September 2000

Successful Summer Social

The annual Summer Social, held August 10, 2000 was a tremendous success. Rolf Kay definitely knows how to organize a party!

I joined Humanists of Utah in early 1992. That year some members of the group decided to try a summer social so that we could meet less formally than our regular meetings. We had a pot-luck picnic at a park somewhere in the avenues. As I recall there were eight of us who attended. The other seven brought salads of some sort. I brought a cake. You see it was my birthday, so I felt obliged to bring dessert.

Kurt Vonnegut had recently been named the honorary president of the AHA and I was then, as I am now, much enamored with his writing, so I brought a special cake. It said, “Happy Birthday Wanda June” in frosting. My first exposure to Mr. Vonnegut’s work was a performance of the play Happy Birthday Wanda June at Arrow Press Square. After the show I stopped by a local pub that I then frequented and waxed about the quality of the work. The bartender, a friend of mine, told me that Kurt Vonnegut had published numerous stories and books. I was hooked.

This past week’s celebration also fell on my birthday, my fiftieth. I must admit that the Prime Rib and Salmon were huge leaps forward from the salads of ’92. The company of 52 thinking people was tremendous, and the music was incomparable.

We have come a long way from our beginnings. I am proud of our accomplishments in promoting humanistic ideals and confident that in another 8-10 years we will have progressed even more!

–Wayne Wilson

Three Recommendations

~Book Reviews~

Three new books will add interesting information to any humanist conversation. The first two are fast reads; the details in the third one will require more time and concentration.

Papal Sin by Garry Wills summarizes the blatant historical abuses of power by Catholic popes, nepotism, murders, and wars of conquest but concentrates on the historical distortions and evasions of the modern papacy. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University.

The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong details how and why the fundamentalists of Christianity, Judaism and Islam came into existence and what they yearn to accomplish. She examines the way these movements arose through the common fear of modernity, the dominance of secular values around the world. Fundamentalists have no tolerance for democracy, pluralism, free speech or the separation of church and state. The author took her degree at Oxford and is one of the foremost commentators on religious affairs in both Britain and the United States.

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun details the 500 years of western cultural life since 1500, from the Renaissance and Reformation through the Enlightenment to the present. The hours you spend reading this book will reward you with a more clear understanding of the great division between Modernity and Post-Modernism. The 93-year old author was Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia, Dean of Faculties and Provost and twice president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

–Flo Wineriter

Ten Thousand Villages Store

Salt Lake area humanists will want to know about and undoubtedly patronize a new store in the city, Ten Thousand Villages, at 2186 South Highland Drive. The Grand Opening will be Saturday, September 9, 2000. What is it that makes this store unique and worthy of attention in this space? Ten Thousand Villages is a nonprofit network of over 200 stores in North America featuring quality handicrafts from more than 30 Third World countries and benefiting over 60,000 craftspeople annually. Artisans are paid a fair price for their work rather than being exploited by large commercial ventures which pay a craftsperson a pittance and then charge exorbitant prices at retail outlets. Thanks To Ten Thousand Villages sales, thousands of unemployed or under employed artisans are able to support their families and participate in health and educational programs in their communities. Such sales go a long way in Third World countries. For instance, on average, $1,200 in Ten Thousand Villages retail sales provides the equivalent of full-time work for an artisan for a year! Furthermore, in addition to financial support, other humanistic life values are fostered by the Ten Thousand Villages network. To quote from one of their brochures:

For craftspeople in the Third World, “village” is where one’s heart is: where family and tradition and culture reside. In our mass production world, villages are still a setting for the individualized creation of authentic handicrafts. Making handicrafts is a way to pass one’s culture and skills to the next generation. But as the outside world pushes at the village, taking its natural resources and often its children, it becomes more and more difficult to live the village way of life. By selling their handicrafts, Ten Thousand Villages helps crafts people provide food and education for their families and helps these threatened villages survive.
Each village represents a unique, distinctive group of people. Multiply the village idea by ten thousand and it represents the world that our program is working to build. We invite you to join us in making our vision a reality.

In addition to your purchases, the local store would welcome financial donations to offset startup costs as well as your volunteer time on an ongoing basis to handle sales, restock shelves, tidy up, etc. Here is a venture we can all heartily support. Do stop by the store soon to see the amazing array of beautiful and fair-traded items from around the world.

–Hugh Gillilan

Is Science Just A Synonym For Rationality?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

There is a “tendency common to most humans to create abstract concepts such as justice, freedom, love, spirituality, and now, science and animate them all, appearing as antique gods with arrows, swords, or balances in hands,” says Andreas Rosenberg in his article, “The Nature of Scientific Inquiry,” in the Occasional Newsletter of the Friends of Religious Humanism. “This completes the move of such concepts into the realm of mythology. This move changes how we look at science.” It elevates science into an unrealistically inclusive position. It gives the impression that, if you are a rational being, you must use the scientific method in every possible situation. At this point it becomes unclear whether science is the preferred universal tool for a rational being or whether science is just a synonym for rationality. If it becomes just a tool, it becomes very difficult to define when it is appropriate to use it as a label. Is astrology a product of science as a tool? It is logical in its arguments and based on observations. Yet, if we agree that science is not a universal tool but only another name for rationality, then the most primitive aborigines practice science because their behavior within their surroundings is quite rational. It is clear, then, that it is not useful either to consider scientific inquiry as a universal tool or science as a synonym for rationality.

Is scientific inquiry in a nearly mythological context the golden path to truth? Look in the newspaper, and you will see that science can be used to define as true many incompatible statements. One day red wine is good for your health. The next day alcohol use may lead to liver disease. No wonder some lost school board in Kansas has declared creation to be a true scientific theory. Perhaps Winnie the Pooh could be put forth as a theory of small bears. Uncertain and vague statements about science seem to be due to an unnecessary broadening of the definition of scientific inquiry.

In defining scientific inquiry, we first have to identify its goals. If we read texts in physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and psychology, we find that the goal is always the same: 1) A precise description of the external world with us a part of it, and 2) A description in terms of observations made.

Scientific vocabulary does not contain statements like, “good for you.” Thus stories about the usefulness of red wine or the dangers of alcohol have nothing to do with science.

Scientific inquiry is based on two premises, says Rosenberg: 1) There is an external world common to us all-a world existing independent of our observing it. Thus if the human race were obliterated by an intergalactic construction company, the record players booming out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would continue to play although there are no humans to hear it. Observers from other planets would find ruins of lost cities and all our toys as real as they once were to us. The world exists even without us. We call it the common reality premise. 2) Events in the external world are related to each other by causal connections. Our observations of them are logically related. We call this the causality premise. Science as an art of describing the world around us cannot function if either of these two premises is violated. Are they ever challenged? Yes, the Christian dogma of God’s omnipotence and the possibility of his intervention in our time negate the causality premise. The French postmodernists and deconstructionists challenge the common reality premise. “Anytime you hear somebody describing science as a white male power structure and touting the advantages of female science,” says the author, “you know the common reality premise has been violated. The structure of the world we observe as scientists is observer-neutral and common to us all. You cannot deconstruct it to different pieces depending on who you are.”

Rosenberg summarizes: “Provided common reality exists independent of us and the events show reproducible causality, we can proceed to paint a picture of the world. The process of doing it is scientific inquiry. This inquiry is based solely on past or present observations.”

The inquiry itself is practical and takes place in seven consecutive steps: 1) Record observations, 2) Compare observations and convert observations to quantitative measurements (as height or length on a scale-high, higher, highest), 3) Introduce common reference (a standard for weight or using sea level as a base for height measurements), 4) Identify and separate variables ( a variable is some measurable property, conforming to some reasonable scale on which its variation can be defined, 5) Formulate a hypothesis, 6) Convert the hypothesis to a theory, 7) Elevate the theory to the status of a law.

How well is the external world described by the laws derived by the seven-point method? In our assumptions, we assume that all our theories have become laws, and we get dangerously close to describing a totally determined universe that no one believes in any more. What about the presence of randomness, supported by quantum mechanical theory? The author posits, “…what we call randomness and probability are factors introduced to account for the inadequacy of the human senses to deal with a wide variety of observations. There are too many variables for us to observe with necessary precision; due to the limited nature of our senses, we inevitably influence events in measuring them.” Many scientists, including Einstein, refused to believe in inherent randomness and preferred to look at apparent randomness as a product of hidden variables. The problem of uncertainty is closely linked to the effect of measurements. We have to visualize events so our senses will allow us to make an observation. This is the major limitation of science.

Scientific inquiry will lead to a true picture of the world surrounding us, but the picture is never complete and has to be continuously amended when and if new observations are made. Can something be true if it has to be amended? Yes, all scientific laws are approximations, and what we mean by amendment is that we have isolated new variables and can work with higher precision than before so that the picture of the world becomes clearer and shows more details. This does not mean that the previous picture was wrong, only that it was true at that level of detail and precision.

The behavioral sciences-sociology, psychology, economics, etc., are currently at a low level of development. There has been plenty of hard work done in them and brilliant insights gained, but their level is simply a function of the complexity of the systems at issue. “The extension of science,” Rosenberg states, “to art, poetry, and religion has not contributed much to science or to the arena of human emotions and feelings. Finally, the verbal extension of science into the realm of spirituality…may contribute to literature and poetry, but not to science.”

Harvey Gaster

Member Spotlight

Harvey Gaster

Harvey Gaster can almost claim to be a “founding father” of Humanists of Utah by virtue of his regular attendance of those first, fledgling, meetings nearly 11 years ago. Like the Energizer bunny, he’s been going ever since. Not prone to histrionics or gregarious behavior, Harvey is the silent, eloquent type that is the “bricks and mortar” of H of U; without his steadfast participation since its inception, the HoU surely would bear less firm a foundation.

Born April 9, 1926 in Sheridan, Wyoming, Harvey attended elementary grades, junior high, and high school in Dayton, Wyoming. Although his mother considered herself Southern Baptist and his father Lutheran, neither parent practiced a religion in their home. In fact, Harvey’s humanism and atheism may have stemmed from his folks implanting into his psyche that “there are a lot of religions out there, and that when he grows older, he can choose his own.”

Because World War II was rearing its ugly head, rather than be drafted, Harvey enlisted in the Navy before completing high school. Considered a dry land sailor, meaning he never sailed upon the ocean blue, Harvey spent nearly two years stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. On Sundays, men had the choice to either clean barracks or attend church. No dummy, Harvey chose roaming from Catholic to Protestant meetings where he concluded that, “They couldn’t all be right but that they could all be wrong.”

After military service, he completed high school and some classes at Utah Technical College. While working for National Geophysical as a driller to locate oil, not to be confused with drilling oil, Harvey met and fell in love with Beulah Redding, the love of his life. After a short courtship, they were married November 17, 1949.

The couple has been graced with two children: Jim and Tammy. Before Tammy passed away in 1985 from multiple sclerosis, a wrenching life event, she had two children: Joshua and Shandi. When Shandi and fiancé Jimmy were married, Flo Wineriter performed the ceremony. A comment from one attending their wedding was “the word ‘God’ was not mentioned at all!” From this marriage was born great-granddaughter Jade, now 15 months old, the light of Harvey and Beulah’s life. Despite the heartbreak of Tammy’s death and related trials, Harvey and Beulah have a wonderful marriage of more than 50 years.

What turned Harvey onto humanism was that religion offered little more than superstition. Consequently, a concern for Harvey is the separation of church and state; currently he is concerned that the biblical Ten Commandments and the statement “In God we trust” will be inscribed on all public buildings. Harvey is also concerned about presidential candidate George Bush’s cry for obliteration of public education which could result in religious schools taking over; his fear is this phenomenon could result in a situation similar to Ireland’s.

Working an impressive nearly 33 years with Utah Power and Light, his longest position of installing commercial and industrial metering lasted 18 years. One day when telling co-workers he was an atheist, one response was, “Oh Harvey, you couldn’t be. You’re too good a person!” Yes, true blue and too good to be true, Harvey’s steady presence is a bedrock of H of U, a source of glue and cement that helps bind us all together in furthering Humanist thought and action. Harvey, we appreciate you!

–Sarah Smith