Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Is Belief in God the way to peace?

(I was recently at a debate at Queens university to see and take part in a debate concerning the above question-this is my own response to it.)

What God needs be believed in, for peace? Is it Thor? Is it Zeus? Apollo maybe? How should this God, if he exists, be worshipped? Prostrations several times a day towards a fixed location on the earths sphere? Imbibing wafer biscuits, in a bizarre, symbolic act of cannibalism?-how about burnt offerings of livestock- or better yet, of humans? Of course the Homeric Gods are dead, just as the Gods of the Norse and Mayan have also perished, reposing in the graveyard of myth and ignorance, of our bloody and desperate past. The Gods we concern ourselves with today are of the sky-God desert religions-the Abrahamic faiths-the “religions of the book”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Needless to say, they don’t believe in the same God, or worship their God in the same way. Pushed to their logical conclusion they are all in direct competition with one another, not only for their own survival, but for the souls of every man, woman and child on the planet. Look to their eschatology’s for how human history will be written, invariably you will find, holy war, holy terror, and hell on earth. Messiahs coming back to judge the living and the dead. Christians floating off into sky, Jesus serving in the ranks of the Mahdi, waging Jihad against the infidels; and the earth going up in an apocalyptic fireball, of religious frenzy. This is what belief means for earth, this is where human civilisation is supposedly heading. As Jesus himself said “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not send peace but a sword.” What does this mean--well as scripture say “The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” 2 Peter 3:10

Do I need to say more? Do I need to go on? Well, lets start with the barbarism and tribalism that has engulfed my own country of birth. Northern Ireland, a pokey little country, of just over a million souls, on the edge of western Europe, who have for centuries been at each others throats-- and at each others--knees. The conflict is of course largely political but it arose out of oppression and inequality, justified and perpetuated by religious myths and differences. It was not that long go that politicians of this country uttered statements-- “A Protestant parliament, for Protestant people for a Protestant country”. Who would not see what would happen when each side denounces each other as idolatrous heretics and antichrists? Do I need to recount the litany of misdeeds that religion has accumulated in this country? Do I need to mention the drills going into peoples knees? Or the method of butchery we call knee-capping? Petrol bombs used to drive families out of their homes? The enforced ghettoizing, impoverishing and balkanizing of separate communities. Much of it self created and self policed as witness- women beaten and molested by paramilitary groups for holding relationships with the other side? Unwritten taboos over marring out, the separation of children into faith schools, a ready made identity foisted onto them and encouraged to hate the other side. Did belief in God cause peace and prosperity here? Or did it cause murder and misery?

Did belief in God cause peace and prosperity during the middle ages? Did it stop England from descending into civil war? Was it a peaceful, joyous time when women were hunted and prosecuted and burnt for witchcraft? How much inner harmony and equanimity resided in a poor unfortunate-- suffering the gruesome pleasures of the rack? Or having to be branded with a B on the forehead--accused of being a blasphemer? Or men having their arms dislocated in a process called Squassation? I wonder, really- how pious and noble did Christians feel during the two thousand years of Jew baiting that concluded in the crematoria of Auschwitz’s?
Who else today is guilty of that ugly and rancid ideology of anti-Semitism? That talks of a global, Zionist conspiracy? That Jews are pigs, rats and apes? I think we all know. Its been at it again, in India, in Mumbai, in the East. Who did they single out for special treatment, Jews of course. Second on the list were Americans and British nationals. Hotels were targeted, as were caf├ęs. The western media seem to be relieved that it was not Al Qaeda, does it really make a difference… Who is going to stand up now and really, honestly, say that Islam is a religion of peace.

Islam especially,needs to be singled out for blame and opprobrium here. For though Christians mostly “behave” themselves compared with the lunacy and terror and mad work that gets carried under the aegis of Islam. A few topical examples serve reminder of a fact that is buttressed by more and more evidence day after day. That Islam not Islamism, or Jihadism-that Islam, as practiced today by billions of Muslim, is anti-west, anti-freedom, and anti-woman. The point needs reiterating for it is Muslims themselves who are suffering the worst and who are losing out the most by living under a 7th century system of morals. A recent news report coming out of Somalia that tells of a thirteen year old girl, raped, buried alive and bricked to death for adultery. I ask you to pause over the fact the girl was thirteen years of age--she was accused of adultery??

Consider the story not so long ago that trickled out of Iraq. Where a young Muslim woman was slaughtered and left in a ditch-killed by her own family. Her crime? having a crush on a British solider. Her mother-who appalled at the actions of her male relatives left and sought refuge in the authorities--she too was hunted down and killed. Or what of Parwiz Kambaksh who in “free” Afghanistan was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam. His crime?- to download information regarding the human rights abuses of women under Islam. His sentence as of this minute has been reduced to only life imprisonment. I could continue- about the nature of Jihad, the death threats over Salman Rushdie, the beheading of journalists, the forced marriages, the institutionalised rape and paedophilia of young girls from Yemen. Does all this make for stable and prosperous and peaceful societies? Does it make for happy men? Does it make confident, fulfilled women?

The term peace need not and does not, just relate to the social, political arena. It can mean inner peace and tranquillity. The cultivation of compassionate states, altruism, love and charity. It is scarcely believable that given the mess that religion made of much of our discourse and progress on such things as human rights and individual autonomy that it could ever result in states of inner peace. Yet it obviously can. This says nothing though to either the truth claims of the religion nor does it speak to the consequences wrought by their attainment or the effects of their preservation.

It is simply a myth that Christianity even in its Sunday best is the Summum bonum of our religious or ethical systems. The morality on offer in books like Leviticus or Deuteronomy or Second Samuel not to mention large swathes of the New Testament is, frankly, embarrassing as a guide to attaining peace and wellbeing. --only if you take it for what it claims to be, that it is a book of divine inspiration of which no mortal in the bronze age or the computer age today could have written. Christianity especially becomes less impressive when set against Buddhism for example. Five hundred years before Christ walked the earth and quite a bit before either Plato or Aristotle set down their thoughts, Buddha and numerous Buddhists laid down an ethical system that is largely more compassionate and conducive to happiness than is Christianity. Indeed its four virtues of Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Altruistic Joy, and Equanimity outstrip Christian teachings on sin, faith and belief. Indeed the ultimate aim of a Buddhist is to work to achieve enlightenment or peace. A person could spend their life trying to reach this goal-if its at all possible. A person can become a Christian and await to enjoy the pleasures of the afterlife in less than five minutes. This is cheap, this is not a way of gaining wisdom or insight. Like the ancient Greeks however, Buddhists saw that peace or human happiness was the end goal in itself, that it was realizable in this world and no God need be worshipped for it to be obtained.

There is some research from social psychologists which suggest that Christian fundamentalists in America are the happiest in the country. I don’t have a problem believing this as true. This is to be contrasted though with northern European countries-largely atheistic and by similar investigative methodologies report same levels of happiness with far less societal dysfunction such as homicide, prison populations and STD’s. Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God explores this point in more depth in his recent book. You may be tempted to say, well good for them and good for us. However do they need to create fractious tribal hostilities, demonize homosexuals, lie to their children, or try to get bullshit taught in schools. Where is Norway’s secular equivalent to Sarah Palin? The UK is mostly irreligious but here in Northern Ireland we do have are very own Palin- MP Iris Robinson, the wife of the first Minster of this country no less, who believes she is carrying out God’s will when she announces that Homosexuals are worse that Paedophiles and vile abominators. This is not the sort of people we want running a country--but this is the sort of person we have--and will do unless we learn to leave behind our myths and superstitions.

In the coming decades we are going to understand the constituents of Eudemonia, (Human Flourishing)we will understand what kind of political arrangements, economic systems and ethical attitudes and behaviours which do and which don’t contribute to human well-being. Religion is man made. No doubt there is much social utility in it, this can be used and understood in a totally secular way though. Religion operates like a placebo, it is a positive illusion. It is an archaic and a divisive force today in our truly global community. The historical degradations and the current malaise wrought by belief in God is simply inexcusable, as is the taboo of criticizing it. It is time we all grew up, it is time we all had a serious discussion and exploration about is best and what is good in this world. The sooner we realise this the better, happier and more peaceful we will all be.

Best and be well

Michael Faulkner

Monday, 24 November 2008

Project Civilisation

What kind of person do you consider yourself to be? Decent? Responsible? Kind? What kind of life do you wish to lead? To make good use of your existence, to find rewarding and enjoyable employment? To cultivate deep and valuable friendships? To find love? To raise a family? Furthermore, what kind of society do you wish to live or raise your family in? Do you desire to see your children grow up to be happy and well adjusted and well-informed? To do well in school and to treat other’s with respect and dignity, to live in a society that is fair, equal and tolerant? One that elects smart, responsible leaders who serve well informed voters on ethical, political, and environmental issues? All of the thoughtful and mature among us recognise, that this is the project of living that we are all engaged in. It is upon the realisation of these many aspirations and hopes that will determine the well-being and future of our societies and of ourselves.(1)


There are many people who believe that such endeavours can only be realised, via one or more of our faiths. There are many who claim that enlightenment values- political liberalism, tolerance, human rights, were birthed by Judeo-Christian values. (2)(3). There is no doubt that the moral identity that people draw from religious beliefs or otherwise are important(4) But in today’s truly global community, divisive and mutually competing identities, such as Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist, is archaic and in need of changing. We should simply act as responsible and decent human beings-we do not need to separate ourselves or give ourselves a name in order to accomplish this.


We are in a strange time regarding our beliefs. Religion as practiced by the vast majority of people in the first world, is bereft of intellectual content and has been for quite some time.(5)(6). Its status, as guardians of the moral law and champions of human dignity hasn’t been admittedly- fully vitiated as its factual claims- it has however been thoroughly criticised and found deeply unpersuasive(7).


These facts, omit a dreamy reality though. For rather than pulling back from the precipice of religious unreason, we are seemingly still hurtling ourselves towards it.(8) If good people of all persuasions are to embark upon and realize our common goals, then we all will have to omit of our delusions about our current situation.


The crucial point that religious moderates need to realise- that the recurrence of religious criticism has not taken place in a vacuum nor has it come about arbitrarily. It is a principled push-back against the consequences that various religious beliefs and practices have wrought upon society.(I invite the reader to a long footnote as to why this is such, if they are unconvinced and in need of persuasion on this point.(9)


It has become apparent to me that there is a substantial number of atheists though that are in principle opposed to anything that has a tincture of religion in it. This is a sad confusion that all sides are guilty of. Mistaking the numinous for the transcendent, the super for the supernatural, the spiritual for new age quackery. There is an impulse in all religions, faint in many but nonetheless present-a groping for the profound a need of the sacred. The crucial point is that what many get out of community, charity, hymns, prayer or contemplation is interpreted as confirmatory of their beliefs.(10)They are of value in and off themselves-not what they purport to be for. Many atheists though seem incapable of seeing the value of these things.


This is not an excuse however for people to utter the most egregious claims concerning- meaning, morality, values or otherwise. The punch line, is that there is activities of value that are practised by religious people but can be understood in a totally secular way. The solution to our problem is neither eradicating religion or promoting good religion but promoting good people to lead decent, honest and thoughtful lives.


Surprisingly Karl Marx had it right when he said-


“(Religion)-is the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people….Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower….the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” (11)


Though upbringing, ignorance and the limits and traps of our psychology play a role (12).What ultimately I believe so convinces people, once identified with a religion who remain so- is the positive social and psychological emotions they garner from it.(13). So we need to locate, isolate and extract what is of value in our religions and transport it to anyone--who wishes it. It is hard to find a word or words that express this succinctly. A good place to begin, is with meaning, morality, values and community or explanation, exhortation, inspiration and consolation.(14) Marx’s “spiritless” age meanwhile has not gone away despite the “flowers” of consumerist culture(15).


What we need is a national project, a grass roots development of a centre, where people can undertake and fulfil the needs that are met through religious affiliations. Connection, intimacy, a sense of being valued, a sense of the scared or reflective without the intrusion of the ridiculous or the commercial. Creative workshops, clubs and societies, lectures and talks from both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs, on various public interest matters. Opportunities for young people to socialise and enjoy themselves free from both drink, drugs and mischief. Community arts projects. Charity work, sports……


Every town could have a centre or at least hold events at schools, libraries, leisure centres or even churches. Larger towns or cities would naturally have more resources to deploy. It could be a government funded, charity based foundation. We could call it Hope or Project Civilisation or the Eudemonia Project- the Greek word for human flourishing. Although I do not have space to fill out what the exact details of what such a project could do, I will sketch in what such a project may hope to achieve with two areas of central importance-meaning and community.


On the question of meaning, its not about providing a single, one size fits all message, its about allowing people to explore the question and implications of meaning, values and morality, both inner-personally and inter-personally. Asking questions, rather than providing answers, searching rather than arriving at a fixed conclusion. The imparting of information relating to questions, such as how should I live my life? What should I value? What inspires me? Specifically, we may have speakers or part time co-ordinators from a range of different backgrounds and expertise. It need not be strangers though, local men and women may choose to share their own perspectives. Semi-conferences may be organised, workshops set up and personal projects embarked upon. It does not have to take a “discursive” approach though. Some might choose to take up guitar lessons or cookery lessons, or organise a local choir or enter the town into competitions and so forth. Local people may find fulfilling, moral and social identities, by attending or helping to organise events or helping to run classes for other members of the community.


The above paragraph related meaning, very closely to community and in a sense that’s the heart of the project. To re-capture the sense of community and social intimacy that would have been around thirty or forty years ago. Something that for a variety of reasons (not all of which is lamentable) has been lost. The project is not some romantic pine for the sunny days of yore. Strong communities of the past may have been desirable for their intimacy and support but they were also and still are raciest, sexist and insular. A priority would be learning about other cultures, perhaps sponsoring and supporting some less well off town, in a third world state. A citizen exchange program may be a fun and exciting extension of the opportunity that some schools give pupils. I have already mentioned many community programs that could unite people--let me give a few more, especially for young people. Sports is highly important not just for health or a sense of identity but for making connections and learning self-discipline, co-operation and endurance. For children with other aspirations--drama clubs, music clubs, computer game dens. Alcohol and drug free, Saturday night discos or mid week trips to the cinema along with possible weekend residentials, to learn team-work and leadership skills.


There is a real need I believe, to offer ways of marking births, marriages and deaths in ways that are not exclusively through church. The project could also help promote special community events such as the towns birthday or celebrating an important person who came from the area. Summer barbecues, Halloween discos and Christmas parties could be another possibility. Other projects would be-a town newspaper-or Ezine (electronic magazines emailed out) frequent town hall debates over issues that effect the community, mother and toddler groups, child day care, or even speed dating events.


Rather than unnecessarily explaining the reasons of why such things are psychologically, socially and spiritually important or their useful contributions to informed citizenship, I will look at possible difficulties and pit-falls that such a project might face.


Funding is obviously a challenge. Governments would argue that similar organisations and activities exist anyway. Setting it up as charity, making it tax-exempt with some government support is one possible route to go. Getting rich, high-profile philanthropists to kick start the project may be another one. With one of the above methods along with grass roots community support and desire to see such a thing would be the best way, to surmount the financial challenge.


The point that many or all of these activities exist anyway misses the point. Either all of the above is entirely provided by religious groups, therefore alienating everyone else or is through other exclusive bodies or organisations. The obvious attraction would be that it is open to all and all the diverse activities is brought under the aegis of one, big tent project. Also the message of community, co-operation and tolerance would be expressed explicitly and implicitly.(16)


Would it make a difference? We would never know for sure until such an enterprise was up and running. Clearly there is a need for many of the things I have outlined. However, three foes that such a project would attempt to eliminate would be- ignorance, tribalism and dogmatism. It would obviously be unsuccessful if it failed to redress such things or even if it contributed to them. The world is getting smaller and social demographics are changing. A gated, insular, racially/religiously separated community is a recipe for social dysfunction. As a resident of Northern Ireland, I know only full well what the consequences are of such maladies. A high profile and popular, inclusive organisation with one of its aims being to tackle these ills would surely make a difference.


I cannot think of a better way of putting my case or signalling the gravity of attempting to realise such an endeavour by quoting the last lines of Samuel Harris’s End of Faith.


“No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbours, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish. The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much on how soon we realize this.”(17) (italics my emphasis)


Best and be well.


Michael Faulkner.


1 The stark conclusion is from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse How Societies Choose To Fail or Survive. It is not just problems such as environmental damage, overpopulation and climate change but actually convincing public figures and the public at large of them. Even if this has been met, there is still the consensus building and implementation that needs to be carried out, in order to stave off disaster. Various self interests yet collectively destructive factors, the weakness of human perception and political/religious differing identities are surely an obstacle to global co-operation. Furthermore, a recent global trends review by National Security Council reports that American leadership in the world will be on the wane by 2025 as the world becomes more bi-polarised “"No single outcome seems preordained: the Western model of economic liberalism, democracy and secularism, for example, which many assumed to be inevitable, may lose its lustre – at least in the medium term," the report warns” From The Guardian UK http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/20/barack-obama-president-intelligence agency

2 An example of this view is found by conservative author Dinesh D’ Souza in his book What’s So Great About Christianity. Philosopher John Gray although irreligious, has attacked secularism and “utopian” thinking as a descendent of Christianity. He has also attacked “New Atheism” Black Mass by John Gray. Straw Dogs by John Gray.

3 For an opposite narrative on the Enlightenment and what it means and where its inspirations draw from-AC Grayling- Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. Grayling himself has offered a rebuttal of Gray’s Black Mass here on http://newhumanist.org.uk/1423

4 The importance of moral identity and what it means for our ethical considerations towards others is discussed by Jonathan Glover throughout his book Humanity a Moral History of The 20th century.

5 Theologians have not came up with a convincing case against the arguments concerning the truth claims of Religion. Alistair McGrath who appears to set himself up as the chief opponent of Richard Dawkins makes a coded concession that religious belief is detached from normal evidence thinking or that the evidence is or ought to be emotional rather than factual. This can be seen somewhere in this fascinating exchange between himself and Dawkins. http://video.google.co.uk/videosearch?q=dawkins+v+mcgrath&hl=en&emb=0&aq=f#
Rabbi David Wolpe, who has debated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, a published author, states that “Belief in God is not a propositional claim but an orientation towards life”. One final example would come from another theologian. Theo Hobson-the resident apologist for Christianity on the Guardian. “My response is: let's leave aside the question of the truth or falsity of religious belief… because the rationalist rejection of belief can't be the definitive answer it thinks it is. . And my response is also to say: let's focus on the second part of the atheist objection, the harmfulness.” This is from an exchange with Julian Baggini, Hobson position I gather is to evade questions on the truth or falsity and focus on harm or what’s good that religion does or could do. A fair summary of his position would be this “The core of Christianity is thinking that this man Jesus is uniquely important, on another level from any other human ever, worthy of worship. This belief can't be rationally justified.
So I can't really claim there's a gulf, or even a ditch, between me and the simple-minded devout, because that would imply I believed in a rationally defensible version of religion. That's why I'm so keen to park the truth question, and stick to the harm question”
Julian Baggini points out as would many that this is not the sort of belief that characterises the many millions who describe themselves as religious. In my opinion, Theology can be best thought of as a form of literary criticism. The problem is that much of it is impossible to falsify, its operates on equivocation , ambiguity and other sophistry. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/03/religion

6 Richard Dawkins is of the opinion that it was not possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist” until Darwin’s discovery. It is the chief reason he claims why he is an atheist. It is rarely pointed out though especially by Dawkins himself which is generally disappointing-that Darwin, never, ever, set out to destroy Christianity or rubbish the genesis myth. Indeed he believed that his amateurish specimen collections would be additional evidence of Gods creation. Darwin has been described at one point as a unreflective fellow who considered becoming a country parson, who stumbled upon the discovery of evolution by natural selection. Darwin sat on his discovery for many years and only published his work when Wallace, another independent discoverer of the theory was intending to publish his findings. This aspect to Darwin should be presented more, for although he indirectly created the sliver bullet to slay Yahweh it was Dawkins who fired the shot with his 747 gambit. Darwin is far from the bogey man and arch enemy of religion that he is understood by many unreflecting religious people. I say this only to show that Darwin was no polemists nor did he have a vested interest in seeing God “murdered”- to use his heartfelt expression of what he discovered. However this is not to say that his discoveries has nothing at all to speak to on either the inerrancy of the Bible, the nature of Man, or the existence of God himself. The discovery is utterly corrosive to religious belief and especially to the God hypothesis.. Dawkins’s 747 argument, found in The God Delusion has generally gone unnoticed by religious apologists and bizarrely by many atheists themselves. I believe this represents the best case that can be made scientifically as to why there “almost certainly is no God”.

7 see- http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html showing correlations between widespread theistic belief and societal dysfunction. Also-- Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations can tell us About Contentment (New York University Press, 2008). Demonstrates positive levels of societal well-being and other indications of a well-functioning societal that are irreligious such as the Northern European countries. For a concise, effective repudiation of Christian ethics and its consequences see Letter To a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.

8 Even though the sell of New Atheist books has done well, it only amounts to a few million copies. It is too early to tell if the attacks not only on Religion but on the idea that faith is a virtue will have an effect.
See
http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=7913 for a article on the possibility that Religious families will have more offspring than secular ones, especially descendents of Muslim immigrants and how this will change the secular character of Western Europe.
Despite defeating several attempts to get Creationism/Intelligent Design into the classrooms it shows no sign of going away.--
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/11/the_battle_rages_on_in_texas.php There is also concern over the number of children in British Schools from Evangelical and Islamic backgrounds brought up to believe in Creationism, faith schools has no doubt added to the problem.
http://www.teachers.tv/news/30218--a

9 The End of Faith, which is the first in the so called New Atheist books is one that is more expressly political and social rather than rehearsing the arguments on the existence of God. Harris was moved to write the book the day after 9/11 after studying religion for fifteen years. It would appear that many of his concerns were already shaped before the September attack. What did however influence him was the explaining away of Jihad within Islam as either not religious or aberrant along with the retreat into religious obfuscation that America embraced after the attack. It was clear to him that whatever else was going to be said, religion and faith would not be held to account for its consequences. In chief, his concerns are that the failure to hold religious belief to the same standards of other rational discourse, has been disastrous for social, economic, political and scientific progress. Indeed even rational discussion of them. His follow up, Letter to a Christian Nation is not an attack on the foundations of Christian ethics, or its bloody history nor is it a extended argument against the truth claims of it but-- largely on the consequences of specific beliefs and practices and the ignorance, unreason and dogmatism that propels them.
Richard Dawkins is self-admittedly less interested in the various consequences of religious belief. However his prime concern is the subversion of science, in particular, evolution. In an interview with Lawrence Kruss he stated that his motivation is to get people to accept evolution and the scientific method, his strategy of achieving this is to attack religious superstition--namely God hence-The God Delusion. It is likely though that Dawkins would have wrote a book concerning God at some point in his career, but I feel that the tone of the book would have been vastly different if the rise of creationism in both the US and UK, along with 9/11 had not have taken place.
Daniel Dennett’s approach is more measured than Dawkins or Harris et all--he wishes to see the spread of “a-virulence” that is-that people are protected from being inculcated with the most dangerous and retrograde belief systems. Religious apologists have for, perhaps understandable reasons, especially in the Muslim world- not conceded the point that these criticisms are fundamentally about consequences. Putting it bluntly, if it was not for Jihads, terrorism, honor killings, genital mutilation, undermining of abortion rights, the lies over contraception. Demonizing homosexuals, the murder of artists and beheading of journalists and the inculcation of children with fairy stories, the New Atheist movement would be largely bereft of content. If such dreadful consequences were remedied, debates over virgin births, inerrancy of certain books and the resurrection of certain people would be merely “academic”.

10 Sam Harris has been the most eloquent in his view of this. It can be found in his two books, along with various talks, debates and essays.

11 Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of Right by Karl Marx.

12 Daniel Dennett--Good reasons for believing in belief in God http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-808547712754338659 His talk begins around the 17 minute mark.

13 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7302609.stm and this for a larger overview of the issue which seems to confirm my thesis http://www.slate.com/id/2203614/pagenum/all/

14. I believe that it was Richard Dawkins in a debate who coined these terms in relation to the good life.

15 For an excellent literary insight into this I would suggest the work of JG Ballard in particular, Millennium People, Kingdom Come and Super-cannes. Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer provides the soundtrack to modern malaise along with the film and book Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuk. The work of Bret Easton Ellis which at times hilarious and brilliant also shows the “soullessness” of modern culture. For literary work which extols the luminous without the transcendent I cannot not recommend the work of Ian McEwan in particular Saturday-surely one of the best novels of the last few decades. There is perhaps no finer modern poet in showing that there is “grandeur in this view of life” than McEwan--which is to say the humanist naturalist outlook.
There is obviously disagreement whether we are less spiritually or psychologically contented than say, our ancestors recent or ancient. The founding of professional health care and the institution of psychology along with the relaxing of taboos over mental health, has no doubt revealed people with problems where in by-gone times they would have suffered in silence. As to our physical and material welfare there can be no doubt of the improvement of this index. It may well be an existentialist problem. Once the basic needs of life has been secured, alongside the freedoms that western liberal democracy brings and the availability of choices, the reflective individual is inundated with possibility. It is this search for meaning, value and inspiration that is for the humanist, one of life’s pleasures and rewards. However for many, such long and exploratory processes may be unfeasible and undesirable. Conventional religion perhaps can be thought of-disparagingly- like fast food, quick, easy and superficially satisfying. Modernity has raised problems for sure but we cannot turn the clock back. It seems that we need to rethink politics-- as a continuation of ethics, which is to secure the well-fare or well-being of each individual, to arrange social and economic situations to maximise the ability of everyone, everywhere to flourish.

16 It could not take place in competition with other, similar groups.

17. From-The End of Faith. Sam Harris.






Thursday, 13 November 2008

Getting an IS from an OUGHT

Jonathan Haidt is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. His talk at Beyond Belief 3 was on morality or why liberals and conservatives don’t understand each other. His recent book is going to have the title the Rightious Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion.

http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-candles-in-the-dark/jonathan-haidt-1

He is an articulate speaker and he gave a perceptive talk which I believe captured beautifully what morality is to a lot of people. There is many reasons why I’m interested in what he has to say. One of them would be of course to understand the opposition better. To also perhaps reconsider if there is something wrong or missing in your own views or to better communicate with people you disagree with.

In this sense its almost like an exercise in gathering intelligence behind the lines in war. As such Haidt and the work of his colleagues have crystallised many of the reasons why Liberals and Conservatives dont "get it".

One the first concerns I have with Haidt is not the content but the ambiguity in his view of the five factors of morality. At the start of the talk he calls himself a liberal, a moral consequentialist and utilitarian. He also goes on to claim that he is no moral relativist in a later exchange but right at the end of the round table discussion he spells out the point that we need to think of morality as “team sports”.

So does Haidt endorse what conservatives think of morality as valid? Does he wish to live by their principles? I’m not sure and he may be committing an odd inverse of the fallacy of deriving an ought from an is--saying that morality Is what Conservatives claim it Ought to be. I will attempt to show here that I don’t think his concepts although as descriptions are accurate they are neither real morality or a good system of ethics for today’s 21st global community.

Let me outline the five moral factors that Haidt presents.

1. Principles of harm and care.

This is simply happiness and suffering. Don’t cause harm to people, help them to get on etc. Try your best to reduce other peoples suffering if you can.

2. Fairness and Reciprocity. The golden rule. I scratch your back you scratch mine. Tit for Tat. One good turn deserves another.

(This is where Haidt claims that morality stops for liberals and the following 3 apply more to social conservatives.)

3. In Group loyalty. Loyal to the tribe. My country right or wrong. Patriotism, nationalism. Favour your community, race, religion, in all matters. Modulate your interests to that of the group. Obey group rituals etc, hold and show to hold similar beliefs and practices etc.

4. Deference to authority. Father figures, priest, preacher, teacher, men in uniform, the president or head man (providing he belongs to your in group.)

5. Purity. Virginity, sex, heterosexuality, drug taboos, food taboos, images, information, ideas. (This one surprised me but upon reflection it is a very perceptive remark upon concerns that motivate conservatives and the religious.)


Haidt argues that for conservatives morality is the balancing between these five factors. Factors one and two operate largely in relation to 3. (group loyalty). If you’re a liberal and you look at this you have a sort of epiphany, so that’s why they hate us.

Consider deference to authority as an example. Haidt sees the status of the President of the United States as a quasi like religious position. A position of ultimate authority appointed by God that should be free of critical analysis. This also translates to other positions of authority within society and critical acceptance of them. I don’t need to point out the reputation of liberals as activists, campaigners, sceptical of authority and untrusting of power figures. Also look at the mocking and criticism that George Bush came into from liberal critics.

Liberals are seen as cultural vandals, traitors and a infectious virus that threaten to undermine the country (I’m principally talking about America here but it can apply to every society.) Needless to say I don’t agree with either the conservatives idea of morality or Haidt if he is claiming it as moral strategies. “well you would say that wouldn’t you” You might reply, well yes but not because I’m more of a liberal but because it has been framed the wrong way.

Haidt’s last three factors are best not thought of as moral systems or concerns but as Adaptive strategies that foster strength, cohesion, trust and community in homogeneous social groups competing against rival ones.

Haidt actually has a passage in his talk that supports my claim. He quotes the famous passage from Charles Darwin from the Descent of Man that discusses morality and its effects on group selection- what factors make one group more likely to out compete another one. Human groups that are highly structured (authoritarian) and militaristic and banded. That have trust and can co-operate ( group loyalty) that have cults of purity and infection (keep isolated from other groups and ideas) are more likely to survive and out produce the other group.

Cults of purity and in-group loyalty would of course extend to rules about marrying out. In my own country it still raises eyebrows between inter-marrying Protestants and Catholics. A few short years ago it could have resulted in murder. Much the same could be said for American mixed race marriages in the south a few short decades ago. Similar things can be seen for the Hindu caste system or in Iraq where a young Muslim girl was stoned to death by the male members of her family recently for talking with a white British solider. It was rumoured that she fell in love with him. Taboos about marrying out linked to purity have the effect of course of not allowing any “foreign” or “contaminating” influences that would pose a threat to the status quo and homogeneity of the group. If marrying out did occur then one party would have to sacrifice their social and moral identity.

Societies that are ruled by dictators or authoritarian leaders and are tightly organised can of course achieve great things that more democratically inclined societies couldn’t because of disagreements and the inability to implement decisions.
Stalin for example ran a brutal regime that was responsible for the death of many millions of Russians but modernised the country and made it a superpower within a few decades. Russia under Stalin operated under a cult of personality and had its fractious in group loyalties and out group hostilities. It ran an “efficient” strong state though one that did little to contribute to the welfare of the people overall.

The punch line is when societies come crashing, human societies that are closely bonded, trusting of each other, have a strong single leader who operates as he sees fit, are aggressive towards rivals, are more likely to out compete peaceable, plural democracies.Morality is the way diverse indivduals are able to co-operate in order to prosper. The key difference is conservatives are hostile to difference, change, individualism.They want to suppress these factors. Where as liberals are the opposite. Looking at it this way is there any suprise that there is conflict?

There is another claim that I believe Haidt makes--namely that homogeneous societies that follow the five factors are more likely to be happy than ones who aren’t.

Let us imagine a society that is white, heterosexual, largely Christian. Women operate only in church, kitchen or home. Young men have extended stays in the national services, young women look after children and babies. Raucous music and drugs are strictly illegal. There is little dissent, no satire or criticism. There is though strong, vibrant communities of individuals working together and looking after each other. They all belong to the same political party and regularly have parties and parades celebrating their culture and beliefs.

The society I am describing is not American Protestant evangelicals in 2008 but what would have looked like in Germany in the 1950’s after the Nazi's had flattened Europe and rolled out its Lebensraum aims. The Nazi’s had a vicious cult of purity and of course passed racial hygiene laws, demonised Jews and homosexuals. Though such a “vibrant” “strong” “happy” community would have been created, the consequences of such a transformation would have been and where appalling.

There is no question that the five factors that Haidt discusses were useful strategies in our evolutionary pas. They create unnecessary misery and divisiveness. They are also a bad and outdated response to globalisation and modernity.

While some disagree that there is no such thing as progress. I think its largely clear that the historical trend is one away from theocracies and despotism and towards democracy, human rights and individual freedoms. Though it may take some time for it to spread to certain parts of the world, here in western Europe the genie is out of the bottle and is here to stay.

Christian conservatives in America may be the most happiest set of people in the country but this fact is matched by countries like Norway and Sweden which are largely secular and atheistic. At this point you may be tempted to say well good for them and good for them too. This misses the point though. At what price does the Christian fundamentalists keep their community happy? The effects of their socially unifying beliefs on capital punishment, abortion, stem cell research, teenage sex and drugs is one that is largely maladaptive. Homicide, abortion, STD, divorce and violent crime rates are higher in conservatives states and cites than liberals ones. We should also consider what happens to individuals who cannot or will not conform to the social and cultural norm.

I have argued elsewhere that we can conceive of morality as a four fold step. Reason in acquiring facts and information and leaving superstition and dogmatism at the door. Second, using those facts to best decide what consequences will produce the most human happiness and lessen suffering. Third the golden rule and fourth considering a civil society. Freedom and liberty may be more desirable though in some cases than lessening suffering or promoting wellbeing (such as free speech). Allowing people freedom to choose their beliefs and actions is vital and is the most important aspect to civil society.

Stable, informed democracies are the best ways in which individuals of all kinds can flourish. What is needed is global ethics and world morality. Tribalism, dogmatism and irrationality are to be opposed in all forms. This does not mean we should not support appropriate authorities or write off the importance of community and human connection. I believe a police force and criminal justice system are essential to society. No one apart from conservatives is saying that you cannot have friends or intimacy or strong, happy, moral societies without believing any unjustified claims or demonizing outsiders, except maybe Jonathan Haidt.

Best and be well

Michael Faulkner.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A Day in the City. Arguments, Thoughts and Opinions.

“Having a brain and not thinking is like having a hand without fingers.” Sam Harris.

“many people are walking around unwittingly with another’s ideas or memes in their head” Sue Blackmore.

“is this your idea man or is it someone else’s?” Krishnamurti.

“some people would sooner die than think” Bertrand Russell.

“the use of the intelligence and the critical faculties are inseparable from angst, conflict, doubt” Christopher Hitchens.

Thinking, argument and disputation is not useful but essential to progress. Not only as individuals but as a society and as a species. Is there though limits to thinking? To disputation? To the dialectical method? It is vital but is it always sufficient on all matters? Is there some questions, some problems or spiritual yearnings that lie beyond the scope of rational, critical analysis?

To ask such questions is of course to beg them. For we are attempting to answer them by the process of thinking about them. So on Tuesday the 4th of November the moment I became conscious, my mind began its thought cycle. Thinking about future events, repeating solutions I came up with to last nights private arguments. The idea or thought or memory emerges slowly almost imperceptibly like a flower or weed sprouting from a seedling. The thought arises, I recognise it and attach to it and fly off into a extended tour through my consciousness . Its not so much thinking but repetition. Almost as if the constant repeating of sayings, visualising reactions to situations is a balm or bad habit or a confabulation. An unceasing narrative that gives my life drama, importance a sense that there is a I.

This is of course one of the reasons I meditate or rather practice mindfulness. The exactness of being present in the moment and experiencing each sensation as it is. I practiced for about twenty minutes after getting up. I’m getting “better” at it. Your actions take on a serene flow, a suppleness. Your powers of attention and awareness towards your body, your thoughts and feelings and external phenomenon is heightened. Your concentration is improved and your ability to precisely notice things about your self is developed. Certain patterns of thought and perception, little quirks and oddities noticed. Like ways you wash your face or butter your toast or thoughts of past memories that the smell of coffee brings. Mindfulness is not at all like self-consciousness with its feelings of anxiety and doubt. No its that you simply observe the arising of thought and sensation, notice and label your thinking. Rather than “I am angry” “this body is feeling anger” Observing without an observer, thinking without a thinker.
*

Later when I was in Belfast to meet a friend I got this recurring impression. As I walked past the numerous coffee shops hosting lawyers, bankers and other assortments of young professionals. I saw a large sign stuck to the window that read. “Your best Neighbourhood corner store.” The choice of the word neighbourhood was strange, it has American connotations and not something that is not normally used in our vocabulary. So with this, the coffee shops, the men in suits, the minimalist asexual hair salons, the variety of life that passed me by. I got a feeling of being in America, in New York. The greatest of cities and no doubt getting ready for election night with the chance at cathartic relief with an Obama win. It stirred within me that profound yet trite knowledge that there is billions of people on the planet getting on with their lives at this very second on this moment without being aware of either me or me of them.

Imagine also all the people of history. What must it have felt being the last of the Mayans? The last of the Greenland Norse witnessing the collapse of your society and the only way of life that you know? Or a young man gazing out into the pacific ocean from the remote Easter Island hundreds of years ago? For thousands of years humans have fought, lived and died, have loved and lost and suffered shocking, inexplicable natural disasters. Experiencing the mysterious deaths of loved ones whose reasons only modern medicine would understand. The majority of life so far and for the majority of people still, live under the aegis of the most abysmal ignorance. I often consider our teeming loneliness on this planet, on this little pale blue dot. In the middle of nowhere with nothing out there. This is what it must have felt like to those lonely souls of antiquity.

I sat down at city hall, waiting for my friend to arrive. Every time I see the Victorian nature of it I think of the similarly looking building in Baltimore’s The Wire. The site of which houses the mayor and is the base from which many dubious and nefarious schemes are plotted and executed. As I waited I started to read from Jonathan Glover’s Humanity a Moral History of the 20th Century. It begins with something called Nietzsche’s challenge. Nietzsche of course dramatically and contradictorily proclaimed that God was dead. How can a non existent entity die? Nietzsche like a good fundamentalist Christian of which he was rebelling from believed that without God there was no morals. You were free to decide for yourself. You were “free” to self-create yourself. Nietzsche, Glover writes did not like Darwin but saw in his theory a confirmation of his world view which was struggle, hardness and cruelty. When we talk of Social Darwinism we should really talk of Social Spencerism as it was Herbert Spencer who advocated pulling the rug of compassion and charity for the suffering and improvised. Spencer would interpret this as natural and good for the species, Nietzsche would have agreed with this. Though I doubt that Nietzsche got his views from Natural Selection applying them callously like Spencer and hence committing the Naturalistic fallacy. (that is what occurs in nature is morally right or ethically justified).

Glover rebuts Nietzsche by rightly pointing out that although God may not exist and that the moral law may not be as self evident as it once was it does not follow that cruelty, strife and selfishness proceed from it. Others peoples ideas of self-creation may be compassion, charity and tolerance. I first seriously encountered Nietzsche’s writing in Will Durant Story of Philosophy. I found his views adolescent and callous, it was asking for trouble. The impression I got of him is that much of his writing was a guilt induced rancour when young and unable to participate in a war with his comrades and losing the chance at marriage. His views on women and hence “feminine” qualities turned particularly caustic. Some of his views stuck me as nothing more than the private and hectic writings of a forlorn, sexually vexed fourteen year old.

It reminded me of nothing more than Sayyid Qutub. The man who would “unsettle” Islam. Who is required reading for every aspiring Islamist. Another chaste and puritanical virgin who’s bitter views on America, women and western culture in particular have shaped the Islamist psyche. He is Bin Laden’s favourite philosopher and perhaps is to him what Nietzsche was to Hitler.

My friend was late. I paused and looked up at the thousands of people around me. I had just finished reading anecdotes under the section the Festival of Cruelty. Iraqi political prisoners under Saddam being thrown into tubs of acid called the “swimming pool”. South American junta’s torturing prisoners by attaching electrical nodes to their genitals. Women forced to serve the guards naked and being raped and violated with strips of wood and metal.

I stared at the passing people. Watching them “live” with no idea of me or what I was reading or the suffering and misery in the world. Ian McEwan’s remarks about photography and its evocation of mortality came floating back into my attention.

“Not only the young couple pausing by a park railing, but the child with a hoop and stick, the starchy nurse, the solemn baby upright in its carriage- their lives have run their course, and they are all gone. And yet frozen in sepia, they appear curiously, busily, obliviously of the fact that they must die-as Susan Sontag put it “photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction” Photography she said is the inventory of mortality”

That thought returned to me as it does near every day, that this will all end. That my life is finite and ever depleting, that with each passing moment with every exhalation of breath I move closer to my death.

My friend arrived on bike puffed, yet without looking hurried or upset. Hugh is perhaps my oldest friend and I have known him since I was a very small boy. A model candidate for eudemonia, a Greek word roughly translates to flourishing or human well being. A fair, tolerant, engaging personality. Open minded and affable. Indeed despite being a Christian he display qualities of openness and curiosity that would shame many an atheist. He perhaps represents the pragmatic argument for religion in its strongest form. We have had many adventures, scrapes, arguments and discussions. Played football together, represented the school on debating matters. Though we have many different views and interests we both subscribe to the essential attitude of being earnest about life.

He told me a charming story being at an Oasis concert and getting involved in a fight with a “Yo” over some trivial jostling. My friend politely asked the man to calm down. Rather than a sheepish acknowledgment and apology from the drunk, a head butt was the reply. My friend speared him to the ground, an unconscious subliminal reaction before being set upon by his friends. No serious damage was sustained. Hugh had the guy in a armlock and was struck from all sides. While this almost surreal event was taking place his mind found time to press play on a discourse as what should he do as a Christian? Fight the attackers or turn the other cheek. Perhaps this best represents Blackmore’s line that we carry foreign ideas or memes around in our head that we would not think about otherwise. I replied jokingly- you have obviously not read Aquinas and his Summa Theologiae his justifications for war. I told him you had plenty of Casus belli to throw a few “digs”. Though he was lucky somebody did not stick a knife in him. The effects of alcohol have never been summed up better by Epictetus that there are three branches to it. First relaxation, second drunkenness and third violence.

*


My friend took me to a gallery- a joint project between art and science. A challenge and an attempt at consciousnesses raising over our attitudes to disposable materials. Essentially it boiled down to the amount of plastic we throw out rather than recycle or reuse. The novel solution was once the plastics (a fairy liquid bottle say) use was no longer required then it could be dissolved in warm water. It could then be further used by using the plastic gel or perhaps “plagel” or “pell” as a kind of compost. I assure you this is no joke. Plant seeds could be stored in the bottle cap and planted when required. They had a cute display of this with fairy liquid bottles slowly “metamorphosing” into sunflowers. A true fusion of the plastic and the organic perhaps. It was though novel and pleasing to see the fusion between an arts and science project. The two are of course notorious in their antipathy towards each other.

This was signalled as I was introduced to a female acquaintance of my friend. “ah he loves this its all science stuff.” directed jokingly at me. There is of course a division between what can broadly be called the humanities and the sciences. Higher Superstition: the Academic left and its Quarrels with Science. Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate has a long section on it. Then there is of course Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow. Where it begins with the famous charge by Keats than Newton destroyed the mystery and wonder of the Rainbow by his “cold” and “sterile” experiments on light. There is something interesting though in the debate. Science Tand technology has made enormous contributions to civilisation and no one is left untouched by its effects. It has an almost promethean ability to discover knowledge and cultivate that knowledge to the betterment of mankind. (Caveats aside-weapon technology, Global warming) However something so practical and useful is generally looked down upon as “lower”. Indeed things like paintings, dance and poetry are elevated to “high Art” and seen as works of genius and the greatest fruits of human aspiration. There is undoubtedly a gaping chasm between the excess and abstraction and uselessness of much art and its cultural prestige and promethean science which is largely snubbed and trivialised. I’m no philistine nor am I far from sympathy with culture (I feel my life would be a great deal lesser without some of the pleasures of literature, film and music.) The best case comes from evidence against interest which is John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? A kind of God Delusion for the art world which asks some tough questions and gives some pointed answers. Carey is no barbarian at the gate, he is a professor of literature at Oxford no less so its his “turf” he is talking about.

Another thought arose when viewing the gallery. The depressing but realistic conclusion from Jared Diamond in his book Collapse how societies choose to fail or survive. (which I had just finished). Diamond argues that our environmental damage and ecological destruction is hurtling us toward the cliff (unsurprising) but that with much of the world in third world or developing status they will contribute to the damage by modernising. The cruel irony is that the world as a whole will not be able to support large swaths of the planet living as we do in Europe and America. Mass immigration will not solve the problems as it will overwhelm our own resources. In this day and age, with Global warming, weapons of mass destruction, rogue states and continuing human rights abuses the need for a world government is needed more than ever. Millions though will have to live in abject misery for a very long time. And unless the experts are very much wrong our current form of living will not last forever.

I flicked through a copy of Sight and Sound while in reception. It had as its main spread “What good are film critics?” I had little time to ingest the pro and cons but David Thomson as ever had something interesting to say though as usual unconnected with the issue discussed. He relayed Norman Mailer’s views on film as death “Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long.” The similarity of this reminded me of my earlier thoughts of McEwan. He goes onto to say that the capturing of emotion, atmosphere, action on film which survives as a kind of memory of what has passed. This is similar to our own memories which constructs the past and plays it out in our heads like little film reels. Films are “static” yet watch a favourite years apart and your aware of the changes and differences in your own life since your last viewing. You move on but the film is entombed in time.

We had lunch near the Albert Clock. I had an enormous “lunch” box of pasta. Hugh less so. We enjoyed a cigarette post lunch and a talk about happiness and society. We start out at roughly the same place: a disenchantment with poplar culture, a refusal to be satisfied with “barbecues and ball games”. Hugh liked the phrase though I must confess I stole it from Robert De Niro in Heat in the immortal address between him and Pacino. My friend’s solution is ultimately in Christianity, mine is far less certain and open ended. The importance of friendship and connection is something he lists as a valuable necessity for the good life. I broadly agree with this but as someone who has dwelled both on and in solitude I wouldn’t say that this was sufficient itself for happiness. For there are many people who are hermits and profess to be perfectly happy. This however is the exception not the norm.

The truth though is that for most of us it is neither possible nor desirable to live alone. My friend somewhat romantically pines to live in the past, in a small, tightly knit community of cooperation and friendship. There is much to had in this but I think part of our generations challenge is to think globally and internationally. It cannot be dismissed though that loving ones neighbour and existing in a community is surely better than living in one that’s selfish and alienated. The other challenge is of course to have community that is not tribal, belligerent and hostile.

I believe it is on this question that religion seems to stand on firm ground. Its surely contributes to tribalism but for creating strong, similarly minded communities and hence enabling trust and cooperation it is monolithic. In this country especially it is the only game in town when it comes to occasions such as marking births, marriages and deaths. Providing youth centres and community projects. This is certainly one of the reasons why religion still persists and gives the false impression on people that without it society would collapse. Let me put it bluntly. If your working class in Northern Ireland you have three spheres to belong to. Firstly you have drinking. That is going out to clubs, pubs and house parties near every week to get blind and fighting drunk. Secondly you can cocoon yourself in football and devote yourself to the God that is the Premiership. Third is religion. Drinking and football go well together, football and religion can work. Its hard though to do all three.

You don’t need to be a social psychologist to see and understand the appeal of all three. But if secularists are to win the war with religion they must provide some idea and structure of community, identity and values without committing the excess and divisiveness that religion causes. A article in slate magazine seems to be saying the same thing, showing that there is not just one way of creating, happy vibrant communities.

http://www.slate.com/id/2203614/?GT1=38001

*

Me and my friend visited another art gallery and an interesting exchange occurred. It had an exhibition on the Mexican festival of the day of the dead. Where celebrations and gifts to dead children would be “given” to alters. My friend disliked it, perhaps for its “gaudy tastelessness”. It is certainly a different “perspective” from our culture. The curator, a woman dressed in punkish clothes with her hair in dreadlocks engaged us in dialogue. I agreed with her that our culture has a high and unusual aversion to death and it appears unable to look at in and properly acknowledge it. I cannot help but recall Larkin’s line “the vast moth eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die” the brocade is of course religion and it was on display at this gallery. A huge cross decorated with trinkets and ornaments, skulls, toy cars, sweets, stones.

I posed a question to the woman. Asking for her take on my little “performance art” suggestion. Gather together a few hundred male and female revellers and dress them in Burka’s for a rave. Halfway through the set and no doubt played to some rousing anthem, the lights would go down for a few seconds to come back on again to reveal a transformation. Witnessing a few hundred people discard a symbol-better than any, for the enforced oppression of women and a sign of their servile and secondary status. My little proposal, perhaps the most explosive and radical “performance art” that would ever be undertaken was met with consternation with this impolite suggestion. Apologies were offered over words like “sensitivity” “racism” “modesty” and this “some women choose to wear them.” There is something almost ironic in me with short hair and dressed in denim and desert boots- a short hand look for social conservatism outdoing the so called counter cultural curator before me and my bohemian friend beside me.

Protests such as women “choose” to wear such things is although disputed is still met with the rebuttal that even if freely elected it’s done in the connection with several other unreasonable beliefs. These beliefs come from the Koran and the Hadith which are ultimately given authority by the creator who presumably authored them. A book is not a sufficient reason for either men or women to believe that females are better off treated as chattel and the sexual property of men. What are the odds that Chinese, American or Irish women would freely choose to display their “modesty” in such a way if it was not for the inculcation of such ridiculous beliefs at birth?

The curator said to me that she engages in a lot of cross community work and that it would probably upset people. I wish I had of replied by telling her to look at the Christian cross behind her. Did people NOT get upset by that? Is that not a form of sacrilege? A short time ago you would have burned for such an offence and it is only through the many deaths and brave actions of men and women do you now have the freedom to erect that cross upon your wall. “who are we to criticise other peoples beliefs and practices?” Who are we NOT to criticise beliefs and practices when they are needlessly contributing to the suffering and misery of millions of the worlds population. Words like sensitivity, modesty and respect are obscene when set against the very real and disgusting events such as the thirteen year old Somali girl who was first raped, second accused of “adultery” and third buried to her neck before being bricked to death. Pause on the word adultery and consider this in the context that the girl is thirteen years of age. This further highlights the despicable practice of forced marriages and underage institutionalised rape that occurs across the Islamic world.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7708169.stm

There is so much white guilt on this issue and so much political correctness along with the ecumenicalism that religion fosters among itself that is almost impossible to challenge any of the pervading dogmas that surround the issue.

After the art gallery me and my friend had an interesting chat with a police inspector overseeing the arrival of a Royal prince (who’s name escapes me) to the war memorial building in the Cathedral quarter. I asked him what he thought about the war on drugs. The man was articulate and intelligent and it was hard to tell what he really thought. What came across was more or less a support for the blanket ban on drugs. Though we politely disagreed, I did learn something from the exchange. The debate is muddled on two key fronts. Firstly the mistake of equating all drugs as the same and omitting no key distinctions between them. Secondly the framing of the issue. The chief reason of banning and of criminalising them is that they pose a threat to human life. Essentially it is a question of pharmacology not morality nor legality. Looking at it this way you discover the obvious but often omitted point that all drugs are not the same. So we arrive back at my first point. Which as I said is almost always overlooked.

Drugs such as LSD, MDMA and Cannabis are far less dangerous and corrosive to society than is either Alcohol or Tobacco or even perhaps junk food. Our policing on what is essentially a human universal-an unstoppable and eradicable a desire like sex is doomed to failure. Violent offenders both in America and in Britain are released to make room for drug users and dealers. Watching something like The Wire you see that it is prohibition rather than the drugs themselves that cause the violence, the deaths and the societal collapse. The UK recently upgraded Cannabis to class B against the advice of not only the medical experts but the police as well. There was no rational basis for the upgrade. Like a lot of other culture war issues a serious debate and rectification of reasons is scarcely possible when such actions take place.

The proper way of conducting and deciding such debates is via a fourfold step. Firstly the application of reason. Acquiring facts and documenting evidence. Leaving dogmas and superstitions at the door is also required. Secondly using these facts to decided which action or choices increases the net happiness and reducing the suffering of human beings. In a sense what action reduces the most harm. Thirdly considering something like the golden rule. Doing onto others what you would have them do onto you. Or doing onto others what they would want seen done to them. The Golden rule, GB Shaw’s inverse of it and the platinum rule serve two principles. Empathy and opening yourself up to the charge of hypocrisy. Finally considering what is a civil society. What is best for the whole of society? What contributes to the liberty, well being and aspirations of individuals as well as the whole. Though good arguments can be made on both sides of an argument for a variety of issues it is clear that when we consider moral problems through this prism the intellectual and moral pretensions of many who oppose things like abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, inter race marriage and drug prohibition are left stripped and bereft of any credibility whatsoever.

*

A quiet coffee and cigarette at writers circle on Cathedral quarter is how we played out the rest of the diminishing afternoon. We talked about the Northern Ireland “troubles” I mused as to why it had taken so long for a power sharing agreement to be reached. I asked the open question of what role did people like Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley play in prolonging or instigating the violence. The agreement that we have now is little different from the proposals of the sixties and the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. Who or what was responsible for the unnecessary violence of the last thirty years? Why did Irish Nationalists give support to bombing and bullets rather than civil rights protests and peaceful marches? Why did they not model themselves on the desegregation movement of America in the sixties? What role did Protestant intransigence and intolerance play in creating the divide? These are open questions to myself that will one day need to be explored. What will people say and think fifty or sixty years hence? That Irish mothers raised a generation of psychopaths? That the failure of reason, compassion and common sense determined the violence? Both sides have a richly sordid and shameful history but can the deep divisions ever be overcome? Our we going about it the right way? Is it good thing that protestant and catholic identities are drummed into us since the moment we are born?

My friend left me at the Linen hall library. A great and vast house of books, a wonderful place to spend a day, reading, chatting and mulling over the great issues. I doubt I fitted in well with my garb of denim and sandy coloured boots. Not with the place mostly populated by wealthy looking elderly people. It was a great little moment as me and my friend chatted overlooking Belfast city hall at twilight. The city centre beautifully illuminated, with the Eye slowly rotating in the background. It was a day well spent.

*

My time in Belfast had not finished yet. For the past few months I have attended a Meditation group or a Zen group. Sitting that night took on an uncommon simplicity and ease. Suzuki Roshi stated that Zen is “nothing special” “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living.--just to live always in reality, in its exact sense.” I simply sat. Simply did the walking meditation or Kihin. I’m the sort of person who steels himself up for things, mental preparation, planning out moves and thinking ahead. I noticed this aspect in myself that night quite clearly. There was a freedom in simply “getting on with what your doing.” Doing what the moment required without prior thought or planning. There was no thoughts such as “have to concentrate now” “or I must meditate well tonight” “oh look at me Mr meditation”

So why am I interested in such a weird or unusual endeavour? I have always been interested in the orient for as long as I can remember in particular Japan. Childhood fascination with Samurai and Ninjas (who practiced meditation) Japanese history, culture etc. A passing interest in Buddhism but more the particularly Zen school of Japan. So it is somewhat arbitrary my interest in Zen rather than Theravadin or Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly one of my favourite authors Yukio Mishima used the metaphysical underpinnings of rebirth and karma as a vehicle for his sea of fertility teratology. This somewhat rekindled my interest but it was Sam Harris who persuaded me that there might be something of interest worth pursuing. Greek Stoic philosophy also lead me to it, so there is many tributaries and streams which have brought me to it.

Am I wasting my time? In a sense we are all wasting our time in one way or another. How we do it and why is of course the fundamental question. Ironically it is this that Zen attempts to uncover. Similar in a sense to Socrates judgement that an unexamined life is not worth living. A claim I would tentatively advance for eastern religions or philosophies (I’m using a broad brush here) is that some of them in some forms have the very best and most desirable aspects of western traditions. They go on to distil and refine them and claim to cultivate them systemically and methodically via the practice of various meditation strategies. This is of course an empirical claim and I expect science to fully settle the question in the next few decades. Ie whether it is bullshit or not. For myself I can say that I have benefited and enjoyed both the practice and find some of the ethical considerations relevant and useful for today. Its philosophical views on life best expressed in the four noble truths, three marks of existence and eight fold path are particularly elegant. You don’t have to believe anything on faith and nothing need be taken without having good reasons supporting it.

*

The day though was capped with-well what else? The US election. I was glad to see the Obama win and for the shocking and disgraceful campaign of John McCain to implode. As I write Obama plans to overturn Bush’s obstinate and irrational refusal of funding stem cell research and for his brazen unconcern for unethical methods of oil drilling. I hope of course that the tarnished image of America as a stupid, racist and bellicose nation can be repaired. Obama is not just black but an intellectual-an elite. This is something to be celebrated of course as we have seen what a regular “guy you can have a beer with” does to a country.

I was barely able though to stay awake during the election night. Drifting in and out of sleep, waking up to see Obama edge ever closer to victory. It was a surprise and pleasure to see Christopher Hitchens come on the BBC and ruffle a few feathers with his acerbic wit and bombastic polemics against the McCain campaign. I’m well used to Hitchens on You Tube and in writing but seeing him live and with the rather non-descript company of two bit political pundits made me recognise just how rare and special he is.

So when the election was called early on Wednesday morning I allowed myself a smile. The economic crisis may have given Obama the victory more than any other factor. However there is still some room for “hope” and a example that the lowest common dominators do not always hold sway. After eight years of Bush I sincerely wish that Obama can restore America as the respected leader of the free world.

“everything must be doubted” I was glad to see many Republicans cross party lines and give up divisive single issues and vote for the candidate who is actually best for them. Dogmatically holding on to beliefs, ideas, ideals of how things should be is harmful. It is especially corrosive when those beliefs simply do not map onto reality. Such as Obama being a Muslim or a terrorist or a socialist. To finish lets hope that statements and beliefs such as this are never again operational in politics.

“A few days before the 2004 presidential election, Ron Suskind, a columnist who had been investigating the White House and its communications for years, wrote in The New York Times about a conversation he had with a presidential adviser in 2002. “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people ‘who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors.. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

Best

Michael Faulkner.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Being Right About Right and Wrong.

From Beyond Belief conference 3.

Here is two interesting talks which I intend to explore in later blogs their implications. Sam Harris is making a case that we can be right about right and wrong and that science, in particular Neuroscience can help us discover the laws of well-being. I did a earlier blog with a similar idea that we can objectively find solutions to moral problems and can effectively say that certain actions are morally wrong. I equated morality with the practice of Science and Jury based criminal justice process. (see Slaying the Dragon of Moral Relativism.)


With the talk the Harris did I intend to explore what kind of evidence would support his contention that moral truths exist and how we discover it.


Sam Harris 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBdQhLXTvNM&feature=related

Sam Harris 2

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqF0jnv3tZY&feature=related


Jonathan Haidt has come in for some harsh treatment from Sam Harris so I was curious to see his views and opinions. His research into cultural and group psychology is fascinating and his talk did not disappoint. Some of his ideas on morality are interesting but I find myself in profound disagreement over what he believes morality to be and its purpose. In particular his view that morality is like team sports. I believe that Haidt not only commit’s the fallacy of deriving a ought from an is but getting an is from an ought as well.

http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-candles-in-the-dark/jonathan-haidt-1



Best

Michael

No Solace to be Found.

A review of the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace


I have always been a fan of James Bond, preferring him over Indiana Jones and I have never had time for marvel based superheroes. I read all of Flemings books when I was 14 and had seen every Bond film in one long summer when ITV showed them all in sequence leading up to the premiere of Tomorrow Never Dies. My favourites are From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger. Watching the new film with Daniel Craig left me longing for these films of old. For a director to hold a take for longer than 3 seconds, to stay within the same ten mile geographical area for more than minute. For it not to leap oceans and cross deserts as fast as commercials go from advertising Tampax adverts for women to extolling the seductive allure of Lynx for, to begging for money to help stop aids in Africa. To say the film transcends time and space is to say that the film has jettisoned any kind of reality and grounding in any kind of disenable plot. It is one long commercial for action and action not very original at that. To say that of course is to say that the plot so to speak is reduced to nothing more than scene setting, a 30 second exposition before Bond goes off to smash another nameless villain’s head in, or run across roofs or shoot someone. QOS is like a live action version of GTA4 and Bond pretty much does the same as the character in the game. Bond is not really a character at all now, he is a symbol, a short hand for violence and destruction.

It’s a bad film. You have a sort of queasy feeling like after you eaten a McDonalds and saying to yourself what the hell did I do that for? The real question is why did they make such a hash of it? After Casino Royal they did I believe a fine job of recapturing Bond from the puerile Brosnan years. Bond apart from the early moments largely keeps his feet on the ground and there is more emphasise placed on story, character and acting. Craig especially was refreshing in the role, as he brought a much needed toughness and a brutish, thuggish, simian cold sadism.

Craig has been wasted in the new film which is the greatest disappointment. He has not yet earned the role nor made a significant mark. I believe he could offer the best Bond since Connery. It seems unlikely he will be given the chance. The producers seem intent on playing the lowest common denominator.

The film does prove to me a suspicion. That is that I don’t think the Bond films really succeed when working outside the domain of Flemings fiction. Ask yourself the question- did Casino Royal work because of Craig, the absence of silliness and the presence of a more realistic serious story? Or did it work because it stuck close to Flemings original?


Best

Michael.

Obama Victory

I’m glad to see Barack Obama win the US Presidential Election after two long, hard years of campaigning. The use of the word “glad” might seem underpowered compared to what many are calling an extraordinary historical and political event. A true blue Zeitgeist shifting moment. Though this may be true I would have been prepared to vote Democrat to simply keep out McCain and the republican party (I feel I don’t have to replay the endless objections that could be listed) Obama is of course black, he is also articulate, eloquent and photogenic. These are not reasons for electing someone president never mind granting someone a job. And there has been much debate about the experience of Obama and his ability to tackle both the economic crisis and challenging the many foreign policy issues.

I’m looking forward though to how he performs in his Presidency come January. There are already indications that he will attempt to forge a cross party consensus by staffing Republicans in his cabinet. This is surely a wise move. He is also at this minute holding meeting as to how to implement his economic recovery policy before taking a well deserved holiday.

Anyone who has read even a small selection from this blog will know that I frequently blog on religious issues and their deleterious effects on politics and society. For me there is some hope in an Obama presidency turning round Americas slide into an ignorant, bellicose, intolerant theocracy. Though he will hardly be known as a great reformer it’s hard to imagine that it could get any worse after eight years of Bush. Here is a short segment from a long speech Obama gave, it would have been impossible to imagine Bush or McCain say anything remotely like this. Obama may indeed be a candle for these dark times and a guiding light for the American Future.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odsDYodanxQ

Best and Be well

Michael.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Reason In Retreat.

Over the last week I have saw some pretty depressing events take place. The one candle in the dark has been the beyond belief conference which ill blog on shortly. So let me share my despair. Never let your guard down and never underestimate the credulity and cruelty of people of a religious and superstitious mindset.

Political cowardice, shabby dishonesty and Religious immorality.

Woman in Northern Ireland have been denied the rights extend to women in the rest of the UK because of scummy politicians trading horses in the corral and the religious dogmatism that pervades the country. Here is Polly Tonybee on the subject.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/21/health-health


Imaginary crimes against an imaginary person, carrying very real and absurd consequences.

In a previous blog I posted information about one Parwez Kambakhsh and the fact that in Afghanistan he was facing death for distributing leaflets that were “critical” over Islam’s treatment of women. He was sentenced to death but this was overturned and he now “only” faces 20 years in jail.

Words cannot capture the utter derangement of the country and the Muslim mindset in general.

http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-fg-afghanistan22-2008oct22,0,3625278.story

Religion not only poisons but corrodes everything.

Here is an excellent piece by Journalist Johann Hari on the state of Muslim women in the world. His opening account is of a 21 year old woman’s face disfigured by acid for the crime of wanting an education.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-dare-we-stand-up-for-muslim-women-969631.html

The wonder of Sarah Palin and the outlandish nature of American conservatism.

The lies, delusions and utter ignorance of Palin and her supporters are neatly encapsulated in this video. The mind really does ponder the nature of reality when there is much speculation if this woman will run for President in 2012.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/uselectionroadtrip/2008/oct/23/us-elections-colorado-sarah-palin


Best

Mike.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Review of AC Grayling's The Choice of Hercules

AC Grayling is a useful ally in the battle between secularism and religion. It was largely through this conflict that I encountered him. A citing in Richard Dawkins God Delusion prompted me to look out for him. A reader in philosophy at Birkbeck college, a writer of numerous books on philosophical subjects both technical, academic and lay. A member of Humanist and Secular organisations. A contributing editor of the intellectual journal Prospect. It is mostly through the lay books (in particular The Meaning of Things and the blistering Against all Gods) that I am familiar with him along with his Comment is Free articles on the Guardian. He is the house critic of religion and stupidity with a near weekly polemic launched on Christianity and its consequences.

Its not just his criticism of religion that is welcome and useful, he is a good guide through the world of western and ancient ethical thought. His mission in many of his books is to bring the subject of moral philosophy to the lay reader. Not only that Grayling does the rare thing and actually moralises (in a good way). His writing is clear and concise, liberally garnished with choice quotes from master philosophers and essayists. He is a rare thing, an intelligent writer who does not obfuscate, temporise or pander to sensibilities. Someone like me grounded in humanistic values may find his views normative even trite but it needs constant reminding just how many people hold diametrically opposed views. So Grayling makes the secular humanistic case in a splendid, virtuoso way. As such his writing and views crystallise the humanistic position, resting on such luminaries as Mill, Bacon, Hume, Kant, Aristotle, Socrates and Epictetus.

His latest book is The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure Duty and the good life in the 21st Century. He writes early on that this is the sequel to his previous one Towards the Light where he documents the struggle for the modern day human rights and freedoms that was won against the forces of unreason-namely Christianity. This book begins where that ends in asking the question Pleasure or Duty? And what is the best way to live?

As the title of the book suggests, it bases it premise on the myth of the choice of Hercules. Hercules working on a farm as punishment for murdering his family (he was struck mad by Hera as revenge for his father- Zeus’s dalliance with the earthly ladies.) He is approached by two women, one simple plain and slender the other tantalisingly curvaceous and beautiful. Given a choice between a life of slothful, sensuous, sex-laden pleasure or hardship, pain and simplicity of Duty. Hercules chose the latter of course and went on to do all the things he is renowned for (though I mostly know him through the TV series starring Kevin Sorbo)

Grayling sees this rightly as a false dichotomy and he explores the social, moral and artistic background and history of the myth. As a launch pad for the book its an interesting beginning but it fails to address the right questions. Firstly what are we to think of duty? Or more importantly to whom? The other phrasing of the question is sometimes posed as vice or virtue? Though he does not miss it entirely-it is there only somewhat implicit is that the real question is between small mindedness and big mindedness. Ignorance versus education, reflection versus delusion, generosity versus selfishness. In a sense a life that betters the individual and the society or that one resides in or a life unexamined and narrow minded. To be fair he does tackle these issues but the issue of work and its compromises (overriding individuality, moral concern etc) and clearly labelling what our duty is not dealt with. I would guess from being familiar with his work he would suggest the development of an internationalist, a person who holds ethical views and political opinions which transcend local politics and the glib nature of national identity. I would also hint that the main duty is to improve ourselves and to extend universal human rights to the rest of the world.

This concern dominates the latter half of the book and it can rightly be seen as a Herculean task. In the early portions of the book though Grayling outlines the ideas or rather strums the “notes” of the good life.

Let me clarify perhaps his thesis. Pleasure and Duty are a false dichotomy. Pleasure is as he sees it essential to the good life. Duty is seen as a dual way: to grow oneself to make “educated use of ones leisure” which is to have a life of meaning and value. Secondly to hold responsibilities towards others, the aforementioned spread of human rights and a compassionate social policy. Grayling deploys ethics in a way similar to the Greeks, that it is about questions, attitudes, views on well-doing and well-being and that ethics how one regards the good is inseparable from politics.

The meat of the book then rests on seven “notes” that when “struck” and played in harmony signal the good life. They are meaning, intimacy, truth, endeavour, freedom beauty and fulfilment. Meaning is seen as a life of values and goals. This surely is essential and fulfils Socrates maxim that an unexamined life is not worth living because it is at the mercy of powers that the individual has no control over and is hence easily swayed. The other being the question should one commit suicide? Intimacy can be seen as friendship both platonic and sexual and loving. Truth is honesty, the ability to change ones mind, to live without delusion and to want to have ones view of the world, map onto reality. Endeavour is as what is says, that achievement in life does not come without sacrifice and hardwork. Freedom naturally is an essential, both freedom of body in a social, institutional sphere but perhaps more importantly freedom of mind and the ability to express those views without fear and opprobrium. Beauty the experience of pleasant sights and sounds and the development of “taste”. lastly fulfilment the bringing together of all of the above in a rich harmonious whole. An embrace of Aristotle middle way: The golden mean, between rashness and cowardice is courage, generosity between meanness and profligacy etc.

It’s a fine list and he explores each in a considered interesting manner. I was a little disappointed though that they were not explored in more depth throughout the book in a more detailed way and ways of cultivating them. However the rest of the book is sufficed with them and they underpin the discussions of morality and “moral” problems later on. Meaning and freedom here stand out in particular. I believe them to be the two most essential in the list. Though confirming his view of harmony the commitment to truth grounds them and keeps them in focus. I am of course hinting at religion here and how one could claim the two but its irrelevant if its not true. The note of beauty is a odd one. To me a 22 year old and someone of very different background and “taste” to Grayling it strikes me as somewhat fanciful, precious and glinting of an ivory tower. Grayling is of course an aesthete and a gentleman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Though he includes things like pottery, gardens and ornamentation he is clearly putting forward the western canon as the best and most beautiful. I furrow my brow at such things. Not because I’m a young philistine or expound some modish PC doctrine of cultural inclusiveness, no because it begs the question.

John Carey in his book What Good are the Arts? tackles head on the idea that art can make us better people or ideas that “high” art is “better” than low art. Indeed can there be a distinction between high and low art? Can art provide ethical answers? I would ask is it necessary for happiness? Indeed is it even required at all? Carey is no philistine an oxford intellectual well versed in the classics. He asks some very tough questions of the arts and gives some very honest answers without cant or bullshit. I love movies and literature. I believe I could happily live a good life without ever again seeing a movie or reading any of the English classics. I could quite contentedly go to my grave without ever experiencing the music of Bach or Beethoven. For me I think I could get on pretty well without ever playing GTA again. The music I love though- would be tough giving that up. That does not confirm his thesis though. Arts are pleasures, they should be thought of as amenities not necessities. They are incidental to the good life and to ethics. Admittedly whatever your pleasure is (and I believe it could be anything from football to chess, to reading to Coronation Street) life would be a little duller and a little greyer if you were denied it. Considering this issue though forces us to ask what really is happiness or well-being and what is the minimum needed for it?

What would I add? Tolerance I think is an essential one though it could be subsumed under freedom. Tolerance though can be seen as quite distinct and not just for letting others flourish and prosper. No tolerance is essential and it leads me into something which is missed entirely by Grayling that is Equanimity. Intolerance is based on emotions such as fear, anger, hatred in short self destructive emotions. I think all of our intuitions of the good life lead us to conclude that mental states of calm serenity are more conducive to happiness and wellbeing than their opposites. Generosity is another note I would wish to add, not just material but being generous in spirit, wishing well people who succeed and not clinging to jealousy and envy. Generosity would also signal letting go of greed and selfishness. Once again I believe these states are essential for happiness and the good life.

Grayling later turns ethics and morality. He thus conceives a useful distinction in particular the chapter Moral Attitudes and Ethics. “Morality is about what is allowed and forbidden in particular realms of behaviour;” and “ethics is about character of one’s personality and life, and what flows from both in way of choices, relationships and action.” and “(ethics) are questions about human intelligence, human flourishing-which is to say: human well-being and well-doing. They therefore seek answers not only to questions about what sort of people we should be, but about what sort of society we should have”

I will go on to say that we should conceive of ethics as an attitude, a way of thinking and a method. His application of reason, evidence and compassion to such “vexing” questions as drug legalisation, sex and relationships, marriage, divorce is refreshingly straightforward. He also turns to other more emotive issue such as abortion, and euthanasia. I found his views as I have said to be normal and unexceptional though argued with clarity and conviction. Grayling does show how religion and unthinking traditional attitudes has obscured our thinking on ethical issues. Indeed once one jettisons religious morality and applies the principles of reason, happiness and suffering, the golden rule and what constitutes a civil society, you come to counter-intuitive or untraditional conclusions. His view of drug criminalisation is a fine example of this (he is in favour of decriminalising it)

Grayling rightly argues that many of the issues that are battlegrounds in the culture wars are either non-problems, trivial or obscene when set against human rights abuses. Our attention should be to such global concerns and not fixated on parochial and pedantic worries. Though Grayling is earnest and his sentiments are to be applauded he offers no in depth practical way of alleviating such abuses both in macrocosm and microcosm. At the very least the world needs to aim at some kind of world government or at the very least a armed and properly funded UN that can deploy quickly and effectively in such cases as Darfur and Chechnya. Though he may well respond that perhaps that is our duty, to think how to tackle these issues and to work towards them.

A few quibbles. I found his views of science-well in particular evolutionary psychology bemusing and further proof of Mr Graylings aesthete nature (not that that is intended to be a insult). I’m in no position to judge between Sui Generis, blank slate human nature and man an animal just as much a part of the evolutionary escalator as everything else. All I know is that there is a vast, detailed and interesting literature on evolutionary “influences” on human behaviour. Not least from the popular and academic work from people like David Buss, Steven Pinker and Helen Fisher. Grayling’s distaste here resembles the protestations of Christians who accuse scientists of being barbarians for saying that humans are no more an animals than a ape-indeed we are apes. For an effective critical thinker he sets up a straw man for the EV argument. “ (Evolutionary psychology) which says that all aspects of human nature….is explicable by reference to mankind’s early evolutionary history”.

Grayling response to this is “this essentialist view wholly ignores facts about the intricate interplay between human subjectivity and culture which no mechanistic account can hope to capture”. This is a non sequitar. What are the facts of human subjectivity? what does intricate interplay between subjectivity and culture mean? The facts are that post-enlightenment culture has only been around for a few hundred years, Greek society was around a few thousand years ago. Humans have first existed between fifty and two hundred thousand years ago. Before that we had homo erectus, homo habilis and before that Australopithecus and so on. Evolutionary psychology, cognitive sciences and neurosciences are “rattling at the gates of Rome” of some of our most cherished and perhaps wrong ideas of human nature. Perhaps this was the philosopher who Richard Dawkins was talking about in his conversation with David Buss who refused to accept the evidence of evolutionary imprints on human nature.

This next criticism leaves me somewhat ambivalent. I despise religion as much as Grayling probably does but his many pot shots and haranguing of religion- mostly Christianity in a book not expressly about religion I believe undermines it. People maybe sympathetic to religion who might not appreciate the wisdom on offer here because they are put off. At the very least his chapter Reason and Religion should have came early on and should have absorbed much of his justified ire. Another complaint was that much of the writing in that chapter was recycled from another of his books The Meaning of Things which in turn was taken from newspaper articles. I think he could have freshened it up a bit. The final gripe here was that I believe he takes aim at the soft target of Christianity, Islam at the minute is more responsible for human suffering and outrage and is more unhinged that even the most extreme form of Christianity.

Before I finish I want to highlight something in dire need of correction. He writes that in the US state of Georgia homosexuals can be executed (page102 paragraph 3) this is just plain wrong.

My final remark is more an observation than a criticism indeed its more a general point about western philosophy in general. Really its two things: the lack of discussion on consciousness and engagement with eastern thought in general in particular Buddhism. The two are although related quite distinct. For someone like Grayling who is so clearly interested in the good life seems cheerfully ignorant and dismissive of perhaps a even vaster, richer, more systemic tradition. This seems a trend in general two examples will suffice. Zen Buddhism has a rich history and expansive literature on consciousness and the inner workings of the mind that has been largely born out by experimental science, indeed as we speak neuroscientists are studying the brains of people who practice meditation. Reading the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett in particular his book Consciousness Explained there is not a single mention of anything of eastern import yet plenty of citing for western philosophers. Another case would be Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy does not deal at all with it (though it does acknowledge this oversight).

The point seems especially apt to me because I finally pursued a long held curiosity about Zen by reading Stoic literature. Indeed the only person or collection of writing I can compare with eastern contemplatives would be Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. A touching, deeply human book of a mans private feelings who seems to have overcome abet in a very unsystematic way the dualism and subject object problem that western philosophy is wedded too. There is much much more to recommend about the book though.

There is nothing sectarian or religious about contemplation. Admittedly there is much bullshit and new age nonsense associated with it. Sam Harris I believe is right when he writes that “although the Christians invented physics and the Muslims Algebra-we don’t talk of Christian Science or Muslim Mathematics in the same way we might not talk about Buddhist meditation and methods of observing the mind.

I don’t have enough room here to go into the issue in depth but the notes of the good life that Grayling writes about and indeed a conception of happiness and equanimity that he seems to overlook has been achieved again and again in eastern contemplatives. When mystics go off onto a cave or Zen masters peer into the mind, ideas like loving-kindness, generosity, equanimity, states of non-hatred, non-delusion is what comes back. Perhaps meditation and mindfulness are the methods for better achieving and understanding the good life. The point being that we live in the prison of our owns minds every day of our lives and anyone who has even glimpsed at their consciousness transformed with the mind at rest and not in constant reactive mode is a happier, better mind to have.

Western philosophy like its religions suffer because they never deal with the moment to moment experience of the mind. We should be tolerant or generous because of some intellectual understanding or commandment but out of a deep unprompted, emotional understanding that transcends language and conceptual thinking. Indeed you could be on the surface tolerant and generous and perfectly miserable. What Zen and eastern contemplation aim at is the inner workings of consciousness to achieve freedom and happiness or rather well-being.

I am not seeking to simply denigrate one or more tradition, I’m looking to synergise and use the best of every piece of human knowledge and experience available. There are many on all sides who simply do not and this is a disservice both to their own tradition but to the ongoing human conversation.

So despite to caveats I highly recommend Mr Graylings work, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little book and will dip into it from time to time to refresh and refocus my own ethical outlook and to top up ones own arguments against the credulous, the ignorant and the superstitious.

Best and Be well

Michael Faulkner.