Archive for February, 2007

February 28, 2007

virgin comics

deviVirgin is now coming out with comics and has been kind enough to put a complete book online as a pdf (warning: you’ll be downloading 30-some his res pics). This is from the Devi series. These are contemporary retellings of the stories of indian mythology, with all the blood, gore and guns we’ve come to expect of a decent media production. The drawings look nice and are certainly reminiscent of the french Nouvelle BD. via 3QD.

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February 26, 2007

religion & welfare

A paper that wants to show that church attendance and state welfare programs are negatively correlated. 3QuarksDaily pulls the paper apart on grounds that many relevant variables were left out of the regression analysis and that neither religion nor welfare are as easy to measure across countries as the authors claim.

I only purused the pdf and will thus not add anything to the 3QD analysis. It can be remarked, though, that even the broader thesis that secularism and technological development go hand in hand, though seemingly substantiated by Western Europe, decidedly falls afoul of the United States. This does not mean that the intuition is wrong, only that we have no clue as to how to formulate it – and even less today as twenty years ago.

February 26, 2007

ID

Intelligent Design, God and his cat all in one comic strip. Via pharyngula.

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February 25, 2007

on the culinary habits of the gods

Indian gods are, in matters of cookery, simply insufferable. Not only do they have a cow fetish, but they rather impolitely insist upon being offered the first serving of every meal, food which, moreover, they never actually eat. Furthermore, they will take mighty offense at you distractedly leaving evidence of your own gastronomic activities (a humble clay plate, empty but for the crumbs of a recent breakfast) upon the little coffee-table-turned-altar they occupy, a fact to which my colleague, who adamantly claims to be most liberal in his religion, dutifully brought my attention the other morning, to the unconcealed glee of the short and stubby Ganesh who, perpetually adorned with a silly garland of wilted yellow daisies or some such ugly flower, has been squatting my apartment ever since i moved in.

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UPDATE: i’ve gotten some heat (see comments) for this rather irreverent post. i’m sorry if i’ve offended any sensibilities; i should be clear that i am not complaining about India (western gods have their own weird food habits) but only about religious rituals in general and how they are foisted upon us poor unbelievers (note: it was not clear, but the above statue was placed in my own apartment w/o consultation).

As a westerner, i cannot but instinctively take it as an invasion of my privacy for people to tell me that i can’t put my plate on a table in my own room for which i am paying rent and in which i suffer other people to store their gods. Of course, this is a matter where the tolerance the religious are supposed to show the godless meets the tolerance the latter owe to the former. My compromise was to not make an offline fuss about the god (it’s a cute statue and a nice addition to my bare walls), but to vent online in a flourish of affected verbiage.

Tolerance, being a matter of compromise, is rather delicate (i would have gotten just as much heat, albeit a of a different nature, from the atheist readers of this blog had i gone any easier on the elephant-headed deity) all the more when it must go in two directions at the same time. As with the infamous mohammed caricatures, it is not clear when the godless’ mockery of religion infringes upon the god-fearing’s respect for it and when the latter’s demand for respect infringes upon the former’s ability to say what they think.

The problem seems to be that the godless assume that gods and rituals are things that one can verbally dispose of at will; the god-loving stand closely enough them that they take the insults personally. I guess its only polite to try and avoid offending people.

On another note, it is interesting how a comment from a stranger on one’s blog can work one up – as if a good friend of yours had just questioned your character. Not only is the world shrinking, but we’re rubbing shoulders with more and more people. I guess that’s to be expected.

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February 24, 2007

on truth

The elfvillage blog was kind enough to post a long response to my previous post on plantinga, science and religion. I will try to do the post justice by answering what i take to be its major concern, namely truth.

The objection is that i implicitly distinguish between scientific and religious types of truth, without ever coming out and clarifying the distinction. And i will agree that i was unclear.

Elfvillage offers three possible solutions and opts for the third: (1) both science and religion are true, but in different senses of the term; (2) only one of the two (presumably science) is true; (3) neither can claim to be true. Elfvillage prefers the third option because it diffuses tensions, though he does admit that it would create difficulties for some religious people, who ‘need’ to believe their religions are true (and one might add certain atheists who need to believe science is true).

This is indeed the problem. Neither am i, nor are many other people ready to abandon the word ‘true’ or ‘truth’ – though it is perfectly acceptable to drop any references to metaphysics and a perhaps dubious greek ancestry; the word still represents a very important idea, namely that we can understand the world within which we live, and agree upon those understandings. So i will have to stand by my initial post and adopt some variant of the first solution proposed by elfvillage. Religion and Science both get at the truth of the world, though different truths: truths that come from different perspectives, have different purposes and deal with different sections of the world.

Saying that both are true has some important advantages: for one, the two endeavours can critique and influence one another; they are not hermetically sealed from one another by a film of relativistic plastic, but can and must interact – to the benefit of both sides (though currently mostly to be benefit of religion). Science can explain religion and explain some of it away; religion can try to put a damper on some of science’s excessively dangerous feats of engineering. For another, we can hope, if both are said to be true, to slowly move towards reconciling the two perspectives and understanding how both can be important and useful at the same time. After all, it is the same human beings who are scientists and church goers, and the same minds that have spawned both systems.

Conflict will naturally arise in those areas where science and religion both want to stake out a piece of ‘metaphysical’ territory. And in these situations, the culprit is almost always religion. Science is very clear about what types of truth it is pursuing and how it arrives at them. Religion is obviously not. So when science claims the world is a few billion years old, for all practical purposes we should believe it. When religion makes claims about the age of the universe, we can safely discard them as infringing upon science’s well delimited territory. Religion has not yet clarified what types of truth it pursues; rather, it claims final authority in all areas, which is preposterous. We needn’t refuse religion its use of the term ‘true’, but we must force it to clarify in what sense and in which areas it wishes to use the term. And until religion comes up with a solid system for expressing its true statements, a credible methodology that produces tangible results, we will always believe science first. We live in a practical age, and religion must become practical if it is to survive.

So both science and religion can be true, and their different ‘truths’ must be thought of as ultimately reconcilable. The onus is on religion because science has already proved itself many times over. Religion must change, it must become more like science, while sticking to its own areas of excellence: guiding people through life and musing upon the meaning of it all.

February 22, 2007

plantinga on religion

i got through most of plantinga’s essay and was disappointingly not surprised. He duly compares religion to science and at least tries to give all sides of the issue their say. However, all sides of the issue sadly agree in demoting religion to an epistemological endeavour. The entire essay assumes that science and religion are both interested in about the same thing, namely making true statements about the world. That is actually more what philosophy is about than either science or religion, though it does fit better with science than with religion.

Religion is not primarily concerned with true statements about the way the world is, nor has it ever been. Religion makes such statements, but they are only a means to a more important end, namely, binding people together and helping them relate to the world. And even if religion makes statements about what is ultimately true,  those statements have little in common with similar statements made by science. Theologians don’t go about trying to think up experiments that would prove there are 3 and not 4 persons in the godhead. Religious truth is not experimentally verifiable, nor need it be. Religious truth is not an end in itself and that fact drastically changes its nature.

Science works the other way around. Scientists have the goal of coming up with true statements or theories about the way the world is, and they use the structure of the scientific community as a means towards that goal. Scientists get together to produce true statements. Religious people produce true statements to get people to come together.

Trying to prove, as plantinga does, that religious statements about god(s) are compatible with scientific theories, makes religion into a type of science. Religion is a very different type of endeavour than science is; and inasmuch as their respective ways of talking about the world serve very different purposes, these languages should be kept separate. Scientists do not need a gods in their theories. That does not, however, mean that no one ever needs them.

February 22, 2007

religion startups 101

the import mind.reason guy has a long post up about how to create your own religion (and profit from it). Though he warns you not to create silly religions, his post is itself obviously tongue-in-cheek – though he does give decent enough advice. The piece is patently un-serious not because the author is giving obviously bad advice (he seems to be describing the founding of many of our current crop of religions) but because he has the wrong idea of what a religion should be. To be precise, he thinks you can create a new religion today by concocting a catchy new dogma/ethics and being charismatic about it. That is indeed what scientology and mormonism seem to have done. However, this does not constitute the core of their success, nor is it what religion is actually about (anymore).

Religion is not a foolish set of ideas to which people adhere for irrational or emotional reasons. The dogma religions preach is but a means to the end of creating community and helping people get through life and the world. The famed Credo quia absurdum est (i believe because it is absurd) is not an admission of stupidity, but an indicator that the content of the credo is not in-and-of-itself important, but serves a specific function: people will believe anything, but only if it helps them to create community and gives them hope. One could well imagine that the implausibility or absurdity of the diverse religious dogmas is precisely the glue that binds their communities together.

The aforementioned theoretician of religiogenesis is right that you might need some set of wild ideas to get the whole thing started, but it will only work if you have a plan for why the religion will be useful. Religion is no exception to the exacting rules of nature: only that which works and is useful survives in the long run. If you are going to create a new religion, you must first figure out what problems you want to solve (they are usually the problems of your current religion) and how to solve them. If any dogma is required, it will only the means to that solution and must be tailored to fit.

Of course, we are probably (and hopefully) fast approaching a time when religions will entirely divest themselves of implausible dogmas and find other means to their ends. But it will always remain a fact that successful religions invariably serve a specific and very useful purpose, however obsolete their tools might prove to be.

February 22, 2007

alvin plantiga on religion and science

the “religion and science” article appeared yesterday on the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, and it’s authored by none other than plantinga himself. i haven’t read it yet but i certainly will before i go to bed.

February 20, 2007

Lars Gustafsson on the Bruckner vs. Buruma debate

This is a short article pleading for us to respect and honor reason over and against irrationality:

  There is a logic of tolerance, which remains to be formalized by some future philosopher. Let me, as a starter, suggest two fairly obvious axioms:

– Tolerance of intolerance yields intolerance.
– Intolerance of intolerance yields tolerance.

In other words, in questions of reason and freedom, societies, like individuals, have to make a choice. You cannot have everything at the same time. This holds for original dwellers as for newcomers alike.

Gustafsson is right that our socieities are founded upon reason and cannot forsake it, lest they crumble to pieces. What his very short essay does not explicitly point out is that this reason is closely linked to individualism, which must (always?) trump multiculturalism. Irrationality is indeed a problem, but the source of our conflicts seems to lie closer to western individualism – and the associated lack of identity people feel in its wake. Most of the cultural rules under discussion are not per se irrational, just blatantly counter to our sense of justice and individual freedom. The problem lies in figuring out how to let people be themselves as much as possible, while maintaining our so-called core western values. And here i would agree that we should give in as little as possible – lest we loose our own identity.

February 19, 2007

heretical prayers

two prayers i just found on digg, which, of course, appeared in a thread about Google developing true AI:

Our Google in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your results come,
your will be done,
on earth as in cyberspace.
Give us today our daily pron.
Forgive us our flamewars
as we forgive those who flamed against us.
Save us from the time of no connection
and deliver us from 404.
[For the information, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.] Amen.

Our Father, who 0wnz heaven, j00 r0ck!
May all 0ur base someday be belong to you!
May j00 0wn earth just like j00 0wn heaven.
Give us this day our warez, mp3z, and pr0n through a phat pipe.
And cut us some slack when we act like n00b lamerz, just as we teach n00bz when they act lame on us.
Please don’t give us root access on some poor d00d’z box when we’re too pissed off to think about what’s right and wrong, and if you could keep the fbi off our backs, we’d appreciate it.
For j00 0wn r00t on all our b0x3s 4ever and ever, 4m3n.