Category: Core thought

A rational argument for atheism.

A powerful and well-argued position from Waiving Entropy.

This is a cogent discussion article that was published back in July, 2013. Waiving Entropy is a blog that ranges across many aspects of life. As their About page states:

Waiving Entropy is a blog with humble aims. What began in 2011 as a gesture toward self-improvement evolved into a vitalizing outlet for creative expression. To write is to live more fully, and it has now become something I can scarcely imagine life without — a kind of formless, free-floating impulse that hovers about like a pregnant cloud. Fortunately, blogging is a kind of catharsis for the restless. Nothing eases an active mind like seeing your ideas materialize in a meaningful way in front of you, which is to say I write for myself first and foremost. This blog acts as both heat sink and hard drive, helping me offload scattered collections of thoughts and organize them into a coherent whole.

First, let me (with the help of WikiPedia) explain the difference between atheism and non-theism. It is in the form of a diagram:

So onto the article.

It is a long but a most interesting read.

ooOOoo

What Would Convince You?

By DANIEL BASTIAN

July 10th, 2013

As an atheist and former theist I am on occasion asked what it would take to change my mind on this central metaphysical question. What met conditions or circumstances would reincorporate into my worldview the conviction that God exists and, more specifically, that Christianity offers the best explanation for the world we observe?

However we may currently identify, and however strong our convictions in any one area, we must take these questions seriously. If we possess well considered reasons justifying our beliefs, then we should also consider possibilities that could weaken or undermine those beliefs. A worldview which can never be moved around, reconfigured into different shapes, is a worldview better characterized by creed and dogma than by epistemic openness and intellectual integrity. If we are to be responsible in our commitment to truth, our positions must ultimately be defeasible — open to revision in light of new information — lest we fall victim to playing tennis without the net.

With this in mind, my overriding approach is that a belief should be demonstrable on the weight of evidence and argument. If new information is forthcoming, if the evidence (or interpretation of that evidence) changes, or if arguments with greater explanatory scope and internal consistency are offered, it is our epistemic duty to honestly assess these new inputs and what it entails for our existing orientation. This is a basic feature used to build conclusions in philosophy and science and can be broadly exported to other areas of our discourse.

Before we dive in, it will be useful to clarify an oft-omitted distinction that tends to bog down discussions on this topic. The distinction is that between a “direct participant” deity — the god of theism — who intervenes in space and time and cares about how the drama of life plays out, and the noninterventionist, “absentee landlord” variety of deism. The latter is irrelevantbecause its existence and nonexistence are logically identical (from our perspective) and thus is not the focus of this essay. Rather, I will deal here with the former, a transcendent being that has a hand in the natural order and is in some sense involved in the affairs of humans. This is the territory of theism, the regime with the most relevance to our daily lives and metaphysical luggage.

The “God Hypothesis”

Contrary to some atheists, I don’t subscribe to the notion that there is, in principle or otherwise, a falsifiable “God hypothesis.” Refuting God is not like refuting the proposition All swans are white by finding a gaggle of black-plumaged swans in Scandinavia, thereby bringing us closer to the truth about the nature of swans. While I do think certain religious beliefs have been rendered untenable by the lights of modern science and historical inquiry, I don’t think we can definitively adjudge an entity’s nonexistence in the case of theism.

What we can do, however, is point out the lack of evidence where evidence ought to be — in other words, build an evidential case for nonexistence. And this is where popular conceptions of theism tend to break apart, because a god that intervenes in space and time is a god that is accessible to scientific study. In a world where Christians and other monotheists profess belief in a meddler god who influenced ancient texts, answers prayers, appoints semi-sane politicians to run for office, and worked all manner of miracles throughout history, the utter vacuum of evidence for such assertions begins to speak volumes. If demons and angels and spirits and souls were part of the furniture of reality, then their effects in the world should have been clearly documented by now. Given all that is attributed to these ethereal entities, this paradox should at the very least strike a person as strange.

Accordingly, though we may not be able to conclusively rule out the God of theism and his confederacy of celestial beings — à la Russell’s teapot — we can be reasonably confident that no such entities exist, in short, because things that don’t exist leave no evidence behind. They can’t, after all, because they don’t exist

If we want to be more careful in our language here, rather than claim outright that God does not exist we can simply say that we see no good evidence for God, and therefore (recalling John Dewey) a verdict cannot be reached on the question unless and until good reasons to warrant the belief are found. It’s an important distinction, in the same way that a jury for a criminal trial either finds sufficient evidence to convict, or not. A ‘not guilty’ verdict does not mean the defendant is innocent, only that there is insufficient evidence to establish guilt.

The purpose here is to offer 20 examples that would move a jury, namely me, beyond reasonable doubt. In so doing, we will look at a number of expectations that could be considered consistent with the claim that God exists and then see how those expectations correspond to the world we actually observe. As noted above, most of the following will interface with the generic god of theism and in the process make direct contact with Christianity in particular. My personal view is that a wider appreciation of reality reveals a universe that does not appear the way we would expect if theism were true, leaving nonbelief as a supremely rational position to hold.

1. If evolution were false. That is to say, if our scientific understanding of the diversity of life were irreparably refuted. The theological challenge presented by common descent has less to do with any putative conflict between science and fundamentalist religion than the larger dissonance it poses for teleological value systems. Those who flippantly maintain that evolution and faith are compatible rarely come to terms with what the great Book of Nature really tells us: We are an evolutionary accident, an infinitesimal, stochastically produced whimper in a four billion-year chain of existence that when compressed to a single year has man emerging within the final fifteen minutes of the calendar. If we truly are God’s chosen — the foreordained purpose of all that is and ever will be — why so much time spent with “unensouled” microbes?

This can be a tough pill to swallow precisely because it taps into something more profound than clumsy interpretations of ancient texts. Not only do evolution and deep time blunt our cosmic significance, but its ends are achieved through the instrument of death. Within the context of natural selection, death is not an unnatural state but is in fact integral to the process: it is the mechanism by which less fit individuals are removed from the gene pool, allowing those left standing to carry on. The corrosive influence of this most foundational of scientific formalisms was perhaps best expressed in a letter to the editor popularized by the late Stephen Jay Gould:


“Pope John Paul II’s acceptance of evolution touches the doubt in my heart. The problem of pain and suffering in a world created by a God who is all love and light is hard enough to bear, even if one is a creationist. But at least a creationist can say that the original creation, coming from the hand of God was good, harmonious, innocent and gentle. What can one say about evolution, even a spiritual theory of evolution? Pain and suffering, mindless cruelty and terror are its means of creation. Evolution’s engine is the grinding of predatory teeth upon the screaming, living flesh and bones of prey…If evolution be true, my faith has rougher seas to sail.”

 
Those who prefer a “God-guided” evolutionary model, moreover, must contend with the abundance of suboptimal design and overt inefficiencies with which nature is replete. Classic examples like the recurrent laryngeal nerve and the crossing of the air and food passages in vertebrates seem far removed from the realized premeditated vision of a competent architect. And if we owe our presence here to the illimitable wisdom of a Master Engineer who populated the planet in special acts of creation — as alleged by literalist readers of Genesis — we would not expect the rampant dysteleology evident in nature any more than we would expect the indisputable genetic, embryological, paleontological, and biogeographic evidence pointing to common descent.

Far from suggesting humanity occupies the climax of any cosmic production, the available evidence suggests we are an accidental scene in an otherwise haphazardly produced drama. The privileged plank on which so many religions place humanity is permanently deposed through the lens of evolution. To believe that there is some discarnate, phantasmic agency out there that harbors deep concern for our species is perhaps the most delusional, nay, conceited notion one can countenance.

 
2. If God appeared to me or made its presence known to me. The canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament are filled with post-mortem appearances. Jesus is said to have appeared to Cephas (Saint Peter) and the apostles, and to more than 500 others. In the Hebrew Bible Yahweh appears to Moses so often the two are on a first-name basis. A god concerned about the affairs of its creation, about what we believe and our eventual destination, could appear to every one of us, convincing us instantly of its existence and preeminence — yet we are left only with silence. Indeed, a direct manifestation would very likely convince me posthaste, though I would of course first ensure that I had not been in a chemically induced or comatose state at the time.

3. If we were not made of “star stuff.” Imagine the human race were composed of material utterly foreign to the rest of the cosmos. Suppose that baked into our biology were elements or unique forms of matter or energy not found in any other species, or anywhere else in the universe. Such radical discontinuity would at the very least be tantalizing enough to wax poetic about our “specialness.” Drawing a straight line from here to Jesus would be rather naïve, as scientific inquiry could lead us to other, more mundane reasons for our sui generiscomposition. But this would be a good launching pad for theism. 

As the science shows, however, there are universal inheritance patterns linking up the diversity of all life on Earth. The DNA and RNA found in all living things — from microbes and archaea to plants and mammals — are altered over time in response to changing circumstances, with more closely related kin sharing more features (and DNA) in common than more remote kin. Our bodies are littered with echoes of Homo sapiens’ evolutionary ancestry — from retroviral DNA, pseudogenes, and vestigial structures to the assortment of point mutations we share with our chimpanzee cousins. We all come from common clay, an inspiring and beautiful fact in its own right.

 
4. If a natural disaster were stopped in its tracks. There would be no explaining away a major cataclysm being miraculously averted, say, the tsunami which thumped the island of Sumatra in December 2004, laying waste to a quarter million people, 40% of which were children. A hurricane that mysteriously changed direction or an approaching asteroid that was inexplicably deflected away from Earth, trouncing the known laws of physics: divine involvement of this magnitude would likely blow the lid off my ideological center. By contrast, the biblical Yahweh saw fit to intervene on behalf of the fleeing Israelites by parting the Red Sea, and on behalf of Elisha by issuing flesh-hungry bears to maul his antagonizers. Alas, the God of the Bible has apparently grown lax over the years.

The problem of justice in a world created by a personal force remains unsolved, though certainly not unchallenged. The moral position on matters of avertable harms declares the bystander to be guilty, and as the eternal Bystander, God, should he exist, must be indicted as the worst offender of all.

 
5. If the efficacy of prayer could be conclusively demonstrated as superior to modern medical remedies. To date there have been several well-controlled, double-blind studies on the efficacy of prayer. In each of these studies, the null hypothesis was confirmed (i.e., prayer was shown to have no effect on patient condition). One of the largest and most significant of these studies was funded by the Templeton Foundation, who of course was trying to prove the opposite. Templeton solicited Christian petitioners across America and provided them with the first name and last initial of 1,802 patients to pray for. The whole unctuous affair lasted for months, and the results were published in the American Heart Journal in April 2006. No relationship observed.1

 
6. If we were to observe a true medical miracle. Qualifying phenomena include an amputee regrowing a limb — a capacity granted to starfish and many reptiles but not to us — or some other marvel outside the confines of our genetic toolkit. Or perhaps one of the millions of children who die every year being resurrected after declared death. Were the saints in Matthew more precious than these children, year after year?

Benny Hinn, Mind The Typo

7. If miracles like the ones crowding the Bible had occurred since the arrival of video cameras and modern methods of recording and preservation. Contrasting the Yahweh who intervened spectacularly in ancient times — taking up residence in a burning bush, raining fire down from the sky to establish Baal’s inferiority — or the Jesus who walked on water and transformed it into wine, with the utter absence of such enchanting productions following the arrival of video capture would seem to clinch the case against Judeo-Christianity almost singlehandedly. A falloff in miracle claims at precisely the moment our technology is capable of documenting them is not what we would expect were God as active in the world as many believers proclaim.

Frequency of miracles over time.

8. If we found two cultures who had independently received an identical revelation. As secular author David McAfee has noted, “If one religion were ‘true’, we would expect to see, even if only once in all of recorded history, a religious missionary that had stumbled upon a culture that shared the same revelations — brought forth by the same deity.”

Were we to discover that two uncontacted peoples inhabiting opposite ends of the planet worshipped the same god, lionized the same verbatim scriptures, and were bestowed duplicate revelations, this would strongly suggest divine origin or supernatural agency. Even more convincing would be the arrival of an extraterrestrial civilization that was found to have had an identical revelation to one here on Earth.

Meanwhile …

Instead, what we have found is that geography and birthparents are the leading predictors for religious affiliation. Which god one believes in and which values one adheres to are predominantly determined by the culture in which one happens to be born. This is not what we should expect if a single revelation had a more tactile connection to the truth. We find, moreover, that none of the major world religions sync up with one another; many are mutually contradictory, and even members of the same religion often disagree as much among themselves as they do with those of other faiths. Within the framework of personal revelation, we should expect more consensus in the realm of religious experience, with internal agreement and conversion rates tipped in favor of those claims with something real behind them. 

Religious demographics are better explained anthropologically, in which cultural traditions, beliefs, and norms are largely rooted in that culture’s heritage and social environment. And this is as true now as it was in the ancient world. The biblical writers, like those of the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu scriptures, drew from and adapted existing ideas to speak to their particular historical perspective.

 
9. If divine messages were embedded within our mathematical or physical laws.Were we to find some hidden intelligible code in our numeral systems or field equations escaping all plausible coincidence, this might suggest a message from above. An example could be a discernible pattern located in pi‘s unending chain of decimals that only makes sense in the context of Hindu or Christian scriptures. Suppose the pattern could be cross-walked perfectly to our oldest biblical manuscripts in their original Hebrew or Greek to the extent that we could read the scriptures strictly from the decimals. Or perhaps a string of prime numbers that could not possibly have arisen by sheer chance and carried unmistakable signs of intelligence.2

This one is abstract, and astute sci-fi fans will recognize traces of these ideas from Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact.

The Problem of Senseless Suffering

10. If there were not 10,000 different genetic disordersand counting. The wrong DNA in the wrong place can prove fatal to those with lackluster genetic heritage. Maladies big and small, especially those occurring throughout one’s life, can usually be traced to irregularities in one or a combination of genes. Some gene-based diseases threaten our quality of life and beleaguer us daily, while others kill us outright with devastating effectiveness. Such malfunctions of our biological makeup account for more than 150,000 babies per year in the U.S. alone who die from birth defects during or shortly after birth. That’s 411 every single day that an all-powerful God must choose not to rescue.

Granted, these tragic circumstances are simply the result of evolution in action paired with imperfect cell repair mechanisms. Unless we were to short-circuit the very processes which keep us humming along, genetic mistakes will continue to be a part of life for the foreseeable future. But surely that doesn’t prevent God from tidying up some of the delinquent DNA we’ve accumulated across evolutionary time. Could a God who fashioned cellular superstructures not rid our species of this “natural evil” that nudges us toward mortality through no fault of our own?

 
11. If the infant mortality rate (IMR) dropped faster than could be accounted for by scientific advances. IMR is the total number of newborn babies who die under one year of age divided by the total number of births per year. Two hundred years ago, there was a 50 percent chance of your child not surviving past its first year. By 1850, IMR for babies born in America was 217 per 1,000 for whites and 340 for African Americans. By 1950, global IMR was down to 152 per 1,000 babies born (15.2 percent). 

It is thanks to advancements in medicine and biomedical science that these numbers have been reduced to 4.3 percent today and continue to fall. Were this rate to experience a sudden sharp drop on a global scale that could not be explained by improvements in healthcare, it might just indicate that God is looking out for us and cares what happens down here.

Yet nothing like this has been observed. New life is still shuttered at staggering rates across the third world from malnutrition, infectious diseases, and a miscellany of genetic factors. One can only imagine how high these numbers have climbed historically, prior to when these types of records were kept. Salvation of these newborns has clearly been delivered by the hands of science, not by any god or goddess.

 
12. If the people of one religion experienced dramatically less suffering relative to all others. Consider that in 1990 around 12.6 million children died who were under the age of five. In 2011 the under-five toll was 7 million, and this figure is lower by about two-thirds compared with just a couple of centuries prior. One of the leading causes is malnourishment and starvation, which currently affects 800 million people — 11 percent of the world population — many of whom will not survive to the end of the year. Hunger alone accounts for more than a third of child mortality.

To put these figures in perspective, consider that every 4.5 seconds some under-five child will have died somewhere around the world. By the time you have finished reading this essay, and while men and women of faith are thanking God for parking spots and promotions, some several dozen children will have perished in misery, most likely from overwhelmingly Christian countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Yahweh is portrayed in the Bible as the Ultimate Provider, showering manna from the sky to nourish the Israelites in time of need. Once again, we see this deity has apparently grown more callous with time.

If a single faith group were special enough to reap God’s favor, we might expect different outcomes among the world’s religions. Against the harsh realities outlined above, we might see longer life expectancies, lower infant, child, and maternal mortality, fewer epidemics, and an overall higher quality of life for Jain-majority communities, say. Yet religion doesn’t seem to play a role in any of these factors, each of which are better predicted by geography, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare. If anything it is non-religious societies which predominantly meet these conditions. Indeed, as Greg Gaffin writes in Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God:
 

“By every objective measure, open, liberal, secular societies are healthier than closed, bigoted, superstitious ones. Countries with a high percentage of nonbelievers are among the freest, most stable, best educated, and healthiest nations on earth. When nations are ranked according to a Human Development Index, which measures such factors as life expectancy, literacy rates, and educational attainment, the five highest-ranked countries — Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands — all have high degrees of nonbelief. Of the fifty countries at the bottom of the index, all are intensely religious.”

13. If we did not have such a somber record of mass extinctions. Our excavation of the past has revealed that the glamour and diversity of life on Earth was punctuated by great loss and collapse. Depending on how you count species, anywhere from 30 billion to 4,000 billion (that’s 4 trillion) have met their demise, which means that 99.99 percent of everything that has ever lived is no longer with us.

The most recent event was the Chicxulub impact marking the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary. This 10-mile wide asteroid not only laid the dinosaurs to rest but wiped out 75 percent of all extant species. Yet even this is eclipsed by the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) extinction, the most ruinous event on record. Swings in climate and geologic activity around 252 mya saw 96 percent of all marine life and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates blink out of existence. In taxonomic terms, some 57 percent of all families and 83 percent of all genera along the tree of life went extinct, as did over 90 percent of all species sea, land, and air. 

What is the most reasonable inference one can draw from these facts? I submit that an omniamorous creator god is about the last thing one would deduce from such information.

 
14. If our own species had not been jerked to the precipice of extinction multiple times in our relatively brief time on this planet. Consider man’s evolutionary past. Anatomically modern humans first arose around 200,000 years ago. For our ancestors, life was less a gift than a burdensome, calamitous, and affliction-laden existence. The absence of anything we would call medicine or quality of life meant death was a hurried and unrelenting affair, with average life expectancy hovering below age thirty. 

Disasters such as the supervolcanoes of Yellowstone and Lake Toba, genetic diseases, epidemics, and virus outbreaks variously culled our population numbers to the low thousands in a series of bottlenecks that very nearly signaled the death knell for our species. At our nadir, we were but a few thousand casualties short of joining the 99.99 percent of other species in annihilation. And if events had proceeded a bit differently, we might not be here at all.

It was Ambrose Bierce who wrote: “Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises.” Our universe is no idyll. Nature’s a serial killer, the boldest and most successful that’s ever lived. It’s clever, it’s ruthless, and it’s highly efficient. Indeed, it seems as if the universe was engineered for the express purpose of snuffing out life forms with unmetered brutality. Is such a universe consistent with a benevolent God?3

Christianity’s House of Cards

15. If the Bible were non-discrepant, free of error, and internally consistent. A central feature of revealed religion is that God authors books. He doesn’t code software. He doesn’t produce feature films or compose plays. Rather, within the narrative of Judeo-Christianity, God is said to have inspired a diverse collection of writings sometime between the years 1000 BCE and 135 CE. What might we expect of a corpus inspired by the Creator of the universe? Maybe not one riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Given the claims made on its behalf, we would expect to find a level of perfection which transcends that of ordinary, man-made works, and such excellence would be positive evidence in favor of those claims. We do not find this.

No religious texts pass this test.

 
16. If the Bible, or any purported holy text, contained prescient moral and scientific truths. What about matters of ethics and morality and insights about the physical world? Here again, given the extraordinary claims made on its behalf, the Bible should exhibit an ethical blueprint that transcends the rate of cultural evolution observed across history. Yet on issues such as slavery, the status of women, penalties for various innocuous (and imaginary) crimes, and the treatment of unbelievers, the biblical texts are found to be par for the Bronze Age course. 

Consider the issue of slavery. In the time of St. Paul and the other New Testament writers, enslavement was a common and completely accepted social institution, as ubiquitous in Judea, Galilee, and the Roman Empire writ large as stock trading is to our own. What better opportunity to condemn in clear and certain terms and bring an early end to a practice that would haunt and oppress the underprivileged for the better part of the next two thousand years? Yet neither Paul nor any other biblical figure is recorded as saying anything in opposition. Not even Jesus, supposed moral exemplar to the stars, utters a word against slaveholding.4

Likewise, the Bible is bereft of insights about the universe: no scientific precocity, nothing that has stood the test of time. As Sam Harris has noted, there isn’t a single sentence in the Bible that could not be uttered by someone today or that could not have been uttered “by someone for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.” If within the pages of the Bible or other (prescientific) text we were to find passages on DNA, electricity, principles of infectious disease, astronomical and cosmological truths, references to common descent and DNA, quarks, Higgs or other subatomic particles, then one could easily advance a sensible case for divine inspiration.

And it should be assessed like any other.

As it stands, the Bible, like other primitive works, is a product of its time. Its authors betray a manifest ignorance on matters pertaining to nature and ethical judgment, just as we would expect of a work sprung from the ancient world. The confluence of these problems casts considerable doubt on the very idea that the Judeo-Christian texts are of heavenly origin. If truly these were instructional messages vouchsafed to humanity by an all-knowledgeable, all-loving agency, we should expect to see the apotheosis of ethical counsel, the consummation of moral enlightenment, and the cutting edge in cosmic literacy. We do not find this.

 
17. If the biblical texts were purely preserved. Most Christians assume their nicely printed and bound book, conveniently translated into modern English idiom, contains the pure, unvarnished words passed down from their time of origin. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, we have not one of the autographs (originals) for any text in either the Old or New Testaments. As with any document from antiquity, the originals were lost or destroyed a long time ago. What survives are copies of the originals several centuries removed from their point of provenance.

When we compare the later manuscripts to our earliest witnesses, we find hundreds of thousands of variants, some material in nature (the alternate endings for Mark’s gospel, the Johanine Comma, the silencing and disesteeming of women in Paul’s epistles), some less so (innocent copy errors and the like). The evidence of our manuscript traditions confirms that these texts have been edited, revised, and redacted down through the centuries, often by way of mistake but also for theological and political motives, and the further back we go in the catalog the more errors that appear. If God deemed it prudent to deliver us a textbook of instruction, then why was the same care not taken in preserving it for us?
 

“For most people, the Bible is a non-problematic book. What people don’t realize is that they’re reading translations of texts, and we don’t have the originals. Given the circumstance that God didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.” —Bart Ehrman

18. If we had a more reliable historical record of the life and deeds of Jesus. As far as we know, Jesus didn’t leave any writings of his own behind, and neither did any of his disciples (who were most likely illiterate; see here and here) or anyone who knew him. Christians are often surprised to learn that we don’t actually know who wrote the gospels; the titles we see at the top today were added centuries later. The gospel accounts were written anonymously by Greek-speaking persons (read: not Aramaic) several decades after Jesus’ death.

To be fair, Jesus is hardly alone on this score. Our surviving sources for most historical figures are non-autographic, non-eyewitness, and in many cases irreconcilably contradictory. This does not mean historical reconstruction is impossible, but it does complicate the task. Where Jesus differs relative to most figures from the ancient world is, firstly, that accounts of him have come down to us in the form of the gospels, which are largely theological in nature. Particularly compared to other contemporary works by the Roman-era Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch, or Suetonius, we are not reading rote history when we read the canonical material. 

Second, many of the miracles attributed to him we would expect to be externally attested if they did in fact occur. Mark tells of a darkness which covered the earth upon Jesus’ last breath and is strangely specific as to its duration (from noon to three in the afternoon). Matthew describes a rock-splitting earthquake accompanied by a parade of corpses leaving empty tombs behind. Paul informs us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at once. Surely these goings-on made it into other writings of the day? Except nowhere outside the Bible do we find mention of any of these miraculous events. Not even the other New Testament writers mention them.

In fact, the only legitimate references we have to Jesus outside the New Testament canon are from the Jewish historian Josephus, writing around 93 CE, and the Roman senator-cum-historian Tacitus, writing in the second century. And neither make any mention of the miracle wonders front and center in the gospel narratives. Taken together, the scattered and contradictory nature of the historical sources calls into question any confidence surrounding the details of his life, leaving the truth about what he said and did largely inaccessible and uncertain.

It’s important to note here that such silence and contradiction are not evidence against the very existence of Jesus as a historical figure. The reality is that Jesus simply did not make that big a splash in his day. That the source material is so scant is only surprising or problematic if one subscribes to Jesus the miracle-worker as opposed to Jesus the obscure, illiterate, penniless Jew whose life was posthumously embellished by his most devoted followers. Thus the fact that we have no extra-canonical sources for Jesus’ miracles merely serves as evidence against the historicity of those miracles, not against the historicity of Jesus himself.5

 
19. If Christianity were not so divided and had not repeatedly found itself on the wrong side of history, all the while citing divine revelation. Christians claim their God embodies absolute morality, yet they are in absolute disagreement over what those morals are. One would expect a group with a direct landline to the Creator to agree upon moral matters. They do not. And they have not. With no modicum of irony, those with no religion tend to experience much greater unity on ethical matters than do religionists.

In the same way, Christians claim their faith is uniquely characterized by a relationship with God, yet they are in consummate disagreement over God’s nature and God’s will and basic Christian doctrine, testified by the 41,000+ denominations and splinter sects. When it would take the better part of a lifetime or two to sift through all of these non-negotiable disagreements and sub-disagreements, clearly we have missed the revelation. Is God not available for an air-clearing Q&A to set the record straight?
 

20. In a certain sense, the foregoing is ultimately beside the point. It stands to reason that an infinitely wise god that made entrance to heaven dependent on proper belief would know exactly what criteria each of us would require. An all-knowing god that craves certain convictions on the part of bipedal mammals and longs for our attention in the form of a personal relationship would doubtless find this essay of marginal utility. An infinitely capable god that cares sincerely about the safe haven of our souls would spare no expense, and leave no measure untaken, in ensuring our demands for evidence had been met.

That the god theists insist is real and present in our world has altogether failed to do so may point to the thin foundation on which these belief systems rest. A god that has made itself impossible to detect — that, indeed, has ostensibly crafted a universe using processes indistinguishable from nature itself — and neglected to act on our behalf when and where such intercession was most desperately needed, undercuts our expectations of a cosmos governed by a benevolent watchman.
 

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787

 
I challenge my Christian friends to compile a similar list. If practicing theists were genuinely concerned with the truth of their beliefs, they should be able to replicate this exercise. What array of facts, happenings, or circumstances might it take to convince a theist of the truth of atheism?


  1. Interestingly, in the single blind study (where the patients were aware they were being prayed for), the patient’s condition actually worsened. It is thought that anxiety crept in because the patients assumed they should be recovering since they were being prayed for, and when they didn’t, this stressed them out even more than the illness itself.[]
  2. Though this would also be consistent with the simulation hypothesis.[]
  3. That the world contains too much suffering for it to be the creation of a good God is an idea dating back to the days of Epicurus. Often when the argument from evil is raised, the theist will respond by calling attention to all of the goodness and beauty in the world. Consider Van Gogh and Picasso, Roethke and Rachmaninov, Mozart and Chopin and Bach and Miles Davis, or Caravaggio and Rothko, they may intone. But can this not be turned around? To whom, then, should we be grateful for the likes of Elizabeth Bathory, Talat Pasha, Josef Mengele, Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Kim Il Sung, Nero, Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or Vlad the Impaler?If you would count the former ensemble as evidence for God, in the interest of consistency is it not only fair you should count the latter cast as evidence against God? This thought experiment has been posed by a number of philosophers, including most recently Stephen Law in the form of the “Evil God Challenge” (YouTube animation here; foreword to a new book by John Zande here). The argument contends the following: If goodness is sufficient evidence to rule out the existence of a supremely evil being, then why isn’t evil sufficient evidence to rule out a supremely good being? Try though they might, theists cannot have their cake and eat it too.[]
  4. As historian Morton Smith has argued: “There were innumerable slaves of the emperor and of the Roman State; the Jerusalem Temple owned slaves; the High Priest owned slaves (one of them lost an ear in Jesus’ arrest); all of the rich and almost all of the middle class owned slaves. So far as we are told, Jesus never attacked this practice. He took the state of affairs for granted and shaped his parables accordingly. As Jesus presents things, the main problem for the slaves is not to get free, but to win their master’s praise. There seem to have been slave revolts in Palestine and Jordan in Jesus’ youth (Josephus, Bellum, 2:55-65); a miracle-working leader of such a revolt would have attracted a large following. If Jesus had denounced slavery or promised liberation, we should almost certainly have heard of his doing it. We hear nothing, so the most likely supposition is that he said nothing.”[]
  5. Myth and legend often, but not always, point to some historical kernel. Just because we have no good reasons to accept the fantastical claims attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, for example — on whose body it is said miraculously appeared stigmata impressed by a seraph with six wings — does not ipso facto give us reason to doubt the very existence of the figure behind them. Mythological accretion over time is common to sacred narratives, however historically rooted those narratives may originally have been. What I have found is that those who are quick to reject the consensus of scholarship (on any question, not just the historical Jesus question) do so because it is ideologically convenient for them to do so.From my perspective, the question “Did Jesus exist?” is an uninteresting one, and I would go so far as to say an irrelevant one, at least for the naturalist, because the question of historicity is subordinate to the much larger questions about supernaturalism, whether gods exist, and so forth. If we have good reasons for thinking the miracles and other supernatural contents of the gospels amount to fiction and fabrication, then should it matter that an itinerant, parabolic sermonizer was perambulating around Galilee two thousand years ago? If the figure to which the gospels point was exclusively human, endowed with no different attributes from you and I, then the question of historicity should strike the naturalist as trivial. If Jesus existed, he was simply another self-styled prophet about whom legendary stories developed. And if Jesus was merely an historicized amalgam of antecedent mythology, the naturalist position is no more or less secure.Of course, the Christian faith is pinned entirely on whether the gospel accounts are historically true as regards the nature of Jesus. So the better question is, “What kind of Jesus existed?” An answer to this question in line with Christian orthodoxy is very difficult to defend. Given how much of the gospel accounts is considered historically dubious — such as the fabrications surrounding Jesus’ birth, in which the Septuagint’s mistranslation of the Hebrew rendering for “young woman” in Isaiah was used by the author of Matthew to render ‘parthenos‘ (‘virgin’); the likely fictitious trial before Pontius Pilate; the three-hour darkness that apparently no contemporary observer noticed; the rock-splitting earthquake that history apparently felt apt to omit; the parades of corpses thronging the streets of Jerusalem for which there exists no extra-canonical account — what confidence do we have in the central tenets of Christian faith that have coalesced around the figure of Jesus, namely that he performed miracles in violation of physical law and physical causality culminating in that pinnacle of contra-physics known as the resurrection? Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us much confidence at all.In short, sure, a rabbi touting himself as the Messiah likely existed with some threadbare connection to the narratives in the gospels, along with the scores of other Messianic figures around that time period who and for whom were claimed many of the same things. But this isn’t what all the hubbub was ever about.

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Well if you have read to the end then you are to be congratulated.

I think it is the best argument that I have seen for the truth. I greatly admire the many people in the world that believe in some form of religion, especially in the USA, but as that quote above from Robert De Niro says: “If there is a God then he has a lot to answer for!”

Darkness!

Chris Impey writes about his specialty in observational cosmology.

This has nothing to do with life, nothing that we are dealing with in our daily affairs, and has nothing to do with our dear dogs. BUT! This is incredibly interesting! Incredibly and beautifully interesting!

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The most powerful space telescope ever built will look back in time to the Dark Ages of the universe

Hubble took pictures of the oldest galaxies it could – seen here – but the James Webb Space Telescope can go back much farther in time. NASA

Chris Impey, University of Arizona

Some have called NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope the “telescope that ate astronomy.” It is the most powerful space telescope ever built and a complex piece of mechanical origami that has pushed the limits of human engineering. On Dec. 18, 2021, after years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, the telescope is scheduled to launch into orbit and usher in the next era of astronomy.

I’m an astronomer with a specialty in observational cosmology – I’ve been studying distant galaxies for 30 years. Some of the biggest unanswered questions about the universe relate to its early years just after the Big Bang. When did the first stars and galaxies form? Which came first, and why? I am incredibly excited that astronomers may soon uncover the story of how galaxies started because James Webb was built specifically to answer these very questions.

A graphic showing the progression of the Universe through time.
The Universe went through a period of time known as the Dark Ages before stars or galaxies emitted any light. Space Telescope Institute

The ‘Dark Ages’ of the universe

Excellent evidence shows that the universe started with an event called the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, which left it in an ultra-hot, ultra-dense state. The universe immediately began expanding after the Big Bang, cooling as it did so. One second after the Big Bang, the universe was a hundred trillion miles across with an average temperature of an incredible 18 billion F (10 billion C). Around 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was 10 million light years across and the temperature had cooled to 5,500 F (3,000 C). If anyone had been there to see it at this point, the universe would have been glowing dull red like a giant heat lamp.

Throughout this time, space was filled with a smooth soup of high energy particles, radiation, hydrogen and helium. There was no structure. As the expanding universe became bigger and colder, the soup thinned out and everything faded to black. This was the start of what astronomers call the Dark Ages of the universe.

The soup of the Dark Ages was not perfectly uniform and due to gravity, tiny areas of gas began to clump together and become more dense. The smooth universe became lumpy and these small clumps of denser gas were seeds for the eventual formation of stars, galaxies and everything else in the universe.

Although there was nothing to see, the Dark Ages were an important phase in the evolution of the universe.

A diagram showing different wavelengths of light compared to size of normal objects.
Light from the early universe is in the infrared wavelength – meaning longer than red light – when it reaches Earth. Inductiveload/NASA via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Looking for the first light

The Dark Ages ended when gravity formed the first stars and galaxies that eventually began to emit the first light. Although astronomers don’t know when first light happened, the best guess is that it was several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers also don’t know whether stars or galaxies formed first.

Current theories based on how gravity forms structure in a universe dominated by dark matter suggest that small objects – like stars and star clusters – likely formed first and then later grew into dwarf galaxies and then larger galaxies like the Milky Way. These first stars in the universe were extreme objects compared to stars of today. They were a million times brighter but they lived very short lives. They burned hot and bright and when they died, they left behind black holes up to a hundred times the Sun’s mass, which might have acted as the seeds for galaxy formation.

Astronomers would love to study this fascinating and important era of the universe, but detecting first light is incredibly challenging. Compared to massive, bright galaxies of today, the first objects were very small and due to the constant expansion of the universe, they’re now tens of billions of light years away from Earth. Also, the earliest stars were surrounded by gas left over from their formation and this gas acted like fog that absorbed most of the light. It took several hundred million years for radiation to blast away the fog. This early light is very faint by the time it gets to Earth.

But this is not the only challenge.

As the universe expands, it continuously stretches the wavelength of light traveling through it. This is called redshift because it shifts light of shorter wavelengths – like blue or white light – to longer wavelengths like red or infrared light. Though not a perfect analogy, it is similar to how when a car drives past you, the pitch of any sounds it is making drops noticeably. Similar to how a pitch of a sound drops if the source is moving away from you, the wavelength of light stretches due to the expansion of the universe.

By the time light emitted by an early star or galaxy 13 billion years ago reaches any telescope on Earth, it has been stretched by a factor of 10 by the expansion of the universe. It arrives as infrared light, meaning it has a wavelength longer than that of red light. To see first light, you have to be looking for infrared light.

Telescope as a time machine

Enter the James Webb Space Telescope.

Telescopes are like time machines. If an object is 10,000 light-years away, that means the light takes 10,000 years to reach Earth. So the further out in space astronomers look, the further back in time we are looking.

A large golden colored disc with a sensor in the middle and scientists standing below.
The James Webb Space Telescope was specifically designed to detect the oldest galaxies in the universe. NASA/JPL-Caltech, CC BY-SA

Engineers optimized James Webb for specifically detecting the faint infrared light of the earliest stars or galaxies. Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb has a 15 times wider field of view on its camera, collects six times more light and its sensors are tuned to be most sensitive to infrared light.

The strategy will be to stare deeply at one patch of sky for a long time, collecting as much light and information from the most distant and oldest galaxies as possible. With this data, it may be possible to answer when and how the Dark Ages ended, but there are many other important discoveries to be made. For example, unraveling this story may also help explain the nature of dark matter, the mysterious form of matter that makes up about 80% of the mass of the universe.

James Webb is the most technically difficult mission NASA has ever attempted. But I think the scientific questions it may help answer will be worth every ounce of effort. I and other astronomers are waiting excitedly for the data to start coming back sometime in 2022.

Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The dark ages of the universe that lasted for millions of years until gravity started to form some order out of the ‘soup’.

I don’t know about you but the winter nights, when the sky is clear, have me waiting outside for the dogs to come in looking up at the night sky just lost in the sheer wonder of it all.

The very best of luck to NASA on December 18th!

At last some hope!

Bill McKibben steps forward.

I heard yesterday from Erik Hoffner who is responsible for the Mongabay website that Bill McKibben is stepping up to the mark in wanting to take action regarding climate change.

I very quickly signed up and received the following email:

Dear Friend,

Many thanks for signing up to be a part—and we hope a big part—of Third Act.

My name is Bill McKibben, and I’m one of the volunteers helping to launch this effort for Americans 60 and older who want to build a fairer and more sustainable nation and planet.

We’re very much in the early days of this, and we need your help—especially if you’re good at the behind-the-scenes tasks like administration, development, and project management. If you’ve got some time to donate right now, write to us at info@thirdact.org.

And we will be back in touch as autumn rolls on, with some early campaigns focused on climate action and on ending voter suppression. As you can tell, we’re making this up as we go along. So it should be interesting, and also a little bumpy!

If you can assemble a sizable group of people, I’ll do my best to join you for a virtual talk to explain more about this idea. (And when the pandemic ends, we’ll try to do it in person!).

And if you can donate some small sum of money to help with the launch, here’s the place.

Thank you. This is our time to make some powerful change—we’ve got the skills, the resources, and the desire. So let’s try.

Thanks, Bill McKibben for Third Act

The website is here.

WELCOME TO YOUR THIRD ACT

We’re over 60—the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. We have skills, we have resources, we have time—and many of us have kids and grandkids. We also have a history. In our early years we saw remarkable shifts in politics and society; now, in our latter years, we want to see those changes made real and lasting.

We were there for the first Earth Day, and we’ve been glad to see cleaner air and water—but now we know that the climate crisis presents an unparalleled threat. The heat is on and we must act quickly to turn it down.

We watched or participated in the civil rights movement—and now we know that its gains were not enough, and that gaps in wealth have only widened in our lifetimes. We’ve got to repair divisions instead of making them worse.
We saw democracy expand—and now we’re seeing it contract, as voter suppression and gerrymandering threaten the core of the American experiment. We know that real change can only come if we all get to participate.

You are the key to this work. Maybe you’ve asked yourself: how can I give back on a scale that matters? The answer is, by working with others to build movements strong enough to matter. That’s why we hope you’ll join us.

Clearly I have signed up and I hope an enormous number of other people will do as well.

Because the time left is not very long and even me at the age of 76 fear for the near future if nothing is done urgently.

Please, please consider joining Third Act.

As the headline says: THIRD ACT — EXPERIENCED PEOPLE WORKING FOR A FAIR AND STABLE PLANET.

Larry the guide dog!

Serendipity at work!

Yesterday morning while sitting up in bed I was browsing the internet on my iPad. I looked up TED Talks and fancied watching the story of Mark Pollock and Simone George. It turned out to be 19 minutes of incredible viewing and it is reproduced below as a YouTube video.

Towards the end Mark refers to his guide dog Larry. More of that later.

First watch the video.

It is a most amazing talk.

Next I wanted to research some more.

First I found Mark’s website that is here.

Then I came across a comprehensive entry on WikiPedia. From which the following is taken:

Pollock enrolled in a course to help come to terms with his disability. He left for Dublin with his guide dog Larry and began putting himself forward for job interviews. Prospective employers were uncertain as to how to approach him. Eventually the father of one of his college friends assigned him to organising corporate entertainment. He returned to rowing and won bronze and silver medals for Northern Ireland in the 2002 Commonwealth Rowing Championships. He engaged in other athletic pursuits, including running six marathons in seven days with a sighted partner across the Gobi Desert, China in 2003 when he raised tens of thousands of euro for the charity Sightsavers International. On 10 April 2004, he competed in the North Pole Marathon on the sixth anniversary of his blindness.

Then I discovered that Larry had died: “My great mate Larry The Guide Dog died on Sunday night. An amazing Guide Dog and amazing friend.”.

He died on the 2nd May, 2010 just a couple of months before Mark’s terrible accident.

Finally a photograph of Mark and Larry!

Who do you rely on most? When I was just blind, it was my guide dog Larry who empowered me to live life independently.”

The words of Mark Pollock.

What an inspiration he must be to so many!

Time marches on!

So we are now at the last day of July!

In many ways this has been a strange month in a somewhat strange year! No, more than that! We are at last seeing climate change come to the fore in terms of topics. Yves Smith, who produces Naked Capitalism (and it’s a great blog) had an item on climate change recently. Here’s an extract:

Yves here. As many of you know, I am considerably frustrated with Green New Deal advocates, because I see them as selling hopium. They act as if we can preserve modern lifestyles as long as we throw money, some elbow grease, and a lot of new development (using current dirty infrastructure to build it) at it. We’re already nearing the point where very bad outcomes, like widespread famines and mass migrations due to flooding, are baked in. And even that take charitably assumes that a rump of what we consider to be civilization survives.

There were many replies from a variety of people; I loved this one from Tom Stone:

A rational response to this crisis is not politically or societally feasible.

And the crisis is here, now.

The changes are not linear, a concept many of the people I talk to about climate change have difficulty accepting.

Large parts of the SF Bay Area are going to be heavily impacted (It’s my stomping ground, so I’m familiar with it) by salt water intrusion, levee failure, lack of water to to changing precipitation patterns in the Sierra’s…

A lot of Bay Area Housing is built on fill or in low lying areas, those homes will start to be abandoned within a decade if current trends continue.

Add the devastation from the inevitable Earthquake on the Hayward Fault which our local and State Governments are totally incapable of dealing with and it is going to be a godawful mess.

I looked at the Disaster planning for a quake on the Hayward Fault some years ago and all of the assumptions are for a “Best Case” scenario.

The quake won’t come in October during a drought and a high wind event, it won’t come at the wrong time of day, it won’t come in the spring during a high water period when Levee’s are stressed…

The Bay areas disaster response center was built in the 1950’s to withstand a nuclear attack, it is underground and was built smack dab in the middle of the Hayward Fault.

Have I mentioned that 20 years after 9/11 the various emergency responders do not have a commonality in their communications gear?

The more people that read this and other article the better.

Plus I am going to include my reply:

Your piece, Yves, that you published from Rolf was excellent and so was Tom Stone’s comment above. The scale of the issue is immense but at least climate change has now become a mainstream topic, and rightly so. National Geographic magazine published a special edition in May, 2020 to commemorate the anniversary of the fiftieth Earth Day. I think it was 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. So we can’t complain that this isn’t a new issue. But whether or not we make it to the one hundred anniversary of that first Earth Day depends on the myriad of actions that we, as in all of us, including especially our leaders and politicians, make NOW! Let me spell it out. NOW means within the next 5 years at the latest. I am 76 and a passionate advocate of a change in mass behaviors. For I have a single grandson, Morten, living with his parents back in England who is 10. I fear for his future and for the future of all of his age.

Anyway, to get back to the article about dogs that I wanted to share with you. It is from Treehugger.

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This 13-Year-Old Dog Has a Home Again

It’s heartbreaking when senior pets lose their families.

By Mary Jo DiLonardo

Mary Jo DiLonardo

Published July 29th, 2021

Magdalen in her new yard. Mary Jo DiLonardo

This weekend, my husband and I were the last step in a transport to get a dog to her new home. 

Typically, when we have a new dog in the backseat, it’s a raucous foster puppy (or two) in a crate. There’s usually barking and tumbling and playing until the motion of the car lulls them to sleep.

But this passenger was a much different story.

Magdalen is a 13-year-old border collie. Her owner gave her up temporarily when he was sick, but when he fully recuperated a few months later, he said he didn’t want her back. He had her since she was a puppy but now had no place for her.

The family who had given her a temporary home had children and other dogs and was unable to give her a permanent home. When Speak St. Louis, the rescue I work with, was contacted about the border collie, they offered to take her in. 

She went to the groomer for her very matted coat and to the vet for a basic health check.

The spa visit made her look (and no doubt, feel) much better. But the vet didn’t have great news. She had to have surgery for mammary masses and her mouth was swollen with all sorts of dental issues. One surgery later and she had six masses removed. Two teeth fell out during cleaning and 11 more had to be extracted.

Fortunately, the growths were benign and she slowly began to recover. 

Stressed and Resigned

Magdalen barely moved on the ride to her new home. Mary Jo DiLonardo

On the trip home, the sweet senior looked so resigned in our backseat. The last kind transporter gently lifted her from her car and placed her in ours, where she barely moved as she re-settled herself.

She had just spent several weeks in the care of a wonderful foster parent where she recuperated from her surgery and from being left by her family. 

I’m sure at this point she was just shut down and stressed and quietly rolling with whatever happened to her. She took the pieces of kibble we offered but her tail didn’t wag because it was tucked mostly between her legs.

It was heartbreaking to know that not so long ago she was someone’s pet and she was discarded.

It’s understandable that her owner needed some temporary help when he was sick and overwhelmed. But I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t have wanted her back now. I think of my own dog and dogs we’ve lost to old age in the past. They’re family and they stay that way forever.

Dogs aren’t disposable.

Why People Give Up Senior Pets 

Senior pets often end up in shelters and with rescues when their owners die and no one in the family is able to take them in. 

Or some people give them up when they become harder to care for. Seniors can have more health problems and often people can’t afford the costs. They also aren’t as fun as their younger counterparts, and sometimes get cranky or snippy around children.

For rescues and shelters, it’s much easier to get a cute, bouncy puppy adopted than a less active senior that might come with health baggage and who might only be with the family for a few years.

A survey by PetFinder found that “less adoptable” pets like seniors or special needs animals spend nearly four times as long on the adoption site before they find a home.1

But older dogs have lots of benefits. Unlike puppies, they usually arrive housebroken. Sure, there are the occasional accidents as they figure things out, but they mostly know they are supposed to potty outside.

Senior dogs won’t chew your furniture or your fingers. They don’t bounce off the walls and wake you up in the middle of the night to go outside. They don’t need as much exercise as younger dogs but will revel in all the attention you want to give them.

Mary Jo DiLonardo

As for Magdalen, she is coming out of her shell in her new home. She was adopted by a good friend of mine who is a dog trainer. She has a soft heart for seniors and a passion for brainy border collies.

Because the pup is very driven by food, her new mom is going to try nosework with her. That’s an activity where she can sniff out treats in all sorts of hidden places. That will give her a job and a hobby—and lots of food!

Magdalen doesn’t have her tail between her legs anymore and the resident dogs are figuring out that she’s here to stay. But the key is for her to understand that this is now her forever home and no one will ever leave her again.

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Of the six dogs we have here at home three are old. But they still remain happy and carefree which is a little different to yours truly who, as much as he tries very hard not to do so, worries about the big things in life and, frankly, the biggest of them all is climate change.

Dogs and tummy rubs!

I have discovered a useful website!

I was browsing the internet yesterday and came across, quite by chance, the website PetMD. It looks like a great resource and I want to publish some of their introductory text:

About PetMD

PetMD is the online authority for all things pet health. Our goal is to provide the most accurate, reliable, up-to-date pet health information to help you navigate the everyday ups and downs of pet parenting. As a pet parent, you deserve to have access to the tools, tips, and insights you need to keep your pets healthy. With PetMD, you’ll find answers you can trust from qualified veterinarians. By working closely with veterinarians since 2008, PetMD has become the go-to resource for pet health and care.

Vet Team

PetMD collaborates with pet experts that know the most about pet health and care—veterinarians. Our network of credible veterinarians is essential in our mission to bring you the most detailed and current information. Meet some of the trusted veterinarians that we partner with to bring you the most up-to-date information. 

What I was looking for is a reason why dogs love having their tummy’s rubbed.

This was a great article and I am pretty sure that republishing it is within the rules of PetMD.

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Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs?

PetMD Editorial

Updated: June 28, 2017, Published: April 07, 2017

By Chris Illuminati

Some dogs love belly rubs almost as much as playing fetch or chewing on a really good bone, yet others could go without the show of human affection. So why do dogs like belly rubs? And is it weird if some dogs don’t?

“Belly rubbing is a comforting action,” explains Dr. Peter Brown, chief medical officer of Wagly, a veterinary-based pet service provider with campuses in California and Washington. “It’s an opportunity for bonding and part of our relationship with our dogs.”  

Christine Case, an anthrozoology instructor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, offers another idea about the origin of belly rubs for dogs. Case, a member of the Association of Professional Humane Educators and the International Society for Anthrozoology, feels that humans have modified canine behavior over the last thousand years due to domestication.

“Rolling on their backs is a submissive behavior that dogs exhibit toward humans.” Case explains. “I think it would be difficult to determine whether dogs truly like this activity or if they have been trained to do so. The context of the situation should be evaluated.”

Michael Schaier, a certified professional dog trainer and author of “Wag That Tail: A Trainer’s Guide To A Happy Dog,” concurs with Case’s assessment, but adds that affection is one of the greatest training tools a human can use on a canine.

“A dog rolling on his back is a submissive action and puts the canine in a vulnerable position,” says Schaier, “but dogs have been bred for 10,000 years to be social animals and coexist with humans.”

Studying Back Rolling Behavior in Dogs

A dog rolling over on his back doesn’t always mean the animal is being playful, submissive, or looking for a belly rub, especially in instances when other dogs are close by. In 2015, two teams of researchers from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and the University of South Africa set out to investigate the meaning and function of dogs rolling over during play with other dogs. The researchers wanted to know if a dog rolling over onto the back is really an act of submission that serves to stop aggression or a tactic executed for combat purposes.

The researchers examined videos showing dogs playing together and staged play sessions with a medium-sized female dog paired with 33 dogs of different breeds and sizes. Then, they sat back and observed.

The researchers concluded that while dogs may roll when playing, the move might also be used to gain an advantage in fighting. Of rollovers observed, none of the dogs rolled over in a submissive response to aggressive behavior by another dog. Researchers noted that dogs rolling on their backs in front of other dogs used their position to block playful bites and launch attacks on the aggressor.

Should You Rub Your Dog’s Belly?

If pets are comfortable with belly rubs, pet owners should feel free to pet away. But Brown warns that a dog who suddenly doesn’t enjoy a good tummy scratching might be conveying a different message. “If your dog normally likes belly rubs, and then stops, that can be a sign of a sore belly or possibly an issue where their back is causing pain.”

There are, however, some dogs who can survive without the constant stomach rubbing.

“Past experience could affect the dog’s like or dislike for the activity,” Case remarks. “If a dog does not like to have its belly rubbed, it does not mean there is anything wrong—perhaps it’s just [the dog’s] preference. It’s up to the individual animal”

But most experts agree that when dogs ask for belly rubs or petting of any kind, it shows how comfortable they feel as part of the family.

“The greatest reward you can give your dog,” adds Schaier, “is the touch of your hand.” 

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Those last two paragraphs say it all and it comes down to touch. Even a brief touch of the hand on the head of your dog is bliss. For both the human and the dog but especially for the dog.

Capturing the moment of my daughter hugging her best friend, Oreo, in the woods. Photo from Unsplash.

Case made!

Resilience Thinking – a review

A book to make one think anew.

Let me make myself absolutely clear about this book, indeed I can do no better than to publish part of an email that I sent to the authors last Saturday:

To say that I was inspired by what you wrote is an understatement. More accurately it has changed my whole understanding of this planet, of the natural order of things, of the politics of the Western world, of vast numbers of us humans, and how precarious is our world just now. It has opened my eyes radically, and I thought before that I was fairly in touch with things.

Resilience is a simple idea but in its application has proved to be anything such. On page 2 the authors set out as they saw it The Drivers of Unsustainable Development. Here’s how that section develops:

Our world is facing a broad range of serious and growing resource issues. Human-induced soil degradation has been getting worse since the 1950s. About 85 percent of agriculture land contains areas degraded by erosion, rising salt, soil compaction, and various other factors. It has been estimated (Wood et al. 2000) that soil degradation has already reduced global agricultural productivity by around 15 percent in the last fifty years. In the last three hundred years, topsoil has been lost at a rate of 200 million tons per year; in the last fifty years it has more than doubled to 760 million tons per year.

As we move deeper into the twenty-first century we cannot afford to lose more of our resource base. The global population is now expanding by about 75 million people each year. Population growth rates are declining, but the world’s population will still be expanding by almost 60 million per year in 2030. The United Nations projections put the global population at nearly 8 billion in 2025. In addition, if current water consumption patterns continue unabated, half the world’s population will live in water-stressed river basins by 2025.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2004 Annual Hunger Report estimates that over 850 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Hunger kills 5 million children every year.

It goes on ….!

Now I want to quote from the end of the book, from their section on Resilience Thinking.

In our opening chapter we observed that there were many pathways into resilience thinking and suggested readers not worry too much if the finer details of a resilience framework are a bit obscure. We emphasized that what is of much more importance is an appreciation of the broader themes that underpin such a framework. Those broader themes revolve around humans existing within linked social and ecological systems. These are complex adaptive systems, and attempts to control or optimize parts of such systems without consideration of the responses that this creates in the broader system are fraught with risk. Much of this book has been spent on attempting to explore the consequences of such an approach.

In the broadest sense, optimizing and controlling components of a system in isolation of the broader system results in a decline in resilience, a reduction in options, and the shrinkage of the space in which we can safely operate. Resilience thinking moves us the other way.

It is our hope that readers who are persuaded of this basic premise will be encouraged to explore the inevitable consequences of such thinking. Even if you are not completely clear on the basins of attractions, thresholds, and adaptive cycles, if the concepts of ecological resilience and dynamic social-ecological systems have any resonance then you are in a better position to appreciate what is happening to the world around you.

The phrase complex adaptive system was new to me but intuitively I got what the authors meant. As they state on page 35: The three requirements for a complex adaptive system are:

  • That it has components that are independent and interacting,
  • There is some selection process at work on those components (and on the results of local interactions),
  • Variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system (through components changing over time or new ones coming in),

This was my eye-opener. It was now obvious that many processes, especially in nature, that I had hitherto regarded as constant were changing albeit usually on a timescale of many decades sometimes centuries.

And the other conclusion that was inescapable was that we humans were largely responsible for those changes because we couldn’t see the longterm consequences of what we were doing.

As I remarked in a previous post :

David writes that firstly carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants, for example like air particulants.  Then later goes on to say:

The second difference is that climate change is irreversible.

As Joe Romm notes in a recent post, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera slipped up in his latest column and referred to technology that would “help reverse climate change.” I don’t know whether that reflects Nocera’s ignorance or just a slip of the pen, but I do think it captures the way many people subconsciously think about climate change. If we heat the planet up too much, we’ll just fix it! We’ll turn the temperature back down. We’ll get around to it once the market has delivered economically ideal solutions.

But as this 2009 paper in Nature (among many others) makes clear, it doesn’t work that way:

This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. [my emphasis]

My last piece in this review is to republish a graph that is shown on the NASA Global Climate Change website:

For all our sakes, dogs and humans and many other species, let us all please change our behaviours! Soon!

Back to the book: It is a remarkable book!

I will close with quoting one of the praises shown on the back cover. This one by Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of political science, University of Toronto, and director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Resilience Thinking is an essential guidebook to a powerful new way of understanding our world – and of living resiliently with it – developed in recent decades by an international team of ecologists. With five clear and compelling case studies drawn from regions as diverse as Florida, Sweden, and Australia, this book shows how all highly adaptive systems – from ecologies to economics – go through regular cycles of growth, reorganization, and renewal and how our failures to understand the basic principles of resilience have often led to disaster. Resilience Thinking gives us the conceptual tools to help us cope with the bewildering surprises and challenges of our new century.

Please, if you can, think about reading it.

Dogs are not disposable!

It’s even a difficult title to write for today’s story.

There are some despicable people for whom having a dog is not a loving companion nor a humane business interest. I can’t define them and, frankly, they are not even worth the mental effort required to think of a term.

That makes it all the more important to share this article with you.

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Dogs Are Not Disposable

Some people dump pets that are too old, not ‘perfect,’ or to go on vacation.

By Mary Jo DiLonardo

Mary Jo DiLonardo

Published June 11th, 2021.

Blind puppy Gertie weighs just over 2 pounds. Mary Jo DiLonardo

This may seem like a no-brainer, but with all the news from overwhelmed shelters and rescues this summer, it’s probably worth saying out loud.

Dogs are not disposable.

Disreputable breeders toss out puppies that aren’t “perfect.” Some people give up the family pet when they go on vacation so they don’t have to pay for boarding. Others give up an older puppy whose cute behaviors are now obnoxious or a senior dog who may have other health issues.

That little mouse you see at the top of the page is one of two special needs puppies I’m fostering right now. She’s actually a 2.1-pound puppy that we were told is an Aussiedoodle. I still think she might be an exotic guinea pig.

Gertie was dropped off by a breeder at a vet’s office to be euthanized because she was blind. The vet contacted a rescue instead.

I also have a deaf puppy that was given up by a breeder. Many other fosters are also doubling up because the need is so great right now. Probably the biggest reason is that it’s the summer and people are traveling for the first time again in more than a year. That means it’s hard to find adopters and it’s hard to find fosters. Everyone wants out of the house.

I’ve seen messages and social media posts from rescuer and shelter workers who say they feel helpless because the requests for help right now are so crushing.

“My rescue cannot keep up trying to save them,” one wrote.

“I’m sickened at the number of rescue and surrender requests we are getting and I am completely heartbroken,” wrote another.

“We need a lifeline,” said another rescuer.

There are some news stories that claim many pandemic puppies are being returned, but the numbers don’t back that up. Instead, it’s just a crush of other reasons, many involving summer travel.

I think the hardest thing for most loving pet owners to fathom is the idea that some people would drop off their dog at a shelter on their way out of town. There’s just anecdotal evidence and no statistics about how often it happens, but it’s cited very often from disheartened rescuers and shelter workers. 

The people who surrender their pets say they don’t want to pay for boarding and they’ll just get a new one when they return. Shelter workers say it’s heart-wrenching to hold a dog while they watch their person drive away. Some will stare out the door for hours, thinking for sure their family will return.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise us anymore which is really sad,” says Jen Schwarz, one of the directors of Speak! St. Louis, the special needs rescue I foster for. The rescuers hear the story often from shelter and humane society workers.

“They don’t want to pay for boarding or can’t find anybody to take their dog,” says Schwarz. “It’s basically being selfish.”

And people might think they’re doing their dog a favor by taking it to a shelter, hoping they’ll get adopted by someone else. But typically, if shelters have to euthanize for space, they’ll turn to owner-surrendered pets before strays because they know no one is looking for them.

“That’s the sad reality,” Schwarz says.

The other thing that happens often is people asking to have the family pet put to sleep because they’re too much hassle.

“That happens a lot. The kids are gone, they want to travel, the dog’s too much, and they have it euthanized,” Schwarz says. “That’s worse than dumping it at the shelter.”

Rescuers are saving as many as they can and that’s why I have one puppy sleeping behind me in my office and one napping in a playpen in the living room. Soon everyone will head outside for a game of tag where I’ll make sure everyone gets a chance to win.

And the only thing disposable here is an awful lot of very tiny puppy poo.

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When Jen Schwarz says: “That happens a lot. The kids are gone, they want to travel, the dog’s too much, and they have it euthanized,” I wonder what a lot is numerically. Anyone know?

The stories from the shelter workers breaks hearts here as well. Dogs are so intuitive; so smart. It is no surprise that they will stare for hours trying to work out what has happened.

Diet and Exercise

And of the two exercise is the most important.

Now of course the majority of people reading the title to today’s post would think of us humans. And what I am about to republish is for us. But dogs require exercise just as much as we humans. The question is whether dog’s brains are better protected with exercise?

Anyone know the answer?

Here is the post republished courtesy of The Conversation.

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The exercise pill: How exercise keeps your brain healthy and protects it against depression and anxiety.

By Arash Javanbakht, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University, February 25th, 2021

As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active. Over the years, as I picked up boxing and became more active, I got firsthand experience of positive impacts on my mind. I also started researching the effects of dance and movement therapies on trauma and anxiety in refugee children, and I learned a lot more about the neurobiology of exercise. 

I am a psychiatrist and neuroscientist researching the neurobiology of anxiety and how our interventions change the brain. I have begun to think of prescribing exercise as telling patients to take their “exercise pills.” Now knowing the importance of exercising, almost all my patients commit to some level of exercise, and I have seen how it benefits several areas of their life and livelihood. 

We all have heard details on how exercise improves musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, metabolic and other aspects of health. What you may not know is how this happens within the brain.

Brain biology and growth

Working out regularly really does change the brain biology, and it is not just “go walk and you will just feel better.” Regular exercise, especially cardio, does change the brain. Contrary to what some may think, the brain is a very plastic organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain. One key area is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions.

A molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor helps the brain produce neurons, or brain cells. A variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increase BDNF levels. There is evidence from animal research that these changes are at epigenetic level, which means these behaviors affect how genes are expressed, leading to changes in the neuronal connections and function.

Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system and excessive inflammation. This is important, given the new insight neuroscience is gaining into the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression

Finally, there is evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that send signals between neurons – dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.

Exercise improves clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression

Researchers also have examined the effects of exercise on measurable brain function and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise improves memory function, cognitive performance and academic achievement. Studies also suggest regular exercise has a moderate effect on depressive symptoms even comparable to psychotherapy. For anxiety disorders, this effect is mild to moderate in reducing anxiety symptoms. In a study that I conducted with others among refugee children, we found a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and PTSD among children who attended eight to 12 weeks of dance and movement therapies.

Exercise could even potentially desensitize people to physical symptoms of anxiety. That is because of the similarity between bodily effects of exercise, specifically high-intensity exercise, and those of anxiety, including shortness of breath, heart palpitation and chest tightness. Also, by reducing baseline heart rate, exercise might lead to signaling of a calmer internal physical environment to the brain. 

It is important to note that the majority of studies examined the effects of exercise in isolation and not in combination with other effective treatments of clinical anxiety and depression, such as psychotherapy and medication. For the same reason, I am not suggesting exercise as a replacement for necessary mental health care of depression or anxiety, but as part of it, and for prevention.

Two men using exercise bars outdoors.
Many people have created outdoor gyms during the pandemic. Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty ImagesCC BY-SA

There are other perks besides the neurobiological impacts of exercise. When going out for a walk, one gets more exposure to sunlight, fresh air and nature. One of my patients befriended a neighbor during her regular walks, leading to regular taco Tuesdays with that new friend. I have made some great friends at my boxing gym, who are not only my motivators, but also a great supporting social network. One might pick a dog as their running mate, and another might meet a new date, or enjoy the high energy at the gym. Exercise can also function as a mindfulness practice and a respite from common daily stressors, and from our electronic devices and TV. 

By increasing energy and fitness level, exercise can also improve self-image and self-esteem .

Practical ways for a busy life

So how can you find time to exercise, especially with all the additional time demands of the pandemic, and the limitations imposed by the pandemic such as limited access to the gyms?

  • Pick something you can love. Not all of us have to run on a treadmill (I actually hate it). What works for one person might not work for another. Try a diverse group of activities and see which one you will like more: running, walking, dancing, biking, kayaking, boxing, weights, swimming. You can even rotate between some or make seasonal changes to avoid boredom. It does not even have to be called an exercise. Whatever ups your heartbeat, even dancing with the TV ads or playing with the kids.
  • Use positive peer pressure to your advantage. I have created a group messaging for the boxing gym because at 5:30 p.m., after a busy day at the clinic, I might have trouble finding the motivation to go to the gym or do an online workout. It is easier when friends send a message they are going and motivate you. And even if you do not feel comfortable going to a gym during the pandemic, you can join an online workout together. 
  • Do not see it as all or none. It does not have to be a one-hour drive to and from the gym or biking trail for a one-hour workout vs. staying on the couch. I always say to my patients: “One more step is better than none, and three squats are better than no squats.” When less motivated, or in the beginning, just be nice to yourself. Do as much as possible. Three minutes of dancing with your favorite music still counts.
  • Merge it with other activities: 15 minutes of walking while on the phone with a friend, even around the house, is still being active.
  • When hesitant or low on motivation, ask yourself: “When was the last time I regretted doing it?”
  • Although it can help, exercise is not the ultimate weight loss strategy; diet is. One large brownie might be more calories than one hour of running. Don’t give up on exercise if you are not losing weight. It is still providing all the benefits we discussed.

Even if you do not feel anxious or depressed, still take the exercise pills. Use them for protecting your brain.

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This is a very good post. Arash Javanbakht is a scientist of the first order and we all should do as she advises. I’m going to close today’s post by republish the first two paragraphs of his bio that is also published by The Conversation:

Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University Arash Javanbakht, M.D., is the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC; https://www.starclab.org) at Wayne State University. Dr Javanbakht and her work have been featured on the National Geographic, The Atlantic, CNN, Aljazeera, NPR, Washington Post, Smithsonian, PBS, American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and tens of other media.

Her clinical and research work is mainly focused on anxiety and trauma related disorders, and PTSD. She often helps civilians and first responders with PTSD. Her clinic utilizes pharmacotherapy (medication), psychotherapy, exercise, and lifestyle modification to help patients achieve their full capacity for a fulfilling life.

Having a dog in an apartment.

Lots of people who don’t have a yard still want a dog!

We are incredibly lucky in that we have many acres for our dogs, and our horses, to play in. Mind you, it is at times like the present where our acres are not such a brilliant idea. Times in the Summer that bring drought and the ever-present risk of a fire storm.

But taken in the round we are grateful that we ended up living in this property.

Not all people are as lucky as us but for them a dog or two is just as important. So what is the truth of having a dog in an apartment.

That is why I am so pleased to share this recent article from The Dodo with you.

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How To Make Your Dog Happy Living In An Apartment

No yard, no problem!

By SAM HOWELL

Published on the 1st March, 2021.

So you’re dying to have a dog, but you’re worried he won’t be happy in your apartment.

Do you really need a giant house with a big yard to give your dog the best life?

The Dodo spoke with Mikayla Park, director of adoptions and education at Wags & Walks, to bust that myth wide open.

Is living in an apartment worse for your dog?

Great news! The idea that a dog can’t be happy in an apartment is totally a myth.

“There is no one perfect environment in which to introduce a new dog,” Park told The Dodo. “Everyone has the ability to give a dog a happy and fulfilling life regardless of the size of their home, and the presence of an outdoor yard space.”

If you’re waiting to adopt a dog until you have your own yard due to personal preference, that’s totally understandable.

But the only real requirement for having a pup of your own is a willingness to love and take care of him — even if that means getting creative about outdoor time.

“Adopting a dog is about making a commitment to give that dog everything they need for the rest of their life,” Park said. “It might be a bit more work if you don’t have the ability to open a door and let your pup go outside, but it is by no means impossible, nor does it make your home any lesser a home in which to have a dog.”

Getting your dog outside when you live in an apartment

Going out to do his business, soak up the sun or just run around and smell all the smells is super important for your dog.

But just because you don’t have a backyard or live in an apartment, that doesn’t mean your pup can’t get that quality outside time.

“Outdoor time is a vital part of this daily routine, but it’s more about the way you spend that outdoor time than the mere presence of it,” Park explained. “Dogs thrive on having jobs, on pleasing their humans, on working their brains! Challenge them to work while they are outside with you.”

So instead of just idly letting your dog get his zoomies out when you pop outside, you can actually use this time to engage his brain — such as by slipping some training time in on your daily walks.

“Don’t just let them wander at the end of a leash,” Park said. “Practice your commands, work on eye contact [and] run them through sits and stays and recall. Buy a treat pouch and take it with you when you go, so that you can reward for good behavior and mark victories!”

This will help tire him out so he’s not bursting with energy when you return to your apartment. And with enough active walks or dog park trips, any pup can be happy (regardless of where he lives).

Things that’ll make your dog happy inside an apartment

While your dog definitely needs outdoor enrichment, there are plenty of things that will help keep him entertained while he’s inside your apartment.

“There are lots of wonderful products out there to help you in maintaining a happy and balanced dog without a yard,” Park said. “Brain games like treat puzzles and Kongs are fabulous ways to create some mentally stimulating entertainment.”

Plus, believe it or not, your dog’s bed can even help with that indoor enrichment.

“Buy a raised-place bed and practice having your dog stay there while you cook dinner,” Park explained, noting that this can actually be a fun mental game for some pups. “If they get up, lead them right back onto the bed. They cannot move until you give them the signal to do so. Sound boring? You would be surprised how hard it is for some dogs to make their bodies sit still for 20 minutes.”

So, there are plenty of ways you can give your dog a happy life with lots of enrichment while living in an apartment.

“Not having a backyard is certainly a bit of a challenge, but one that any adopter is capable of rising to meet, with dedication and time,” Park said.

We independently pick all the products we recommend because we love them and think you will too. If you buy a product from a link on our site, we may earn a commission.

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As was said earlier on in the article: “But the only real requirement for having a pup of your own is a willingness to love and take care of him.

My experience is that huge numbers of people are really committed to loving their dogs. Simply because a dog offers in return unconditional love. It’s a short statement of just two words. But it is a profound quality of our dogs and one that at frequent times has Jeannie and me, and tons of other people, lost for words!