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Rev. Michael Dowd: Thank God For Evolution
Posted: 24 August 2008 04:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]
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jholt - 24 August 2008 05:10 AM

even though the book does not forward a ‘supernatural’ God and it is reported that it has been; - “endorsed by 5 Nobel laureates and 120 other esteemed scientists, ministers, priests, rabbis, theologians, and other religious and cultural leaders across the spectrum, from Baptists to Buddhists, including many respected atheists,” - I can’t get away from the idea that a rather bad mistake has been made in forwarding his effort with a Christianized view

I have a problem with the “there is more than one kind of truth”  line of thinking.

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Posted: 24 August 2008 04:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]
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Regarding the question of whether or not one can interpret the history of cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity in religiously inspiring ways, I recommend the following links:
http://evolutionaryspirituality.wikia.com/wiki/Evolutionary_perspective and
http://evolutionaryspirituality.wikia.com/wiki/Introduction_to_Evolutionary_Spirituality

It’s also possible to interpret the very same history of the universe in non-inspiring ways, of course.  What’s not possible is not interpreting it someway (see Primack and Abrams below).

For those interested in this subject, I especially recommend the following books:

Robert Wright – Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
http://www.nonzero.org/
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Nonzero-Logic-Destiny-Robert-Wright/dp/0679758941/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219621367&sr=1-1

John Stewart – Evolution’s Arrow
http://www4.tpg.com.au/users/jes999/
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Evolutions-Arrow-Direction-Evolution-Humanity/dp/0646394975/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219621408&sr=1-1

My wife Connie Barlow’s book: Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life, originally published in 1995 by MIT Press and now self-published in paperback, is also helpful on this topic:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0262023733/qid=1125279783/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-1049298-3891134?v=glance&s=books

Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams - The View from the Center of the Universe
http://viewfromthecenter.com/buzz/reviews.html
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/View-Center-Universe-Discovering-Extraordinary/dp/B000MR8TEU/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219621313&sr=8-1

Finally, I recommend you all actually read my own book, “Thank God for Evolution”: http://thankgodforevolution.com
(If not for yourself, read it with an eye to recommending it to your religious family members, friends, or co-workers, if you have any.)
The fact that 5 Nobel laureates endorsed TGFE - http://thankgodforevolution/nobel - may not impress you.  But the fact that D.J. Grothe said he considered it a “must read”! ... grin

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Posted: 24 August 2008 04:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]
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Jackson - 24 August 2008 04:46 PM
jholt - 24 August 2008 05:10 AM

even though the book does not forward a ‘supernatural’ God and it is reported that it has been; - “endorsed by 5 Nobel laureates and 120 other esteemed scientists, ministers, priests, rabbis, theologians, and other religious and cultural leaders across the spectrum, from Baptists to Buddhists, including many respected atheists,” - I can’t get away from the idea that a rather bad mistake has been made in forwarding his effort with a Christianized view

I have a problem with the “there is more than one kind of truth”  line of thinking.

Well, if you’ve ever lived through teenager-angst, ever had an argument with a spouse, ever considered your boss absolutely out-to-lunch, then you’ve encountered different kinds of truth.

The problem arises when people think that there are different kinds of facts.

And often the fact most relevant to a topic is that nobody knows the answer.

[ Edited: 24 August 2008 05:05 PM by NH Baritone ]
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People often argue over the term “god” without defining it. It is almost as if they are using the same term to refer both to a penguin and to a quiche. While both may contain eggs, that’s hardly their most salient characteristic.

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Posted: 24 August 2008 06:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]
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FYI…For those interested, here are resources on the subject of evolutionary emergence and meaning that I cite at the end of my book, Thank God for Evolution)...

Barlow, Connie, ed. Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life
Beck, Don and Chris Cowan. Spiral Dynamics
Bloom, Howard. The Lucifer PrincipleGlobal Brain
Carroll, Sean B. Endless Forms Most BeautifulThe Making of the Fittest
Chaisson, Eric. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos
Corning, Peter. Nature’s MagicHolistic Darwinism
Dawkins, Richard. Climbing Mount ImprobableThe Selfish Gene
Eiseley, Loren. The Immense JourneyStarthrower
Elgin, Duane. Awakening Earth
Hubbard, Barbara Marx. Conscious Evolution
Huxley, Julian. Religion Without Revelation
Liebes, Sidney, et al. A Walk Through Time
Logan, Robert K. The Sixth Language
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. MicrocosmosDazzle Gradually
Morowitz, Harold. Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex
Morris, Simon Conway. Life’s SolutionsThe Deep Structure of Biology
Ong, Walter. Orality and LiteracyThe Presence of the Word
Richerson, Peter and Robert Boyd. Not by Genes Alone
Russell, Peter. Waking Up in TimeThe Global Brain
Sahtouris, Elisabet. EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution
Stewart, John. Evolution’s Arrow
Teilhard de Chardin. The Human PhenomenonThe Divine Milieu
Wright, Robert. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

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Posted: 24 August 2008 06:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]
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Rev. Michael,

Have you had a chance to see Stuart Kauffman’s book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion?

With regards to your book, Thank God for Evolution; I’ve read several reviews from skeptics, atheist and scientist, plus read blogs, general book reviews, listened to the PoI and Infidelguy interviews, checked your site out (plus of course I’ve been reading the input on this forum) ... and I will be recommending your book highly to my sister. She is a Christian, though no where near a “fundamentalist”, but she has a great deal of trouble getting a grip on ENS. She is very intelligent and I’ve tried many different approaches, but with little luck. She simply doesn’t see the overall significance and puts up a wall at the idea of human evolution.

Edited several times after noticing that I wasn’t clear that I was talking about Thank God for Evolution in the above paragraph.

[ Edited: 24 August 2008 08:00 PM by jholt ]
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Posted: 25 August 2008 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]
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I’ve seen Kauffman’s book but have not read it yet.  I’ve heard it’s good though Connie, my wife (who read a couple of chapters in it) said his writing style didn’t do much for her.

I hope you sister likes my book.  Let me know.

Best,

~ M

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Posted: 25 August 2008 06:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]
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Michael Dowd - 25 August 2008 05:33 AM

I hope you sister likes my book.  Let me know.

If I can get my sister to take this book and actually read it, I assure you I will be letting you know.

While searching out review material for the book (was going to grab a copy at the library but it’s reserved for some time), I purposefully tried to find what I would consider people that would be the hardest on the book. I ran down anyone that is in the war on religion mode.

I found a few, one being from PZ Myers. Thank God for Evolution! - July 17, 2007. It’s probably the hardest hitting review I’ve seen and yet there’s nowhere to tell me my decision to recommend this book to someone like my sister is ill advised, in fact at the end he is pointing out this idea. I’ve yet to see where the science is wrong, but there is a criticism that the way the science is presented can get wishy-washy. Taking all the material I’ve read on this book so far, all I can conjure up is that if this is successful over time, that would be an amazing feat.

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Posted: 25 August 2008 06:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]
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This interview stuck a strong chord with me ... though admittedly it took me a long time to figure out where Michael was coming from. I may still not know.

Something I got out of this interview with Michael:
I think that in order to act with purpose in our daily lives, we must first build models of how we imagine ourselves to exist within our environment. A model might be as concrete as the location of my fingers and keys on my keyboard—or as ephemeral as the model of how I see my ideas fitting within the context of this thread. In all cases, we need these models in order to set short term and long term goals for ourselves. But none of us has enough factual knowledge to build complete models of our environments, so we necessarily fill in the blind spots with our guesses and abstractions.

Our models are necessarily abstractions of reality. We understand systems and relationships not by measuring each individual part of the system, but by abstracting the system as a whole. Symbols and metaphors are methods of abstraction.

“Religion” can serve much the same purpose on a societal scale as our personal models serve us on an individual scale. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is a publicly shared model; it’s an attempt at creating an abstraction of and a model of an aspect of our social reality. Such stories in principle can have value as a method to organize society ultimately perhaps to work collectively toward common goals.

The real problem with the Adam and Eve story is that 2000+ years later, much of society is still stuck in that metaphor. They haven’t significantly evolved from that metaphore, despite new and better understanding about the facts of the world.

A point of criticism
As already pointed out in this thread, Michael uses the word “sacred” as if it’s a good thing, and I don’t see where he’s coming from on that. As I understand the word, it carries a lot of negative baggage.

When we call something “sacred”, aren’t we basically saying that it is off limits to be challenged? and isn’t this the essential problem inherent in our religions? Religious models of the world have been resistant to evolution (i.e. resistant to being remodeled based on factual information)  because the authorities of religion label certain beliefs to be “sacred” .

[ Edited: 25 August 2008 11:42 AM by Riley ]
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Posted: 25 August 2008 09:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]
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jholt - you are correct.  PZ Myers did a fabulous job of humorously panning my book without really making any substantive criticisms.  The science in TGFE is sound.  It was vetted by many top scientists and science writers before the book went to press.  As I mentioned in my first post on this site, I invite anyone who would attempt to claim that my science is wrong or stretched to cite page and paragraph.

My way of teaching/preaching the science is designed to work - that is, it is designed to be alluring and effective in ushering religious folk into an evidential, science-based worldview and valuing THAT over ancient mythic stories.  Only time will tell, of course, whether or not I am successful in this.  But TGFE is at least my first best shot.

Riley - I use traditional “night language” (meaning-laden) words like “reverence”, “sacred”, and “holy” to point to that which is worthy of our deepest honoring, valuing, and respect.  The universe story (a.k.a, epic of evolution) is the story of the changing story.  Our knowledge of it will always be incomplete and our telling of it will always change.  Praise Darwin! grin

[ Edited: 25 August 2008 12:37 PM by Michael Dowd ]
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Posted: 25 August 2008 09:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]
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One more thing about the word “sacred”...

While words like this certainly do (understandably!) carry lots of negative baggage for skeptical and non-religious folk, such words also carry hugely positive meaning for the billions of religious people in the world that must, it seems to me, be reached and effectively brought into an evolutionary/ecological worldview in the coming decades—that is, for our species to have half a chance of surviving and thriving into the next century.

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Posted: 25 August 2008 10:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]
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Michael Dowd - 25 August 2008 09:59 AM

One more thing about the word “sacred”...

While words like this certainly do (understandably!) carry lots of negative baggage for skeptical and non-religious folk, such words also carry hugely positive meaning for the billions of religious people in the world that must, it seems to me, be reached and effectively brought into an evolutionary/ecological worldview in the coming decades—that is, for our species to have half a chance of surviving and thriving into the next century.

Mr. Dowd, thanks for taking time to respond here.

Your argument here hinges on the premise (1) that people need religion or some sort of quasi-religious outlook. Further (2) it seems to demand that broad acceptance of evolution requires we talk about it like we’re Pat Robertson trying to wring another dime from our enfeebled flock.

This is all demonstrably false. (1) This forum is full of atheists with no religion and no grandiose psuedo-religion either. We have as much reverence of good, important theories without ever having needed to mystify it or obfuscate it with negatively-charged god-speak. I doubt it is much different for the millions of other atheists who presumably have no idea who you are.
(2) Most of the western world accepts evolution (and is highly atheistic). America is a bit of a freak here, but notwithstanding.. acceptance is high in the rest of the modern, free world. We can rightly ask, how did it get that way? For this there are many good answers but assuredly one of them is not a sweeping campaign of magical feel-good storytelling.

This is not to say your book would not improve the situation for some. To me though, it’s like treatment for a drug addict. Methadone can help get a heroine addict clean but a better solution is to prevent the addiction in the first place- which seems to be what has happened everywhere else.

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Posted: 25 August 2008 11:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]
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Michael Dowd - 25 August 2008 09:59 AM

One more thing about the word “sacred”...

While words like this certainly do (understandably!) carry lots of negative baggage for skeptical and non-religious folk, such words also carry hugely positive meaning for the billions of religious people in the world that must, it seems to me, be reached and effectively brought into an evolutionary/ecological worldview in the coming decades—that is, for our species to have half a chance of surviving and thriving into the next century.

Thanks, Michael for taking the time to explain some of these finer points. Personally, I steer away from using loaded words such as; sacred, spiritual, soul, mysticism and of course God, when in discourse describing my experiences. But, I do try to recognize what others are telling me when they use such language and by extension understand their views. There is certainly a fair amount of people in the secular/atheist/humanist/skeptical communities that do frame discourse to allow for the use of such words.

I could highlight many examples, but since we’re trying to be specific I’d point out the way Sam Harris certain words, including sacred. This example is useful in that where the language is used is in fact part of a broader outline of how Sam views the subject of religion in our current state. This view is painted in stark terms that can not be interpreted in any other way than a very potent criticism of religion.

In the opening of The End of Faith, Sam states:

There is no denying that most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed ”however obliquely and at a terrible price” by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life.

The question as to why Sam would take such a route may be better understood taken in broader perspective. He lays some of this out I believe in later chapters of the above book, but to be more precise, I think this interview with Salon’s, Steve Paulson, may be more to the point as to why Sam would feel freer to use such language. 

Steve: One thing I find so fascinating about your book is that you’re out there as an atheist. And yet you also say life has a sacred dimension. You talk about the value of spirituality and mystical experiences. It’s interesting that you put all that in the same pot.

Sam: Yeah, many atheists felt it should not have been in the same pot. But I think it’s necessary to just be honest. These are some of the most beautiful and most profound experiences that human beings can have. And therefore we’re right to want to understand them and to explore that landscape.
...
Steve: It sounds like you’re open-minded to the possibility of telepathy—things that we might classify as psychic. You’re saying it’s entirely possible that they might be true and science at some point will be able to prove them.

Sam: Yeah, and there’s a lot of data out there that’s treated in most circles like intellectual pornography that attests to there being a real phenomenon here. I just don’t know. But I’ve had the kinds of experiences that everyone has had that seem to confirm telepathy or the fact that minds can influence other minds.
...
Steve: Tell me about one of those experiences.

Sam: Oh, just knowing who’s calling when that person hasn’t called you in years. The phone rings and you know who it is and it’s not your mother or your wife or someone who calls you every day. I’ve had many experiences like that. I know many people who’ve had even more bizarre experiences. But that does not rise to the level of scientific evidence. The only way to determine if it really exists is to look in a disinterested and sustained way at all of the evidence. 
...
Steve: You are a neuroscientist. Do you think there’s any chance that human consciousness can survive after death?

Sam: I just don’t know. One thing I can tell you is that we don’t know what the actual relationship between consciousness and the physical world is. There are good reasons to be skeptical of the naive conception of a soul. We know that almost everything we take ourselves to be subjectively—all of our cognitive powers, our ability to understand language, our ability to acknowledge anything in our physical environment through our senses—this is mediated by the brain. So the idea that a brain can die and a soul that still speaks English and recognizes Granny is going to float away into the afterlife, that seems to be profoundly implausible. And yet we do not know what the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity
ultimately is.
...
Steve: That’s interesting. Most evolutionary biologists would say consciousness is rooted in the brain. It will not survive death. You are not willing to make that claim.

Sam: I just don’t know. I’m trying to be honest about my gradations of certainty. I think consciousness poses a unique problem. If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death, or transcended the brain so that single neurons were conscious—or subatomic particles had an interior dimension—we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuro-imaging or cellular neuroscience. And we would never expect to see it. And so we have a problem.

I think taking the fuller picture into account helps to understand why Sam would want to frame such language in his attempt to communicate them in a rational way.

[ Edited: 25 August 2008 11:11 AM by jholt ]
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Posted: 25 August 2008 11:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]
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I ran out of space in my last post. I should add another dimension that helps explain why the use of such language may be found acceptable in certain context to Sam.

Steve: Did you pursue those spiritual interests?

Sam: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time studying meditation and sitting on meditation retreats where you’re in silence for the entire duration, whether it’s one month or three months, just practicing meditation for sometimes 18 hours a day. I’ve done this mostly in a Buddhist context, but not exclusively. And I’ve spent a lot of time studying religion and the contemplative traditions within Christianity and Judaism and Islam.
...
Steve: It sounds like you’ve been meditating for years and often quite seriously. Have you ever felt bliss or rapture while you’ve meditated?

Sam: Oh yeah. The problem with those states, however, is that they are transitory. They are conditioned by concentration. And when your mind is no longer concentrated on your object of meditation—whether you’re focusing on Jesus or a mantra or the state of rapture itself—when thoughts again intervene and you’re no longer concentrated in the same way, the state goes. And one of the real pitfalls of the contemplative life is to crave those states. You can become a kind of drug addict of your own meditative process where you mistake those states as being the goal of meditation.

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Posted: 25 August 2008 11:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]
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Your argument here hinges on the premise (1) that people need religion or some sort of quasi-religious outlook. Further (2) it seems to demand that broad acceptance of evolution requires we talk about it like we’re Pat Robertson trying to wring another dime from our enfeebled flock.

This is all demonstrably false. (1) This forum is full of atheists with no religion and no grandiose psuedo-religion either. We have as much reverence of good, important theories without ever having needed to mystify it or obfuscate it with negatively-charged god-speak. I doubt it is much different for the millions of other atheists who presumably have no idea who you are.
(2) Most of the western world accepts evolution (and is highly atheistic). America is a bit of a freak here, but notwithstanding.. acceptance is high in the rest of the modern, free world. We can rightly ask, how did it get that way? For this there are many good answers but assuredly one of them is not a sweeping campaign of magical feel-good storytelling.

This is not to say your book would not improve the situation for some. To me though, it’s like treatment for a drug addict. Methadone can help get a heroine addict clean but a better solution is to prevent the addiction in the first place- which seems to be what has happened everywhere else.

Sate, my argument does nothing of the sort.  I suggest you actually read my book.  I’d be surprised if you don’t find most of it worthwhile and wish me the best of luck in getting this message out to religious folk. 

(1) Nowhere do I suggest or even imply that people NEED religion, nor a quasi-religious interpretation of science.  Most people DO, however, in order to thrive, need a sense of meaning and purpose, and religion has traditionally/historically been where most people have found it.  What I am suggesting is that science can be interpreted meaningfully (for those who are so inclined) and that the very same science can enrich and enhance a wide variety of religious and non-religious perspectives (by grounding them in measurably reality). Moreover, I suggest that a mainstream scientific understanding of the history of the universe can serve as a modern-day creation myth that, I believe, (over the coming decades) can and will inspire religious and anti-religious people alike to cooperate across ethnic, political, and religious differences in service of a healthy future for planet Earth and its species.

(2) You are correct, of course, about much of the western world embracing evolution without having needed to interpret it mythically first.  But if recent polls are to be trusted, most Americans are simply not there yet, and not likely to get there anytime soon without some assistance.

In a June 2007 USA Today/Gallup Poll, 66% of Americans said that “creationism,” defined by the survey as “the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years,” was “probably true” (27%) or “definitely true” (39%). The same survey found that 30% believe that “God guided” evolution while 13% said “God had no part” in evolution. In a March 2007 Newsweek Poll, 48% of Americans said that “God created humans in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” In an August 2005 Gallup poll, 58% of the public said that creationism was definitely or probably true as an explanation for the origin and development of life. In 2004, Gallup also found that 34% of Americans believed the Bible should be taken literally “word for word”.

My book is a first step effort to reach these folk and the tens of millions of moderate to liberal Christians who accept evolution the way most of us accept death and taxes. If my experience teaching and preaching the perspective offered in TGFE for the last 6 years tells me anything, it tells me that the approach Connie and I offer has at least a decent chance of succeeding.  Time will tell.  I certainly look forward to others going way beyond me in the coming decades.  If you know of other avenues you feel are likely to be effective in this regard, please let me know.  Surely many different approaches will be needed.

Let’s remember that 55% of the human population (more than 3 billion people) are Christians and Muslims, and that more of these people are on the conservative end of the theological spectrum than not. My approach and others like it may not be effective in reaching these people over the next few decades, but I’m betting my life that it will be.  Even if not, however, I cannot think of a better or more fulfilling way to live.  Connie, my atheist/humanist/science-writer wife - http://www.thegreatstory.org/CB-writings.html - wholeheartedly agrees.  We’re having tons of fun doing what we feel compelled to do and seem to be pretty good at doing.  We’re falling ever more in love with North America and doing the most and best we can to leave a better world.  What more can I ask for in life?

Thanks for your pointed critique.  I’d hope to meet you someday in person.  I suspect we’d both enjoy the company and conversation.

Co-evolutionarily,

~ Michael

[ Edited: 01 September 2008 03:51 PM by Michael Dowd ]
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Posted: 25 August 2008 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]
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Michael,

I just saw a picture of you standing in front of what looks like a Hubble telescope shot of a nebula and pointing to a poster with an image of the brain and this message sprung to mind.

“For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing their long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we sprung.”

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