Archive for March, 2007

March 29, 2007


I’m off to Darjeeling for the weekend so this blog will get real quiet for a few days. Means of Locomotion: Night Train (sleeper class = 1 step below 3rd class! i can’t wait.), about 10 hrs. Hotel: Shangri-la Hotel.

March 29, 2007

Philip Jenkins on the religious and immigrant future of Europe

a very good and thorough interview with Philip Jenkins on Europe, the US, immigration, religion, Africa, Asia, well just about everything.

March 29, 2007

france and multiculturalism

something else the ‘french’ are doing right:

With French long engaged in a losing battle against English around the world, a new way of fighting back has been proposed by a multinational group of authors who write in French: Uncouple the language from France and turn French literature into “world literature” written in French.

For guardians of the language of Molière, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, this is tantamount to subversion.

But the 44 signatories of a manifesto published in the newspaper Le Monde this month are in a rebellious mood. They argue that it is time for the French to stop looking down on francophone authors, as foreigners writing in French are known, because these very novelists – many, but not all, from former French colonies – hold the key to energizing French literature.

For this, they say, French must be freed from “its exclusive pact” with France.

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March 28, 2007

assorted links

Well two of them.

The Maverick Philosopher on the Existence of God and Chess.

Two wonderful british voices (Alister McGrath & Richard Dawkins) talking about their new books (The God Delusion, The Dawkins Delusion).

March 27, 2007

on religious pluralism

religious ‘multiculturalism’ is perhaps even more difficult than the cultural version.

i was at my yoga lesson on saturday when the conch was blown at 6 p.m. to honor of the gods in the little temple built on the roof of the house on which we do our yoga. Everyone stopped their breathing exercises and raised their hands to their heads in a sign of devotion. Though a good post-christian and longtime quasi-atheist, i nevertheless had some qualms about being, well, religious. My guru however admonished me to play along, pointing out that i needn’t worry since he also had a picture of my god in the temple. The obvious point being that i didn’t have to worship shiva but could stick to jesus. Indeed, he has a painting of a very aryan-looking jesus alongside photographs of all of his personal gurus.

What struck me at the time was that this religous but intelligent man could absolutely not understand: (1) that as a westerner i could also not be a christian or at least religous; (2) that Jesus is not exactly ‘the God of the christians’ and certainly not an avatar of the universal supreme deity; and (3) that a christian might not want to raise her hands in devotion to a picture of Jesus Christ while a hindu is blowing a conch in order to call over Shiva, Lakshmi and Krishna to come to the temple.

My guru was interpreting christianity through hinduism, seeing Jesus as one among many avatars of God and didn’t realize that christians, and monotheists in general, don’t like mixing their unique god with a multitude of other ones. This brings me to a general thought on religious pluralism.

Religious people have a very hard time imagining what the world would look like through another religious person’s spiritual eyes. The reason, is simple: as soon as religious people manage this feat … they loose their religion. I know many very liberal christians and some hindus. However, those who can still be properly called christians or hindus remain incapable of understanding other religions – without interpreting them through their own faith. A christian will accept that hinduism is a valid and perhaps somewhat good religion – because it is an approximation to christianity. And vice versa.

Those who do manage to see through different religions in effect abandon their first faith. They do not, however, necessarily become atheists. It seems that such people move one notch up the religious ladder and become simply religious. That is, they continue to believe that the religious instinct in humans is valid and useful – but that no existing religion is quite up to the mark.

Once you have risen above the religion of your childhood, you cannot go back – nor do you usually want to. Such people (we) require a meta-religion, a sort of general religious framework that adopts the good structural features of religion, while abandoning or relativising the substance of particular faiths.

Within such a framework we could perhaps understand why my guru’s wife wants to blow her conch every day at 6 p.m. and i could figure how, if at all, to play along, instead of half-heartedly playing lip service to the hand motions. Until then, however, the religious will probably continue to talk right past one another.

March 25, 2007

on being happy

 from Scientific American, via 3QD:

Hedonic adaptation helps to explain why even changes in major life circumstances–such as income, marriage, physical health and where we live–do so little to boost our overall happiness. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and another psychologist, David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, put the existing findings together into a simple pie chart showing what determines happiness. Half the pie is the genetic set point. The smallest slice is circumstances, which explain only about 10 percent of people’s differences in happiness. So what is the remaining 40 percent? Lyubomirsky started with three promising strategies: kindness, gratitude and optimism–all of which past research had linked with happiness.

I’m surprised that friendship doesn’t get a section of the pie.

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March 25, 2007

Tyler Cowen on europe and secularism

From Marginal Revolution:

Why is Europe becoming ever more secular?

As in American academia, European secularism is a mark of identity and (supposed) reasonableness. Europeans are surrounded by Islam on one side, Russia on another, and the United States across the ocean. Reasonableness is a natural identity for their smart people to slot themselves into. Yes state churches have made European religion bureaucratic and sluggish, but that is not the main story. Competitive religious alternatives, albeit unfunded by government, could have sprung up and captured hearts and minds but they didn’t.

Nonetheless the rise of European secularism will be reversed. Most people are only casually religious, but a chunk of every society has a tendency to be enthusiastically religious. European religions will restructure and make a comeback, at least among this chunk. Unlike in times past, I doubt if this segment will have the social status to pressure many others to go along, but it would still represent a fundamental shift in the European intellectual climate. This development would probably happen immediately, if not for the European fear of becoming too much like the United States. In any case the identity of reasonableness is not a sustainable meme for so many people in the long run; it doesn’t demand enough from its adherents. Hume wrote of cycles between monotheism and polytheism, had he lived later he could have tossed secularism into that mix.

And then there is Islam.

i will beg to differ. From what i know of (western) Europe, a religious resurrection is unlikely. What is much more likely is that ethics and ecology merge into some New Ethics, which will become coherent enough to galvanize the secular population into behaving more or less like the religious (getting all worked up about something important) without having to go back to old-fashioned religion

Europeans (again i can only speak for the west and have no idea what the mix of communism and orthodoxy has produced in the east) have become fundamentally secular – even the religious (ie pastors, priests, etc.) among them. This secularism is a suspicion of all grand religious or political schemes that has been slowly and very effectively bred into them. And it is a good thing.

What must and probably will indeed change in Europe is their lack of enthusiasm for anything. This is not a feature of secularism per se (think of France during and right after the revolution of 1789) but of too many wars. Once the europeans start getting really worried about the state of the world again (and stop contemplating their rather uninteresting navel), they will regain their exuberance of yore. This time however, their excitement has gone through many dangerous fires, and will now stick to what they are convinced is good, true and fundamentally important: helping people and saving the planet.

But then there is Islam.

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March 25, 2007

neuroscience and free will

A review in the financial times about some of the latest books on free will, including Searle’s new book, Freedom & Neurobiology. The article starts of very poorly, getting mixed up about the very concept of free will, claiming that it should be possible under free will to simply decide to be a more humorous person and have it happen instantaneously ?!! Then they marvel at the fact that electrocuting people’s brains modifies their behavior:

Two neuroscientists working in Australia have taken Libet’s discovery one step further. They found that, when asking people to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.

Is it really that surprising that free will – whatever it turns out to be – is linked to physical phenomena? Such results – though fascinating – shouldn’t surprise anyone … Further on, the thinking gets more interesting and moves on to the ethical consequences of the neuroscientists’ discoveries:

But if this is true, the implications for our systems of morality, of crime and punishment, are shattering. We only punish those we think voluntarily did wrong – not those who literally had no choice but to act as they did. But if there is no free will, then no one has ever had a choice but to act as they did. That Eve ate the apple was as predetermined as the leaves falling to the ground in autumn. None of us could ever truly be said to be responsible for our actions. In very different ways, three new books tackle the question of whether we are free and what it means if we are not.

The answer is unequivocal:

Derk Pereboom recognises that our lack of free will means we need to rethink morality – but sees this as no bad thing. It would, he suggests, lead to sensible reforms, such as shifting the focus of the criminal justice system away from retributive punishment and towards re-education and deterrence – or towards protecting society: ”Suppose that a serial killer continues to pose a grave danger to a community. Even if he is not morally responsible for his crimes, it would be as legitimate to detain him as it is to quarantine a carrier of a deadly communicable disease.”

We are again dealing with science (finally!) encroaching upon philosophical territory. What is philosophically interesting about this new free-will problem is exactly the same thing as is interesting about the new ethical situation. Science is doing what it always has done: explaining to us things that previously appeared mysterious. Only now, the explanations have to do not with nature out there but with the inner workings of our selves – of our very brains (the part that is doing the explaining in the first place).

We are left with a conundrum. If our brains (note the plural) can explain to us how a brain (singular) works, then ought we perhaps to try to change how our brains work – that is, improve upon their functionality?

We have lost our ethical innocence and irretrievably moved beyond the comfort of traditional theories of ethics that seemed right to everyone. Now they seem wrong. Science, in clearing the weeds of wrong assumptions will help us think clearly and distinctly about the problems. It will not, however provide us with the solutions.

In the case at hand (free will and punishment), the question for philosophers is no longer “(how) are we free?” but “how should we best deal with our new knowledge of how we behave?” The problem is the eternal philosophical one of trying to reason about questions that lie beyond empirically verifiable knowledge. Philosophers (and others) must find a principle or two that will not tell us about our free will, but about the meaning of free will.

The beginnings of a solution lie in the singular-plural distinction a few paragraphs ago: it must be kept in mind that the scientists are telling us how one brain works. That is interesting. What is important, though, is how all the brains work together. Humanity must decide how it wants to modify and deal with its constituent parts. For such reasoning we require many brains and not only knowledge of how single brains work, but also intuitions about how we want our brains to work in the future. The problem of individual free will is being solved. Now we philosophers must move on to the higher order problem of the free will of all existing free wills, our free will.

March 24, 2007

indians and intelligent design

Well, sort of. I’ve met a number of indians now who maintain ideas that would strike a good (non-fundamentalist) westerner as rather incredible. The people i have in mind, moreover, all have Masters’ degrees in some science or other. When we discuss the history of India they will explain, for example, that old texts like the Mahabharata refer to incredible weapons, flying machines etc. The conclusion they draw is that in the days of old people had atomic bombs and airplanes. Or they will maintain that certain yogis alive today are 250 or even 8000 years old and have stayed alive thanks to their yoga skills.

This naturally reminds me of the americans i know who staunchly assert that the earth is some 6000+ years old and that Moses really parted the red sea back in the day.

What strikes me most in both cases is that these incredible beliefs are always maintained not despite, but with science. Christians will maintain that they can scientifically prove that the earth is 6000 years old. They will go to great geological lengths to explain how it is physically possible that some earthquake caused the read sea to part just at the right time. Likewise, my indian friends always back up their far-fetched assertions with statements to the effect that scientists have discovered this or that, which corroborates the prehistoric atomic bomb idea.

The main difference between the americans and the indians is that the former will go against mainstream science, should it contradict their ingrained beliefs; the latter always preface their tall tales with the caveat that, though most probably true, what follows has not yet been entirely confirmed by science. However, though the latter position cannot but strike my tedious modern mind as overly gullible, it is after all innocuous and, late at night in dimly lit pseudo-chinese restaurants, highly entertaining.

March 24, 2007

multiculturalism and integration

Many countries around the world are desperately trying to deal with ever increasing numbers of immigrants. We hear many apocalyptic predictions and witness many unfortunate situations. Mostly though, we read long tirades about what this or that country is doing horribly wrong. I want to suggest a few things that some countries are doing right, so that we might learn and improve rather than bemoan the sorry state of our messy world.

So here is what i think America (the U.S.) does right:

  • it forces immigrants to fend for themselves economically. This ensures that new arrivals immediately find their way into american society, if only to get enough food to eat.
  • it has a vibrant patriotic sense which it imposes upon immigrants. It is expected that an immigrant be proud to be an american.
  • it makes it real easy to feel american. Basically, all you have to do is say you are american and they’ll believe you – no matter how far your english vocabulary reaches.
  • it is perfectly acceptable to be half-american, that is, chinese-american, native-american, african-american, etc. This means that people can feel and be american without forsaking their original culture or identity.
  • all americans know that all american are immigrants.

Here is what i think France does right:

  • it has a very strong, well-defined and proud culture. This is something that immigrants can latch on to.
  • the french state provides people with an identity that is above religions. Being french is not about being christian – it is about being republican, and anyone can be that.
  • the french will accept as french anyone who embraces their culture – though half&half is not permitted and your french must be (almost) perfect.
  • france has a long history of welcoming prominent people – and turning them into good frenchies (think Derrida from Algeria, Lévinas from Lithuania, Milan Kundera from Checkoslovakia, etc.)

And here is what i think India does right (though it does not deal with immigrants but with a gigantic inner diversity):

  • it has multiple levels of diversity (cultural, linguistic, geographic, religious) that all intertwine. This ensures that people are always dealing with some element of diversity, but also can always find some similarity to bring them together.
  • indians have a very long history of diversity.
  • the main indian religion is notoriously open to everything.
  • all levels of society are completely diversified (esp. politics).
  • when moving from state to state, indians will seek out and mostly interact with those they resemble the most. This maintains a strong sense of identity while enabling one to live in very foreign environments.
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