Thursday, November 28, 2013

'[Bertrand Russell's] autobiography occasionally reveals a more complex and ambivalent relationship to religion. In particular, he relates an episode in 1901 when he witnessed the wife of his Cambridge colleague Alfred Whitehead suffer intense pain due to heart problems, causing Russell to have what can only be described as a spiritual insight. "The ground seemed to give way beneath me and I found myself in quite another region," he writes. "Within five minutes I went through such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that.


What caused the disparity between Russell's "official" view of religion and his personal experience? Why was he unwilling to bring this experience to bear on his critique of religion? The answer seems to lie in his deep methodological commitment to both rationalism and scientific empiricism: Russell tended to treat "religion" as either a body of doctrines to be intellectually analysed, or as a phenomenon to be observed objectively from the outside. In the first case, Russell found flawed arguments; in the second, flawed institutions perpetrating violence and oppression. His own spiritual insights belonged to a different order – and although they changed his life deeply, they were not allowed to change his philosophical position.'

Sunday, November 17, 2013

In a culture of sombre oppression, silliness assumes a radical significance.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"... what happened to poetry in the twentieth century was that it began to be written for the page."

Power Relations - I: Advice of an old-school psychiatrist to a young trainee on managing a domineering drug-seeker as Foucault frowns from heaven
Awais Aftab

till he knows who is in charge."
restrain and medicate,
restrain and medicate,
A hint of any more trouble:
Give him a taste of humiliation
You have to take control

How obnoxious is he!
Manipulating other patients into giving him their meds
Shouting at nurses and doctors
The benzos and the opiates
And make us prescribe what he wants
"He thinks he can raise a storm

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Awais Aftab

shredding lines;
waiting for poetry
to happen

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"By the mid-1940s Camus had begun to speak about his books as being organized according to different "stages" (├ętages) or "cycles" (cycles). The first draft of that organization appears in his notebooks in 1946, just shortly after the publication of The Plague. Camus continued to refine and nuance its formulation well into the fifties. The last version we have occurs in Carnets III and was written in 1955. The version to which most commentators refer when discussing this aspect of Camus' work is usually a synthesis of two separate versions. The 1950 version found in Notebooks, 1942-1951 uses a familiar triptych of Greek myths as its organizing principle. "I. The Myth of Sisyphus (absurd) — II. The Myth of Prometheus (revolt) — III. The Myth of Nemesis. 1951." The final 1955 version does not change this one substantially. Rather it completes it by supplying the governing theme missing from the Nemesis cycle—love..."

The absurd, the revolt, and love.

"In one of his most revealing essays, ‘The Enigma’ (1950), Camus expressed his annoyance at being constantly associated with the philosophy of the absurd. He had only explored a topic much in the air. His analysis of absurdity was always meant to be a starting point, nothing more. It is neither possible nor consistent, he asserted, to “limit oneself to the idea that nothing has meaning and we must despair of everything… As soon as we say that all is nonsense we express something that has sense.” Denying that the world has meaning involves “suppressing all value judgments.” However, living is in itself “a value judgment.”

This essay spoke directly to the contrasting strains in Camus’ thought: the cold materialism of contemporary philosophy, and the warm joy of lived experience. The road beyond absurdity lay close at hand. It had nothing to do with embracing transcendence or abstract absolutes, it was rather a confidence in directly savored experience. He described this path as an “instinctive fidelity to a light where I was born and where, for millennia, men have learned to salute life even in suffering.” Celebrate both life’s joys and its suffering. Embrace neither a simple ‘yes’ nor a simple ‘no.’ Rather seek an integrative ‘yes’ that makes room for a ‘no’. At the heart of things there is for Camus what he says was central to Aeschylus – not a lack of meaning, but an enigma. [...]

Camus had projected a comprehensive series of works divided into three cycles. The first two, the cycle of the absurd and the cycle of revolt, he got to accomplish. The third could have taken him into a realm where an overarching ‘yes’ nonetheless incorporates the need to struggle associated with a ‘no’. He called it the cycle of love. To our dismay and loss, he never got to create it."

Ray Boisvert, Camus: Between Yes & No, Philosophy Now

"Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since [Susan Sontag's] death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one."

Mark O'Connell, The Intellectual, review of Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thomas Nagel reviews Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene, on what moral psychology has to offer to moral philosophy.

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #10: The Law of Religion

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

For Dr Harari, a belief system has to fulfil two criteria for it to be called a religion:

1) Religion must believe in a superhuman (not necessarily supernatural) order
2) Religion establishes norms and values which are derived from the superhuman order

Some religions have argued for a universal order, a set of norms and values which everybody everywhere must follow, but not all religions have made this claim. Universal and missionary religions, in this sense, appeared in the first millennium BC. (It is the third force that contributed to the historical trend towards global unification.)

Most polytheists, while they believed in a multiplicity of gods who have a personal interest in humankind, also believed in a supreme fundamental principle (which may or may not be a god) against which even the gods are helpless. Greeks, for instance, believed in Fate (Moira or Ananke), and Hindus believe in Atman, the eternal soul of the entire universe. The crucial point, however, is that this supreme power of the universe has no concern for the interests of humans. That is why the polytheists did not pray to the supreme power, but instead to the local gods, who could hear their prayers and answer them.

Because polytheists believed in many gods, and therefore many different ways of worship and living, they tended to be much more tolerant. The persecution of Christians by Romans was for political reasons and not because of religious intolerance. Romans did not expect Christians to give up their faith, but they did expect them to respect their gods, in particular to pay reverence to emperor as a god, which to them was a sign of political loyalty. The refusal of Christians to do so was seen as an act of political subversion. Even so, the persecution of Christians by Romans pales in contrast to the persecution of heretical Christians by the Catholic Church in the centuries to follow by several magnitudes.

Monotheism was born by believing that a particular local god is also the supreme power of the universe, while believing that this god has biases and interests in humans, and deals can be made with him. Monotheism first originated in in Egypt but remained a small player in history for the most part. It became significant with the origin of Christianity, when it embraced the ideal of a universal religion offering salvation to all of humankind. Because monotheists believe that their god is the only true God, they have tended to be much more fanatical and missionary, and they have been compelled to discredit all other religions.

Even though monotheism replaced polytheism for the most part in the course of history, polytheism continued to survive within monotheism. The polytheistic practices and beliefs were simply incorporated within the belief system of monotheism, and coloured accordingly. For instance, the pantheon of polytheistic local gods got incorporated into Christianity with the notion of Christian saints. In many cases, the name of a particular local god simply became the name of the local patron saint.

Dualistic religions posed two independent deities, one good and one evil, and the world as the battle between forces of good and evil. Dualistic religions do not face the problem of evil, which poses a great difficulty for monotheism and which most theologians struggle to explain. However, at the same time dualistic religions face what Dr Harari calls the problem of order: if there are two independent gods, then which god determines the rules of the universe (and hence the rules of the battle between good and evil)? The only theology which would solve both problems simultaneously would be a belief in an evil God, but no religion in history has ever believed in such a deity.

Like polytheism, dualism also became an integral part of monotheism in the form of Satan or the devil. In a consistent monotheism, the idea of devil as an evil force subverting the will of an omnipotent God doesn't even make sense, but humans are remarkably capable of believing conflicting things. Similarly, there is no logic of Holy War or Jihad in monotheism where an omnipotent God requires the help of believers to defeat the forces of evil. It's a legacy of dualism. So is the case with Heaven and Hell.

Another category of religions, prominent in the East, are natural law religion. They posit that the supreme order of the universe is a product of natural laws. Gods, if they exist, are subject to these natural laws. One of the prime examples of this is Buddhism, the basic doctrine of which is the law of Dharma: Suffering arises from craving, the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be liberated from suffering, and that can be done by training your mind to experience reality as it is. Other examples of the natural law religions are Daoism and Jainism

Dr Harari ends, controversially, by talking about the natural law religions of the modern age. These are the Humanist religions, such as liberalism and socialism. Dr Harari believes they fit his definition of religion because they give superhuman legitimacy (albeit not supernatural) to the norms and values they advocate. Nonetheless, he says that calling them religion is a semantic quibble, and calling them ideologies instead of religion doesn't change the actual reality.

He identifies three main strands of the modern natural law religions:

1) Liberal humanism (or Liberalism): believes the supreme sacred value to be the liberty of individuals, and this is the source of all ethical and political authority. It's commandments are in the form of human rights.

2) Social humanism or (Socialism): considers equality between all humans as the ultimate virtue and inequality as the worst evil.

3) Evolutionary humanism (exemplified by Nazism): Evolutionary humanism holds a different ideal of humanity, based on a certain understanding of Darwinian evolution. Nazism, for instance, wanted to weed out 'unfit and degenerate individuals' for the benefit of humanity. With the death of Nazism, this strand of humanism went into decline as well, but it is expected to resurge in future in a new form which doesn't focus on genocide of lesser individuals, but rather on enhancement of human race by means of biotechnology.

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #9: Imperial Visions

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

In last lecture it was discussed that three orders contributed to the historical trend towards global unification: 1) Economic order, 2) Political (Imperial) order, and 3) Religious order. This lecture is about the political order.

Dr Harari defines empires as having two primary characteristics:

1) Cultural diversity: Empires rule over a number of different groups of people with different cultural identities.
2) Flexible borders and an appetite for potentially unlimited growth and expansion.

Crucially, empires are not defined by the system of government nor by their size. 

The first empire in history that we know of is the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great, from around 2250 BC. Sargon conquered all Mesopotamian states and many regions outside, from Persian gulf to the Mediterranean. He boasted, mistakenly, that he had conquered the entire earth. Soon after this death, the empire collapsed. However, it left behind the imperial dream of conquering the entire world.

In the fifth century BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia founded the Achaemenid Empire. Unlike previous conquerors, he made a radical claim. He claimed that he was conquering others for their own benefit. He did not see himself as Persian king ruling over other nations. He saw himself as the king of all humans. It was a new inclusive and all-encompassing ideology, while people for the large part had seen people of other nations as barbarians or not even humans. Similar ideas arose independently in several places at several times in history, and justified the spread of a superior supreme culture of the world that would benefit everyone. The Han Chinese empire, the Roman empire, Muslim Caliphs, Spanish and Portuguese empires, the British empire, all of them used the same logic. Even today, Dr Harari comments, people argue that USA has the ethical responsibility to bring democracy and human rights to the third world ('barbarian') countries. 

Often the conquered people adopted the culture of the conquering class and when that happened, over time (centuries) they merged to form a single culture. For example, Rome ruled the lands around the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. And after centuries, most of the people conquered were considered Romans and were allowed to be a part of the Roman military and bureaucracy. Emperor Septimius Severus, came from modern-day Libya, from a Punic family, against whom Romans had fought. There are examples of other Roman emperors as well.

A similar process happened in Middle East with Arab empire. Egypt, for instance, had an entirely different cultural identity, but after it's conquest by the Muslims, over time the Egyptians came to identify themselves as Arabs.

All human cultures today are, at least in part, the legacy of empires of imperial civilization. There are no authentic cultures untouched by imperial influences. The ideal of cultures to revert back to some ideal, pre-imperial, more authentic cultural identity is a fruitless ideal.

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenshot from Joss Whedon's 2012 adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Often we are too eager to accept our flaws as permanent character traits because it absolves us of the responsibility to change.


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