Friday, September 30, 2011

Don't Be A Seeker


At one time in my early twenties, I fancied myself a spiritual seeker. I pored through books on eastern and western religion, philosophy, wisdom, and success. Outside of general education and idle thoughts on the world and myself, none of these works did me any lasting good or made me any happier.

In fact, only two things have made me feel happy, satisfied, and energized. The first thing is to remember reality. This life is it. This is what we get. It's actually quite an amazing life, and reality is almost unfathomably wonderful.

The second thing is to work.To me, work covers everything from reading to running, and from professional tasks to in-home fix-ups. When I work, I tend to be more active and more social, and it exhilarates me.

Spiritual seeking is not reality based, and it's not work. To seek is to denigrate reality because the seeker wants more or wants something else than reality. Seeking is work, but it's object is to cease working. The seeker looks to acquire something that will render seeking unnecessary. The seeker wants to arrive to a place where s/he can receive: receive enlightenment, receive peace, receive happiness, and so on.

People are enamored of seekers. They fashion seekers as romantic heroes, but this veneration is an old lie. A foolish, harmful lie.

Don't be a seeker. Be here and now. And let's work.

Rabbi Itzalok Predicts Week 4 NFL Winners (2011)

I predict which team will win the spiritual battle. And when I pick, it's a lock.

Rabbi Itzalok huddles with the Divine One to predict the outcome of each week's National Football League games.

To make matters even more interesting, the ever-sharp Rabbi I. tests his prophetic mettle against a computer picker and a fantasy league.

Here are this week's predicted winners:


Rabbi Itzalok Accuscore Pick 'em
Car@ChiChiChiChi
Buf@CinCinBufBuf
Ten@CleTenTenTen
Det@DalDalDalDet
Min@KCMinMinMin
Wsh@STL WshWshWsh
SF@PhiPhiPhiPhi
NO@JacNONONO
Pit@HouPitHouHou
NYG@AriNYGNYGNYG
Atl@SeaAtlAtlAtl
Den@GBGBGBGB
NE@OakNENENE
Mia@SDMiaSDSD
NYJ@BalBalBalBal
Ind@TBIndTBTB

Return to Forever: The Song So Far (Q3)


In a spacey mood this quarter. Here's Chick Corea and Return to Forever.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Original Sin, Faith, and the Limits of Reason


Philosopher Ed Feser is back defending the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin.

I prefer to lay out some observations rather than working through Feser's arguments point by point.


Observation 1: A Bit of Slipperiness
Feser's terminology in one particular spot bothers me:
In part I of this series (and in a response to critics of part I) I addressed the question of whether monogenism of the sort entailed by the doctrine of original sin is compatible with modern biology. I have argued that it is.
The slippery word above is "compatible." Modern biology may be compatible with original sin, but original sin is not compatible with modern biology. Original sin is not a concept of any value in modern biology; it isn't at all on the radar of modern biology. So it's not correct to assert compatibility. The better phrase is "not inconsistent," as in original sin is not inconsistent with modern biology. Now, let me be clear in stating that Feser does not try to make compatibility (the concept I've called slippery) the basis for an argument of the truth of the original sin doctrine. He deliberately refrains from doing this, and it is to his credit as a scholar and thinker.


Observation 2: Faith Grounded in Reason
The funniest part for me is Feser's justification of "faith":
Faith in the religious context -- or at least in the Catholic theological context -- is like that. To cite a representative definition, “faith is adhesion of the intellect, under the influence of grace, to a truth revealed by God, not on account of its intrinsic evidence but on account of the authority of Him who has revealed it” (Parente, Piolanti, and Garofalo, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, p. 101). That is to say, faith involves believing some proposition we could not have discovered on our own and perhaps cannot even fully understand, but which we know must be true because God, who is omniscient and cannot lie, has revealed it. But this faith is grounded in reason insofar as the claim that the proposition in question has in fact been revealed by God is something that can and should be independently rationally justified. In short, reason tells us that there is a God and that he has revealed such-and-such a truth; faith is then a matter of believing what reason has shown God to have revealed. In that sense faith is not only not at odds with reason but is grounded in reason.
In short, Feser says, he's convinced the Roman Catholic god exists and has said certain things, and he trusts his own convictions.

Faith, in other words, is believing in the things one believes in.


Observation 3: Getting Original Sin Right
After several paragraphs of prefatory material, Feser lays out the key issues involved in the doctrine of original sin:
Properly to understand the doctrine of original sin requires understanding what traditional theology says about what human beings were originally made for, what the offense of our first parents consisted in, what the punishment for that offense was, and the sense in which we have inherited that punishment.
Let me paraphrase the point made here: If you don't agree with traditional Roman Catholic theology's view of what human beings were created for, and so on, then you don't properly understand original sin. Substitute "Roman Catholic" for almost any religious tradition and you get to the same old BS we always get: Religion X is the one true way and everyone else takes a permanent vacation at the lake of fire. Ho-hum.

Here is an excerpt of Feser explaining original sin as understood through Scholastic theology.
[H]uman beings in their natural state have only a limited capacity to realize the ends their nature requires them to pursue in order that they might flourish. They have the raw materials needed for this pursuit, but the finitude of their intellectual, moral, and material endowments entails that there is no guarantee that each and every individual human being will in fact realize the ends in question, or realize them perfectly when they do realize them at all. Nature has granted us what it “owes” us given what we need in order to flourish as the kind of creatures we are, but no more than that. This is the situation Adam, Eve, and their descendants would have been in had God left the human race in its purely natural state.

But according to Christian theology, God offered to our first parents more than what was “owed” to us given our nature. He offered us a supernatural gift. Here it is crucial to understand what “supernatural” means in this context. It has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, and the like. What is meant is rather that God offered us a good that went above or beyond what our nature required us to have. In particular, he offered Adam and Eve the beatific vision – a direct, “face to face” knowledge of the divine essence which far transcends the very limited knowledge of God we can have through natural reason, and which would entail unsurpassable bliss of a kind we could never attain given our natural powers. He also offered special helps that would deliver us from the limitations of our natures – that would free us from the ignorance and error our intellectual limitations open the door to, the moral errors our weak wills lead us into, the sicknesses and injuries our bodily limitations make possible, and so forth.

By definition, none of this was “owed” to us, precisely because it is supernatural. Hence while God cannot fail to will for us what is good for us given our nature, He would have done us no wrong in refraining from offering these supernatural gifts to us, precisely because they go beyond what our nature requires for our fulfillment. Still, He offered them to us anyway. But this offer was conditional.
I offer the longish except here because Feser does a nice job of stringing his points together. Much of his argument is accumulative so that one cannot just read a point without going back and looking at the other points that make up the foundation.

The obvious question from the bit at the top is why God didn't create humans with greater capacity "to realize the ends their nature requires them to pursue in order that they might flourish." Why would God have made humans unable to flourish without being dependent upon Him?

Now, I have no doubt that Scholastic theology has an answer along the lines of humanity having been made perfectly to balance free will, morality, and all the divine attributes. Whatever the answer may be is not the point. The point is that this answer will be one part of a whole network of faith-based doctrines.

Faith-based doctrines: belief in the things you already believe.

At the end of the day, what we're talking about is post hoc rationalization. It's rationalization of a high order, but at some point we have to ask whether we will rely on the authority of reason alone without any empirical justification.

That's the question, ladies and gentlemen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Poll: Would You Worship a Flawed God?


Thanks to PollCode.com for helping me design this poll around something that's made me curious for a few years now.

I understand that to some people God is by definition all-good and all-powerful, etc. But think outside that box for a moment. What if God was actually a super-human, super-powerful being who made the Earth and its inhabitants?

That God would still demand worship and still be responsible for everything ascribed to him in the canonical Bible, so would praising and worshiping that being be an issue?

Would you still worship God if you learned incontrovertibly that he wasn't all-good or all-powerful?
 Yes. My God is my God.
 Yes. God is still my creator.
 Yes, but I am conflicted about it.
 No. What a disappointment.
 No. I'm really pissed at him too.
 Other. I'll explain in a comment.






  
pollcode.com free polls 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why Are the Faithful Crowing About the CERN "Faster than Light" Story?

From MSNBC: "The CERN Neutrinos to Gran Sasso experiment sends muon neutrinos through a tunnel at the French-Swiss border in the direction of a detector in Italy, more than 450 miles away."

The story is here.

I've seen a few posts from the religious and anti-science folk (here and here, for instance). They seem to be dancing at the possibility that Einstein/relativity was wrong.

To me, such celebration is wildly inappropriate. However "wrong"--is this word even applicable?--Einstein/relativity may be, the idea of a creator and personal god is not likely to be strengthened by improved knowledge of the physical universe.

Isn't such a potentially major updating of our understanding an indication that science is not rigid and dogmatic, as religious doctrine tends to be?

Finally, doesn't the story demonstrate that we gain new knowledge not from religion but from the sciences?

The news is certainly eye-popping and interesting, but I'll wait until independent observers have duplicated the findings before getting too excited.

Rabbi Itzalok Predicts Week 3 NFL Winners (2011)

I predict which team will win the spiritual battle. And when I pick, it's a lock.

Rabbi Itzalok huddles with the Divine One to predict the outcome of each week's National Football League games.

To make matters even more interesting, the ever-sharp Rabbi I. tests his prophetic mettle against a computer picker and a fantasy league.

Here are this week's predicted winners:

Rabbi ItzalokAccuscorePick 'em
NE@BufBufNENE
SF@CinSFSFSF
Mia@CleMiaMiaCle
Den@TenDenTenTen
Det@MinDetDetDet
Hou@NONONONO
NYG@PhiPhiPhiPhi
Jac@CarCarCarCar
NYJ@OakNYJNYJNYJ
Bal@STLBalBalBal
KC@SDSDSFDal
GB@ChiGBGBGB
Ari@SeaAriAriAri
Atl@TBAtlTBAtl
Pit@IndPitPitPit
Was@DalWasDalDal

Thursday, September 22, 2011

With Prayer, the Medium Is the Message

Marshall McLuhan.

A few years ago, and then for about a year or year-and-a-half, I sought to recite Jewish prayers every day. I would perform the prayers around waking up and getting ready to start the day. I would do the morning prayers, following my Chabad prayer book, or Siddur. I did afternoon and evening prayers as well.

Maintaining the dedication to pray daily, and over the course of the day, was difficult, but the practice was enjoyable enough. The content of the meditations was by and large unobjectionable, although those who are familiar with Jewish prayer know that some content can easily be construed as insular, bigoted, and nasty.

Self-reflection is a good thing. People should make time to quietly contemplate their genuine desires and priorities. People should review their behavior and their wishes to grow and improve as moral agents.

My point is that the general activities of prayer can be separated from gods and from religious prescriptions. One way to illustrate this separation is to view prayer activities across different religious traditions. As the videos below show, prayer most always involves the petitioner gathering her or himself as a humble, vulnerable human being. The activity sometimes involves a demonstration of submission or devotion. Often, prayer makes use of a script and/or a song.

These features all suggest the point of prayer is the act itself. The point is to use one's mind, body, and emotions in performance; the point is not really any god and it's not even the hope of being answered. Prayer, then, can be understood as McLuhan-esque, for the medium is the message.

To the videos....

An example of Jewish prayer, with prostration:


Zoroastrian prayer:


How to pray like Jesus:


Rationale behind Greek Orthodox Christian prayer, including "The Jesus Prayer":


Prayer in Islam:


Hindu prayer:


Buddhist prayer:


Jain prayer:


A Wiccan prayer:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hardline Atheism Is Intellectually Productive


Philosopher Edward Feser posts an interesting, albeit smarmy, taxonomy of atheist attitudes. It's worth checking out, but it also has a "most hostile atheist attitude" that needs to be taken to the woodshed.

Feser calls this the position of "vulgar cranks" such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, P.Z. Myers, and Jerry Coyne.

According to Feser, this vulgar attitude has very little regard for the theoretical aspect of religion, defined as religion's "metaphysical commitments and the way in which its practical teachings are systematically articulated":
1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.
Notice the identification of this as the level-one attitude. It's counterpart on the practical side, religion's "moral teachings and rituals," is categorized as the A level by Feser:
A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of. The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition. Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry. Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history. Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context. They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.
Thus, the A1 atheist is the New (or Gnu) Atheist.

Feser goes beyond clever categorization, however. His real argument is that the A1 atheists are mean poopyheads who really don't know what they're talking about. The A1s, he says,
are invariably the ones who are the least well-informed about what the religions they criticize actually believe, and the least rational when one tries to discuss the subject with them. And when you think about it, even before one gets into the specifics it is pretty clear that A1 is prima facie simply not a very reasonable attitude to take about at least the great world religions. To think that it is reasonable, you have to think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations -- Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al. -- had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition, more or less rationally groundless and morally out of sync with the deepest human needs. And that simply isn’t plausible. Indeed, it’s pretty obviously ridiculous. Even if all religious belief turned out to be wrong, it simply is not at all likely that its key aspects -- and especially those aspects that recur in most or all religions -- could have survived for so long across so many cultures and attracted the respect of so many intelligent minds unless they had some significant appeal both to our intellectual and moral natures.
And Feser finally gets around to his own version of the New-Atheists-as-religious-fundamentalists argument, as we knew he would:
When one considers the prima facie implausibility of the A1 attitude together with the ill-informed smugness and irrationality of those who approximate it, it is pretty clear that its roots are not intellectual but emotional -- that it affords those beholden to it a sense of superiority over others, an enemy on which to direct their hatreds and resentments, a way to rationalize their rejection of certain moral restraints they dislike, and so forth. In other words, A1 atheism is pretty much exactly the sort of ill-informed bigotry and wish-fulfillment A1 atheists like to attribute to religious believers.
Although one can quibble convincingly at Feser's descriptions, let's accept them. And let's accept for argument's sake that Gnus indeed hold the A1 position. Now, let's think a bit about Feser's assertion:
A1 is prima facie simply not a very reasonable attitude to take about at least the great world religions
Feser will apparently tolerate dissing any cult or religion, so long as it is not one of the "great" ones. But you gotta respect the greats, he says. For them, the A1 position really is unreasonable.

Enough of  my mocking. Truthfully, I see nothing wrong with asking what the serious intellectual content of a "great" religion is, and why our default attitude toward it should be one of taking it seriously. The A1 attitude is extreme--no question--but it is not unreasonable, despite Feser's objection:
To think that it is reasonable, you have to think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations -- Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al. -- had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition, more or less rationally groundless and morally out of sync with the deepest human needs. And that simply isn’t plausible.
Contra Feser, I think it surely is plausible. Why couldn't these thinkers--great though they are--have been mistaken, bigoted, superstitious, fast-and-loose with reason, and at some distance from human moral needs? If we evaluate these thinkers by contemporary definitions of bigotry, superstition, rationality, morality, and understanding of human nature, then all of them fall short in many respects.

This is not unfair or unduly harsh. This is, rather, as it should be. The religiosos were wrong. We see that now. It's cool, and we can move on from it.

But what about the rest of Feser's appeal in the paragraph we have been studying?
Even if all religious belief turned out to be wrong, it simply is not at all likely that its key aspects -- and especially those aspects that recur in most or all religions -- could have survived for so long across so many cultures and attracted the respect of so many intelligent minds unless they had some significant appeal both to our intellectual and moral natures.
That Feser's in deep water here is evident in light of earlier comments. Religion's "significant appeal" lasts insofar as one ignores the force of contemporary insights into "our intellectual and moral natures." Dismiss the picture of "free will" or "the soul" being drawn by modern neuroscience and one can remain attached to religion. Otherwise, such concepts as free will and the soul become so highly problematic as to be eliminated from serious consideration as hypotheses about reality.

Feser can hardly fault any atheist for viewing religious belief as superstition. To an atheist, theism is a form of superstition. Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia's four species of superstition:
improper worship of the true God (indebitus veri Dei cultus);
idolatry;
divination;
vain observances, which include magic and occult arts.
An atheist sees any worship to any god as improper. Similarly, any worship is idolatry. Messianic impulses and assertions of going to heaven or hell are forms of divination. Eucharistic practices, baptism, inviting in Elijah the prophet for Passover, and so forth are all examples of vain observance.

Intellectual necessity impels the atheist to view religion as superstition, not hostility.

Feser's problem, if I may be so bold, is that he doesn't take the A1 position seriously, and he should. He waves it away as prima facie unreasonable and implausible, but he ought to work harder to examine religion from the logical position represented by A1. This is the position that wants to define "serious intellectual content" from the ground up. For example, Augustine doesn't get a free pass as serious intellectual content because his books are popular and influential. Neither does religious practice escape scrutiny for being "traditional" or even "universal."

The A1 position is extreme. It may even appear aggressive. But it is an intellectually productive position precisely because it is provocative. Those of us who aspire to intellectual growth often appreciate intellectual provocation. Although Feser and his camp may object, asserting that the Gnus say nothing new or philosophically interesting. To them I reply, "you're not really listening."

Wednesday Comedy: ALPHA Male

Hmm. We talk. Good.

My wife and I have been invited to participate in a Christian group called an Alpha Course.

I'm going to need to brush up on my alpha male techniques.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Creationists Aren't Funny


Steve Fuller, a regular at Uncommon Descent (as an aside, UD's new site design is hideous), posts the following video to mark the release of a Richard Dawkins's book, The Magic of Reality:



This brief-yet-tedious video gets Dawkins all wrong, reducing his main argument to evolution as "chance plus time." The video also implies that Dawkins has no physical, empirical, or logical support for his argument--it's all and only "magic."

Fuller may not actually be a creationist--I have no idea and no care, actually--but he distorts and crows like one.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rabbi Itzalok Predicts Week 2 NFL Winners (2011)

I predict who will win the spiritual battle.

Rabbi Itzalok huddles with the Divine One to predict the outcome of each week's National Football League games.

To make matters even more interesting, the ever-sharp Rabbi I. tests his prophetic mettle against a computer picker and a fantasy league.

Here are this week's predicted winners:

Rabbi ItzalokAccuscorePick 'em
Oak@BufBufBufBuf
KC@DetDetDetDet
Bal@TenBalBalBal
Cle@IndIndIndInd
TB@MinTBTBMin
Chi@NONONONO
Jac@NYJNYJNYJNYJ
Sea@PitPitPitPit
Ari@WshWshWshWsh
GB@CarGBGBGB
Dal@SFSFSFDal
Cin@DenCinDenDen
Hou@MiaMiaMiaHou
SD@NESDNENE
Phi@AtlPhiAtlPhi
StL@NYGNYGNYGNYG

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: How to Be a Funny Female Comedian

Comedian Amy Schumer.
I'll be honest: I didn't search for another picture to use instead of this one.

I deliberately avoided the word "comedienne."



Sunday, September 11, 2011

Friday, September 02, 2011

We Belly Full but They Hungry

Answer: False. See FeedingAmerica.org.
In the 26 August New York Times, Charles M. Blow notes how US policies sometimes match poorly with reality:
We have a growing crisis among the nation’s children, yet our policies ignore that reality at best and exacerbate it at worst.

According to a report issued this week by the Guttmacher Institute, the unintended pregnancy rate among poor women has jumped 50 percent since 1994, yet a July report from the institute points out that politicians are setting records passing laws to restrict abortion. It said: “The 80 abortion restrictions enacted this year are more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005--and more than triple the 23 enacted in 2010.” Add to this the assault by conservatives on Planned Parenthood, and what are we saying?

This is what we’re saying: actions have consequences. If you didn’t want a child, you shouldn’t have had sex. You must be punished by becoming a parent even if you know that you are not willing or able to be one.

This is insane.

Even if you follow a primitive religious concept of punishment for sex, as many on the right seem to do, you must at some point acknowledge that it is the child, not the parent, who will be punished most by our current policies that increasingly advocate for “unborn children” but fall silent for those outside the womb.

This is not how a rational society operates.
One might legitimately retort that it's not sex per se being punished but unprotected sex. But such a retort misses the bigger points, which are that the drive to punish (women) is itself both misguided and unfair, and that the children of unintended pregnancies ultimately suffer more.

The entire article has plenty of substance worth reading and considering. Let me offer one more bit of it:
Now is when we need government to step up and be smart.

This is exactly the wrong time to do what the Republicans would have us do. In their 2012 budget, they propose cutting nutrition programs as part of austerity measures so that we don’t leave our children saddled with debt. Meanwhile, they completely ignore the fact that those cuts could leave even more children saddled with physical or developmental problems.

They want to hold the line on tax breaks for the wealthy, not paying attention to the fact that our growing income inequality, which could be reversed, continues to foster developmental inequality, which is almost impossible to reverse.

We have to start this conversation from a different point. We must ask: “What kind of society do we want to build, and what kinds of workers, soldiers and citizens should populate that society?” If we want that society to be prosperous and safe and filled with healthy, well-educated and well-adjusted people, then the policy directions become clear.

They are almost the exact opposite of what we are doing.
I agree completely with Mr. Blow. The federal budget is a serious matter. As an American taxpayer, I am concerned about what the government does with the money it collects. I want taxes to go toward investing in the US, which is to say investing in its people, which is to say people in the poor and lower middle classes.

How do we invest in people? By providing them opportunities for food, medicine, education, and work when no other opportunities are available.

Yet, investing in the poor doesn't even seem to be on the negotiating table in today's political climate. Our current policy direction is not one of investment but rather feeble pretense to authority, as if piling on abortion restrictions demonstrates that the good ol' Bible-based patriarchy is still working.

American policies increasingly look like what they really are: policing them. Containing them. Barricading them so that the rest of us can move on--even as more of us become them.

Such policies will not work in the long-term, as reggae man Bob Marley knew:
Them belly full but we hungry.
A hungry mob is an angry mob.
A rain a-fall but the dirt it tough.
A pot a-cook but the food not 'nough.