Tag Archives: Philosophy

Tattoos & Real Meaning


I enjoy suturing, not only for the joy of practicing the skill (minor, though it may be), but also for the chance to talk to the patient. One of my recent patients, about 30 years-old, sported the above tattoo. And as I wrote here, since I am one of those people who does not hesitate to ask a stranger about their tattoos and I knew what his tattoo meant, I said to my patient, “So, you are into the I Ching, I see.”

“Huh”, he replied.

“Your tattoo!” I said, “Why do you have that tattoo?”

“Oh, that is from GI Joe.” he said as I tilted my head in puzzlement.

You see, I was not in the USA in the 1980s, so I missed both the GI Joe comics and the GI Joe TV shows and thus never saw the GI Joe Ninja warrior who had this tattoo as the mark of his Ninja clan.

To my patient, this tattoo meant power, stealth, bravery and more. To me, it was ChiChi, the 63rd hexagram of the I Ching; water over fire; “The superior man ponders danger and takes precautions against it.” It brought back memories of my acupuncture teacher in Japan, of learning the divination method in China and much more. (see this post)

Well, I will let you read on your own about the I Ching or Snake Eyes (the GI Joe guy), but the point of this post is to illustrate the obvious:  “meaning” changes and “real meaning” is fictional.


My patient was excited to learn about the ancient meaning of his tattoo, and I was excited to learn about his meaning — one apparently embraced by many young men who grew up on GI Joe.

Question to reader:  So, what do you think about the “real” meaning of something?



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Our Views on Talking Animals

panchatantra_how_the_jackal_ate_the_elephantEssayist Stassa Edwards, over at Aeon, gives us extensive examples of talking animals in literature and some of the history of our views of animals.

Stassa tells us of two competing views of animals. The first that animals offer us nothing because of their obvious inferiority to humans due to their lack of “logos”(Aristotle) or reason (Descarte). Yet she points to a contradiction to this philosophical position when she gives examples of people gruesomely executing animals who had killed humans, just as they would humans whose souls were bad, thus hinting at the a different intuition we have about animals.

This other view, typified by Montaigne, puts animals on the same plane as humans.  Here Stassa tells us :

In his Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576), Michel de Montaigne ascribed animals’ silence to man’s own wilful arrogance. The French essayist argued that animals could speak, that they were in possession of rich consciousness, but that man wouldn’t condescend to listen.

While Descartes view permeates a large part of culture — especially the sciences, the virtuous view tends to permeate literature where talking animals have long been used to instruct humanity in lofty morals — yet some not all animal stories are lofty.

Religious_Texts_PanchThe ancient Hindu text, the Panchatantra (conspicuously missing in Sassha’s essay), gives moral guidance to budding princes through the tales of talking animals. Machiavelli would agree that princes need guidance, and like his work, the Panchatantra stories tell opportunistic wisdom mixed with apparently compassionate wisdom. Maybe it was more palatable to let the animals speak this soul-less wisdom? Perhaps this is why the Panchatantra was preserved in the sacred category of Indian literature, to balance out the dry unobtainable wisdom of the lofty Upanishads.

triangle_end_tinyPertinent Links:


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Packaging Buddhism

Buddhism-SuperstitiousAround the world, Buddhism-on-the-ground is vastly composed of superstitions, rituals and customs aimed at improving fortune for this life – especially for the “believer” themself and for their loved ones or their clan. Only a very tiny of Buddhists in this world meditate.

Robert Wright begins his first lecture in his free Buddhismm course telling us that he is focusing on a very narrow part of Buddhism — not only is he only interested in rational, non-superstitious, meditative Buddhism, but also he only wants to explore those aspects that are testable. He defines the Buddhism he wants to explore.  This is an important step toward clarity — I wish more did this.  But we must realize, this is not a Buddhism that most Buddhist believers would recognize.

Like Buddhism, “Religion” must be defined to have a meaningful conversation about it.  Wright does this to — he likes Williams James’ definition of religion:

“a belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
— William James

Remember, this is just one of many definitions of religion– and like all definers, Wright has a purpose for choosing this one. Wright wants a Naturalistic Buddhism (non-superstititious) that sees “the truth about the structure of reality” and thus allows us to “align ourselves to Moral Truth”.

“Structure of Reality” & “Moral Truth” are two ambitious goals for Wright. And I feel they are mistaken. Will some types of meditation benefit some people. Sure, but how much? And are the benefits hyped with idealism that have drawbacks? I suspect so.


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Free Buddhism Course: Robert Wright

robert_wrightRobert Wright is the famous author of the following booksThe Moral Animal (1994), Nonzero (2001) and The Evolution of God (2009). I’ve read all these books and been affected by his thoughts whether by agreeing, changing my mind or disagreeing. Wright always offers us good stuff to chew on.

Well, today I discovered that Wright is offering a free course on Coursera called: “Buddhism and Modern Psychology“.  Some of you may be interested in this free course for various reasons:

  • To learn about Buddhism
  • To critically evaluate Wright’s thoughts
  • To learn about psychology
  • To interact with my critical posts concerning this course

Below I will link to the posts I write relating to the course.  Let me know if you are thinking of watching some of his lectures too.


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Do you like this Muslim?

Abdur Raheem Green

Abdur Raheem Green

Abdur Raheem Green is a British convert to Islam who does a great deal of speaking on his religion. Here is one entitled “How I came to Islam” (90-min).  I think conversion videos, like ghosts, can be another touchstone to distinguish certain types of atheists from others: some atheists will can feel empathy for well presented faith conversions and some certainly won’t.  Which one are you?

I found Green’s talk touching, funny and inspiring — I could feel his zealous sincerity.  But with only a little searching, the not so pretty side of his Islam is easy to find.  Apparently Green admitted that back in the 90s he said that Muslims and Westerners cannot live peaceably together and that dying while fighting jihad is one of the surest ways to Paradise and Allah’s good pleasure. Though he now swears off his former radical views.  Those supposedly rejected views was why in 2005 he was banned from speaking in Australia. But has he given up his fundamentalism?  Here he vehemently preaches hell and brimstone to put to shame a Christian fundamentalist. And here he speaks against Sufism (5-min) where he sounds all too much like an Evangelical Christian belittling Pentecostals.  Ah the in-fighting in Islam is as complicated as that within Christianity.

My experience with Islam is limited. I lived in Pakistan with a Muslim (Shiite) family for a season studying language (Urdu) and religion (Islam). During that time, I would occasionally visit mosques (masjids) with my favorites being Sufis shrines where I participated in some swaying prayers. Prior to living in Pakistan, I had an American Urdu professor who was a Muslim convert and he would tell me stories of why he loved Islam. Later I other nationalities of Muslims during a few weeks in Java and in China where minority Muslims were in one of my favorite parts of Chengdu. I have also read a few books on Islam and love some Irani films.

Books critical on Islam abound.  But in understanding any faith, it is important to seek both critical and sympathetic material. As far as readings, I really enjoyed reading Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammed: a biography of the Prophet“. After reading it, I remembered saying to myself, “Wow, I can feel how a Muslim could love his faith”. I can easily feel my self flux between empathy and antipathy depending on the material.

The main point in this post is not to discuss the pros-and-cons of Islam. I am talking about religious empathy.  I am trying to point out that I don’t think every mind is built for religious empathy though mine certainly is. Religious empathy is absent in many atheists and I think this may be a temperament issue that causes people to talk past each other. I was amazed watching empathy rise in me as I watched Green’s video, given all my other knowledge. And though another part of my mind is built to see through the self-deceptive and dangerous aspects of religion, I am still OK holding both of these apparently contrary feelings (empathy & antipathy) simultaneously.

So, before arguing on religion with an atheist, ask them if they have ever felt religious empathy (not sympathy).  Likewise, before arguing with an exclusivist religious person, it may be useful to see if they can feel empathy with a faith expression of someone their faith tells them is bound for hell.

Question to readers:  So, what does the religious sympathy touchstone reveal about you?


See: my other posts on Islam here.


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Defining Religion: Ninian Smart

I can’t stop emphasizing that “religion” is a contrived word and not a thing to be discovered. Thus, not surprisingly, people (scholars and lay folks alike) put forward all sorts of conflicting definitions for religion. Even Sabio Lantz offered a Syndrome Model in 1999. This is not to say such contrived words aren’t useful, but we need to recognize them for what they are.

Ninian Smart

Ninian Smart

The definition model I have illustrated above is Ninian Smart’s, a Scottish pioneer of secular religious studies who took his stab at defining “religion” and created this 6-dimensional definition where he describes 6 ingredients or flavors that comprise the mix of what we call religion.

A 3 Quark Daily article (where I am banned, if you’ll remember) used Smart’s model to test if Internet-Centrism is a religion or not.  The conclusion of the article is not important to me.  But instead, keeping in mind my previous “Religion as a Pejorative” post, we can see that the ways Internet-Centrism is likened to religion has negative connotations.  “Religion” is used to point out the weak sides of “Internet Centrism”.

But heck, most groups of people would qualify as religious for having stories, community, rules, rituals and experiences between them — according to Strong’s definition.  My definition, on the other hand contains a few more criteria to narrow the application of the word and thus to exclude the broader use of the word “religion”.  Either way, it is fun to play with definitions, but remember, people are inventing them, not discovering them.



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Is All religion bad? An Ethical Dissection

What are Ethics?

People disagree on ethics — and for very good reasons. To clear up the disagreement, the wrong move is to try and figure out the “right” ethical theory — arguing endlessly about the truth of your system and the foibles of others. Instead, understanding how our minds work may reveal far more useful information.

Every Ethics 101 course classifies the majority of ethical systems into:

    • Deontological Ethics: methods matter
    • Consequentialism Ethics: consequences matter
    • Virtual Ethics: attitudes matter

Our brains seem to contain all three of these behavior calculators (and more). Depending on situations (triggers), the brain uses one calculator, at the exclusion of others, or uses two or three but weighs them each differently. We are complex creatures. We are not what we think we are. It is this phenomena that leads us to all our wheel spinning when discussing ethics.

Is All-Religion-is-Bad?

Another wheel-spinner is the debate of whether “all-religion-is-bad” or not.  Massimo Pigliucci discusses this issue on his post criticizing a 3-Quark daily post (remember, the site where I was banned — it is safer to criticize them from your own blog.)

Massimo criticizes the pro-religion go-free-card position often promoted by 3QD authors, but also lambasts many blogging atheist who loudly exaggerate that “all religion is bad”. Massimo interestingly points out that typically those atheists’ arguments are based on an ironic illogical jumping between contrary ethical platforms to rationalize their claim — a fault of theists too he emphasizes.

The hyper-pseudo rationalist atheist will claim that:

False beliefs always (eventually) lead to bad consequences.

Did you catch that? They just told us that “false beliefs” [a method or attitude, depending how you view beliefs] should not be used. That is the Deontological or the Virtue Ethical calculator going off. But when you read posts by these anti-religion atheists, their judgement that bad beliefs are always bad is based on the consequences of those bad beliefs — they tell us all the horrible things religion do.  That is their Consequentialism calculator weighing in.

The 3QD article pejoratively creates the phrase “undergraduate atheists“, which Massimo concedes may be appropriate since such atheists have:

“… simplistic, scientistic, anti-intellectual streak of self-professed “rational” thinking that too many atheists quickly and shamelessly engage in.”

And he broadens the criticism saying:

“We talk a lot about supporting critical thinking in the skeptic/atheist community(es), but we aren’t necessarily that good at cleaning up our own sloppy reasoning.”

I love Massimo because he is clear writer, very bright and does not pull punches. So if you disagree with him, it is easy to figure out where you disagree!

I won’t go into all the subtle nuances of this argument about “Is ALL religion bad” — please don’t clutter the thread with those rants because that is not the purpose of this post and would ironically indulge in the very error of thinking I am trying to illustrate here. Namely, that we [theists, atheists: all of us] are often deceived about how our minds work, and that this confusion then causes us the spend millennium in useless debates.

Blending Confusion: ethical delusions & the myth of religion

As a final caveat, in such conversations, what adds insult to injury of our foolishness is, as I have written often, the illusion that we know what “religion” is. Further, people continually forget the nature of language and that “religion” is a created word used in many different ways. Religion is not something out there waiting to be discovered — anathema to Plato fans. Thus, we don’t understand our own ethical declarations, nor our own use of language, so how can we even begin to adress the question of this post intelligently.


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Meaning without Memories

MemoriesI try redeeming my parental chauffeur times by talking with my kids. Last post I wrote about talking with my daughter about “Warts & the Meaning of Life“. Well, my 13 year-old son must also endure such conversations occasionally.

A week ago, during a Father-Son drive, we were talking about things I had done with him when he was around four or five years-old. He was shocked that could not remember any of them. He couldn’t even remember some of the fun things we did when he was seven and eight years-old.

“Wow, that is sad,” he said, thinking how our good memories just slip away. “I won’t remember a lot of things you did with me.”

“Well, its worse than you think, buddy” I said (not having read Parenting 101). “Do you know much about my father?” [He never met my father]

“No, not really. Just that he use to have a factory.” [He owned a plastics factory]

“Yeah that is not much from the long life he had. How about your great-grand parents — do you know anything about any of them?  After all, you had eight of them!”

“No,” he said, “I don’t know anything about any of them.”

“You see, Soren [pseudonym]”, I philosophized, “You, I and most people will eventually be forgotten in about two or three generations if not much sooner. Almost none of our memories will endure. In the long run, no one will remember me and no one will remember you.”

“Arghhhh!”  he said with a huge sigh.

Knowing the sigh was coming, I was ready to offer a glimmer of hope in my otherwise apparently dark philosophy of life:

“But there is something that lasts for a long, long time, even though memories fade quickly”, I said before depression settled on my sensitive son. “Something actually remains from all those fun things that you and I did even though you can’t remember them. The happiness, the security, and the love which helped form who you are today — they remain. So in a way, all those good times I made for you endured.  They just don’t remain as any memory of me.  But I am OK with that. And because you feel secure, loved and confident, it will be more easy for you to pass the same things on to others too.”

“So the trick is,” I continued “to learn to value that which remains besides memories or visible marks. Learn to value the good because it can remain for many generations. Learn not to care about your name and your stories — don’t worry if they remain. Instead, learn to enjoy that which is deeper than your identity and learn how to share it without expectation of being remembered.”

“I actually get that Dad, thanks.” and a smile crossed my son’s face again.


Note:  I just had my son proof this story and he agrees to its accuracy — well, as far as he can remember. 🙂


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Warts & The Meaning of Life

My 11-year-old daughter is fighting warts on her feet and yesterday, in our car ride to go pick up her flute from the repair shop, she wanted to know more about warts:

Wart_Toe“Dad, what are warts?”

“Warts are skin cells infected with viruses.”

“Yeah, but why do they get so big.”

“Well, the virus gets inside the skin cell, reproduces inside of them and then makes them grow faster and spread more of the virus. So the wart piles up on the surface of your foot.”

“But why do they do that Dad?  What the heck is the purpose to do that?”

“Well, sweetheart, they are doing the same thing those weeds do, those trees do, the raccoons in the woods do and even humans do. They are just trying to replicate — to make copies similar to themselves.”

My daughter then became despondent. “Wow, life is meaningless. There is no point to life.”

“Hmmm,” I responded. “Well, if life was meaningful, how would life look different for warts, weeds, raccoons and us if we all had meaning?”

“So the only reason we live is to be happy, but there is no purpose?”

“But if there was purpose, how would a happy life look different?” I persisted.

“Hmmm,” she said, taking her turn to think. “Well, we wouldn’t die!”

“Ah, so when you say ‘meaningless’, you are just sad that we all die?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“I get that. It is a bummer.”


“So, I guess we just have to settle for trying to be happy during our life even though we know we’ll die.”

“Yeah, that sounds right to me, honey. Being happy sounds like a pretty good purpose. Just because we die doesn’t mean that our happiness is meaningless, does it”?

“No, it doesn’t. Being happy is good.”



  • This post fulfills my “Roadkill Theology” criterion. See the post and take the poll.  Readers are divided on the issue.
  • My daughter proofed this post for accuracy.  Then she kindly volunteered for the flute photo. (but the toe wart is from wiki!)


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Share Thyself

This is an index of posts that outline tables with categories to aid in sharing your positions, experiences and thoughts. Knowing these details can greatly improve the quality of dialogue.  Though hiding behind vagueness and disingenuousness are not uncommon on blog threads, I find such conversations a huge waste of time.  These tables will not only help you understand others, but also yourself.  We all change, so don’t be afraid to state your opinion even when it is uncertain.  Sometimes organizing our opinions and declaring them is the best way to change them.  Remember, change means you are still alive.

So here is the list:

  • Christian Theology Sharing :  There are many different kinds of Christians  so without being transparent about your beliefs, conversations are inevitably confusing. Even if you aren’t sure what you believe, these categories will help you explore.
  • Philosophy Sharing :  Whether they know it or not, religious and non-religious folks hold philosophical assumptions which color their worldviews.  You may not know many of these categories, but take a look at the stuff out there.
  • Atheist Worldview Sharing : Atheists hold many different perspectives toward religion.  There are lots of different kinds of atheists.  Understanding these, may help dialogue.
  • Demographic Sharing:  We’d all like to think we are free of the momentum of our demographics and indeed you may be.  But unless you share, we won’t be able to explore the limitation of our settings.  Sharing our limitations can often help us realize we are more alike than we imagine.


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