Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Higher Purposeless

12 January 2013

‘Atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ ‘nonbeliever’… You could describe me by any of these terms, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with any of them. ‘Atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ carry such strong connotations; there seems to be a capital-A Atheism these days, to which I don’t feel I belong, and I’ve long associated agnosticism with a kind of waffling, “eh, who knows?” ‘Nonbeliever,’ on the other hand, just feels kind of meh and untrue. I am a nonbeliever in the sense that I don’t subscribe to religious views, but I believe all sorts of things. It strikes me as a bad starting position to call oneself something one manifestly is not. And then you get those Atheists who struggle to accept that they, too, are prone to the occasional magical thinking or unfounded belief, and it’s almost no wonder: if truly a nonbeliever, then how could they be guilty of such things?

Instead, I am starting to suspect that what distinguishes my worldview from religious worldviews is that I lack a sense of higher purpose. I would guess that even ardently religious people find themselves confronted with doubt as to their own private sense of higher purpose, just as I suspect many atheists (and Atheists, too!) actually do have a sense of higher purpose. Not believing in any god or God isn’t really all that important in terms of the way my outlook and beliefs shape my world. It’s that I don’t see a direction to the universe. I don’t see a higher order into which my life fits. I don’t feel the movement of an invisible hand of sorts through my life and history. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick thought on śūnyatā as ‘intimacy’

16 March 2012

I’ve been thinking again about my poetical “translation” of śūnyatā – again, ordinarily translated as “emptiness” or “voidness” – into intimacy. There are some peculiar qualities of śūnyatā that are difficult to convey in any one translation. Although this isn’t so great of a problem (it is, as far as I can tell, quite true in the Sanskrit original, as well), nevertheless there is a certain quality I think it would be helpful to carry across and, further, I think it would be beneficial to have a translation that can be shown to contain those various peculiar qualities.

If I remember correctly, I’ve spoken about the relation between “dependent co-arising” (pratītyasamutpāda) and “emptiness” – Nāgārjuna equates them – but somehow those two translations fail to help (me) generate a discourse explicating that relation. This is one such peculiar quality of śūnyatā; namely, that it is pratītyasamutpāda. How so? Well, very superficially, we can make two declarations: (1) things arise together in dependence on one another, and (2) things are empty of a wholly unique, isolated nature or being. Of course, the former is “dependent co-arising,” and the latter “emptiness.” But the important fact for our current concern is that, again superficially, we can say that (1) and (2) are different ways of saying the same thing. Choose which way you want to look at it, it’s the same truth.

This points us back to my poetical translations: “relating” and “intimacy,” respectively. Now, if I say (1) that things (or, to turn Nāgārjuna momentarily into a psychologist, people) exist naturally in relation to others (and do not and can not ever exist in any other way), and (2) that things (again, people) exist intimately, which is to say bound up with, others, and, finally, (3) that these are two ways of saying the same thing – at least one thing is clear: the terminology seems compatible. Whether statements (1) and (2) are true, whether they relate as I say they do in (3), and (most significantly) whether they in fact correspond to (1) and (2) in the paragraph above – these are all up for debate. I’ll do my best to defend them later on. For now I just have one quick thought. A potentially major obstacle for my choice of “intimacy” as a translation for śūnyatā is that the word ‘intimacy’ does more, especially on an emotional level, than merely state a lack of a certain quality (non-intimacy, lack of interpersonal connection, isolation – to use psychologically-oriented descriptions), but states a positive condition (more fitting, perhaps, of pratītyasamutpāda, in a way) generally considered to imply familiarity, emotional connection, love… For example, we might choose to say, again focusing on people, that śūnyatā only tells us that I am not a certain way, implying that I am “made up” of networks of matter, of cultural significations and norms, intimate and non-intimate relationships, and so on. Intimacy, on the other hand, is a quality I ascribe to certain relationships: my girlfriend, family, close friends. But this latter fact is actually an extremely curious aspect of śūnyatā, even if an implicit one (about which I’ll have to do more pondering and research). How so? Well, it may be (philosophically) easy to deny me any isolated existence, any from-my-own-side-ness. But it is impossible, it seems to me, to deny that my conventional sense of self is rooted on networks of relations that exist, and that, even more significantly, those relations are not equal in determining what we all conventionally agree to call me. Now, those relations, too, cannot be said to exist permanently or in isolation. Thus the streams and networks with which I am bound up are shifting in relation to one another – day to day, even moment to moment. The “me” I am at any given moment is bound up not only with the streams of matter, consciousness, and relationship that have led me to that particular moment, but also with the specific (even if somewhat unspecifiable) network of relations from and in response to which I am acting.

My contention, finally, is that śūnyatā is implicated in everyday life, that understanding śūnyatā in a significant way entails understanding what role it plays in how we function in our everyday lives. In that sense, intimacy seems like a fitting and fittingly challenging translation. I am, for example, closer with Sarah partly because my relationship with her is, we can say, more intimately bound up with my everyday sense of self than is, say, my relationship with the person from whom I bought a loaf of gluten-free bread this morning. Further, there was also a degree of intimacy, in that moment of buying bread, with the baker that was of greater significance (in an everyday sense) than whatever sense in which my life and the baker’s are “bound up,” say, every other day of our respective lives. This suggests that at the very least in an everyday sense śūnyatā does not suggest the truism that “everything is connected” – or, at least, it doesn’t suggest that we say this if that’s where we wish to start and stop. It’s more complex than merely that it all, that we all are connected. How our connections work, how they connect with other connections and finally do in some sense entail a kind of “everything is connected,” is worthy of serious thought. ‘Intimacy,’ the term, already suggests relationship (which I think is true philosophically of the concept śūnyatā), but it also already suggests a potential for closeness and distance of relationships. This, it seems to me, surely fits with our psychological experiences, with our everyday experiences, and, if I had the time to yammer on infinitely, I’d want to say it also gibes with what we might want to call the “ultimate” or “absolute” perspective – but of that I’ll just have to think (and write!) another day. I think this has been a long enough “quick thought,” don’t you? Plus, I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself into quite enough trouble….

Quick thought re atheism and meaninglessness

14 November 2011

I love the word ‘meaninglessness.’ I love adding ‘ness’ to ‘less’ words. The condition of being without meaning. Reading through this LA Times story about atheists seeking recognition in the US military called up several responses in me. The main focus of the story, Capt. Ryan Jean, apparently felt troubled by the fact that answers on a psych exam such as: No, he does not believe his life has lasting purpose, “won him a trip to the post chaplain, who berated him for his lack of faith.” This led him, and similar experiences have led a few others, to seek official recognition and lay representation and chaplaincy in the military. First let me just say: yes, it is not okay for the military to promote the attempted conversion to Christianity of atheistic service members. If some of these soldiers desire spiritual counsel from people who aren’t affiliated with an organized religion, or if they consider humanism their religion and would like a humanist chaplain, that seems fair enough to me. At the very least it does not seem fair to require them to consult someone who will berate them for not believing in Jesus. Come on.

And yet, before getting to my actual question of interest, I am simultaneously troubled by the need for this statement: “The military does not recognize atheists or humanists as members of an organized religion.” Right, well, that’s because it isn’t. “Fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members of the armed forces identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Atheists say many more are hidden among the 285,000 who say they have no religious preference.” (This implies they do have official recognition, doesn’t it?) They’re probably right about the hidden, “closeted” atheists among them. That seems to be true all over the population – secret nonbelievers. I, of course, find this troubling, but I also wonder whether responding with calls to recognize atheism as an organized religion are not… misguided. Atheism is a lack of belief in god(s). I, for example, can be accurately described as an atheist, seeing as I do not believe in a theos. But ‘Atheist’ is also an identity, one which I do not apply to myself. You can describe me as an atheist, but I won’t call myself an Atheist. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I don’t identify with the identity. Some “Atheists” seem to actively believe there is no god. I personally don’t bother making this move. (Some would say this makes of me an Agnostic, which, again, when capitalized seems to imply a philosophical position many people describe as: “I don’t know.” There are reasons for me not to take on this identity, either.)

But additionally, some Atheists seem to make an additional move: to believe the universe (or life, or their own lives, or w/e) is essentially meaningless. Further, given a-theism, given there being no god, this meaningless necessarily follows. Suffice it to say, I don’t agree with this supposedly logical move. (The whole atheism = rationality idea is clearly flawed; the evidence for this is in poorly reasoned atheistic claims made sometimes by some Atheists.) It strikes me as a somewhat reactive negation in light of the strains and styles of Christianity that most offend the atheistically minded. But this is just a sense I get. (My trouble with writing these kinds of posts is that I way too easily get way too distracted by thoughts that are not at all well enough thought out. Forgive me!) So,okay, here’s the point: no god ≠ no meaning. Why not? For one thing, why undercut the human capacity for making meaning? Aren’t we all constantly making meaning for ourselves? Choosing to believe that no god = no meaning is making meaning. Calling this ‘reason’, and relying on reason as a foundation for getting by in the world is making meaning. Who cares whether the meaning is already there? (I don’t understand why we’re so concerned about ‘objectivity,’ and why we think ‘subjectivity’ is so far removed from it.) But additionally: just because you do not believe in an all-powerful meaning-maker, what then makes it correct to deny the lasting meaning you’ve made in my life?

A quick thought on debating religion

15 September 2011

There’s a new piece for the NY Times’s philosophy blog, “The Stone,” titled, “Beyond ‘New Atheism’“. Therein Gary Gutting focuses primarily on Philip Kitcher’s essay in the recent The Joy of Secularism, which I’ve mentioned previously, as a counterpoint to the Dawkins approach to debating theism from an atheistic standpoint. Refreshingly, Gutting recognizes the value in the Dawkins approach, especially considering the context in which it arose to such insistence and prominence. I’ve been saying for years that though I don’t agree with everything Dawkins et al says, and nor do I always agree with the way he and his ilk say even that with which I do agree, nevertheless I am grateful for their approach, grateful that they are making an actual discussion arise, creating a need for further debate, etc. This is where Kitcher’s argument comes in. I have not yet read The Joy of Secularism, so I only know of Kitcher’s argument from Gutting and James Wood. Gutting, at least, sees Kitcher as picking up where Dawkins leaves off. This sounds good to me. But I want to focus for a moment on my framing of the New Atheists.

Why is my position, that I don’t always agree but appreciate their project nevertheless, so seldom reached in other contexts? For example, with regard to religious belief, Gutting rightly points out, as oh so many have before him, that “Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments.” Agreed, and philosophical arguments will not, for the most part, sway them. There is too much bound up with the belief to be able to look at it critically. As far as I can tell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, find this very fact to be a major problem, if not the main problem, that they have with religion. Now, their responses do not always do a very good job of moving beyond, “Isn’t this a problem? Yes, it is a problem. Therefore, let’s do away with it,” even if I insist, as I do, that their arguments are not at all limited to that hand-waving. But the problem of identification with belief (belief – one of the weakest of mental facilities) is profound, and it is surely not limited to religious belief – but what other realm of belief is so adamantly and explicitly defended from so much as being challenged? Religious belief is but an example – but a pervasive and immensely significant one.

This says nothing for the truth or value of religious belief/experience. But that is precisely the point. We all hold beliefs about the way the world works, about our relation to it and to each other, and the ways we can navigate between all of this. Most of our beliefs are concrete, unconscious, and probably wrong in one sense or many others. But the more aware we become of those beliefs, the most capable we become of inquiring into the unfolding of our own minds, and of our responsibilities to ourselves and others – and further, the more capable we become of being responsible, of responding. I can argue this position another time. For now I just wanted to question the sense that because belief does not come from philosophical argument, there is nothing to argue about. We can argue that religious belief is valuable in the life of the believer, and to her community, etc, but because this belief becomes a foundation for a worldview the believer will insist upon philosophically (i.e. in terms of ontology and epistemology, etc., even if the philosophy is not very rigorous), it strikes me as dishonest and therefore dangerous to assert that nothing can be said about it, no arguments can be held. (Gutting and Kitcher do not seem to be making that argument, about which fact I am glad.)

Religious belief may be valuable, and may reveal truth (whether about the nature of reality, or about, as Kitcher would have it, social conditions, or something else), but we can respect the experience that leads to and sustains belief, and the experience of belief, while rigorously questioning an ontological position lazily asserted in the wake of that experience. You may have had a profound faith experience that sustains and gives meaning to your life, and no one should want to or try to take that away from you – but it says nothing about the nature of reality, and your ontology does not necessarily follow from it. Why can’t we have this conversation? Why aren’t we encouraging our children to learn how to have this conversation? Why can’t it be that I am challenging your assertion about reality and precisely not your faith?

Atheism and Curiosity

15 August 2011

James Wood recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker called, “Secularism and Its Discontents” – a review of and response to The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. George Levine. Atheism, secularism, religion, etc; these things are on my mind most days, not only because I study religion, nor simply because I don’t believe in God (let’s note now: this is distinct from saying, “I believe there is no God”), but because of my interest in politics, in the conversations of people I pass by in the street, because of literature I read, movies I watch, etc. I’ll mention a couple of other recent sources below. First, however, I’d like to respond to a few points Wood makes/cites.

Early on Wood, commenting on a “convinced atheist” friend who wakes in the night anxious whether the universe really could just come from an accidental big bang, explains the following: “In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts.” I was not, after this opening, expecting to enjoy this piece. (As it happens, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, and it convinced me to be interested in The Joy of Secularism.) What does it mean to be a “convinced” atheist? It’s funny, Wood will later refer, rather casually, to the so-called New Atheists as miltant atheists. This word contains sufficiently diverse connotations – some sufficiently mild, i.e. not all refer to violence – for my complaint to be limited. Sure, they are confrontational. But is the dogmatism so woefully (for Wood) demonstrated by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, not contained within this little adjective convinced? Convinced of what, exactly: atheism? Convinced that there is no God, yet waking in the night to wonder whether there just might be? I’m just not sure what it would mean to be a convinced atheist – perhaps this is why people would want the term agnostic to be used more frequently, but so too would people prefer I respected all religious traditions and beliefs equally, when some simply are not as respectable as others. Atheism seems to me to describe someone who has not been convinced. Perhaps a convinced atheist is convinced she is not convinced. Now, I know, the word is not always used that way, but even the denial of the existence of God seems to me different than the belief that there is none. (Emphasis, again, on the term ‘belief.’) Agnosticism, as it happens, is a perfectly fine word, and as it also happens I apply neither word to myself, but only because they don’t seem particularly useful titles for me. Nevertheless, atheists are not supposed to ask themselves whether their lives are cosmically irrelevant? Well then, who else is going to ask? Any convinced theists would have no need for such a question. Unconvinced theists, on the other hand – now, they are an interesting bunch… That Wood’s friend seems to, without too much concern, posit irrelevance and accidentalness as the obvious results of the revelation of God’s death would occupy a greater share of this blog post, were it not for the fact that Wood’s subject is a book that hopes to posit secularism as not a loss but a gain. A great start.

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“God damn it,” he said, “there are nice things in the world…”

9 August 2011

Zooey Glass, that is. The full quote is: “God damn it, there are nice things in the world – and I mean nice things. We’re all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos” (this is F&Z 151). He is, at least to my New York sensibility, a most charming fellow, though not only that, and sometimes not remotely that at all.

But I meant not necessarily to follow Paradise Lost with a post about Jesus, but there I was, reading Franny and Zooey and thinking all about Jesus all over again. But not before reading Huxley’s response – or so it seemed to me, thanks no doubt to proximity – to Milton, his dystopian vision, Ape and Essence I mean, in the form of a sort-of screenplay written by a fictional ghost. Frame stories, frame stories. If we’re thinking Bible we must be thinking frame stories, after all, which is all the Bible, so far as I know it, is made up of. This is me the scholar speaking more so than the seeker. At least I don’t have to refer to Jesus merely as the Son this week. Thank God for that. Sorry, I may run amok with italics today. The Glass’s and their goddam (I love that spelling, you can hear the Upper West Side in it, can’t you just?) stresses (etc). Huxley’s first narrator thinks mostly of Gandhi and ego. I mean, damnit, right there on the top of page 1,

It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness. In spire of all the astronomers can say, Ptolemy was perfectly right: the center of the universe is here, not there. Gandhi might be dead; but across the desk in his office, across the lunch table in the Studio Commisary, Bob Briggs was concerned to talk only about himself. (A&E 1)

But there’s so much I wish to discuss from Ape and Essence. Frame stories. The “author” finds a script, a very strange script (called Ape and Essence; that I’m currently reading Pale Fire is, again, something that feels so far from a coincidence – and who would ever otherwise have thought to group these three books, four! if we count PL, together? Proximity, accidental proximity), and he and his friend (“friend”) Bob go, a month later, to try and find Tallis, the strange author of this strange work, only to find that he had died two weeks before they had found his rejected script. The author, after telling this story, then offers up to the reader the script in full with no further commentary. Tallis and Huxley seem impossibly close together in some ways, though I’m not sure Huxley would’ve wanted to be buried underneath a Joshua tree. What we have, in the script, beyond a dystopian narrative not entirely unlike the scenario (as SJJ has reported it) of Them! (a film produced six years after the publication of A&E), is a bunch of pontification on ignorance, fear, totalitarianism, religion, and all the jazz. The world, in Ape and Essence, has literally gone to Hell, which is to say that after WWIII, the entire planet save for New Zealand (geographically and politically irrelevant to the war, apparently the only such place) is near-destroyed and covered with radiation from various atomic explosions, and the only people left, save for New Zealanders, are mutants who have adopted Belial as their God. Or at least this is true for the people remaining in Southern California. After one hundred years (of isolation – let’s not get carried away with references and comparisons here) a group of non-mutated humans sets out for the rest of the planet (LA, i.e.) and a botanist from the crew gets abducted by the mutants, enters their society, falls in love, etc, etc. It’s like if 1984 were situated post-nuclear holocaust and ended with Winston, who in this case had been a foreigner abducted into Oceanian society, and Julia, native Oceanian, enjoying a sandwich underneath a Joshua tree in neutral territory. And everyone worshipped the Devil. Okay, it’s pretty different, but you see what I’m saying.

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Karma is an itch

26 June 2011

The question is whether something non-bodily remains after death, some stream of consciousness – as, say, the Dalai Lama would contend is the case. Or, at least, that’s the question that often gets asked. And you might think – were you to hear that I “subscribe” to a notion of karma quite similar to the Dalai Lama’s – that I would subscribe also to his understanding of the continuity of consciousness after death. A few quick points:

  1. I put ‘subscribe’ in quotation marks because my thinking regarding the law of karma is a matter of holding something as if it were true. The point is: karma, as I understand it, seems to me to best describe what the nature of things seems to me to be. This is hedged in the terms ‘as if’ and ‘seems to me,’ which should hopefully convey that I don’t put terribly much weight on the validity or Truth of the claim. Rather, so long as I don’t have any better way of describing it (which I’m on the hunt for, as it happens, and my sense of how karma operates does shift, as I’ll mention below), I find it best to have a placeholder with which to make judgments. Otherwise I would be stuck in a state of non-commitment, which strikes me as, for reasons I’ll try to bring up in a later post, undesirable.
  2. It is important to explain what these various claims are: karma, as far as I understand it, is the law of cause and effect that governs the co-arising of all things. It’s not morally causal, though it may be possible to describe it as phenomenally causal. Some might want to call it spiritually causal, but I’m not entirely sure what that would mean. The point is: If it is true that there is a matrix of continuously co-arising, co-dependent, impermanent phenomena, then karma is the infinite set of action and effect present moment after moment in/as this matrix. That is to say, it’s necessarily incredibly complex beyond ordinary human understanding, and is thus difficult to think and talk about. So forgive me. And,
  3. Consciousness after death: As far as I’ve heard the Dalai Lama put it, think of your body at death: does it simply cease to exist at the moment of death? No, it continues to exist, decays, and goes “back” into the surrounding matter in the air, the ground, the digestive systems of the worms and bacteria that eat it, etc, etc. Does it then stand to reason that consciousness would simply cease at the moment of death? Or, instead, that it would continue on, also possibly decaying into the collective consciousness, or else totally or in part becoming inherited by another newly conscious being(s)? He opts for the latter. I took this as a placeholder for a few years, but I’m finding that I don’t particularly need it to hold any place these days.

What would be the use of holding this notion of karma without holding this notion of consciousness? Well, for one thing, the notion of consciousness continuing in this way seems increasingly scientifically untenable. Has it been proven factually wrong? I think this question is an incorrect question, if not disingenuous. I’ll link, for example, to a Sean Carroll post from a month or so ago.

But in addition to the position being potentially untenable, it also strikes me as, regarding karma as spelled out above, philosophically unnecessary. How so? If consciousness can be reduced to brain functioning, brain is nevertheless still part of the physical world, and is, if the karmic view of the world is accurate, therefore part of the complex system of cause and effect as all else, both in terms of its original development in the womb, through to its functioning and development throughout a life.

I am here

26 June 2011

There are all sorts of New Agey, Deepak Chopra-esque ways of misattributing findings related to quantum mechanics to consciousness. I always find these sorts of discussions very annoying. It is my intuition that quantum mechanics is indeed relevant to questions of consciousness, but that easy, disingenuous characterizations of the relevance undermines what insight might actually be graspable by those of us who don’t understand quantum mechanics but study consciousness and are interested in relevant scientific findings. Chopra, for example, speaks about the quantum world as if he is a particle physicist, or something – which he is not.

I study Buddhism, and though I’m often wary of overly simple and confident declarations about Buddhism being right (a rather vague statement considering the vastness of Buddhisms and Buddhist teachings and beliefs), I nonetheless do find that certain Buddhist theories and philosophies resonate with my sense of how things may really be. I would neither say that I find Buddhism (in the select sense I presently mean it) to be accurate, nor that I believe it is accurate, for reasons that I will go further into in a separate post. Rather, I sense (through a combination of logic and intuition) that the particular theories and descriptions of reality qua consciousness bring me in the right direction, so to speak. It’s an interesting process that I look forward to delving more deeply into later.

The reason I bring all of this up now is that I’ve just watched this TED talk, which blew me away. What we have here is an object that can be demonstrated to behave in a “quantum way,” but that is visible. You can’t see it being in two places at once – that’s something that can be measured under precisely controlled conditions – but you can, having measured it doing so, then go ahead and look at it with the naked eye, in one piece. What this means is that statements about the quantum world being utterly distinct from the macro world, statements about quantum laws “breaking down,” may in fact go against more than just our intuitive sense of how physics should work (i.e. if we are made up of stuff that can be in two places at once, why are we so solid?), but against the physical reality, too. Now, it goes, I hope, without saying that I am nothing even vaguely approaching an expert or even a novice on these matters. Even ‘layman’ seems a bit too strong of a term. All I can do is listen to talks like these and read blogs like Cosmic Variance and hope to be aware enough of my limitations not to get too far ahead of myself. But since this was presented to me to digest as an extreme layman, I will make a brief statement or two regarding Buddhist philosophy and quantum mechanics.

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