Goodenough Gismo

  • Gismo39
    This is the classic children's book, Goodenough Gismo, by Richmond I. Kelsey, published in 1948. Nearly unavailable in libraries and the collector's market, it is posted here with love as an "orphan work" so that it may be seen and appreciated -- and perhaps even republished, as it deserves to be. After you read this book, it won't surprise you to learn that Richmond Irwin Kelsey (1905-1987) was an accomplished artist, or that as Dick Kelsey, he was one of the great Disney art directors, breaking your heart with "Pinocchio," "Dumbo," and "Bambi."

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Okay, here is where I reveal my ignorance:

What is secular materialism?

My husband and I don't belong to a congregation, although we were married by a rabbi and consider ourselves Jews and believe in a Higher Power. Does that make us secular?

Also, we're hiring a contractor to make some repairs on the walls of our apartment. Does that make us materialists?

I'm reading and I'm reading and suddenly it occurs to me I have no idea what a secular materialist is, although I have the feeling that it's a perjorative term and I feel vaguely angry and guilty.


Dave Schuler

Off-topic: Amba, I've added AmbivaBlog to my blogroll. Don't know why I didn't do it a long time ago. The link is to my introductory post for you which I hope you enjoy.


Amba -- Good post! There's a lot to agree with in Nagel's essay.

Brunobaby -- My understanding is that "secular materialism" has a particular meaning similar to Sagan's famous line: "The cosmos is all there ever was or ever will be."

Materialist in this sense means only physical, material causes exist. I think secular is often added to clarify that there can be no recourse to any divine power, purpose, or person. I think it can also convey a hostility towards religion and faith, which return the favor (as you've pointed out).

It's better described as scientific or philosophical materialism, or just materialism -- but as you humorously noted, that has other meanings.


Melinda: Pastor Jeff beat me to it and did a much better job than I was going to. Secular materialism would include the belief that your consciousness, thoughts and emotions are in principle reducible to and completely explicable by electrochemical events in your brain (here's an example of that kind of reasoning). It's also the belief that there's no consciousness, intelligence or intent in the universe except that which has evolved in brains through blind collisions of matter and the superior survival of chance improvements.

To PJ's quote from Sagan I'll add one from Dawkins: the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

Dave: that news was greeted with a gasp of pleasure. I'm honored to be in that exclusive company and I thank you.


Thanks, guys, for clearing that up for me.

Although there is plenty to be said for electrochemical events in your brain, they are only one of many factors. Billions and billions...


Every time I read Dawkins, I wonder if the irony of his position ever clubs him over the head in the dead of the night when his defenses are down. Here he spends all this effort honing science and especially evolution as weapons with which to prove that atheism is superior to belief, and these weapons return the favor by stabbing his arguments in the back.

For whatever reason, the scientific evidence is that faith is vastly superior to lack of faith. Evolution selects for belief, not atheism, and it does so very strongly. Similarly, anthropology is rife with successful religious cultures and devoid of successful atheistic ones. In the end, Dawkins is reduced to spearheading his arguments with philosophy rather than hard science, because science, left to its own devices, leads to the opposite conclusion when it comes to the superiority of belief vs. non-belief.


I didn't read it yet, or the comments, but I will later. I love this subject!!!

"the physical description of the world is incomplete."

That is not true. The description is not "incomplete;" it's non-existent. Physicists can describe limited parts of things, but the more they discover the more incomprehensible it all looks.

I do not think Intelligent Design makes any claims about a god-person outside of and separate from nature.

Amba, did you ever read Arthur Koestler's books and essays on "beyond reductionism?" His ideas are sort of a foundation for Sheldrake's ideas.


I mean, I didn't read the entire articles yet.


I didn't know Arthur Koestler had written on this. What should I read?


I think this book, Beyond Reductionism, is the one that best explains his scientific ideas, as far as I can remember. I read it a long time ago. I remember that it made me think really hard, and it was different from everything I had learned before.

Koestler changed my ideas about everything, including evolution. I also read his other non-fiction books. I think you will find that his holistic perspective just makes sense. But it is not the direction our science happened to take.


"the scientific evidence is that faith is vastly superior to lack of faith."


Dawkins would not be impressed with your argument. If religious faith is better -- leads to better health, more offspring, etc. -- that does not make it true. And Dawkins is not interested in disproving the idea that religion can make people feel good. That is actually part of the typical atheists' argument against religion -- it's just a feel-good drug that prevents people from solving their problems.

The real philosophical question addressed in this post is whether the universe is alive and intelligent -- if it is, the evolution of intelligent life is expected. Or whether the univesre is dead and mindless -- in that case the evolution of intelligent life would be unlikely, but (Darwinians claim) could happen by chance.

The ID researchers want to show that a mindless universe cannot produce intelligent life, because it is statistically impossible. Darwinians say it is statistically improbable, but not impossible given enormous amounts of time.

This has been one of the most important (I would say THE most important) philosophical questions of the 20th century. Now in the 21st century it has also entered the public's awareness.

Is the universe alive or dead? Does mind create matter or does matter create mind?

Back to your statement -- sure religion can make you feel good, and there is scientific research supporting that. You get the benefit of social connectedness through church, and faith in a compassionate god can help you through hard times. But, as I said, that is NOT what the controversy is about.

And the ID research also says nothing about the question of whether or not god is all-good and always wants the best for the human species. Atheists point out all of god's failings -- if he's so great why does he let innocent people suffer, etc.
In my opinion, there are probably gods who are compassionate champions of the human species, but many others who are not. So things don't always go beautifully for us.
And life was never meant to be constant perfection. But again, that is not relevant to this philosophical question.

"Evolution selects for belief, not atheism, and it does so very strongly."

This implies that most humans have supernatural beliefs because of natural selection, NOT because the supernatural actually exists.
So your statements puts you on Dawkin's side, against ID.

I think the real reason most of us are religious is because we can sense that the universe is intelligent and responds to our prayers.


eusto, get your butt over here and listen to real being as crystal clear as it's possible to get.


Clarity is always welcome.

Tom Strong

I don't want defend Dawkins too fervently here, because I think his attacks on religion are increasingly strident and foolish.

But - I think commenters should be careful about confusing his and others' brands of atheism with nihilism.

As an atheist, I would never refer to the universe as "dead and mindless," as realpc states above. That's nihilism, not atheism. I think the universe is wonderful, marvelous, and full of life and intelligence.

What I don't believe, however, is that that intelligence is unified. I don't think there's a single being, a single intelligence, at the core of it all.

Dawkins made this point himself, a couple of years ago, in a magazine article (I think it was in Reason, but I'm not sure). He said that pantheism is "sexed-up atheism," and while I'm not wild about his terminology there, I think the point is generally solid.



There are different kinds of atheism. Dawkins' brand of atheism (scientific naturalism, or materialism) says that nature is dead. It contains life and intelligence, but that happened by chance. And since life is so unlikely to happen in a dead universe, it probably is not found everywhere. Only an intelligent living universe would be full of life everywhere.

Some atheists believe the universe is alive, but like you they don't think it has an ultimate center. I don't know why it wouldn't, or how any of us would be in a position to know, but that's your opinion. That is a form of atheism, but it is not scientific naturalism.

Nihilism, which is as far as I know the belief that life is meaningless, might go along with certain forms of atheism, but not necessarily. Atheists can always believe the meaning of life is generated by humans.

Promoters of atheism are always proclaiming that you can be happy and find meaning in life without religion. I'm sure you can, but that has no relevance to the ID debate.

I would like to know, if you don't think there is a single intelligence at the core, what you think is at the core. And what makes you think we are qualified to have an opinion on that? Is it just that you don't like the intolerance of some religions, and would therefore rather not believe in a central god? Or is it because you don't think non-physical entities can have coherent personalities?

It seems logical to me that if the universe is intelligent and alive, it must have a personality. Since the universe seems to be infinite, its ability to generate personalities must be infinite. Super-physical personalities, it seems to me, are what we refer to as a gods, spirits, demons, angels, etc.

So we can't logically say the universe is intelligent but contains no gods, spirits, etc. And if the universe is intelligent and contains gods, etc., there probably is a big inclusive god at the top, who generates it all. Why not? According to logic (my logic anyway), if you admit the universe seems to be intelligent, you admit that there are gods. So you can't be an atheist and still believe the universe is intelligent.


Nagel definitely recognizes the real problem in biology: people assume that the answer has to lie in either one of two extreme views(intelligent agency or chance).

I think the problem with biology is that it doesn't have the luxury that physics or the other mathematical sciences have. For the most part, physicists can avoid both extreme views and appeal to the underlying order that is revealed in mathematical equations. Unfortunately, mathematics can't provide a middle ground in the biological sciences and so we have to deal with a debate between two absurd theories.

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