Tag Archives: Philosophy of religion

The Upside Down Religious World

Today I tried to read a fascinating article by Max Tegmark (MIT physicist) called “The Mathematical Universe (HT: Shane).  Below I reproduced one of Tegmark’s diagrams of how “theories can be crudely organized into a family tree where each might, at least in principle, be derived from more fundamental ones above it.”  T.O.E. (by the way) stands for “Theory of Everything”.

Tegmark’s sketch made me think of “religion” where the flow is the opposite direction.  I quickly threw together the diagram below to illustrate the comparison that came to mind for me.  In the religious mind, the basic units of our reality are our real experiences, and then humans create layers above it to support their world.  The religious person’s world is not derived from the top down, though they would strongly disagree.

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“Mind-cure” — William James

I just finished listening to a superb 43 minute BBC panel discussion on William James’ book, “The Variety of Religious Experience” — which is said to have been the only philosophical book on the shelf of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Below are a few points made in their conversation which illustrate why I have always been so drawn to James — but the odd thing is, I have read very little by him but more about him.  This lecture motivated me to keep reading the man himself.

Mind Cure

I have started a post series on “How to Cure Christians” and after listening to this discussion, it seems my direction is very similar to William James’.  Indeed I was surprised to hear that James uses the same medical terminology as I do.  James saw two type of religious people:  (1) The Healthy Minded:  spiritual optimists, where he gives an example of Walt Whitman.  (2) “The Sick Souls” or the “Divided Selves”, those who wrestle with themselves and are overwhelmed by their sense of sin.  They feel existential angst and the futility of life.  And for these people, the mind-cure is when they become “twice-born” and learn to be happy by triumphing over the terrible.  Here he mentions Tolstoy, Bunyan and himself.

James claims these cures can be natural and alludes that it does not need to be a god that is involved.  But James sees people’s religious experiences as a genuine struggle and for him it is a struggle against the divided self.

The Sub-Conscious as God

James felt that the Sub-Conscious (SC) was psychology’s greatest single discovery.  To James, “God” is the acknowledging of the unimportance of self — his was a negative theology.  James’ father was influence by Swedenborg who felt that the core of the Christian message is Love and Self-Annihilation.  James saw the coming to peace and union with the SC as a transcendence of self.  The SC is huge compared to what we, moment-by-moment, are deluded into thinking is our real self and is thus naturally perceived as “Other” and very large.  It doesn’t feel like “you”.  To James, the SC is where mystical experiences arise — it is that which ferments inside and with which we are not familiar.  These experiences, for James, often led to “awe”.

Pragmatism

James spoke against scientism.  Though he was a strong evolutionist, he argued for a pragmatism which entailed being open-minded.  He wanted ideas primarily judged by their fruits and then for the scientific mind to explore that which bears good fruit with a willingness to be surprised.  He resisted the philosophical position as seeing religion as merely a passing phase in evolution.  James wanted us to take our hearts, values and experiences seriously.

It was a very good discussion panel.  I hope this stirs a few into listening to it.

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Christian: share thyself !

There are many different kind of Christians. So as to make dialogue easier, please consider sharing your present beliefs.  See the section in my Religious Dialogue Tools for an explanation for how to use this table as a means of sharing your Christian theology.  Note, no one is expected to know all these various categories or positions.

Christian Theology

Present Denomination:
Short religious history:
God’s Nature:
Majority View (  Personal,  Intervening, All-knowing / All-powerful / Omni-present / All-Loving / Perfect / Eternal / Perfectly Just / Perfectly Merciful )
Non-Majority View ( Impersonal / Non-intervening …)
Christology:
High / Low
Bibliology: Inerrant / Errant
Infallible / Fallible
Inspired / Inspiring
Unified Theology / Multiple Theologies
Harmartiology: (coming – your view of “sin”)
Favored Hermeneutics: (coming)
Favored
Apologetics:
Evidential / Propostional
Cosmology: Young Earth Creationist / Gap Creationist / Old Earth Creationist / Evolutionist
Goyology:
Socialize with Unbelievers (rare, occasional, often) ;
Deep friendship with Unbelievers (never, yes);
Discourage marriage with unbeliever (always, sometimes, never)
Soteriological
Goyology
Exclusivist/  Inclusivist/ Pluralist/ Universalist
Soteriological
Determinism
Calvinism / Arminianism / Moninism
Atonement
Theology:
Moral Influence Theory / Recapitulation Theory / Ransom Theory / Satisfaction Theory / Penal Substitutionary Theory / Governmental Theory / Participatory Theory / Mystical Theory
Literal Bodily Resurrection: No / Yes
Type of Christian Ethics
Divine Command / Virtue Ethics / Utilitarianism / Deontological
Missionology:
Salvation First / Service First
Eschatology:
Premillenialist / Postmillenialist / Amillenialist / Preterist / No Millenialist
View of Hell:
Traditionalist / Annihilationist / Universalist
View on
State of Israel:
Christian Zionist / Pro-Israel / Israel-Neutral
View on Science:
Science leery / Science friendly
Women-Men Relationships Chauvanism / Complimentarianism / Egalitarianism
Women can be priest or minister: No / Yes
Homosexuality can be valid life style:
No / Yes
Abortion
Legality:
Should be: Illegal / Legal
 Personal Teleology: life without Jesus is essentially meaningless / every persons life can have rich, deep meaning — with or without being a Christian

I list some of the above categories below in order to add brief definitions and/or links to help understand each category.  I will be working on this list slowly.  Suggestions welcome !

Christian Theology Categories

  • Bibliology :     Unified Theology/ Multiple Theologies, Infallible / Fallible
  • Favored Hermeneutic Tools: coming
  • Cosmology :    Young Earth Creationist / Gap Creationist / Old Earth Creationist / Evolutionist
  • GoyologySee the post where I coined this theological term to mean: how a believer treats or thinks about non-believers.
  • Soteriological Goyology :     See my post on these positions:  Exclusivist,  Inclusivist, Pluralist, Universalist
  • Soteriological Determinism :    Calvinism / Arminianism / Moninism
  • Atonement TheologySee my post
  • Literal Bodily Resurrection :    No / Yes
  • View on State of Israel :   Christian Zionist / Pro-Israel / Israel-Neutral
  • Type of Christian Ethics: Divine Command / Virtue Ethics / Utilitarianism / Deontological  (variety of Christian Ethics)
  • Missionology : Salvation First / Service First
  • EschatologySee my post
  • View of Hell:  I will expand this, but see this now.
  • View of Science:
  • View of Women:
  • Women-Men Relationships: See wiki on Complimentarianism
  • View of Homosexuals:

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Visualizin’ Philosophizin’

Philosophical Blogging

Many of us bloggers philosophize.  Some of us are outright professional philosophers, some of us sloppily slip out philosophical claims in the midst of our dairy-like posts, and then there is everything in between.  Recently I envisioned a way to simply illustrate two important aspects of philosophical thinking — systematization and knowledge.  I have quickly crafted this taxonomy of  Philosopher Types which categorizes according to both degrees of systematization and depth of knowledge.

This visual taxonomy goes with the caveat that none of us is just one type of philosopher.  We all have different philosophers living in us depending on the time of day, our company and the subject matter.  On a good day, I like to think of myself as a solid casual philosopher.  However, when I read the smart guys, it makes me feel like that is a bit of an arrogant over-estimation ! 🙂

Questions for readers

  • Would you add or correct any categories?
  • What axises would you like to see on a philosopher taxonomy chart?
  • How do you see yourself when it comes to your blogging philosophy or theology?

Chart Wars

Finally, below is a fun video I saw on “Graph Wars” which illustrates the importance of visual thinking — both deceptive and productive uses.  It also secretly evangelizes the great Flying Spaghetti Monster (pbuh) and speaks of the infamous pirates.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
HT: Experimental Theology

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Promiscuous Teleology

My Typical Superstitious Morning

I laugh at my mind constantly.  She (my mind) is so silly, so primitive, so deluded, so stubborn, so dull.  I mean, how many times have I told her something is not true or not so and yet she keeps coming back with the same perceptions and conclusions.  She is totally unruly.  Yet, I can not live without her.  She is also the source of all the great joys in my life.  Alas!

This above story happened earlier this week and is just one of thousands of examples of how unruly my mind can be.  You see, the bulb simply burns out and I look for someone to blame.  This story reveals how my mind is obsessed with “agency”.  She assumes somebody is behind everything !  This phenomena explains much of religious thinking.  And don’t think that if you are an atheist your mind is free of religious thinking.  It ain’t that simple.

A huge delusion that feeds religious thinking is to see “peopleness” were it doesn’t belong.  Atheists should not be deluded in thinking that just because they have declared themselves free of the gods and no longer deluded by such abstractions, that they are somehow magically free from the curse of peopleness.  OK, I will stop inventing terms.  Bruce Hood, in his book “Supersense: Why we believe the unbelievable” tells us the proper academic phrase for “the curse of peopleness” — “promiscuous teleology“.  “Teleology” is the explanation of phenomena in terms of goals or purposes, as if an agent (a person) is behind an event.  And you’ve got to love the nuances of the adjective, “promiscuous”!  For indeed, the mind goes overboard looking for someone to be responsible for all actions — even if the action is simply a light bulb naturally burning out.  Hood points us to  research that shows that children from a very young age see the inanimate world as alive and relating to them.  Piaget called this “egocentrism” to reflect this self-obsessed perspective.  Children are also prone to “anthropomorphism”, which means that they think about nonhuman things as if they were human.  Adults do the same.  Have you ever lost your temper at a chair that is in your way?  This illustrates how the mind-modules, which are used by religious thinking, are present from a young age and don’t disappear just because someone declares themselves free of the gods.  Two other fantastic books which illustrate anthropomorphism in our religious minds are:

I think what happened in this light bulb story is a variant of that notion of promiscuous teleology which itself is a child of anthropomorphism — two persistent superstitious modules in all of our heads.   Being cognition modules, they must have had or still have some adaptive advantage to exist.  I won’t explore that in this post, but I did touch on the selective advantages of superstitions in my post on “The Benefits of Pareidolia “.

Here, a bulb blows out — but who did it?  No one, of course.  It just finally wore out.  Such is the nature of bulbs.  And when these sort of bulbs die [note the anthropomorphizing language — see how pervasive the thinking is], they go out with a bang.  But now the mistake jumps in:  When the bulb blows, my mind tells me somebody caused it to happen, a person did it.  My mind searches for someone to blame.  It reaches to the most convenient and closest actor — my wife.  She did it!  She probably screwed it in loose or bought cheap bulbs.  Or maybe the darn kids did it by continually bumping the lamp when playing.

“Stop it !  Come on! ” I tell my mind, “I love my wife and kids, why are you attacking them?”  But my mind often has no mercy.  In her delusions, my mind just throws stuff together and tempts me to buy into her story – at least emotionally so.  She does not expect me to analyze what she offers me, she just want me to nod, agree and reflexively move on.

A Buddhist perspective

Buddhism’s primary practice is the honest observation of the mind.  It trains the practitioner to bravely observe one’s true nature — how one’s mind works.  “Bravely”, because what we see is not always pretty or noble.  Buddhism teaches respect for the mind but also offers ways to discipline the mind.  It lets us realize that the mind, while serving us constantly, also generates all sorts of delusions which cause many problems in life.  Observation is the first step in the Buddhist practice.  This task is difficult and is aided by other methods which help weaken the delusions.

Buddhism offers many approaches to cure our undesirable reflexes that lead to our unsatisfactory experience of life.  One, is to observe the illusion but not to feed it.  The practitioner strengthens her mind to resist following a particular unhealthy thought.  For instance, I see my mind accuse my wife and children of causing the bulb to go out and I chuckle at my mind, pat her on the back, maybe even give her a hug and move back into a more restful mind.  Another method is to spend time contemplating positive emotions and positive beliefs so that when negative emotions bubble up (like anger toward others), I readily have positive modules fired up ready to take over if I deem the anger irrational or unproductive.

OK, I had no real intent to go into Buddhist solutions in this post, but I realized how central it was to how I viewed the above situation.  Don’t get me wrong, certainly there is no reason that a purely secular way of dealing with these insights could not be equally as productive.  But I do feel that working with the unhealthy aspects of our minds is best done intentionally.  And it is this intentional inner life that people often refer to as their “spirituality” or their “religion” or their “faith”.  I think this is one of the possible positive potentials of religions.

Sorry, this was a long-winded post, but if you made it this far, I have a few questions:  How do other religious practitioners reading this post work with such mundane emotions in their lives?  How do you pure secularists nurture your mental/moral culture?

Summary:

  • Superstitious modules in the brain are present from a young age
  • “Promiscuous Teleology” and “Anthropomorphism” are just two examples of Superstitious Brain Modules.
  • Superstitious modules serve a function to the brain, but like all modules, they often are also misused to our detriment.
  • All religions capitalize on the Superstitious Brain Modules, but many of them also offer us methods to deal with their downsides.
  • Superstitious modules keeping working even in Atheists.  I am curious how we acknowledge them and use them.

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Meta-Thought

I was teaching a friend the amazing game of “Go” (“WeiQi” in Chinese). In the game, the principle of “life and death” is crucial, and my friend was having trouble seeing if his group of stones had the potential to live through a battle. I pointed out to him, that, in this game, a player must learn to look at the empty spaces and not just look the stones themselves.  Seeing-the-empty-spaces is a skill required to progress in WeiQi.  Below I give an example.

Here is an example puzzle:
White is to kill Black’s stones.
The untrained eye will only focus on
the Black & White stones
But the simplicity of the problem
is revealed when,  White looks at
Black’s empty spaces (red)
and ignores Black’s stones.

Being an accomplished trumpet player, my friend immediately understood and related this WeiQi principal to what he had learned about Jazz.  To illustrate, he told me a Jazz story — he carefully warned me that it may be apocryphal – but it makes the point.

Apparently, as a young hot shot, Wynton Marsalis was already technically an unsurpassed trumpet player who could play crazy runs and riffs. But one of his mentors, Stanly Crouch, told Marsalis that his Jazz was soulless. Crouch quoted Miles Davis saying, “Jazz is the notes you don’t play“.  Marsalis took his mentor’s teaching to heart and became one of the world’s most accomplished trumpet players.

This parallel between the Jazz principle of silence (notes-unplayed) and the WeiQi principle of seeing-the-empty-space was crystal clear to my friend.  I feel that a Meta-Thought informed both principles in my friend’s mind.  This seeing-the-empty-space idea is can be further illustrated as an element in the Japanese aesthetic principle of Wabi-Sabi.  My point is that seeing/hearing/feeling the empty space is a deep principle that informs diverse areas.  I call that deep principle “Meta-Thought”.

Another example of Meta-Thought happens in language.  I often, when speaking in English, I have ideas that pop into my head that first find expression in Japanese rather than English even though I am also speaking to an English speaker. I then have to struggle to get the idea out of Japanese and into English (which can look awkward 🙂  ).  Similarly, sometimes while thinking about a philosophical idea, a WeiQi pattern floats into my head to express the thought before I can put it into philosophical terms.  I remember when this first happened because I thought I was just daydreaming about WeiQi until I realized that my mind was floundering to express a Meta-Thought using WeiQi patterns.

In my vocabulary, “Meta-Thought” is what lies behind thought.  Meta-Thought  gives birth to expression.  Meta-Thought grabs vehicles to express itself while it is forming. Thus, the same Meta-Thought could be expressed in music, in WeiQi, in a computer program, in a sculpture, in a mathematical express or in a dance. People fluent in two or more creative expression styles often have that amazing experience of feeling the simultaneous expressions from a common Meta-Thought.  I think that the epiphany of Meta-Thought is captured in part of what E.O.Wilson’s wrote in his book, “Conscilience“.

To me, Meta-Thought is the complex relationships of impressions and feelings that create our thoughts — it is the EN of thought.

Why write about this? I think Meta-Thoughts also inform our theologies and philosophies.  Thus, though two people may have different theologies or philosophies, with careful observations we can sometimes reveal similar Meta-Thought informing both of these apparently diverse expressions. For me, the principal of Meta-Thought is key to fruitful religious dialogue.  Even in the extreme,  I feel that an Atheist and a Theist could each have very similar Meta-Thoughts informing large swatches of their apparently contradictory worldviews.

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Note:  I am sure others have said something like this before me and so I have probably made up a term when I don’t need to.  So if the reader knows of these, please let me know.  In linguistics, perhaps my “Meta-Thought” is similar to the concept of Mentalese and in Philosophy of Mind, perhaps it is similar to the Language of Thought Hypothesis.  I am, however, not at all familiar with all  subtle analytic pros and cons of these positions.  My Meta-Thought metaphor is simple but it has served as a good model for me to understand my mind.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I saw an Angel

My children and I went ice skating last night.  Skating is a brand new thing for all of us.  My son was able to skate by himself with only two or three falls per lap.  My daughter, however, clung to me with rubbery legs flailing while I swayed like a thin tree supporting a swing blowing in the wind.  But all of us were nothing but smiles as we skated to lovely Christmas music.

The skating party was thrown by my kids’ dentist who rents out the huge rink every Christmas for his clients and their families.  So there were tons of kids of all ages and temperaments.  There were roughnecks speed-skaters, zipping between us beginners, there were teenagers who were chatting instead of skating, there were Dads trying to impress, well, who knows who, and there were tiny kids with Moms patiently pushing them around.  It was a carnival.

My daughter and I were just trying to avoid bruises — too slow to feel like we were really skating and too fast for our own good.  At one point my daughter was having particular trouble staying up.  She was slipping, left go of my hand and grabbed my arm and jacket, throwing us both off-balance.  Then quietly and almost effortlessly, a red-headed girl skater came up right next to my daughter.  And as she passed us, with the deftness of a Kung Fu master, she lightly lifted my daughter’s arm to perfectly re-establish her balance without my daughter really realizing she’d been helped.

The angelic visitor turned and smiled softly at us as she continued around the rink as if to gently say, “It was nothing.  Have a good evening.”

The stranger’s kindness which expected no gratitude made her appear to be an angel.  It was rather surreal, actually.  I watched her as she skated away, disappearing into the crowd.  She had the grace of an angel, leaving no trace of herself.

Using religious symbols in non-religious ways is one way to weaken their doctrinaire and superstitious use.  The symbol can then lose its dogma and regains its original rich, mythical beauty.   Some may think we should shun all things religious, but a world without myths and symbols is dry.  Instead, we should be as creative as our ancestors and embrace symbols to make them our own.

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