Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Letter to NPR re: Mother Teresa

I just sent the following message to National Public Radio's All Things Considered:

I have to question your Thursday commentator's view that Mother Teresa was "the greatest saint of all time" because she maintained "trust in God" despite having no sense of his presence. To me this is comparable to the self-flagellation of some medieval religious; most people today don't regard such gratuitous masochism as admirable but see it as a kind of egotism. Yet masochism is what Mother Teresa's suffering was, since it was completely avoidable. Those of us who aren't people of faith feel no "spiritual darkness" from God's absence; belief in ourselves and our fellows is all we need, and it could have been likewise for Mother Teresa had she only chosen to be a person of reason rather than one of faith. So her suffering was self-inflicted and merits no praise; she could just as well have done all her good works without it.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Biology Is Not Destiny

I just sent a letter to the Philadelphia City Paper in response to a pro-execution opinion column. Here it is:

Michael Washburn's Slant misrepresents the position of death penalty opponents on a number of levels.

First, he seems oblivious to the materialist understanding of racism. This views racism as not fundamentally a problem of bad attitudes, but of structural inequalities that not only have disparate impacts on "whites" and "people of color," but also serve to continually reproduce discriminatory practices — sometimes consciously racist, sometimes inadvertently so — that in turn perpetuate the material inequalities.

Washburn appeals to tradition by noting the prevalence of retribution as a theme in many cultures. He conveniently neglects that this often takes the form of cross-generational retribution, resulting in endless cycles of revenge. Moral rightness can't be decided by the mere prevalence of a custom. After all, racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance are all prevalent across many cultures too.

Washburn also assumes that calling the death penalty racist implies that only "people of color" are executed. This is an absurd dichotomy; a disparate impact doesn't have to be 100% to be real. He also ignores the fact that simulated trials have found that white juries given identical information are more likely to sentence a "black" person to death than a "white" for the same crime. Disparate impact is about how people in different color castes are treated for the same actions, not about how they commit crimes at different rates — something that's hard to tell since racial bias also acts on the level of police and prosecutorial conduct.

Apparently just for kicks, Washburn throws in a slander against Mumia Abu Jamal, claiming he initially tried to defend the shooting of Daniel Faulkner on political grounds. On the contrary, this was the prosecution's claim; Mumia has always denied shooting Faulkner. It's true enough that he said some crazy things at his original trial, being under the undue influence of the cultic MOVE organization; but that group has never advocated initiation of violence, any more than had the Black Panthers, to whom Mumia's earlier affiliation the prosecution used to convince the jury to convict him.

Last but not least, Washburn claims that human beings have a "need" for retribution and catharsis. But in reality many survivors of murder victims oppose the death penalty, while many that supported it find that rather than giving them closure, it's only delayed the process of healing from their grief. It does survivors both a disservice and a dishonor to assume that imitating the violence of the killer, whether directly or through the agency of the state, will make them better.

We humans make ourselves better, rather, not by imitating the behavior of the lower animals, but by differentiating ourselves from it.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, August 04, 2007

*Cheezy Chunks Variety Hour* cancelled

I regret to report that the producer of the Cheezy Chunks Variety Hour has had to cancel it due to personal health reasons. He hopes to be able to re-mount it in a few months, however.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

An Old Memory, Reconsidered

Today, while reading an issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration, I recalled an incident from my childhood and started to see it in a new light.

When I was about 12, my father sometimes played a card-guessing game with me. IIRC, he would hold up a card from a face-down deck, turned away from me, and I would guess the rank and suit. Then he would show it to me. On one of these occasions I kept guessing, not the card he was holding, but the next card. This seemed to go on for 15 or 20 cards, though unfortunately we weren't keeping track.

At the time I was a believer in ESP, but at the same time understood something about scientific standards of evidence. So I realized that this experience, although remarkable, was still anecdotal and couldn't actually be considered to prove anything.

But in the past year, I've learned from my brother that he's remembered some episodes in which our father tried to hypnotize him, a skill he'd been taught by a friend he made as a teenager. Geoffrey also remembers some things that he construes as episodes in which he was trying to hypnotize our mother. And he's indicated that he believes he was successful in at least some cases with both of them.

So now I'm wondering whether this would account for my experience too. Is it possible that my father used a post-hypnotic suggestion to cause me to forget, after he told me what the next card was going to be, that he had told me — so that I would think I was getting something clairvoyantly when in reality I was simply repeating what he'd just told me? If something like this is doable, it might well be considered more plausible than either the "incredible fluke" or paranormal explanation.

In this connection, it's interesting that I don't remember having a visual impression of the cards; I just said the first one that came to my mind. That is, I was "perceiving" verbally even though the supposed information source was visual. Proponents of psi usually claim that it's normal for sensory modality to remain unaltered in anomalous information transmission.

In a related matter, the other day I decided for the first time to experience a "psychic reading," after seeing a sign advertising them for only $5. As soon thereafter as was practicable (within maybe 15 or 20 minutes), I wrote down as much of it as I could remember.

As I came upstairs she told me that the special was only for a "character reading, not future or love life." I was resolved to maintain as neutral a face as possible and not provide any feedback.

After having me write my name and birthdate, she started by saying, "Nothing's come easy to you. You've had to work hard for everything you have." This struck me as pretty off-base. Academically and intellectually, things generally came very easy to me. This did have its down side, as it contributed to my feeling alienated from my peers. Nonetheless, it's hardly consistent with what the psychic said. On the other hand, it is true that I've worked for quite modest wages, due to social anxiety that inhibited me from seeking other employment from what I had before I graduated from college, and at the same time kept me largely oblivious to my creative potential. I didn't experience this as "working hard," however, but as being stuck in a rut. I worked long hours sometimes because my boss wanted me to, but I didn't experience the work as particularly hard qualitatively.

Next she told me my parents were "symmetric" in terms of personality, and that I was like both of them. This struck me as dubious inasmuch as I don't think my parents were that similar to each other. I think I'm more like my father in some ways, such as being pretty autonomous, but we're far apart on the extravert-introvert scale. I think my mother was considerably less autonomous and less assertive.

"Half the people you know you don't really like, and the other half have nothing in common with you. Is that right?" I raised my eyebrow at that, and when she pressed the question I just shrugged. I don't think it's true at all. Most people I know I know through activities and groups I've chosen based on shared interests, such as radical politics, science and skepticism, and science fiction. I don't like all of them of course, but do like a good number and get along reasonably well with most.

"You're always worried about losing what you have so you're afraid to make a change. But a change or a move would be good for you." Notice that she's starting to prognosticate here, even though she'd said she wouldn't. It's true that I've tended to be fearful of change, at least till the last couple years, but I'm not aware of anything I've recently failed to do because of fear of losing what I have.

She also said, "I see that you've been thinking about making a change or a move, but you've been holding back." She asked "Is that right?" again, and I responded as before.

"Even when you have something good you don't enjoy it because you're afraid that something is going to go wrong." That's sometimes been true in the past, because I'm anxiety-prone. But it hasn't been true since I went on the SSRI paroxetine. Of course, the statement is likely to be true of most people who'd pay to see a fortune-teller, so this may well be something she says to everyone.

Finally, "I see that there's going to be a big gathering of the family soon." Clearly she's prognosticating here. "Big" and "soon" are vague terms, but I'll report if 5 or more of us get together within the next six months, without any initiative on my part (which I have no plans of making).

Eric Hamell