Saturday, October 27, 2007

If enlightenment is “ineffable” …

Per a claim of Zen Buddhism, how can anybody claim that someone else is not enlightened? The obvious answer is, “They can’t.”

How can anyone claim that someone else’s use of certain words (or physical actions, drawings, music or whatever) to talk about enlightenment shows in and of itself that the person talking isn’t enlightened? The obvious answer is, “They can’t.”

For that matter, how can a person who claims he or she is enlightened actually defend that claim to any other person? The obvious answer is, “They can’t.”

The observations above are NOT about the “paradox” of a religion like Zen Buddhism that bases itself on satori is some other enlightenment that is claimed to be ineffable. No paradox is at issue here.

Rather, what IS at issue is failure in logical thinking skills. Of course, defenders of Zen will claim that this itself is part of Zen: its anti-logical stance.

OK, I’ll accept that for the sake of argument.

But, that goes right back to my point. If Zen Buddhism is anti-logical, or anti-linguistic, for that matter, you cannot defend it. Arguably, any attempt to defend it, in fact shows that the person making the attempt is unenlightened, no matter how much they claim to be enlightened.

Some further thoughts on defining religion

Based on my own readings in existentialism, and psychology of religion, I offer the following psychological definition of religion:

“Religion is an attempt to escape from the condition of being human in life. It is based on two facts. One is that there is something psychologically wrong with being human. The other point is philosophical — a belief that humans can be something besides being human.”

The only condition in which the second is true is with a .45 slug to the brain. Camus knew that when he said suicide was the ultimate question of philosophy. (He probably would have called existentialism, at least with the way he answered that question, as a psychology, not a philosophy.)

Psycho-philosophical escapism does sound a good way to define a religion, especially when he connect it with the sociology of religion observation that religions consist of certain defined rites, rituals, etc., such as prayer, worship, liturgy, etc. And, the psych-philosophical definition, of escapism, gets at the heart of what motivates religious people without even talking about whether a personal deity or not.

In other words, to riff on Paul Tillich, for the religious, escape from the human condition is the matter of ultimate concern.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Apparently even many scientists don’t think James Watson is racist

A World Science poll has the following findings about Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson:

1. Some 57 percent of respondents find his comments about black intelligence legitimate opinion, 26 percent racism, and 17 percent unsure.

2. A full 75 percent said the London Science Museum was wrong to cancel a lecture he had scheduled.

3. Even more, 79 percent said the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was wrong to suspend Watson as president.

4. A similar percentage, 74 percent, said this would chill scientific discourse.

5. Between two responses, for two different reasons, 70 percent said Watson’s critics should leave him alone.

6. Just over half of respondents to the poll were scientists.

I’m not advocating censorship of legitimate opinion, but, this went beyond opinion. It was racism.

And, in science terms, it was pseudoscience, clear and simple.

Now, per a reader of Talking Points Memo, it turns out this is nothing new from Watson. In fact, he’s got Read this SF Chronicle story. He made similar comments in a conference at Berkeley seven years ago. Had anybody short of a Nobel-level scientist said this, we’d immediately label him as nutbar.
Witnesses were flabbergasted when the 72-year-old discoverer of the double helix suggested there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges. “That’s why you have Latin lovers,” Watson said. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”

In a lecture hall jammed with more than 200 Berkeley students and faculty members, Watson showed a slide of sad-faced model Kate Moss to support his contention that thin people are unhappy and therefore more ambitious. …

Botchan, who presided over the session, said Watson was merely trying to call attention to a protein (pom-C) that helps create several different hormones: One determines skin color (melanin); another enhances a sense of well-being (beta endorphins); and the third plays a role in fat metabolism (leptin).

Botchan said Watson was wondering out loud why evolution had linked these hormones, and whether the interrelationship of these mood and behavior-influencing compounds might be affected by exposure to sunlight.

Unfortunately, said Botchan, Watson advanced his hypothesis with “comments that were crude and sexist and potentially racist.” But Botchan, who did post-graduate work under Watson, said he doesn't think the Nobel laureate is racist or sexist, merely insensitive. …

Berkeley genetics professor Thomas Cline said Watson's lecture ``crossed over the line'' from being provocative to being irresponsible because the senior scientist failed to separate fact from conjecture. …

Berkeley biology professor Susan Marqusee walked out about a third of the way through Watson's hourlong lecture. …

A spokesman at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institute on Long Island where Watson serves as president, confirmed the gist of his remarks and said Watson has voiced similar sentiments at other scientific gatherings.

Read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. The reporter notes that Nobelist William Shockley, inventor of the transistor, was ostracized for years because of similar comments. Why wasn’t that done years ago to Watson?

Being dismissed now as president of Cold Spring is less than punishment enough.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Patriots, gurus, scoundrels and martyrs

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, alleged misunderstanding is the last refuge of a martyr. That’s doubly true if the martyr is a religious, metaphysical leader or similar type of guru.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

For every two or three good PBS programs

You get some absolute dreck like "Paranormal Science."

Starbucks: use different beans!

I think I figured out part of why Starbucks ain’t all that for me. It uses too many Latin American beans for its different coffees. I like the hard, dry earthiness of East African coffees and the damp earthiness of Indonesian area coffees more than the winey flavor of most Latin American coffees; no matter the roasting level, I think you always have some of the wininess, or the different types of earthiness come through.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Contra Buddhism II

The eye that sees an I
Wants to obliterate it.
If thine I offend thee, pluck it out.
Camus once said
Suicide is the ultimate question of philosophy.
And so it is for Buddhist metaphysics.
How can the Theravada I,
Self-extinguished yet self-preserved
For the enlightenment
Of the non-transcendent masses,
Explain the inexplicable transcendental mu-nothingness
Without obliterating itself again?

Contra Buddhism I

This religion says,
“I am not a religion,”
And yet it is.
Some Magritte word-picture-play,
A paradox of some modern Zeno,
Or a Zen koan,
That would pitch one toward deeper meanings?
Its devotees would say “yes,”
If not rejecting the religious tag completely.
Does atheism make a religion not a religion?
I say “no.”
You stand charged in the dock, Buddhists.
Holding metaphysical matters of ultimate concern —
Afterlives, reincarnations, non-physical life forces.
You pray,
And engage in other rites,
Possess sacred texts,
And follow mandates,
In attempts to control these ultimate concerns.
No Zen koan;
This religion is.

October poignancy

A waning autumn sun
Lights trash in tired, stubble-strewn byways;
The emptiness and absurdity of life
Strewn as a randomized collage of suburban detritus.
Another fall is coming on;
I feel the pangs of poignancy in the weakening, shortening sun,
As the orb slips toward another southern nadir.
Another year suddenly seems too short,
As I age more,
And sense that the potential of another love
Is fading with that westering, lowering sun.

Twilight of the Idols

Schopenhauer falls first, then Wagner,
Until Nietzsche stands bare-faced before himself,
No absolutes and no absolutists still in place.
The core of pessimism,
Free of metaphysics and free of systems,
In his grasp.
His later, Fury-ridden madness,
An ironic vote for absurdity,
Mad not from seeing the truth but from helplessness,
His personal Birth of Tragedy,
Struck from the stage in the middle of Act III.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Lee Siegel could try to be open-minded about reading secularist tomes

Siegel, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, takes to task the recent books of “militant atheists” like Christopher Hitchens (five-starred by me on Amazon), Victor Stenger (given an advance provisional five-star rating), Richard Dawkins (four-starred) Dan Dennett (generously three-starred) and Sam Harris (two-starred). Hitchens is by far the best of those I’ve read, as he is the only one to, metaphorically speaking, show that the Dalai Lama as well as the Pope has no clothes. Dennett barely touches on Eastern religion, as does Dawkins, and Harris tries to pretend that Buddhism isn’t a religion, and that it doesn’t have any empirical or philosophical problems, both of which are incorrect. (Hat tip to Kevin Drum for his discussion of this op-ed column.)

Siegel first cites things from Internet pornography to the Kansas Board of Education being overruled on trying to teach creationism intelligent design (creationism-lite) as examples of why we don’t have to worry about religious control in America. He ignores that, no matter how many setbacks in the field, the Religious Right won’t give up. After all, it trotted out intelligent design to replace creationism. Here in Texas, “under God” was added to the Texas flag pledge of allegiance this year by the state legislature. (How many states are nutbar enough to have a state flag pledge, anyway? The U.S. and the Philippines are the only two countries to have a national flag pledge.)

He then claims “the attacks in the book don’t make much sense.” Well, if you’re going to adopt the patristic Christian claim, “I believe because it’s absurd,” as Siegel does later in the column, well, of course, they won’t make sense. Logic doesn’t make sense in an illogical, self-contained, hermetically sealed thought system.

Finally, Siegel trots out this old chestnut:
For the imagination is what embodies concepts, ideas and values that cannot be scientifically verified and that have no practical usefulness.

He is, in essence, making the old claim that the atheist can’t appreciate the “spirituality” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, let alone Handel’s Messiah, tying that with the canard about “soulless reductionistic science.”

I can surely appreciate the spirituality, or whatever, even of Mozart’s Requiem or Bach’s B minor Mass as much as any religious person, and said so in a newspaper column.

As for the “soulless reductionistic science” idea, I put up the quote of evolutionary biologist and science writer Robert Sapolsky:
Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.

In short, Robert Siegel doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. The title of his forthcoming book, “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob,” also labels him as some sort of Luddite.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Night Life (a poem)

The orangish sodium vapor glow
Brings out the yellow in the red oak’s green leaves.
The colors of our world have such sensitivity and delicateness
To be far away from full capture by any camera.

The sun-like warmth of the security light
Provides a tone of calm serenity to the night.
In the background, the drone of overused air conditioners
Provides an aural backdrop to the early fall chirps of crickets.

Meanwhile, my body relaxes and unwinds.
I sense the fiber-fullness of my stomach
And feel a touch of post-rain clammy heaviness in the night air.
While making myself aware of the cleanness of its scent.

It is good to be alive, good to be sensual, in the night air.