Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Passover Seder

Passover-Seder




Actions creating beliefs

 

zazen

I miss reading the posts of the late Norman Geras, over at Normblog.   His views were always interesting, and his arguments very often acute.   For all his mental incision in general, however, he had a blind spot when it came to religion, as I argued here.  His blind spot marked him, despite his lack of religious beliefs, as a person of the post-Reformation confessional view of life:  the view that thinking does (and should) preceed acting, and that thinking leads to considered beliefs.  This is a peculiarly modern, western view, a view not shared by most of humanity, neither now nor in the past.    The entire weltanshauung of Zen Buddhism, for example, is that beliefs (in the form of enlightenment) are the consequence of religious practices, not necessarily their cause.  Norm, western philosopher to his fingertips, never got this.

S. Brent Plate makes a similar criticism of a recent questionnaire aimed at ranking US cities by their “Bible-mindedness”:

The assumptions of the pollsters betray a larger misconception concerning who religious people are and what they do. Questionnaires are still mired in the mostly-Protestant notion that religious people read holy books and have “beliefs” in their heads. It makes for good fodder on the religion news circuits but necessarily leaves out the lived realities of religious existence. For religious life in these United States, the potluck is just as important as the preacher. The soup kitchen as important as the scriptures.

What if we had polls that were indeed about religion and society? What would this mean? How would we ask? Who would we ask?  

At the least, this would require the work of bodies, of actual breathing, eating people. We’d find that we social beings might believe things, but more importantly, we behave in particular manners. Our bodies move with other bodies in private and public ways, singing and swaying, seeing and smelling.

We don’t act out our beliefs as much as our beliefs are created through our actions.




Bateson on rationality

Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and  . . . its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.”

Gregory Bateson [1972]: “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art.”  Page 146 in: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.

George Santayana said something similar in his Sonnet III:

It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.




Human anxiety

Man, in contrast to other animals, is conscious of his own existence.  Therefore, conscious of the possibility of non-existence. Ergo, he has anxiety.”

Woman speaking at party, in Shadows, a film by John Cassavetes, 1959. 

I am not convinced that man alone is conscious of his own existence, not when elephants go to specific places to die and other elephants avoid those places, and not when dogs play jokes on their owners, and nor when some birds seem to enter into relationships with humans in which they present their offspring proudly as if to a grandparent.




Does evo-psych explain anything at all?

Evolutionary psychology and sociology have long struck me as arrant nonsense, because they ignore human free will and self-reflection, and thus our ability to rise above our own nature.   There are no pianos on the savanna, as I have remarked before, so an evolutionary psychologist will have a major challenge to explain a desire to play the piano in evolutionary terms.

Christopher Booker, in a review of E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, views similarly the flaws of evolutionary theory when applied to human behaviours:

It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life. But one looks in vain to Wilson to recognise this, let alone to explain how it could have come about in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. No attribute of Darwinians is more marked than their inability to grasp just how much their theory cannot account for, from all those evolutionary leaps which require a host of interdependent things to develop more or less simultaneously to be workable, that peculiarity of human consciousness which has allowed us to step outside the instinctive frame and to ‘conquer the Earth’ far more comprehensively than ants.

But it is this which also gives us our disintegrative propensity, individually and collectively, to behave egocentrically, presenting us with all those problems which distinguish us from all the other species which still live in unthinking obedience to the dictates of nature. All these follow from that split from our selfless ‘higher nature’, with which over the millennia our customs, laws, religion and artistic creativity have tried their best to re-integrate us.

Nothing is more comical about Darwinians than the contortions they get into in trying to explain those ‘altruistic’ aspects of human nature which might seem to contradict their belief that the evolutionary drive is always essentially self-centred (seen at its most extreme in Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ theory). Wilson’s thesis finally crumbles when he comes up with absurdly reductionist explanations for the emergence of the creative arts and religion. Forget Bach’s B Minor Mass or the deeper insights of the Hindu scriptures — as a lapsed Southern Baptist, he caricatures the religious instinct of mankind as little more than the stunted form of faith he escaped from.

His attempt to unravel what makes human nature unique is entirely a product of that limited ‘left-brain thinking’ which leads to cognitive dissonance.

Unable to think outside the Darwinian box, his account lacks any real warmth or wider understanding. Coming from ‘the most celebrated heir to Darwin’, his book may have won wide attention and praise. But all it really demonstrates is that the real problem with Darwinians is their inability to see just how much their beguilingly simple theory simply cannot explain.”




Influential Books

This is a list of non-fiction books which have greatly influenced me – making me see the world differently or act in it differently.  They are listed chronologically according to when I first encountered them.

  • 2009 – J. Scott Turner [2007]:  The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. (Harvard UP) (Mentioned here.)
  • 2008 – Pierre Delattre [1993]:  Episodes. (St. Paul, MN, USA:  Graywolf Press)
  • 2006 – Mark Evan Bonds [2006]: Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. (Princeton UP)
  • 2006 – Kyle Gann [2006]: Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. (UCal Press)
  • 2001 – George Leonard [2000]: The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei.
  • 2000 – Stephen E. Toulmin [1990]:  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1999 – Michel de Montaigne [1580-1595]:  Essays.
  • 1997 – James Pritchett [1993]:  The Music of John Cage.  (Cambridge UP, UK)
  • 1996 – George Fowler [1995]:  Dance of a Fallen Monk: A Journey to Spiritual Enlightenment. (New York:  Doubleday)
  • 1995 – Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch [1992]:  Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.   (New York: Bantam Books)
  • 1995 – Jon Kabat-Zinn [1994]: Wherever You Go, There You Are.
  • 1995 – Charlotte Joko Beck [1993]: Nothing Special: Living Zen.
  • 1993 - George Leonard [1992]: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
  • 1990 – Trevor Leggett [1987]:  Zen and the Ways.  (Tuttle)
  • 1989 – Grant McCracken [1988]:  Culture and Consumption.
  • 1989 – Teresa Toranska [1988]:  Them:  Stalin’s Polish Puppets.  Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska.(HarperCollins) (Mentioned here.)
  • 1988 – Henry David Thoreau [1865]:  Cape Cod.
  • 1988 – Rupert Sheldrake [1988]: The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.
  • 1988 - Dan Rose [1987]:  Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. (U Penn Press)
  • 1987 – Jay Neugeboren [1968]:  Reflections at Thirty.
  • 1982 – John Miller Chernoff [1979]: African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1981 – Walter Rodney [1972]: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.  (London: Bogle-L’Overture Publications)
  • 1980 – Andre Gunder Frank [1966]:  The Development of Underdevelopment.  (Monthly Review Press)
  • 1980 – Paul Feyerabend [1975]: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
  • 1979 – Aldous Huxley [1945]:  The Perennial Philosophy.
  • 1978 – Christmas Humphreys [1949 ]:  Zen Buddhism.
  • 1977 – Raymond Smullyan [1977]:  The Tao is Silent.
  • 1976 – Bertrand Russell [1951-1969]:  The Autobiography.  (London: George Allen & Unwin)
  • 1975 – Jean-Francois Revel [1972]:  Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun.
  • 1974 – Charles Reich [1970]: The Greening of America.
  • 1973 – Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich [1953]:  Yoga and Health. (NY:  Harper)



String theorists in knots

Last week’s Observer carried a debate over the status of string theory by a theoretical physicist, Michael Duff,  and a science journalist, James Baggott.  Mostly, they talk past each other.   There is much in what they say that could provoke comment, but since time is short,  I will only comment on one statement.

Duff’s final contribution includes these words:

Finally, you offer no credible alternative. If you don’t like string theory the answer is simple: come up with a better one. ”

This is plain wrong for several reasons.  First, we would have no scientific progress at all if critics of scientific theories first had to develop an alternative theory before they could advance their criticisms.   Indeed, public voicing of criticisms of a theory is one of the key motivations for other scientists to look for alternatives in the first place.  So Duff has the horse and the cart backwards here.  

Secondly, “come up with a better one“?   “better“?     What means “better“?  Duff has missed precisely the main point of the critics of string theory!  We have no way of knowing – not even in principle, let alone in practice – whether string theory is any good or not, nor whether it accurately describes reality.  We have no experimental evidence by which to assess it, and most likely (since it posits and models alleged additional dimensions of spacetime that are inaccessible to us) not ever any way to obtain such empirical evidence.    As I have argued before, theology has more empirical support – the personal spiritual experiences of religious believers and practitioners – than does string theory.    So, suppose we did come up with an alternative theory to string theory:  how then could we tell which theory was the better of the two?   

Pure mathematicians, like theologians, don’t use empirical evidence as a criterion for evaluating theories.  Instead, they use subjective criteria such as beauty, elegance, and self-coherence.   There is nothing at all wrong with this.  But such criteria ain’t science, which by its nature is a social activity.




Fathers of the Church

Yale theologian Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) was once asked by some friends to join a social event.   However, he had work to do, so he replied:  “I need to spend some time in the library with the Fathers, not time in the bar with the brothers.”   (HT:  LR)




Mathematics in Britain

From the music critic of The Times, writing in 1952:

At Redbrick [University] they treat mathematics as an instrument of technology; at Cambridge they regard it as an ally of physics and an approach to philosophy; at Oxford they think of it as an art in itself having affinities with music and dancing.”

Cited by Ida Winifred Busbridge, in a 1974 history of mathematics at Oxford University, here.

Oxford University was a strong supporter of Catholicism in Elizabeth I’s time (eg, Thomas Campion), while Cambridge and the Fens, due to their proximity to the Netherlands, was the centre for an extreme Protestant sect, called the Family of Love, or the Familists.    Elizabeth I’s religious policy often sought to find a middle ground between these two extremes.   These religious differences persisted, so that Oxford was again, in the mid 19th-century, a centre of Catholic, and, within the Anglican Church, Anglo-Catholic (“High Church”) ideas.   The Redbrick Universities (Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Victoria University of Manchester, etc), mostly founded in the North and Midlands of England in the late 19th century or early 20th century, were the result of money-raising campaigns by local business people and civic worthies, who were often of a Nonconformist or Jewish religious background.   The name Redbrick arose from novels written by a professor of Spanish at the University of Liverpool, Edgar Peers, about a fictional northern university modeled on Liverpool.

I don’t think the distinct differences between Nonconformist, Protestant and Catholic world views could be better expressed than those here between the philosophies of mathematics of Redbrick, Cambridge and Oxford:   Nonconformism as pragmatic utilitarianism; Protestantism as serious reflection on life’s higher ends; and Catholicism as enjoyment of life!
 



Belief as end-point, not starting-line

The New Statesman asked several famous people about what atheists could learn from religious believers, here.  Particularly interesting were the responses of Francis Spufford and Karen Armstrong. 

Continue reading ‘Belief as end-point, not starting-line’