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It’s only a matter of time—in fact, they’ve already started cropping up—before reality-challenged individuals begin pontificating about what God could have possibly been so hot-and-bothered about to trigger last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. (Surely, if we were to ask Westboro Baptist Church members, it must have something to do with the gays.) But from a psychological perspective, what type of mind does it take to see unexpected natural events such as the horrifying scenes still unfolding in Japan as “signs” or “omens” related to human behaviors?

In the summer of 2005, my University of Arkansas colleague Becky Parker and I began the first experimental study to investigate the psychology underlying this strange phenomenon. In this experiment, published the following year in Developmental Psychology, we invited a group of three- to nine-year-old children into our lab and told them they were about to play a fun guessing game. It was a simple game in which each child was tested individually. The child was asked to go to the corner of the room and to cover his or her eyes before coming back and guessing which of two large boxes contained a hidden ball. All the child had to do was place a hand on the box that he or she believed contained the ball. A short time was allowed for the decision to be made but, importantly, during that time the children were allowed to change their mind at any time by moving their hand to the other box. The final answer on each of the four trials was reflected simply by where the child’s hand was when the experimenter said, “Time’s up!” Children who guessed right won a sticker prize.

In reality, the game was a little more complicated than this. There were secretly two balls, one in each box, and we had decided in advance whether the children were going to get it “right” or “wrong” on each of the four guessing trials. At the conclusion of each trial, the child was shown the contents of only one of the boxes. The other box remained closed. For example, for “wrong” guesses, only the unselected box was opened, and the child was told to look inside (“Aw, too bad. The ball was in the other box this time. See?”). Children who had been randomly assigned to the control condition were told that they had been successful on a random two of the four trials. Children assigned to the experimental condition received some additional information before starting the game. These children were told that there was a friendly magic princess in the room, “Princess Alice,” who had made herself invisible. We showed them a picture of Princess Alice hanging against the door inside the room (one that looked remarkably like Barbie), and we gave them the following information: “Princess Alice really likes you, and she’s going to help you play this game. She’s going to tell you, somehow, when you pick the wrong box.” We repeated this information right before each of the four trials, in case the children had forgotten.

For every child in the study, whether assigned to the standard control condition (“No Princess Alice”) or to the experimental condition (“Princess Alice”), we engineered the room such that a spontaneous and unexpected event would occur just as the child placed a hand on one of the boxes. For example, in one case, the picture of Princess Alice came crashing to the floor as soon as the child made a decision, and in another case a table lamp flickered on and off. (We didn’t have to consult with Industrial Light & Magic to rig these surprise events; we just arranged for an undergraduate student to lift a magnet on the other side of the door to make the picture fall, and we hid a remote control for the table lamp surreptitiously in the experimenter’s pocket.) The predictions were clear: if the children in the experimental condition interpreted the picture falling and the light flashing as a sign from Princess Alice that they had chosen the wrong box, they would move their hand to the other box.

What we found was rather surprising, even to us. Only the oldest children, the seven- to nine-year-olds, from the experimental (Princess Alice) condition, moved their hands to the other box in response to the unexpected events. By contrast, their same-aged peers from the control condition failed to move their hands. This finding told us that the explicit concept of a specific supernatural agent—likely acquired from and reinforced by cultural sources—is needed for people to see communicative messages in natural events. In other words, children, at least, don’t automatically infer meaning in natural events without first being primed somehow with the idea of an identifiable supernatural agent such as Princess Alice (or God, one’s dead mother, angels, etc.).

More curious, though, was the fact that the slightly younger children in the study, even those who had been told about Princess Alice, apparently failed to see any communicative message in the light-flashing or picture-falling events. These children kept their hands just where they were. When we asked them later why these things happened, these five- and six-year-olds said that Princess Alice had caused them, but they saw her as simply an eccentric, invisible woman running around the room knocking pictures off the wall and causing the lights to flicker. To them, Princess Alice was like a mischievous poltergeist with attention deficit disorder: she did things because she wanted to, and that’s that. One of these children answered that Princess Alice had knocked the picture off the wall because she thought it looked better on the ground. In other words, they completely failed to see her “behavior” as having any meaningful connection with the decision they had just made on the guessing game; they saw no “signs” there.

The youngest children in the study, the three- and four-year-olds in both conditions, only shrugged their shoulders or gave physical explanations for the events, such as the picture not being sticky enough to stay on the wall or the light being broken. Ironically, these youngest children were actually the most scientific of the bunch, perhaps because they interpreted “invisible” to mean simply “not present in the room” rather than “transparent.” Contrary to the common assumption that superstitious beliefs represent a childish mode of sloppy and undeveloped thinking, therefore, the ability to be superstitious actually demands some mental sophistication. At the very least, it’s an acquired cognitive skill.

Still, the real puzzle to our findings was to be found in the reactions of the five- and six-year-olds from the Princess Alice condition. Clearly they possessed the same understanding of invisibility as did the older children, because they also believed Princess Alice caused these spooky things to happen in the lab. Yet although we reminded these children repeatedly that Princess Alice would tell them, somehow, if they chose the wrong box, they failed to put two and two together. So what is the critical change between the ages of about six and seven that allows older children to perceive natural events as being communicative messages about their own behaviors (in this case, their choice of box) rather than simply the capricious, arbitrary actions of some invisible or otherwise supernatural entity?

The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads! For example, in the everyday (nonsupernatural) social domain, one would need this kind of mature theory of mind to reason in the following manner:

“Jakob thinks that Adrienne doesn’t know I stole the jewels.”
Whereas a basic (“first-order”) theory of mind allows even a young preschooler to understand the first propositional clause in this statement, “Jakob thinks that . . . ,” it takes a somewhat more mature (“second-order”) theory of mind to fully comprehend the entire social scenario: “Jakob thinks that [Adrienne doesn’t know] . . .”

Most people can’t go much beyond four orders of mental-state reasoning (consider the Machiavellian complexities of, say, Leo Tolstoy’s novels), but studies show that the absolute maximum in adults hovers around seven orders of mental state. The important thing to note is that, owing to their still-developing theory-of-mind skills, children younger than seven years of age have great difficulty reasoning about multiple orders of mental states. Knowing this then helps us understand the surprising results from the Princess Alice experiment. To pass the test (move their hand) in response to the picture falling or the light flashing, the children essentially had to be reasoning in the following manner:

“Princess Alice knows that [I don’t know] where the ball is hidden.”

To interpret the events as communicative messages, as being about their choice on the guessing game, demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: “What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?” The Princess Alice findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice “talking” to him.

Princess Alice may not have the je ne sais quoi of Mother Mary or the fiery charisma of the Abrahamic God we’re all familiar with, but she’s arguably a sort of empirically constructed god-by-proxy in her own right. The point is, the same basic cognitive processes—namely, a mature theory of mind—are also involved in the believer’s sense of receiving divine guidance from these other members of the more popular holy family. When people ask God to give them a sign, they’re often at a standstill, a fork in the road, paralyzed in a critical moment of existential ambivalence. In such cases, our ears are pricked, our eyes widened, our thoughts ruminating on a particular problem—often “only God knows” what’s on our minds and the extent to which we’re struggling to make a decision. It’s not questions like whether we should choose a different box, but rather decisions such as these: Should I stay with this person or leave him? Should I risk everything, start all over in a new city, or stay here where I’m stifled and bored? Should I have another baby? Should I continue receiving harsh treatment for my disease, or should I just pack it in and call it a life? Just like the location of the hidden ball inside one of those two boxes, we’re convinced that there’s a right and a wrong answer to such important life questions. And for most of us, it’s God, not Princess Alice, who holds the privileged answers.


God doesn’t tell us the answers directly, of course. There’s no nod to the left, no telling elbow poke in our side or “psst” in our ear. Rather, many envision God, and other entities like Him, as encrypting strategic information in an almost infinite array of natural events: the prognostic stopping of a clock at a certain hour and time; the sudden shrieking of a hawk; an embarrassing blemish on our nose appearing on the eve of an important interview; a choice parking spot opening up at a crowded mall just as we pull around; an interesting stranger sitting next to us on a plane. The possibilities are endless. When the emotional climate is just right, there’s hardly a shape or form that “evidence” cannot assume. Our minds make meaning by disambiguating the meaningless.

This sign-reading tendency has a distinct and clear relationship with morality. When it comes to unexpected heartache and tragedy, our appetite for unraveling the meaning of these ambiguous “messages” can become ravenous. Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.


Text by Jesse Bering | Sunday, March 13, 2011 |

(Author’s note: Some of the foregoing material is excerpted, with edits, from my new book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life.)

There is a story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture somewhere or other, defending his atheism. A furious woman stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied: “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’ ”

This is a very natural way for atheists to react to religious claims: to ask for evidence, and reject these claims in the absence of it. Many of the several hundred comments that followed two earlier Stone posts “Philosophy and Faith” and “On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response,” both by Gary Gutting, took this stance. Certainly this is the way that today’s “new atheists”  tend to approach religion. According to their view, religions — by this they mean basically Christianity, Judaism and Islam and I will follow them in this — are largely in the business of making claims about the universe that are a bit like scientific hypotheses. In other words, they are claims — like the claim that God created the world — that are supported by evidence, that are proved by arguments and tested against our experience of the world. And against the evidence, these hypotheses do not seem to fare well.

But is this the right way to think about religion? Here I want to suggest that it is not, and to try and locate what seem to me some significant differences between science and religion.

To begin with, scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability. No-one can understand quantum theory — by any account, the most successful physical theory there has ever been — unless they grasp the underlying mathematics. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves.
Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)

What is more, while religious belief is widespread, scientific knowledge is not. I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories. Why? One obvious reason is that many lack access to this knowledge. Another reason is that even when they have access, these theories require sophisticated knowledge and abilities, which not everyone is capable of getting.

Yet another reason — and the one I am interested in here — is that most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it. Of course, educated people who know about science know roughly what Einstein, Newton and Darwin said. Many educated people accept the modern scientific view of the world and understand its main outlines. But this is not the same as being interested in the details of science, or being immersed in scientific thinking.

This lack of interest in science contrasts sharply with the worldwide interest in religion. It’s hard to say whether religion is in decline or growing, partly because it’s hard to identify only one thing asreligion — not a question I can address here. But it’s pretty obvious that whatever it is, religion commands and absorbs the passions and intellects of hundreds of millions of people, many more people than science does. Why is this? Is it because — as the new atheists might argue — they want to explain the world in a scientific kind of way, but since they have not been properly educated they haven’t quite got there yet? Or is it because so many people are incurably irrational and are incapable of scientific thinking? Or is something else going on?

Some philosophers have said that religion is so unlike science that it has its own “grammar” or “logic” and should not be held accountable to the same standards as scientific or ordinary empirical belief. When Christians express their belief that “Christ has risen,” for example, they should not be taken as making a factual claim, but as expressing their commitment to what Wittgenstein called a certain “form of life,” a way of seeing significance in the world, a moral and practical outlook which is worlds away from scientific explanation.

This view has some merits, as we shall see, but it grossly misrepresents some central phenomena of religion. It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science. This will become clear if we reflect a bit on what science involves.

The essence of science involves making hypotheses about the causes and natures of things, in order to explain the phenomena we observe around us, and to predict their future behavior. Some sciences — medical science, for example — make hypotheses about the causes of diseases and test them by intervening. Others — cosmology, for example — make hypotheses that are more remote from everyday causes, and involve a high level of mathematical abstraction and idealization. Scientific reasoning involves an obligation to hold a hypothesis only to the extent that the evidence requires it. Scientists should not accept hypotheses which are “ad hoc” — that is, just tailored for one specific situation but cannot be generalized to others. Most scientific theories involve some kind of generalization: they don’t just make claims about one thing, but about things of a general kind. And their hypotheses are designed, on the whole, to make predictions; and if these predictions don’t come out true, then this is something for the scientists to worry about.

Religions do not construct hypotheses in this sense. I said above that Christianity rests upon certain historical claims, like the claim of the resurrection. But this is not enough to make scientific hypotheses central to Christianity, any more than it makes such hypotheses central to history. It is true, as I have just said, that Christianity does place certain historical events at the heart of their conception of the world, and to that extent, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that these events happened. Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses. So I disagree with Richard Dawkins when he says “religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”

Taken as hypotheses, religious claims do very badly: they are ad hoc, they are arbitrary, they rarely make predictions and when they do they almost never come true. Yet the striking fact is that it does not worry Christians when this happens. In the gospels Jesus predicts the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God. It does not worry believers that Jesus was wrong (even if it causes theologians to reinterpret what is meant by ‘the kingdom of God’). If Jesus was framing something like a scientific hypothesis, then it should worry them. Critics of religion might say that this just shows the manifest irrationality of religion. But what it suggests to me is that that something else is going on, other than hypothesis formation.

Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.

This point gets to the heart of the difference between science and religion. Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world, but it does not try and do this in the way science does. Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses. The characteristic mode of scientific explanation is showing how events fit into a general pattern.

Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. This is the attitude (seeing God in everything) expressed in George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir.” Equipped with this attitude, even the most miserable tasks can come to have value:Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and th’ action fine.

None of these remarks are intended as being for or against religion. Rather, they are part of an attempt (by an atheist, from the outside) to understand what it is. Those who criticize religion should have an accurate understanding of what it is they are criticizing. But to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view. Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

I have suggested that while religious thinking is widespread in the world, scientific thinking is not. I don’t think that this can be accounted for merely in terms of the ignorance or irrationality of human beings. Rather, it is because of the kind of intellectual, emotional and practical appeal that religion has for people, which is a very different appeal from the kind of appeal that science has.

Stephen Jay Gould once argued that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” If he meant by this that religion makes no factual claims which can be refuted by empirical investigations, then he was wrong. But if he meant that religion and science are very different kinds of attempt to understand the world, then he was certainly right.

Tim Crane is Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of two books, “The Mechanical Mind” (1995) and “Elements of Mind” (2001), and several other publications. He is currently working on two books: one on the representation of the non-existent and another on atheism and humanism.

An explosion of smart-phone software has placed an arsenal of trivia at the fingertips of every corner-bar debater, with talking points on sports, politics and how to kill a zombie. Now it is taking on the least trivial topic of all: God.

Publishers of Christian material have begun producing iPhone applications that can cough up quick comebacks and rhetorical strategies for believers who want to fight back against what they view as a new strain of strident atheism. And a competing crop of apps is arming nonbelievers for battle.
“Say someone calls you narrow-minded because you think Jesus is the only way to God,” says one top-selling application introduced in March by a Christian publishing company. “Your first answer should be: ‘What do you mean by narrow-minded?’ ”

For religious skeptics, the “BibleThumper” iPhone app boasts that it “allows the atheist to keep the most funny and irrational Bible verses right in their pocket” to be “always ready to confront fundamentalist Christians or have a little fun among friends.”

The war of ideas between believers and nonbelievers has been part of the Western tradition at least since Socrates. For the most part, it has been waged by intellectual giants: Augustine, Spinoza, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche.

Yet for good or ill, combatants entering the lists today are mainly everyday people, drawn in part by the popularity of books like Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great.” The fierceness of their debate reflects the fractious talk-show culture unintentionally described so aptly in the title of the Glenn Beck best seller “Arguing With Idiots.”

In a dozen new phone applications, whether faith-based or faith-bashing, the prospective debater is given a primer on the basic rules of engagement — how to parry the circular argument, the false dichotomy, the ad hominem attack, the straw man — and then coached on all the likely flashpoints of contention. Why Darwinism is scientifically sound, or not. The differences between intelligent design and creationism, and whether either theory has any merit. The proof that America was, or was not, founded on Christian principles.

Users can scroll from topic to topic to prepare themselves or, in the heat of a dispute, search for the point at hand — and the perfect retort.

Software creators on both sides say they are only trying to help others see the truth. But most applications focus less on scholarly exegesis than on scoring points.
One app, “Fast Facts, Challenges & Tactics” by LifeWay Christian Resources, suggests that in “reasoning with an unbeliever” it is sometimes effective to invoke the “anthropic principle,” which posits, more or less, that the world as we know it is mathematically too improbable to be an accident.

It offers an example: “The Bible’s 66 books were written over a span of 1,500 years by 40 different authors on three different continents who wrote in three different languages. Yet this diverse collection has a unified story line and no contradictions.”

“The Atheist Pocket Debater,” on the other hand, asserts that because miracles like Moses’ parting of the waters are not occurring in modern times, “it is unreasonable to accept that the events happened” at all. “If you take any miracle from the Bible,” it explains, “and tell your co-workers at your job that this recently happened to someone, you will undoubtedly be laughed at.”

These applications and others — like “One-Minute Answers to Skeptics” and “Answers for Catholics” — appear to be selling briskly, if nowhere near as fast as the top sellers among the so-called book apps in their iPhone category: ghost stories, free books and the King James Bible.

Sean McDowell, the editor of “Fast Facts” and some textbooks for Bible students, said he has become increasingly aware of a skill gap between believers and nonbelievers, who he feels tend to be instinctively more savvy at arguing. “Christians who believe, but cannot explain why they believe, become ‘Bible-thumpers’ who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions,” he said. “We have to deal with that.”

“Nowadays, atheists are coming to the forefront at every level of society — from the top of academia all the way down to the level of the average Joe,” added Mr. McDowell, a seminary Ph.D. candidate whose phone app was produced by the B&H Publishing Group, one of the country’s largest distributors of Bibles and religious textbooks.

Jason Hagen may be that average guy. A musician and a real estate investor who lives in Queens, Mr. Hagen decided to write the text for “The Atheist Pocket Debater” this year after buying his first iPhone and finding dozens of apps for religious people, but none for nonbelievers like himself.

In creating what became the digital equivalent of a 50,000-word tract, he gleaned material from the recent antifaith books and got the author Michel Shermer’s permission to reprint essays from Mr. Shermer’s monthly magazine,Skeptic. Mr. Hagen pitched his idea to Apple, which referred him to an independent programmer who helped him develop the application; the company pays Mr. Hagen 50 cents for each download of the $1.99 app. He said a few thousand had sold.
What inspired him, he said, was a lifetime of frustration as the son of a fundamentalist Christian preacher in rural Virginia.

“I know what people go through, growing up in the culture I grew up in,” said Mr. Hagen, 39, adding that his father had only recently learned of his true beliefs. “So I tried to give people the tools they need to defend themselves, but at the same time not ridicule anybody. Basically, the people on the other side of the debate are my parents.”

Still, some scholars consider that approach to the debate the least auspicious way of exploring the mystery of existence.
“It turns it into a game,” said Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, in Manhattan. “Both sides come to the discussion with fixed ideas, and you have what amounts to a contest between different types of fundamentalism.”

Indeed, the new phone applications seem to promise hours of unrelieved, humorless argument.

“When someone says, ‘There is no truth,’ ” the Fast Facts app advises, “ask them: ‘Is that true? Is it true there is no truth?’ Because if it’s true that there is no truth, then it’s false that ‘there is no truth.’ ”

Mr. Hagen’s atheistic app resonates with the same certitude. If Jacob saw the face of God (in Genesis 32:30), and God said, “No man shall see me and live” (in Exodus 33:20), then “which one is the liar?” he asks.

His conclusion: “If we know the Bible has content that is false, how can we believe any of it?”

Unavailing as such exchanges may seem, they are a fact of life in parts of the country where for some people, taboos against voicing doubt have lifted for the first time.
“I don’t know that there’s more atheists in the country, but there are definitely more people who are openly atheist, especially on college campuses,” said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and author of “Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists.” He said students have asked him how to deal with nonbelievers.

“There is not one student on this campus who doesn’t have at least one person in his circle of family and friends voicing these ideas,” he said.
If smart-phone software can improve the conversation, all to the good, he said. “The app store is our new public commons.”
Michael Beaty, chairman of the philosophy department at Baylor University, a Christian university in Waco, Tex., was not so sure.
“We’d be better off if these people were studying Nietzsche and Kant,” he said.

By PAUL VITELLO (NYT. July 2, 2010)