Archive for November, 2007

November 30, 2007

why oh why can’t we have better religions?!

 There is obviously something much more powerful than just “belief” going on here. In a sense we are experiencing a return of the wars of religion, except that this time they are often (more or less) cold and that its a free-for-all, each religion for itself … against everyone else. I think this is what we usually call panic: blind fighting in all directions without a specific goal in mind. None of the religions feels safe anymore and they’re scared.In Texas the government can fire you for “creating the appearance of bias against creationism”! from crooks and liars:

The state’s director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.Comer was put on 30 days paid administrative leave shortly after she forwarded an e-mail in late October announcing a presentation being given by Barbara Forrest, author of “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse,” a book that says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Forrest was also a key witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case concerning the introduction of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, “FYI.” 

 And in Sudan, of course, you get 15 days of prison for naming teddy bears Mohamed. 

November 29, 2007

christmas evils

from Brands of Faith:

In traveling the last couple of weeks, I missed the opening of What Would Jesus Buy in New York City so I’m doing a little catch up here.

As the website explains:
What Would Jesus Buy? follows Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they go on a cross-country mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse: the end of mankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt!

Reverend Billy, his choir and his congregation are very much for real. And, come on, you’ve got to love a guy who does exoricisms at Wal-Mart!!!

The reverend is based in New York and he travels the country preaching about the ills of consumerism. (It is more interesting to spend some time on his website than the movie site if you want to see what he’s all about.) He espouses many of the same ideas that I present in Brands of Faith. Consumerism is encroaching on our lives, that experiences with consumer products have replaced experiences with the divine, and so on.

November 27, 2007

some Charles Taylor links

Video of Charles Taylor and Pierre Manent discussing (in french) religion.Blog of a number of philosophers (including C.T. and Robert Bellah) discussing, among other things, Taylor’s new book A Secular Age.Taylor’s latest newspaper column.Taylor’s essay on overcoming epistemology

November 27, 2007

an atheist eschatology

The end of the world is near and we must prevent it.

November 26, 2007

the (little) faith of the scientists

from the Paul Davies at the NYT:

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that physics “got religion” but only that science can never explain everything and must always assume (on faith) somethings. I am not sure Davies here is using a very strong notion of faith. in end effect all he wants is for scientists to dig deeper within science. This is no existential faith (ie one that might change how you live) but only a scientific one (ie one that influences how you do science).

This objection does not then even reach the level of Kuhnian or other relativizing of scientific knowledge.

I don’t think that the concept of faith has any productive role to play in the field of natural sciences. If anything, faith should be sought in the practical realm (politics, economics) where it might actually play a significant role in upholding our societies (we need to have faith in democracy and in the Euro for them to work – gravity does quite well with or without our faithing it, thank you very much).

thanks ed.

November 21, 2007

ecology and the closing of the political-ethical divide

(this post is in honor of the newly released U.N. report on global warming)

Ecology structurally resembles old-time religions. Specifically, it in some sense goes further than any religion has up until now:

If in christianity you had to do/believe X in order to save your soul and could tell others about it, should you feel so inclined;

and if in Islam you had to do/believe X in order to save your soul and were supposed to force others to do likewise (but would still save your own soul should you not succeed in converting others);

with ecology you have to do X in order to save yourself (though you have no longer a soul) but you also have to convince/force everyone else to do the same if you are going to succeed in saving yourself! This is going further than any of the monotheisms ever went.

Of course: ecology’s “holy book” is a whole bunch of carefully verified scientific findings, whereas christianity and islam’s holy books are, well, revealed. But that doesn’t change the basic similarity in the structure of the “religions”, though it does make ecology much more believable.

This analysis implies one important thing:

(1) with ecology, the distinction between ethics and politics disappears. You can certainly be a good ecologist on your own, reducing, reusing and recycling in your own home and biking to work, but this will only avoid a disaster (i.e. the End of The World) if governments force everyone else to do likewise. This is what christian and islamic fundamentalists in the U.S. and Middle East are also trying to do.

Ecology has a view of well-being that is all-inclusive; it allows for no individualism as far as salvation is concerned (in this sense it is closer to the mono/heno-theism of judaism). Either we all make it, or none of us do. We therefore must force one another to be good. Ethics therefore trumps politics (as it should when we can all agree on the ethics). There can no longer be a separation between ecology and state, however much we might still want to separate churches from the latter.

Now i am not dissing ecology. As i stated above, it is by far the more believable of the options out there, and i do realize that it does not see itself as a religion (no new religion ever does). And i’m all for it, anyway. But nonetheless and my personal feelings notwithstanding, it looks awfully much like a religion, and a rather stringent one at that! And to top it off, we cannot either imagine it being wrong or come up with an alternative. Now does that not ever sound like good old-time, medieval religion (only its green now)!

November 20, 2007

‘ought talk’ vs. practices

eduardo asks about how i distinguish between ‘ought talk’ and practices. I will offer two answers:First, the purpose of ethics is to produce good things and actions. I do not see why, however, we need to abstract from what we do in order to produce a theory of what is good only then to turn around and try to apply that theory (which usually doesn’t work because the theory has removed itself from ‘the real world’). Why can we not use language to describe what we do, though not with the intention of producing a general/objective theory of what is good, but rather in order to suggest small, gradual and (relatively) uncontroversial improvements? Why can we not skip the abstract theory and remain all the while in the concrete?Second, Socrates suggested a long time ago that all we need is to know what is good in order for us to do it. Christianity notably took exception to this assumption. Contemporary ethics has, however, taken it back up. Ethicists are solely concerned with telling us what (they presume) is good, assuming we will immediately jump to the task of simply doing it. How wrong they are! First, we humans don’t tend to work that way. And second, the good and bad we do is to a great extent determined by the institutions that make up the societies within which we live. Burning fossil fuels and thereby releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere might well be a very bad thing, but we cannot simply stop driving and flying at the tip of a hat. We need to figure out how to stop doing it (and i dont mean how to construct a more fuel-efficient car – that is for the scientists to worry about – i mean how to talk to people in order to get them to buy the more efficient car or how to change our governments so that they will start encouraging people to do so.)Much more important than coming up with theories of what is good (which are either very controversial or dead obvious) is figuring out how to actually do what is good. That is where ethical language needs to be concerned with describing our specific practices and suggesting ways of improving them instead of coming up with general ‘ought’ statements.We certainly still need ethical language (and perhaps even ought statements), but refining this language should imply making it fit our world better, not making it ever more general, abstract and …. well, useless. 

November 20, 2007

buddhist experimental ethics

from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (p. 35):

Looking deeply requires courage. You can use a pencil and paper if you like. During sitting meditation, if you see clearly a symptom of your suffering, write it down. Then ask yourself, “What kinds of nutriments have I been ingesting that have fed and sustained this suffering?” When you begin to realize the kinds of nutriments you have been ingesting, you may cry. Use the energy of mindfulness all day long to be truly present, to embrace your suffering like a mother holding her baby. As long as mindfulness is there, you can stay with the difficulty. Practice does not mean using only your own mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. You also have to benefit from the mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom of friends on the path and your teacher. There are things that even a child can see but we ourselves cannot see because we are imprisoned by our notions. Bring what you have written to a friend and ask him or her for their observations and insights.

The text points to at least three things: (a) always trying to improve, (b) monitoring your progress, (c) communicating and getting help from others.

November 19, 2007

paying for your private pollution

i just purchased a plane ticket on and was surprised to find (below the rental car, train to the airport, insurance and other useless third-party offers) a section where they had calculated the cost of offsetting the CO2 you will be generating during your flight and offered to send the money to some CO2-sucking up project in Eritrea. At 2 EUR, i figured i could handle that and will feel much better over christmas now.

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November 19, 2007

experimental ethics (part 3 in a continuing series)

so i’ve been doing my little ‘experiment‘ with yoga for a week now (well, more or less…). And though i don’t have any yogic substance to contribute to the blogosphere* (yet?) i would nevertheless like to make a remark about the practice of experimental ethics itself:

Despite the fact that i might never come to any solid conclusions regarding my yoga practice, i nevertheless feel that there could be a great value to people discussing their moral/ethical/religious practices out in the open and with one another. By nature, ethics is normative and not descriptive so that we shouldn’t expect to hit upon any experimentally verifiable ‘laws’. Nor will we necessarily be able to formulate any new and interesting ‘ought’ ideas. However, we might well manage to help each other along a bit more quickly than were we only randomly hitting upon better ways on our own.

The ‘moral sciences’ might not be quite able to take over a full-fledged experimental apparatus from the harder, natural and social sciences, but they certainly should be able to adopt some version of the ‘scientific community’ – the one that discusses and discusses. And i do not think this is already happening:

True, philosophers and ethicists have academic communities and journals that enable them to discuss, but they are trying to come up with theories of what we ought to do, i.e. their output is not ‘good practices’ but ‘true sentences’. I am looking for the former. Moreover, with the advent of internet, scientific journals are a most outdated and inadequate form of communication, when we have blogs and social websites that are much, much quicker at disseminating and discussing information and ideas.

So all in all, even if i don’t come to any conclusions regarding my yoga practices, i hope that discussing them might encourage others to do likewise so that we might learn and improve together. Here’s to hoping!