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Jan 7 2015

I remember discussing the violent reaction to the Danish cartoons with a Lebanese Muslim colleague in Dubai. I was assuming he would condemn the burnt embassies, the people dying, the death threats etc. and say it had nothing to do with Islam. But he didn’t.


Instead he said:
-”Well it worked didn’t it? They won’t do that again.”
I was both shocked and appalled by that response. I tried to say that a violent response to an argument was an expression of a primitive and brutal stage of history. I wanted him to see that the things he liked, the reasons he had moved to Dubai – money, technology and quality of life – were dependent on tolerance and a rational mindset. I argued that there was a connection between financial progress, science and secularism. And that Dubai was enjoying the fruits of rationality without embracing the critical mindset that lead to it.


He replied by telling me a story.
“A man from Hezbollah approaches a house filled with Israeli militants. He is wearing a suicide bomb vest. He walks up to the house and shows his vest. Upon seeing this the Israelis exit the house, and run for their lives. The man proceeds to systematically and calmly kill all of them, one by one. Then he takes off the vest and walks home victorious.”
He smiles at me and concludes:
“We are also rational.”


Ironically – no tragically – he was right. Rationality in itself does not posit objectives, it only states that given objective X method Y is the most efficient way to get there. The Frankfurt school of philosophy was deeply concerned by this lack of morality inside the rational project from the age of the Enlightenment. The school was made up of German Jews who believed the Enlightenment would bring peace and harmony to a secular world. Instead they had to run away from the Nazi totalitarian regime using scientific concepts of race, purity and universality to justify violence against those that didn’t fit the categories. Rationality itself is not enough to bring about a better world. Instead we see that rationality coupled with a self-centered capitalism leads to a homogenous society where nobody is expected to contribute to the well-being of others, and the only duty is to consume. Internet was thought to be the vehicle of democracy and emancipation, but instead it has turned to become a totalitarian surveillance tool serving paranoid nationalistic purposes. It is rationality operating on all cylinders. The objective is not the sustainable well-being of all living creatures, but the short term benefits of a paranoid minority.


The sickness of the soul that gives rise to the kind of violence the world has seen today in Paris is not rooted in a lack of rationality, but in a perversion of objectives. The objectives are rooted in a narrow sense of identity, an exclusive nationalistic, ethnic or religious group identity driven only to care for itself. It is not a higher form of intelligence since it will come back and haunt the group the perpetrators identify with, but it is as rational as the US drone program. (In the name of fighting terrorists, the US gov is creating more US hating militants with every strike. In particular, one of the Paris terrorists said he was  motivated by images of torture of Iraqi inmates at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib.)


The sickness is rooted in a narrow sense of identity. A blindness to how we are all essentially the same. A blindness created by centuries of indoctrination of an Us and Them thinking which is equally thriving and flourishing in the West.


What will make us realize we are all connected and that what goes around comes around? What will make us arrive at healthy objectives that we can use our rationality to realize?


It is not naive to care about creating a better future.
Sep 3 2011

Japanese girl in the aftermath of the Tsunami

In the days after the horrific Japanese earthquake in March 2011 an SMS circulated around in the Middle East claiming that it was an act of punishment from Allah for the wrongdoings of the Japanese people. If you, like me, are not a fundamentalist Muslim you will probably find that attitude morally repulsive. If you are religious, the idea of a God that would inflict such tremendous suffering hopefully does not sit well with you. You may feel religion is about things like caring for others, trying to do good, strive to reduce suffering and to give hope and meaning.

You think talk about a punishing God is an expression of religious extremism, and you are as concerned about it as any secularist would be. You know of course that the Old Testament is full of references to the wrath of God, but you think the Holy Book should not be taken literally and that it must be understood in the historic context in which it was written. I am all with you on this, but as much as I prefer this kind of religiosity I cannot help but point out that this position is inconsistent. I want to show that people that think “any calamity is either a test or a punishment by God” are actually perfectly rational in their conclusions. Moderates that question these conclusions have realized something is wrong with the basic assumptions, but not followed through with this insight. They have taken the first step in a journey towards a modern sophisticated religiousness that is needed in a global society, but it is only a small step and not a place to rest. As an embryonic philosophy it is full of tensions and with most of its implications yet to be realized.

How powerful or caring is God?

The first thing that is troublesome is that if God cannot influence events of such historic proportions that fatally affect the lives of millions what in fact can He do? Logically, He either could not, or did not care to. If God can not affect such pivotal events in human lives why pray to him? Why praise Him? Why talk to Him? How is a God that can only witness the toil of man and nature but is powerless to interfere and serve justice actually a God? Is there a meaningful concept of God where He can do nothing?

If, on the other hand, He could have spared Japan the suffering, or at least warned them somehow, He must have had a reason not to. If He cares about us at all, and it was not the result of a Divine Mistake or the blind forces of nature, then the death of thousands of people and the ruin of the lives of so many more must have had a motive. Thus, either God is not a God to be reckoned with, or the tragedy had a purpose. This is not the thinking of religious extremists but simply applying everyday logic and drawing obvious conclusions. But how could a loving God allow so much indiscriminate suffering? This dilemma is so famous it even has a name – the Theodicy problem – and it is something the brightest thologians of mainstream Christianity have fought with for centuries. What then makes the SMS vile and an expression of extremism? If it is not extreme to assume God has a plan, God cares and God can intervene, is the morally objectionable aspect what kind of motive you assume He would have? Is it exteme to assume “punishment” is the motive? Is there not in fact in all religion a right and a wrong way, the righteous and the sinners? Does it not in fact make perfect sense if God wants us to learn to live a certain way that He would teach us? When geology professor Zaghloul Raghib Mohammad El-Naggar from University of Wales (unconfirmed), who happens to be a Muslim, expresses the logic as follows, there seems to be nothing fanatical about it, but a perfectly plausible conclusion.

Glorious Qur’an emphasizes the fact that nothing happens in the universe without the knowledge, will and wisdom of the Creator. Earthquakes – like many other natural disasters – are part and parcel of the Divine plan for punishing the ill – doers trying the pious ones, and teaching the saved individuals the lesson of their lives. Unless taken in this context, human beings will never learn from their own mistakes or even from the mistakes of others. Understanding the mechanisms by which earthquakes take place and measuring both their intensities and magnitudes cannot help in their prediction. The only way of avoiding this and other disasters is heeding the Creator and living according to His guidance.

The record of earthquakes proves the sudden, non–linear nature of these disasters that took the lives of millions of individuals throughout history, injured several other millions, made billions of people homeless and caused material losses of endless values. These tragedies cannot be the work of the mechanical processes of the earth, but need a designer, and the designer is the Creator Himself. And they must have a purpose, and the purpose is punishment for the transgressors and the aggressors, trial for the pious and honest ones that are caught in the middle and a reminder for the survivors.

I want you to see that to reject this conclusion is not to reject extremism but to reject the notions of a God that makes any direct and tangible difference to human life. You either accept that laws of physics cannot be broken, or have to explain how they could be broken in one place and time without breaking the machinery of the entire universe. (Something Zaghloul Raghib Mohammad El-Naggar has yet to do).

The Power of Prayer

Unless you think Obama and Blair are religious extremists to believe in the power of prayer is not fundamentalist or fanatical, but part of mainstream moderate Christianity. To pray is to ask for something and it implies God can listen and make a difference. It means He can defy the laws of the universe. But by implication it also means He wanted the Japanese people to suffer. Not long ago an American Christian refused to take his sick daughter to modern health care but simply trusted the teaching in the Holy Book.  Following the same teaching as Obama he now faces 25 years in prison – why? We are encouraged to pray from every direction yet someone that follows the instruction is sent to jail. How is that not an expression of paradoxical hypocrisy?

You might still think moderates can get out of choosing between a punishing or powerless God by a more liberal reading. If so lets explore what it means to be a moderate Christian or Muslim? To be a moderate means not to take the words literally, but to interpret the texts, to take it in moderation. Liberal Christians hold that it is OK to reject parts because they are tainted by human flaws and specific to a historic time. But does selecting the Holy Bits from the Holy Book really solve the Theodicy dilemma we have outlined above? No, as a matter of fact it makes it worse by introducing some kinks of its own. If you choose to ignore all the bits about the wrath and jealousy of God, of a selected people, of the righteous, and stay only with a kind, loving, all embracing and forgiving God, the question still remains: Can God make a tangible difference in the real world? Yes, if so why did He do nothing? No, if so why pray to Him?

The Fake Policeman fallacy

If you can take any more let me unravel the bonus issues that are added to the plot by the moderate twist. If you are a moderate you would perhaps prefer to cut out all bits in the Holy Book that feed into acts of religious violence. Even though there is much support for such behaviour it goes against your sense of compassion. This whole act of moderating the text does however present some profound challenges to the whole notion of religious authority. To explain how let me use a favourite technique: An allegory.

As I am writing this on a beach in Sri Lanka I have come to think of a fraudulent practice that is common in this part of the world. In India Westerners are sometimes stopped by the police and without any legal authority forced to pay a bribe to get out of a situation. If this corruption was not bad enough I have learnt official policemen sometimes lend their uniform to other friends and family for them to earn a little extra by parading under the authority of the law. Surely you find this False Flag practice wrong, but what has it got to do with being a moderate? False authority. The authority of the Holy Book over any other text is that it is a revelation of God. It is perfect and divine. If it has human flaws it is no longer the source of authority it claims to be. Crucially, to be a moderate means to move the locus of authority from God to the personal judgement of the moderator. If this move was overt and made honestly by saying, so-and-so is not Absolutely True but my personal take on things, it would be fine, but when it is done underhand it is like the practice of the fake Indian policeman. You don’t agree with me? Then answer me who is selecting what to consider and what to reject in the Book? Based on what authority can you reject the concept of a punishing God found it the Old Testament? Ultimately only your own. And it is good that you listen to your inner sense. It means inevitably however that whatever you profess to believe in is your own home baked philosophy.

Further, if it is a human text it means it is affected by the passing of time as all other cultural artifacts. What you select your Holy Bits from has little to do with the original texts as it has been changed like a message in Chinese whispers (a theme explored in the book Misquoting Jesus). How do you know the version you are selecting from is the best most authentic one? Should you not try to read the original? Is it not even possible other texts better express the Truth? Actually the question for a moderate becomes, are my Holy Bits superior to all others? If you think Yes you have elevated your own understanding of a teaching long lost in translation to the level of Divine authority, and again commit the fallacy of the fake Indian policeman. If No, lets carry on our journey.

Religion as the source of morality

Maybe I am preaching to the choir here, as you may already have realized that your faith is not without contradictions and not superior to other faiths. For you it is not a matter of Truth, as you realize that all versions of the Teaching cannot be true and since yours is one in a million it is in all likelihood false. For you religion is a source of morality and without it society would collapse. To start with lets note that when it turns in our stomach when someone justifies something like the Japanese earthquake by means of religion our repulsion does not stem from any Holy Book but from our own human sense of empathy and aversion to suffering. This proves that not all morality comes from religion. We have our own sense of morality, and it is this faculty we use when we choose to ignore passages in the Holy Book that talk about cutting off hands and capital punishment. If it is our own morality that guides us in selecting the Holy Bits how could morality come from religion? It is circular to claim that you first have learnt morality from one part of the Teaching and based on them reject other parts.

In all sincerity we know that the texts where written by people and that any morality found in them were put there by the authors. Thus any morality to be found in religion is our human morality and to claim it is the word of God is again to wear the hat of our Indian friend.

Is there any harm in being a moderate?

If the Holy Book does not have total authority does it have any special authority? If it is not perfect is it in any sense the ultimate piece of philosophy mankind has ever produced? Should we not give equal credibility to other religious and profane teachings? This focus on One book is a major obstruction to proper education. To be educated means to know the thoughts of many cultures, and if you as a moderate think truth can be expressed in many ways you should for instance study the core Jain concept of anekantavada that explores the notion that every viewpoint is incomplete. If you as a moderate think it is all about experiencing God not following the letter you should perhaps read the Dark Night of the Soul by  St. John of the Cross, Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, Deikman’s views on Sufism and Psychotherapy, Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, Krishnamurti or Zen. If you think religion is about morality you should study Aristotle, psychologist Kohlberg moral stages, Kierkegaard’s concept of Christian ethics or the nonviolent ethics (ahimsa) of Buddhism. If you believe there can be a global religion that embraces all faiths you can learn from Theosophy, Bahai, Transpersonal Psychology or even New Age. If you a struggling with a more philosophical concept of the Divine that does not waste energy on settling tribal feuds perhaps you find inspiration in Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point. If you accept that religion is shaped by history you need to follow through with this thought and realize that for the first time ever we live in a global age, and any religion needs to be shaped by that. Whatever you may find, rest assured that by clinging on to the One Book that was to be found on the bedside table where you happened to be born you are blocking the way for a healthy global open-minded spirituality.

By lending validity to parts of the Holy Book you are passively supporting fundamentalists whose only crime it is to read and believe all of it to the letter. What does a symbolic afterlife mean? It either exists or not. By supporting the notion of an Eternity you are enabling those without sound judgement to take destructive actions against life, because by implication this infinitely brief moment of earthly life is worth infinitely little in comparison.

As a source of morality you should realize from your reaction to the SMS above that you consult your inner sense before the letter. Morality was not invented when people started jotting down religious stories. They were looking after each other before then. If you are concerned about violence, realize that with modern psychology we understand better what produces violent behaviour and are better equipped to deal with it than using the old trick of a looming hell. We are hard-wired to feel empathy and the circle of empathy – the group we care about – can actually expand. Unless you are taking side with Luther and consider Reason the Devil’s whore realize that the science that made your mobile phone possible contradicts the truth of your ancient dogmas. Modern religion must not fear science, but embrace it fully. As our need for religion is not going away the world needs new healthy spiritual teachings that can bridge divisions between all groups, inspire personal growth, strengthen the inner sense of morality and intensify our experiences of beauty and purpose.

Ultimately we need to achieve a sustainable way of life that enables well-being for as many sentient beings as possible. What religious teachings can form part of that and which should be forgotten is not easy to judge, but it is beyond doubt that all faiths will undergo profound changes. As you do not believe in the Roman Gods, the particular story about some  prophet you call your faith will be transformed. The question is only if you will take an active part in that change or not.

Jul 30 2010

Wheat fields near Châteauroux

Surrounded by yellow wheat fields I feel a rush of exhilaration, I find myself singing and laughing inside the helmet. I am filled with a bubbly joy as I have spent the day driving at random, wherever I felt, following tiny country roads, through forests and past lakes, more or less heading north. It’s always good not to loose your sense of north. A guide book told me Montrésor, une des plus belles villages de France, should be somewhere around here, and I was lucky to come across it. It is a stunning village with a castle belonging to the late Polish comte Xavier Branicki, in which his descendants are still living. From a fountain in the garden of Xavier Bendickis castle I would like to have a bash at convincing you why philosophy is good, not only the individual but for society at large.

With inner freedom you can be free in a jail.

So what is philosophy? For me it is not primarily about a quest for truth, or love for truth. It is about freedom. Freedom of mind. Without inner freedom there is no freedom, and with inner freedom you can be free in a jail. What is a free mind? It is a mind that does not depend on crutches of certainty. A mind willing to follow through to the logical conclusion and prepared change opinion in light of new insights. A mind that can look at things from different angles, and never assumes that there is only one right answer. A mind that knows there are good arguments for and against everything. A mind that does not mistake familiarity for understanding. Philosophy is one of many  roads that can lead you there.

New thoughts appear in cracks.

Philosophy is not about intelligence. Many very intelligent people have been unphilosophical and done some horrible things based on their certainties. Obviously it helps to have a natural ability to see things in perspective, but even the brightest minds need inspiration. Impressions are the food for thought. A society where people mostly consume the same impressions will have like-minded people. It is very hard to have a free mind there. New thoughts appear in cracks, when bits don’t fit together, where the story doesn’t make sense. If everything is the same there are few cracks. If there is no contrast it is very hard to think as you have nothing to compare with. This may seem trivial but it is actually what makes it all possible. In a society where most people share the same beliefs and values it is very hard to think. It is no coincidence that multiplicity and innovation coincide.

Château de Montrésor

People are not expected too think.

In the way the world is organised today people are not expected too think to much. They are not meant to feel responsible for what happens in or with the world. Even in the most democratic societies the extent of ordinary citizens’ participation in the decision making process is a nod left or right every fourth year.

Comte Xavier Branicki's weapons

The alternative ways of looking at things have been limited to a manageable two. People are expected to work and consume and leave the big decisions to those in charge. Seen that way it is amazing we have made it this far since we have been riding on the brain power of a few privileged families. (Maybe the lack of human control over nature has been our saving grace?) In so far as history has been orchestrated by humans it has been possible because the world has been, for most of its history, fairly predictable. I am not talking about famine and the black plague, but people’s positions and possibilities in society. If you were born into a potter’s family you would end up a potter. The rich could make deals between themselves and make sure the wealth stayed within the right famililies.

...sumptuous feasts with Napoléon

Take this Château de Montrésor. During the 17th and 18th centuries, leading families such as the Bourdeilles and the Beauvilliers lived in the castle. “In 1849, Xavier Branicki, a rich Polish count and friend of emperor Napoleon III, arrived to give new life to Montrésor…the house was the setting for sumptuous feasts with Napoléon.” I somehow doubt I would have been invited to those feasts.

In a predictable world it has been possible for a few to control much of what has happened (although I would not underestimate the skill, knowledge and courage it would take to do so). Now however, the world is too complex for anyone to fully grasp.

The world is fundamentally out of control.

Even if old models have worked to reduce suffering and increase the standard of living for the world, we no longer know where things are going. The world economy is not run by a small elite. It is run by millions of people moving their money at a whim, and in a blind stampede capital can move from one side of the globe to the other in a matter of seconds. Consumerism will not slow down, and hence neither will global warming. People refuse to become more rational, and in a century the population this planet needs to support will have quadrupled. Do you think we are headed for less wars? Do you think religion will help diplomatic negotiations? Would you leave the future of this planet in the hands of a few leading men?

Enter the castle

If our world was hanging in a rope over an abyss it would all depend on the strength of that one rope.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

The only successful way of dealing with the unpredictable is to be prepared for anything. The wealth of a society could be defined by its multiplicity. A society rich in multiplicity is likely to find solutions among some of its members. A healthy, future-proof society is  one with a great many free thinking people exploring many different ways of living. For the first time in history collective thinking is possible. For the first time ever, truly innovative ideas can flourish and spread without any financial obstacles. In essence philosophy is good for a changing world because it inspires free thinking.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

What's in it for me?

-”I catch your drift, but apart from saving the world, what’s in it for me?” I am surprised to hear a voice in the garden, and even more so one that replies to my thoughts. I turn my head and stare at the fountain sculpture of a little boy.

-”Philosophy makes my head hurt. Why should I bother?” he continues. It takes me a moment to regroup.

-”Well, for starters you would never feel lonely again. Or bored for that matter.”

-”How is that?”, he asks.

-”You would be entertained by your own company as you would always have something interesting to think about.”

-”What is interesting about what old men thought about questions without answers? Where are the special effects dude? If I am bored I choose Mad Men over Nietzsche anytime.”

-”Interesting choice of entertainment”, I reply, “because that is exactly where the creative intellectual elite has ended up – in the info- or entertainment industry. They work as speech writers for politicians or copy writers for soap adverts or some such. Whatever the profession they are likely to be engaged in selling you some stuff. It is safe to say they do not have your best interests at heart. You are surrounded by the best poets, orators, artists and musicians, and, adhering to the rules of our liberal consumerist society, they excel at seducing and persuading you. They are not evil. They just don’t care about you. They are paid to make you care about what they want you to care about. And they are good at it. They are better than you. They are the best. Those that don’t succeed are fired. Thus, the most obvious reason why a critical mind is good is to look after your own well-being.”

Philosophy good stuffed

-”Oooooooooooooohhh dear! Poor me! Are you suggesting philosophy is good for my own well-being? If I am not mistaken Herr Nietzsche turned quite a mad man himself. The list of intellectuals who have been killed, committed suicide, gone mad or spent time in prison is quite off the charts. Socrates, Jesus, Galilei, Rousseau, Lorca, Russell, Cantor, Boltzmann, Gödel, TuringKoestler, Nash…”

-”These were all highly sensitive people, so they got more affected by what they saw and realized. They lived in times where dissent was punished by death, imprisonment or excommunication. But is philosophy to blame for that? Is it not the fact that the society surrounding these people was not philosophical enough that caused their misfortunes? After the aristocracy had eliminated them they turned them into martyrs and named streets after them. I am sure there are thousands of other great thinkers whose ideas were eliminated in time.  Today it is not like that. Because of the achievements of dissenters there is a free world where you can think for yourself and express your opinions without risking punishment. ”

-”Exactly! I am living in the free world. I am not manipulated. Things have changed. We are living the dream.”

-”Yes, you are living a dream, like Carlin says, because you got to be asleep to believe you are free.”

Jul 16 2010

Rocamadour, France

I should have covered more distance today, France is a big country and there is still a long way to Paris from Granada. Going on the motorbike is different than going in a car. You get close to nature, you feel the smells, the wind, the bugs and the vibrations of the engine. You can take it all in. It is a complete feeling of freedom. But it is also a lot more physical and you need to keep alert. That is why I should not have left 500 km for tomorrow. But when I came to Rocamadour I realized I had to stay the night. Villages up on mountain tops have that effect on me.

Cabecou Rocamadour

My plan for this little trip vertically across France is to learn about some of the 400 types of cheese. Wine tours are done to death. Around the hillsides of Rocamadour there are mostly goats, so the local specialty cheese is not surprisingly goat cheese. I picked up some Cabecou Rocamadour in an amazing cheese shop in Toulouse and it served me as road food. It is a quite soft cheese with a perfect salt balance and it melted in my mouth..and my bag.

Yeah

On the road you have time to think. And my companion today has been Plato and his conception of what philosophy is, what a philosopher does, and how it relates to society as depicted in his magnum opus The Republic. (Get it in EPUB format for the iPad). Why Plato? Partly because in many ways the modern world begins with him and The Republic may be the most influential book in history, but more so because it deals with a subject I care about a lot, namely is philosophy for everyone? Specifically, would society benefit from more philosophers or would it disintegrate? Because The Republic was the first of its kind, while it is esoteric it is also naive in a refreshing way. Later in history, it is hard to find people defending both sides of this issue with equal honesty. It is the nature of the beast that those who do not believe in an open and transparent society keep it to themselves. Thus, those that Plato inspired became sly, self-conscious and secretive in a way he appears not to be. He is full of contradictions though. For Plato, a philosopher is a lover of truth, but the more I think about him the more I come to doubt he was a philosopher according to his own definition.

“And will the love of a lie be any part of a philosopher’s nature? Will he not utterly hate a lie?

He will.

And when truth is the captain, we cannot suspect any evil of the band which he leads?

Impossible.

Justice and health of mind will be of the company, and temperance will follow after?

True, he replied.”

This all sounds like you would expect from the proverbial philosopher by definition right? Is this why The Republic is so influential? No I would think its influence does not come from it being widely read by common people. It comes from one singular idea which is contained within it, and which has served the basis for all modern societies, and is still shaping the world today. The idea is this:

For a society to be functional and coherent its citizens need to be made to believe in common myths with which they can identify, and in the name of which they are made willing to subordinate themselves.

You should be surprised by this. Maybe you thought Plato was a humanist inspiring critical thinking  in the youth and rebellion by reason? After all that is why they killed Socrates. But no, Plato does not find it neither a realistic nor a desirable aim too make of the citizens free thinkers. Free thinkers are not willing to lay themselves down to die for the State. Instead, to maintain stability and constancy, common people are supposed to be made to believe in lies, and he realizes the process must begin with children.

“You know, I said, that we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious…”

He knew, like most societies know, that the mind of the young is mouldable, and once given a certain shape tends to remain that way. Even if adults consciously reject childhood stories, an emotional attachment remains that is virtually impossible to break. (Perhaps it is unbreakable because to break it would be to reject the happiest years of our lives? Who wants to admit to having lived a lie?) So why would Plato, a self-proclaimed lover of Truth, want to spread lies to children knowing full well they would, on the whole, never abandon them as adults? He thinks the stories are for moral education and he lets Socrates discuss with Glaucon about what material was apt for a developing young mind. (He is for instance prescribing that the parts of Homer that depict the gods as overcome by laughter be censored as it is not becoming of a god to behave thusly. He also considers the mixolydian musical scale unsuitable for the youth. So much for the Laughing Buddha and Sweet Home Alabama.) No big deal, you might think, all parents lie to their children, and mostly it is for their own good. But Plato takes this further and in his ideal society the philosopher king is the father of all the children in his society. The leader alone has the right to tell fairy tales.

“Again, truth should be highly valued; if, as we were saying, a lie is useless to the gods, and useful only as a medicine to men, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them.

Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind; and although the rulers have this privilege, for a private man to lie to them in return is to be deemed a more heinous fault than for the patient or the pupil of a gymnasium not to speak the truth about his own bodily illnesses to the physician…”

Thus, the ruler, in spite of being a lover of truth has got the exclusive right to lie, for the good of the State. This is when Plato introduces the concept of the noble lie, and by doing so has planted the seed for what is yet to come. Propaganda, manifactured consent, organised religion, censorship, marketing and PR agencies. Lies in the name of…

“How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?

What sort of lie? he said.

Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places, (as the poets say, and have made the world believe,) though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.”

Here he is showing that he has realized that all beliefs have a history and have been invented. Since he is so clearly aware of how religious myths are invented, and gives himself complete freedom to censor and edit Homer´s religious tales, I cannot for a second believe he believed in the Greek gods. We seem to have here an atheist who is embarrassed because the lies seem so idiotic to him they cannot possibly fly. Ironically, some 350 years B.C. he doubts rulers and common people alike could be made to believe these kind of stories again. He continues:

“…I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.

You had good reason, he said, to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son….

Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.”

Why does a lover of truth want to spread lies? Is it because individuals cannot handle philosophical truths? Is it to spare people’s feelings, the same reason parents do not want to talk to their children about where granny really has (not) gone? No, that does not seem to be Plato´s concern.

“…fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.”

Essentially, Plato is talking about indoctrinating soldiers to defend the State. He talks about education and philosophy being a part of it, but he knows clearly that no philosophically inclined student would be prepared to lay down his life for the country he has out of happenstance been born into. He knows that any philosopher would question the validity of country borders, and hail what friends and enemies have in common rather than what separates them. The State that Plato hails, only really exists to subjugate the many for the benefit of the few.

Also, Plato is not concerned with progress. His State is something that needs to be preserved as is. It is the seed of a totalitarian, fascist, conservative ideology, and unlike natural seeds, ideas that make it into the soil of history always have some fruits. Ideas once introduced do not tend to go away. Who are the most influential modern interpreters of Plato? Two Jews escaping Nazi Germany took radically different approaches to his view on philosophy versus society: Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. The former is most famous for his philosophy of science, but in this context most relevant for his defence of liberal democracy and critical thinking. The latter is less known, but his students should ring a bell: Irving Kristol (the god father of American neo-conservatism), Paul Wolfowitz (Bush´s Secretary of Defense, and the unofficial author of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive strike).

iPlato

Essentially Strauss understanding of Plato is that it was right to kill Socrates. Philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Philosophy unveils what Nietzsche called “deadly truths” and ordinary people need to be protected. He did not think Plato believed in God. He thought Plato was an atheist and committed “pious fraud”. Both Popper and Strauss agree that Plato was not honest, that he kept secrets, but they disagree about whether it was a good idea. According to his fiercest contemporary critic Shadia Drury, Strauss clearly thinks open debate and liberal democracy is unrealistic ideals at best, and genuine dangers at worst.(I cannot speak with any authority about Strauss since I find his writing style almost incomprehensible, as opposed to Popper who is extremely lucid and accessible. I think this is symptomatic of their attitudes though.)

So the question is: Will a society full of free thinking creative minds disintegrate into chaos? Why would it? Does thinking deeply about something always lead to the same end? Does philosophy lead to nihilism? If it did, would nihilism be bad for society? Philosophy inevitably leads to intellectual changes. You grow out of some beliefs and pick up new ones, and in doing so your “faith” in each becomes less absolute. Change of mind gives the wisdom of not taking anything too personally. If fanaticism is evil then nihilism is definitely on the side of the good or at least the harmless.  But if nihilism means not to care about anything then philosophy is not the train to take you there. You can be passionate about something and at the same time keep a healthy perspective. Philosophy is not a threat to the healthy society, on the contrary, it is what can save it from degeneration.

I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.

What I am driving at is that it is not in the interest of the little ordinary citizen not to philosophize. It is in the interest of the elite that the masses do not question their authority. Thinking people are harder to control and subjugate, and they would be harder to send as cannon fodder to protect oilfields. Philosophical people are harder to control because they are harder to fool. Trying to keep people from thinking for themselves is an issue about maintaining power, not caring for people’s moral education. The most efficient way of keeping people united in a state of non-thinking is to invent enemies and engage in perpetual war.

For myself, I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.  My reasons for this are not those of justice or natural rights, nor that it may be a realistic hope, simply that a million critical minds stand a better chance to solve the novel problems ahead than a self-serving conservative elite. When someone says “one shouldn’t think too much” what I hear is another one biting the dust.

You should think too much!

It is good for you.

It is good for the world.

What do you think?

I’m off for some more goat cheese.

À bientôt.

Apr 17 2009

All around the year in various resorts around the world otherwise normal people gather to voluntarily put themselves under prison like conditions for at least ten days. You are not allowed to speak, consume any intoxicants, not have sex, in fact no physical contact at all, and you are not allowed any contact with the outside world. Every day the wake up gong rings at four, the last and only cooked meal for the day is at 11 am, and the lights are out for the night at 9.30 pm. Without exception everybody is asleep within minutes in a state of complete exhaustion and deep tranquility. What kind of sick minds would voluntarily put themselves in this situation? Is this a cult for guilt ridden self-castigators? Far from it. It is explicitly against any type of dogma and belief, and all about practical results. What then? Is it a drug clinic? A detox rehabilitation centre? Of sorts I would say, but not primarily for physical drugs, but from bad mental habits and the sensory pollution of modern life. For me it was a mental research lab and a training camp.

Described differently the Buddhist Vipassana resorts offer ten days of complete freedom from worldly responsibilities in locations of exquisite natural beauty. Volunteers cook and clean for you and all is completely free of charge. I cannot remember the last time I actually saw the moon in the morning, listened to dogs howling in the distance, really took in the dazzling splendor of hundreds of dew drops in the grass, followed how the yellow flowers in the meadow gradually opened to the sun. The entire arrangement exists for people to learn to meditate. From the time of waking up to the moment your head hits the pillow you are supposed to meditate for eleven hours, three out of which you are not allowed to move a single muscle.

When people hear the word meditation they sometimes think of relaxation therapy for people with nervous problems. Not quite the case with Vipassana. I have to admit that I too did not know what a disciplinary regime I was actually in for, and was surprised at how deeply exhausted I was the second and third day. It was a kind of exhaustion I had never felt from any physical or mental effort, and I felt it in a different part of my head. I took this to be a proof that I was indeed learning something new and using a different faculty I do not use that extensively in my ordinary life – controlled awareness. Gradually though I found that sitting still for an hour on bent knees was not as hard as it first appeared. And most interestingly I found that observing pain without reacting to it actually takes a lot of the sting out of it. The initial effort was required to break a lifetime of bodily and psychical habits, and towards the second half of the course the stillness of the body was just a lovely background canvas on which to observe how sensations, emotions, images and thoughts would arise…and again disappear. I would come out of the meditation perfectly cheerful and bursting with creative energy.

Vipassana means seeing things as they are, not like we would like them to be

Meditation can definitely bring about deep relaxation, but a better definition is actually “inner action” as opposed to reaction or habitual behaviour. I like to think of a human being as made up of three parts – body, mind and awareness/will. To keep the body fit you exercise. To develop the mind you go to school, you learn how to think and you socialise. To train awareness and will you meditate. There are many meditation techniques. Vipassana meditation is supposed to be the one taught by Gautama Buddha some 2,500 years ago. Vipassana means to perceive things correctly, i.e. to see them as they are, not like we want them to be. The technique consists in developing awareness of your natural breathing and with a sharp attentive mind notice every sensation in every little part of your body. The moment you notice you are lost in thoughts you again bring your attention back to sweep through your body in whatever order you have previously decided. You are not suppose to do anything but observe and accept anything that happens exactly as it is. You don’t use any mantra, no visualisation, no particular bodily posture.

What happens?

Everyone has a different experience no doubt, but let me describe mine with a metaphor. The Bernina cafe on Gran Via where I am writing this is full of people. There is a woman smoking in the sofa by the window, there is a grumpy little girl kicking her chair at the next table, people walk in and out to buy the lovely pastries. The whole atmosphere is saturated with impressions and my mind filters out most of them. My nostrils are irritated by the smoke but there is no way I could dsitinguish between different types of pastry smells, and any subtle sounds are drowned in the buzz. The cafe is my normal mind. The meditative mind is the cafe when it is empty and dead quiet. I can now hear the humming of the fridge and notice subtle smells hidden behind the smog of smoke and bakery. The sensations I am normally not aware of I can now perceive with clarity. If I were to let one person come in I could notice how my body reacted with attraction, neutrality or aversion to that source of stimuli. It is like establishing a controlled environment for psychological experiments and scientifically observe the reactions.

It was not the first time I had done body awareness exercises or tried to observe myself, but the special setup made the experience much more intense then anything before. You get used to the practice and loose the initial sense of weirdness from staring at what appears to be nothing. It is not nothing, and it is not boring. I found that bodily sensations were a lot more interesting than I had ever thought. I had never noticed how many types of sensations I had in my thighs for instance, and how they change. Blind spots gradually started to give off sensations too. Admittedly the best moment for me was the taste of the delicious breakfast. The yogurt exploded in my mouth and I could feel and distinguish flavours in ways I have not before.

What does will power have to do with awareness? Well when you decide to concentrate on one inch of your thigh and sit still you really realize for yourself how little influence you have over your own body-mind. After a few seconds you are thinking about something that you have to do in the future or something that happened in the past, and in a moment your body suddenly decided to stretch your legs so as to avoid the discomfort. In this moment you realize how little freedom (and responsibility) you really have. Your body is reacting to pain and pleasure, but in developing mindfulness you can learn to remain equanimous and just observe how the impulses arise and gradually disappear. From that position of not reacting mechanically I can actually start making choices. Whenever I do what I want and not what just happens automatically in me I develop my will. In order to have will I must be aware of myself. Wham, bam, bom – they go together.

Results, results, results

What are the benefits of meditation? Many things, and they depend on what type you are practicing and what you want to get out of it. An obvious thing is the elimination of rubbish time gaps in your life. You will never wait for the bus again. You just meditate, it arrives, you get on and continue.

Just like physical exercise gives bodily strength and gives energy and cheerfulness, meditation does sharpen the mind, makes it easier to concentrate and make decisions. When I have meditated I can work more efficiently, and also hopefully get better at noticing when I am too tired to continue and instead leave work and do something else.

As anyone can tell I am a very cerebral person, and I wanted to explore more non-verbal right brain processes, drawing, dreaming, visualisation etc. Boy did I have vivid and surreal dreams. For instance there was this guy living in a room where all the furnitures were suspended on washing lines in the air, and the door was in the roof. There was also this woman with gigantic…on second thought I better not. ;-)

Buddhism traditionally focuses on learning to deal with suffering, but I got to admit, I’m not experiencing anything that would qualify as suffering at the moment. I’m healthy and happy, but I’m sure it can’t hurt to get a bit happier right? Suffering is in store for everyone sooner or later no doubt. A lot of people also use meditation to overcome anger issues and addictions. Many find increased awareness stops cravings without even having to try. By simply observing respiration and the sensations that would normally cause the anger instead of focusing on the object of aversion/craving, the process changes by itself. 

A handful of mumbo-jumbo

Would I recommend Vipassana meditation? Each to their own, but the fact that people come back year after year is one proof that there is something to it. The ex-Beatles reunited only last week to try to raise money to make meditation part of the school curriculum, and in a way it seems a no brainer that instead of trying to get rid of old habits learn early how not to accumulate them. There are many techniques and Beatles famously were into TM. What particularly attracted me with Vipassana was the official absence of dogmas and mantras, and the emphasis on personal experience. I have elsewhere defined that I distinguish between the religious and the realist attitude to the world as seeing what you want to see vs. seeing what is. In this respect Buddhism officially is not at all a religion but a life philosophy with a system of ethics and a psychological practice to learn to adhere to that ethics. Buddha could be seen as the world’s first psychotherapist. Instead of the Church like way of tying up people’s minds into extreme tight knots of guilt, suspended between condemnation and forgiveness, and maintaining people in a state of eternal adolescence, Buddhism is trying to help people undo the knots, become aware of how negative habits of the mind creates suffering here and now. It is trying to help people become adults and accept things as they are without a need to lie to themselves.

This is the official stance. Unofficially this Vipassana practice is saturated with Indian traditions and beliefs. While the initial claim is only believe what you experience yourself I found many cracks in the teaching. Obvious ones were:

  • If dhamma is the universal law of nature how come we can break it? We already live according to universal laws, do what we may. Human laws can be broken yes, but then you might end up in jail. There is a confusion between laws of nature, and laws of human conventions, that makes it possible to perform a philosophical back flip with a twist and connect human moral actions with some kind of universal karmic law. The whole belief that good intentions is the only thing that matters to top up your karmic account is a bag of boloney. But hey, as long as it helps people to strive to better themselves I love boloney. Vive boloney!
  • It is said that the enlightened Buddha can remember previous lives. Like Christianity Buddhism aims at escaping the suffering of our world and in their version it means to end the cycle of eternal rebirth. I find all aspirations of escapism deeply disturbing. And when people start to talk in terms of such metaphysical beliefs under the banner of personal experience I think they have bottomed out.
  • The Vipassana organisation is set up by a converted businessman called Goenka. Lovely, rational and pragmatic as the man is, if he really wanted it to be scientific he should cut out the dependency on Gautama Buddha and instead try to make empirical research into the technique the authority. You can not attack cults of personality with one hand, and then cling to one with the other.
  • While mantras and visualisation techniques are discouraged there is still some kind of guttural chanting going on in the meditation hall. I felt that was Goenka’s personal mantra and found it very contradictory to the teaching and could have done without that.
  • The way they keep your mind frustrated without any intellectual stimuli only to receive the evening lecture that explains the practice with some theories, example and ample stories is questionable – even if the hilarious  stories crack you up. An optional hour of open discussion instead of a 5 min one to one Q and A would not have hurt.

Is there any worthwhile life philosophy without a trace of mumbo jumbo?

As I had decided to finish the ten days I had made a temporary pact with my critical mind to stay in its room. I realized that I would not get much meditation done if I were to let all my objections have free rein, and quite possibly would have added a number of emotional obstacles to the already tight disciplinary scheme I had to deal with. There were definitely moments when my intellect was trying to kick out the door, but if I had not found that Goenka came from a place of genuine good intention, open-mindedness and great sense of humour I would probably not given it more than a few days. I also tried to reason with myself and thought: “Have I ever come across a life philosophy worth its name without at least a handful of mumbo jumbo thrown in for good measure? No. Still have I not found my life being enriched from temporarily letting something new in and trying it out. Yes. Alas, shut up and listen for a second, then throw out the crap you don’t like. The worst you end up with is a lively sensitive mind and more will power, how bad can it get?”

Having left the concentration camp a few days ago I have now started to come to terms with the experience, and I am left with a sense that the beauty of Buddhism is its pragmatism. You can be a Christian Buddhist, or an atheist Buddhist, or a communist Buddhist. It really doesn’t care much for your beliefs. It wants you to learn how to be happy and not hurt anybody. Period.

Personally I like to be an I-think-for-myself-ist. But Big up to Buddha!

More info on Vipassana centres here.

Feb 23 2009

Apparently the Queen of England in her infinite wisdom asked the probing question: ‘Why did no one see the financial crisis coming?’ As much as I am sure we all sympathise with how upsetting the current crisis must be for her personally, I am not convinced the presupposition behind her question is altogether sound. Going out on a limb here I wonder if in the real world outside her castle there weren’t people who actually saw the crisis coming years in advance. Off the top of my head I can think of three people accurately predicting the crisis as inevitable over 10 years ago. The first is George Soros, the (as of late) philanthropist financier (good for some $18 billion) who became an international economic guru and the centre of attention in the economic forum Davos 1995 after having “broken the Bank of England” by accurately predicting seismic devaluation of the British pound and the Swedish crown in 1992. “Soros walked away with a profit of $1 billion from a couple of months’ work.

The unregulated market is a greater threat to an open society than any totalitarian ideology.

In The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998) Soros argues that over the last 20 years, the emergence of “market fundamentalism” – that is, the idea that markets need only be regulated by the forces of profit and competition – has distorted the role of capital to the extent that it “is today a greater threat to open society than any totalitarian ideology.” As one reviewer comments: “It comes as a surprise that a person that has earned billions because of lack of regulation of the world economy has concluded that unless international regulations are established capitalism will collapse.”

One would have thought that Queen Elizabeth II would at least have taken notice of the man who made the biggest ever dent in that cute little face of hers which ornaments the pound coin.

Soros has a massive influence in the world, both by means of his philanthropic organization the Open Society Institute which sponsors projects that strengthen democratic, non-totalitarian regimes (from which he himself suffered, being a Jew and survivor of Nazi Germany), and by pumping millions of dollars into the previous anti-Bush campaigns, as well as decisive financial backing of Obama via moveon.org.

The second influential person I can think of is the British professor John Gray. No, not that one (although I wish more hockey mums had bought False Dawn thinking it was a continuation of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus).  John N. Gray is a professor of European Thought at London School of Economics where Soros also studied, both under influence of the monumental philosopher Karl Popper.

An unfettered global free market economy will not spawn a self-regulating utopia, but increasing social instability and economic anarchy.

In False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998) he argues along the same lines, claiming that the boom of the 1980s was an exception to the rule, and that a decline in state regulation leaves the society highly vulnerable once the bubble bursts. An economic system made up of individual amoral players who gamble for maximum profit cannot be expected to result in an over-all moral system. “An unfettered global free market economy will not spawn a self-regulating utopia, but increasing social instability and economic anarchy”.

It is in response to the Queens question The Guardian is organizing a debate on the theme Capitalism in Crisis Part Two – The global economy: Can we fix it? in London on 2 March, where Prof. Gray will present his case for anyone willing to listen. 

The third person I would promote is the British documentary maker Adam Curtis, who continues to explore and contextualize current events through his original and stylistic BBC productions. This is the fourth part of a series called The Mayfair Set (1999) which traces drama in UK corporate and political life from the 1960s to the present day.

 

10 YEARS LATER

At first sight it might appear that the current crisis was primarily caused by Americans home owners defaulting on their morgages, but digging deeper it doesn’t make sense since “only about 5 to 10 percent of these loans failed – not enough to cause systemic financial failure“.

“What did cause the crisis was the writing of credit derivatives. In theory, they were insurance policies for investors; in practice, they became a guarantee of global financial collapse.[...] About $2 trillion in credit derivatives in 1989 jumped to $8 trillion in 1994 and skyrocketed to $100 trillion in 2002.[...now standing at ] at $596 trillion. Credit derivatives are breaking and will continue to break the world’s financial system and cause an unending crisis of liquidity and gummed-up credit. Warren Buffett branded derivatives the ‘financial weapons of mass destruction.’”

It would have been the end of our economic system and our political system as we know it.

On 15 September, 2008, in the space of 2 hours the US Federal Reserve “noticed” a “draw down” (euphemisms galore) of $550 billion that suddenly “left” the money market. To me is shows how economy is really psychology, since nothing with real value would devalue that much that quickly. They immediately pumped $105 billion into the system, but realized they could not stem the tide. Instead they managed to stop the panic by offering some kind of guarantee on the accounts. “If they had not done that,” says Rep. Kanjorski 3 min into this interview, “their estimation was that by 2 o’clock that afternoon $5.5 trillion dollars would have been drawn out of the money market system of the United States, would have collapsed the entire economy of the United States and within 24h the world economy would have collapsed. [...] It would have been the end of our economic system and our political system as we know it.”

 

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this clip is not how close to a complete melt-down we are, or how unstable the system is when within 24h the equivalent of half  the US national debt could “disappear”, but how helpless and powerless the government appears to be when a member of congress asks a desperate hockey mum if she has any better idea on how to solve the problem, because “we don’t know”.

Yet this is supposed to be the liberal democratic system that will bring stability and wealth to the whole world. This is the system destined to end all other systems and establish the glorious New American Century.

BLINDED BY RELIGIOUS DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR

The myth of the universal supremacy of the American way, and the apocalyptic myth of the return of Christ.

While “our boys overseas” have been fighting against fictitious weapons of mass destruction, the boys back home have been busy building real ones as well as unleashing the greatest global economic instability in at least 80 years. The neo-cons with their Project for the New American Century actually believe that the American regime is the ultimate system that will bring stability and safety to the world – or at least to Americans – but the masters of that system, the likes of Buffett and Soros, explicitly warned about the instabilities built into it. Why did those in power not listen to their own experts? Why did they ignore the facts? How could people like Peter Schiff be met with laughter and redicule? Possibly because they saw no other options, but more worryingly – maybe they did not want to. I would argue that they were blinded by a belief in their own version of Divine Providence, their own Cold War propaganda, the Good vs Evil mentality, where they had a destiny to fulfill. Deep in the neo-con psyche – and in the American public’s psyche in general – there are two utterly fictional myths that alone help to shed light on the world we live in; The myth of the universal supremacy of the American way, and the apocalyptic myth of the return of Christ. These are not just prophecies, but myths they actively try to turn into self-fulfilling prophecies by means of armed forces. Sheer greed is not enough to explain their profound blindness before reality. Economists are clever. The irrationality of the last decade is imbued with rationalised mythology, faulty reasoning, apocalyptic preaching and false certainties of the type we only find in religious circles. The religious attitude implies a deep unwillingness to face reality and is often in direct opposition to drawing rational conclusions thereof.

The Project for the New American Century is an American neo-conservative think-tank that freely published the most shocking expression of American hubris and overt self-interest. While the activity seems to have officially ceased the website is still available. Only by reading the views of American imperialism found therein can one understand the prophecies of world-domination that have fuelled the irrational behaviour of the last decade. PNAC was founded in 1997 by the likes of Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and Francis Fukuyama and their arrogant statement of principles is still available for all to see - not the least to militant Muslims.

• we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future;
• we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values;
• we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad;
• we need to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.

The most extreme expression of the idea of how American liberal democracy is the inevitable winner in the global battle over how society should be organised can be found in Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, where history is seen as having an inevitable direction that culminates in the American regime. It is that kind of evangelical certainty that can underpin acts of extreme violence and stir up a religious fervour whose apocalyptic undertones suggest that the US cannot fail.

Which is the greatest myth in history? The myth of One Great Nation under God.

 The noble aim of the conservative approach is stability. But the questionable assumption is that a precondition for stability is to be found in national unity. This idea that in order for a state to be stable the masses need to have common myths to identify with, goes back to the theories of Wolfowitz’s teacher Leo Strauss, and ultimately to Plato’s Republic and the concept of The Noble Lie. Which is the greatest myth in history? The myth of One Great Nation under God. How do you strengthen that sense of group identity? By maintaining a constant enemy, be it Communists, atheists, Muslims or some abstract Terror concept.

For all the talk of freedom, if it is to be found anywhere it is in educated Europe. How can anyone claim that American society is one of freedom and democracy when it is made up of a homogenous population of Bible thumpers, has a two party system and a state utterly powerless before the real economic forces? According to a Newsweeek poll 67% of Americans say they believe that the entire story of Christmas is historically accurate – the Virgin Birth, the Angels, the Wise Men… the whole lot. If America was indeed the country of freedom, surely there would be at least a great diversity of faith where each followed the spiritual path best suited to their temperament. If the American democratic system is the ultimate system to be adopted universally, how come after having gone to their schools 67% still believe Satan is real, 39% that atheists will go to hell and 52 % that Christ will return?

The scary answer to the Queen’s question is that the signs were not only seen but that the turmoil is a welcome “proof” that we are living in the last days when Jesus shall return in all his glory. “Hallelujah!” The numbing of the critical faculties, the encouragement of evangelical rapture and glorification of Armageddon goes a long way towards explaining how war and destruction can be seen as something positive. More moderate Christians may object – please do so, loud and clear! - but what does actually remain of a Christianity without the idea of the return of Christ? Is it not bizarre that an intensely Christian nation is supporting Israel? What other importance can Jerusalem possibly have to neo-con evangelists? According to one controversial theory the militant support of Israel is not due to the Jewish influence in Washington, nor solidarity with any humanitarian cause or even military presence in the M.E., but to the mythological role to be played by some Jews in the Last Days. 

“Originally a belief of a small, elite group in Britain, messianic dispensationalism arrived in America in the later decades of the 19th century and became part and parcel of the worldview of many conservative Protestants in this country.[…] They consider the Jews to be continuers of historical Israel and heirs to the covenant between God and his people, and define the church as the body of true believers, those persons who have undergone genuine experiences of conversion and have accepted Jesus as their personal savior.
Dispensationalists assert that true Christian believers will be removed from earth to heaven at the beginning of the apocalypse, will be spared the turmoil of that tumultuous time, and will come back to earth at the end of the millennial period. For the Jews, however, that period will be “the time of Jacob’s trouble” prophesized by Jeremiah (30:7). They will encounter a period of persecutions launched by the Antichrist, a tyrannical Jewish leader and messianic imposter who will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and reinstate the sacrificial system. Following an international battle at Armageddon, a site in northern Israel, the Antichrist’s reign will come to an end, and Jesus will come back to earth with the true believers and establish a global righteous kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Here we have one possible answer to the question as to why no one in power acted as to prevent the current crisis. Perhaps they were too busy believing in their own supremacy and pushing their disturbing prophecies along by means of an unprecedented privatised military arsenal. The forward planning spans either 50 years until the return of Christ, or the 100 years of The New American Century. Rational minds would have spotted the inherent tension between world domination and eschatology. Religious minds are not looking for contradictions.

I apologize for upsetting anyone with a healthy religious faith, but this is too serious to brush aside. I also sincerely regret having to be this critical towards USA, because I do love Americans and should distinguish between the native and the hative, the Californians and the Presbyterians, the New Yorkers and the rednecks, the Progressives and the Neo-Cons and so on, but taken as the democratic country that re-elected Bush, so much more is to be expected from its audacity and power. It is of no consolation that the Muslim antagonists and conspiracy theorists are no less apocalyptic. The American potential for world improvement is paralleled only by the potential disaster implicated in some of their fundamental myths. The world needs educated moral examples, not death glorifying evangelists.

One thing is sure Queen Elisabeth – God will not save you. Let’s see what Obamarama can pull out of his sleeve.

Dec 22 2008

This post is a continuation of The Religious Roots of Science

Sincere and Insincere attacks on Science
I suggest one can classify attacks on the authority of science along an axis of sincerity. Insincere attacks are those that merely aim at undermining science to replace it with their own even worse justified belief system. To this end of the spectrum belong Christians like Bill O’Reily that try to argue that as long as science does not have all the answers he will stick to the old teaching. This kind of criticism is irrelevant and can be dismissed since it just tries to hide the basic message behind a load of hot air, namely that “I don’t care what you say [insert expletive], I will stick to what I already got”. They can never be proven wrong, and feel no need to justify their position with genuine reasons. At the same time we are supposed to respect their belief in talking snakes and virgin births, and not make any jokes about their prophets.

To this end of the spectrum also belong relativists that claim that science is just another belief system, and as such has no greater authority than any other. All views of the world, whether traditional or modern, are equally true. The insincerity of this position stems from the allusion to its own authority and how it is supposed to be somehow exempt from this criticism. I don’t think there are many sincere relativists in the academic world, since everyone that claims something does, implicitly or explicitly, believe in their own authority over someone else’s.  

There is of course also sincere criticism that can be dismissed as irrelevant because it is ignorant, nonsensical or just comical. An example of this could be the feminist Irigaray claim that E=M*C2 is a sexed equation because speed somehow is a masculine attribute. Or the Sokal hoax where a fake article was submitted to a post-modern journal by a physicist, just to see how much bollocks would be printed.

The danger of insincere critics is that they fight dirty. Insincere people don’t hesitate to twist the words of their opponents. The fact that insincerity still dominates the world I think goes a long way to explain the Darwinian Richard Dawkins political choice of “militant atheism”. In  one recent interview he claimed that science had about 95% of the answers to the ultimate human questions, and that it was working on the last 5%. That is a religious or metaphysical statement since there is no way he can know how much knowledge we will, can or even do possess.

In this interview however, I think Dawkins is getting close to being sincere about his faith in science. Anyone knows that being on the defensive often produces a bias, and while Dawkins enemies may be not just inclined towards their faith, but more like spun around it like a cat caught with the tail in the bicycle wheel, he himself is not exempt from this criticism.

The Church of Reason
I would like to outline some criticism that I think is both valid and sincere, that shows that science fundamentally will always have an element of religion in it. I distinguish between the scientific attitude, which adheres to the scientific criteria for knowledge, such as empiricism, accountability, impartiality, rationality, falsifiability, testability etc. and the religious attitude, which is the willingness to hold on to unproved beliefs for emotional benefit or practical necessity. Seeing is Believing vs Believing is Seeing. My point is that these two attitudes are two sides of being human, and they necessarily coexist in all of us - even in Prof. Dawkins.

1. The Rational Delusion - The basis of rationality is always irrational

Rationality as abstract deduction always begins with a set of premisses and is confined to language. It has been proven rationally all the way from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason up to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and later Wittgenstein that rationality can never become a complete system. It will always depend of some basic axioms, both linguistically, logically and epistemologically. It can say that if statement A is true then statement B is true, but how do the statements get their meaning? From the interpretation of them by person X in language L. Language needs consciousness and culture to have meaning, and while statements can be translated to other languages they ultimately only have meaning to us humans. Concepts mean something by pointing to something other than themselves, some object in the world or another statement perhaps. Even if we could construct a pure and exact logical language where every concept was unambiguous, like the logical positivists dreamt, all concepts still could not derive their meaning from other terms. The basic concepts had to be defined ostensively, by showing what they meant, eg.  like holding up a glass to a child and saying “glass”.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists, or at least that from what we can perceive we will be able to deduce all the rest. But we cannot know the limits of our own perceptive apparatus, because we can never get outside of our own bodies. Nor can we know for sure what other beings, human or otherwise, can and cannot perceive. We always perceive them through our own eyes and the limits of our nervous system. There is nothing irrational with an assumption that our perceived reality is one of many that may exist side by side and perhaps they have been rigged by a demon in such a way that neither our senses nor our intelligence will ever be able to grasp them. There could be a whole brass band of ghosts stomping away in a parallel dimension that we could never have the faintest idea about. We could be cosmically fooled and no amount of science can ever prove that wrong. This is why Descartes felt a need to invoke God exactly as the guarantor that he was not deluded by his senses. By doing away with The God Delusion Dawkins does not even have this consoling basis to lean back on. Not that I think he is left any worse off.

2. The limitations of the superficial sensory universe

Empirical science has a successful track record of explaining the world, but in a sense it has not only limited itself to that which could be attacked with its method, but also tried to limit the world to be only that which could be seen through this method. Almost all sciences are based on the experimental ideal of physics, and even in psychology there are many ridiculous attempts at applying this mathematical model on humans. This example is from Research Design Explained, (Mitchell & Jolley, 1992), where the authors teach us about love:

“Rafael Frank’s (1984) theory of love tells us how love can and cannot be measured. …”

           liking*maturity            sexual attraction
Love = ———————— *20*  ————————
dependency                         age

A formula like that exposes the parody that is academic psychology. Under the banner of “objectivity” and with a shield of statistics the quantitative researcher is proudly presenting his scientific results while the subject matter of his discipline has escaped through the back door and he is left with a pseudo-science with less substance than numerology. There is nothing wrong with numbers and statistics, but they only deal with the superficial, and a social researcher only dealing in that area is more like a tailor measuring an arm for a suit than someone contributing to the genuine understanding of what it means to be human. Sorry to be the one to break it, but no one really wears their heart on their sleeve, it is just a metaphor that should not be taken literally. I have nothing against tailors, but when it comes to interpreting human behaviour and human needs even cab drivers have more of value to say. If the problem of having a clear and simple language that represents easily identifiable objects is a challenge for natural science, it is immensely much more so for the social sciences. You cannot construct a scientific/logical/mathematical language by pretending the elementary concepts are obvious. There are no subjective or cultural facts that tell their own story without interpretation. Say we thought we loved someone only to later realize that guilt was what we really felt. Perhaps months later we again reinterpret the past and find that it was indeed profound love. The above formula will tell us nothing about what we actually have gone through. It pretends to be talking about love, but it is really talking about X as the outcome of whatever other factors you put into the equation. To understand ourselves, other people and human artifacts we must interpret, not just measure surfaces. We give love meaning, just like we give all subjective phenomena meaning. Likewise, cultural artifacts only have meaning to us. Money is only money because for a limited time in history we say it is.

There is no God that guarantees that there is a successful “scientific method” in the subjective and inter-subjective domain just because there was one in the natural sciences. When trying to understand humans and human artifacts it is not at all clear what is scientific and what is not, but operating with this inferiority complex of physics psychology as a science is dead. 

3. Our understanding of ourselves is limited to our metaphors

It has been said that what is uniquely human is our ability to understand something in terms of something else. For us a piece of paper can symbolise value. We learn the meaning of words from the world around us, and then we try to apply them to ourselves. Our language is full to the brim of spatial metaphors we don’t even reflect “over”, and we talk about our mind as being “inside” our head,  we “let someone in”, we are “superficial” or “deep”, we put ourselves “above” others and so on. Of course the mind is not “inside” the head, nor is the world “outside”. These are metaphors we have borrowed from the perceived world (or Euclidean geometry more precisely) because we cannot see ourselves “from above”.

Our understanding of ourselves is limited to the metaphors we have borrowed from the physical world.

It became very fashionable to talk about “the computational mind” and that the brain was a computer. Again, it was just because we found a new metaphor to use. But take three people, and let one of them be you. For science the fact that one of them is you makes no difference at all to any equation or theory. From a scientific perspective, even using subjective enquiry and phenomenology, the fact that one of those three is you is nonexistent. Why? Because we have no metaphor for being oneself. I don’t even think there can be such a metaphor, and it does not feature as a concept in language that I can think of. It is an example of something curious that is both experiential and fully familiar (metaphor) to everyone, yet outside normal language and the scientific method. And what about pure awareness? Is there anything else like it? Some things cannot be put into words. Sometimes it is beacause we cannot point to anything common and tangible to explain it, a specific sense of nostalgia provoked by a fragrance on a Spring walk for instance. But sometimes it is because whatever it is that produces words, is itself part of the universe. In the beginning there was absolutely not the word (to twist the Bible) as the words came quite a bit later and are but tiny parts of existence. Metaphorically speaking the rational faculty is stuck inside the basic Kantian categories like the brain is stuck inside the skull. To claim there is nothing outside language, outside our symbols and metaphors, is both naïve and a sign of grandiose hubris. Everything that appears irrational is not necessarily more primitive than rationality - it may be beyond it – not prerational but transrational. Who promised us that the mind ever be able to understand the mind? God!?

4. Science’ failure to give itself a scientific basis

All this leads up to the conclusion that science as an enterprise is yet another human project, while in many ways superior to previous efforts still very much bound to the limitations of being human. Humanity as a species will disappear one day, and with it science and its theories. Why would the theories of today be the true ones? Science itself cannot answer this, let alone religion. As long as there is no science of psychology there is no science of science. When listening to scientists like Dawkins one gets the impression that science itself is separate from all other human activities and somehow exempt from the need to explain itself as a phenomenon, but it isn’t. Why would human beings be able to get a true understanding of the universe? Science always gets into trouble when it tries to explain its own existence. One can say that the senses and reason are superior to other means of obtaining knowledge of the world, but one cannot use these means themselves to underpin this epistemological claim. One can point to practical and technological superiority yes, but one will never be able to obtain objective scientific knowledge about the minds relationship to the world. It would be like a camera trying to photograph itself or a thought trying to think about itself. However much science strives to arrive at the “view from nowhere” it will always remain our view. It threw out God and now there is no epistemological foundation to appeal to. Its hands are tied.

5. Since religion still exists does it not have survival value? 

According to Dawkins there is both a genetic and memetic evolution – the latter being the considerably faster cultural evolution that happens without any significant genetic mutations. Memetic evolution happens in the form of memes, or cultural elements, ideas, inventions, words, images, etc. all these things that make up culture and that can replicate themselves and spread. Science itself thus belongs to the memetic evolution. An essential element of Dawinian evolution is the idea that anything that remains in natural selection has survival value. Dawkins believes in the survival value of truth, and he is the first to admit that. However, the fact that religion is a universal cultural constant throughout the world for most known history raises the question about the survival value of delusions. Nietzsche was a Darwinian and while he strongly criticized Christianity, he was quick to point out that illusions can have great survival value. (And he did knock out a few of his own.) In natural selection of belief systems in the memesoup, science is not the inevitable survivor. While science may provide enough fascination for affluent rational people, for many the choice is not between truth and illusion, but between hope and disillusion. The need for purpose and hope might be stronger than the desire for intellectual sincerity and truth. If science wins over religious myths, ironically enough it won’t be because of its relative truth value, but on the merits of satisfying our existential needs. If it wins it might be simply because it is the best illusion we have hitherto constructed.

Morally speaking, science tries to describe what is, but what ought to be is essentially an extra-rational, and therefore extra-scientific matter.

One cannot derive an ought from an is.

One cannot derive an ought from an is. Looking at the world from the detached scientific point of view there is no scientific reason to care one way or the other what happens to mankind. Again, the fact that we happen to be us does not make any difference to the equations. If your goals were to exploit and destroy you could use scientific methods and technology and achieve this with utmost rational efficiency. For society at large it is quite possible that a degree of delusion is healthy and that a society without Hell or any Supreme Good could turn not only morally twisted but self-destructive. What is happening in Russia for example, a country that has lost its faith in both God and ideology? Why is it now trying to reinvigorate a nationalistic myth and hailing Stalin as the greatest Russian ever? Is this a desperate search for faith in something? Anything, even a mass-murdering dictator? Why myths exist is not a logical but a psycho-logical question. Why does the concept disillusion not have a positive ring? A degree of self-delusion may be essential to mental health and the rational thing to do, if one wanted to be happy and good, may be to partially live a lie. After all, it is inevitable as the ultimate illusion is the belief that one is beyond all illusions.

Can the idea that science is superior to religion at organising society be tested empirically? Is Dawkins belief that a “mythless life” is somehow superior to a ”religious life” a scientific hypothesis, i.e. falsifiable? Religiously inspired violence comes to mind as simple examples in support of such a thesis, but isn’t science equally vulnerable to some such arguments? Looking at history, was not the Stalinist dream of a scientific Utopia just such a test? It was not Moses in the desert that invented the nuke or the psychological experiments of brainwashing performed by the CIA. It is in the choice of evidence religious bias shows itself. Dawkins says that he is not aware of any evidence that prove that a rationally based culture is any more moral than a traditional religious based culture, but he just “doesn’t want to live a lie”. If he is not aware of any evidence why does he not scientifically explore it? Not wanting to live a lie is a religious ideal as good or bad as any, but before imposing it on others should he not investigate the psychological and sociopolitical implications thereof? Maybe a “mythless life” is better for him, but how would he even test that? It is not like he can become religious for a day just to see. There is recent research to support that the God delusion may make people more moral and function better in society. Studies suggest that “belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous“. Who benefits from a scientific mindset? What societies are mature enough for it? While one can derive any type of morality one wishes from natural science – because there is none obligatory - hedonistic nihilism is definitely near at hand, and technology in the hands of hedonistic nihilists might ultimately lead to our demise. While cave people did not individually live as long as we do, they might end up having been here much longer than we ever will.

Ultimately science has no transcendental epistemological basis to offer itself, and while that makes it rationally inconsistent that is hardly a question that would keep people awake at night. The practical question of science vs religion is more important. I don’t think Dawkins is scientific enough about his own belief in science. I think he is much like an android finding a cable sticking out from its head and not understanding what it is for is wondering whether to unplug it. Until one clearly understands our need for religion simply trying to jerk the cable might do more harm than good. It is hard for a rational mind to believe in fairy tales, and to understand people that need them, but ultimately there are things beyond even the rational mind and its ken. Religion is not all about God, it is also about the Highest Good. How do you replace God with a secular Good? What does Darwin’s self-proclaimed pit bull know about this Brave New World? Well, nothing as it would be an evolutionary ermergence never seen before in human history. On what should this God-like intervention in the course of humanity be based so as to prevent this mutation in the memesphere turn out a freak? A hunch?!

I don’t know. What do you think? Please leave comments.

Dec 21 2008

I think science needs to be understood historically as a reaction against religious epistemology. It was, and still is, a struggle against irrational authority and faulty reasoning. Throughout Western intellectual history it is hard to find thinkers and philosophers that were not religious, and whatever separates science from religion there is bound to be more in common as they are both human quests to answer the big questions.

Learning from Experience
Both extremely religious and extremely scientific people are human – comes as a surprise doesn’t it?! Point is that humans like all other animals learn from experience, whether we want to or not. I do believe that the religious and the scientific attitudes to life are complementary, and coexist in us, but humour me for a moment and allow me to sketch them out as opposite extremes. For a person with the religious attitude it is impossible to have a mistaken belief in God or more specifically how God manifests himself in daily life. The belief in a God is an emotional attachment and daily experiences will only be allowed to either confirm it or be irrelevant to it. This denial however only works up to a point. Some previously religious people can no longer cling on to their beliefs when confronted with extreme evil or injustice, hence the emotional benefit derived from the religious belief no longer compensates for the cost of turning a blind eye to those painful parts of human experience that contradict a belief in Divine Justice and Providence. Historically this challenge to faith goes under the name the Theodicy problem, and it has given rise to many desperate attempts at defending the essentially anti-empirical belief in God. The Devil with a Tail manifests himself when a Christian has been beaten literally sense-less by life itself. In this sense even a desperate believer is a reluctant empiricist, forced by an experiential anomaly to find a new hypothesis to explain and justify the validity of the original belief. The empiricists would only bring this natural animalistic ability to learn from experience to the fore and hail it as the supreme source of knowledge.

Numerology as a Proto-science
Rationality, in the sense of an ability to draw conclusions from premisses, is neither an invention of science nor exclusive to science. “7 is a sacred number and everything in nature is made up of 7. As there are 7 orifices in the head, 7 notes in the musical scale, 7 colours in the rainbow there are 7 planets orbiting the earth.” This kind of reasoning was seen as valid in the Christian tradition, and while the premiss that there are sacred numbers may be false it is still an attempt at drawing some kind of rational conclusion based on an assumption. Numerology is an example of rationalised mythology, and is another way Christianity is close to its alleged opposite Occultism, and the mysticism of Pythagoras, the Jewish Kabbalah and Islamic ilm al-huroof.  (“…it is still common today in some Islamic cultures for potential in-laws to analyze the numerical values associated with the letters of a man and woman’s names to see if the couple will make a suitable match.”)

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality.

It is an attempt at using the rational faculty to find the patterns that connect, and to make predictions thereof.  In a way it can be thought of as proto-science; It has an assumption and to verify it it is searching for evidence that supports it. It is an exclusively corroborative effort, meaning it is only looking to confirm and elaborate some basic ideas, namely that there are sacred numbers and that God arranged the world accordingly. Any example that supports the theory is counted, and anything that contradicts is ignored. In this sense the theory can never be mistaken and it shows why verifiability is insufficient as a scientific ideal. You can find an infinite amount of things that can be grouped into seven it will never prove that seven is a sacred number, nor that there will be exactly seven of something as of yet unknown. The brain is wired to see patterns in things and do what we may we cannot avoid it. We often see meaningful coincidences and synchronicities as evidence of higher purpose and destiny. When this healthy and natural tendency takes delusional forms it is called apophenia, and schizophrenics often claim to see conspiracies and meaningful connections where sane people see only a random events or a bunch things. But this ability to see patterns and to make generalisations from experience is the basis for all empirical knowledge, and again science is just a refined form.

The origin of Accountability – The Rational Debate
If we could not make mistakes and if the world was a simple thing all would be peace and harmony, but alas even within the religious traditions all around the world there would be debates about how to interpret experiences, scriptures, and what predictions were the correct ones. From these disagreements would naturally spring some kind of criteria of accountability, i.e. a demand to be able to give a reason for one’s belief or interpretation. If two people argue and both think they are right, while they might both be mistaken, it is likely that the argumentative energy will dig out a bigger epistemic hole by pushing each other and trying to prove the other wrong. This is only guesswork on my part but I think that the demand for accountability which is central to science comes from these traditional disagreements. From debates would come some norms about what is a justified belief and while there have been many different epistemological school “meta-debating” what qualifies as a justification, gradually having no justification for a belief at all would leave the contender out of the game so to speak. Today this ideal has evolved into the basis for the academic discourse, and it is a pillar of Wikipedia. A contributer says: ”Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia and a community devoted to producing this encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is a corpus of fact, not opinion, not mystic truths. Thus our community must abide within Pirsig’s “Church of Reason” as an academic entity. Logic and rationality alone set the standard for what we do here. To refuse to discuss a topic squarely—to refuse to look the bull straight in the eye—is to forgo all consideration.

Questions of the validity of some authority only arise when there are conflicting views, each claiming authority. It has always been dangerous to oppose authority, and to question faith still today means running the risk of receiving a death threat. That many Muslims have no sense of humour is not a joke if you are a Danish cartoonist. One of the motivations for the scientific ideal of impartiality and objectivity can be understood historically in the context of conflicting interpretations within religious traditions, but also as a necessary neutral hiding grounds for heretics like Copernicus and Galilei. If you risk being beheaded you want to make it a question about the world and not about subjective opinion. You don’t want to be personally responsible for the earth not being at the centre of the universe. Impartiality, objectivity, verifiability, testability, reproducibility – all of these are scientific ideals that probably have religious precursors from times of conflicting “powerdimes”. But apart from generating more reliable knowledge about the material universe I think they can be understood as protections against power abuse.

Religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science.

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality. It had to limit itself to explaining and establishing demonstrative facts, but all reality might not want to wear that dress. Value neutrality, objectivity and impartiality work very well in physics, but not necessarily in social science and humanities. To simplify, religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science. This, I think, is one of the reasons why science still has not be able to replace neither religion nor ideology as the definitive authority in today’s society.    

How Science is not Religion
Science came out of religion and philosophy, and is still struggling to assert its separate identity. Religion is also learning from experience, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It is making generalizations from basic observations and seeks to verify them. It is making predictions about the future. What then is the difference between science and religion? Apart from it having developed those learning abilities it inherited from its religious past, and having self-consciously tried to sacrifice the ballast of irrational authority of holy books etc, the essential difference I think is captured in Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong. As long as a belief that can be proven wrong stands the test of time it can be considered true, or rather nearer to truth than its opponent, i.e. have verisimilitude. The beauty of this idea is that it captures a fundamental asymmetry in our knowledge of the world, namely that we cannot know the truth but we can know what is a lie. Popper was, I think, the first to point out that while we cannot prove a proposition true with any number of observations to support it we can prove it false with a single observation in contra. A numerologist can find new examples of seven every day but it will never prove that nature favours seven over twelve or two or whatever. According to this idea of what scientific knowledge is, the hypothesis that nature favours seven is unscientific and basically unknowable due to how it is formulated. If one said instead that “everything in nature is made up of seven” one could easily prove it wrong by picking up one stone. Falsifiability thus gives us something extremely precious, namely a criterion to help distinguish between the knowable and the unknowable. Science should devote itself to the knowable, and religion the unknowable.

Science still on the defensive
The idea that science should deal with the knowable and religion with the unknowable sounds clear and simple, but in practice it is virtually impossible since the things that mean the most to us, our hopes, needs and symbols, are not facts that can be easily known. Being strictly scientifically scientific and adhering 100% to the falsifiability criterion would limit the scientific enterprise to merely observable phenomena, to simple facts, and exclude the strict scientist from weighting in on anything political or existential. But the very existence of science is a political and existential issue! Why should there be science? Why should we try to solve the small and the big questions? How should we organise society? Should the state fund scientific projects? Science is necessarily based on assumptions that themselves cannot be proved scientifically, and thus there is political or even religious aspects to science. Unless science finds a way of embracing its own religiousness instead of religously denying it the debate is skewed. The ultimate questions need to be solved through honest debates where all the brightest minds work together.

Dec 15 2008

“There is no objective truth and we create our own reality”

This idea has really gained popularity lately, and for a lot of people there is something very appealing about it. It offers freedom from rules and limitations, and by taking back the responsibility for one’s life from the world and say that how you see things is more decisive than how things “are” one is “empowering” the individual. The Western world is full of sofa-bound people who feel despondent and disenfranchised not only from the fame and fortunes of the successful but almost from life itself. To them being born is becoming a victim right from the get go, you are pushed out from a warm cosy womb into a cold and confusing world and it is all downhill from there. How do you restore trust in life in people with that attitude? How do you activate them? One of the American dogmas is that “in order to get success you must believe in yourself”, and thus in order to get people out of their sofas they need to start believing in themselves. How would a group of successful Americans, such as Oprah and  Bob Proctor - the “philosopher” you know – go about restoring people’s faith in themselves, and make a good bit of cash for themselves in the process. Well here is…

The Secret - Fleece the Flock

Essentially The Secret is an ironic commercial where rich people teach poor people how they got rich by believing in themselves, and visualising money pouring in through the door – the irony being that their money came from the same poor people paying for the book. Notice how it speaks in terms of “absolute certanties” and offers simple solutions to all problems. The movie teaches that by visualising your parking space you will make it real, and a change of attitude will even make parking tickets a thing of the past. By exploiting people’s infantile belief in magic these spiritual business people have managed to create their own, very real, get-rich-quick scheme. Hell, if you pay me a million dollar I will teach you the secret of how to get rich quick as well.

The Church of Christ vs The Church of Oprah 

The most influential female spiritual leader in the West today is Oprah and many people watch her and are seduced by the magical message that by positive thinking you attract positive things into your life. Christians are deeply scared of the spread of these New Age ideas, and they try to demonise her as the new Antichrist. This video is a Christian anti-Oprah propaganda movie and as such it really isn’t doing itself any favours as it would only hope to appeal to Bible thumpers. As a desperate last measure, like death twitches of a dying faith, they try to convince us that a desire for peace is a proof of evil, and that by denying that Jesus is the only way Oprah is an instrument of Satan leading people down the path that leads to eternal Hell.

Christians are terrified and revert to warped medieval reasoning: “False teachers stare at Truth but fail to recognize the identity of truth. Jesus himself said, ‘I am truth.’ Thus we know that Truth is an aspect of God Himself. Christianity is the only truth because it is anchored in the Person of Jesus Christ.” However, in a battle in the twilight of spiritual mythology it is not truth that will win but whoever manages to make the greatest emotional appeal. When you have to revert to threats of eternal damnation you are fighting a loosing battle. Oprah on the other hand has many million viewers and joined forces with Obama – the so called O2 effect – and her version of spirituality rings of American optimism and is bound to reap many victories in terms of “minds and hearts”.

The Good News

This new spirituality is more adapted to work in times of global cultural exchange where tolerance for difference and encouragement of diversity is essential.

This new spirituality is more adapted to work in times of global cultural exchange where tolerance for difference and encouragement of diversity is essential. In a struggle for world domination Christians and Muslims alike with their insane exclusive adherence to their prophets will only lead to either a new global totalitarianism, or a mutual extinction of us all. In a struggle for tolerance Oprah is fighting the good battle. There is something very important in the relativistic message that highlights how differently people’s perspectives of the world are, and how we do not have access to any neutral ground outside our human-ness.

It is directed towards personal experience and not towards any particular Holy Scripture. This is an intellectual upgrade in comparison with the Abrahamic religions since it stimulates an open ended learning and does not, in theory, surrender to an authority in terms of a priest or a mullah. This is a similar move that science did in terms of rejecting the authority of the state and the church, in favour of reason and empiricism during the Enlightenment, and spiritually it has a very strong Eastern influence. Buddhists seeking personal enlightenment have long since given experience priority in a kind of “see for yourself” approach. It has always been accompanied by methods to get to that personal experience of the divine, and in the same way this new spirituality emphasizes the need for inner development.

It is also very important that people take responsibility for their lives and use the possibilities there are, and it could be argued that any idea that inspires that to happen is simply good. The positive energy in this spiritual teaching could be experienced as a boost of morale and anything that gets people out of their sofas is precious. Pragmatically speaking, if it is good it is true enough. Optimistic and positive people tend to attract other positive people and that good energy spurs opportunities.

The Bad News

The bad news is that it is based on a lie. Perhaps a white lie, but still it just isn’t true that positive thoughts cause changes in the physical or natural world outside the body of the thinker. Actions and the spreading of ideas can produce great changes in society, but not positive thoughts themselves by means of some mythological Law of Attraction. It is a return to magical thinking, i.e. an inability to distinguish between subjective and objective reality and it is a phase children go through before they realise the universe does not revolve around them. Kids can believe they cause bad things by thinking them and they can feel guilty about anything from bad weather to their parents divorce. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget also called this phase preoperational because preschool kids had not yet developed the capacity for logical thinking, and it is supposed to be followed by a stage called conrete operational at about the age of 7. After 21 years in showbusiness Oprah tells Larry King that it was her prayers and positive thoughts that paved her way from a fat, black country girl to a role in the movie The Color Purple and that made her friends with Spielberg and Quincy Jones. She “knows” that she had “drawn” this success into her life. According to cognitive psychology that would imply she has the mental maturity of a preschool child.

While it is directed towards experience it still is neither empirical nor rational. The scientific attitude is different from the religious attitude to life in that a person with a scientific attitude can be proven wrong by experience or argumentation. A person with the religious attitude cannot, in the meaning I give the word. If a religious person prays for some personal benefit X – as they do in all major religions - they will either get it or not. If he gets X it is seen as a proof that God listened. If he does not it just means God did not want him to have it. There is no way of falsifying a belief for a religious person, even if it deals with perfectly knowable things. An openness to experience is not genuinely educational if you don’t really learn from your mistakes. It is one thing being optimistic. Another being a dipstick.

Relativism paves the way for fascism since it undermines critical discussion. When we create our own reality facts become irrelevant and power is the final judge.

Relativism undermines critical discussions since evidence and arguments have no higher value than any other opinion. When we create our own reality facts become irrelevant. Things like real atrocities, genocides, climate crisis and the reality of our limited economical and natural resources can be dismissed as matters of interpretation. When evidence and reason have no bearing power is the final judge. Relativism lends itself to fascism because it actively undermines reason, and while it happens to be sold in a packaging promising success in terms of love, sex, business and money, it can be used to promote and justify anything. In a world of complete moral pluralism what is perceived as positive by someone is untouchable by someone else, whether that be abusing children or cutting down the rain forrest. The belief that “with absolute certainty you will attract that which you think about” is deeply and disturbingly paradoxical when thinking about the amount of opposing desires between people and the limited resources we have at our disposal. What if it is the extermination of another race that I aspire to? What is bad about it? Nothing according to this belief system, and a Jew in a German concentration camp must somehow been guilty of attracting this “bad” experience by having bad thoughts. The Nazis were inspired by magical belief in their own superiority, and Himmler allegedly had his personal astrologer.

Tolerance implies a distinction between what we can know and what we cannot know.

What does tolerance mean? It implies that there is a distinction between what we can know and what we cannot know, and that in the domain of the unknown anyone’s guess is a good as any one elses, at least as long as it works for them and doesn’t hurt anyone else. It does not mean that we have to accept that in the domain of the knowable there is nothing more true or false, better or worse or even uglier or more beautiful. To be tolerant cannot mean one has to give up being reasonable or it will take us right back to the Dark Ages. Irrationality is fertile soil for false gurus and dictators alike. I have discussed this more in the article on The Art of Not Knowing.

While it talks about mind development it is essentially a Western consumerist type of spirituality that is profoundly egotistic, narcissistic and impatient. Do a two week yoga course and get enlightened or your money back. There are a lot of religious virtues in the Abrahamic religions such as patience, dedication, respect, care for your neighbour, help the poor and so on that are lost when the whole self-actualisation generation is making a dash for nirvana as if it were a pair of shoes in the highstreet sale. The frivolousness and shallowness of new Western secular spirituality is stirring up a lot of bad blood in the Middle East, and I see this as a justified reaction to a serious risk of moral collapse.

Dec 2 2008

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”

Zen

Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered ”true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity

Dec 1 2008

I think the expression “I have an idea” or “I think” is curious. It seems to presuppose that I am the creator of the idea and that it is somehow mine, but when I am honest with myself and try to see where “my” ideas come from I see that almost all come from other people, dead or alive, that have influenced me somehow. At birth I was thrown into a culture that was already there before me, jam packed with contradictory ideas, like a patchwork without an overall pattern. This is the memesoup on which my mind has been raised. Had I been born somewhere else at some other time I would have been profoundly different, and so would my thoughts. 

Sure enough I have my understanding of each idea that has influenced me, and that might be unique to me, but I really can’t take credit for anything much original in what is going on inside my head. There have been of course one or two original ideas that I seem to have “come up with” but even then – from where did they come? Maybe I had a flash of insight which meant that one moment I did not see something with my minds eye and the next I did - but how did I create them? I have no idea. I paid attention. I listened and the universe gave them to me I suppose. A lot of creative people have said the same. Take David Lynch for instance, one of the most original and innovative film-makers ever. In his book on how he gets his creative ideas “Catching the Big Fish” he describes the creative process as one of diving into the inner sea to fish out a new idea. For him that is a daily meditative practice. An effort. “Desire for an idea is like bait. When you’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait. The deisre is the bait that pulls those fish in – those ideas.” But Lynch is clear on the point that the ideas come to him, and he often doesn’t know what they mean. After Mulholland Drive there were lots of debates about how to interpret the movie, in fact there is a whole website dedicated only to that and the range of suggestions is staggering. Everything from dream analysis, to meetings with the Devil and parallel universes. Particularly people wonder about what the box and the blue key meant.

Lynch view is: “I don’t have a clue what those are”.

Mullholland Drive

Mullholland Drive

The point here is that Lynch is considered an original thinker. He meditates and contemplates. Most of us are not in the habit of neither. Still we like to think that we think and that thoughts are not just things that happen in us. Ok, so lets do a simple experiment. If indeed there is a thinker that controls the thinking surely it can stop thinking at will no? Try not to think at all for a short moment of say 2 minutes. Look at a watch and try to keep the mind completely silent.

 

It hasn’t been 2 minutes yet…

 

No dice?

 

Oh well. It is tricky, but if one can’t keep concentration for 2 minutes one isn’t much of a thinker. Yes yes you might object, so what? We are not all Platos and Freuds but the phrase ”I think” is just a linguistic construct, a convenient way of talking. No harm in that right? Well I think there might very well be, because as is often the case, this is no linguistic accident. The fact that we say “I think” expresses several dubious assumptions we hold.

  1. There is an I that is the active and responsible thinker
  2. Because you are the thinker you as a person are responsible for you ideas
  3. My identity hinges on my ideas about the world and myself

It thinks in me.

Because we don’t tend to recognize the extent to which we are innocent of our own ideas we get emotionally involved with “our own” opinions. If someone said to us, “you only think so because your mom told you to” we would get offended. “Why, you don’t think I can make up my own damned mind?!” I’m not saying one cannot make one’s mind up, but it’s harder than we tend to think. To me it implies going deeper: Why do I hold a certain belief? Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve for me to believe it? Is it really true? If it is faith more than knowledge, am I free to believe the opposite? If I could not believe anything else, if their is no choice, how is it MY belief?

The number of active critical minds responsible for original ideas is almost insignificant in comparison with those that more or less passively spread those ideas. The amount of fundamental ideas is actually rather limited. There are new cross-breeds and new flavours, but the basic classes of ideas are not as varied as one might imagine.

The linguistically correct way of expressing things in many situations would be to say:”In Joe it thinks that a horse shoe over the door brings luck.” Joe didn’t invent this idea, he wouldn’t claim it as his, and he probably couldn’t have come up with it even if he tried. He is probably living in a culture in which this belief is common, and perhaps he hasn’t even reflected on it. He feels he belongs to that group and the horse shoe might be just “one of those things one does”. It was part of his memesoup as a symbol of belonging, like a flag. 

“It thinks in me” rings weird at first, but when I introspect that seems to be what happens often. Psychosynthesis has developed this other way of speaking that reflects this insight. Instead of saying I think A and B one often say: ”There is a part of me that thinks A, and another part that thinks B.” That opens up a space for exploration and clears out the emotional need to defend my ideas. Ultimately I am not responsible for being born and why should I defend all the beliefs I have been fed?

Another consequence of the expression “I think” is obviously “you think” and “you are wrong”. When there is no separation between the person and the idea in language, it makes it very difficult to separate them in practice. A person comes to represent the idea – for better and for worse. Agreeing or disagreeing with someone is often a matter of liking or disliking the person more that the idea. Do we trust them? If so we tend to agree with what they say. Do we adore them? They can make us believe anything. Do we dislike them, then it hardly matters what they will say and we will disagree. It seems to me that in general, if we really want to understand someone we can. When we say we don’t understand someone, we are often indirectly saying that we don’t like them.

Anything with which I identify myself controls me.

These kinds of considerations helped to foster the ideal of the rational debate. Traditional authority, personal preference, unquestioned opinions, twisting the opponents words, seeing only what one wants to see, etc. all of these were summoned up in the contemptible concept “subjective” and not fit for a genuine debate. In fair debates we should be able to justify our beliefs with arguments, but not all kinds of arguments qualify. To argue ad hominem for instance is not accepted i.e. to use arguments about the personal character of the opponent. Like “You are an alcoholic, therefore you cannot be trusted and your claim X is false” or “What you say is not true because your middle name is Hussein, and that sounds fishy to me”.  The truth value of X of course cannot be settled with such rhetorical “tricks”. These ideals still govern academia, wikipedia and the political parliaments but they are very difficult to adhere to. (Check out these tragic fist fights in parliaments for instance.) The difficulty stems from, I think (I doubt it is my original thought actually), the whole issue of personal identity and that as long as we think we think, we identify ourselves with whatever happens to be thought in us. And we treat others the same way, which is why we feel we should punch them in the face when they are wrong.

Anxious juice maker

How is it possible for us to identify with an idea? It is amazingly curious the whole thing.  Fascinatingly puzzling and uniquely human. If a juice maker could think would it believe it was an orange? Will computers get upset when we no longer use Windows? 

If we call an idea a “thing” it is a curious thing, so odd indeed that many philosophers believe they live in a whole different world, a 3rd world beyond the physical and mental. Be that as it may, but they are not ordinary things in so far as they always point to something other than themselves. An idea about a thing is not the thing itself. It points to it. And then we come around, jump on that idea and say that we are it! Huh?! The idea that there is a heaven, or karma or reincarnation or whatever, points to something “otherworldly”. It is this “pointing to” that gives it meaning, and that makes it “not-a-thing”. But as if that wasn’t odd enough already, we come and sit on the poor beast and claim that we are it. I am a Muslim! I am a Marxist. Yes sir, that is what I am. All of it. That is me.

One might object: “If I am not [a Christian, scientist, dentist...] then what am I?” Well, you are what you are. The idea doesn’t change that. Seems to me we don’t know what we are, therefore we feel a need to invent an identity. But the idea we identify with is necessarily something other than what we are. But we don’t know what it is like just to be, so we feel a need to fill the silence with images and words.

In psychosythesis there is an idea that says that anything with which I identify myself controls me, and that I think is the stone in the shoe. There are many practical exercises to disidentify from parts of oneself that help increase the inner space and freedom. Check out this one for instance.

I leave you with another Lynch gem… 

“Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you’re fishing in – your consciousness – you can catch bigger fish.”

Please leave comments and show me how bonkers this all sounds!

Nov 15 2008

When I was 13 I was singing in the village church choir and would happily deliver the most obscure Christian lyrics with the same plastered smile. But I remember this one line that at first I did not understand at all, and that then made me choke as I learnt what it meant. It was taken from the Book of Revelation 3:16 and said that “God would spew the lukewarm out of his mouth.” The choir leader explained to me that lukewarm meant “neither hot, nor cold”, that’s to say neither with God or Us nor with the Devil or Them, and spew really meant that God would vomit such a person out of his mouth.

God

Art thou lukewarm?

This image made a horrific and lasting impression on me, not primarily because it depicted a most vulgar vomiting God which did not coincide with the glorified image of the divine I had in my head, but more so because it did not make any sense. Had God gone bonkers? Even with a 13 year old’s logic I understood that there was something truly fishy about this. Why would God prefer someone outright evil to someone unsettled or in doubt? Why would God prefer a definitive liar to an honest doubter? If he was “the truth, the way and the life” then surely any honest searcher would eventually get it right and fall into the right faith like a snail into a water well. The only situation in which God would win anything from this vomiting business was if he was hiding something. For all the talk about how OK it was to doubt and question, here it was in black and white: If you seriously doubted God you would become God vomit. There was of course the paradox that if God didn’t exist then he could not spew either, but that was the kind of insight you were not supposed to have. More with my guts then with my bedazzled indoctrinated mind did I realize that a liar stood to benefit most from people not asking any more questions. If there was a truth then jumping to conclusions would only stall the process of finding it out. Why would God be in a rush? It’s not as if it was his time that was running out!

Thinking about it now, God seems not just a little bit neurotic here. The God of the old testament has often been called jealous and angry, but this is at the end of the new testament. If he cannot deal with the undecided why not just do something else?! It’s not like he doesn’t have the rest of the Universe to attend to. Prozac perhaps? A spliff? Maybe he just had a bad day and needs a massage.

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

It was with the same gut feeling I listened to the US ex-president saying “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” when going to war on Iraq. What about the undecided? What about the ones feeling they lack sufficient information to make such a choice? Even if one agreed that destructive belief systems were dangerous and called for action, how could anyone imagine that you could bomb them away without creating even more enemies? Does not wanting to fight fire with fire make you a terrorist? No, but causing 1,288,426 of Iraqi deaths does.

Dichotomization and forced choice is something most totalitarian organisations have in common, and while that may serve the purpose of domination they do not lead to truth about the world nor a clear conscience.