Archive for the ‘Archive 2007-2009’ Category
In my previous blog post, I described a question: what sort of religion, if any, would occur to a “holy innocent”. This person is someone who knows nothing of the history of religion, and so on, but does know every kind of natural human experience that it is possible to have, from which people might deduce a belief or set of beliefs that might appropriately be called “religious”.
So, he can go anywhere, talk to anyone, involve himself in any kind of lifestyle, experience anything, and so on, all without the influence of historical precedents, or institutional religious authority, or religious training and indoctrination from childhood to prejudice his conclusions.
I think this is an acceptably rational thought experiment. But in the discussion of the thought experiment on my own blog, and here at my Facebook “fan” page, a few friends pointed out to me a rather serious omission: the “holy innocent” (as I described him at first) experiences all these things from a male point of view.
What kind of religion would arise in the mind of a man who was born yesterday?
Although this sounds like a facetious question, I have in mind something like this: I’m curious about the religious life or set of religious ideas which would arise in the mind of a person who knew nothing of the history of religion in our world, nothing of doctrines and teachings and scriptures of any theology, nothing of the art or architecture or music or poetry that people in religious cultures have produced, nothing of the lives of the founders of the great religions of the world, or the gurus, saints, lamas, seers, prophets, and the like, nor anything of the way these people played out the psychodramas of their minds in the world. He is wholly innocent of such things: therefore let us call him a ‘holy innocent’. If he knows none of those things, we might well ask what he does know. For the sake of this experiment, let us allow him to know only what he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and make with his hands. Let us also allow that he is not a child: he possesses a mature emotional disposition, and a fully developed capacity for reason and intelligence. What would his religion be? Would he have religion at all?
The H1N1 Influenza pandemic has been off the news for a while. The last report I remember reading about it was pointed out to me by a friend of mine: it seems that Canada donated five million doses of vaccine that it didn’t need to the World Health Organization. And as for the flu pandemic that was predicted so widely, it hasn’t seemed to happen. Was that because our health system and the inoculation program successfully prevented it? Or was it because the pandemic would not have happened anyway? It can be very hard to know; perhaps even impossible to know.
What other great disaster is no longer in the news quite so much anymore? Here’s one that has been of great interest to me for many years: global warming and climate change. Well, this one is still in the news, and it’s taken some interesting turns lately. An IPCC report about the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers turned out to be wrong. Computer hackers broke into IPCC computers and stole some emails that contained evidence suggesting that the scientists are not so impartial and objective as we all might like. The big summit in Copenhagen didn’t appear to accomplish anything. And some evidence suggests that global warming has actually paused for a while. Is climate change still happening? Maybe it’s all part of normal and natural cycles. Maybe all those greenhouse gases are not as bad as we thought. Maybe those huge storms are mere flukes of nature. Perhaps we didn’t need to spend all that money on conservation and recycling, and we don’t need laws regulating emissions from cars and factories after all.
Here’s a third piece of news that I haven’t seen in a long while: weapons of mass destruction. Aside from the piece about Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry, I haven’t seen the letters WMD in the headlines for so long that I barely remember the days when they spelled out the greatest threat to peace and life the world had ever known. Remember that war – and how the British and the Americans invaded Iraq because they believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD’s, despite that they had no evidence to support those beliefs? But a lot of people went along with it anyway: they gambled that it would be better to invade and find that Hussein did not have any WMD’s, than to not invade and find that Hussein did have them.
What do these three things have in common? They follow the logic of Pascal’s Wager. To explain it quickly: Pascal’s Wager is an argument designed to show the rationality of believing in things for which you have no evidence, or very little evidence. It is the claim that it is better to believe in God, because the consequences of not believing in God, and later learning that God does exist, are far worse than the consequences of believing in God and later learning that God does not exist. For if you believe in God but God doesn’t exist, you will have missed out on a few corporeal pleasures but otherwise you will have had a good life. If, on the other hand, you deny God’s existence and yet God does exist, then you will have gained a few corporeal pleasures but you pay for it with an eternity of suffering in Hell.
This should sound familiar. Insert some other situation into the logical place for God, such as:
- H1N1 Flu. It is better to inoculate the population against H1N1 Influenza, because the consequences of inoculating the people and later learning that there would be no pandemic, would be worse than the consequences of not inoculating the population and later learning that there is a pandemic.
- Climate change. It is better to protect the environment, because the consequences of doing so and then later learning that global warming is not happening, would be worse than not doing so and later learning that global warming is happening.
- WMD’s. It is better to launch a pre-emptive strike or invasion on a foreign country that appears threatening, because the consequences of invading and later learning that country did not possess WMDs, would be worse than not invading and later learning that it did possess WMD’s.
Notice how the logic of the argument is exactly the same in every case. But, according to people’s differing political views and other views, someone can accept one or two of these arguments and reject the others. I suppose a lot rests upon how burdened people feel by the actions asked of us to prevent global warming, a disease pandemic, a foreign attack, or an eternity in hell after we die. For instance: a few people I know objected to the national influenza inoculation program because they saw it as merely a way to put a lot of taxpayer money into the hands of private corporations. Concerning environmentalism: a lot of people resent the extra work they have to do to recycle, or to compost their food waste, or to reduce the volume of consumer goods they buy. Opponents to the environmentalist movement, such as Bjorn Lomborg, believes that global warming is a “problem” but “not a catastrophe”, and that all those economic efforts to prevent global warming would be too costly to the world economy in the long run.
So, as it appears that the western world is moving closer to some kind of military action against Iran, we might want to think about whether the nuclear bomb that Iran is supposedly building is just another case of Pascal’s Wager. We (the public in the western world, that is) really have no way of knowing whether Iran really does possess enough nuclear material to build a nuclear weapon. So we have to decide whether it is better to believe that they do have a bomb, and later be proven wrong about that, then to believe that they don’t have the bomb, and be proven wrong about that.
Personally, I’d rather play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, but that might be almost as complicated.
To follow up on some recent discussions…
Teaching at Cherry Hill
At the end of the two-week extension, there were only three students enrolled in the course. I decided to cancel it. I might offer the course again in the next term, a few months from now. Obviously I’m disappointed, but with so few students I believe my free time can be better spent with other projects.
Frustrations with writing
I’ve gone a week without being able to touch the manuscript of my next book, due to some computer problems. I had changed the access permissions on the hard drive, to better protect it when connected to unsecure wireless networks. But I made a mistake in doing so, such that the next time I turned it on, the computer wasn’t able to access itself! It’s all fixed now. But for a few days I was really frustrated and upset for being unable to get at my files and do some writing. I plan to take today to write as much as possible.
The Role-Play Game
I thank everyone for their encouragement and advice. For the moment, I have decided that instead of passing on the entire 250-page text to various interested readers, I will produce a short sample, of perhaps 30 pages or so. I will then work on a complete edition, including artwork from some of the people who offered to illustrate it, and make it available for sale as a pdf download for a reasonable price. I’ll send a printed copy through the post for a slightly higher price. I may or may not pass on to interested other people a chance to write supplementary material, but I suppose that depends on how the game’s initial reception goes. In this comment, wire_mother asked me whether I know what the Forge is, what GNS theory means, or what the concept of “immersion” is, among other things. The answer is “nope – no idea”. I haven’t bought a new RPG product or magazine in fifteen years or more, and I’ve never logged on to an internet gaming forum. So I might ask for some help promoting and marketing it, if the initial readers like it, and if they believe it deserves wider exposure.
My proper calling, after all, is not in producing role-play games. It is in writing philosophical books. Indeed one of my great goals in life is to produce a corpus of work that will inspire people, get them thinking better, and questioning things better, and changing their lives for the better. As an aside, I also hope to to make my living entirely from book sales and public speaking fees. Of course, I probably don’t market my published books well enough as it is, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how well I could market a game. But I have further plans in the works, which I’ll put into action as the release date for L&R gets closer.
And now, it’s time for me to go and write. Cheers!
Back in my teenage years, I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. (Let me state for the record that my present day philosophical and spiritual commitments have nothing to do with my gaming experiences). After playing for a few years, I started to design my own game system. I know a lot of people do that, but I sometimes felt that mine was special: mainly because a few years later, White Wolf came out with their line of “World of Darkness” games, and the one I invented was remarkably similar. I had fourteen “magic domains” which turned out to match seven of the nine “spheres” described in WW’s “Mage: the Ascension” (2nd edition), for instance. I felt as if I had predicted it.
Most of my gaming friends and I switched from D&D to White Wolf when we hit our 20′s, and never really went back. But we had various problems and complaints with the game, and every once in a while I retreated back to designing my own game again, instead of playing. In fact I haven’t played a session of any RPG in perhaps twelve years or more. It’s not really what interests me anymore. The reason why, incidentally, has to do with a WW game called “Changeling”. I really liked the premise of the game. But I never did play it: the rules seemed unwieldy, unnecessarily complex, and some of the characterizations too much like stereotypes. I suspect that WW knew this, since their 2nd edition was substantially better, but still not quite “right” somehow. Then the line was discontinued. I felt a little left behind, as if the gaming industry didn’t care about people with my interests anymore. I started re-designing my game in the hope that it might appeal to people who felt disenfranchised by the cancellation of the Changeling line, as I felt.
Now, some twenty years later, I noticed the other day that my rulebook is 240 pages long!
Of those 240 pages, only about 12 pages are actual rules. The core system is designed to be simple. In some ways it superficially resembles the d20 open license system (so I had better change that too). The rest of the text describes the world, characters, society, magical metaphysics, major conflicts, etc. Most recently I designed a system for social manipulation and psycho-drama, which is at least as intricate and hopefully as rewarding to play as the melee-combat system of any other RPG.
Being so big, I wonder what to do with it. A few times in the last two years or so, I’ve thought about starting a business with it: packaging it nicely, commissioning two or three artists to do illustrations, and so on, and then producing and selling copies.
In my free time I also used to design tabletop strategy games. I enjoy the mathematical and logical puzzles involved in predicting how different variations on the rules might produce different winning strategies. The thought of including a few of these in the business also intrigues me.
Dear (gaming experienced) readers of the blog: what do you think? Any of you curious to see a sample of the game? Knowing almost nothing about the gaming market and industry, do you think I’d have much chance of success?
(If the game was any good, that is.)
Writing my third book and fifth book was easy. The ideas, arguments, logical structure, and aesthetic dimension came to me almost like dictation from the spirit of Saint Sophia herself. As I wrote those books, I knew exactly what I was doing, and where I was going, and yet was wonderfully surprised when I arrived at the narrative climax (yes, non-fiction books have a narrative!). I felt as if I had discovered some new and wonderful ideas.
As for the sixth book: these last few days I’ve spent more time just staring at the manuscript than actually writing it. I’ve been working on it for years: indeed the fifth book began as its introduction. Now, at 64,000 words, the sixth book is close to the usual length of a trade-paperback nonfiction book. But it’s nowhere near done. And has not been nearly as easy to write as the fifth book was. How does one write 64,000 words and not know what those words say? How many wasted days and sleepless nights were given to writing them! How much time spent fantasizing about relocating to Europe, or to B.C., instead of writing!
But enough of my personal frustrations. What most of you really want to know (because lots of people ask me) is, “What’s it about”?
It’s about something like this, which I wrote in a similar moment of literary frustration a few months ago:
We awaken in the morning, clean ourselves, feed ourselves, kiss the wife, tussle the children’s hair, and send them out the door to school. Then we start up the car, fight the traffic, grab a coffee on the way, fight the traffic again, and arrive at the workplace. There we moving things around from one place to another: papers, computer files, machine parts, raw materials, ad copy, finished product, and money. Why do we do this? Because other people are depending on us so that they can move their things from one place to another. Everywhere you go, you see things in motion, and people and machines at work. Everywhere you see arteries of road and rail carrying people and materials and manufactured goods. There are pathways of busy-ness in the sky and on the seas, and sometimes also beneath the seas. There are factories and workshops, offices and warehouses, places of business, which are really places of busy-ness. Everything is in motion, and nothing is still. Somebody in a suit gives us money for doing this. Then we go out from the workplace to the shopping-place to spend that money: food, clothing, maintenance of the house, fuel for the car, and toys. Everywhere you look, you see posters, billboards, signs, and electronic displays, telling you what to buy. It’s on the walls of city buses, inside and out. It’s painted on the sides of buildings. It’s inside your own home. It’s printed on your clothing. It’s telling you what to do, how to live, who you are, and who you should be. It’s inside your mind. Then with plastic bags packed with plastic treasures and plastic food, we go back home, kiss the wife, eat the dinner, and send the kids off to play computer games in a sound-proofed basement. After that, we retire to a different room to watch the movie, drink the beer, kiss the wife again, and go to bed. The following day, we do it all over again. Why do we do this? So that tomorrow, we can do it again.
There is a growing awareness that the model of modern life is an unsustainable sham, a colossal waste of humanity, even for some a hell on earth. The few of us who still have a forest to visit seem to see this better than others. But almost everyone I know, including those who have lived their entire lives in big cities, understand that the world is not as it should be. How did it come to this? What exactly is wrong here? Why do we stay stuck in it? And what alternatives exist?
Well, friends, what do you think?
Starting on 1st February, I am teaching a course in Ancient Philosophy with the Cherry Hill Seminary.
I shall be teaching this course through a series of audio-recorded lectures, and guided readings from the list of required texts.
Here’s the syllabus:
Philosophy, as an academic discipline, may be defined as systematic intellectual curiosity about everything – and at the same time systematic intellectual criticism of everything. In the Western tradition, it began in the pagan world of ancient Greece. At first, philosophy was just one more competing world-view among others. But it quickly distinguished itself as a distinct and powerful thing: a way of exploring and understanding the world, a way of life, and a way to both develop and also to criticise ideas. We’ll start by looking briefly at what religion was like at the time, and why philosophy suddenly became so prominent and influential, as both an alternative to religion, and also as another form of religion (albeit an unusual one since philosophers didn’t have to worship anyone and were highly critical of mythological explanations of the world). From there we’ll proceed to some of the most important philosophical texts of the period. We’ll look at some of the pre-Socratic philosophers, then we’ll take a detailed look at Plato and the Platonic tradition, Aristotle and the ‘naturalistic’ tradition, and also Stoicism. If there’s time, we’ll also look at the how these schools of thought influenced Western civilization’s first practical attempt at pagan reconstructionism: the Italian Renaissance!
You don’t have to be registered in any CHS certificate program to take the course: it is available to anyone at all through their “Foundations” program. Click here to go directly to the registration form. The total cost of the course is $100 (USD).
Okay, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that only two people are registered to take the course right now. The director and I agreed to postpone the start date for two weeks in the hope that we can attract a few more people.
I observed a little while ago that the blog posts of mine which usually garner the most comments from readers, and which usually attract new subscribers, are the ones in which I’m complaining about some new occasion of irrationality in the world, or in my own community.
I support education; I love knowledge; I believe that there is no one in the world who would not be benefitted by knowledge. Still, I am very well aware of how formal education can be used as a weapon of oppression, instead of as a vehicle of empowerment. I learned about the Canadian Indian Residential Schools first-hand, from sitting at the feet of survivors as they told their stories.
But I strongly suspect that people do not always realize just how dangerous it is to hand over control of their lives to irrational forces. I think people may not realize what lies at the end of the slippery slope that starts with the discrediting of formal education, the denial of the need for rational thinking, and the claim that there ought to be a “balance” between reason and intuition or inspiration. If it is claimed that “book knowledge” (I’ve never liked that phrase!) is not as valuable as other nonrational forms of knowledge, or (even worse) that it is an impediment to knowledge, it may not be a long step to the claim that schools should be closed, books should be burned, and religious fanatics (instead of elected and accountable politicians) should rule the country.
Before you reply to me to say that this is a far-fetched fear, consider the way that just about every “news” anchor on Fox TV speaks of the ideas of the “educated classes” with scorn and hate. Consider also the organized and well-funded effort to undermine confidence in the science of evolutionary biology – an effort whose real purpose is not scientific discovery, but the establishment of conservative Christian moral and political values. Nor is evolutionary biology the only science attacked for that reason: the science behind climate change, and pandemic disease immunization, is also targeted here. The challenges to these scientific enquiries are not based on reason: they are based on religous belief: and indeed a form of religious belief which specifically rejects rational criticism as a threat.
Consider also the way that certain spokespersons for Christianity can claim, without fear of being accused of insanity by their followers, that outstanding disasters are God’s punishment for wickedness. Here are some examples:
- Shortly after September 11, 2001, for example, the American fundamentalist Christian preacher Jerry Falwell told a television audience, “I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”. Pat Robertson, sitting beside him, said “I totally concur.” Read the transcript here.
- A Catholic parish priest in Austria, Gerhard Wagner, told his followers that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to destroy the city of New Orleans, because of that city’s permissive attitude towards sexuality and especially homosexuality. A short time later, in a move widely seen as an endorsement of Wagner’s views, Pope Benedict XVI promoted him to auxiliary bishop.
- On 13th January 2010, Pat Robertson told a television audience that the earthquake that struck Haiti on the previous day, killing an estimated 100,000 people, was God’s punishment for the practice of non-Christian religions like Voudon and Santaria. In his words: “They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story, and so the Devil said OK it’s a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they’ve been cursed by one thing after the other…”
- Of course, a pagan point of view might not necessarily be any better. For instance, Queen Djehami of Benin stated that the earthquake in Haiti occurred because the people of Haiti failed to carry out the traditional rituals and sacrifices to their ancestors.
I could add to this a few examples of religiously motivated violence, such as acid attacks on women suspected of adultery, the murder of medical doctors who procure abortions, and the like. But I trust by now the point is clear.
I rant on my blog about the importance of education, reason, critical thinking, in order to help prevent people from descending into the same kind of destructive irrationality.
I therefore offer you the following “pentacle of reason” (because there are five points to it), which I hope will help all of you think better and more carefully about the ideas that matter most to you.
1. Does the belief correspond with your actual experiences of the embodied world? Is it a belief which you can put to the test of empirical evidence? In other words, can you see for yourself whether it is true?
2. Does the belief cohere well with other beliefs that you have already accepted, and which you already know to be sound and strong?
3. If you acted as if the belief is true, what kind of a person would you become? Would you become more honourable, more calm and peaceful, more capable of action in the service of noble causes, more compassionate and respectful, more truly spiritual?
4. If you acted as if the belief was true, what other material consequences would follow, and would those consequences be acceptable to you?
5. Is the belief likely to be admired by a person who you respect, and who you regard as knowledgeable and wise? (I include a social dimension to this elementary method of reasoning, although if it was a method of “pure” reason, perhaps it would not belong here. But in my judgment, good dialogue with others is an important part of the exercise of reason.)
I do not claim that this is a fail-safe system of reasoning. But neither is the heart entirely fail-safe: and when the heart’s direction is without the guidance of reason, it can cause a lot of needless suffering. Consider how people claim to be following their heart when in fact they are obsessively stalking someone, or nursing grudges, or planning a crime of passion.
“Follow your heart” is the message of almost every song and every movie in pop culture today. But I suggest that only after a belief has passed these five tests should you consider what your heart tells you. And I suggest this in the earnest hope that our community will be better off. It will be less likely to be taken in by fundamentalist ignorance. And it will be, I hope, a socially just, artistically flourishing, wise, and delightful world to live in.
Indeed, as some of our pagan predecessors understood, reason is a spiritual thing. But I shall have to save my comments about that for later.