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"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso

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Feb
4th
Fri
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Synesius, you don’t question what you believe, or cannot. I must.
Hypatia, quote from Agora movie 2010
Jan
27th
Thu
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If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature (1872-1970)
Jan
7th
Fri
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Guy Davenport on the imagination

“Man was first a hunter, and an artist: his early vestiges tell us that alone. But he must always have dreamed, and recognized and guessed and supposed, all the skills of the imagination. Language itself is a continuously imaginative act. Rational discourse outside our familiar territory of Greek logic sounds to our ears like the wildest imagination. The Dogon, a people of West Africa, will tell you that a white fox named Ogo frequently weaves himself a hat of string bean hulls, puts it on his impudent head, and dances in the okra to insult and infuriate God Almighty, and that there’s nothing we can do about it except abide him in faith and patience.

This is not folklore, or quaint custom, but as serious a matter to the Dogon as a filling station to us Americans. The imagination; that is, the way we shape and use the world, indeed the way we see the world, has geographical boundaries like islands, continents, and countries. These boundaries can be crossed. That Dogon fox and his impudent dance came to live with us, but in a different body, and to serve a different mode of the imagination. We call him Brer Rabbit.” “
Dec
29th
Wed
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Albert Einstein on religion and skeptical attitude

“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment — an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections." "
Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes (1979) Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp
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If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was God given, and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species.

It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made by anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well.
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Carl Sagan: Can you be sure that others have not come before you and destroyed the pristine state of the native myth?

Can you be sure that the natives are not humoring you or pulling your leg? Bronislaw Malinowski thought he had discovered a people in the Trobriand Islands who had not worked out the connection between sexual intercourse and childbirth. When asked how children were conceived, they supplied him with an elaborate mythic structure prominently featuring celestial intervention. Amazed, Malinowski objected that was not how it was done at all, and supplied them instead with the version so popular in the West today – including a nine-month gestation period. “Impossible,” replied the Melanesians. “Do you not see that woman over there with her six-month-old child? Her husband has been on an extended voyage to another island for two years.” Is it more likely that the Melanesians were ignorant of the begetting of children or that they were gently chiding Malinowski?

If some peculiar-looking stranger came into my town and asked ME where babies came from, I’d certainly be tempted to tell him about storks and cabbages. Prescientific people are people. Individually they are as clever as we are.
Dec
28th
Tue
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Albert Einstein on God


In January of 1954, just a year before his death, Albert Einstein wrote the following letter to philosopher Erik Gutkind after reading his book, 'Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt':

Dear Mr Gutkind,

Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I read a great deal in your book, and thank you very much for lending it to me … With regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element … unites us as having an “American Attitude.”

Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. … For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong … have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.

In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision…

Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e. in our evaluation of human behavior … I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.

With friendly thanks and best wishes,

Yours,

A. Einstein

See also:

☞ Albert Einstein, Becoming a Freethinker and a Scientist
Richard P. Feynman on the conflict between science and religion
Why people believe in strange things, Lapidarium notes
Religion tag on Lapidarium

Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, Nobel Prize laureate, (1879-1955), cited in Letters of Note. Picture source: Bloomsbury Auctions, Autograph Letter signed to Eric B. Gutkind, in German, 1½pp. & envelope, 4to, Princeton, 3rd January 1954. See also: Einstein letter fetches record amount at auction, Physics World
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Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
Dec
12th
Sun
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Richard Feynman on explaining mysteries

“God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven’t figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don’t believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time — life and death — stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don’t think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.” “
Richard Feynman cited in Superstrings : A Theory of Everything (1988) Edited by Paul C. W. Davies and Julian R. Brown
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Bertrand Russell on skepticism and dogma

“Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act.

This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult, it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when widespread, produce social disaster.” “
Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature (1872-1970), On Education, Especially in Early Childhood, 1926
Sep
27th
Mon
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Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head — that is, these nerves are there in the brain … (damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering … that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails … and when they quiver, then an image appears … it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes … and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment — devil take the moment! — but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising — that I understand…. And yet I am sorry to lose God!
— The imprisoned Dmitri Karamazov as he tries to make sense of what he has just learned from a visiting academic from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), cited in Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Books 2003.
Sep
15th
Wed
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Carl Sagan on skepticism

“The major religions on the Earth contradict each other left and right. You can’t all be correct. And what if all of you are wrong? It’s a possibility, you know. You must care about the truth, right? Well, the way to winnow through all the differing contentions is to be skeptical. I’m not any more skeptical about your religious beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in my line of work, they’re called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation.” “
Carl Sagan, Contact, Simon & Schuster, 1985, p. 162
Sep
13th
Mon
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Kenneth Clark on European individualism

“The convention by which the great events in biblical or secular history could be enacted only by magnificent physical specimens, handsome and well-groomed, went on for a long time — till the middle of the nineteenth century. Only a very few artists — perhaps only Rembrandt and Caravaggio in the first rank — were independent enough to stand against it. And I think that this convention, which was an element in the so-called grand manner, became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility.” “
Kenneth Clark, Ch. 5: The Hero as Artist, Civilisation (1969)
Apr
1st
Thu
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E. O. Wilson’s views on religion

“The predisposition to religious belief is an ineradicable part of human behavior. Mankind has produced 100,000 religions. It is an illusion to think that scientific humanism and learning will dispel religious belief. Men would rather believe than know… A kind of Darwinistic survival of the fittest has occurred with religions… The ecological principle called Gause’s law holds that competition is maximal between species with identical needs…

Even submission to secular religions such as Communism and guru cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group. Religious practices confer biological advantage. The mechanisms of religion include (1) objectification (the reduction of reality to images and definitions that are easily understood and cannot be refuted), (2) commitment through faith (a kind of tribalism enacted through self-surrender), (3) and myth (the narratives that explain the tribe’s favored position on the earth, often incorporating supernatural forces struggling for control, apocalypse, and millennium).

The three great religion categories of today are Marxism, traditional religion, and scientific materialism… Though theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline, religion will endure for a long time to come and will not be replaced by scientific materialism.” “
E. O. Wilson’s views on religion as paraphrased by Michael McGoodwin
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Slavoj Žižek on european atheism

“The history of European atheism, from its Greek and Roman origins in LucretiusDe rerum natura to modern classics like Spinoza, offers a lesson in dignity and courage. Much more than with occasional outbursts of hedonism, it is marked by the awareness of the bitter outcome of every human life, since there is no higher authority watching over our fates and guaranteeing the happy outcome. At the same time, atheists strive to formulate the message of joy which comes not from escaping reality, but from accepting it and creatively finding one’s place in it.

What makes this materialist tradition unique is the way it combines the humble awareness that we are not masters of the universe, but just parts of a much larger whole exposed to contingent twists of fate, with a readiness to accept the heavy burden of responsibility for what we make out of our lives. With the threat of unpredictable catastrophe looming from all sides, isn’t this an attitude needed more than ever in our own times? (…)

What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilisation in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post. This is most emphatically a European legacy worth fighting for.” “
Slavoj ŽižekViolence. Six Sideways Reflections, London: Profile Books, 2008, pp. 117-118. (tnx msodradek)