Thursday, May 23, 2013

That One Night


I do recall, on one particular night, a profound experience. The clock read 1:00am, and the shadow on the wall exhibited a silhouette of an ambiguous outline. If someone looked at it, they might imagine that it was a cake upon a platter, with its slender base with the plate on top for the sweet creation; or maybe it was some sort of architecture from a science fiction idea. But in reality, it was the outline of my arm grasping my book. The lamp created this shadow. I sat in bed, reading.
            The late night is always conducive to reading. Hours of the day are so busy, so exhausting. Only when the sheets are drawn and the body rests can the mind concentrate. Of course, anyone can concentrate in mundane tasks: but what good is this subject of thought? In a way, I guess this death brings the antidote to cure insecurity to those who claim any sense of certainty. 
            The title of my book did not matter: titles are misleading. But know, reader, that my book was a splendid work of fiction - the kind of fiction that leaves you feeling the repercussions and aftereffects of its implications. I read the pages with immediacy. I yearned to get inside of the mind of the author. What stunning and penetrating things are they going to say in the next sentence? With this question, I glanced at the pages, as if a Buddhist sage was in the room saying, “Be mindful of the words.” 
            I know you want to know this profound passage that I speak of; it would seem helpful. But, I tell you, the content is not as important as the way it moved me. We all know people close to us who have passed on into the state of nothingness and decay. Yes, the content of such a life is valuable, but the true achievement of the transitioned life is the self-examination they have instilled in others. Such accomplishments could take the form of a pointed finger, a sculpture, a lecture, or even a single sentence. These things that promote self-examination are not physical movement; they are purely mental. Oftentimes, they come to us in the form of questions: Why do I believe that? What are other ways of accounting for this? What does this say about the world we live in?
These are the sorts of questions that arose in my reading. As I sat, contemplating the implications of that profound passage, my mind moved from a sense of complacency to one of uncertainty. This is what the book did for me, that one night. I must admit that this position of uncertainty is the citadel of humanity. Wars are never fought because people do not know anything; they are instigated by those who are certain.
The fan whizzed, causing my curtains to billow in the artificial breeze. My blankets sat folded at the foot of the bed, expired from their chilling duties. My arm felt not a bit of fatigue; it firmly held the book as I sat and read. My eyes met that bold, daring sentence. The questions ensued…

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Religious VS. Secular Morality

When I ask people what they believe and why, the "why" is the important part. The "what" is far less important. If you are not willing to address the "why," then you are not being intellectually honest with yourself... -Matt Dillahunty, The Atheist Experience Ep. 813

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When I discuss deep philosophical issues with people, I always start by saying that I am a skeptic first, a philosopher second, and an atheist third. I stand convicted that some that openly converse with me believe that I am a radical talking head or maybe even the Devil himself. But, I must say, my intentions are noble: the truth is what I seek. 

My skepticism arose as a priceless faculty. At my former college, things were taught on the basis of tradition and oftentimes included an emotional tinge. Although, once I started to get serious about objectivity, once I actually cared about my beliefs, I noticed that my preconceptions were unjustified. Skepticism molded me into the thinker I am today. It is a skill that requires patience - which it seems, humorously, that I retain only in the realm of ideas. From this skeptical standpoint, I will discuss the differences between religious and secular morals. 

Religious morals are conceived and extrapolated from texts that are supposedly divine. The texts usually give a (supposedly) divine commandment with the explicit claim that the commandment is from God himself. (It is interesting to note the justification for why the religious believe this: the commandments are correct and moral because God said them. Why did God say them? Because he is God. How do you know he is God? Because it says so in the Bible/Quran/Upanishads/etc...). But this point brings up many conflicts. The first is famously recorded in Plato's Euthyphro dilemma. The second rests upon the authorship problem: How do we know if A) God truly commanded the moral commands or B) if it is solely the human medium's opinions? And the third issue is a general problem with religious claims: How do you know that the command is correct/absolute? Of course, this question inevitably ends with something along the lines of "You must have faith." No, I must not have faith. Faith is weakness and a scapegoat. 

On the other side of the morality debate lies secularism. Secular morals are, first and foremost, obtained through practical reason. I concede that an accurate goal of human morality is to maintain a standard of well-being. (It could be argued that morals do not rest upon such goals, but I do not wish to address this here). When one thinks of well-being, one could say that such a state includes human flourishing or the absence of pain/harm. This is why many secular thinkers rely so heavily upon John Stuart Mill's harm principle. Also, the claim that morality should be linked to a sense of well-being is supported by scientific evidence. There are many studies that show the negative effects of all sorts of different harms (psychological, sexual, physical, emotional, etc.). This seems to be apparent knowledge. By using practical reason, erroneous claims about morality are eliminated. Moral relativism, for instance, holds no ground where practical reason is utilized. Just because some cultures practice female genital mutilation does not make that action morally correct. In secular morals, moral guidelines are determined insofar as it is supported by the use of practical reason. 

In light of this delineation between the two modes of morals, I must admit that morals obtained through religious means are deleterious and causes the corruption of human thinking. This is the type of thing that "justifies" a Muslim extremist to follow the Quran's commands to commit the murders of the infidels. It is also the type of thing that causes a Christian to bomb abortion clinics or fight against marriage equality because it is condemned in the book of Leviticus and others. I am personally convinced that mindful Christians are fighting moral conviction when they openly condemn gay marriage; there is no way they can reasonably justify these claims. 

Such is the poison of morals derived from holy texts.  


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Day

How long have I lived,
how long have I looked
upon the walls of pure myst'ry
that displays the small, vague outlines?

A faint glow ruined
darkness around us.
All I see are cloudy figures
displayed by the conflagration.

My thoughts were blameless -
unaffected, pure -
... What one would expect from
a man of confined solitude.

One morn I awoke;
I found myself free.
My torso relaxed, eased from strain;
I stood up, turning to the flames:

Fear overtook me.
The light from the fire
met my unaccustomed vision,
causing an overload within.

But this did not last,
for there was a drive
awakened by my liberty
that felt like a noble voyage.

The drive aptly 'rose
from the other light;
it was extraordinary;
it beckoned for my attention.

So, I climbed the rock
that restricted me.
I walked the gloomy exit path
that led to this strange radiance.

As I left the cave,
I looked around me.
Strange things grew from the damp surface.
Perhaps they, too, sought to see the light.

My gaze went skyward,
recalling my quest.
Large blotches of white objects
floated with the yellow circle.

This moment, the time
I walked from the cave,
allowed me to experience
the realization of day.

My quest didn't end.
My curious mind
was not immersed in enough things.
There was a kind of wonder in it.
 








Friday, May 10, 2013

The Necessity of Philosophy in Scientific Progress



I recently stumbled upon an interview between Ross Anderson of The Atlantic physicist Lawrence Krauss. The interview was entitled Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete. I was very much taken aback about Krauss' inaccurate claims against philosophy.

Here is a section of the dialogue:

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I want to start with a general question about the relationship between philosophy and physics. There has been a fair amount of sniping between these two disciplines over the past few years. Why the sudden, public antagonism between philosophy and physics? 

Krauss: That's a good question. I expect it's because physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then "natural philosophy" became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there's a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can't spell the word "philosophy," aren't justified in talking about these things, or haven't thought deeply about them---

Is that really a claim that you see often?

Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, "those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym." And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it's fairly technical. And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't.

On that note, you were recently quoted as saying that philosophy "hasn't progressed in two thousand years." But computer science, particularly research into artificial intelligence was to a large degree built on foundational work done by philosophers in logic and other formal languages. And certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?

Krauss: Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people's attention. There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they're really doing is mathematics---it's not talking about things that have affected computer science, it's mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that's generated in other areas.

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I am amazed at his ignorance of this portion of the interview. I am especially amazed about his assertion that descriptive philosophy is simply mathematics (and he erroneously inserts literature in this category.) I will put aside his childish claims about philosophy for now and take a moment to address the larger issue. 

Here are some question that Krauss avoids: If we were given a purely descriptive model of how the world works, would our understanding still lack in what we ought to do? What sort of meaning is derived from this sort of model? What implications does such a model have on our lives? Why does such a model exist? In fact, science does not seem to care about these questions. Where the scientist is concerned with descriptions, the philosopher deals with the implications of such descriptions. 

The before-mentioned questions are ironically just as pragmatic as the scientist's search for objectivity in modernity (although, they are of two completely different pursuits). Philosophy, being the older discipline of the two, is the fundamental reason why we undertake scientific endeavors. As humans, we are drawn to the epistemological underpinnings within our interaction of reality.  

Where science is a process that is the most useful mechanism for solving our world's problems, there will always exist an inner struggle to make sense of the discoveries of science. When we view science as an outside experimenter, we do so as philosophers. The system used to critique science is completely different from the science itself; if it was the same mechanism, it would be logically irresponsible to use the same process in matters of scrutiny. This is why science is oftentimes used to criticize religion, just as science (generally) is kept valid through philosophic logic and mathematics.

If one conducted pure science, without the balm of philosophy, the world would exist as an unimportant object, devoid of meaning. Philosophy is the main reason we do science: we wish to know more about the universe and thus increase the benefits within our lives. Yes, science has much to say about the mechanisms of stem cell technologies. But science does not tell us why such technologies are needed. For this, philosophy is the necessary ingredient. 

Science, on the other hand, provides a crucial task in systematizing occurrences in the world. It provides information about how matter works within the confines of scientific developments. This is, by no means, a small accomplishment. But this alone - this process of bitter cause and effect - tells us nothing about how to act within the world. The best possible way to achieve this conclusion is to combine science and philosophy in order to discover the possible normative dimension. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Failure of Communist Dictators


If there is any seemingly fatal attack on the theory of communism, it is the failure of the communist dictators. When Lenin took control of the U.S.S.R., he instilled a seed of pugnacious idiocy and a superiority complex. Here is where the ensuing greed began: the family tree of communism arising from self-worship.

After Lenin's reign, the criminal Stalin took control of the territory. His megalomania led him to believe that all people of the world wished to share in his own triumph. So, in the end, he sought to convert other nations - decrying cultures of Asia. So, he killed millions. As if he had no beneficent character - a trait that is required for such communist systems to flourish. The price of the installment of a universal proletariat was the freedom of all who labored with good intentions: making their way in a world of differences. But the divide between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was still great nonetheless. Stalin was a fool. We can all be the bourgeoisie.

The Korean communist party soon followed, and then the Chinese in 1921. Of course, Korea split into two factions, and thus arose North Korea. The leaders of North Korea, through that nefarious kin, are the epitome of failure; failure of striving for altruistic equality, failure of providing freedom, failure of developing adequate work forces, failure in advancing morally, failure of stabilizing the gap between the economic classes; failure of humanity.

It is wrong, we all know, to judge a book by its cover. That saying is tortuously cliche but it is sound. Some of the most interesting novels have the most hideous cover art. How, then, can we judge a strategy by its leaders? 

    


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Burdens Between Two Friends



"While we're here and while we sit," said I,
"Let me start, my friend, by speaking candidly:
Do you feel this... - encumbrance, that's the word -
of all this luxury we call our own?
All the bills and all the hours of long work
have caused me burdensome anxiety.
My wife wants to leave me - bitter and hopeless;
She says I love work more than commitment."

He turned to me, my friend, the listener.
His eyes expressed a wave of empathy
rippling through space by means of reality.
This friend, my friend, was a wise one indeed.

"People work and are yearning to consume.
Most people - they seem to act on instinct,
Implored, by others, to reap their harvest
of every item of status and vogue."

His eyes met mine, abound with attention.
I hoped he could provide masterly council
I hoped he could prescribe life's medicine -
for the fate of my life rests in his hands.
I thought of my safe, my keeper of stuff,
and the pistol within that tempted me.

But he went on, my friend, applying the salve:

"Life is hard and life is ever fleeting;
It does not make sense to live it in vain.
Freedom is the vict'ry we seek to gain.
All our burdens that we experience
Are faults of no one but ourselves... it's true."

I felt the sting of his frank reaction,
even though his judgement seemed tenable.

Outside, the daylight dissipated slowly,
occluded by the excess of moisture.
The world seemed to progress - unaffected -
whether I questioned my own bleak demise
or sat in ease - satisfied with existence.

Even so, I praise my tolerant friend.
I recalled Epicurus - that fine soul
who saw the positivity of friends.

Good thing he, my friend, stood by - awaited.
Without him, the trigger could boldly tempt
and draw me close to the fatal embrace.