Sunday, 26 September 2010

Let's make god tonight!

I was directed to this talk given Daniel Denett by Luke Clayborn Hopper.

I actually love this talk. Dennett is such a mischievious philosopher, wickedly pouring scorn on the sloppy thinking he finds in the religious faith communities.

However having listened to the talk, I got involved in a conversation with some people on facebook about the talk, and this blog post is the result of that conversation.

We all speak a language that we have at best only partial control over. For most of us, most of the words, phrases and even sentences that we use have been inherited.

Perhaps sometimes when we talk to each other we make new connections, and consequently we invent new pieces of language? We find ourselves saying things that we have never said or heard before; ideas which are surprising even to the speaker who happens to be speaking.

I tend to think that it is useful to think about religious ideas in a similar way to the way that we think about art. It doesn't occur to us to have to ask about a great work of art: "Is this true?" A much more pertinent question is: "Is this beautiful?" ... Is what you or I have to say about Ggod beautiful? Or is it ugly? Is judaism/christianity/islam beautiful? Or is it ugly? Or which parts of it are beautiful? Which parts are ugly?

Scientistic thinking tends to be less good at addressing issues of beauty or goodness than it does addressing issues of truth. Creating an opposition between science and religion is a bit like creating an opposition between science and art. Although science and art have a lot to contribute to each other’s discipline and each other's area of expertise, they do a less good job at judging the value of the other. Holding science up in this way tends to weaken scientists attempts to educate people. People looking for spiritual answers fail to find them there, and subsequently get infected with mythic and magical religion.

Holding science up in opposition to religion is a big home-goal w.r.t. human advancement on the part of scientists. The path forward from mythic, magical, tribe-centred spirituality is a path towards all-human-centred, global (really universal) oneness. It points in the direction of universal love. It points in the direction of ecstatic union; it points in the direction of ecstatic union being the normal condition of living for all people. It has only one of its many faces pointing to science, all be it that face from a certain point of view is a very beautiful one.

One of the clich├ęs that gets bandied about is that “god is love”. But I tend to think that god is the state of a relationship that is beyond love. God and love and not the same state. That is why we have two words. So it would be better to say that god is a state of a relationship which is beyond the state of love. When you are in a relationship with someone which is in a higher state than love (a state which includes and transcends love, and thereby goes beyond love) we could say that the state of your relationship is the state of god. This is why I like to say “Lets make god in our relationships”.

In reflecting on these thoughts, I wrote this over on my poetry blog: Let's make god tonight!

And then someone asked me: What is "scientistic" thinking?

And this is what I wrote: or ...

Perhaps I am not using the best word.

I just mean that kind of way of thinking about life which uses the authority of science to justify its self-righteousness and fails to honour how much more there is to being human than merely understanding QM and gravity. The grammar of our lives occurs in the first person and second person - not only the third person.

Saying "God does not exist" is as vacuous as saying "God does exist". Neither statement makes any difference to anything. Except some people can get to have an argument about it. I would guess that that is why Karen Armstrong says: "that is the wrong question".

Which prompted me to consider what would be a more useful question?

Here is what I came up with:

What relationship could I have with the eternal such that having that relationship would make the world a better place?

Or to spell it out in a bit more detail:

What relationship can I design for myself to have with the eternal (everything / all of it / all of everything / the whole shebang [… shh… whisper this … god … whisper even quieter …. and / or any other human being]) … what relationship can I design for myself to have with the eternal such that having that relationship with the eternal would make the world a better place for myself, my community and the world at large?

Could we design our relationship(s) with the eternal explicitly and deliberately from the design principle of causing the betterment of humanity?

And then later on I wrote this:

It is not science that is the problem. Science can be wondrous, beautiful, useful, transcendent, nurturing, exciting, life-sustaining. The problem is using science as a smoke screen that blinds us to The Mystery. Like as though there is no mystery. We just sweep the mystery under the carpet of science.

There is A Mystery that lies at the heart of being and the heart of being human. We don’t know! We really don’t know. All good education points humanity in the direction of realizing our fundamental ignorance.

I am not advocating sloppy thinking either on the part of people who spend their lives contemplating The Mystery nor on the part of people who spend their lives contemplating a Unified Field Theory. I am merely suggesting that we should not measure success in spirituality by the measure of what constitutes success in physics or philosophy.

A successful spirituality is one that supports individuals and groups and communities in the being the designers of their own relationship with the eternal (the whole-thing, whatever you want to call that). It is a spirituality that points in the direction of peace between people – communities, families, neighbours, countries, tribes. It tends to unite people, to be a cause for celebration, joy, happiness, ecstasy. A successful spirituality protects people from their fears, allows us to reconcile ourselves with our own suffering and the suffering of others. Until such time as humanity manages to transcend death, a successful spirituality ultimately supports us in preparing ourselves for our own death and the death of those we love.

None of this necessarily requires a discussion of god’s existence or otherwise (unless you think it does). In fact none of that necessarily requires a dogmatic cosmology or worldview of any kind. Does god exist? I don’t care… How are we doing? How are we getting on? I care about that!

When speaking about the realm of Mystery, the questions we ask are critically important. Getting attached to answers that we come up with in response to those questions is simply a mistake. Any such answers are like places we pass through on a journey. They are not places to set up camp and defend to the death. They make absolutely rubbish justifications to pin tribal conflicts on to.

The realm of Mystery is a realm where the more open a question is the more useful and beautiful that question tends to be. It is a realm that invites us to ask ever more beautiful questions, in full awareness that no answers to those questions are ever going to be satisfying. It is the questions themselves (if they are any good) that nurture us.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Simon Schaffer: Communicating Knowledge is Also Always Making It

Simon Schaffer (Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University):

"[The main theme of my professional life since arriving back in Cambridge] has been working out all the consequences I can think of of the idea that communicating knowledge is also always making it. So there's a very common idea which has initial plausibility but which is in fact completely false that what one is at as a scholar or researcher or whatever is working solidly backstage making knowledge, finding out new truths, making connections, and then subsequently somewhere else in a completely different way, all of this is going to be communicated. Its going to be communicated by publication, in teaching, in broadcasting, in exhibitions and so on.

"And I guess my experience over the last quarter of a century is that that's exactly the wrong picture of what happens. And on the contrary almost all the good ideas that I've ever had (there aren't very many of them) have happened in the process of deliberating, communicating, exchanging and so on, working with students (especially PhD students), and working with teams to organise and put on and interpret and plan and discuss exhibitions, and work in museums, working with groups around broadcasting on radio and television and so on. All of that has provided me with the places and opportunities to actually find out new stuff. And on the contrary the arrow almost points in the oposite direction (counter intuitively); it points from the museum to the study, it points from the [student] supervision to the article, it points from the televison programme to the book... not the other way round. And in retrospect that's really what I spent the last 25 years doing: television."

Mostly I'm posting the video here for the section I have transcribed above. You might want to move on the talk by Steven Johnson after the first couple of minutes. He is discussing a very similar idea but from a less academic standpoint.

There is a rough transcript of this video here: Transcript of 2008 interview with Simon Schaffer - starting from the section titled "Third session". (The transcript also has notes from the previous sections of the interview.) However above is a much more accurate transcript of just this very short section from the beginning of this video.

As well as being on YouTube, the whole interview from 2008 can be downloaded : here, although I would say that for the general viewer far the most interesting section is the final part.

I was reminded of this interview by watching this TED video which is kind of a presentation of a similar idea but from a less academically oriented sphere:

Steven Johnson - discusses: Where good ideas come from?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Pickup Artists, Seduction, Feminists, Emotional Manipulation and Intention

I wrote the following blog post in response to a discussion I stumbled across about "Pickup Artists". (See Wikipedia on Pickup artists and this somewhat confrontational discussion on "Feminist Pitbull": A thread for discussing Elana Clift’s Thesis “Picking Up and Acting Out: Politics of Masculinity in the Seduction Community” ... and a book or 2 about it: The Pickup Artist: The New and Improved Art of Seduction and The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists )

Here is what I think about this:

All human interaction is a kind of manipulation. It is not manipulation that is the problem, but what type of manipulation is being practised. What I mean is: what purpose/intention is the manipulation serving.

For example we don't always tell people that we don't know very well the brutal truth about themselves. This is otherwise known as "Not Hurting People's Feelings". In this kind of way (such as "Not Hurting People's Feelings") in all interactions between people all of us try to get more of what we want out of each other, and less of what we don't want.

So ultimately none of this is really that important. Its more of a kind of "given". Of course you are going to try to do your best to take care of other people's feelings.

Much more important therefore is the intentions you have about what you do with that. For example: Are you trying to make the world a better place, or are you simply trying to increase the size of the pile that you yourself happen to be sitting on. At the end of the day, it is our INTENTIONS that matter. And they matter MORE than the means by which we go about achieving them.

I don't mean to suggest that good ends can be used to justify bad means. Only that in the situation that is being talked about here, namely the way we all manipulate each other's feelings so as to get more of what we want from each other and less of what we don't want, the skill with which we do that is not so critical as the purpose in aid of which that skill is being put to use.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Transfinite vs. Absolute Infinity, Multiverse vs. Universe, and the Silence that Comes from asking the Unanswerable Question

This is a pre-1909 image of Georg Cantor (he w...Image via WikipediaOut of the many types of infinities that get discussed, two of them seem IMO to stand in greatest contrast to each other: the "Transfinite" Infinity described by Cantor (an infinity that you get to by starting at 1 and adding 1 to it infinitely many times) and the Absolute Infinity which is an infinity that you get to just by being there in the first place. Absolute infinity cannot be arrived at by starting from somewhere else. You can only get to Absolute infinity by starting from Absolute infinity. However big your transfinite infinity gets, it never quite reaches the absolute. Although another word for Absolute Infinity could possibly be Zero. There is at the very least a poetic correspondence between Zero and Absolute Infinity. Like the man said: Everything == Nothing. 

It doesn't seem to me to be likely that we are going to be able to do an experiment in our universe that can empirically prove or disprove the existence of other universes. If such an experiment existed, I would be inclined to include that other universe into this one, and think of it more as a branch of our universe. The point of the word "Universe" being in part a place where we draw a boundary around everything that is measurable or detectable in our experience. I don't mean to put any stop to multi-verse speculation... but surely it is only ever going to be speculation?

The really satisfying and nurturing part of this conversation for me is the appreciation of the extent of the mystery. We don't know and we don't know and we don't know. We really Don't Know. Personally I enjoy listening to the silence that comes from asking the unanswerable question.