Thursday, September 30, 2021

Consciousness from life’s push against entropy

By Mathew Goldstein

Anil Seth is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. He was recently interviewed by Quanta Magazine. The interview has a link to his very good TED talk regarding what consciousness is about which has been viewed over 12 million times. The interview and the TED talk overlap, but to understand his argument it is better to consume both. The TED talk demonstrates that what we believe impacts what we perceive (and vice versa), with perception described as a useful “controlled hallucination”. He argues that consciousness arises from within life’s essential property of self-regulation in opposition to entropy and that as we identify the set of properties and mechanisms that underlie consciousness the “hard problem” of consciousness will dissolve much like the “hard problem” of life dissolved as the set of properties and mechanisms that underlie life were identified. 

A short, interesting article by him was published on August 2020 by the Institute of Ideas and Arts “Catching sight of your self”. He argues that our sense of self, our sense of free-will, etc. are perceptions like our perception of color. They are all “forms of experience” that “represent really-existing things or processes in ways that are useful to the organism.” He has a web site and a blog

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Are atheists a meaningfully distinct demographic group?

 By Mathew Goldstein

Is there a significant difference between the religiously unaffiliated or between agnostics and atheists? People who are skeptical that we have knowledge about a judgmental deity tend to live their lives much like atheists. Nevertheless, a December 2017 New Age beliefs Pew poll result indicates that there is at least one significant difference between self-described atheists on the one hand and self-described agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated “nones” on the other hand. Self identifying atheists as a religious belief related demographic are unique in their tendency to consistently reject New Age beliefs.

My guess is that atheists tend to be better grounded and more consistent in recognizing the significance of the distinction between properly justified beliefs and fictions than other people, including other “nones”. Being agnostic or unaffiliated suggests having a skeptical outlook, which is good, but skepticism by itself, while it is a requisite component for critical thinking, is not the same as critical thinking. Critical thinking recognizes, seeks out, and firmly adopts as dictates, conclusions which are best fit overall with the available empirical evidence, it is not compatible with a pluralistic, all beliefs have equal standing, perspective. Knowledge and ignorance are meaningfully and substantially different, it is a distinction that underlies competence versus incompetence. Not respecting that distinction can be as insidious as, or even more insidious than, getting the facts wrong

At the same time, individuals can be wrong about many things, including ontological or metaphysical supernaturalism, gods, and New Age beliefs and still do fine overall. There are also the questions of whether the goals of socially and psychological navigating life each day successfully conflicts with the goal of critical thinking about more distant concerns and, insofar as there is a conflict, why the latter should be deemed more important than the former. That is more of a personal issue, so the answer will be different for different people and can depend on the individual context and circumstances. It is unfortunate that we have this tendency to mix these different goals that we too often perceive as being in conflict and sacrifice the integrity of our identification of what is true about how our universe operates goal to our other goals.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Walter Plywaski won atheists’ their right to become citizens

 By Mathew Goldstein

Walter Plywaski died this January, about 66 years after he, with the backing of the ACLU, won his legal challenge against an arrogant denial of U.S. citizenship to any atheist who refused to falsely publicly identify themself as a theist. See a recently published article in The Conversation for an argument why Walter Plywaski’s legal victory is with remembering.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Reconciling activism with evidence based policy making

By Mathew Goldstein

There is an ongoing concern, which appears to be well grounded, that some manifestations of activism are in conflict with important humanistic principles. We can, and should, be advocates for “social justice” without sacrificing the basic principles of “science, reason, and consistent liberal ethics” with a focus on “the human, the universal”. These are constraints. Activism has a tendency to prioritize the pursuit of outcomes over such constraints, particularly when the constraints are perceived as getting in the way of obtaining different outcomes that are needed ASAP. This tension results in anti-scientific orientations and the prioritization of theories that are not well evidenced ahead of empirical evidence. Yet we do need measures of the problems that the activists claim exist and of the effectiveness of the remedies that the activists advocate. The question is: When there is a conflict will we recognize and acknowledge this conflict and will we side with a consistent liberal ethics?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Sabine Hossenfelder blog recommendation

 By Mathew Goldstein

For those interested in the ongoing search for answers to the big questions who are discerning enough to look in the right place (competent science, not religion, not ideologies of any stripe), the BackReAction blog,, is mostly very good. The author, Sabine Hossenfelder, is a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Do not stop wearing a face mask

 By Mathew Goldstein

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recent announcement that Americans who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear face masks, I plan to continue to wear a face mask when I am indoors with others in public accommodation contexts. I am less inclined to visit those businesses that allow people to not wear face masks. The CDC concedes that we should continue to wear face masks at airports and on public transportation, in medical facilities, in jails and prisons, etc. Municipalities should retain policies that require face masks in public accommodation indoor contexts until the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is under better control, post infection treatments and pre-infection prophylactics improve (such as more people vaccinated, better indoor air ventilation and disinfection), we know the duration of vaccine immunity and the long term health impacts of infection, and widespread vaccination is common in countries globally instead of limited primarily to the wealthier countries. Tony Blair was right when he said “virus circulating anywhere is potentially virus moving everywhere”.

The vaccination shortfall is now mostly on the demand side. Due in part to exaggerated, unbalanced, sometimes falsely grounded, yet widely promoted and accepted claims against vaccination, coupled with knowledge acquisition and applied reasoning shortcomings, lack of commitment to communal health, and the like, it is still unclear if we will achieve herd immunity from vaccination anytime soon. The vaccination percentages vary significantly by zip code, for Maryland overall it is now a little over 40% fully vaccinated and 50% partially vaccinated excluding children. The two dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines against Covid-19 infection appear to be very effective against most of the current, known virus variants, the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective (policymakers should consider retroactively adopting a two dose protocol for J&J). Vaccination has not been more effective overall because too many people have not (yet) been vaccinated.

Governments should mandate those vaccinations against contagious diseases that have been proven to be safe and effective while excluding vaccination eligible children from public schools and adults from government employment who lack a medical justification for failing to obtain the vaccinations. Governments should consider establishing vaccination passports and granting teenagers (from age 12) a special privilege to obtain recommended vaccinations without parental permission. The three groups most likely to be vaccine hesitant in the United States are white evangelical Protestants who are 28% hesitant and 26% refusers, Hispanic Protestants who are 42% hesitant and 15% refusers, and Black Protestants who are 32% hesitant and 19% refusers, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll. Without an enforced government vaccination mandate our society will be condemning people randomly to unnecessary sickness, injury, and death. Law is based on the hard-nosed concept that individuals have responsibilities to others that should be enforced to protect the community from behaviors that disrupt the functioning of the community here and now. Willfully not protecting oneself from contagious diseases qualifies as such a disruptive behavior. 

Differences in the degree of exposure to the virus, the virus variant (particularly newer variants that did not exist, or were rare and unknown, when the vaccine was tested) and individual health related conditions may affect how effective a vaccine is. Some people are ineligible for vaccination due to medical conditions or young age. Some people who vaccinate are immunosuppressed so the vaccination is not as effective for them. We often do not know who, among those we share a public accommodation indoor space, is vaccinated and who is not, who is infected and spreading a contagious virus and who is not. The more this virus continues to circulate, the more new virus variants appear, some of which spread and may have differing, and potentially worse overall, negative risk profiles. By continuing to wear a face mask we make it safer for everyone to visit indoor businesses and for some people to avoid self-quarantine. Face masks also protect against particulate pollution (which have significant, negative long term health implications) and other viruses. Vaccination combined with wearing a face mask when adjacent to other people synergistically reduces the spread of contagious diseases. Face masks in congested situations may remain a good practice for years. Meanwhile, try to get some exposure to sun on your skin, maybe 15 minutes, while outdoors alone without a face mask on sunny days.

Monday, April 05, 2021

No bible, no SHMG, at George Washington’s 2nd inauguration

 By Mathew Goldstein

Below is a copy of the March 6, 1793 National Gazette (page 3) article describing the oath of office ceremony for president George Washington. There is no mention of a bible or an appeal to deity at the end of the oath. It appears that this was usually, and maybe always, the case for the oath of office recitations of the early presidents to Tyler (10th president), except for Jackson (7th president) who kissed a bible. George Washington kissed a bible at his first inauguration because that was the only presidential inauguration conducted by a state government according to state law and kissing a bible was mandated by NY state law.

George Washington 2nd oath of office

On Monday last the Senate of the United States convened in the Senate Chamber pursuant to summonses from the President of the United States. The Speaker and Members of the late House of Representatives, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, the Attorney-General, the Judges of the Supreme Court, and other Officers of Government; the foreign Ministers, and a number of private citizens, Ladies and Gentlemen, were also present on the occasion. At twelve o'clock precisely, the President entered the Hall. Mr. Langdon, President pro tempore of the Senate, then rose and said: Sir, one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States is now present, and ready to administer to you the oath required by the Constitution, to be taken by the President of the United States. The President then addressed his Fellow-Citizens in a short, but comprehensive speech. Judge Cushing then read the oath, which the president repeated after him, sentence by sentence, as follows

I, George Washington, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. 

After taking the oath, the President retired, as he had come, without pomp or ceremony: On his departure from the house, the People saluted him with three cheers.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Across the board decline in house of worship membership

 By Mathew Goldstein

Gallup polling ( shows a decline in house of worship membership starting around 2000, a trend that has accelerated somewhat more recently, crossing below 50% for the first time. A decline is found across all age, gender, marital status, education level, geographical region, and race groupings. However, older conservative Protestants are more likely to continue to remain house of worship members than most of the rest of the population.