H. L. Mencken

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Politics 1920’s edition:

“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
~ H. L. Mencken (Baltimore Evening Sun: “Bayard vs. Lionheart” 26 July 1920)

#Quotes #Elections #Politics

The Two Great Seeds

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The Two Great Seeds

*** This writing comes after a two hour meditation on the trinity of Prajna (Sanskrit) which means wisdom, Shila (Sanskrit) which means morality, and Samadhi (Sanskrit) which means mental discipline or concentration. This is the path that has opened up in my life through deep consideration, meditation and internal debate. This in no way is supposed to be a critique of your personal beliefs or faith, although I am sure some will take it that way. I hope you’ll understand if you read it fully with an open heart that I mean no disrespect only an expression of my journey. ***

I am not vain enough to claim there is one way to truth, but this is a record of my intimate experience. Each of us is born with two great seeds: the seed of spiritual contemplation and the seed of doubt. Which of these, if either, takes root determines the path, the trajectory of your spiritual path. I was born into a Christian family, mostly Presbyterian and for many years, as with most people, all my answers were written in the text I was raised with though as with most I never read it cover to cover. The turning point where the seed of doubt overwhelmed me was when I was sixteen, the year of my great trauma. The details of that trauma do not matter, what matters is the seed of spiritual contemplation took root at that moment.

I took the challenge of reading the Bible cover to cover for the first of four times in my life in search of an intimate truth, in search of the answers only my heart could question, questions I couldn’t fathom asking out loud. The solace I sought was not to be forthcoming, instead more questions were germinated in my heart. I did not have the words to put it in at the time, but I had already given up on the notion of moral relativism that is so prevalent to this day especially in academic circles and liberalism. For example ethnic cleansing, genocide, infanticide, filicide, etc. are always on the wrong side of morality. Always. What I found reading the Bible was a God that embraced all those things.

I was living in a spiritual void, if I could not believe in the faith of my fathers where did I have to turn? For several years I embraced the quote, “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.” Logically I started in the Western tradition with Socrates and Plato. I devoured them reading them much too fast for their arguments fully to be realized. Through my high school years I systematically worked my way through to Nietzsche and Marx. While there were concepts I could incorporate into my own life, there was not a philosophical system that answered all the questions which plagued my heart.

Beginning my freshman year in college I decided to slowly expand my search to other religious traditions. I had taken a class on Indian Philosophy my first semester and the obvious became clear I had ignored the eastern traditions. I recognized the serenity my Christian friends found in their faith. I felt I owed the faith of my fathers one more investigation again reading the Bible cover to cover, medieval commentaries such as those of the Christian mystics such as Saint Catherine of Siena, Hildegard von Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, etc. I was finally able to vocalize my question that could not be answered, what is the meaning of our existence? Is it to simply move from one pleasure to the next: birth, food, wealth, sex, marriage, family, etc.?

The answers I sought must be elsewhere, after all I was not the first to ask these questions. I burned through the Talmud, the Koran, the Vedic religions of India, the Bhagavad-Gita, Hinduism, and finally to Buddhism. Here I found a man 2500 years ago asking the exact same questions that plagued me. It brought me back to the central crux I have of all faiths, oral tradition. The Buddha was not written about for nearly the first 500 years after his death. The gospels of Jesus some 70, 80, or 90 years after the death of Jesus. Our human history is dotted with sages who after their passing go through the process of their lives becoming legend, then, myth, and finally faith inflating their words and deeds. We don’t need to go back to the time of Jesus or the Buddha to see this in action we can look at the case of Mother Teresa. To become a catholic saint you must perform two miracles, her first was to cure a Bengali woman of a stomach tumor when she gazed at a picture of Mother Teresa. This miracle has come under great scrutiny as doctors have come forward who treated her and claim that it was not a tumor at all, but a cyst that was cured through a drug treatment she underwent. For most this first miracle is already legendary and not questioned and the further we pass from the actual events the more legendary it will become. Had her canonization not been expedited, a process which on average takes 181 years, who knows what evidence would have come forward. My intent is not to denigrate Mother Teresa, but to illustrate the legend to myth to faith process occurs to this very day.

My introduction to Buddhism came through reading “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.” It spoke to me in ways that no other tradition had in the past. The answers were not outward in some ancient text, but could only be realized by turning inward. There are innumerable Buddhist texts to help you along your path, point you in the right direction. Two new questions plagued me could I believe in the concepts of rebirth and karma that are so integrated into Buddhist tradition? Could I believe in an orthodoxy of one of the Buddhist traditions steeped in ritual, legend, myth, and faith. Did the Buddha really live? It was the same question I had about Christianity and Jesus. The answer I came to in meditation that unlike Christianity it did not matter. Christianity falls apart without the actual act of Jesus dying for your sins, but the Buddha whether simply legend or real man it does not matter. The Buddha showed the path to enlightenment, to the answer to the question that had plagued me since I was a teenager, was this all there is to life.

I needed guidance of some sort in my spiritual awakening and living in Montana at the time there were not a lot of options. I desired a teacher to posit my questions to, to guide me right when I was veering left. I found my teacher in modern texts of the Zen masters, YouTube, audio books, etc. I was embarking on what I term DIY Zen Buddhism. It was not the choice I wanted to make, it was the option that was forced upon me. I still very much rely on DIY Zen Buddhism, although I have had several teachers from such places as Seattle, Paris, and Jacksonville Florida as I’ve moved around. Over the years I have practiced both Soto and Rinzai Zen. Am I any closer to enlightenment than I was when I was sixteen and only knew of Buddhism by name I’m not sure. I do know I see the compassion and comfort in the answers to their spiritual contemplation in the dharma talks and writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, John Daido Loori, and other Zen practitioners. The questions still plague me and the seed of doubt is strong in the notions of rebirth and karma. I do not know if I will ever be completely satisfied with my spiritual contemplation. I know that in my life I have learned deeply from asking the same questions a simple man asked 2500 years ago. He found comfort in the answers he discovered and it is my hope to eventually do the same. I find more comfort in the life of a mere human than I have been able to find in the dictates of the innumerable gods humans have worshipped throughout our history.

Baruch Spinoza: The God of Spinoza

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Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) born Benedito de Espinosa was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardi origin. By laying the groundwork for the Enlightenmentand modern biblical criticism,including modern conceptions of the self and the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy. Along with René Descartes, Spinoza was a leading philosophical figure of the Dutch Golden Age. Spinoza’s given name, which means “Blessed”, varies among different languages. In Hebrew, it is written ברוך שפינוזה. His Portuguese name is Benedito “Bento” de Espinosa or d’Espinosa. In his Latin works, he used Latin: Benedictus de Spinoza.

“As to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken”

~ Baruch Spinoza

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When Spinoza wrote “Deus sive Natura” (“God or Nature”) Spinoza meant God was Natura naturans not Natura naturata, that is, “a dynamic nature in action, growing and changing, not a passive or static thing.”  One might best understand Spinoza by examining Bertrand Russell’s commentary of his beliefs from 1910:

“Spinoza, more than any other modern philosopher, writes always with a strong sense of the importance of philosophy in the conduct of life, and with a firm belief in the power of reason to improve men’s conduct and purify their desires. Like many men of great independence of mind, he feels the need of something great enough to justify him in submitting to its authority. Like all who contemplate human life without sharing its baser passions, he is oppressed by the endless strife produced by conflicting aims and unrestrained ambitions. Believing, as he does, that self-preservation is the very essence of everything that exists, he sees no end to strife except by persuading men to choose as their ends things which all may enjoy in common. Contempt and moral condemnation stand in the way of toleration; he therefore sets out to prove that what men do they do from a necessity of their nature. As well might one condemn a triangle for not having made the effort to increase its angles beyond two right angles as condemn men for being what their nature makes them. His theory of the emotions, in which, by his geometrical method, he demonstrates that men must act in ways which it is common to condemn, contains much admirable psychology; but it was not this that made him value his theory: what he valued was the conclusion that moral condemnation is foolish. It is for this reason partly that Spinoza inveighs against free-will and finds pleasure in showing the necessity of everything. But there is also another reason: what is transitory, though it may be tolerated, cannot be worshipped; but the proof of its necessity connects it with the Divine nature, and thereby removes its pitifulness. To a certain type of mind there is something sublime about necessity: it seems that in the knowledge of what is necessary we place ourselves in harmony with what is greatest in the universe. This constitutes, to those who feel it, a great part of the value of mathematical demonstration; even Spinoza’s geometrical method, which has been almost universally condemned, will be held appropriate by those who know the “intellectual love of God.”

“He who loves God,” Spinoza says, “cannot strive that God should love him in return.” Goethe, in a passage of characteristic sentimentality, misquotes this proposition in singling it out for special praise; he quotes it as, “Who loves God truly must not expect God to love him in return,” and regards it as an example of “Entsagen sollst du, sollst entsagen.” If Goethe had understood Spinoza’s religion, he would not have made this mistake. Spinoza, here and elsewhere, is not inculcating resignation; he himself loved what he judged to be best, and lived, so far as one can discover, without effort in the way which he held to be conformable to reason. There seems to have been in him, what his philosophy was intended to produce in others, an absence of bad desires; hence, his nature is harmonious and gentle, free from the cruelty of asceticism, or the monkishness of the cloister, or the moralistic priggery of Goethe’s praises. “He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions,” Spinoza says, “loves God, and loves Him better the better he understands himself and his emotions.” It is through the love of God that we are freed from bondage to the passions, and that our minds become in some degree eternal. “God loves Himself with an infinite, intellectual love,” and “the intellectual love of the mind towards God is the very love with which He loves Himself.” Hence, though immortality in the ordinary sense is an error, the mind is nevertheless eternal in so far as it consists in the intellectual love of God. To represent such a philosophy as one of renunciation is surely to miss the whole of the mystic joy which it is intended to produce, and to misunderstand the reconciliation of the individual with the whole, which is the purpose of so much elaborate argument.

Spinoza’s ethical views are inextricably intertwined with his metaphysics, and it may be doubted whether his metaphysics is as good as is supposed by followers of Hegel. But the general attitude towards life and the world which he inculcates does not depend for its validity upon a system of metaphysics. He believes that all human ills are to be cured by knowledge and understanding; that only ignorance of what is best makes men think their interests conflicting, since the highest good is knowledge, which can be shared by all. But knowledge, as he conceives it, is not mere knowledge as it comes to most people; it is “intellectual love,” something coloured by emotion through and through. This conception is the key to all his valuations.”

~ Bertrand Russell

The concept of a personal relationship with God comes from the position that one is a part of an infinite interdependent “organism.” Spinoza argued that everything is a derivative of God, interconnected with all of existence. Although humans experience only thought and extension, what happens to one aspect of existence will affect others. Thus, Spinozism teaches a form of determinism and ecology, and uses these as a basis for morality.

A core doctrine of Spinozism is that the universe is essentially deterministic. All that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way. Spinoza claimed that the third kind of knowledge, intuition, is the highest kind. More specifically, he defined intuition as the ability of the human intellect to intuit knowledge based upon its accumulated understanding of the world.  Spinoza’s metaphysics consists of one thing, Substance, and its modifications (modes). Early in The Ethics Spinoza argues that there is only one Substance, which is absolutely infinite, self-caused, and eternal. Substance causes an infinite number of attributes and modes.  He calls this Substance “God”, or “Nature”. In fact, he takes these two terms to be synonymous (in the Latin the phrase he uses is “Deus sive Natura”), but readers often disregard his neutral monism. During his time, this statement was seen as literally equating the existing world with God – for which he was accused of atheism. Spinoza asserted that the whole of the natural universe is made of one Substance – God or Nature – and its modifications.

Spinoza’s doctrine was considered radical at the time he published, and he was widely seen as the most infamous atheist-heretic of Europe. His philosophy was part of the philosophic debate in Europe during the Enlightenment, along with Cartesianism. Specifically, Spinoza disagreed with Descartes on substance duality, Descartes’ views on the will and the intellect, and the subject of free will.

It cannot be overemphasized how the rest of Spinoza’s philosophy, his philosophy of mind, epistemology, psychology, moral philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of religion – flows more or less directly from the metaphysical underpinnings in Part I of the Ethics.”

~  Michael Della Rocca

Sources: Wikipedia.org. Della Rocca, Michael. (2008). “Spinoza”Russell, Bertrand. “Spinoza,” The Nation (London), 8 (Nov 12 1910).  “Essential Judaism” Robinson, George. 2016. Myjewishlearning.com. Chabad.org. jewfaq.org.

Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave

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Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave

The Allegory of the Cave, or Plato’s Cave, was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare “the effect of educationand the lack of it on our nature”. It is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter.

~ Plato realizes that the general run of humankind can think, and speak, etc., without (so far as they acknowledge) any awareness of his realm of Forms.

~ The allegory of the cave is supposed to explain this.

~ In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire.  Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. Here is an illustration of Plato’s Cave:

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~ Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.

~ So when the prisoners talk, what are they talking about? If an object (a book, let us say) is carried past behind them, and it casts a shadow on the wall, and a prisoner says “I see a book,” what is he talking about?

He thinks he is talking about a book, but he is really talking about a shadow. But he uses the word “book.” What does that refer to?

~ Plato gives his answer at line (515b2). The text here has puzzled many editors, and it has been frequently emended. The translation in Grube/Reeve gets the point correctly:

And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

~ Plato’s point is that the prisoners would be mistaken. For they would be taking the terms in their language to refer to the shadows that pass before their eyes, rather than (as is correct, in Plato’s view) to the real things that cast the shadows.

~ If a prisoner says “That’s a book” he thinks that the word “book” refers to the very thing he is looking at. But he would be wrong. He’s only looking at a shadow. The real referent of the word “book” he cannot see. To see it, he would have to turn his head around.

~ Plato’s point: the general terms of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see. They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind.

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~ When the prisoners are released, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds.

~ Plato’s aim in the Republic is to describe what is necessary for us to achieve this reflective understanding. But even without it, it remains true that our very ability to think and to speak depends on the Forms. For the terms of the language we use get their meaning by “naming” the Forms that the objects we perceive participate in.

~ The prisoners may learn what a book is by their experience with shadows of books. But they would be mistaken if they thought that the word “book” refers to something that any of them has ever seen.

Likewise, we may acquire concepts by our perceptual experience of physical objects. But we would be mistaken if we thought that the concepts that we grasp were on the same level as the things we perceive.

Source: Philosophy 320: History of Philosophy (University of Washington)

 

Evolutionary Ethics: Thoughts upon reading “The Moral Landscape” By Sam Harris

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Evolutionary Ethics: Thoughts upon reading “The Moral Landscape” By Sam Harris (Originally Written 7/2011)

I find myself back in intensive care today having rushed to the ER throwing up blood. I have an endoscopy scheduled to see if they can find the bleed. I haven’t been here in Jacksonville long, but I have every faith that Mayo will discover what is wrong with me. There are a lot of medical questions I should be dominated with, but I’ll either survive this hospital stay or I won’t. There is nothing I can do about it so I am very calm. Instead my mind in preoccupied with morality. I just finished reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris and the questions he posits is morality defined and developed by religion or by science and specifically evolution is consuming me. It’s an interesting question and while he is firmly on the side of science, so many of my friends and family would argue the opposing point of view.

I’ve been on a religious search for meaning most of my adult life having tried on Christianity, Judaism, and finally Buddhism. Buddhist thought has carried a lot of weight with me for several years as I have an uneven practice. I will meditate and study for months on end and then nothing for a few months. As I lie here in the ICU though the desire to be able to pray to a loving God beseeches me. I can understand the comfort Christians receive

from such practices. The questions though with Christianity are too many and complex for me to find comfort. I’ve read the bible cover to cover three times, the first time back in college and the doctrine in not foreign to me in the least. The quote by an unattributed author keeps ringing in my head of the difference between philosophy and religion, “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.”

Epicurus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 341–270 BC. He taught that pleasure and pain are measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods neither reward nor punish humans; the universe is infinite and eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space. Most of his writings have been lost, but among those saved was this question, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Is there a universal morality which governs all of humanity upon which judgement can be placed as opposed to the predominantly liberal idea of cultural moral relativity? I argue yes and it is not tied to any religion, as a matter of fact religion confounds the matter and it is only through science and evolutionary theory that one might comprehend the overreaching standard of morality and how liberals, as well as conservatives, complicate this problem by allowing moral relativity to flourish. The desire not to judge other cultures and be a victim of ethnocentrism has taken on a life of its own in this politically correct world. This belief that there is no higher moral authority due to the fact that there are multiple faiths and each of those adherents believe they are living a moral life or promises of happiness and bliss in the next life. In Western culture for instance it is easy to judge Islam and their subjugation of women, gays, and infidels based on Judeo-Christian doctrine. I shall argue that it is a moral imperative to vanquish fundamentalism in all religions.

First to understand this argument there requires some understanding of some working definitions via the Oxford dictionary. Morality, principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Ethics, Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity. Welfare, The health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group. The absolute morality I am arguing is based upon the idea of that which increases the general welfare of humanity, or more simply for the greater good of society, as a whole is a moral framework. This is a human morality and not one simply for one ethnic, religious, or cultural group. You could argue for instance that slavery did indeed increase the welfare of the ancient Romans, but by all modern evaluations this is not seen as moral. For those of the Judeo-Christian faith for instance find the Old Testament of the bible is ripe with examples of God not only condoning, but embracing slavery. If God is indeed omnipotent and omniscient his condoning of slavery should be just as moral today as it was when the bible was first written. There are very few however who would argue that slavery is ethically right in this modern day.

Fundamentalists of virtually all faiths view their religious texts as the literal words of God. The prevalence of young earth creationists in Western civilization who believe the world is only approximately 6,000 years old is an example of this despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The rallying cry of this demographic seems to be, “I’m not a scientist. Science and evolution is only a possible theory.” This issue stems from the ignorance of understanding the difference between the concept of a scientific theory and the common use of the word theory. According to a Gallup poll in 2014, 4 in 10 Americans believe God created the world within the last 10,000 years. Approximately 50% of Americans believe in evolution over millions of years, with the vast majority believing God guided this process. Only 19% of Americans believe in a non-God guided natural selection view of evolution. Of course this is at odds with scientific consensus which dictates the humans or those of Homo genus emerged of earth some 2.5 million years ago. When I refer to evolution I will be referring to the unguided naturalistic theory of evolution.

The forced subjugation of women in Islam and requiring them to wear a burqa by Western standards is seen as immoral. The cultural apologists will argue that you can not judge one culture by your own standards. I agree with this up to a point, you can not ethically judge Islamic law based upon your Judeo-Christian standards as intrinsically they are all flawed as morality has changed in the past thousands of years since biblical law was written. If you can not apply religious standards to morality to determine an absolute it is obvious the morality is a relative concept based upon the culture? No. Through evolution, adaptation and science we can answer some of these questions about what is ethically permissible in a modern society and world at this moment in our evolutionary journey. Can we through evolutionary theory determine an exact moral code? No of course not, but we can theorize where our collective morality is headed. An example of this is the instance of slavery and racism in the United States. It is hard for anyone to reasonably argue that we haven’t morally evolved through the dismemberment of a slave based society, through lynchings in the not too distant past, to where we currently stand in the civil rights movement. Is this to say there is no racism? Of course not, but a great amount of progress has been made in the last one hundred and fifty years or so.

How can we derive our ethics from religion when the major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam condone and embrace such concepts we find morally abhorrent such as slavery, severe punishment or death of an adulteress, forced marriage of a rape victim, misogyny, homophobia, genocide, etc. Is the golden rule moral because of an ancient text or do we recognize it as moral because we brought that belief with us to the reading of the bible? I argue the later. The golden rule or the ethic of reciprocity is found cross-culturally in virtually every religion from ancient Egypt, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. The ethic of reciprocity can not be argued stems from a Judeo-Christian worldview or even that it was borrowed from Ancient Egypt since there are unaffiliated cultures which predate Judaism in this belief. My argument is that it is basic human nature or in another words the result of thousands of years of adaptation and evolution.

I realize this belief is bound to be met with fierce opposition, but this is my personal philosophy shared by others such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many scientists, but far from all of them. A new philosophical worldview is always met with fierce opposition, such is this case. Examples of morality derived through evolution and adaptation is ripe throughout the animal world. An example of this is monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage mates from receiving painful shocks. JH Masserman reported such adaptation in 1964, (Masserman JH. Wechkin S, and Terris W. 1964. “Altruistic” behavior in rhesus monkeys. American Journal of Psychiatry 121: 584-585.), “In one experiment, 15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. Monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another “bystander” monkey received an electric shock. After seeing their conspecific get a shock, 10 of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain—preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain.” This study is far from the only example: mice show greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones, and chimpanzees have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards.

Sam Harris argued when faced with this philosophical as well as scientific point of view scientific ignorance is ripe and intervenes, “There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are deeply counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist (even, we have begun to see, if one is a scientist). But it would seem that few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.” (The Moral Landscape, p. 176). If we examine this from a Judeo-Christian perspective we are faced many inconsistencies that require answers. It is not my role here to argue whether religious faith is faulty or not, that is between you and what you believe in. It is my belief that morality is defined independent of any particular religion through evolution and adaptation.