Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion

The Jewish Bible Stories

Hebrew_Scriptures_Tanak

Below I will slowly add links to discussions about some of the main stories within the Jewish Bible.

The Teachings (Torah)

  • Creation
    (Gen 1-2)
  • The Fall: Adam and Eve
    (Gen 3-4)
  • The Flood: Noah’s Ark
    (Gen 6)
  • The Tower of Bable
    (Gen 11)
  • Abraham’s Covenant
    (Gen 12-15)
  • Birth of Isaac
    (Gen 21)
  • Abraham Tested – Isaac’s sacrifice
    (Gen 22)
  • Joseph sold by brothers
    (Gen 37-50)
  • Joseph in Egypt
    (Gen 39)
  • Israel Slavery in Egypt
    (Exodus 1)
  • Birth of Moses
    (Exodus 2)
  • Moses and Burning Bush
    (Exodus 3)
  • The Ten Plagues
    (Exodus 7)
  • God Delivery from Egypt
    (Exodus 12, Deut 26:8-9)
  • The Ten Commandments
    (Exodus 20)

The Prophets (the Nevi’im)

  • Israel enters Promised Land – Joshua
    (Joshua 1)
  • Israel rules by judges
    (Judges 1)
  • Israel gets first king (Saul)
    (1 Sam 9)
  • Sampson
  • David and Goliath
    (1 Sam 17)
  • King David — Kingdom forever
    (1 Sam 16, 2 Sam 7)
  • Solomon becomes King
    (1 Kings)
  • Israel divide: Israel and Judah
    (1Kings 12)
  • Kings rule (mostly bad) for 345 years
    (1 Kings 13)
  • The Prophets: warn of Israel punishment.
  • Jew’s (Israel – North) Exiled: Assyria
    (2 Kings 17)
  • Jew’s (Judah) – Conquered by Babylon
    (2 Kings 25)
  • Jonah & The “Whale”
    (great fish)

The Writings (the Ketuvim)

  • Job
  • Ecclesiastics
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Daniel and the Lion’s Den (Daniel 6)
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Exploring Religion through the Bible (ERB): Introduction

This series ambition is to write posts for religion-free folks (see the table of contents) to offer them basic Bible literacy as an intro to Judaism and Christianity and to explore religion in general.  The Bible is a very long and old text and so expecting even a believer, yet alone a non-believer to read through it is unrealistic.  And reading it without guidance and expecting to understand it, is naive.  For those reasons, there are thousands of books out there to readers over these hurdles.  But this series is for non-believers and it is not meant to be exhaustive, but to offer enough stories to make the reader savvy enough in Bible stories to get a greater appreciation of allusion in common culture, movies and literature to Bible themes.  While doing this, I hope to also offer some comparative religions material but even more importantly, show how religion works, which is more important than what religions say they believe.  To repeat, here are the themes I will pursue:

Religion-Free Perspective: An introduction for non-believers

The terms “non-believers” or “atheists” or “agnostics” are all labels developed from the perspective that “believing” is the norm and thus pejorative.  Here we describe all those people in a positive light as “religion-free”.  This would be much like using the term “Child-free” couple vs. a “Childless” couple.

The religion-free folks I have in mind for these posts are those who really have very little knowledge of Judaism and Christianity — not those raised in the some tradition who then rejected it.  Thus I am talking to those raised minimally as only cultural members of those faiths, or those who were raised religion-free and who have only some exposures to religion. I have a few people in mind as I write these, and hope they and a few others find this series helpful.  Please write ask questions, add points or make objections in the comment section. Believers are also welcome to jump in and comment, but I will not welcome proselyting here.  This general rule for this blog and more are listed here.

Bible Literacy: Understanding Biblical Allusions

The Bible, like all religious texts and traditions, is loaded with stories that are packed with moral messages, principles, and wisdom (good and bad). People who have not read or studied the Bible will miss many allusions in literature, movies and even conversations. So even some familiarity with the main stories can broaden your enjoyment of other material.

Many Christianities:  Understanding Biblical Controversies

There are as many different types of Christians as there are believers in every other faith. And each will tell you that their version is the best, or at least a real good version. And for Christians, they all use the Bible. So I will tell stories and occasionally show the difference in the ways different Christians treat the same stories.

The versions of the Bible stories we have today have changed over time and their are contrary stories out there.  We will explore some of these ideas.

Comparative Religion and Comparative Thinking:  

Broader than just understanding the various kinds of Christianities is understanding how all religions struggle with similar issues.  Actually, all large systems wrestle with similar issues.  I will try offer readers comparisons to help see the deep issues that are often hidden by the superficial explanations offered by any religion or system.  Systems are not the sum of their parts, but how those parts all relate to each other and function.

Religion as a Tool: Understanding how religion works

Religion is complicated.  Christianity and Islam will tell you that correct belief is central to true religion.  But the most important thing to know about a religion is not it’s beliefs (though you will need those), but how those beliefs are used by its believers.

Most Westerners, exposed culturally to Christianity, even if nonbelievers, are subconsciously hypnotized by this idea that a religion is its beliefs.  Most folks feel they will understand a religion if they just read a list of their beliefs and maybe some of their history. But religions use their beliefs like tools to pursue social and personal goals. Mind you, believers themselves may tell you that it is all about correct beliefs, but they are wrong. And thus that will be the bias of this series.

This principle of understanding religion as a tool will be the most difficult to convey. You almost have to understand 3 or 4 religions to start understanding the patterns. In this series I hope to pause and illustrate some of the shared ways religions which have very different beliefs, nonetheless link the ones they have to accomplish very similar things to one and other.

 

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Exploring Religion through the Bible

This is my developing table of contents for my series by the same name:

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Seashells: How we fool ourselves

SeaShells.pngYears ago, on one of my early morning walks, alone on a Jersey beach, I noticed something about the seashells in the sand. I noticed that my feet rarely hurt me because most of the shells were facing down, not up.

I decided to test my observation by choosing different spots scattered down the beach to count the shells.  I sampled the shells by standing on one foot and using the other to trace a large circle on the beach. I’d then count the number of shells in the circle and calculate the percent of upward facing shells. And sure enough, about 90% were upward facing in all my circles. It looked like I had discovered a physics principle.

I then wondered what sort of physics made this happen. So I gathered a bunch of shells, threw them in the air, and calculated the percentages in the same way. The ratio was much different – about 50/50. So then I put those shells in the retreating waves and watched them flip downward.  The percentage approached 90% again.  “It must be fluid mechanics,” I thought to myself.

“Fluid Mechanics” — hell, that almost sounds like I know what I am talking about, doesn’t it? But I still didn’t know and as I explored the issue further, I learned more about human nature than I did physics.

Very excited about my beach discovery, I began to tell friends and colleagues. Those patient enough to listen to my ramblings all thought they knew exactly why the shells flipped that way. “Yep, it is the water. It pulls on the shells, flipping them face down.” And they said this with certainty and a tone of voice which also said, “Isn’t it sort of obvious?”  But I had put hard work into my experimenting which they seemed to feel was a silly waste of time since the principle is so obvious.

So I decided to elaborate the experiment with an evil twist: I told a bunch of other folks the same story but this time I lied about the shells telling them that 90% of the shells were face up, not face down. And sure enough, the result was the same. Everyone proclaimed with certainty, “Well, it is obvious, the water pulls the shells like a bowl and makes them land face up.”

So, at this point, you’d think my learning here was that people are too quick to settle on a “just-so” theory, but my experiment revealed an even nastier insight.

So you’d hope that when I revealed to these listeners the trickery that they would laugh.  I hoped they’d see that I set up the story to reveal that our minds prefer to settle on a “just-so” quick explanations than really digging for the truth.  But no, they were angry.

After telling the fictitious story and letting the listener spin their cocky pseudo-scientific certainty, I revealed that I had lied so as to show how easily we were more interested in a quick explanations than a true explanations. But when I did so, people did not say, “Wow, that is fascinating!” but instead they were very upset at my deception and all the stuff the experiments revealed were lost.

We don’t want to know what our minds are doing.

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Guarding Weaknesses: Chinese & India

All people have in born genetic weaknesses — if lucky our deficiencies may never display themselves. And hopefully as our genetic sciences advance, we may be able to fix the coding errors that inevitably do harm us. Superstitious Chinese Taoists and Hindus astrologists also apply their best tools, against the wave of fate that hits us all.

Chinese fortune tellers tell us, as this article tells us, help parents to choose names for the children because the Chinese believe a person’s name defines their life.
“Taoists believe that depending on when someone was born, their body might lack one of the five elements — metal, wood, water, fire, or earth — which can affect their health. A fortuneteller can advise parents how to select a name that corrects this deficiency, for example by using a character that incorporates one of the elements. Some will even offer counsel on how many strokes should be in each character of the child’s name.”

Indian astrologers feel that not only do heavenly bodies affect our future, but that many of these harmful influences can be controlled by gems. So if a person has a planet that is inauspicious in their horoscope, they should wear the corresponding gem on the correct finger to ward off that malevolent influence. See this website helping your choose your lucky gems.

When in India, while riding trains, I discussed peoples’ rings with them because it always led to all sorts of stories about their lives. Likewise, while in China, discussing someone’s name, of revealed a lot about the person’s family history. All these were fascinating, and indeed can make our lives more colorful, but when it comes to our health fates, I’ll put my money on genetic science.

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Bad Luck in Driving Accidents

Accident CausesSome people are just unlucky and have accidents all the time. Or at least that is how they tell the story.  But there is a good reason to doubt such “bad luck” stories.

Working in medicine, I have met folks who have accidents over and over. Most of them tell a “woo-is-me” story and tell others “I am just really unlucky”. But were their many accidents just due to their bad luck, or is there something else involved besides “bad luck”?

My diagram to the right attempts to illustrate the role of your responsibility in your accidents. Sometimes diagrams simplify things, but I am not sure if they do here.  So, to get to the point: Most accidents are avoidable, even when they are NOT your fault.

Using the NHTSA’s 2008 National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NHTSA, 2008), I will add a lot of verbosity to elaborate the causes of your accidents :

Explaining the Top diagram:

At the risk of over simplifying, there are three possible causes of a traffic accident.
(1) You:
(2) Others
(3) The Environment or Vehicle:

Driver Causes (You and Others): pre-smartphone!

  • recognition error 40.6%:
    –Inadequate surveillance 20.3%
    –Internal distraction 10.7%
    –External distraction 3.8%
    –Inattention (i.e., daydreaming, etc.) 3.2%
    –Other/unknown recognition error 2.5%
  • performance error 10.3%
    –Overcompensation 4.9%
    –Poor directional control 4.7%
    –Other/unknown performance error 0.4%
    –Panic/freezing 0.3%
  • non-performance error 7.1%
    –Sleep, actually asleep3.2%
    –Heart attack or other physical impairment 2.4%
    –Other/unknown critical nonperformance 1.6%
  • decision error 6.2%
    –Too fast for conditions 8.4%
    –Too fast for curve 4.9%
    –False assumption of other’s action 4.5%
    –Illegal maneuver 3.8%
    –Misjudgment of gap or other’s speed 3.2%
    –Following too closely 1.5%
    –Aggressive driving behavior 1.5%
    –Other/unknown decision error

Vehicle Causes:

–Tires failed or degraded/wheels failed 43.3%
–Brakes failed/degraded 25.0%
–Other vehicle failure/deficiency 20.8%
–Steering/suspension/transmission/engine failed 10.5%
–Unknown 0.5%

Environmental Causes:

Roadway
–Slick roads (ice, loose debris, etc.) 49.6%
–View obstructions 11.6%
–Signs/signals 2.7%
–Road design 1.4%
–Other highway-related condition 9.8%

Atmospheric condition
–Fog/rain/snow 4.4%
–Other weather-related condition 4.0%
–Glare 16.4%

 

So looking at the top diagram again, most accidents are due to people, not the situation (environment or vehicle), but there are also the complex interactions between these three causes that can create your accident:

(A) You and the Situation’s: You were driving in an area that you knew could flood soon.
(B) You and Others: You were tailgating and they were tailgating when the car in front of you stopped quickly.
(C) Others and the Situation: A cop chases a speeder who jumps lanes and hits you.
(D) You, Others and The Situation : Perfect storm — You are tailgating a tailgater when flood waters suddenly hit the street.

As for the Bottom Diagram:

This illustrates which of the above causes you could have potentially avoided and thus escape an accident: You, Other Drivers, Situation (environment or vehicle). When viewing this, remember that stats show that some ninety percent of motor vehicle crashes are caused at least in part by human error.

(1) You: Yes, if you are the cause, you can avoid all those accidents
(2) Others: Yes, since others sometimes run stop lights, though you may have the right of way, look carefully before going through a green light. No, sure, if someone is going to jump lanes, short of trying to stay in the right lane and being aware, sometimes you can’t avoid this.
(3) Situation (Environment or Vehicle): You can avoid many situations, some you can’t.

Conclusion: People who have many accidents are usually not defensive drivers. Sure, they may not have been directly at fault in their accidents, but they could have avoided them. They could have stopped the causal chain. Luck? Nope! Our minds protect us from blame — maybe this reflexive blame-blocking is useful in persuasion but a very counterproductive reflex in avoiding traffic accidents.

 

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Luck, Luck, Luck

Those who assert that everything is predestined
still look before they cross the street.
–Stephen Hawking

Luck has been a theme of several of my posts. Why? I think people highly underestimate the role of luck in their lives. Below I list three articles I recently read which discuss some of that hidden luck.

1. Lucky Prime Ministers

Andrew Gimson recently wrote “Grimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May” and then in this article he discusses 12 traits of the British Prime Ministers he feels were successful — note, “luck” is number two. Courage, Luck, Hunger for power and more. Surprisingly, Donald Trump has many of these, including the luck of born into wealth. But the writer seems to be a British Conservative and so what he considers “successful” may be controversial. Nonetheless, Luck must always be considered.

2. Computer Proves Luck in Wealth

Rich people are often quick to tell you the exact reasons they are rich and seldom do they include “luck”. Instead, they tell us their financial success is either because they are bright, clever, talented, risk-taking, hard-working or in possession of some other virtue that most of us are missing. In they end, they feel they earned their wealth and deserve it.

Most of the human traits often given as the cause of financial success, are distributed in a normal distribution, but it seems that wealth is instead distributed in a power distribution (as I described in my previous post). This article discusses research headed by Alessandro Pluchino at the University of Catania in Italy that show us that luck is the biggest player in wealth. The group created a computer simulation of people randomly given bad or good luck events and shows the effect replicates the power laws which we see in the world where 20% of people on the planet controlling 80% of the wealth.

3. Lucky Investors

When things are going well, usually underestimate the role of luck in our personal lives. Financial investors ignore luck in their choices often. Study upon study has shown how random choice of stocks can often be as profitable as having an “expert” choosing stock.

This article by Morgan Housel defines “risk” and luck as mirrored cousins: “If risk is what happens when you make good decisions but end up with a bad outcome, luck is what happens when you make bad or mediocre decisions but end up with a great outcome.” Which I find a bit odd, but given those definitions, I agree with his conclusion that “experiencing risk makes you recognize that some stuff is out of your control, which is accurate feedback that helps you adjust your strategy. Experiencing luck doesn’t. It generates the opposite feedback: A false feeling that you are in control, because you did something and then got the outcome you wanted. Which is terrible feedback if you’re trying to make good, repeatable long-term decisions.”

One of his conclusion is that “Good investors attempt to quantify risk. They should do the same for luck.” I agree, and it holds for all of us.

 

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