Archive for April, 2007

April 26, 2007


two articles in Slate about scientific attempts to explore the murky waters of religious & mystical experiences:

Persinger is one of the more colorful characters in the fast-growing, flakey field of neurotheology, which studies what is arguably the most complex manifestation—spirituality—of the most complex phenomenon—the human brain—known to science. Given that brain researchers have no idea how I conceived and typed this sentence, I doubt they will ever account for religious experiences in all their vast diversity and subtlety. Nor will they solve the riddle of whether God actually exists or is a figment of our evolved imaginations, like unicorns or superstrings. Neurotheology may nonetheless have a profound social impact, by yielding more potent, reliable methods of inducing spiritual experiences.

about the concept of neurotheology in general (since i only purused the two articles): its an interesting idea and figuring out how the brain processes religion and religious experiences is an obvious and potentially fruitful area of study for cognitive or neuro-science – and one that will easily lend itself to the scientific method. Two important caveats, however:

First, the knowledge of the fact that religion is (mostly) a series of brain functions, will have unpredictable repercussions on the essence of religion (though will perhaps have little effect on the scientific results themselves: it won’t change how we are religious, just what we are religious about).

Second, these neurological investigations will not tell us what religion is, only how it works. Religion, being a high-order human cultural feature will easily integrate and digest these findings, transforming itself so as not to be explained away.

Nevertheless, this light thrown upon our religious nature will clean and clear up our religions, making them better, more useful and healthier by forcing them to get rid of the chaff and only keep the grain. Religion, once explained, will have to take the practical route of saying: “well, if the scientists have explained what religion is and why we do it, then we can now go about doing it better.” That will hopefully be the response of the majority. The minority will of course go into denial – but that is the nature of religion!

April 25, 2007

blog break

this blog will be (mostly) going to sleep because it’s author is busy doing other stuff, like showing his sister the horrible beauty of Kolkata and then shipping himslef off to Taipei, Taiwan for two weeks. I’ll resurrect the whole thing as soon as the gods permit.

April 21, 2007

web 3.0 meets the religious web!

So if web 1.0  was catholic, web 2.0 is protestant and web 3.0 will be …?! Why do we always fall back upon good old religious metaphors and analogies? And why does it always sound so … exciting and mysterious? That mysteriousness is the dangerous (and meaningless) part, though it certainly does sound good.

From Language Log quoting a paper by Malcolm Hyman and Jürgen Renn, “From Research Challenges of the Humanities to the Epistemic Web”:

Web 2.0 is the protestant vision of the Semantic Web: where central authorities have failed in mediating between the real world of data and the transcendental world of menaing, smaller, self-organized groups feel that they are called upon to open direct access to this trancendental world in terms of their own interpretations of the Great Hypertext. The traditional separation between providers/priests and clients/laymen is thus modified in favor of a new social network in which meaning is actually created bottom up. The unrealistic idea of taxonomies inaugurated by top-down meausres is being replaced by the more feasible enterprise of “folksonomies” spread by special interest groups. As their scope remains, however, rather limited and the separation between data and metadata essentially unchallenged, the chances for developing such a social network into a knowledge network fulling [sic] coping with the real world of data are slim.

This reminds me, again, of the old joke about a conversation between a native of Belfast and an American:

Belfast: Are you a protestant or a catholic?
U.S.: Well, neither one, actually. As it happens, I’m a jew.
Belfast: All right, but are you a protestant jew or a catholic jew?

Ecumenical fairness also raises obvious questions about other approaches to finding meaning in web data — the Islamic view, the Hindu view, the Buddhist view, and so on. In any case, I hope that their paper finds its way onto the web — even the old-fashioned (pagan?) html web without any sort of cultic overlay — so that you can learn about the creed that Malcolm and Jürgen are evangelizing, the “Epistemic Web”, which they (perhaps optimistically?) call “Web 3.0”. I’d explain it to you, but I will need further theological study or a special revelation to understand it fully myself.

April 20, 2007

don’t ever ask questions to university professors

otherwise they will insult and spit upon you like the Crooked Timber people (from the comments on that site commenting upon a poor undergrad’s questions about A. Sen):

  1. When you’re done with this, can I get you to write a chapter or two of my dissertation?

    Posted by Matt · April 19th, 2007 at 8:31 pm

  2. Kind of low. You are making fun of him, but who is the adult?

    Posted by Steven Chabot · April 19th, 2007 at 10:12 pm

  3. Since he is an undergrad, he is.

    Posted by Rob · April 19th, 2007 at 10:22 pm

  4. I wonder how they rationalize it to themselves.

    Posted by jet · April 19th, 2007 at 10:26 pm


  1. Rather than making fun of the undergraduate in a public forum, wouldn’t it have been more effective to briefly explain the weaknesses in his approach to research and then point him in the right direction?

    I think that this one falls into the well-known category “rhetorical questions whose answer is ‘no’”.

    Posted by Daniel · April 20th, 2007 at 2:11 am

  2. further to which:

    Without knowing anything about the student, it’s difficult to assess why he may have thought asking so many detailed, open-ended questions was appropriate.

    but the hypothesis “because he’s a lazy little bastard” certainly can’t be ruled out. Why don’t you do the work for him, if you’re so bloody kind hearted?

    Posted by Daniel · April 20th, 2007 at 2:12 am

  3. “Is there any concept or thought which replaces Sen’s thought ?”

    Yes. That thought is: “Lo! undetached rabbit parts!”


    Posted by hilzoy · April 20th, 2007 at 2:36 am


  1. My favorite response is: a)who are you and b) what is this for? Response rate to these e-mails, almost nil. In the one case, the reply I got was from a student trying to do an opinion survey and had no idea how to go about it. He apologized profusely, realizing his survey was undoable and sent a much more doable version later. Got my name from some database at my institution at the time.

    Posted by Western Dave · April 20th, 2007 at 4:15 am

  2. Someone should really come up with a nice boilerplate reply-message for this kind of naive inquiry . . . something that does due diligence to the academician’s commitment to educate but also ensures through its tone that the sender never makes the same mistake again.

    Posted by Dæn · April 20th, 2007 at 5:03 am


Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolutions has kindly given answers to these questions (thanks gaddeswarup for the pointer).

Re-reading through the now 60 some comments at CT made me think: these people are all wasting time writing 5 paragraph long comments explaining why they don’t have any time to answer these kinds of questions! if only half of these commenters would have provided some anwers we’d have a very interesting thread that would certainly have helped many more people than the student in question. And, as Tyler shows, this was perfect blogging material. (i don’t know enough abt Sen to say anything myself, though.)

April 20, 2007

plantinga on dawkins

Telic Thoughts points to an older review by Plantingua of Dawkins’ God Delusion book. Plantingua’s arguments are sound, but ultimately miss the point of a scientist’s or atheist’s objections. Plantingua says:

Dawkins (and again Dennett echoes him) argues that “the main thing we want to explain” is “organized complexity.” He goes on to say that “The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity,” and he faults theism for being unable to explain organized complexity. Now mind would be an outstanding example of organized complexity, according to Dawkins, and of course (unlike with organized complexity) it is uncontroversial that God is a being who thinks and knows; so suppose we take Dawkins to be complaining that theism doesn’t offer an explanation of mind. It is obvious that theists won’t be able to give an ultimate explanation of mind, because, naturally enough, there isn’t any explanation of the existence of God. Still, how is that a point against theism? Explanations come to an end; for theism they come to an end in God. Of course the same goes for any other view; on any view explanations come to an end. The materialist or physicalist, for example, doesn’t have an explanation for the existence of elementary particles: they just are. So to claim that what we want or what we need is an ultimate explanation of mind is, once more, just to beg the question against theism; the theist neither wants nor needs an ultimate explanation of personhood, or thinking, or mind.

The gigantic difference between the physicist’s or the biologist’s final explanations and those of the theist’s is that the scientists do indeed come to a stop in their explanations, but only to take a breath before going even deeper! The theist, however, stops at ‘god’ and then fails to look any further. There always will be better scientific explanations; religious explanations don’t improve upon themselves over time. Unless Plantingua wants to invent a new theology that will go into the very interesting story of the god that created (our) god … but that is usually called gnosticism and is rather frowned upon in honest christian circles.

April 19, 2007

how to get rid of religion

Religion will never disappear simply because some have gone hoarse disparaging it. Those who wish to get rid of religion will have to put a bit more effort into the endeavour.

Religion is very useful to many people and will never go away until we give those people adequate substitutes for the aspects of religion that attract and keep them. Simply telling them that religion is bad (which it isn’t, most of the time) or wrong (which it is, most of the time) will have but little effect. If we seriously want to get rid of religion, we will have to take a much more pragmatic and painstaking route, pulling it apart piece by piece. We must first analyse this vague phenomenon and figure out exactly what it is made of. We need to know what it does for people and we also need to know how it manages to perpetuate itself: with respect to the former functions of religion, we must either find substitutes or we must teach people how to do without them; as to the later cohesive forces, we must figure out how to counteract them.

First, i will list the functions and forces of religion i can think of; then i will try to come up with tentative solutions to each of these individual problems.

The functions of religion:

  • community: gives a sense of belonging, of not being alone; provides ready friends and help in time of need.
  • emotional harmony: humans like to feel emotions together.
  • psychological stability: helps you straighten out your mind when the world stops making sense, usually by complaining to god or asking him for help.
  • metaphysical closure: provides a sense of completeness and unity to the world after which our brains seem to hanker; answers the questions that cause us to worry (death, etc.)
  • identity: provides people with a history and a story.
  • ethics: gives strong reasons (both communitarian and metaphysical) for doing good.

The forces of religion:

  • tradition: this is the pendant to identity; it is also the pendant to the force of inertia.
  • authority: people tend to believe people in authority (parents, pastors) who tell them religion is good, true and necessary.
  • many people have a vested interest in keeping religion going (priest and pastors, etc.)
  • habit: people are too lazy to not give up being religious or they don’t see any good reason to do so.

And now on to some possible solutions. Note that not all of these elements are per se bad, some are even very good. We do not therefore simply want to get rid of them, but when necessary, find non-religious alternatives. The hope is that if we give people non-religious versions of everything they like about religion, they just might forget about religion – or stop caring.
Community is obviously a good thing. There are already alternatives to religious communities but neither baseball games nor myspace will cut it. Cultural or ethnic communities are obviously not much better than religious ones, all being rather prone to the same problems. One solution might be to work towards creating communities that focus around doing things (like saving the planet). One of the great temptations to violence and intolerance in religious and other communities is that each must justify its existence by confronting the others. If a community brings people together with a specific and clearly useful goal in mind, then much insecurity and hence aggressiveness will vanish.

Emotional harmony: since music is soon going to be free and musicians will have to earn their keep by the sweat of their brow at concerts, i think we should just send people to listen to them. We might need to expand the repertoire, though. Seriously, this will to some extent be addressed by the community solution.

Psychological stability: when things go wrong, people need to complain somehow: it relieves tension in the brain and allows you to then go on acting normal again. Who you complain to, or how you complain isn’t that important: you can complain to your other self, to the universe, to your deceased grandmother, to your best friend, or to god. You can also learn to meditate.

Metaphysical closure: this one requires more of a ‘getting rid of’ than it does alternatives. And this is where dawkinsian rhetoric (carefully shorn of its contempt) might actually be useful. We need to convince people, probably through our good example, that you really don’t need to know when the world started or how it is going to end. Death is more of a problem. Here the only real solution is to reason with people from within their religious traditions, showing them (over and over again) that their core beliefs necessarily imply universal salvation, which in turn implies no worries. Universalism is but a stepping stone that almost necessarily leads to abandoning all positive belief in an afterlife because that belief becomes clearly superfluous.

Identity: the simple solution is to replace identity with (either ‘high’ or ‘low’) culture. This is not without danger, but seems to be drastically less dangerous. Essentially, the goal is to divorce culture from religion so that people can stick to their inbuilt culture without feeling that they need to also keep their religion. Divide an conquer is here the mot d’ordre.

Ethics: replace with ethics.

And as how to deal with the forces the uphold religion, i propose the following:

Tradition: here the good old enlightenment strategy of preaching ‘reason alone’ will not do anymore because it has become clear that tradition is not all bad. However, if a frontal assault on tradition is out of the question, attacking from the side might still work: instead of trying to replace tradition with reason, we can try to use reason to improve tradition. This will have the effect of weakening the overwhelming presence of tradition without leaving an historical hole in people’s lives.

Authority: authority can be combated with better authorities. Smart and sensitive people must demonstrate both how traditional authorities are often wrong and why these smart people are more right. Children learn to trust their maths professor over their parents (in things mathematical); likewise people can learn if you show them why their pastor is wrong and the scientist is right.

Vested interests: get the priests to do other things (like save the planet).

Habit: there is, in this case, no other solution than to make fun of people for being lazy (it works on me).

Do note that all these solutions must be attempted together as no single one will ever work on its own; each individual aspect of religion is protected from assault by the cohesiveness of all the other aspects. We must take religion apart, keeping the good pieces, and either replacing the bad ones or simply throwing them out. Then we’ll set about building something new and better. That’s what humans do.

April 19, 2007

meta ethics

Alex Byrne at the Boston Review has a quick overview of the last 100 years of meta ethics, mostly asking if we can boil babies for fun and mostly giving a negative answer.

April 18, 2007

talking to the dead and god

so Asad Raza at ThreeQuarksDaily is

an atheist, though one who regularly speaks to people I knew who are now dead.

Does that mean that i’m allowed to be “an atheist, though one who sometimes speaks to god”?

April 16, 2007

the meaning of life and the god of the gaps

Here are two interrelated ideas. Let us see if i can weave them together without tying myself up in mystical knots.

There is a `god of the gaps’ problem; actually there are two, one of them usually getting unfairly overlooked: (a) As science progresses, all of those nice little godly explanations for why things just work must fall by the wayside because science has, frankly, always the better and more useful explanation. God must decrease so that science might increase. However, and all of that very true “my science will beat the crap out of your god any day” stuff notwithstanding, we tend to overlook the fact that (b) there always will be gaps; they will never completely disappear because science will never have enough time to explain everything, even if it could (this does not mean that `god’ will remain the best extra-scientific explanation for those gaps, though).

This leads (more or less directly) to the idea that the question of “The Meaning of Life” will thus always remain open and relevant, because it is, in some sense, the quintessence of all of those eternally shrinking gaps.

Moving on from scientists to atheists, i wish to note that the latter’s usual rejoinder to the admittedly mystical sounding Big Question of the above paragraph is a bad answer. What do they usually answer? That there is no meaning to life – except what you give it yourself. This is a bad answer for one good reason: it is an answer that is pretending not to be one.

In effect, the atheist is answering not that there is no meaning to life, but that there is only a rather negative one, a rather flimsy and unfounded one – your own. This is actually an answer and it is a very specific and meaningful one, albeit a tad underwhelming. And it is just as unfounded as any other grandiose and pompous religious answer. Moreover, the pretension to offer a final, negative answer to the Question Above All Questions encourages people to give up looking for a good answer, or, at best, to begin searching their godless navels for a few meaningful crumbs.

As long as those unrelenting gaps continue to haunt us no one should venture a final answer to the Meaning of Life – but no one should stop searching either.

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April 16, 2007

taking care of the gods

Don’t tell my parents, but the maid from upstairs dropped by the downstairs office with a little plastic bag containing a garland and two cookies for Ganesh (our corporate deity). Since my friend and big boss, being the boss, was not planing on coming down to work today, he asked me to take care of the god. This involves kindly placing the orange, white and yellow garland around the god’s effigy, lighting incense and twirling it in front of his face a few times, and finally offering the couple of egg-less, no-bake cookies to him (from Tewari Confectioners); this i dutifully carried out.

The fact that a (post) christian who spends his time deriding the gods can be conferred this religious task, obviously calls for a number of important observations. I shall make a few unimportant ones.

  1. Obviously, i am now irreparably damned to burn in the everlasting fires of hell (probably being fed nothing but “egg-less, no-bake cookies” for all of eternity). But i already knew that.
  2. There was no mystery or ‘specialness’ about the ceremony that required a bona-fide, believing hindu. It just needed to be done, and anyone would do.
  3. This is the very antithesis of christianity: it is religion stripped down to its barest practical and material features. No faith, only deeds.

If anyone happens upon some of the ‘important’ observations that should be made, i’d be most appreciative.