Religion and “Consciousness” Apathy

Abstraction SpectrumAbstract words help us talk quickly and simply — well, unless we disagree on their meaning. At times like that, we can see that the abstract words are contrived. “Consciousness” is just such a contrived word — especially if we take a stance like this: “Well, it is a word, so it must exist. So now we just have to discover what it is.”

Ned Block (b. 1942), a philosophy of mind professor once at MIT and now at NYU is interviewed in this 5/18/2015 post at Scientia Salon.

Block calls “consciousness” a “mongrel concept” because of its many different, easily conflated meanings and thus requiring careful distinctions between these meanings to make any conceptual advances.

I have said the same about other highly abstract words including “faith” and “religion”. In my post on “The Myth of Definitions” I suggested that the first step to making cognitive progress on disagreed abstractions is to agree on the various meanings, and then to add an adjective to the abstract word to distinguish these meanings.

Using adjectives, Block wants to introduce three fundamentally different sense of consciousness:

(1) Phenomenal Consciousness: the internal experience of a sensation — obviously shared with other animals. Requiring no language.

(2) Monitoring Consciousness: Awareness of self and our own thoughts and pains and perceptions.

(3) Access Consciousness: When our cognitive systems reflect upon phenomenal consciousness. Other animals can do this too.

OK, I did not enjoy the article, because I don’t really enjoy the topic. It is too hard for me. And I can’t see why I should care about it.  Perhaps my meditative experiences are what occasionally draw me back to such articles — a desire to think about the complexity of mind.  But inevitably, on reading them, I quickly return to my state of apathy for the philosophy of consciousness.

Sure, I have a few opinions about consciousness: I am certain that we hugely exaggerate how conscious we think we are — we exaggerate our Access Consciousness (using Block’s term). But that one supplement to the normal view of consciousness is about all I feel I need for now– unless someone can show me how the other concepts should matter to me.

So why do this post?  Well, I think many people treat religion and certainly religious words the same way I treat consciousness:

I have friends who believe in “God” but don’t care about the details because the idea of life after death or a need to be good is enough for them. Likewise, I know religion-free folks who don’t care about the Bible or the Qur’an arguments, because it is so obviously clear to them that there is no loving, controlling, miracle working super spirit. So they don’t care to get into all the other abstractions and minutia.

Question to readers: Do you see why I have written about consciousness here?  Do you care?



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Poetry: Michael Lauchlan

lauchlan__michaelDetroit Pheasant by Michael Lauchlan

From a window, the boss calls to us
where we load his truck with bricks.
“Turn around fellas-look.”
A pheasant wades through the brown grass
across the street, vanishing
and emerging from the tangle.
A shed leans near a phone pole.
Bumpers glint from the weeds.
Blocks from the old foundation
angle through the earth.
The pheasant paces his courtyard.

We have killed the city which lived here.
The hieroglyph of its streets and rails
has joined the ancient lost tongues.
Buds unfold on a dwarf maple.
A rooster hollers.


My Impression:  Earthy and philosophical, all with loose images.

More Links on Michael Lauchlan:

See more excellent poems in Sabio’s Poetry Anthology

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Language vs. Dialect

LanguageLanguage, like “religion” or “poetry” and many other such abstract words, has fuzzy borders revealing its construed nature. In the above diagram I illustrated the components of language. Toying with any of these components makes one person’s language different from the next. But as for how we should classify these resulting different languages is complicated. In the diagram below, I put the above components in the right column, then I put terms used to describe different language variants in the left column.

Language Variants

Changes in vocabulary can be a form of “slang” (an alternative word) or “jargon” (a technical term). Change prosody in a language and you get an “accent”. These sub-classifications are easy to understand. But get enough difference in vocabulary and accent and you’ll get another dialect or language.  Change grammar and almost inevitably you get another language. But the definition border is fuzzy — see this wiki article on “dialect continuum“.

“Mutual Intelligiblity” is a major decision in classifying languages: when two speakers can not understand each other, they are said to speak different languages. But this is not a clear line. It is unclear exactly how much of the other language should be unintelligible before it counts as a different language and not a dialect. And further, we have the problem that sometimes person A can understand person B’s language but not visa versa.

Heck, some call their languages different from their neighbors simply due to national identity or ethnicity, even though they are essentially the same. Examples: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian (all of the Shtokavian dialect).

Similarly, though essentially mutually understandable, the difference of scripts will be enough for speakers to insist that they have different languages and not different dialects. Examples: Hindi (Devanagari script) vs. Urdu (Arabic script)


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under_thumb“Prescriptivism” is a linguistic term describing a fixed, snooty, conservative view toward language. It is an unnoticed attitude that often tries to trick us.

Perhaps the prescriptivist’s attitude is due to their wrong-view of language, or perhaps it is due to their snooty personality: the prescriptivist simply has a personality type that chooses prescriptivism to support their controlling habits. After all, our philosophical, theological and political positions are often formed to comfort our temperaments and preferences. We tell ourselves that we have thought through our positions, but often our positions are merely created for us by our minds. Then, our minds trick up, to think we intentionally chose those positions.

I see two types of language prescriptivists:

1. Enforcing prescriptivists: who tell us how we should talk or write — deriding any break in what they feel should be rules. They want to enforce their rules in language.

2. Definitions prescriptivists: who tell use exactly what a word means and decry any emerging uses.

But “prescriptivism” displays itself in many realms and not just linguistics — and in similar forms:

Religion Prescriptivists:

1. Those who tell us what is the right religion or the right theology — what religion we should believe.

2. Those who tell us exactly what “Christian/Buddhist/Atheist/Jew/Hindu means.

Political Prescriptivists:

1. Those who tell us what political positions are the only intelligent, compassionate, moral or rational — what political position we must follow.

2. Those who tell us exactly what political terms must mean.

Moral Prescriptivists

1. Those who want to legislate their personal moral preferences.

2. Those who want to tell us how moral terms must be used and defined.

Of course a wishy-washy indecisive world would have a whole set of its own undesirable traits. So prescriptions are often helpful — sometimes we need to persuade others or be persuaded.  Heck, society is a complex compromise of persuasion games. But it is useful to know when we are prescribing or being prescribed to. We need to be aware that behind rhetoric is temperaments and desires — and then choose if we agree, but not be tricked by the rhetoric.


See my other posts of Prescriptivism and Prescriptivists:

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Illusions of Stability: Dictionaries & Printing Presses

Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1450, and then William Caxton introduced it to England in 1476. Five major dialects of English existed at that time and as early as the 1430s the Chancery of Westminster had made efforts to standardize spellings for written documents of English. With the printing press the standardization success blossomed. Choices of publishers quickly influenced the evolution of English.

About a century later, the first English dictionary was written: “A Table Alphabeticall” by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The Italians had theirs 8 years earlier and the French 35 years earlier. While the Arabs had theirs 800 years earlier and the Indians had their first Sanskrit dictionary 1,000 years earlier. Mass distributed dictionaries were published over the next 150 years and the standardization of English progressed hugely.

I think it is because with our long history of fairly standardized English, the average person today is often blind to the real nature of language. They think that words have real definitions, real meanings. But with only a little study, it is clear that language, by nature, is constantly changing. Running into such illusions I stability I constantly challenge language prescriptionists by saying:

“Language is a temporary cooperative contract between people.”

Source & Inspiration: The History of English — an excellent website


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Sunshowers: Foxes or Witches?


When rain falls from a blue sky
in the hour of the horse
the great fox king takes his bride.

Today, as I drove to work, the sun was shining and yet it began to pour rain. Huge gusts of wind buffeted my car, dry leaves blew across the street and suddenly the rain turned into hail. It was mysterious weather. Weather which caused my Japanese mind to immediately recall the expression “Kitsune no Yomeiri” — A Fox’s Wedding.

fox-wedding-2Above is a translation of a 19th century Japanese haiku master, Masaoka Shiki. But what is a fox king? Recently, the popular TV anime, Naruto, has a hero who is possessed by a nine-tailed fox. Foxes play a large role in Japanese culture: a mischievous, magical, clever and bewitching creature. Rain during the sunshine is part of the Japanese fox’s story.

Rain during sunshine, being unusual, is given special names in many languages and countries. In English we boringly calls this phenomena “sunshowers” and even then, most people don’t know this phrase. With a little reading, in this wiki article I found three big patterns for naming sunshowers in other countries:

Animal Weddings:

  • Bear: Bulgaria
  • Donkeys: Greece
  • Donkey and Monkey: Sudan
  • Foxes: Japan, Bangladesh
  • Jackals: Pakistan
  • Wolf & Jackal: Afrikaans, Morocco
  • Wolves: Algeria, France

Animal Births:

  • Deer: El Salvador
  • Hyena: Eritrea
  • Lioness: Tanzania

the_devil_beats_his_wifeDevils, Zombies & Witches:

  • Southern USA & Hungary: some call it “the devil is beating his wife” (the rain being her tears).
  • Catalonia, Spain: the witches are brushing their hair
  • Croatia: Gypsies are getting married
  • Puerto Rico: A witch is getting married
  • Haiti: Zombie is beating his wife for salty food

Well, I enjoyed exploring all this today, so I thought I’d share it here. Click here to read a good article on the Japanese tradition.



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Japanese Poetry Timeline


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