Archive for July, 2010

The following is a composite portrait of a believer in charms or totems, gathered from studies of certain native peoples.

He seems to be psychologically continuous with an object [totem] of this sort, as if part of himself were actually contained in it, and in consequence this object has a peculiar fascination for him. It is filled with mana—that invisible secret power that produces in a man awe, attraction, and dread and so exerts an unconditioned influence over him. To him such an object is numinous

…For it seems as if the object possesses something essential to him, so that interference with it by another is tantamount to interference with the very core of his being.

These quotes refer to an account which is now one hundred years old.* If there are racist undertones in what the account (elsewhere) terms “primitive” peoples, then they are in hindsight ironic, for replacing “object” with “concept of God” above yields a description not far from the modern Western religious person.

This leads nicely into Buddhist philosophy, which studies the mind’s inclination toward attachment to objects or concepts. So let us consider a religious person as one who has acquired an inordinate attachment to the God concept, much like the totemist in the quote above. Since I happen to be familiar with Christianity, suppose he is a Christian.

When he comes into fortune, he sees it as the blessings of God raining down upon him. When his enemies come into fortune, he remembers that God sends rain upon the just and unjust. When he experiences tragedy, he recalls his savior who underwent the ultimate tragedy so that mankind may reach the ultimate joy. When his enemies experience tragedy, he cites scripture saying that men reap what they sow.

His inner experiences are fused with the God concept in his mind, again like the totemist above. If you suggest to him that the Holy Spirit is only a concept, he knows you are wrong because he feels the Holy Spirit as an object of his experience. If you approach him with empirical facts which conflict with his religion, it’s obvious to him that you are wrong—it’s as if you are suggesting that three times three equals eleven. You are mistaken, and it’s only a matter of finding the flaw in your argument.

I suspect this is the main reason why dialogue between believers and non-believers is often forlorn. The non-believer thinks he is addressing some fine point of theology, while the believer sees it as a silly attempt to refute the obvious or, worse, as a personal attack aimed at invalidating his own experience. In a certain sense it’s just a misunderstanding.

For the true believer to be changed in any way, he must adopt a radically new dogma: “I can be mistaken”. The believer needs to decouple, to un-fuse, his inner experience from his conception of God. This is an intensely personal endeavor, for he has to consider (for example) whether it is possible that his feeling of the Holy Spirit is also felt by Hindus under different terminology. Nobody can take these steps for him. A mind is only changed through its own exertion.

All this applies equally to non-believers, of course, the only difference being the concept to which one is attached. As far as humanity goes, the most common attachment is to one’s self-image (or more simply, egotism). So next consider someone who has this attachment—one who is a “true believer” with regard to his own ego.

The corollary of his perspective is an unshakable dogma: “I am right.” If you challenge something he says, he interprets it as a personal attack. Why? Because what you say is obviously not true, and can only be an unseemly attempt to discredit him personally. The explanation for it can only be that you have a grudge against him. Therefore he must fight back using all possible measures (because that is what you are doing). Like all true believers, he is protecting the object of his attachment, that which he covets. Facts, evidence, and reality are not relevant factors.

Enlightenment, for any definition of the term, always results in taking oneself less seriously, not more. The outcome is always humor, not solemnity. This suggests a way out of the trap: first have a good laugh at yourself, then consider that you could be mistaken.

[*] Quotes are from The I and the Not-I by M. Esther Harding, referring to How Natives Think by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1910).

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Now, another example of a test of truth, so to speak, that works in the sciences that would probably work in other fields to some extent is that if something is true, really so, if you continue observations and improve the effectiveness of the observations, the effects stand out more obviously. Not less obviously. That is, if there is something really there, and you can’t see good because the glass is foggy, and you polish the glass and look clearer, then it’s more obvious that it’s there, not less.

—Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, transcribed from a lecture

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I have always considered The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype as belonging together (both by Richard Dawkins). If you have read the former, which takes some resolve, then reading the latter will bring your efforts into full fruition.

The Selfish Gene puts forth the gene’s-eye view of evolution: What happens when we focus primarily on genotypes, giving phenotypes (bodies) a secondary role? It is not that this treatment is to the exclusion of others, but only an adjustment of our usual outlook. (For an example of why this is illuminating, turn to the splurge-weed thought experiment on page 258 in the paperback which begins with the question, “Why did cells gang together; why the lumbering robots?”)

The next stage is to consider the environment as a kind of phenotype, and this what The Extended Phenotype covers. After all, drawing the boundary at an organism’s skin seems rather arbitrary, doesn’t it? Whenever a beaver builds a dam, it is also true that the genes of the beaver are building the dam. Because the dam has flooded the local area with water, the beaver’s genes have caused extended phenotypic effects upon the environment and other organisms, and ultimately upon the genes of other organisms. Isn’t that an interesting thought!

Again, this view is not being advocated to the exclusion of others, but rather as the flip side of the coin. Dawkins compares it to a Necker Cube, in which our perception alternates between either seeing it from above or seeing it from below:

From The Extended Phenotype,

To return to the analogy of the Necker Cube, the mental flip that I want to encourage can be characterized as follows. We look at life and begin by seeing a collection of interacting individual organisms. We know that they contain smaller units, and we know that they are, in turn, parts of larger composite units, but we fix our gaze on the whole organisms. Then suddenly the image flips. The individual bodies are still there; they have not moved, but they seem to have gone transparent. We see through them to the replicating fragments of DNA within, and we see the wider world as an arena in which these genetic fragments play out their tournaments of manipulative skill. Genes manipulate the world and shape it to assist their replication. It happens that they have ‘chosen’ to do so largely by moulding matter into large multicellular chunks which we call organisms, but this might not have been so. Fundamentally, what is going on is that replicating molecules ensure their survival by means of phenotypic effects on the world. It is only incidentally true that those phenotypic effects happen to be packaged up into units called individual organisms.

The above serves as my response to Karen Armstrong’s recent article, in which she re-articulates the tried-and-true misunderstanding behind the term selfish gene, showing a lack of comprehension or interest in what she imagines to be arguing against. The term selfish gene refers to the metaphor of genes acting as if they were selfish, not the human characteristic of selfishness. (See Butterflies and Wheels for more.)

At the heart of Karen Armstrong’s perspective lies the implicit assumption that a scientific worldview is one of dull mechanism, that without religion the universe is somehow dreary in itself, that we should not be resigned to this mere reality before us. But the world presented in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, briefly sketched above, is endlessly fascinating; it is enrapturing; it is beautiful. She writes,

In the past, the voices that say “there is something more” have always been right.

Yes, there is something more, and you’ve missed it, Karen Armstrong.

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Robert M. Price is a world-famous biblical scholar who (among other things) does the Bible Geek podcast where he takes questions from listeners about the Bible.

I sent in a letter (below) asking what he thought of William Lane Craig’s crazy explanation of the Caananite genocide. Here is my appearance on the Bible Geek:*


He finishes reading the question at 3:35, but skip ahead only if you are willing to miss Dr. Price doing Charlton Heston. He then covers the Canaanite evidence, and the high point begins at 5:53 when he turns to Craig’s words, calling them “horrifying ruminations.”

Note that Dr. Price accidentally attributes my quip “God’s morality is not our morality” to Craig, but it makes little difference since in the same article Craig says that God “is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.”

My letter to the Bible Geek follows.

O Geekiness Kurios,

On an apologetics website someone asked William Lane Craig about the slaughter (or genocide) of the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 20:12-18:

If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

Dr. Craig began his response with the standard [Note: Price misreads, saying statement instead] “God’s morality is not our morality” line of argumentation, however I was astonished by what he said next:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.


I began to outline a response but I found the process too exasperating. Dr. Craig appears to be greatly respected among evangelicals, but more than ever I sense from him an aura of pure nuttiness (I almost said pure evil, which is pretty much how I feel about his reasoning and its implications).

What do you make of Craig’s response? Could you provide some background on these passages from Deuteronomy? I think you once discussed some archaeological findings on the Canaanites—would you mind mentioning them again?

Many Thanks,
Oedipus Maximus

[*] This is lifted from the May 26, 2010 Bible Geek podcast. You can find it online here but the player is clumsy and won’t let you jump to an unbuffered position. I recommend the podcast subscription route (free).

Extra bonus: Listen to Robert Price pillory Rick Warren in the September 29, 2006 Point of Inquiry podcast, starting at 10:33.

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(No, not me.)

If you haven’t read the classic Greek short play Oedipus the King, here is a highly abridged version: Oedipus’ past is gradually revealed as he pursues a series of clues which ultimately leads him to discover that he was adopted, that he killed his father, and that he married his mother shorty after his father was killed. Of course, Oedipus’ wife (and mother) Jocasta is also unaware of his past. The play begins many years after his father’s death.

At one point in the play, Jocasta becomes alarmed as the clues begin to converge on an answer.

JOCASTA: …[T]alk, empty nonsense,
don’t give it another thought, don’t even think —

OEDIPUS: What — give up now, with a clue like this?
Fail to solve the mystery of my birth?
Not for all the world!

JOCASTA: Stop — in the name of god,
if you love your own life, call off this search!
My suffering is enough.

OEDIPUS: Courage!….

listen to me, I beg you, don’t do this.

OEDIPUS: Listen to you? No more. I must know it all,
must see the truth at last.

JOCASTA: No, please—
for your sake — I want the best for you!

OEDIPUS: Your best is more than I can bear.

JOCASTA: You’re doomed —
may you never fathom who you are!

A question is often asked here: Is Oedipus responsible for his own demise? In a way, yes. Had he not pursued the matter, he might have continued with a normal life. In fact other warnings were given to him, long before this exchange with his wife. But that is not his intent in the least! He wants to know the truth, whatever may come of it.

I can relate to Oedipus because the above conversation is similar to one that I once had. It was between myself (in the role of Oedipus) and my father (in the role of Jocasta). My father, a fundamentalist Christian, was advising me to stop reading books by New Testament scholars, to stop learning about the history of Christianity. Those books are biased—it’s best not to pursue it, he said. But like Oedipus, at that point I knew a little too much. There was no going back, even if my darkest fears would become manifest: that I would not live forever, that neither would anyone I knew, that the whole religious enterprise would be revealed as an elaborate mistake. Even the worst truth was better than the best falsity, I thought.

I believe that one reason (among others) Oedipus the King has endured for 2500 years is because it speaks to a deep aspect of our psyche: the fear that there is some unfathomable despair awaiting us, lurking, and that we could avoid it if only we would resolve not to look. Let no one disturb our ignorance!

Fortunately in my case the scope of the analogy is limited. When the truth became known, Oedipus’ worst fears were realized. Mine were as well, but the realization of my fears amounted only to the loss of a fantasy, and soon thereafter the fears themselves dissolved.

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The unlikely object is your mind. Not your mind from a neuroscientist’s point of view, but your mind from your point of view. There is an ever-present thought-stream running through your head—have you ever considered investigating it? There is an objective nature to the stream: you can observe thoughts as they appear and disappear, like objects which pass into your field of vision and then depart from it. Like a scientist doing an experiment, your job is not to make judgements on this data but to simply observe it with your full attention. That the data happens to come from your thought-stream is not particularly relevant.

Some bits of the data—that is, some thoughts—produce physical reactions, which are emotional thoughts. Again, it is not your job to make judgements or get involved! Notice the thought, notice the reaction, that’s all! If you maintain your role as an observing scientist, the thought remains just what it is—no more, no less. It will soon disappear, passing out of your field of vision.

What I’ve attempted to describe is called Zen practice, or at least one form of it. Those who do it usually just call it sitting. Here is what one person has to say about sitting,

[N]inety percent of the thoughts spinning around in our heads have no essential reality. And we go from birth to death, unless we wake up, wasting most of our life with them. The gruesome part of sitting (and it is gruesome, believe me) is to begin to see what is really going on in our mind. It is a shocker for all of us. We see that we are violent, prejudiced, and selfish. We are all those things because a conditioned life based on false thinking leads to these states. Human beings are basically good, kind, and compassionate, but it takes hard digging to uncover that buried jewel.

That is Charlotte Joko Beck, a Zen teacher who wrote Everyday Zen. Well she didn’t exactly write it—the book is a transcription of some of her talks. In the quote above, she is speaking extemporaneously in response to a question.

Now Zen is a funny subject, one that I wish to avoid for the moment. But there is one thing I wish to say. The “shocker,” as Beck describes it, was deeply humbling for me. It means that I cannot maintain the belief that I am all that different from others, even from those who appear, from my perspective, to be totally deluded. They are like me but in different circumstances.

There is an often-cited quote attributed to Stephen Henry Roberts,

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.

I rather like this quote! It is a concise summary, in a way. Yet for me it leaves something out, something essential. It is like speaking of the heads side of a coin without mentioning the tails side. So I would add the following: I contend that we are both deluded. I just have one less delusion than you. And I could be deluded about that!

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