me to believe that the primary means for creating political legitimacy for a government is leading its people to military victory over their enemies and converting its people to the religion of the sovereign. The United States did not fully establish its legitimacy until Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The battle had no effect on the outcome of the War of 1812, because the peace treaty had been signed the previous month, although the news had not yet reached this country. However, the battle had a tremendous symbolic effect, because it boosted Americans’ pride and solidarity. By contrast, in this country religious unification was not an option, because our people were a conglomeration of settlers who had brought their own religious traditions with them. But in Europe, it was considered essential to any ruler for the people to share a common religion with him (or, rarely, her) to cement their loyalty.
Neither the military nor the religious option is open to humanists who would like to create a government of all humanity. (Humanism is not a religion because it does not promise aid from any superhuman power.) We can only “act locally and think globally.”
Homer Edward Price
Sylva, North Carolina
Tom Flynn replies:
Reader Price is correct that the term cosmocracy, coined in the early twentieth century, seems over-ambitious today. At the time the cosmo- prefix was accepted as meaning “encompassing the whole world” sans any intergalactic implication. Witness the older term cosmopolitan, equivalent to what we might now call “citizens of the Earth.” No one thinks “cosmopolitans” know their way around the club scene on, say, the planet Vulcan as well as they do in New York or Sydney; I suppose we must extend the same courtesy to the coiners of cosmocracy, whose consciousnesses had not been expanded by Carl Sagan, Gene Roddenberry, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as ours have.
Russell Blackford (“Where to Draw Lines on Assisted Dying,” FI, October/November 2019) approaches assisted dying as a form of suicide. He conflates suicide—taking one’s own life during a period of crisis—with exercising control over one’s own death when it is already expected in the near future. Advocates for assisted dying laws generally reject terms such as assisted suicide to make the distinction clear.
Where I live in New York, opposition to the proposed Medical Aid in Dying Act comes mainly from either the Roman Catholic church or disability activists, and the roots of their opposition are very different. The church hierarchy is clearly interested in imposing their religious notion that human life is sacred and should be ended only by their god on the rest of us, whether we share their beliefs or not.
The objections of disability activists to legalizing aid in dying are not as mysterious as Blackford seems to find them. It is common for people with disabilities to have other people treat their lives as valueless because of their disability and to be afraid that aid-in-dying laws will be used to harm and discriminate against them. While I think the experience of Oregon and other states that have legalized aid in dying shows that such laws can be crafted in a way that does not lead to further abuse of people with disabilities, I think it’s important to address those concerns in crafting assisted dying laws, while recognizing that the imposition of some groups’ religious beliefs harms all of us by preventing terminally ill individuals from competently deciding to end their lives a bit earlier and a lot more peacefully.
Malta, New York
While basically agreeing with S. T. Joshi in the October/November 2019 FI (“What the Anti-Abortionists Want”), I believe that two clarifications are necessary. Joshi refers to the Alabama case in which a pregnant woman was charged with manslaughter after being shot in the abdomen, resulting in the death of the fetus. Meanwhile, the shooter was not indicted. The legal reasoning was that the pregnant woman started the altercation and the shooter was defending herself. Whether or not anyone agrees with this legal argument, its omission is very misleading.
Second, if the percentage of blacks seeking abortions is disproportionately high relative to the black percentage of the population, it is not hypocritical to interpret this as “some sort of self-imposed genocide” as far as blacks are concerned, because it would reduce the percentage of the population that is black. The ratio of whites to persons of color overall (presumably including Hispanics, etc.) is not relevant.
Re: “Humanism and Prisoners’ Rights,” Ronald Lindsay, Nicholas J. Little, and Tom Flynn, FI, October/November 2019. I would suggest that humanism is not a belief system. It is a value system. There is really nothing you must believe in to be a humanist.
Neither is humanism a religion, because it does not involve a supernatural deity or realm.
If a person subscribes to humanist values and believes in some sort of divinity, he may be a hybrid—a religious (or spiritual) Humanist. Humanism, which really had its start in the Enlightenment, was more anti-clerical than antireligious, and I see no reason atheism has to be an essential part of humanism, so long as the values are congruent.
There is no external god to give us our values. Our moral values are man-made and then attributed to a god assigned the role of enforcing them. There is, generally speaking, very little difference between “religious values” and “secular values.” In essence, religious values are secular values refracted through a religious prism. The disparity between them lies in that religious values tend to be contaminated by dogma.
Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Re: “If I were Black, I Wouldn’t Believe Me Either: Reflections of a White Overpopulation Activist,” Karen I. Shragg, October/November 2019. Besotted with white guilt, Karen I. Shragg expresses tacit validation of a black conspiracy originating a century ago in reaction to the introduction of modern birth control. Even worse, she panders to this nonsense by abjuring her own intellectual integrity: “If I were African American, … I wouldn’t believe my own rhetoric … .” Revitalized during the civil rights era, some Black Power leaders sowed paranoia in bitter African Americans, advancing the absurd charge that the “white man” was trying to exterminate, or at least diminish, the black race through contraception and abortion.
Shragg fails to cite the obvious fact that people of color comprise a growing majority of the world population living in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the greater Pacific region with large “minorities” living in Europe and North America. Conversely, Euro-Caucasian numbers are shrinking steadily toward 2100 when they may represent the “white” percentage of the world’s racial composition in single digits.
From the mid-1960s with the innovation of the pill along with other contraceptive methods and from the 1970s with legalized safe abortion, easy reliable birth control spread internationally to reverse pronatalist population growth—first in Europe and the United States, followed by Asia (notably China and India), Latin America, and the Caribbean, transforming national fertility trends into the millennium with birthrates falling near or below replacement levels. The United Nations’ reports for 2019 that half the world’s population lives in countries with fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Today most African American women, along with women of all colors worldwide, welcome access to birth control to decide the number and spacing of their children under the ethic “small families live better.”
Current overpopulation concern should focus not on African Americans but on Sub-Saharan Africans living in the only major region lagging disastrously behind in this global transition—still isolated demographically from most of the developing world—with average fertility clocking in at around five children per woman. Sub-Saharan population will account for 50 percent of world increase between 2020 and 2050, and measured against a base of ten billion people by 2100 could represent over 40 percent of humankind.
Woodland Hills, California
Back in October/November 2017, Free Inquiry published my letter addressing Steven Maitzen’s article “Naturalism and the Fundamental Question,” which addressed the issue of First Cause.
Again, I will argue that only one solution will ever solve the riddle of a First Cause, that doesn’t result in circular infinite regress of searching for the cause of a First Cause.
That solution must identify the only entity in the entire universe that was never “created,” and there is only one possible candidate that fits that description: the universe itself.
If the universe has always existed, it logically follows that it was not created by a big bang. Likewise, no mythological god is needed to speak the universe into existence. Lastly, the proposition of spontaneous creation out of nowhere defies two conflicting mutually exclusive principles.
First, you can’t get something from nothing, and second, any spontaneous creation implicitly infers that there was a point in “time” that it occurred, which would eliminate it as being the single entity that was never created.
I will state again as I did in 2017: the universe is the ultimate intrinsic fabric of physical reality!
The true “Fundamental Question” of physics is how can anything exist that never had a beginning?
I would even argue that without a universe to begin with, “time” itself would have no frame of reference in which to exist within.
About Joseph Priddy’s article “The First Cause” in the October/November 2019 issue of Free Inquiry, I was a bit exasperated by the length of writing it took for him to come to his final point, but I have to agree with what he said. The fact is that his idea of “Existence has always been” seems enormously logical to me and always has. I call it “Eternity” and wouldn’t be surprised if many an atheist has thought this way as well.
The trouble is, it’s easy to think of eternity in the future but difficult to imagine it going backward. Probably because humans have beginnings, as does everything else we know of, even our universe. But I would think that if people can imagine a god having always existed, why not matter and energy? The latter is even more plausible.
As yet, science has no evidence of “backward eternity” and may never have the chance to find it if we humans continue to risk our survival on this world at such an alarming speed. But the possibility is out there and, as Priddy explained, it appears to be the only reasonable answer.
Prescott Valley, Arizona
I have to say that I too like to reflect on things and that I, too, have pondered the beginning of time as we know it. And I have many of the same conclusions as Joseph Priddy. More than a half century ago, I was a student of physics. Maybe because of that I agreed with Victor Stenger but could not find a cause. I rejected the metaphysical because nature abhors a vacuum. Nature is our invention of how we see the universe. It is not a thing, and I am sure Stenger would have rejected what Priddy suggests in his The History point 4. I finally came to think of the possibility of Heisenberg’s uncertainty, ΔE x ΔT = h. If you pick a time interval small enough, then the energy captured in that time interval becomes very large. We (students) did some work with “tunneling theory” to try to find the strength of the strong nuclear force from the energy balance for alpha particles being ejected by various nuclei. I remember a class problem of a car rolling down a hill and up a hill opposite it but slightly higher. What was the probability of the car rolling to the top of the next hill? There is a finite possibility, but because “h,” the Heisenberg constant, is so small, the probability is vanishingly small. In a discussion about this, I agreed with a skeptic of this that if I witnessed a car rolling down one hill and then to the top of another higher hill, I would be looking for some other cause.
I finally got some help with this hypothesis from a book I highly recommend that Priddy and everybody else read. The book is A Universe from Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss. Perhaps this agrees with Priddy’s “pure energy.” I took his concept at first blush to be introducing a metaphysical concept, but maybe when ΔT = 0, then ΔE is “pure energy.”
In my idle noodling, I even thought that there is the potential of many universes much like ours. I wanted it to explain “dark matter,” but I think it fails for the same reason that gravity fails inside a uniform sphere. I then noodled that perhaps the other universes were not created exactly like our 3D space-time-mass/energy universe. Suppose that one was created with 1D or 2D of our universe but with another orthogonal 1D, 2D, or even more. The interaction could be the dark matter. But now I am dangerously close to metaphysics. I have a conjecture that I cannot test. It is much like Priddy’s conclusion of “Existence,” a conjecture for which there is no test or good definition.
In conclusion, thank you, Joseph Priddy, for getting me to think about these things again.
Wilfred C. Lyon
Joseph Priddy responds:
Mr. Williamson, I have not read Steven Maitzen’s 2017 article or your response to it. If in your statement “If the universe has always existed” is referring to my hypothesis, I must correct you. I did not state that the universe has always existed; I stated that Existence has always existed, and that our universe is an emergent property formed by the unconserved energy of Existence. If you were not referring to my hypothesis, it seems you have taken this opportunity to promote a few claims of your own, some vaguely similar to mine, some not.
Ms. Lanning, thank you for your response. As to why it seemed to you I took too long to come to my point, remember that readers process text at varying speeds, and I was addressing measured readers who build their understanding on fine detail as well as I was addressing skimmers like yourself anxious to get to the point of the arrow. As to your remark “it is difficult to imagine eternity going backward,” consider that eternity just is; don’t think of yourself as being in a place to think of eternity existing in the two directions of forward and backward. Your eternity (my Existence) has scale but no intrinsic size; it has no limit, no timeline, and therefore no direction in which to burden your imagination. As to our understanding of the progression of time, our brain is a field device that allows us to experience our life grounded in what we perceive to be the present, even though our actual experience is an ongoing recollection of the past as it is referenced against our anticipation of the future. For us, there is no measurable present; the present exists as an existential device allowing our past transit into the future.
Mr. Wilford, you’re welcome. Keep thinking. Thanks for writing.
I recently subscribed to Free Inquiry. The first article I read was Steve Cuno’s “Godawful Communication and Divine Boners” in October/November 2019. I thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so that I emailed a link to Cuno’s article to everyone within my address book. I included the following teaser to entice readership:
Friends, you’ll recall me proclaiming the importance of an editor. With that remembrance, I think you’ll enjoy an open letter sent to His Holy Whatever-ness wherein the need of an editor is suggested to Him for coherency of His message due to the continuing confusion over His coronation of Donald Trump as the cheeky stalwart chap He placed in charge of the White House, which has caused countless people of goodwill to suffer greatly; and sent to Him due to the ongoing debate over just who in the hell is “the promised one”; and sent to Him due to His messy usage of numeration (666 to be exact); and sent to Him due to concern for women who gravely misinterpret His marching orders which He delivers to them in deep REM sleep, seemingly without any care or concern whatsoever that when their slumber is over a fog of confusion may reign supreme, triggering them to act on His divine intervention without the luxury of clarity which can cause disastrous results. I believe that a person of your good sense will graciously chuckle—at a minimum—at the prose contained in “Godawful Communication and Divine Boners” by Steve Cuno. You might even find yourself laughing loudly … even if only within. After reading Cuno’s open letter, consider subscribing to Free Inquiry. I’ll be patiently awaiting your reply informing me of your amusement level. Until then, I remain your friend—John.
John R. Hall
Re: “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Ya),” Tom Flynn, FI, October/November 2019. I’d have complete confidence in wagering serious money that in a few years, when earth is beyond repair and human misery has sunk to its lowest depth because of overpopulation, the pope will assemble all his cardinals and other big shots within the church hierarchy to say to them: “OK guys, let’s think about including birth control and abortion in our agenda. By doing so, we can help humans—who, after all, are God’s children.”
And within a couple of weeks or so, before humankind collapses entirely from the weight of too many people, all the leaders of the Christian Right will join the Catholic Church in its resolve to curtail overpopulation.
Well … better late than never, don’t you agree?
In response to Tom Flynn’s review of the book The Uninhabitable Earth (FI, October/November 2019), one can’t help but respond with deep despair. No doubt the scientific facts and the justified conclusions are convincingly presented by author David Wallace-Wells. As well, there are other significant trends not elucidated by Flynn that might lead us to the same dismal conclusion.
However, recall that we secular humanists are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences. In that vein, I’d like to suggest that Free Inquiry’s readers go online and watch a very touching musical video. It’s on YouTube and titled “At the Bottom of Everything” by Bright Eyes. Consider it a modern-day parable. Don’t skip the narrative introduction by the artist, and then hang on to your hat!
Case against Education
In his critical review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, Edd Doerr offers a weak defense of American education and does not identify the cause of its shortcomings (“Caveat Lector,” FI, October/November 2019). Yes, 76 percent of polled Americans may give an A or B to their public schools, but 76 percent is a low score on almost any examination. Moreover, by more objective measures—say, the internationally administered PISA—American students have mediocre scores in reading and score poorly in math, below students in at least a dozen other nations. As for behavioral measures of our system’s success—say, resilience in the face of controversy—does anyone doubt how American Millennials or Gen Z students would fare if a comparative international test could be devised? During forty years in the classroom, I constantly had to challenge students’ inability to withstand criticism and dissenting opinions—never mind engage in serious debate. That inability always stood in stark contrast to my European or Asian students, a contrast I still experience when I travel or tutor. Worst of all, in my view, is our educational system’s failure to teach epistemology, especially how to distinguish fact from faith/wishful thinking. This failure facilitated the election of Donald Trump, as well as a population in which (according to Pew) 48 percent rejects Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Doerr is correct that “experienced, serious educators” believe that we need equitable funding, modernization of curricula, an end to vouchers and charter schools, as well as several other “solutions” he mentions. But these are systemic failures all rooted in the tenth amendment of our Constitution, which gives states the power over education. As S. T. Joshi argues regarding abortion, many U.S. states are “uncivilized” and “governed largely by white male Republican politicians” with “grotesquely extreme religious views.” Most have little regard for “experienced, serious educators” (never mind scientists!). In these states, any teacher assigning Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact—a book every high school student should read—would likely be fired.
But again, it’s our federal system grounded in the tenth amendment that empowers these “uncivilized” Republicans to lord over education. And unless one wants to advocate amending the Constitution (as I do), then secularists should read the recent three-year study done by Sharon Lynne Kagan, internationally recognized professor of early child education and family policy at Columbia. Recognizing “the inconvenient truth” that American preschool and primary education also ranks low when measured by international benchmarks of quality, Kagan and her team studied the six “highest performing” nations, such as Finland and Singapore. The two volumes reporting their findings (The Early Advantage 1 & 2) delineate the national frameworks guiding educational policies and practices in these successful nations. In Finland, for example, the Constitution “guarantees the right of all children to education, health, welfare and security services.” For each level of education, every municipality develops its local curriculum, but that curriculum “must adhere to the provisions of the national curriculum guidelines developed through extensive consultation with stakeholders and constituents.” As in the other successful nations Kagan’s team studied, teachers are trained and evaluated in accordance with that curriculum. Other common “pillars” of these systems—such as school governance, funding, and data collection—are all driven by national frameworks that, in Kagan’s words, provide “the synergy” that spurs growth and development in all areas of education.
During public presentations, Kagan has emphasized that there is no one “perfect” system and that every high performing nation developed its own national framework in a different context. In the United States, she has argued that a national framework could be developed by nongovernmental institutions or partnerships, and she has pointed to historical precedents as examples. To my knowledge, Kagan has never identified an acceptable institution or partnership that could now begin the task. But her voluminous evidence shows that while it may be unclear if (in Tom Flynn’s words) “supranational institutions constitute the best way to tackle” issues such as climate change and overpopulation, developing a national framework is clearly the best way to tackle America’s educational woes today.