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Teeming Links – June 20, 2014


Pandemic plague? Nuclear holocaust? Lethal asteroid strike? No worries: in case of planetary disaster, plans are afoot to use the moon as off-planet storage for the religious, cultural, and even genetic trappings of humanity.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, philosopher Mary Midgely (currently 94 years old) warns of impending catastrophe in a culture of scientism where philosophical problems are reduced to physical science and human beings to neurons.

Tonia Lombrozo, UC Berkeley psychology professor and writer on neuroscience and philosophy, considers the effects of neuroscientific determinism on beliefs about free will.

In his new book The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues 1) that science is fundamentally limited, and 2) that this is not at all a depressing or defeatist recognition: “Not all questions have answers. To hope that science will answer all questions is to want to shrink the human spirit, clip its wings, rob it from its multifaceted existence. . . . [T]o see science for what it is makes it more beautiful and powerful, not less. It aligns science with the rest of the human creative output, impressive, multifaceted, and imperfect as we are.”

Astrophysicist Adam Frank finds Gleiser’s perspective invigorating: “[Gleiser] has found a roadmap for making all science our science. There is no need to root scientific endeavor in some imagined perfect cosmic perspective or demand that, at root, it provide a full-and-comprehensive account for all being. Science is all the more astonishing, all the more remarking [sic], for simply illuminating our being.”)

Scott Adams (yes, the creator of Dilbert) observes that the Internet is no longer a technology but a psychology experiment.

Paul Waldman reflects on the Orwellian underside of our “glorious and ghastly” digital transition from mass media to micro-niche media:

Whether you’re spewing out your anger or bestowing a smiley-faced blessing on an article or video that brightened your day, the media industry wants and needs to know. Every editor tracks how many likes and tweets each piece of journalism produces, hoping all those atomized individuals will signal their approval or their displeasure and pass it along. As the price for our re-individualization, we’ve laid ourselves bare. The National Security Administration knows whom you’ve called, and maybe what websites you’ve visited. Google knows what you’ve searched for and tailors the ads you see to products it knows you’re interested in. Facebook holds on to every photo you’ve posted and thought you’ve shared; the company can now track where your cursor hovers when you lazily peruse that ex-girlfriend’s page. You can express your consternation about the latest revelation of domestic spying, right after you show the world a picture of your children. We’ve built our own personal panopticons from the inside out, clicking ‘I accept’ again and again, and we didn’t need a tyrannical government’s help to do it.

Jill Lepore identifies what’s wrong with the reigning gospel of “disruptive innovation”: it’s not some universal societal law but simply “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

Arthur Krystal writes in defense of (the idea of) a literary canon: “The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. This is something that seems to have gotten lost in the canon brawl — i.e., the distinction between a list of Great Books and the idea that some books are far better than others.”

Tim Parks observes that novels themselves are changing under the pressure of a culture of perpetual distraction that saps the “the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.”

Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf highlights 100-plus pieces of the best journalistic and nonfiction writing from 2013.

Michael Hughes offers a concise and nifty account of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its enduring influence on occult, esoteric, spiritual, and popular culture.

BBC News Magazine writer Jon Kelly traces the lasting allure of the flying saucer.

Atlantic writer Megan Garber recounts the story of Kenneth Arnold, the man who introduced the world to flying saucers.

Visions of my comics-saturated childhood: remember the truly awesome UFO Flying Saucer comics from Gold Key? (And remember their truly awesome covers?)


Thelemic visions, magickal texts, and the tedium of transgression: Erik Davis interviews Gary Lachman about his new biography of Aleister Crowley.

Gnosticism, Lovecraft, and the labyrinth of biblical interpretation: Erik Davis interviews Robert M. Price about his new book Preaching Deconstruction.


“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

Cosmic awe: The religious experience in (and of) space

A very nice read about religious experience as associated with space travel, enhanced by quotations from an international roster of astronauts.

For many people, space represents its own religion, a spiritual experience on its own, secular terms, with no help from the divine or ancient rituals. But for those who believe and travel into space, the experience can endow their faith with greater significance. There is awe in science because, simply, there is awe in reality. We use science to discover that reality, and some use religion to understand it, to feel it deeply.

There is perhaps nothing more human than the curiosity that compels exploration. But paired with that curiosity is a search for meaning — we don’t want to know just what is out there, we want to turn it into something with a story, something with sense. We turn to the gods for that meaning, and we turn to them for our safety as we go. Same as it’s always been, same as it ever was. As President Kennedy concluded his speech on our mission to the moon at Rice University in 1962, “Space is there and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and planets are there and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

— Rebecca J. Rosen, “Communion on the Moon: The Religious Experience in Space,” The Atlantic, July 16, 2012

For best effect, consider pairing this article with The Atlantic‘s March piece about the religion of space itself: “The Holy Cosmos: The New Religion of Space Travel.”

Finish with this “Symphony of Science” video:

Questions about the impact of extraterrestrials on religious belief are not new

A new (Oct. 2) article at reports that theologians speaking at the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year-Starship Symposium have raised questions about the possible impacts on religion, and especially on Christianity, if the existence of extraterrestrial life is ever confirmed. The symposium itself was a public event held this past weekend (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) in Orlando, Florida, for a purpose that’s worth quoting:

 The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight. senior writer Clara Moskowitz attended the event and issued detailed descriptions of its proceedings, including the above-mentioned article, which reports on a presentation given by philosophy professor Christian Weidemann of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum about the meaning of ETs for religion in general and Christianity in particular:

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Science fiction, cultural myths, and the doubtful future of space flight

It appears we’re in the midst of a mini-explosion of reflection about the status of the science fictional dreams that, according to some observers and thinkers, fueled our 20th-century race into space. Basically, the space program in its original conception or incarnation — which in addition to its obvious nature as a geopolitically motivated Cold War phenomenon was truly a vision-driven effort to explore beyond our own planet and establish a future for us among the stars — is dead or dying. Commercial spaceflight a la Richard Branson may indeed have a booming future, but this is a far cry from what we originally, collectively envisioned. At the same time, and in a most interesting development, NASA is attempting to address the lack-of-vision problem directly by returning to its philosophical roots in visionary science fiction and forging a relationship with modern SF writers (see below).

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Our alien obsession

UFOs and aliens have been a widespread subcultural attraction for decades, but presently they’re bursting the subcultural boundaries and extending into Western society at large to reach the status of a bona fide, near-ubiquitous obsession. Even the (weird, incomprehensible, utterly Philistine) people who aren’t interested in them are now confronted by them at every turn, as the trend surges to new heights that were not even reached, I think, back during the 1970s era of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the 1990s era of alien abduction mania and The X-Files. Significantly, today’s surge isn’t just a matter of pop cultural items like movies, video games, TV shows, and comic books flooding shelves and screens — although they indeed are — but a matter of serious media attention being directed at the real-world question of real-world alien beings or life forms.

I find this cool.

Here are some signposts from the revolution

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