Link blog: philosophy, presuppositionalism, paradox, media

Buddhism Is More ‘Western’ Than You Think – NYTimes.com
Argues that incomprehensible gnomic sayings are a Western stereotype of what Eastern philosophy is.
(tags: meditation buddhism philosophy paradox)
Inspiring Philosophy and the Laws of Logic: Part 1 – UseOfReason
What could apologists be talking about when they speak of “the laws of logic”? (This is usually part of an argument that God is needed for there to be such laws). Discusses various different logics, what Godel really proved, and a bunch of other stuff.
(tags: philosophy mathematics logic presuppositionalism apologetics godel)
Thin Pinstriped Line: The business of Remembering
Veteran and civil servant “Sir Humphrey” on poppies: “I have grown increasingly concerned at the manner in which manufactured outrage focuses on any organisation or individual that challenges the Poppy status quo, by not wearing one. If you are wearing one only because everyone else is wearing one, then perhaps it is time to ask whether the Poppy has become a victim of its own success.

As we move into the world where we are over a century on from the events of WW1, perhaps the time has come to ask if it is time to evolve the service of Remembrance, and perhaps do it differently. I do feel that the need to remember is always appropriate, but that the means by which a simple silence has become a business and outrage outlet to sell papers is increasingly distasteful. “
(tags: war remembrance poppy politics media)

Link blog: emotion, computers, mindfulness, sudo

What We Can Learn from the Paris Attacks (Without Ignoring the Elephant in the Room)
Yep, this is more or less what I think.
(tags: paris terrorism islam islamism religion politics)
What is emotional labor?
A term that once described jobs where being friendly and cheerful was seen as part of the job has apparently been co-opted to mean “someone expects me to do something”.
(tags: emotion labour work relationships)
Guide to software developer job advertisements: andrewducker
Seems legit.
(tags: software software-engineering jobs adverts careers)
My first 10 day Vipassana retreat
Not *my* retreat. Some bloke’s. It’s an interesting article about the experience though.
(tags: meditation buddhism mindfulness retreat)
An alias for when you really need it done…
I’m totally setting this up.
(tags: funny computers unix sudo)
The Deadlock Empire
A nice little web game where you try to break a threaded program by executing a critical section in two threads at once. It’s pretty neat.
(tags: programming threads concurrency locks game)

Link blog: christianity, funny, atheism, de-conversion

On knowledge and consistency « Evolving Thoughts

John Wilkins talks about the on-going debate on whether religion and science are compatible.
(tags: religion science jerry-coyne knowledge epistemology philosophy)

Preachers who are not Believers

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, a social worker, look into the question of what it's like to be a pastor who doesn't believe in God. They've interviewed 5 closeted non-believing church leaders. Fascinating stuff: Dennett and LaScola write of the pastors' loneliness and conviction that there are many like them. They wonder whether they learned too much: "What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike… It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God."
(tags: christianity religion ministers dennett daniel-dennett atheism de-conversion bible system:filetype:pdf system:media:document)

The new Buddhist atheism | Mark Vernon | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

"In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens writes of Buddhism as the sleep of reason, and of Buddhists as discarding their minds as well as their sandals. His passionate diatribe appeared in 2007. So what's he doing now, just three years later, endorsing a book on Buddhism written by a Buddhist? The new publication is Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Its author, Stephen Batchelor, is at the vanguard of attempts to forge an authentically western Buddhism."
(tags: buddhism atheism stephen-batchelor religion buddha)

Jobcentre’s sorry for the spurn of the Jedi | The Sun |News

"A JEDI believer won an apology from a Jobcentre which threw him out for refusing to remove his hood." This is absolutely right: we must respect religious freedom.
(tags: jedi religion politics jobcentre news sun funny hood)

Daryl, The Christian Volunteer

Darryl, the Christian Volunteer, gets a bit more than he bargained for when he sends out a flyer requesting permission for David Thorne's kid to attend a presentation on the true meaning of Easter. An increasingly hilarious and deranged set of emails from Thorne follows: "Also, is it true that Jesus can be stabbed during a sword fight and be ok due to the fact that he can only die if he gets his head chopped off?" No idea whether it's entirely made up, but it's fun anyway…
(tags: lolxians funny religion christianity easter school)

Link blog: religion, christianity, de-conversion, politics

What Is Evil For The Darwinist, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan posts some well-reasoned letters from readers on the question of what a non-theist would call "evil" (presumably responses to the old "how can you say God is evil when you don't have a basis for morality?" question). Bizarrely, he then describes them as showing "contempt" for religion. There's no pleasing some people. The letters are good, anyway.

seek and ye shall find…. but what?

“If you REALLY had been a Christian you would have never de-converted.” vs the observation that many de-converts are former Christian ministers.
(tags: de-conversion religion christianity)

Buddhism and the God-idea

Interesting. I liked: "Whether we call those superior beings gods, deities, devas or angels is of little importance, since it is improbable that they call themselves by any of those names."
(tags: buddhism god religion)

Why it’s so hard to quantify false rape charges. – By Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore – Slate Magazine

False accusations probably account for 8 to 10% of all accusations, though the research isn't conclusive, and it's not clear how this compares to false reporting of other crimes. Interesting story about the falsely accused man who found support from his girlfriend who had been raped some time ago: emotions were similar on both sides.
(tags: feminism research rape crime)

Justice with Michael Sandel – Home

Harvard has put Michael Sandel's justly popular "Justice" course on the web. Well worth watching.
(tags: education philosophy morality ethics video community politics harvard justice)

Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermaneutics

Susan Wise Bauer in Christianity Today, writing about Peter Enns, who noticed that the NT authors don't interpret the OT the way evangelicals would. I liked this bit: "This is the exactly the kind of exegesis that terrifies most evangelicals. The man who admits that meanings can be "read into" Scripture stands on the fabled slippery slope, right above a sheer drop-off, while below him churns a sea of relativism, upon which floats only a single overloaded lifeboat, captained by a radical feminist gay & lesbian & transgender activist who is very anxious to make the final decision about who gets pitched overboard."
(tags: bible hermaneutics peter-enns christianity religion paul old-testament)

What’s so great about being an ex-Christian? Intellectual integrity.

This sounds familiar.
(tags: ex-christian de-conversion atheism christianity religion)

Omnipresent G-d (LORD_YHWH) on Twitter

God's on Twitter, with some new commandments. I don't know why these atheists complain about divine hiddeness. "My word is a knife made white by heat, such as that which one uses to cut pastrami." – wisdom for us all there.
(tags: god yhwh religion funny satire christianity judaism twitter)

Science, Pseudoscience and Bollocks

An interesting essay which talks about the demarcation problem in science and argues that we should be against creation science because it's wrong, not try to argue about what science is. I'm shocked he referred to a Christian belief as "bollocks". I got told off for that once.
(tags: bollocks science pseudoscience epistemology empiricism logical-positivism karl-popper popper creationism dover)

Thunderbirds will grow a generation of mad engineers

FAB, Mr Ellis.
(tags: warren-ellis thunderbirds tv)

On The Possible God Of Philosophy And Cosmology Vs. The Personal, Historical God Of Faith

Camels With Hammers links to Dennett's remarks on hearing William Lane Craig's cosmological argument, and then talks about the gap between the source of the universe (which we should properly be agnostic about) and the gods of major religions.
(tags: daniel-dennett dennett william-lane-craig craig cosmology kalam philosophy physics)

Rock-Bottom Loser Entertaining Offers From Several Religions | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Cruel but funny
(tags: onion religion funny satire humour)

“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Greta Christina talks about "other ways of knowing" and their uses, as applied to the theism/atheism debate.
(tags: religion epistemology science atheism greta-christina empiricism)

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

Peter Watts gives his grand theory for why religion hasn't died out. It's all about preventing free-loading once societies get above a certain size.
(tags: peter-watts religion evolution sarah-palin politics psychology signalling)

Whence Rationality?

Some responses to the evolutionary argument against naturalism. The point that evolution is unlikely to come up with the sort of elaborate errors Plantinga mentions is new to me.

Africa needs God?

Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Parris is an atheist who writes admiringly not just of the work done by Christians in Africa, but of the changes conversion brings about in people, supplanting a tribal mindset he regards as unhealthy.

Matt also links to (but rightly criticises) a response to Parris by Stephen Noll, who writes for something called Anglican Mainstream. Noll’s article makes a couple of good points and then veers off into a parody of the Daily Mail, telling Parris that he should reflect on how atheism has lead Britain into darkness, and rounding off with the threat of the UK being over-run by Islam. I’ve not really been keeping up with who’s been anathemising whom in Anglicanism lately, because it’s all a bit tedious, but I’m assuming that something called “Anglican Mainstream” is actually a fundy schismatic organisation, much like a “People’s Republic” is always a communist dictatorship.

It’s odd that Noll thinks Theodore Dalrymple supports his claims about Britain, because in the article Noll links to, Dr Dalrymple doesn’t prescribe a dose of God: he says Brits were civilised and are now being un-civilised by intellectual activity and legislation (presumably they believed in God throughout the civilisation phase), and speaks fondly of a time when Brits regarded religious enthusiasm (a term which once referred to evangelicalism) as bad form.

Strangely enough, I’ve already quoted Dalrymple in a statement which will probably get my Dawkins Club membership card confiscated, namely, that faith groups in prisons are OK if they introduce prisoners to a culture which is less broken than the one they belong to already. This pragmatism is a reflection of my devotion to the ideas of Neal Stephenson, I suppose. (Of course, the faith groups needn’t be theistic: Buddhism can do the job, too).

It’s an annoying fact that religions are better at spreading than rationality is, as Andrew Brown points out. Christianity, or at least the right sort of Christianity, certainly isn’t the worst belief system out there. If a dose of God will displace tribalism or nihilism (which, pace Noll, isn’t equivalent to atheism), it seems like the lesser of two evils, to me.

Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong? I don’t think so: I’d always want to help someone to become a rationalist, which is the goal of the stuff I write. But I’m trying to be realistic about the prospect of that happening to someone who’s starting from less than zero. Evangelical Christianity is infectious and can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se. We can use that 🙂

Braaains

According to the Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog, the Intelligent Design people (specifically the Discovery Institute) are getting interested in neuroscience (see also part 2), attacking the idea that consciousness has a physical basis and advocating Cartesian dualism.

This seems to have been rumbling away for a while, but people are writing about it at the moment because New Scientist noticed.

You can write a long article on what people have thought about consciousness, so what’s the problem with the IDists joining in? First, neuroscientists are objecting to IDists’ claims that scientific experiments prove things that those experiments don’t actually prove. As Amanda Geffer of New Scientist points out, experiments that show therapy can alter brain function don’t prove that the immaterial soul is acting on the brain, merely that the brain isn’t indivisible, so parts can act on other parts. The therapy described reminded me of mindfulness therapies, and of Yudkowsky’s recent reflections on Which Parts Are “Me”? (Everything I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t accept everything my brain does, as “me”).

Novella also objects to IDists quote-mining (I’m shocked, shocked I tell you) from philosophers like David Chalmers in order to bolster their claims. Novella says that Chalmers does not argue for an immaterial spirit, so it is a mistake for those who do to claim him for their side. IDists could quote Chalmers if they wanted to argue that there is a hard problem of consciousness, but it would be dishonest to quote him in support of their proposed solution, or indeed to say that the hard problem Chalmers speaks of has anything to do with evolution.

Edited to add: Chalmers discusses the New Scientist article on his blog, and doesn’t sound very impressed with the theists’ efforts to recruit him for their cause. The Chalmers link came from Chris Hallquist, whose blog I recommend.

Is this IDists’ new strategy after they got planed in the Dover judgement? A while back, I mentioned that they might need a new way around the establishment clause in the US Constitution. I’m not sure this can be it, as consciousness isn’t on the curriculum in most schools, but it does fit in with the wider strategy of looking for ways to undermine physicalism.

Book: The Life of the Buddha

Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha is a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon.

In the Pali canon, the world is an abundantly supernatural one, a cosmos with many worlds and many deities. The Buddha’s birth is foretold to sages by deities, and he himself converses with various supernatural beings. He also does miracles, like reading minds, turning people invisible, vanishing into one of the many heavens, and so on. You get the impression that the miracles aren’t unique to him: it seems there were lots of ascetics and teachers around at the time, each with their own disciples, and this sort of stuff is par for the course. The Buddha describes Devadatta, the villain of the piece, as “stopping halfway with … the mere earthly distinction of supernormal powers”, and seems to see them as tricks that are well known.

In the book, there’s little mention of the Buddha’s early life, although some passages about living in a palace are quoted. After his birth, we’re straight into his quest for enlightenment. He tries asceticism for a while but decides it’s not helping, and disgusts the small number of followers he’s acquired by taking food and drink. He goes off and thinks about stuff, and has a series of insights about how one thing leads to another thing, Star Wars style (a process known as dependent arising), and with that, realises how to stop it. He thinks about keeping the knowledge to himself, as most people won’t be able to get it, but a brahma persuades him not to. He begins to teach people the dharma.

The book then follows the growth of the sangha, the community of monks. The community grows, and sometimes finds favour with merchants and royalty, who give the monks land. It seems they live by receiving alms from the lay people, to who receive talks on the dharma in return. We don’t see much of the lay people in the book, as it mostly concerns the teachings given to the monks. We do see the community undergo growth, dissension and outright mutiny (Devadatta again).

The chapter on the dharma itself was pretty hard going. The translation could probably have helped there, but Nanamoli writes in the preface that he’s attempting to provide as true a translation as possible, without interpreting too much. I found contemporary paraphrases easier to understand. If one can sum up a large body of teaching in a few sentences, the Buddha thinks that dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”) is real; suffering is caused by our inability to get what we want or keep it, or prevent what we don’t want; suffering can be prevented by giving up the desire for these things, which can be achieved by following the mental and ethical teachings summarised as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The scriptures bear the signs of being passed on orally: there’s a lot of repetition (one of Nanamoli’s few concessions to the reader is that he elides some of this), speech is often stylised, and teachings often use numbered groups of things (four noble truths, noble eightfold path). According to Wikipedia, there are a number of schools of thought about how much of the canon represents the Buddha’s words. Manuscript evidence isn’t helpful, as the earliest ones are apparently 8th century.

There’s a sense in which this doesn’t matter as much as it does to, say, Christianity, because the point seems to be the teaching, which is said to be something people can experience for themselves. In orthodox Christianity, at least, the scriptures recording important miraculous events which are to be believed in, so that the evidence for them is important, and the teaching of Jesus rest on his personal authority. I don’t think one can eliminate questions of authority from any religion, though: there are so many religions that ask you to “try it and see” that there’s not enough time to try them all.

More problematic to me was the way much of the Buddha’s teachings are phrased as ways to avoid rebirth, since (a) it’s not clear what rebirth means when one of your other doctrines is that there’s no fixed self, and (b) it’s not clear how anything of us survives after death, such the the results of our actions (known as karma), in a way which could be passed on to another person.

It also wasn’t clear from the book how detachment was meant to be practiced by people who weren’t monks. The monks need the lay people, or they’ll starve, but the householder’s life seems second class when it comes to attaining enlightenment. Apparently there are Buddhist scriptures which do address the lay people, so it’d be interesting to read those.

In summary, the book was interesting, but hard to get into. I got bogged down in places and ended up skipping bits. A more dynamic translation might have been easier to read, even if such a translation did end up reflecting the biases of the translator more than Nanamoli’s did.

Wifeblog: very old books

My wife has been blogging about ancient literature. She’s started with The Epic of Gilgamesh and moved on to the Old Testament, starting with the similarities between the Flood and creation stories in Genesis and Gilgamesh. More will be appearing on scribb1e‘s journal in future.

As part of some sort of cultural exchange programme, I’ve been reading Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon. It’s interesting, although very strange in places, mostly because of the cosmology of the time. I think it could do with a glossary explaining some of the Pali words which Nanamoli chose not to translate. I’d not realised the Buddha had superpowers (he regularly reads minds, and occasionally does cool stuff like preventing a robber from catching him even though the robber’s running as fast as he can), or that lots of supernatural beings were present at his birth. I’ll probably write more about it when I’ve finished it.