Sunday, September 02, 2007

Debate on Religion

(Lissome Lady) The Descartian 'I THINK therefore I AM' is often seen as erroneous by those who believe that the ‘real self’ is the observer of the mind because we humans have metacognition – we can think about our thinking. Some call this the “soul” - the ghost in the machine.

Speech and reason are inextricably linked. George Orwell demonstrated the connection between word and thought and therefore action, brilliantly in 1984 where 'newspeak' in the totalitarian regime was about forbidding vocabulary that would incite revolt and thereby providing an infallible instrument of political control. Humans are the only creatures who can talk with reason. The other animals do not even have the range of sounds required to produce speech. Reason is only given to Man and it has been his boon and bane.

Man in search of self enlightenment or God, seeks sources of previous knowledge that is found in religious texts, philosophies, wise men, experiences of other men and of course his own experiences. To claim that any of these is the sole repository of wisdom is to shortchange oneself of the multitudinal avenues of knowledge available to the resourceful Seeker.

There was a thought provoking Simpsons episode of Bart or Lisa claiming to have seen God in a Church, as a prank, begetting reactions of disbelief from the family and the neighbourhood. The whole thing snowballs into hysteria. Accusations of witchcraft and madness and ostracism and the whole line of enquiry into questioning our rather plastic faith were the issues explored.

When it comes to Ganesha drinking milk or the statue of Mary shedding tears or blood, there is this instant and instinctive disbelief even amongst the most reverent. It is probably the devout, who are seen by the majority as gullible and succumbing to the “con”. When put to sudden test, the conviction of the faithful about God, may well be suspect and fragile.

It makes one wonder at the romantic narrative of religion that is convenient, pleasurable, bonding, socially sanctioned, easy to extol and celebrate and dutiful to be passed on to the next generation. When this is disturbed by an “abnormal” incident, skeptics and believers, both, are up in arms. The ‘convenience’ of religion contributes to the hypocrisy that its followers subscribe to in parroting faith without qualms or self denigration when put to test. This is fodder for the non believers in turn to condemn aggressively.

The function of religion in social order and peace is undeniably true in its intention, paradoxically religion has caused some of the worst atrocities and destruction. Even today terrorism stalks us in the name of God. The irony of it!!!

(John Wallen) Yes, lissome lady...humans can think about their own thinking--but they can only do it with the mind. Of course, some religions might see the mind itself as a kind of illusion and hindu and buddhist meditation, for example, suggests that we should get beyond identifying the mind with the real "us" and learn to differentiate the mind from the "soul" or most essential part of what we are. However, this argument subtly takes us back into the realms of faith. This is achieved by starting from a scientific point of view before moving back into the mystical realm. In a nutshell, there is no more proof for the idea that anything other than our own minds is observing thinking processes than there is for more usual statements of faith ("God is good", "the devil is bad", etc.). Perhaps it is a false dichotomy, as mind thinking about itself may not be so different than an egotistical person thinking about his own egotism (that is to say, it's merely a linguistic paradox and not a real one). We can think about mind and how we come to know things--yes. But this is probably just an everyday feat achieved by the material mind: it thinks about itself in the same way that it thinks about anything else ("that idea is wrong", "I like him", "my mind is really weird"). Also, we don't know how accurate this type of "thinking" might be (thinking about the mind, I mean). In the end it is a way of by-passing scientific thought and coming back to the assertions of faith from another angle (the real me--not the mind--is able to watch my mind thinking!) Of course such ideas may be true--but they cannot be scientifically verified and so must come under the category of faith.

I think it's a very linguistically naive idea of Orwell's to believe that because certain words are excised from the language, particular emotional states can be avoided. Will a mother not love her child because the word "motherhood" or even "love" is excised from the language? I don't think so. Furthermore, the animals don't need language to be combative. Body language is enough. Our most primal instincts (including violence) exist beyond concepts and ideas about language.

(Lissome Lady) Thank you for your response Jon.

I disagree with both your arguments.

The first on metacognition being a trick of the mind observing its own observation is an easy one to suggest.

Meditation is the only way in which the true self can be "found" There are levels of meditation which require very strong aceticism and discipline. The ability to free the mind from the body and senses is not an easy thing. So I wouldnt dismiss off lightly what I know little of.

Secondly science is that which we observe with our very limited senses and our nascent instruments and technology. To presume that these findings are the foundations of truth would be completely ridiculous in its arrogance.

The 'this' is not "me' is a philosophy that is not just oriental. Plato's cave and his Ideal are refelctions on the illusionary nature of worldly experiences. The possibility of parallel dimensions and time continuums cannot be ruled out because our current science cannot measure them.

So I would be very cautious in dismissing the theory of the mind, body, and consciousness as separate entities. Faith comes in the realm of blind belief and is one way in which one may approach the truth. It is called bhakti yoga in Hindu philosophy as opposed to gnana which is the route of knowledge or science.

I would say our scientific instruments and strategies are not advanced or mature enough to examine all of the phenomena that exists within and without our states of being.

The next argument you have disputed is words and their function in thought. Experiments have been conducted on this by several scientists to show how loss of words retard thoughts and emotions.

You have chosen very simplistic examples of maternal love and animal instincts to state your case. when we speak of religion, which in the form of philosophy, is one of the highest states of sophistication in human thought, we can hardly use the base common denominator in emotions and instincts, to prove the function of language in thought.

If vocabulary does not exist thoughts and emotions would be mutilated and to a large extent be without wings to fly into the realms of imagination, revolt, or expression in any passionate form. When we speak of humans and their rationality, we need to go way beyond the primal functions of love and violence and need-based signs of body language expressions. Language is the very basis of thought if not emotion. There is a difference between the two. But I dare say if thought is controlled,
emotions lose colour.

(John Wallen) Fair enough lissome have made it very clear where you are coming from on this (a faith based, spirituality based--call it what you will--conviction) and we can agree to differ (though please do notice that I did not say your ideas were wrong, just that they have little to do with the way scientists like to do science). As for the linguistic argument, I'd suggest that the Orwell example was a bad one. George Orwell was essentially a journalist and no great shakes on philosophy, linguistics, ontology, or philosophy of language. His books have acquired such popularity for the most blatant political reasons--and his reputation since the fall of the Soviet Union, has suffered as a consequence. Language is clearly a derivative of mind--and whatever one thinks about mind (and one DOES think about mind as one thinks about the weather or the result of tomorrow's football match!) will clearly influence the POV about language.

(Lissome Lady) Thanks Jon. I am not coming from a postion of faith vs science.I am taking an umbrella view.

I am saying science is limited in its reach as we are not this all-knowing species with the best of instruments to gauge something as complex and amorphous as the human mind.

That when it comes to thoughts and emotions the measuring instruments of science fall short. You may care to read the four yogas in Hindu Philosophy that speak of knowledge, faith, and action as ways in which to interpret God.

I am saying irrespective of what my conviction may be, science is not adequate to prove/disprove everything in this world. A hundred odd years ago we knew nothing of the atom or nanoparticles or quarks or even micro life or the wave particle or tachyons or parallel galaxies as we do now because we now have instruments to measure them.we have the mathematics to speculate on them. For someone a couple of hundred years ago to insist that these do not exist or indeed sound and light cannot be harnessed to proximate time and distances, would now seem absurd. Similarly when we evaluate anything we need to posses the humility to say we dont know at this point but it could be so.

On the linguistic bit I think Orwell is a terrific example because the 'newspeak' in 1984 makes imminent and proven sense. Even if his alarmist book was proven faulty, even if he fell short on a whole heap of knowledge, he stands tall on the horizon of thinkers as does Huxley with his conditioning idea in Brave New World.

Language is not a derivative of individual minds, language needs a social context. It has a history of collective practice in all areas of observation, experience and study. It has a developmental history. If words fell into disuse for any reason, their contexts would erode as well.

Innumerable scientific experiments on groups have proved that if words are taken away emotions are affected. The lesser hate words there is in a tribe the less pugnacious they become.Some tribes have deliberately limited negative words to manage and control the emotional fallouts.

You and I will have to approximate to a point where language is scarce to actually experience the effects, which ofcourse is hard to do, going by the number of words you and I are using right now to further our arguments and perhaps creating emotions simply by their use. :)

(John Wallen) Thanks lissome lady. To me, the "umbrella view" is a bit like having your cake and eating it and I'm not at all sure about its ethical and philosophical probity. You seem to assume that I know little about Yoga and ideas on meditational techniques. In itself, this is not really important, but it is somewhat typical of the frantic enthusiast of any religion (or system of "spirituality"). The general idea would seem to be:"If you understood what I'm saying then you'd believe the same things as me. The fact that you don't believe is indicative of the fact that you don't understand them very well." No doubt a Muslim or Christian would tell me exactly the same thing: "You have the same opportunity as me to understand the veracity of this way of seeing the world--and the fact that you don't accept it, as I do, is a sign that you haven't really understood it." For what it's worth I have studied Patanjali's original Yoga aphorisms with interest. I understand very clearly the differences between Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga. I have even personally practised Hatha Yoga for some years with a teacher from India. Of course, my inability to accept the Christian tenets of faith involves a far more hopeless condition as far as my Christian compatriots are concerned, for in this instance I am rejecting my own heritage. However, this is not really so. Let me explain...

I do not insist that only science can provide the answers to important questions for us. I do not deny that there may well be a shaping pattern or destiny to our lives and the universe in which we live. However, I am unable to glibly start talking about Yogic enlightenment or the fact that Jesus was the son of God (a harmless enough symbol in itself) with the same level of certainty that I talk about the weather or my job. These are areas of doubt and when one speaks with assurance and certainty about inherently unknowable things, one is saying and asserting more than can be truly known. In this sense, I would agree with Wittgenstein in the "Tractatus": everything that can be said with language can be said clearly and well (statements of a scientific and factual kind). On the other hand, when we attempt to talk about metaphysical matters, we are failing to give value to certain propositions in our linguistic equations and so, more often than not, we end up talking nonsense--and therefore, these matters are often better passed over in significant silence. ("The rest is silence" as Shakespeare's Hamlet says). Of course, we may still speculate insofar as we are able to, but for a person who lives in the real world rather than in an imaginary one, assertive statements about religion or faith will never carry the same certainty that factual and scientific statements do.

I totally disagree with you concerning your view of language--and the examples you give, for me, merely point out the inadequacies of your position on this. One cannot truncate a language by leaving out certain words (in addition to everything else, one would have to consider the ways in which language constantly reinvents itself by combining individual parts into words with new meaning). Language follows experience: when the experience is there, words will develop to express the experience. For example, the ancient Sumerians had many, many words for "dam" and "irrigation" because their whole society was built on the safety that dams and irrigation brought. It would have been impossible to simply leave these words out of their lexicon and fly in the face of reality. On the other hand, other peoples who did not rely on dams and irrigation for their survival might have only one word each for these ideas. It would be absurd to believe that by cutting out the words for "dam" and "irrigation" from the Sumerian language one could have gradually destroyed the civilization itself, as without the words to describe these processes, the practical ability to survive in that particular environment would have withered away. Human beings are more robust than that!

(Lissome Lady) If I presumed you had not read the Yogas I profusely apologise.

I feel like we are missing one another with this dialogue. I can see you shaking your head as you read my post as surely as I am shaking mine :) You are not even on the thread of my argument because you are on yours :)) It is not enough to say 'you dont understand' you need to convince me about what you are saying or if that is too tediuous we can simply leave it be by agreeing to disagree:))

I think your statement ' I do not insist that only science can provide the answers to important questions for us.' closes the argument, because that is what I am saying. I believe no particualar system we have with us now, have all the answers and that includes science. To refuse to indulge in the metaphysical or to deny it because it cannot be scrutinised under a microscope is in my view, an escape.

'The rest is silence'were the words of the dying Hamlet, for those of us who are alive, we must continue to seek and by on our journey leave milestones for those who will seek after us. Speculation, hypotheses, serendipity, dreams, wild imagination, have all spurred the ambition and growht of science as we know it today.

I am not coming at this from a religious or sectarian perspective or point of view as I do not follow any. I am an atheist of sorts. But I believe in human fragility of senses and intellect to concede that we do not know a lot.I do not subscribe to the view that because I am weak there must be a strong guy out there!!! The possibility of nothing out there is equally strong.

Your example on language is the same as mine. We are talking at cross purposes. I spoke of the excision of hate words and you have given the flip side of necessary words as dam and irrigation. No one will 'leave them out'. The mutilation of language will naturally occur in a coersive regime that forbids the transmission of the known to its progeny. Example: Red China under Chairman Mao. Indonesia under Suharto. The banning /imprisoning/ killing of poets and writers throughout history for their 'mighty pens'. So theoretically, and in isolated historical eras and events, the importance of language on thought and vice versa is undeniable.

I am almost tempted to graphically trace our arguments to see how we are not intersecting even as we travel parallelly on similar routes claiming difference :-)

(John Wallen) This has grown into a very long discussion with heart-felt opinions being expressed on all sides. I guess this is something to be desired on a board which prides itself on being a cut above the others in the quality of its debates. On the other hand, in every endeavour there comes a point where it is best to call a halt. Most of what needs to be said has been said and, as lissome lady pointed out, there might not even be much difference between her view and mine when it comes right down to essential beliefs ( e.g. we both think that science isn't everything, both believe there is a destiny shaping our affairs, both believe that there are little understood forces that have a shaping influence on our lives, etc.) Therefore I will just make a few points, in no particular order, to hopefully conclude my contribution to this debate.

1) Most of the viewpoints here are unapologetically coming from a hindu/buddhist perspective. There's nothing wrong with that, but we might also admit that not everybody in the world shares that perspective. It is typical of any enthusiast for religion of any kind (at least these days) that they insist their religion's cosmogony discovered the same things currently promulgated by science, but long ago. Muslims, for example, are very proud of the way that the Koran talks about the origin of the universe in a way that they insist is very scientific.

2) On the one hand, we keep hearing how science has now discovered that hindu/buddhist beliefs were right about this that or the other thing. On the other, we are often told that science doesn't know it all and can't be relied on too much. This seems like asking science to redeem views in some areas while rubbishing its procedures in others: not very equitable or sympathetic and, actually, rather typical of the ways in which all religions tend to use science.

3) I see that it hasn't really been perceived that most writers here are arguing within a religious (hindu/buddhist) bubble. Now, opinions of this kind MAY be correct, but they cannot be considered philosophical (in the modern university sense of the word) or scientific. All these disciplines have rules and methodologies, and one cannot simply confuse them all together at will. That's what I meant when I said that LL wants to have her cake and eat it too. On the one hand she's a "sort of atheist", on the other she's (clearly) a great advocate of hindu/buddhist spiritualist beliefs and believes in their spiritual veracities. A modern western philosopher or scientist WOULDN'T BE a philosopher or scientist f he/she saw everything through the eyes of a particular religion.

4) I feel that the perspective of the West on these things is not really very clearly understood here. I'm not saying that the perspective would be accepted even if it was understood, but I don't believe that it has been. We (meaning people in the West) have based our success on laying down methodologies and ways of procedure that you can't cross willy-nilly whenever you feel like it. For example, we use empirical rules to assess a scientific experiment. In effect the experiment fails or succeeds or leads to new experiments. We do not allow criteria from outside the scientific disciplines to cloud our views--whatever our personal views might be. Of course, now most of the world follows us in this--but only because it's been shown to work. After the experiment is over, people from beyond the West are far more likely to word the opinions they have (about the experiment) based on their religious beliefs than Westerners. For a true Western empiricist, this undermines the procedure and is irrelevant (unverifiable).

5) In the West we keep hearing about the spiritual perspectives of the East, but the truth remains that in spite of the thousands of holy men, enlightened souls and earthly powers of the corrupted yogis, cars (for example) would not be running in the streets of India if not for Western science and its perspectives on the world (which are empirically tested for value). Now it seems the Americans are building an invisibility machine which will bend light around an object to achieve the desired affect. No doubt yogis have claimed invisibility as one of their powers in the past--but if I had to rely on a yogi's power or the power of science for this then, probably like the Americans, I'd choose science. Of course, I could go on and on with this--man on the moon, etc.--but won't.

6) Only religionists in the West, talk about religion as if it was fact. For example, I once heard a Catholic Monk express his happiness that his friend who had just died, would be enjoying his first meal in Paradise with Jesus that very day. I admired his faith and even hoped that what he said was true--but I couldn't have said the same thing myself. That he had died was a "fact"; the idea that he'd be sharing a meal with Jesus later the same day merely speculation. I can test the fact that the man s dead by running certain tests on his body. On the other hand, I cannot verify that some part of him is in heaven enjoying a meal with Jesus. For me (and for other Westerners) such things are unknowable. Furthermore, statements about reincarnation would come into the same category. Personally, I believe there is a good chance that people are reincarnated. However, no one can be sure about it (as a Thai buddhist friend of mine admitted to me a few days ago).

7) I am not sure that Hitler was unintelligent. Certainly, he had evil intentions and carried them out--but existentialists (such as Jean Paul Sartre) believe that man can just as easily choose evil as good. He himself was a communist, but in his little book "Existentialism and Humanism" he claims that man is whatever he chooses to be. To paraphrase: I am myself a communist, but if enough other people chose to be fascists, then the world would become fascist--and that would just be too bad for the world. Of course, Sartre was a REAL atheist (not a "kind of" atheist). Personally, I disagree with Sartre's views, but it's worth quoting them to show that ideas about "right' and "wrong", "good" and "evil" don't go undebated in the West. Even the great Plato in his magnum opus, "The Republic" banned poets from his ideal political state ( which was an autocracy) because they created unnecessary problems for the state with their "imaginative ideas". Plato insisted that he'd send them away reluctantly with blessings and with garlands on their heads.

I guess I'm just about done and won't be adding further to the debate. Let me finish by just emphasising that I do profoundly respect all viewpoints expressed here, even if I don't always share them.


Anonymous plato said...

I agree and disagree!

7:58 AM  
Anonymous popper said...

I'm still trying to count the number of atomic statements in there.

8:01 AM  

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