Saturday, August 16, 2014

#Buddhism is still a religion, folks

I've written a little bit about this before here. Specifically, I've talked about its metaphysical aspects and their religious overtones, in a way that shows what I think is a comfortable Western non-Buddhist's familiarity with it. I've discussed briefly the paradox involved at the core of making claims about ineffability. Related to that, I've written about how some of the Buddha's own observations lead to logical snares.

But, with a new post by Massimo Pigliucci bringing out all the first-generation converts who claim "Buddhism is just a philosophy" or even "Buddhism is just a psychology," I thought I'd jump into this in a bit more depth here. (Many of the same types of apparent first-generation converts to "secular Buddhism" as made statements on those blog posts above.)

First, for those trying to claim otherwise, or hold up Stephen Batchelor or the likes of him as having a direct illuminative pipeline back to 2,500 years ago? Wrong!

The idea of "Buddhism is just a philosophy" (along with similar claims about Hinduism) was cooked up by Victorian-era Europeans and Americans, in some degree of cahoots with "Westernizing" Indians.

The reality is that Buddhism deals with two matters of "ultimate concern," even "ultimate metaphysical concern," namely karma and reincarnation.

Second, a sociology of religion observation, and a snarky one, too.

I think that most of the "just a philosophy" claimants come from one of two previous backgrounds. They're either old Reform Jews who like being able to paste meditation and Zen-type inscrutable phrases that sound like updated, Easternized versions of comments by medieval rabbis, all from folks in saffron robes with a hipster angle, on top of their denatured Reform Judaism, or else they're liberal Unitarian Christians or post-Unitarian New Agers who wish they had been born as Reform Jews, etc.

And, yes, that's a snarky comment. But, isn't snark itself an updated word for the psychology in which Zen masters often presented their observations?

Yes.

And therefore, it's the best style of answer available to give to the "just a philosophy" folks. 

Third, in line with Massimo and contra his Buddhist friend who inspired his post, even if you trot out modal logic, multivalent logic or similar post-Aristotelean thought, Buddhism, if you try to sell it as a philosophy, is more illogical than anything that's come out of the West.

If you don't like that? Mu!

Yes, I know what the word means. I've used it here to "unask the question" or "unask the issue" of "free will versus determinism" to many people, including Massimo. That comes from my primary blog, where I've written with a bit more depth.

Today, though, I use it in Zen-snark mode to "unanswer the protests" by first-generation Buddhist converts. And, per one commenter on Massimo's post, and my observations above, that's exactly who you are. Aaron Shure observes:
The joke from the late ’60’s about the old Jewish lady who travels to the Buddhist monastery asking to speak the the Lama: after a long journey on donkey, finally talking her way into the inner sanctuary, she approaches the Lama, smacks him with her purse, and says, “Sheldon, come home.” Graham needs to Kimmen heim.

I don’t think it’s an accident that there are so many first generation Buddhists in America claiming it’s a philosophy and not a religion. Only if your parents aren’t Buddhists can you claim that Buddhism will do, unlike other religions, all that it promises. The first gen acolytes do all sorts of backbends to get around the obvious malarky of the dogma. Whether it’s the three card monty move of saying “there are many Buddhisms” so that any BS version of the doctrine you point out can be quickly pushed onto the wrong sect, or whether it’s the annoying “ineffable” dodge, or whether it’s the putting off until other lives the need for any sort of freaking evidence. 

Owan Flannagan did his best to come up with a naturalized Buddhism, and I find it unsatisfactory. Nagarjuna is no more a logician than Democritus and Leucippus were Physicists, which, with Massimo’s blessing, they were not. Still I’m going to read the book for the history of logic.
I agree with the joke. I also agree that Flanagan (correct) does a better job than Batchelor, at least in some ways, in trying to intellectually craft the idea of secular Buddhism, Buddhism is just a philosophy, etc. At least Flanagan, in the subtitle of his latest book, by saying "Buddhism Naturalized," seems to admit this is a conscious effort on his part. However, whether that's due to combatting what he sees as misinterpretations, or whether he's rewriting what he sees as the normal, historically-rooted understanding of Buddhism, I don't know.

And, also, I found this quote from him:
What they make of the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth is another matter.
In light of that quote, how many Buddhist arhats, etc., would accept him as a legitimate expostulator of Buddhism? I know it's primarily directed at Americans (many of them commenting on Massimo's blog?) who largely equate meditation with Buddhism, and putting thoughts into their heads, but what does he think of Buddhism's core doctrines — yes, doctrines — himself?

Anyway, folks, per Aaron and myself, I can make the same claim about Judaism. If I make the right readings of scriptures I choose versus ones I neglect and other things, hell, I can make the same claim about Christianity.

Which, after all, is what many Unitarians essentially do.

And, "back in the day"? First-generation Christian apologist Justin Martyr tried to sell Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and members of the Senate on the idea that Christianity was just a philosophy, after all!

So, to the degree anyone claims Buddhism is "just a philosophy," it's true, but not unique, and it is essentially trivial.

Back to the philosophy angle. If, as did someone on Massimo's blog, you make claims that because David Hume came up with observations about human psychology that parallel those of the Buddha, this is "proof" that either  Buddhism is just a philosophy, or worse, that metaphysical doctrines and all, Buddhism is still just a philosophy, you just kneecapped yourself in my court.

And, if prose for philosophical statements doesn't totally float your boat, well, this short poem of mine, and this other one, point out some of Buddhism's conundrums in verse.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Music and a historical anniversary

As many history buffs know, a week ago was the centennial of the infamous assassination in Sarajevo that led to World War I. It also led to the downfall of four empires. Here are the stirring national anthems of the three great ones of central and eastern Europe:

The Imperial German Anthem, and stop acting shocked at the tune, you Brits:



It was the Prussian anthem pre-unification, too. That said, the words, coming from within a semi-autocratic government? They're laughable. As for the music, besides the snare drum we Americans would never associate with "America," but the British certainly would with "God Save the Queen," it's harmonized a lot different than the former, and a fair amount different from the latter. And, in a way I generally like.

And, the classic Austro-Hungarian anthem. Please don't act shocked at the tune. Franz Josef Haydn wrote "Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser" long before the Nazis stole the anthem, which, with reworked lyrics, is still the anthem of the Federal Republic today:



Classic. Sing along. The full lyrics are at the webpage. The lyrics are straightforward and not over the top.

Finally, the Czarist National Anthem.



If it sounds familiar, it should; it's adapted as the second theme of Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave. This particular recording doesn't have English words. In addition, I can't read Cyrillic well enough to sing along in Russia.

Other versions note this as the translation, by stanza: 1. God, save the Tsar! To the glorious one, long days Give on this earth! To the subduer of the proud, To the keeper of the weak To the comforter of everyone, Grant everything! 2. The land of the first throne, Orthodox Russia, God, do save! A harmonious reign for her, Calm in strength; And everything unworthy Drive away! 3. O, Providence! Blessing Grant to us! Aspiration to good, Humility in happiness, Patience in sorrow

As for history? In addition to American and European neo-Nazi groups having their own various YouTube channels, the dead WWI Empires do, too, in something reminiscent of the Lost Cause of the post-death Confederacy here in the U.S.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Plato sells his soul to Google at the Googleplex

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go AwayPlato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I finally went with a 2-star rating for this book. I will note that Goldstein did stimulate my thought at times, albeit half the time to take notes on how she was wrong, and did get me to modify somewhat the harsh take I’ve had on Socrates since reading Izzy Stone, but, the book is still not that good.

First, a couple of overarching issues.

I am discomfited by a professional philosopher diving into the tank of commercial toutery. Plato can’t just have a laptop, he has to have a Chromebook. He can’t just like the Internet, he has to like Google for searches rather than using a generic term for Internet search. He has to like Google’s cloud-based services. He has to like Google so much that, per one chapter that gives the book its title, he does indeed visit Google’s Googleplex, where much of the chapter’s dialogue is taken up by a Google PR flak.

Frankly, it made me want to vomit. Strangely, even among “negative” reviewers, I’m seemingly the first to hit that much on this issue.
The second overarching issue, is despite all the puffery on the blurbs and on some five-star reviews, Goldstein is not that good of a writer in my opinion. The book lacks some coherence, including exactly how she’s trying to make Plato relevant for today and why. Plus, some specific writing tricks do not float my boat.

On page 192, she says in a footnote: “I’m not sure whether Plato is just managing Munitz here or is really implying that she’s guardian material.” Bulls***. Don’t go Stanley Fish on me. You know full well what your conscious intention was with the passage you footnoted.
I'm skipping around a bit, in part to get more feel for the book, and in part because it hasn't floated my boat that much so far, despite all the advance touts it's gotten.

First, Goldstein, while noting Whitehead's observation about all later philosophy being but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle, then noting many modern philosophers disagree, doesn't explain why she, essentially, comes down on the side of Whitehead. And, as a philosopher, she knows that for a philosopher not to “argumentatively” justify one’s decision or stance on something like this is …. Unphilosophical!

Second, some of her specific stances related to Platonism are ones that are also contentious. The idea that there’s no single character in Plato’s dialogues that truly represents him? I know that’s nowhere unanimous. One need not believe that Socrates is Plato’s sole voice to nonetheless believe that he is his primary one, and certainly so in his early and middle dialogues.

Third, she buys wholeheartedly and blindly into Plato’s description of who the Sophists were. Plenty a critic of this position has noted that the elitists like Socrates, and arguably, Plato, disliked the Sophists not because they proposed to teach “sophistry” in its modern English terms, but because they proposed to, relatively inexpensively, teach the basics of rhetorical tools that would help level the social and legal playing field between the rich and the non-rich.

Related to that, even if Plato's description of Socrates isn't the be-all and end-all of who Socrates was, she certainly seems to take at face value Plato's presentation of Socrates as a straight shooter, never engaging in sophistry himself. Nor does she ever entertain the idea that, if Plato is a mouthpiece or tool of Socrates at times, in turn, his "opponents" are just straw men for positions they never actually held.

Fourth, she’s not proven at best, possibly wrong at worse, on the background of “Ivriim,” which may be the root the Hebrew word for “Hebrew.” Yes, it does mean “pass over,” or “pass through,” in its verbal root, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Hebrews applied it to themselves as “over the Jordan.” First, no ancient people are likely to define themselves this way, in terms of another culture or nation’s geographic point of view. Nor are the Jews likely to have said this about themselves because their mythical ancestor came from Transjordan and beyond. And, her interpretation starts with the noun form.

Better understandings of the root of this word are that as people “passing through,” it can mean immigrants, without geographic reference. Again, though, would a people likely refer to themselves that way? Interestingly, the verb is used in Genesis 15, where the torches pass between the cuts of meat during the Abrahamic covenant ceremony. That is one possible alternative etymology.

Another? “Hebrews” may well instead be a patronymic from alleged ancestor Eber (same consonantal Hebrew). And, the older attempts to connect them to the Egyptian “Hapiru,” while left by the wayside today, may not be totally dead.

Anyway, the fact that Goldstein, in a book about Plato, feels the need not just to talk about “Hebrews,” but the Hebrew etymology more than once, and possibly getting it wrong each and every time, is also disconcerting.

That’s from the first chapter.

On talking about the Republic, she made me realize that, of course, Plato’s ideas for youth education founder on Piaget’s stages of development. Pre-adolescents wouldn’t have been ready for his program. Surely, somebody else has mentioned that somewhere. But, she doesn’t.

Related?

I just realized that Plato's Allegory of the Cave has two holes in it as an analogy. First, if all we see our shadows, each of us has to be in our own cave; we can't be in one common cave because, of course, other people have to be shadows, too. Of course, to write it that way would wreck some of its force. Second, Plato talks about one person being freed then compelled to re-see things. Plato doesn't mention a personal agent, but the language sure implies one. And, of course, no other person can compel new knowledge. Even if an agent is not intended, the passivity of the allegory, the "being freed," is just wrong.

Also, one need not agree with Izzy Stone’s attributing Socrates’ death entirely to legitimate politics to nonetheless say that it was part of it.

What I got from all of this is a Goldstein who largely believes in the largely idealized picture of Socrates that Plato has handed us.

So, I guess she stimulated my mind to reject the Whitehead idea that the rest of philosophy is but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle.

Besides the Googleplex chapter, one other one rings very false. That’s the one about Plato appearing on a would-be Fox News with an ersatz Bill O’Reilly.

It all adds up to the fact that she is NOT a skilled writer, period and end of story, despite the fluffy touts from A.C. Grayling and many another. She needed an editor with a good understanding of both philosophy and classics, and a firm and heavy hand, and got none. (Sic semper the decline of the modern book industry.)

Finally, from all this, no matter my interest in philosophy, I won’t be reading another book of hers.

I'm not sure which bothers me most — the commercialism itself, the commercialism without warrant (philosophical or otherwise), the failure to defend the modern relevance of Plato before jumping in to chapters, or the failure to justify her interpretation of Plato.

In any case, it's a failure. There's also, in a Gertrude Stein sense, no "there" there. There's not a lot of unification between chapters.


View all my reviews

Friday, June 06, 2014

A little DABDA will do ya — outside of death and dying


A little DABDA

A little DABDA will do ya,
Or so, the grieving are told.
But there’s no right way, or wrong way, to mourn
Even if there are more common, and less common, ways.

Sometimes, loss doesn’t involve denial.
A death, a divorce, or similar, has been long anticipated.
Likewise for anger; it’s been wrestled with
And exhausted,
Before the loss.
Likewise for bargaining.
Depression? More common, and more normal,
Even before acceptance, which may never fully come for some.
Sometimes, they overlap.
Emotions, after all, aren’t discrete.
Sometimes, one emotion is experienced
Two or more times, even if others aren’t.

And maybe, just maybe
A little DABDA will do ya,
For things besides loss.
Like depression, even if it’s a “D” itself.
Or anxiety.

Don’t we deny our own emotions at times,
Or longer moods,
Or more complex psychological states?
Of course, especially if there’s reason for us to do that.
Don’t we get angry at being depressed,
Or frustrated at being anxious?
Yes.
Unfortunately, bargaining aside,
Depression or anger don’t fully disappear.
A little DABDA

A little DABDA will do ya,
Or so, the grieving are told.
But there’s no right way, or wrong way, to mourn
Even if there are more common, and less common, ways.

Sometimes, loss doesn’t involve denial.
A death, a divorce, or similar, has been long anticipated.
Likewise for anger; it’s been wrestled with
And exhausted,
Before the loss.
Likewise for bargaining.
Depression? More common, and more normal,
Even before acceptance, which may never fully come for some.
Sometimes, they overlap.
Emotions, after all, aren’t discrete.
Sometimes, one emotion is experienced
Two or more times, even if others aren’t.

And maybe, just maybe
A little DABDA will do ya,
For things besides loss.
Like depression, even if it’s a “D” itself.
Or anxiety.

Don’t we deny our own emotions at times,
Or longer moods,
Or more complex psychological states?
Of course, especially if there’s reason for us to do that.
Don’t we get angry at being depressed,
Or frustrated at being anxious?
Yes.
Unfortunately, bargaining aside,
Depression or anger don’t fully disappear.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I'm now 'officially' a philosopher

Or something kind of like that.

Here's my take on fakery in aesthetics at philosopher Massimo Pigliucci's new long-form science and philosophy site. I already have a follow-up on this issue in the works, and hope to do some other occasional writing there.

The follow-up will be about the work of developing artists as public intellectuals. As such, it will focus on funding, via the National Endowment of the Arts and other organizations, better K-12 arts programs, within the context of improved academics in general, and more.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ray Kurzweil is not my savior


RAY KURZWEIL IS NOT MY SAVIOR

I uploaded my life to the cloud.
Ray Kurzweil said I could reinvent myself
As an immortal Singularitan.

Beyond not believing this was possible,
I didn’t know what I would do,
Or what it might feel like,
If it were the case.

What if the power went off?
Would I then not be immortal?
If I were rebooted, would I remember the down time?
A man’s cybermolecules scattered all across the damned universe,
Would I feel like “Immortal, Interrupted”?

What if I didn’t get a software upgrade
In a timely fashion?
What if I were on a slow connection speed?
Would I feel like “Immortal, Second Class”?
Ditto for all my necessary hardware.

What if resource wars break out
Because everybody else likes Kurzweil’s opportunity?
Will our planet run dry?
Will Kurzweil’s Fordies kill the rest of us, or make us drones?

These were only a few of the many questions
That wandered through my mind.
So I shut the lid to Pandora’s laptop
And toddled off to face a strange, unsettled sleep.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ethics thoughts on utilitarianism, contractualism, deontology, Kant and Rawls

This overview of theories of ethics by Massimo Pigliucci, followed by this particular one on contractarian versions of ethics, and this specific one on John Rawls' veil of ignorance, reminded me of a few things, some of which I've specifically articulated either here or on Massimo's blog, but others that have ben just wandering in my head.

They are, in no particular order after No. 1 —

1. John Rawls is overrated;
2. Rawls is, if not a classical utilitarian, some sort of consequentialist;
3. The veil of ignorance is really just a specialized view of the utilitarian "view from nowhere";
4. Though I'm not a system builder, ethics in my philosophical mindset depends much more on a correspondence theory of truth, contra Massimo, who allows more room for the coherence theory of truth to guide ethics. (As I posted on his blog recently, that may be part of what explains his love for virtue ethics.)

I'm going to unpack 1-3 more, with the unpacking of 2 and 3 explicating No. 1, which means I'll unpack them first.

No. 2 comes from Rawls' own famous "justice = fairness" phrase. What is that if not some sort of consequentialist? Now, he may put that in a contractarian background, but I believe that if push had ever come to shove (assuming Rawls accepted either one of the labels as applying to himself) he would have called himself a consequentialist first.

Now, some people will criticize me for this, the same who criticize the a few of my book reviews, but I came to hold that Rawls was overrated by reading about him more and before actually reading him.

The linchpin? Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," which simply blows Rawls' "justice = fairness" ideas out of the water. 

Kaufmann starts with the obvious, which I will slightly rephrase to fit into terms of the current discussion.

That is that the "veil of ignorance," or the more general "view from nowhere," is an idealized abstraction which isn't even close to achievable in reality.

Oh, sure, we strive for it, and sometimes obtain it in some special issues that have at least a degree of ethical freight. An obvious example is the practice of major symphony orchestras to give tryouts to new players by having them play from behind a screen. This is designed to screen out, pun intended in some way, any female bias from the conductor, the principal chair in the section with the opening, and others involved. (And, yes, such bias was real, and huge, before the screens were raised.)

But, that's not what the likes of Rawls are getting at. He, and followers, act under the idea that we can take this veiled view out into situations outside the original setting, including settings where, Kaufmann charges, it's not only impossible to remain veiled, but where some people will demand we become unveiled.

Ergo, it's a thought experiment with little relation to reality. (Short of some Brave New World future which would entail some overseers controlling the veils.)

Or, to put it more pithily, there are always oxen being gored — and sometimes, their owners' complaints are rightfully made.

Or, even more to Kaufmann's point, there are always oxen being gored — and sometimes, some people think with good reason their owners' complaints are rightfully made, and other people think with good reason these complaints are out of bounds.

So, contra Pigliucci, no, Rawls' idea doesn't grow on me. The Platonic cave and the Theory of Ideas once did grow on me, but I was less than half the age then that I am now, and still a conservative evangelical Christian.

To me, Rawls' thought experiment only grows on people who, in terms of political philosophy, do not  put "skeptical" in front of "liberal" or "left-liberal." (Unlike yours truly.)

Now, to the degree a view from nowhere might seem to be an unveiled, but theoretically detached, utilitarianism. However, this is where consequentialism in general fails.

Human life, like space-time, has four dimensions. Humans are, of course, not temporally omniscient. Therefore, we can never say that our utilitarian judgments are correct. For all we know, maybe we should have let Hitler kill more people, if one wants to stake out a deliberately Godwin-like position.

Beyond that, utilitarianism fails in other ways. The hedonic calculus does so even without the view from nowhere falling short. On matters of taste, and hedonic benefit, it runs smack into the old Latin maxim: "De gustibus non disputandum." On this account, shouldn't the National Endowment for the Arts give more money to punk rock bands and less to symphony orchestras?

And, no, the arts aren't the same as ethics. The above question is in part rhetorical, but not entirely so.

On ethical issues, we have a certain natural compass from biology. The arts? Not so much. Let's stay within fine arts. A lot of people don't call what Picasso does "art," or what Schoenberg does "music." So, somebody else might say, no, we shouldn't give NEA money to punk rock, but, we shouldn't give it to a symphony orchestra, either, unless it pledges itself to not play any post-1900 music. 

And, not in terms of NEA money, but in terms of ticket sales, exactly that happens. Blue-haired ladies around the country refuse to plunk down money for classical concerts that have serial music on the program. A few of the largest cities in our country have orchestras that specialize in modern music, but they struggle.

===

As a sidebar note, this is a good example of why I identify myself as a skeptical left-liberal on this blog, and elsewhere. I'd love it if Rawls were right, but I just don't see that.