Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cartoony Impiousness?

Yes, it is impious. Yes it is impolite. Yes it is brutal.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More on Evolved Morality - Dr. J. Haidt

Reposted from: New York Times: Science - Sept 18, 2007

Is "Do Unto Others" written in our Genes?
Published: September 18, 2007

Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.

At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?

In a series of recent articles and a book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.

Moral dumbfounding, in Dr. Haidt’s view, occurs when moral judgment fails to come up with a convincing explanation for what moral intuition has decided.

So why has evolution equipped the brain with two moral systems when just one might seem plenty?

“We have a complex animal mind that only recently evolved language and language-based reasoning,” Dr. Haidt said. “No way was control of the organism going to be handed over to this novel faculty.”

He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant.

Dr. Haidt developed a better sense of the elephant after visiting India at the suggestion of an anthropologist, Richard Shweder. In Bhubaneswar, in the Indian state of Orissa, Dr. Haidt saw that people recognized a much wider moral domain than the issues of harm and justice that are central to Western morality. Indians were concerned with integrating the community through rituals and committed to concepts of religious purity as a way to restrain behavior.

On his return from India, Dr. Haidt combed the literature of anthropology and psychology for ideas about morality throughout the world. He identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.

Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.

The five moral systems, in Dr. Haidt’s view, are innate psychological mechanisms that predispose children to absorb certain virtues. Because these virtues are learned, morality may vary widely from culture to culture, while maintaining its central role of restraining selfishness. In Western societies, the focus is on protecting individuals by insisting that everyone be treated fairly. Creativity is high, but society is less orderly. In many other societies, selfishness is suppressed “through practices, rituals and stories that help a person play a cooperative role in a larger social entity,” Dr. Haidt said.

He is aware that many people — including “the politically homogeneous discipline of psychology” — equate morality with justice, rights and the welfare of the individual, and dismiss everything else as mere social convention. But many societies around the world do in fact behave as if loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity are moral concepts, Dr. Haidt notes, and this justifies taking a wider view of the moral domain.

The idea that morality and sacredness are intertwined, he said, may now be out of fashion but has a venerable pedigree, tracing back to Emile Durkheim, a founder of sociology.

Dr. Haidt believes that religion has played an important role in human evolution by strengthening and extending the cohesion provided by the moral systems. “If we didn’t have religious minds we would not have stepped through the transition to groupishness,” he said. “We’d still be just small bands roving around.”

Religious behavior may be the result of natural selection, in his view, shaped at a time when early human groups were competing with one another. “Those who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful,” he said.

Dr. Haidt came to recognize the importance of religion by a roundabout route. “I first found divinity in disgust,” he writes in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

The emotion of disgust probably evolved when people became meat eaters and had to learn which foods might be contaminated with bacteria, a problem not presented by plant foods. Disgust was then extended to many other categories, he argues, to people who were unclean, to unacceptable sexual practices and to a wide class of bodily functions and behaviors that were seen as separating humans from animals.

“Imagine visiting a town,” Dr. Haidt writes, “where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex ‘doggie style’ in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass.”

He sees the disgust evoked by such a scene as allied to notions of physical and religious purity. Purity is, in his view, a moral system that promotes the goals of controlling selfish desires and acting in a religiously approved way.

Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. “Educated liberals are the only group to say, ‘I find that disgusting but that doesn’t make it wrong,’ ” Dr. Haidt said.

Working with a graduate student, Jesse Graham, Dr. Haidt has detected a striking political dimension to morality. He and Mr. Graham asked people to identify their position on a liberal-conservative spectrum and then complete a questionnaire that assessed the importance attached to each of the five moral systems. (The test, called the moral foundations questionnaire, can be taken online, at

They found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective of individuals.

Dr. Haidt believes that many political disagreements between liberals and conservatives may reflect the different emphasis each places on the five moral categories.

Take attitudes to contemporary art and music. Conservatives fear that subversive art will undermine authority, violate the in-group’s traditions and offend canons of purity and sanctity. Liberals, on the other hand, see contemporary art as protecting equality by assailing the establishment, especially if the art is by oppressed groups.

Extreme liberals, Dr. Haidt argues, attach almost no importance to the moral systems that protect the group. Because conservatives do give some weight to individual protections, they often have a better understanding of liberal views than liberals do of conservative attitudes, in his view.

Dr. Haidt, who describes himself as a moderate liberal, says that societies need people with both types of personality. “A liberal morality will encourage much greater creativity but will weaken social structure and deplete social capital,” he said. “I am really glad we have New York and San Francisco — most of our creativity comes out of cities like these. But a nation that was just New York and San Francisco could not survive very long. Conservatives give more to charity and tend to be more supportive of essential institutions like the military and law enforcement.”

Other psychologists have mixed views about Dr. Haidt’s ideas.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, said, “I’m a big fan of Haidt’s work.” He added that the idea of including purity in the moral domain could make psychological sense even if purity had no place in moral reasoning.

But Frans B. M. de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, said he disagreed with Dr. Haidt’s view that the task of morality is to suppress selfishness. Many animals show empathy and altruistic tendencies but do not have moral systems.

“For me, the moral system is one that resolves the tension between individual and group interests in a way that seems best for the most members of the group, hence promotes a give and take,” Dr. de Waal said.

He said that he also disagreed with Dr. Haidt’s alignment of liberals with individual rights and conservatives with social cohesiveness.

“It is obvious that liberals emphasize the common good — safety laws for coal mines, health care for all, support for the poor — that are not nearly as well recognized by conservatives,” Dr. de Waal said.

That alignment also bothers John T. Jost, a political psychologist at New York University. Dr. Jost said he admired Dr. Haidt as a “very interesting and creative social psychologist” and found his work useful in drawing attention to the strong moral element in political beliefs.

But the fact that liberals and conservatives agree on the first two of Dr. Haidt’s principles — do no harm and do unto others as you would have them do unto you — means that those are good candidates to be moral virtues. The fact that liberals and conservatives disagree on the other three principles “suggests to me that they are not general moral virtues but specific ideological commitments or values,” Dr. Jost said.

In defense of his views, Dr. Haidt said that moral claims could be valid even if not universally acknowledged.

“It is at least possible,” he said, “that conservatives and traditional societies have some moral or sociological insights that secular liberals do not understand.”


I can see the intuitive morality versus the conscious morality dilemma. What we reason may be ok, our instincts may not agree with. And I tend to agree with the notion that "behaviours that strengthen group-dynamics" and/or "behaviours that lend themselves to social-selection" would be useful for group-minded species.

As far as the Liberal versus Conservative sympathies, I can see where Dr. Haidt is leaning, but I think that in modern western politics and modern western religion there are going to be a wider spectrum of "shades of grey" to work with for North Americans and Europeans with wider access to diverse cultures and higher standards of education.

I'm definitely adding "The Happiness Hypothesis" to my reading list.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Evolved Morality?

Reposted from:

* 01 September 2007
* news service
* Helen Phillips

...So why do religious concepts provoke moral behaviour even in non-believers? It's because both religion and morality are evolutionary adaptations, says Jesse Bering, who heads the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, UK. Morality does not stem from religion, as is often argued, he suggests: they evolved separately, albeit in response to the same forces in our social environment. Once our ancestors acquired language and theory of mind - the ability to understand what others are thinking - news of any individual's reputation could spread far beyond their immediate group. Anyone with tendencies to behave pro-socially would then have been at an advantage, Bering says: "What we're concerned about in terms of our moral behaviour is what other people think about us." So morality became adaptive.

At the same time the capacity for religious belief would also have emerged. Our reputation-conscious ancestors would have experienced a pervasive feeling of being watched and judged, he says, which they would readily have attributed to supernatural sources since the cognitive system underlying theory of mind also seeks to attribute intentionality and meaning, even where there is none. So the same adaptations that led to morality could also have driven the evolution of religion.

Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York argues that religious practices are also important for group cohesion and are therefore subject to group selection. As humans have become ever more social over the past 100,000 years, and especially from 10,000 years ago, when agriculture led to huge division of labour in societies, religion and morality would have co-evolved as ways to promote social cohesion. "Religion did play a crucial role in giving us our moral nature, at least evolutionarily speaking," says psychologist Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia.

Nowadays, adds Bering, whether we believe in a God or not, the brain architecture that causes us to behave as though we might get caught behaving badly is still present. As a result, atheists are no more likely to be immoral than believers. Indeed, his own experiments show that, regardless of whether people believe in supernatural beings, both adults and children cheat less when performing a task in private if Bering has first primed them with the idea that there may be a "god" or a "ghost" watching.

Cultural and technological advances have also changed the way we live, making western liberal societies poor models for understanding the link between religion and morality, according to Haidt. He argues that we are now far more individualistic than our ancestors. "Technology has changed our lives so we can live in new ways. We can now be moral without religion. We have developed other means of social control," he says, such as laws, police forces and CCTV cameras.

Interesting that the formation of language, and thus a far-reaching 'reputation' may have had some influence on behavioural changes. Acting 'moral' made for a better reputation, and better reception from 'strangers' who had heard of a person's exploits 'through the grapevine'?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Monday, August 20, 2007

Squirrel Obstacle Course

Question: Could the problem-solving skills used by habitual users of the course cause evolutionary pressure over long periods of time?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Early man, living on the savanna, evolved to throw a spear. Being able to successfully throw a spear allowed early humanity to hunt/gather more food, and thus a better chance to pass on the genetics that allow for well-thrown-spears. To throw a spear well, humans must be able to instinctively calculate to allow for wind, motion of target, up-hill, down-hill throws, etc.

As a side effect of being able to instinctively calculate a well-thrown spear (survival adaptation) when humanity later invents mathematics and trigonometry, humanity finds they have a built-in aptitude for this kind of thinking.

Exaptation = An unlooked for side effect of evolved behaviors.

An interesting side effect of this is that a larger right-brain (computation) makes for better antelope catching. The larger right brain allows for quicker instinctive calculation of prehistoric antelope artillery - making for quicker kills, more prosperous humans, and more reproduced genes to select from.

Further, it is easier for the genetic map to simply allow for a larger over-all brain, than simply a larger right brain. So consequently the left-brain (linguistics, imagination) also gets larger.

Ultimately the result is the evolution of poetic artillery-men. (*grin*)

Paraphrased from PZ Myers, Prof. Biology, University of Minnesota.

Interesting notion. For a start, this theory starts to explain how behaviours may evolve that do not necessarily directly equate to passing on the genetic line - or may be an unlooked for result of that survival trait. Very interesting.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Why/How could Altruism "evolve"?

Quite simply: Altruism through protecting the young in spite of personal risk, alarm calling, and various other evolved behaviours have clearly demonstrated benefits for genetic pools.

If I were a....

Lego-man, Star-Trek Red Shirt.

(Hey, why not kill 2 birds with one (plastic) stone?)


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Biblical Skepticism

1 Thessalonians 5:21 Parallel Translations
NASB: But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; (NASB ©1995)
GWT: Instead, test everything. Hold on to what is good.(GOD'S WORD®)
KJV: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
ASV: prove all things; hold fast that which is good;
BBE: Let all things be tested; keep to what is good;
DBY: but prove all things, hold fast the right;
ERV: prove all things; hold fast that which is good;
WEY: but test all such, and retain hold of the good.
WBS: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
WEB: Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good.
YLT: all things prove; that which is good hold fast;

Yes, I know...its the old picking of nits about the good book as the inerrant word of god...but one has to respect a passage that essentially tells one to test/prove/research all things and discard the bad.

Now it may be a stretch to equate 'that which is to be discarded' in the above c&v quotations with 'the untrue' but from a skeptical perspective it doesn't look like a big stretch. I'm sure the 'context police' will say that 'that which is to be discarded' is quantified by 'that which brings god displeasure' and in fact has nothing to do with truth or proof or evidenced fact.

Take it as you will....I find it amusing that the book iteslf contains instruction for skeptical analysis.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Looks like I'll be starting my hollywood career as an extra in the upcoming Simpson's Movie.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Of Peer Approval, Agent Attribution and Time-Binding.

As a social creature, humanity seeks peer approval in social situations. We see this in almost every aspect of social structuring. People seek the approval and well wishes of their peers and associates, and those that are outcast or shunned by their peers and associates suffer from this isolation. We tell stories to each other - we are a story telling species. We tell stories through words and art and acting and actions. But we seek approval for our stories. Great tales get re-told over and over - and they become the "Canon". Social Myths that meet the approval of groups get told over and over again, reinforcing this group approval of the tale. Embellishments and heroic actions get more approval, and are re-told far more often than stories of the mundane or ordinary.

As the descendant of a prey animal, humanity uses an Agent Attribution mechanism to fill shadows with horrors, rustling bushes with potential predators, half-heard sounds with inimical intent, half felt rhythms with projected animus. It is widely thought that our brains do this as a survival mechanism. To assume that all bushes with rustling leaves contain a jaguar that could eat us - simply makes us safer. Sure there will be false positives; certainly there will be rustling bushes that do not contain jaguars waiting to pounce on us and drag us off to be consumed. But many false positives, in this instances, are far more desirable than any single false negative. Thus our perceptual projection of "Agents in Bushes" acts as an evolved survival mechanism that helps protect us from danger.

It is also widely thought that humanity is the only species that binds time. We conceptualize yesterday. We conceptualize tomorrow. But this then brings up the question of tomorrow's tomorrow (and tomorrow's tomorrow's infinitum.) We have the concept of eternity...a shadowy, conceptual future that we can envision through recursive reasoning, but can't really picture in a mental map with any sort of realist predictability. Sure we might do many of the same things next Tuesday that we did last Tuesday, and maybe the next several Tuesdays will be very similar for us, but we can't really say that every Tuesday from now until we experience no more Tuesdays will be the same for us. Thus the concept of eternity becomes a shadowy cavern of potential actions and reactions. We can imagine events, but we cannot, with any accuracy, predict them.

Is it reasonable then to think that these three phenomena of human mentality (among many) have combined to have great effect on our history as a species? In conceptualizing "Eternity" (tomorrow's tomorrow's tomorrow's tomorrow's...tomorrow) with our ability to time bind, do we then instinctively need to attribute "agency" to that vast gulf of unknown, unknowable possibility? Do we "need" (instinctively, or due to evolutionary programming) to envision the jaguar in the bush of tomorrow? Further, in our capacity as a story teller species, do we then embellish the jaguar in the bush, turning it into a wondrous and spectacular Jaguar with mystical powers and supreme animus? What then if our peers and associates approve of our story, and re-tell it over and over and over - embellishing it as they go along?

That's GOTTA be good for you.....

Today Nic and I were driving into work though some rain. On all the roads we traveled there was a foamy white "chemical" residue on the pavement...every road.

It was either washing off the pavement, or being washed onto the pavement from surrounding landscape. WE were passing through residential and commercial areas of the city, but the chemical seemed to be everywhere.

I really don't know what kind of chemical it was, but that's GOTTA be good for you....

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

You are Here...

Don't Panic.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Skeptic's Primer - Answers to Difficult Questions

Q: Is(Are) there (a) God(s)?
A: We don't know.
Complex A: We are a Story Telling Species*. We consume verbal, written, audio and visual entertainments regularly that delight our senses, spark our imagination, and cause our minds to real with imagined possibilities of the strange, spectacular, and sinister. While we don't really know if there is anything out there, we excel at creating stories about unheard of and unwitnessed wonders that delight, dismay, and/or detail the peccadilloes of our imagination. In short, we make stories up about daily events - it is not a great stretch to think we might make stories up about events that are outside of the ordinary. In spite of a wealth of literature concerning deity(s) in our common mythology, there is no evidence to support the existence of any one god or god(s).

Q: Is there life after Death?
A: We don't know.
Complex A: Evidence suggests that the "Self" exists because of electrical and hormonal activity in the brain. When a person or animal dies, all electrical activity in the body and hormonal production ceases. While there may be border states of "changed" perception during the shut-down of these processes that may lead to imagined experiences or simply altered state recollections from those brought back from the brink of death, there is no evidence that any process of self or thought continues on after electrical brain activity and hormonal production ceases.

Q: Where does morality come from?
A: Morality is likely the combination of environmental influence and evolved behavioral instinct.
Complicated A: We have observed that altruism triggers the pleasure centers of the brain. We have also observed patterns of behavior that suggest that altruism functions in an environment of natural selection to aid in the preservation of a genetic line.

*Being a Story Teller Species* (See above) we excel at making up just-so stories and cautionary tales that help clarify and outline what social groups perceive to be moral and ethical behaviors, but those behaviors are not sourced in, or derived from these morality myths, but rather seem to derive from observed behaviors of parental and mentor figures, as well as social influence from peers.

Q:How did the Universe Begin?
A: We don't know.
Complex A: We have cosmological evidence that suggests that the universe may have begun in certain ways, and can answer with a fair degree of certainty that what we observe supports our suggested conclusions...but we're open to new evidence - whether that be more evidence supporting our current theories, or new evidence that suggests a new origin for the universe.

*Being a Story Teller Species* (See above) we have made up many stories about how the universe may have began, stretching our imaginations to their unfettered limits as best we could. While these stories, myths and legends may be compelling, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these stories are anything more than myths and legends.

Q: How did life begin?
A: We don't know.
Complex A: We don't know. We have seen experiments where complex proteins have assembled and replicated themselves, even mutating and changing into new "organic" substances through multiple combines (See Spiegleman’s Monster). This suggests that life may have began in this fashion. We also have genetic evidence that suggests that all creatures came from a common source of genetic information deep in the past. Combining this information, our best hypothesis is that life began as a complex soup of chemicals that combined to form precursors to what we now know to be the building blocks of life.

*Being a Story Teller Species*, we have created many stories, myths and fables about the beginning of the universe, world, life, etc....but there is no evidence that suggests any of these origin myths are accurate or representative of what actually did occur.

Q:What if I don't want to live in a world without God(s), Afterlife(s), Reincarnation(s) or other "out of body" phenomena?
A: The desire for something more doesn't make stories, myths, or legends born of that desire truthful.
Complex A: *Being a Story Teller Species* with grand ideals and lofty aspirations it may be comforting for us to create stories, myths, and legends about a protective powerful figurehead that help us make sense of things we don't understand. The fact of this comforting or palliative effect is not an argument for the truth of these myths and legends. Whether the stories are true or not true, the fact of reality remains the same. It is perfectly acceptable for there to be questions about life, the universe, and everything to which the only answer we have is “We don’t know.”

The Bat Cave - Home Theater


So I wonder if my wife will let me install a "Batcave" style home theater?

*evil grin*

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Victorian Horror

I've been asked by a close friend to pen an episodic Victorian Thriller story that she will ink into a graphic novel.

I'm actually pretty excited about the prospect. I've been doing some cursory research and think I'm going to center my story around the year 1875.

While I have no illusions of being another Lovecraft, I do dearly love the early horror inspired by he and Lord Dunsany.

*rubs hands together...*

Friday, June 22, 2007

Carl Sagan's Dragon

The Dragon In My Garage

by Carl Sagan

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.


Sunday, June 17, 2007


Unverified...but compelling.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Quote for the Day: Neil deGrasse Tyson

"If you profess wear the badge "Teacher, Instructor, Professor, Educator" it is your obligation to understand the conduits of communication that are necessary to enlighten your audience. And...not every student can use the same conduit for enlightenment." Neil deGrasse Tyson

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Monster in the Closet...

The experiment, conducted by Sol Spiegelman of the University of Illinois, consisted of introducing the viral RNA into a medium containing the RNA's own replication enzyme, plus a supply of raw materials and some salts, and incubating the mixture. When Spiegelman did this, the system obligingly replicated the strands of naked RNA. Spiegelman then extracted some of the freshly synthesized RNA, put it in a separate nutrient solution, and let it multiply. He then decanted some of that RNA into yet another solution, and so on, in a series of steps.

The effect of allowing unrestricted replication was that the RNA that multiplied fastest won out, and got passed on to the "next generation" in the series. The decanting operation therefore replaced, in a highly accelerated way, the basic competition process of Darwinian evolution, acting directly on the RNA. In this respect it resembled an RNA world.

Spiegelman's results were spectacular. As anticipated, copying errors occurred during replication. Relieved of the responsibility of working for a living and the need to manufacture protein coats, the spoon-fed RNA strands began to slim down, shedding parts of the genome that were no longer required and merely proved to be an encumbrance. The RNA molecules that could replicate the fastest simply out-multiplied the competition. After seventy-four generations, what started out as an RNA strand with 4,500 nucleotide bases ended up as a dwarf genome with only 220 bases. This raw replicator with no frills attached could replicate very fast. It was dubbed Spiegelman's monster.

*Evolution at work in the laboratory.

In 1974, Manfred Eigen and his colleagues also experimented with a chemical broth containing Qb replication enzyme and salts, and an energized form of the four bases that make up the building blocks of RNA. They tried varying the quantity of viral RNA initially added to the mixture. As the amount of input RNA was progressively reduced, the experimenters found that, with little competition, it enjoyed untrammeled exponential growth. Even a single RNA molecule added to the broth was enough to trigger a population explosion.

But then something truly amazing was discovered. Replicating strands of RNA were still produced even when not a single molecule of viral RNA was added! To return to my architectural analogy, it was rather like throwing a pile of bricks into a giant mixer and producing, if not a house, then at least a garage. At first Eigen found the results hard to believe, and checked to see whether accidental contamination had occurred. Soon the experimenters convinced themselves that they were witnessing for the first time the spontaneous synthesis of RNA strands form their basic building blocks. Analysis revealed that under some experimental conditions the created RNA resembled Spiegelman's monster.

*Biogenesis in the lab? Well....lets be honest, its not quite biogenesis...its more pre-biogenesis. The RNA would have to form protein skins and develop into cellular organisms.....but its certainly a hint toward biogenesis.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More on Evolution....

The Canard: Random Mutation cannot produce complex 'finished' systems.

The Response: Mutations in evolution are not so much 'random' as indifferent, or undirected. There is no predictability or purpose to the mutation that, through natural selection, results in just happens.

Jerry Coyne's explanation:

On the basis of much evidence, scientists have concluded that mutations occur randomly. The term "random" here has a specific meaning that is often misunderstood, even by biologists. What we mean is that mutations occur irrespective of whether they would be useful to the organism. Mutations are simply errors in DNA replication. Most of them are harmful or neutral, but a few of them can turn out to be useful. And there is no known biological mechanism for jacking up the probability that a mutation will meet the current adaptive needs of the organism. Bears adapting to snowy terrain will not enjoy a higher probability of getting mutations producing lighter coats than will bears inhabiting non-snowy terrain.

What we do not mean by "random" is that all genes are equally likely to mutate (some are more mutable than others) or that all mutations are equally likely (some types of DNA change are more common than others). It is more accurate, then, to call mutations "indifferent" rather than "random": the chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful. Evolution by selection, then, is a combination of two steps: a "random" (or indifferent) step--mutation--that generates a panoply of genetic variants, both good and bad (in our example, a variety of new coat colors); and then a deterministic step--natural selection--that orders this variation, keeping the good and winnowing the bad (the retention of light-color genes at the expense of dark-color ones).

So....if my imperfect understanding of the explanation is accurate, the following happens:

- Populations reproduce.

- Genetic mutation causes changes in offspring during embryonic formation.

- Offspring who 'chance' to have beneficial mutations that favour their survivability may survive to reproduce more than those with neutral or non-beneficial mutations.

- The population of 'beneficially mutated breeding subjects' is more likely to pass on a beneficial mutation to their offspring (along with other mutations).

- Over time the net accumulation of passed on beneficial traits may lead to a beneficial mutation being adapted by a species and becoming a 'common inheritance' of said species.

- Natural Selection combined with Beneficial Mutations may not result in increased complexity, but in fact may result in the reduction of certain complexities if those reductions amount to a net-positive or net-benefit for the species.

Note: I'm becoming quite a fan of Jerry Coyne.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Strange and Compelling


What happens when you amalgamate the flight paths over the US, colour coordinate them by airline, and then time-laps the flight paths? Serendipitous Beauty!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Succinct Definition of Evolution.

"There is only one going theory of evolution, and it is this: organisms evolved gradually over time and split into different species, and the main engine of evolutionary change was natural selection."

Jerry Coyne, Proff. Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Monday, June 4, 2007

Jennifer Aniston is Equivalent to HOW MANY chickens?

According to Weird Converter, Jen Aniston is equal to 24.9478363422 chickens.

This conversion tool has so many possibilities.

1 Giraffe's neck = 0.1197306539 the length of the world's longest snake.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Pleasures of Altruism

"Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable."


So...there is some evidence that racial altruism or solidarity produces a pleasurable response in the brain of the typical human.
YET...we still see tribalism rampant in 21 century humanity. We understand that evolving a pleasurable altruism trait may be beneficial to humanity.

It feels good to be good to others, so if we're all good to each other, we'll all feel good together and that is a good thing.

But we compartmentalize, and segregate, and break down our species into smaller, easily sorted packages that we can conceptualize better.
Which brings up an interesting supposition. Do all these religious types who feel "all moral and warm" because of their faith, trigger this "pleasurable altruism" circuit in their brain through tribal solidarity of congregational fellowship?
Could this be part of the reason that so many people take comfort in tribal segregation - by joining a socieity that allows for maximum triggering of the "pleasurable altruism" circuit?
Sororities, Fraternities, Political Parties, Churches, Clubs, Gangs, Associations, Social Networking, Sporting Teams and Fan Associations - all may be humanity flailing around trying to maximize this triggering.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Civilization - The Real Thing

This is a composite image of the earth at night. It is compiled from many satellite images. The brighter areas are the bright lights of civilization.

A large scale image is available for download here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Life 2.0?

From the newsweek article at

Christopher Voigt, of UC San Francisco, and Christina Smolke, of Caltech, are in the early stages of designing microbes that would circulate through the human bloodstream, seeking out cancerous tumors anywhere in the body. The microbes might be equipped with a biodevice that detects the low oxygen levels characteristic of a tumor, another that invades the cancer cells, a third that generates a toxin to kill the cells and a fourth that hangs around afterward in case the cancer comes back. All this would happen without the patient's even knowing. Eventually, circulating cellular sentries could monitor and adjust blood levels of critical substances including glucose and cholesterol.

Now that's Cool!

Promiscuous Teleology

Selected quotes shamelessly pasted from:

Our intuitive psychology also contributes to resistance to science. One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed "promiscuous teleology." Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

So....if, as children, we assign purpose to each object (Clouds are for Rain, Kittens are for Cuddling, etc...) and find it easier to accept, at this age, "created" explanations for the origins of things, then perhaps those adults who cling to "creationist theory" have simply not developed (or over-developed) the brain structure or thought patterns that govern acceptance of new ideas and new information?

Some culture-specific information is not associated with any particular source. It is "common knowledge." As such, learning of this type of information generally bypasses critical analysis. A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone uses the word "dog" to refer to dogs, so children easily learn that this is what they are called. Other examples include belief in germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist, a topic explored in detail by Paul Harris and his colleagues.

Science is not special here. Geographic information and historical information is also typically assumed, which is how an American child comes to believe that there is a faraway place called Africa and that there was a man who lived long ago named Abraham Lincoln. And, in some cultures, certain religious beliefs can be assumed as well. For instance, if the existence of supernatural entities like gods, karma, and ancestor spirits is never questioned by adults in the community, the existence of such entities will be unquestioningly accepted by children.

So children raised in a family/society where skepticism is the norm, or where critical analysis of scientific and/or philisophical thought is the norm may adopt such practices in the same unquestioning fashion?

But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits of string theory, the role in mercury in the etiology of autism, or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim's source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it.

Aha! So children raised in a family/society where science is dubbed to be untrustworthy will accept that science and the scientific method is not to be taken at face value in the same unquestioning fashion that they adopt unquestioned social mythology from parents, adults and trusted elders.

This deference to authority isn't limited to science; the same process holds for certain religious, moral, and political beliefs as well. In an illustrative recent study, subjects were asked their opinion about a social welfare policy, which was described as being endorsed either by Democrats or by Republicans. Although the subjects sincerely believed that their responses were based on the objective merits of the policy, the major determinant of what they thought of the policy was in fact whether or not their favored political party was said to endorse it. More generally, many of the specific moral intuitions held by members of a society appear to be the consequence, not of personal moral contemplation, but of deference to the views of the community.

And there we have it. There is no divine source for morality, but rather impressionable people seeking a like minded tribe to associate with, selects morality based on the consensus of said tribe. Which goes a long way to explain the shifting zeitgeist of the 21 century away from scripturally mandated moral directives to more forgiving culture driven morality. We've all but ended slavery, and sexism (*nod*...there are holdouts, granted) and are working on eliminating prejudicial discrimination based on sex and sexuality.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. To end on a practical note, then, one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.

It appears that the trend in Christian Fundamentalist circles is to erode the public trust in science, playing out creationism and ID illusions as alternatives. If successful, these programs may inadvertently lead to the dumbing-down of populations of C.F.'s through their widespread skepticism of the Scientific Community and subsequent lack of aptitudes for the Hard Sciences - and perhaps increasing aptitudes for the Junk Sciences. I tend to agree that promotion of trust in the Scientific Method and encouraging children to experience the varied disciplines of science with an open and childlike sense of wonder and discovery is not only healthy, but essential.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Oldest Life on Earth

A Canadian-led team of scientists has discovered what they say is the oldest indisputable evidence of life on Earth -- the fossilized trackways of slithering microbes in a 3.35-billion-year-old rock from Australia.

The team, led by University of Western Ontario geologist Neil Banerjee and including three scientists from the University of Alberta, claims to have completed the first "direct dating" of a biomarker from the planet's earliest epoch. Previous studies -- including one led by Banerjee in 2004 that fixed a 3.5-billion-year-old age to fossilized microbe trails found in South Africa -- have been criticized for relying on techniques that dated surrounding rock rather than the "ichnofossil" tracks themselves.

Banerjee said Monday the dating of the Australian fossils is "quite unique" because the researchers used a state-of-the-art, laser-plasma mass spectrometer at the U of A to precisely target tiny minerals and organic residues captured inside the microbes' primordial burrows.

"One of the criticisms of our earlier work was based on the analogy that just because the London Underground was dug into million-year-old rock, that doesn't make the Underground a million years old," said Banerjee. "This time, we dated the fossil itself. To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has directly dated an archean microfossil."


Monday, May 28, 2007

Zen Moment

The Security Code Verifier:
Is it serendipity? Is it an accident? Is it a message from GOrD?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Chuck Norris reveals the diabolical 5-Year plan for Atheism

Shamelessly re-posted from:

To inform his readers of the correct plan of attack, Chuck details the Evil Atheist Conspiracy's™ 5-year plan (procured, no doubt, from the freshly slain corpse of one of our operatives). This includes:

Outlawing Christianity

1. by causing a goof-up at the mint, resulting in "In God We Trust" being accidentally left off some new dollar coins.
2. by joining the Freedom From Religion Foundation and ensuring that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution is correctly applied.
3. by discovering the existence of a nonbelieving Congressman.
4. by forcing Congress to pass a hate-crime bill.

Targeting Children

1. by daring to raise them without religion.
2. by offering a non-religious summer camp for freethinking kids.
3. by providing an online forum to allow teenagers to question faith.
4. by offering unholy Richard Dawkins link buttons for MySpace pages.

Promoting Atheism

1. by purchasing Richard Dawkins' "atheist bible."
2. by allowing Sam Harris to write letters.
3. by ignoring the science that proves God.

*little does he know that we're now in Year 7 of the program......

I am....a scientific atheist?

What Kind of Atheist are you?

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


Apathetic Atheist


Spiritual Atheist


Militant Atheist




Angry Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hurricane Season?

13 to 17 Named Storms Predicted
Experts at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center are projecting a 75 percent chance that the Atlantic Hurricane Season will be above normal this year—showing the ongoing active hurricane era remains strong.
Another Katrina? I hope not - for the sake of any innocents that may be harmed by a strong hurricane season.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Going to great lengths...

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths people will go to to convince themselves of something.This Creation Museum in Cincinnati is a testament to the story telling power and credulity of some people.

I'm going to watch their online gift shop and see if I can order a novelty souvenir of this special institution.

Monday, May 14, 2007

God's House - Tax Exempt

Detroit World Outreach Church considers its purchase of this mansion proof of God's blessing.

Say, that's a nice "Parsonage" house you got there.
Though the township in which it resides stands to lose $40k in annual taxes because a church sponsored parsonage is a tax-exempt charitable property. Stick that in your seperation-of-church-and-state, Michigan!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Cool Stuff!

PASADENA, Calif. — Sometimes a particular piece of plastic is just what you need. You have lost the battery cover to your cellphone, perhaps. Or your daughter needs to have the golden princess doll she saw on television. Now.

In a few years, it will be possible to make these items yourself. You will be able to download three-dimensional plans online, then push Print. Hours later, a solid object will be ready to remove from your printer.

It’s not quite the transporter of “Star Trek,” but it is a step closer.
Three-dimensional printers have been seen in industrial design shops for about a decade. They are used to test part designs for cars, airplanes and other products before they are sent to manufacturing. Once well over $100,000 each, such machines can now be had for $15,000. In the next two years, prices are expected to fall further, putting the printers in reach of small offices and even corner copy stores.

The next frontier will be the home. One company that wants to be the first to deliver a 3-D printer for consumers is Desktop Factory, started by IdeaLab, a technology incubator here. The company will start selling its first printer for $4,995 this year.

"Is Christianity Good for the World?"

Christopher Hitchens (author: God is not Great) and Douglas Wilson (author: Letter from a Christian Citizen) debate:

Round 1: Hitchens -
Some salient points, and pointed questions that discuss the relative lack of merit of christianity.

Responder: Wilson -
Seque's off to some other non-related discussion points, dismissing Hitchens' openers and forging ahead in new directions.

Quote - Wilson -
"we must receive the gift of forgiveness and the resultant ability to live more in conformity to a standard we already knew"
- If we already knew the 'standards' why then is there so much disagreement over their nature? And who gets to ARBITRARILY decide which standard is which?

Clever Apes?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Which God am I?

After taking the test below, I find I'm most like Buddha.
I wonder if the creators of this test saw a photo of me once.

"I am....Smiling Buddha" ;-)

The test:

...Snoring Androids.

"... Rick Deckard, the android-chasing bounty hunter in “Do Androids Dream,” desperately want something authentic to believe in, and the books suggest that the quality of belief may be more important than the degree of authenticity."

Now there's an interesting thought. How important is authenticity when the guise of 'quality' is paired with belief. If a mental map of a belief system 'appears' to be of high quality, or engenders feelings of happiness, harmony, health or other spiritual well-being, is it important that the belief structures be genuine?

Below, we examined the parallels between the mythical figures of Yeshuah, Krishna, Horus, Mithras and Buddha. There are similarities to be found in all 5 mythologies - and as Pantokraterix states in the Blog Entry "The Mythology of Chrisitanity. Who Cares?" wisdom should be considered wisdom, even if the source is questionable/borrowed or simply a stew from the melting pot of human mythology.

But then we must acknowledge that as we dish out this stew of ideas, with the wisdom comes the...unwise? I hesitate here, because my first instinct was to say "foolish", but that is an inciteful term. True some of the precepts of scripture may be distasteful to a reasoned person, but there may have been an original wisdom when taken contextually. It may seem extreme to stone someone to death for eating shellfish (in the 21 century), but in year zero O.T. times, there were probably very good bacteriological reasons to not eat shellfish.

That being said, humanity seems to want to find ideals to cling to, or to derive support from, or to base a moral ethic around. But do we NEED to make it so complicated? Do we need to derive wisdom from lengthy, poorly written, self conflicting instruction manuals that self-correct themselves and brook no evolution to suit the surrounding culture or time frame? Why does humanity overcomplicate the simple question of whether we should just all be nice to each other, or whether we should engage in infinite varieties of tribalism? Are we struggling between an instinctive need to "protect the tribe" and a social need to "better the species"?

Somewhere in the dark, an Android dreams of Electric Sheep...

This time, no apologies to Antiphon for the length of post. Phil Dick brooks no abbreviation.

A Prince of Pulp, Legit at Last Warner Independent Pictures Filmmakers have drawn heavily on the Philip K. Dick catalog of work for inspiration, including “A Scanner Darkly” last year.


Published: May 6, 2007 - New York Times

ALL his life the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick yearned for what he called the mainstream. He wanted to be a serious literary writer, not a sci-fi hack whose audience consisted, he once said, of “trolls and wackos.” But Mr. Dick, who popped as many as 1,000 amphetamine pills a week, was also more than a little paranoid. In the early ’70s, when he had finally achieved some standing among academic critics and literary theorists — most notably the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem — he narced on them all, writing a letter to the F.B.I. in which he claimed they were K.G.B. agents trying to take over American science fiction.

o it’s hard to know what Mr. Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, would have made of the fact that this month he has arrived at the pinnacle of literary respectability. Four of his novels from the 1960s — “The Man in the High Castle,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “Ubik” — are being reissued by the Library of America in that now-classic Hall of Fame format: full cloth binding, tasseled bookmark, acid-free, Bible-thin paper. He might be pleased, or he might demand to know why his 40-odd other books weren’t so honored. And what about the “Exegesis,” an 8,000-page journal that derived a sort of Gnostic theology from a series of religious visions he experienced during a couple of months in 1974? A wary, hard-core Dickian might argue that the Library of America volume is just a diversion, an attempt to turn a deeply subversive writer into another canonical brand name.

Another thing that would probably amuse and annoy Mr. Dick in about equal measure are the exceptional number of movies that have been made from his work, starting with “Blade Runner” (adapted from “Do Androids Dream”), 25 years old this year and available in the fall on a special “final cut” DVD. The newest, “Next,” taken from a short story, “The Golden Man,” starring Nicolas Cage as a magician able to see into the future and Julianne Moore as an F.B.I. agent eager to enlist his help, opened just last month. In the works is a biopic starring Paul Giamatti, who bears more than a passing physical resemblance to the author, who by the end of his life had the doughy look of a guy who didn’t spend a lot of time in the daylight.

Mr. Dick died while “Blade Runner” was still in production, already unhappy about the shape the script was taking, though not the kind of money he hoped to realize. “Blade Runner” is probably the best of the Dick movies, if not the most faithful. (That honor probably belongs to “A Scanner Darkly,” released last year, in which Richard Linklater’s semi-animated technique suggests some of the feel of a graphic novel.)

There’s no reason to think Mr. Dick would have approved any more of the others, especially “Total Recall,” in which Quail, the nerdish hero of Mr. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” turns into Quaid, a buffed-up Arnold Schwarzenegger character. Meanwhile, as several critics have noted, movies like the “Matrix” series, “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” though not based on Dick material, still seem to contain his spark, and dramatize more vividly than some of the official Dick projects his essential notion that reality is just a construct or, as he liked to say, a forgery. It’s as if his imaginative DNA had spread like a virus.

Part of why Mr. Dick’s work appeals so much to moviemakers is his pulpish sensibility. He grew up in California reading magazines like Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Fantastic Universe, and then, after dropping out of the University of California, Berkeley, began writing for them, often in manic 20-hour sessions fueled by booze and speed. He could type 120 words a minute, and told his third wife (third of five, and there were countless girlfriends: Mr. Dick loved women but was hell to live with), “The words come out of my hands, not my brain, I write with my hands.”

His early novels, written in two weeks or less, were published in double-decker Ace paperbacks that included two books in one, with a lurid cover for each. “If the Holy Bible was printed as an Ace Double,” an editor once remarked, “it would be cut down to two 20,000-word halves with the Old Testament retitled as ‘Master of Chaos’ and the New Testament as ‘The Thing With Three Souls.’ ”

So for the most part you don’t read Mr. Dick for his prose. (The main exception is “The Man in the High Castle,” his most sustained and most assured attempt at mainstream respectability, and it’s barely a sci-fi book at all but, rather, what we would now call a “counterfactual”; its premise is that the Allies lost World War II and the United States is ruled by the Japanese in the west and the Nazis in the east.) Nor do you read him for the science, the way you do, say, Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein.

Mr. Dick was relatively uninterested in the futuristic, predictive side of science fiction and embraced the genre simply because it gave him liberty to turn his imagination loose. Except for the odd hovercar or rocket ship, there aren’t many gizmos in his fiction, and many of his details are satiric, like the household appliances in “Ubik” that demand to be fed with coins all the time, or put-ons, like the bizarre clownwear that is apparently standard office garb in the same book (which is set in 1992, by the way; so much for Dick the prophet): “natty birch-bark pantaloons, hemp-rope belt, peekaboo see-through top, and train engineer’s tall hat.”

To a considerable extent Mr. Dick’s future is a lot like our present, except a little grungier. Everything is always running down or turning into what one of the characters in “Do Androids Dream” calls “kipple”: junk like match folders and gum wrappers that doubles itself overnight and fills abandoned apartments. This sense of entropy and decline is what Ridley Scott evokes so well in “Blade Runner,” with its seedy, rainy streetscapes, and what Steven Spielberg misses in his slightly schizoid “Minority Report,” in which Tom Cruise waves his hands at that glass console, as if it were a room-size Wii system.

The theme of “Minority Report” — pre-cognition, or the idea that certain people, “precogs,” can foresee the future, with not always happy results — was an idea that Mr. Dick began exploring in the mid-’50s, along with themes of altered or repressed memory, which became the subject of “Total Recall,” “Impostor” and, more recently, John Woo’s “Paycheck.” Most of the Dick-inspired movies come from short stories of this period — several of them, including “The Golden Man,” written in the space of just a few months.

In the ’60s Mr. Dick turned his energies to novel writing, and with the exception of “Do Androids Dream” (considerably dumbed down in “Blade Runner”) and “A Scanner Darkly” (published in 1977 and, incidentally, the first book Dick wrote without the assistance of drugs) the novels don’t lend themselves so readily to the Hollywood imagination.

(Page 2 of 2)

That’s because they’re much harder to reduce to a single concept or plot line. Three of the novels collected in the Library of America volume — “Do Androids Dream,” “The Three Stigmata” and “Ubik — are arguably Mr. Dick’s best. (Some diehards hold out for “VALIS,” his last major work, but that’s really his “Finnegans Wake” — a book more fun to talk about than to read.) All three are less gimmicky than the stories and are preoccupied with two big questions that became his obsession: How do we know what is real, and how do we know what is human? For all I know, you could be a robot, or maybe I am, merely preprogrammed to think of myself as a person, and this thing we call reality might be just a collective hallucination.

This kind of speculation — the stuff of so many hazy, bong-fed dorm-room bull sessions — takes on genuine interest in Mr. Dick’s writing because he means it and because he invests the outcome with longing. His characters, like Rick Deckard, the android-chasing bounty hunter in “Do Androids Dream,” desperately want something authentic to believe in, and the books suggest that the quality of belief may be more important than the degree of authenticity.

“The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” and “Ubik,” written five years apart, are in many ways two versions of the same story, one tragic and one mostly comic. The title character of “The Three Stigmata” (1964) is not much to look at — his stigmata are steel teeth, a robotic arm and replacement eyes — but he still possesses Godlike, or perhaps Satanic, powers, and is able, with the help of a drug called Chew-Z, to enmesh people in webs of hallucination, one within another, so slippery and perplexing that even the reader feels a little discombobulated. The book is a horror story of the imagination gone amok.

“Ubik” (1969) is more redemptive. The godlike figure here is an entrepreneur named Glen Runciter, who runs what’s called a “prudence organization”: for a fee, he will debug your company and rid it of “teeps,” or secret-stealing telepaths. He manages to communicate with some of his former employees even when they’re dead and supplies them with a salvific aerosol spray, called Ubik, that appears to at least temporarily resist the tendency of everything to regress backwards to the way it was in 1939. Mr. Dick describes Depression-era artifacts — Philco radios, Curtis Wright biplanes — with great affection, however, and in this book death turns out not to be so bad; it isn’t eternal extinction, but a kind of half-life partly imagined by a restless young man (also dead) named Jory.

Jory is a bit of menace, but Mr. Dick has a soft spot for him as a dreamer and fantasist, as he does in “The Three Stigmata” for the colonists on Mars who, bored silly, like to get stoned and play with their Perky Pat layouts, elaborate Ken and Barbie sets that let them make up nostalgic stories about life on Earth. He also likes to embed in his books still other books, emblems of imaginative possibility, like the novel in “The Man in the High Castle” that postulates an Allied victory.

There is doubtless an autobiographical element to Mr. Dick’s novels; they read like the work of someone who knows from experience what it’s like to hallucinate. Lawrence Sutin, who has written the definitive biography of Mr. Dick, says that he took LSD only a couple of times, and didn’t particularly like it. On the other hand his regular regimen of uppers and downers, gobbled by the handful, was surely sufficient to play tricks with his head, and Mr. Dick worried more than once that he might be turning schizophrenic.

The books aren’t just trippy, though. The best of them are visionary or surreal in a way that American literature, so rooted in reality and observation, seldom is. Critics have often compared Mr. Dick to Borges, Kafka, Calvino. To come up with an American analogue you have to think of someone like Emerson, but nobody would ever dream of looking to him for movie ideas. Emerson was all brain, no pulp.