Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sam Harris versus Francis Collins

When interviewed for a 2006 profile in the Washington Post, Sam Harris "asked that all but the most basic biographical details be omitted from this article, even where he lives and where he studies." The profile does tell us that he was "a dropout for 11 years" during which time "he was supported financially by his mother." Eventually he managed to get a bachelors degree when he was already in his 30's. He was a frustrated writer who studied meditation, experimented with drugs, and read lots of books on philosophy. One of his meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg, says that "Sometimes you'd want to say to him, 'What about the Yankees?' or 'Look at the leaves, they're changing color!'" But then things finally started looking up for Sam on or around September 12, 2001.

The reason I mention all this is that Harris has recently, and very publicly, questioned whether or not Francis Collins is intellectually and psychologically fit to be the next head of the National Institutes of Health. Harris is afraid that Collins' religious beliefs will cloud his thinking and/or judgement to the detriment of the future of science. You see, somewhere along the way, Sam Harris has somehow managed to convince himself that he is an expert on science, and, most especially, on how to "think like a scientist."

To his credit, Sam, at age 42, is now working on his PhD in Neuroscience. Good for him. But what was Francis Collins doing at that tender age? Was he perhaps campaigning to ban the teaching of algebra in public schools because algebra is not found in the Bible? Or maybe he was working for Pat Robertson's Presidential Campaign Committee or perhaps he was the head of the Anti-Science Studies Department at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, or something like that?

No? You say that at the age of 39 this religious nutjob, Francis Collins, was the leader of one of the teams of scientists who jointly isolated the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis? Really?!? Why, I didn't even know that cystic fibrosis was even in the Bible!

And then by age 42 Collins had also helped to isolate the genes for one form or leukemia, Huntington's disease, neurofibromatosis, and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1. And then at 43 he was tapped to be the head of the Human Genome Project.

So how is it, then, that Sam Harris has come to consider himself as someone who is qualified to pass judgment on Francis Collins' ability to "think like a scientist"?

Teach your children (more on Gates)

I just saw this at the It's a "Memo to Black Men: What to do when you're stopped by the police." It got me to thinking ....

Under slavery, parents had to teach their children how to avoid being beaten, sold, raped, or even killed by their masters.

Under Jim Crow parents had to teach their children how to avoid being lynched, and what to do if the Klan shows up at your home in the middle of the night.

Today, in the 21st century, parents still have to teach their children how to act when confronted by the police, even, or especially, when you are obviously just being harassed for the crime of being Black.

Under slavery, though, there were people like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Under Jim Crow there were people like Rosa Parks and Rob Williams. And today there are people like Henry Louis Gates (a somewhat unlikely addition to that list).

Colin Powell has been personally "profiled" many times, but he still says that Gates should have been more "cooperative". In a sense Powell is right. But in a sense the same advice applied under Jim Crow and slavery: the best thing to do is just cooperate - unless you're really looking for trouble.

To be Black in the United States of America is to literally live in a police state. Being white I cannot begin to imagine what that is like, and I would never encourage anyone, Black or white or Latino or anything else, to do anything other than what it says in the recommended "protocol" linked to above. But I admire Henry Louis Gates for standing up for himself. Cooperating with the police is obviously the best way to avoid trouble, but there is more to life than avoiding trouble.

Henry Louis Gates is about as far from the stereotypical "Angry Black Man" as you can get. He is an internationally respected 57 year old Harvard professor and television personality who walks with a cane. But apparently he has always had an "uppity" streak in him.

This is not just about race. It is about freedom of expression, and about freedom in general. American school children learn to admire those who refused to "cooperate" with soldiers stationed in their homes by King George. And they are even taught to admire those who taunted those soldiers and threw snow balls at them and paid with their lives (if that is what really happened).

If you are a free and equal citizen in a republic, that means the police work for you. It is usually best to treat one's employees in a dignified and respectful manner. But being impolite to a police officer is not a crime. And sometimes it is absolutely appropriate.

someone even more full of *&^% than Eckhart Tolle

O. My. Gods. I found someone even more full of shit than Eckhart Tolle! And no, it's not David Hasselhoff.

A friend recently alerted me to a critique of Ken Wilber she had seen at a blog calling itself The Zennist. The post in question does not specifically mention Wilber, or Genpo, or even Eckhart Tolle, but rather takes broad aim at "Modern Zen".

There has always been only one way to study Zen: find a real, live, flesh-and-blood Zen teacher and study with that person. The definition of a Zen student is someone who studies under the direction of a living, breathing Zen teacher. And the definition of a Zen teacher is someone who has studied with one or more Zen teachers until being given authorization to teach Zen (by one or more of those teachers).

This is not a personal opinion of mine, it is simply a well documented historical fact that this is how Zen has always been studied and taught. An excellent source of information on this subject is the book Zen's Chinese Heritage by Andy Ferguson, but the same information can be found in any well written book on Zen written by anyone who has any idea of what they are talking about (such as the many books written by Steven Heine).

"The Zennist", however, proposes his alternative to "Modern Zen" with these words of wisdom:
For all of you Zen romantics who refuse to go along with this you have only one course of action to take, continue visiting this blog and other like blogs and Internet sites that teach about something other than the moment, for example, the Buddha Mind, the Unborn Mind, the One Mind, the Dharmadhatu, the Tathagatagarbha, or the foundational Buddha-nature.
Learning about Zen from "blogs and Internet sites" is like trying to learn about oceanography by watching Bay Watch. In fact, it is worse than that, because at least when you watch Bay Watch you will see pictures of an actual, real ocean.

Please do not take my word for it, though. Distrust and verify.
It is pointless for you to praise a maiden to the ears of a young man and describe her in words in order to inflict upon him pangs of love, when you can bring her beautiful form before his eyes. Point, if you can, to her beautiful form, then you have no further need of words.
Marsilio Ficino