Thursday, 10 September 2009

Rational Incrementalism

In my last post I was considering scepticism and the certainty of knowledge. I signalled at end that I would discuss a term I had coined: Rational Incrementalism. Though what I propose here is nothing new, nor is it some new way of thinking about knowledge and certainty, it is rather, a organising structure - a kind of conceptual map. A map that we can compare theories and propositions to. I am, mostly, considering scientific theories here, however in a later post, I will consider its application outside of the sciences.

Modern science as opposed to theology or certain non empirical strands of philosophy acquires knowledge in piecemeal form. It builds up a picture of the world in fits and starts, gradually or - incrementally. Theology, makes grand claims to knowledge on the basis of a few dogmatically held positions; it can then happily and whimsically build elaborate and ornate systems of belief based on these suppositions; should though, one supposed foundation be found wrong or invalid - then the whole edifice comes crashing down. Some might argue that science is similar: “a ugly fact can kill a theory”, indeed, but science in making more piecemeal claims seeks to find a number of coherent, mutually supportable beliefs (or theories) with attendant facts and evidence. Though a fact can kill a theory, more often than not it is assimilated into the existing paradigm or theory, thereby enriching, expanding or modifying our understanding.

What I will outline is the conceptual terrain that a theory may pass through before we can say, with sufficient certainty, that it can count as knowledge, or, at the very least, having a high probabilty of being correct.To capture the progress in a metaphor - our understanding of the world according to this paradigm - progress like a person on a escalator. They start out at the bottom -yet gradually, incrementally, they get lifted higher and higher - they “see” more, they understand more, as their experience of the world increases. Furthermore, by proceeding cautiously and methodically they do not greatly risk falling over, or the ground giving way under them. They do not make one big improbable “leap” to knowledge - loudly proclaiming truth - no; whatever claims a scientist, generally makes, are the result of careful laborious research and painstaking years of study. The theory progress via six stages: 1. Idea. 2. Speculation. 3. Hypothesis. 4. Theory. 5. Error theory. 6. Scientific explanation or scientifically established theory.

1. Idea

Firstly, before there is any theory, before any hypothesis can be tested, there must first be ideas or possibilities. This is perhaps, where a creative aspect to science and philosophy comes in. I should define an idea as merely a possibility: that, which does not have any evidence for it either way. Ideas can be conceived in two main ways. Firstly, they can be conceived in what could be termed an “a priori” position. Thus, the thinker knows no important facts or circumstances upon which he is thinking about - he thinks up ideas and thereby seeks evidence to confirm or disconfirm his idea. The second kind of idea - one studies a body of evidence or set of circumstances - after which the thinker/scientist/philosopher attempts to conceive a theory which explains these facts - this, is post facto style of explanation; one needs to be careful however - that they do not yarn a JUST SO STORY. There first kind of idea is, what I shall term hypothetical ideas, the latter being explainer ideas.


2. Speculation.

Now we have our idea. We either have an idea that will attempt to explain what we have seen or experienced (explainer ideas) or we will attempt to make the evidence fit our burgeoning theory (hypothetical ideas). Either way, what we must do now is test our idea or concept. Except in some cases, perhaps in the nitty gritty sciences of molecular biology or astrophysics -we can do a lot of preliminary testing from our armchairs. We look to see if there are any reasons or evidence in support of our supposition, or indeed, reasons that would seriously count against it. If we can see something that could drastically kill the idea (falsify - make highly improbable, or indeed if it’s highly improbable in the first place -thus not worth pursuing) - then we are back to the drawing board, if not then we advance to step three

3. Hypothesis.

We now have tested our concept in a purely informal and largely unscientific way, indeed a lot of the work up until now concerns language and concepts and armchair reasoning. Questons like, what do we mean? What would prove or disprove it? What kinds of evidence am I looking for? Is what I am talking about coherent with what we already know? Is it internally consistent? Now however, it is time for philosophy to give way to science. We have hammered out a concept or proposition to test; the aim, being either to provide verification of our hypothesis, or falsification. If our experiment goes well, and it is repeated with success - peer reviewed satisfactorily and so on - then we are on to stage four.

4. Theory.

We now have a theory, perhaps a new one, or a competing one or new alternate theory which explains some phenomena. The important thing however to note, is that the new theory is only one among many; subsequently, it will have to compete against these other theories, and at the same time answer any potential criticisms before it can be respected as an established theory. The reason being, that, for any body of data we can have multiple interpretations or theories. Our new theory then, is just a new kid on the block: out to “prove itself” - why it’s a better theory than the others on the “free-market of ideas”. Though the new theory has some empirical support - it is far from conclusive; the next goal then, is to point out why the alternate explanations are wrong or that the objections are misguided or misinformed.

5. Error Theory.

Strictly speaking, a new theory does not always call for an error theory. It’s possible that something original has been discovered that does not appear to supersede or refute an existing theory. This is not always so however, as the case of Darwin and Einstein showed. What an error theory purports to show, is why we were wrong to think the former theory was correct. It many ways, this is a powerful and important philosophical tool; it, in effect, performs a Ju-Jitsu move on the opposition - using the force of the opponents argument against them. An Error theory, then, needs to explain coherently why the originally theory or belief was mistakenly held in the first place. I should note, though, that an error theory needs to be deployed after some positive evidence has been produced for a new theory which explains the facts; as anyone can do an error theory for anything established - but its useless if they do not provide in the old theory’s place an explanation of the phenomena.

6. Scientific theory or established theory.

Finally, the theory is ready to be considered a fully established, scientific theory. It has considerable explanatory power - better than any other theory. It demonstrates a high degree of consistency with the evidence; it leaves no ambiguities or unexplained problems; additionally, it coheres with what we already know to be true; furthermore, it is simple: it does not rely on obscure, largely unproven, or implausible assumptions; lastly, and perhaps, most importantly - it is testable - with a large body of experimental data to back up its claims.

Putting theory into practice - where the rubber meets the road.

Lets now compare this conceptual map to say - Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin it should be noted, was not the first person to conceive of evolution: a number of Greek philosophers noted its possibility - they did not, however, test it or provide evidence for it - so it remained merely an idea. Darwin’s Grandfather, Erasmus, understood its possibility. There was, in addition, a small number of other thinkers, who, before Charles Darwin, explored the possibility - with some references to artificial selection . It could be said however, that their ideas were speculation - they had some evidential support, but it lacked scope and sufficient rigour.

Darwin provided the hypothesis and the theory - alongside Alfred Russell Wallace. Darwin, after years of thinking and amassing evidence provided testable hypotheses, and a mechanism or means by which evolution unfolds: natural selection. Darwin could point to the fossil record and argue that lower forms evolve into more complex forms (by way of transitional fossils) - over great expanses of time. Indeed, the artificial selection, and hence - evolution - of dogs, pigeons and livestock; which subsequently, though well know, provided additional and highly persuasive evidence for the burgeoning and highly controversial theory of evolution.

Darwin and Wallace then, developed the theory ( evolution by natural selection) which promised enormous explanatory power, it was in its day - highly plausible and consistent with the evidence that was available. However, it could be argued that it was not until relatively recent times - that the last two features of our schema were provided for: an error theory and that Darwin’s theory became a fully established, and secure, scientific theory.

Many thinkers have provided reasons as to why we did not conceive of evolution sooner and why many have trouble grasping it, or rather - accepting it. If we set aside religious propaganda, and examine the factors which gave rise to movements like creationism - we will find - intuitively attractive, or seductive “reasons”, though entirely unsound, - why some “think” design so convincing and evolution so absurd.

Firstly, evolution requires a vast amount of time to work - the earth being only a few thousand years old - hence not enough time for the theory to work. This objection, which is still made today, was solved in Darwin’s own time, where the age of the earth was shown to be very old indeed. Humans who only live, if at best, for a few decades, subsequently - many cannot grasp deep geological time.

The second reason we have trouble with evolution is that we are a tool making species. Darwin’s theory, as Daniel Dennett notes: “is a strange inversion of reason…. You never see a pot making a pot maker, never see a spear making a spear maker…. Never see a car making a carmaker.” Darwin’s theory when presented to our common-sense intuitions - flat out nonsensical - it has it the wrong way round. It is only complex things which can create or design less complex things; but Darwin and scientists ever since, have shown time and again why, this is wrong.

Since Darwin wrote Origin of Species, there has been a number of scientific breakthroughs that have supported and extended his theory. Firstly, there was the discovery of genes - this solved the problem that vexed Darwin as to how the information from parent to child was passed, thus ensuring the preservation of information which allowed superior organisms to survive and reproduce. Secondly, with the advent of computer technology and complex mathematical algorithms - the theory of natural selection as a mechanism - can be tested, abit theoretically. Furthermore, after more than a hundred years of investigations, in biology, in palaeontology, bacteriology, epidemiology - Darwin’s theory, is, as Richard Dawkins affirms: “the only game in town”.

Conclusion

To sum up then, we can use this conceptual map or schema to assess on what point of the scale a theory or hypothesis rests on. Furthermore, we can see what work lies in front of us if we wish to establish an idea or theory as knowledge. Finally, this paradigm allows us to independently assess what degree of support a theory or explanation has in the scientific community - we can seek out and examine studies, experiments, books and experts - in order to determine how well established and respected a theory is.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

On Scepticism

Recently, I have been considering the uses, values and applications of scepticism. I will try to distinguish firstly, what I mean by the term scepticism. We ought to bare in mind the sharp and frequently misunderstood distinction between academic, philosophical or theoretical scepticism or Scepticism, and “applied” or “practical” scepticism. I shall briefly sketch the differing forms of this position, Finally, I will recommend some practical recommendations when applying sceptical thought to real life problems.

Consider academic scepticism: this can be taken to be either one of two positions. The first being that all knowledge claims are of equal merit: we cannot rationally distinguish any claims to knowledge - we hold all claims, or pretensions to certainty, as being equally probable. The second, is a more moderate position: any inference between fact and theory - then there is always a underdetermination of evidence. This means for example, that when I throw an apple up in the air - the established and empirically backed theory of gravity explains - why the apple falls to earth. It is possible however, to construct a consistent (though implausible) theory of why the scientists are wrong - that it is, instead, a invisible demon pushing the apple down.

I shall now outline the problems with this form of Scepticism (this will apply both to the stronger and weaker forms.) Given however, the persuasiveness of arguments produced by philosophers such as Hume, Russell and Quine, it would be reasonable to say that we can never be absolutely sure of any claims to knowledge, even gravity or claims involving mathematics (Quine). Though I broadly accept this argument; while subsequently rejecting however, the idea that all knowledge claims are equally probable or likely; I find, in the end, that this sort of Scepticism is next to useless; moreover, it allows people to be lazy, or worse, insincere - “you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe - in the end its all just opinion.”

This kind of Scepticism is useless, for, like Pyrrho - you end up with your head stuck in the ground, not knowing whether or not it’s a good idea to try and remove it. Secondly, this form of scepticism is self-defeating. Like the Marxist argument concerning super-structure or false consciousness - it can be boomeranged back against the opponent and vice versa - without any address to the substance of each other’s argument. Each person take up a position of complete scepticism against the other, thus - no progress is made. Next, the claim that one knows nothing or cannot know anything - is contradictory - for one cannot claim to know even that. Finally, the claim, though sound - that we can never have absolute certainty, leads moreover, to a non-sequitur if we say that there does not exist probabilistic degrees of certainty or rational expectation - that any claim to knowledge has a 50/50 probability. Bertrand Russell closed the door to this fallacy forever when he came up with the argument from ignorance: the celestial teapot. We can never be sure that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, or that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden - though we cannot disprove such things, there is scarcely a reason to believe that a china white teapots currently orbits space or that there are pixies playing in the garden.

Turing now to the more profitable uses of scepticism then, - keep in mind how one could, potentially, be wrong. Seek out then, alternative explanations and other possibilities, indeed, invite criticism and debate - to ensure that you have not fallen for the first explanation you have been presented or came up with. Be careful when judging claims that are outside of your field of expertise; furthermore, be mindful of the emotional reactions when you comes across an argument that contrasts with your position - that “extraordinary claims require extraordinarily evidence”; finally, beware the claims that seek to bolster self-esteem or attempt to flatter one sense of self.

Here are a few useful rules of thumb when using positive or practical scepticism. I draw some of them from Bertrand Russell’s essay on the values of scepticism.

1. When experts are agreed, the opposite claim cannot be held to be certain. 2. When they (the experts) are not certain - no opinion cannot be held to be certain by a non-expert. 3. When they hold that no sufficient ground exist for a view - the non-expert suspends judgment.

In addition to these guidelines, I would add the metaphor of a juror considering evidence in a court case. Imagine what would, in the circumstances of the case, consist of reasonable doubt - has, then, those doubts been met? Consider what evidence or arguments would force you to revise or abandon your conclusion? Attempt then, to seek these alternate explanations, possibilities and doubts out - if you do not find them, or if they are not persuasive - then maintain your position. Finally, ask yourself, are you being objective and dispassionate in your analysis and evaluation, or, are you being driven by emotion and prejudice.

This short primer then, should help us keep in mind the important and often forgotten distinction between philosophical and practical scepticism. Furthermore, the maxims outlined are useful rules to keep in mind when encountering strange and extraordinary claims - especially if they lie outside our normal range of experience and expertise. In addition to this short missive on rational thought, in my next blog, I will consider a gradient or structure where we can track our ever increasing certainty when considering a theory - the process I call Rational Incrementalism.

best

Michael.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

In Defence Of The New Atheists.

Since 9/11 there has been a growing body of literature testifying to the detrimental effects of religious faith; equally, there is now an ever increasing chorus of voices devoted to saying - that it aint so: that religion is rather benign; that it isn’t a wellspring of human ignorance, superstition and intolerance; furthermore, these defenders of dogma charge the “New Atheists” of “intolerance”, “damaging science” and, incredibly, fuelling religious mania.

Religious apologists generally come in two stripes: the deeply religious themselves; and the religious/agnostic or “woolly minded, secular liberals”. An example of the first kind would be someone like William Lane Craig or Dinesh De Souza; the latter, consisting of: Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong, Madeline Bunting, Robert Winston, and, finally, the new kids on the block - Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney. It is, this latter “troupe” that I will be reviewing here. Admittedly, among the people I mentioned, there is diversity of opinion, but I would argue that we can safely ignore this. The criticism they make generally pertain to three lines of thinking: that the New Atheists have caricatured religious faith; that they misuse science for their own ideological purposes; and that they are every bit as fundamentalist as they people they criticise.

Firstly, lets take this charge of caricaturing religion. This comes down to two specific charges: that they widely misrepresent the texts of the Bible and the Koran; that they exaggerate the numbers of people who believe in things like virgin births, angels, and the belief in the sacredness of martyrdom. There can be little doubt that the God of the Old Testament or the Koran is not a moderate- self described as a “jealous” “wrathful” male - yes male - who engages in a fair bit of “ethic cleansing”, advocates slavery when not smiting people for heresy, who floods the world in anger when his new toy displeases him. In the two thousands years or so since these barbarism were first set down - many, it would seem, think that God has somehow evolved - tracking, rather suspiciously, the moral progress we have made in the time say - since we thought it was acceptable to stone a woman on her fathers doorstep for not being a virgin on her wedding night. Many, mistakenly, have thought that Jesus did away with all this absurdity and cruelty; nothing, however, could be further from the truth, early on Jesus “states” that every “jot” of the law shall be fulfilled. Indeed, on many occasions Jesus preaches that unbelievers are heading for hell “the burning lake of fire”, the sinfulness of adultery and divorce - yes, divorce, a decree that almost everyone - including Catholics (in their moral “backsliding” ignores. ) Finally, the latter books of the bible prophesy a angry Jesus - returned to judge the living and the dead - raining down wrath on the unbelievers and unrighteous.

One could go on with such examples - Paul railing against homosexuality, endorsing slavery, telling women to obey their husbands and keep quiet at the back of the church. If we were to listen though to religious apologists like Eagleton, all this does not matter: “God created the world for “love and delight”; Karen Armstrong, presumably after endorsing the “apophatic” tradition would state that we can say “nothing” on religious questions - that we practice “negative theology”. This now, is where theory meets practice, where religious obscurantism meets intellectual dishonesty. How many American Christians believe the statement: “we cannot say anything of God”. How many Muslims, at the very least, don’t believe that the Koran and the Hadith are best guide we have to living through this veil of tears? How many Christians - don’t think that faith in Jesus will someone save them and not others - lifting them up to a celestial paradise after death? Not many, not many at all, and that is the only honest answer that one can give.

Let me be charitable. Lets say, for the sake of argument, that the theologians are right, that God is some disinterested “entity” the “ground of all being”, that the Bible and the Koran has been greatly, vastly misinterpreted, it would not subtract - not a “jot” - from the fact that millions of our credulous neighbours believe the preposterous. A Harris poll taken in 2007 showed that “79 percent of Americans believed in miracles”, belief in hell and the devil got a confident 62 percent, belief in the theory of evolution limped in at 42 percent. A few years ago, the British newspaper The Telegraph conducted an ICM poll which found that four out of ten British Muslims wish to see Sharia Law in the UK, a footnote to this cheery finding was that twenty percent had “sympathy” with the July 7 bombers. Consider, finally, this nugget from a Pew poll on Islamic extremism, while it reported that support for terrorism and violence had decreased, many still had love in their hearts for Bin Laden and the aspirations of Al Qaeda:

In Indonesia, the public is now about evenly split with 35% saying they place at least some confidence in bin Laden and 37% saying they have little or none, a major loss of confidence from the 58% to 36% split recorded in May 2003. Among Indonesians, confidence in the Al Qaeda leader is lower among older citizens but is higher among the more affluent. Among those ages 18-34, 39% express a lot or some confidence in bin Laden compared with less than a third of those 35 and over. However, while only 32% of people in the bottom income tier have confidence in bin Laden, 37% of middle-income and 42% of higher-income people do so.
In only two countries, Pakistan and Jordan, has support for the Al Qaeda leader increased. In Pakistan, slightly more than half now place a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, an increase from the 45% who said so in 2003. Among Pakistanis, gender is a significant dividing line with nearly two-in-three men (65%) reporting a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, compared with 36% of women.


While this does show an improvement, and is encouraging, it is hardly grounds for stable optimism nor benign international relations; moreover, it does attest well to the fallacious notion that Islam is a religion hijacked by a few oddball Jihadists. It may even - be plausibly argued that, except in the countries were conflict takes place, the willingness to use force as a counter-measure to terrorism may lead to falling levels of support for terror in worldwide Muslim communities.

The ability to criticise bad ideas - about ethics, about beliefs about the world, about the nature and order of human relationships, using robust intellectual argument, is, when applied to religion - considered disrespectful, coarse and unproductive. In particular, critics of religion has been accused of prostituting science in conducting a holy war against fundamentalists. The most recent advocates are Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book: Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum accuse the New Atheists of unnecessary confrontation; asking “must science conduct a holy war against religion” appearing to endorse NOMA and the National Academy of Sciences position who believe that “science and religion can be perfectly compatible”. Many others, have over the years endorsed this position: that religion and science ask and answer different questions, that science cannot say nothing on matters religious, that scientists are wedded to an a priori naturalism and so will not, in principle, consider things like raising the dead, walking on water or transforming water into wine under the purview of scientific rationality.

These positions, while philosophically, scientifically and intellectually indefensible, are held, though somewhat naively - for laudable reasons. I doubt the likes of Moony and Kirshenbaum are pleased (as their book shows) with the abysmal state of ignorance that Americans are languishing in; but the mistake they make, is thinking that science is just another belief system - that simply contains a body of facts about the world we live in. Though it is surely this, science is much much more. Mooney’s goal seems to be thus: lets try and be nice and persuade a few moderate folk to accept Darwin; lets also say nothing too bad or offensive - case the ignorant mob get together and start burning down science laboratories.

Religion and science is however, intrinsically opposed to one another. It is opposed for three chief reasons: religion relies on authority and science rejects authority in favour of questioning assumptions; religion relies on private feelings, geographical and subjective particularity, science however is universal and committed to objectivity; religion holds beliefs on the basis of faith and dogma, science will test and test again its hypothesises and will invite criticism and comment and adjusts itself accordingly. While Moony might be forgiven for trying to play nice with religious folk -as urgent action is needed on the question of climate charge (which they vehemently deny), it is, however, intellectually dishonest and morally negligible to simply lie to these people; to condescend to them and treat them as children. As Sam Harris recently pointed out, the New Atheists take their beliefs seriously; and yes, the baby will have to be thrown out with the bathwater: faith will need to go the way of slavery, torture, belief in witches, and a flat earth before we can begin to make moral and social progress on the ever growing litany of problems that our species face.

The silliest criticism that has been levelled at the New Atheists is that they are every bit as intolerant, fundamentalist and militant as the people they criticize. As one columnist for the FT wrote recently - this charge ought to be laughed out of existence. Firstly, lets deal with the charge of dogmatism. To hold beliefs dogmatically, means that you hold them - whatever happens - regardless of the reasons or evidence that goes against it. How many times have we all heard religious people say something like “I am absolutely certain and there is nothing that would change my mind” - if anyone can produce a similar statement made by the New Atheists - I will happily eat their books.

As to the charge to militancy: I cannot better Timothy Garton Ash, who also found the phrase amusing and mistaken - When someone like Richard Dawkins begins to brew bombs from an Oxford lab - then yes, the charge sticks. When was the last time their was an atheist riot over a insult or perceived slight? When was the last time an atheist blew himself up in the cause of spreading atheism? Indeed, when was the last time a secular humanist wanted to burn people to death over such a serious problem as theological disagreement?

The Philosopher AC Grayling, in a brilliantly concise and elegant passages, sums up the position of science; the New Atheists position; and as well, shoots down one or two spurious positions that I have been covering here.

“…any view of the world (atheism/methodological naturalism) which does not premise such belief. Any view of the world which does not premise the existence of something super-natural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.”

And in a final flourish-

“And one can grant the word “fundamental” does after all apply to this: in the phrase “fundamentally sensible”.”

It is not the New Atheists then, who are doing a disservice to science or civil society by drawing attention to superstition, bigotry, and bronze age stupidity. Rather, it is the religious apologists themselves - by providing a cloak of respectability, by obfuscating on the historical and philosophical antagonisms between religion and science; it is they who are offering a patently false and misleading picture of what religion is and how it is practiced by the faithful. They are dangerously mistaken. It is time we put our cards on the table; it is time we acknowledged, that yes, we are still hugely ignorant of all the mysteries that this universe contains, that a proper scientific and rational approach to ethics is only beginning; that there is a place for such things as mysticism and spiritual practice, as well as such human basics as community, co-operation and fraternity. These insights, into the moral and scientific landscape however, will be gained in the present, through the fruits of experiment, philosophy and personal reflection. There is no reason, no reason what so ever, to think that scripture written thousands of years ago - by men - ignorant of such basic knowledge that would make an eight year old blush - contain - the great and ultimate truths; the best way to live; and the best way to develop a global, interconnected hyper-community. The sooner we all realise this grotesque marriage of fear, ignorance, dishonesty and credulity that is religion, that cheapens and diminishes human life, the better.

Best

Mike.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Study the Self to know the self to forget the self.

“To study the Self is to Forget the self”

- Dogen

“Gnothi seauton - know thyself”

- Ancient Greek motto

A while back I had a kind of epiphany: not an intellectual one - it was intuitive - like getting a joke. I had been re-reading some Bertrand Russell, and was thinking to myself that one of the main themes in his Conquest Of Happiness, is to lose the sense of self. Russell was a philosopher: a professional thinker; someone who suffered at times from prison that is the self or the Ego. Quite a few times in his book he stresses the importance of letting go of one’s anxieties, one’s ego, one’s obsession with thinking. As I was contemplating this I remembered a phrase I had read in Zen Mind beginner’s Mind: “to study the self is to forget the self”. I saw that, in many ways, both men’s projects for happiness: abit very different as to means; are, in their ends, rather similar.

It is something of a paradox: the paradox of individualism. Both Russell: representing Humanism; the Stoics such as Epictetus and Aurelius; Zen Buddhism such as Dogen, Suzuki; all, doctrinally stress the importance of individual development, restraining the ego, and promoting wellbeing. I recognise of course that this is a somewhat broad and idiosyncratic representation
of all these systems of thought; they, however, contrast markedly with Islam, Christianity or Communism and Fascism - all laying stress on the individual conforming to the group and submitting their interests to it - to the collective.

Individualism in this sense differs from what can be called Egoism. I had this distinction clarified for me by Karl Popper in his book: Open Society and its Enemies. Egoism - can best be grasped by example - the kind of “Aristocratic” selfish, cruel, and violent individualism of a Nietzsche or a Byron. Altruistic individualism on the other hand sees the individual as a free agent, who keeps his independent mind, yet helps others, and integrates himself as part of a larger whole. The example of the Buddha, Socrates and Jesus attest to this altruistic individualism.

“Find something greater than you are and surrender yourself to it”

- Dan Dennett

In meditation practice you sit and notice the Self; you notice all the vain, useless and selfish thoughts that whirl into focus then drift out. Meditation practice, as I have wrote, is a kind of mental discipline, its also like mental weeding: a process by which you break down all the barriers and barricades that separate you from other people, that keep you wrapped up in the prison of the self. Joko Beck has a illuminating analogy were she compares the gradual practice of meditation to melting ice cubes. The cube, at first, is cold, sharp and impenetrable. It keeps people from connecting; when two people (or cubes) collide - chaos and anger ensures. Meditation then, is a heat that melts the cube, that frees people - this is why perhaps, contemplative practice is often called a liberating experience. Indeed, the vow of the Bodhisattva: “I vow to liberate all beings, without number”, express this sentiment well. Bertrand Russell, who did have a admiration for certain aspects of Mysticism, did not meditate of course; but he sought similar states of attention through love; through work; through hill climbing and many other activities. He ends his gem of a book: Conquest of Happiness, with this, marvellous little peroration.

“In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream, of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collocation. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack or integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of co-ordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divides against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that if affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”

Best

Mike.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Bigotry, Stupidity and Superstition in the Age of the Internet.

Last night, my friend and I, after sitting through Dune: David Lynch’s beautiful mess of a film; we traversed into the dark heart of America - via the omniscient power of the internet. My friend, perhaps a little na├»ve, was shocked to discover that the Prophet Muhammad had sex with a nine year old girl (this came up after the discovery that Dune has many allusions and parallels to Islam and the oil situation in the Middle East.) He was dumbfounded when he saw the Conservapedia site; laughed outright at the sheer verbal and intellectual incompetence of Sarah Palin; and, was thoroughly disgusted by a evangelical propaganda video.

The omnipresent question one always has to ask oneself: how can anyone believe this? You can have perfectly sound explanations of course, indeed, you can even have deep and penetrating psychological and scientific accounts of why people believe the “darndest” things, But still, despite someone like myself, (who is oddly familiar with quite a bit of human credulity), I find myself - adrift in sea of apoplexy and confusion, which, finally, waves into amused apathy and despondent futility.

Why are so many Americans, from the point of view of everyone else - so seemingly ridiculous? Now I am no crude despiser of America; on the contrary rather - it is a great country. Nevertheless, the Republican cum Christian right cum paranoid maniacs are - a menace to society. It seems miraculous, that in the age of the internet, space exploration and instant global communication, people, indeed, “high ranking” politicians can still believe in something like witches. Somewhere close to fifty percent of the American electorate believe in the actual existence of Satan; a higher number almost certainly believe that all living organisms were created in their present form by some kind of celestial creator - the same people believe that Man was created in a special act of creation, thus making him, indeed HIM, the centre of a cosmic sit-com. It generally goes unmentioned that many of the same people, who’s beliefs are of the sheerest ignorance - even to a reasonably educated six year old, are the same "loons" who are stymieing, what is perhaps the most important piece of legislation that the US government has attempted to pass in a generation: healthcare reform. It also goes without saying - literally - that many of the same group, believe that Obama - a confection of so many fears: liberal, black, educated; moderately religious (if religious at all); these fearful facts that are, on their own, shocking to the “average American” are married to a perception of Obama as a avatar of Satan; a messiah of Marxism; a closet Muslim; and a “figure” from the book of revelations.


Consider the lies that has been perpetuated concerning healthcare. The irony tapers ever upwards towards astronomical heights of surrealism when one considers that many on the Republican wing would benefit from reform. Johann Hari from the Independent, pointed this out recently with poker faced hilarity - recounting that a Republican “activist” was injured fighting in a town hall meeting concerning healthcare -only to waill later that he had no insurance. Never-mind also, the fact that America already has “socialised” medicine. Ponder over some of these examples, drawn from factcheck.org; if one did not know better one would think these are taken from the spoof political website: the Onion.


http://www.factcheck.org/2009/07/false-euthanasia-claims/


http://www.factcheck.org/2009/07/surgery-for-seniors-vs-abortions/


http://www.factcheck.org/2009/08/more-senior-scare/


How could anyone fall for this? We need to remember, that right from the cradle many of them were brought up to believe in Jesus, the virtues of carrying firearms and the sinfulness of Homosexuality; that anyone you ever knew believed this; you parents believed this and expected you to believe this, moreover, demanded that you believe it. It would then, take a exceptional individual to overcome such a social pressure and maladaptive upbringing. The problems of individual autonomy and clear thinking are further sabotaged by the fact that the majority of evangelicals are home schooled - thus prevented from coming into contact with other children - other ways of thinking - other ways of seeing the world. Evangelicals, live in a sequestered world, they live in a closed society; despite all the technology of the 21st century, most Americas are as ignorant of the world as a Afghan peasant. This brings me to my next exhibit: Conservapedia.


Could anything be more forlorn when you read “An encyclopaedia with articles written from a conservative viewpoint.” - “the trustworthy encyclopaedia”. Edited and maintained by a posse of creationist wing-nuts; the purpose of the site: counter Wikipedia’s “bias” and provide “material” for “homeschooled children” - we should abandon this euphemism and simply call a spade a spade - this is, and always was - indoctrination.

Check out the hilarity -

http://www.conservapedia.com/Obama

(my friend was puzzled when I wondered whether the site would indulge the “birther” conspiracy - it does - (“Barack Hussein Obama II (allegedly[1][2][3][4][5] born in Honolulu Aug. 4, 1961)”

Accuses Obama of mind control: “Obama used techniques of mind control in his campaign, as in this speech: "a light will shine down from somewhere, it will light upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will say to yourself, 'I have to vote for Barack.'"

The icing on the cake: Obama is the “first Muslim President” and possibly an atheist!?? Where is the epistemology people!

If you thought that it was bad enough that half the American electorate hold beliefs that were first developed at a time, when a bicycle would appear as a masterpiece of technological creativity - it is not, just “regular folk” but Governors, Senators and, yes, Presidents. Enter stage right - Sarah Palin, or “Sarah Barracuda” former beauty queen, hockey mom and mayor of a little town no bigger than the hamlet out of Last of the Summer Wine. Palin: almost certainly will run for President in the next election. A President who is a believer in witches;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIOD5X68lIs

A liar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biD1Eh69lb8&feature=channel

A fool: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nokTjEdaUGg


Over the last couple of days, I have repeated to myself the infamous and rather ambiguous line of Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is Just”. that, is more than I can say of “God” as conceived from this video

Let me quote another famous, and somewhat abused line of Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” perhaps, in place of patriots and tyrants, we should have idiots and creationists - only joking.

Best

Mike.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Think Practically; Do Not Worry Unnecessarily.

Of things some are in or power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts…… remember then, that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be you own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed……examine it……. If it relates to anything which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you.

- Epictetus.

To a great extent fatigue in such cases is due to worry, and worry could be prevented by a better philosophy of life and a little more mental discipline.” I think we could all benefit from this pity observation every now and then. An interesting exercise for the persistent worrier to undertake would be to try and calculate how much hours of his life were wasted by unnecessarily thinking and worrying. It would, no doubt, run into thousands of useless hours; hours that cannot be returned to you.

Nothing is so exhausting as indecision and nothing is so futile” indeed, I would add that life seems to unfold by itself, irregardless of what we wish to see, or how we want it to be. Mostly it turns out for the better, only rarely, does it seem, to go bad (I’m talking about our ordinary daily wants and needs and desires) Another exercise, then, to carry out, is to reflect on all the times you worried about a possible, impending problem, as opposed to actually dealing with it, when or if, indeed, it emerged at all? So much of our time is spent in fantasy, WHAT IF, IF-THEN WHAT WILL I DO?…… We become angry and upset over things that have not happened yet; Epictetus then, was correct: he said that some things are in our power, and some things are not; concerning things under our control - we can simply do our best; think things through with the best evidence available to us - as to all else, we will just have to wait till we get more knowledge - it is beyond our power; out of our hands.

The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so; at other times he thinks about other things, or, if it is night, about nothing at all.” Thinking practically then, and knowing when to abandon thinking, is, I believe, a skill and a mental discipline, that can be learned. Purposeful thinking consists of: ends and goals; possibilities and opportunities; doubts and certainties; means and methods. A good person to consult on this is Edward De Bono. De Bono, who coined the phrase: “ Lateral Thinker”, offers a range of practical thinking tools to help one make decisions and think creatively. A few of his tools are: PMI, Positives, Minuses, and Interesting; EBS, Examine Both Sides; TEC, Task and Target, Expand and Explore, Contract and Conclude.

Its useful, perhaps then, to familiarize oneself with these tools; moreover, mind maps, lists, and clearly formulating the problem in writing, are skilful techinques of dealing with problems, whatever they may be. It is certainly an improvement, as opposed, to simply going round and round in unending circles of discursive thought. There are, however, a few positions we can reach by such disciplined thinking. 1. We can have sufficient reason for acting. 2 sufficient reason for believing. 3. Sufficient reason for not acting. 4. Sufficient reason for not believing. 5. Suspending judgement or action pending further information. Once, though, we have made our decision, we ought to stick with it until shown to be wrong, or so demonstrated that there is a better way of doing something. Once we have solved our problem, or done our best with it; we should then, simply retire from the thinking process.

Absorption into something helps dissipate the self: painting; exercise; long walks in the hills; golf - whatever takes you fancy. For me, I find the practice of insight mediation, enormously useful and relaxing. It many ways it can provide a template of mental discipline, and a access to serenity. This, I will be discussing in my next blog.


Best

Mike.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Strange “Quote Mining” Case of Andrew Brown.

Andrew Brown, a free lance journalist who regularly writes for the Guardian, under his “Free To Believe” blog, has perpetrated the finest (or worst) offence of quote mining I have ever seen. Quote mining: the process where you selectively quote an author or speaker for the intention of drawing a fallacious, spurious and highly tendentious conclusion. Brown has been guilty before of failing to meet basic standards of intellectual integrity and journalistic standards. He has, in particular, a real hatred for the new atheists, indeed he “despises” Sam Harris; - an example of his “writing” was when he attacked the “New Atheists” as shallow and intellectually feeble - for not containing a philosopher.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2008/dec/29/religion-new-atheism-defined

This, is extraordinarily misinformed - or an attempt at wilful obfuscation. Even a general reader, who is relatively aware of the “New Atheists”, would know that Daniel C Dennett - one of the four horsemen, is a trained philosopher, likewise Sam Harris, although prior to completing a PhD in Neuroscience, gained a masters from Stanford in philosophy no less, who studied under Richard Rorty no less. Just to kick a few more stilts from under Brown’s, now preciously perched argument - AC Grayling, another prominent critic of religion, is also a trained philosopher, who writes in the same paper as Brown, he must also have forgot, or neglected to mention Michel Onfray, the French philosopher, who, a number of years ago published, An Atheist Manifesto: the Case against Christianity Islam and Judaism.

I now turn to my reason for writing - Mr Brown has been up to no good again: accusing Sam Harris of “unambiguously” advocating torture. His blog is stunning for how clearly it argues (yet completely missing the point) that Harris is nothing more, than a fully signed up supporter of Dick Cheney and the War on Terror. I decided to respond; underneath I provide the comments that I posted. Judging by the amount of criticism Brown received and the amount of recommendations that my post and others like it garnered, it would seem that the majority of readers are aware of his shenanigans. It does, however, make you wonder: why do the Guardian let this kind of thing go on?

Firstly: let me quote what Mr Brown had to say; you can read his full post here -

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2009/aug/08/religion-atheism


The By-line reads

Sam Harris, in his book the End of Faith, argues unambiguously for the use of torture. Why pretend otherwise?”

Now from the body of the piece -

“But Sam Harris is not a writer as gifted as Richard Dawkins. He has no talent for thought-provoking ambiguity. When I accuse him of advocating torture, I meant this as the literal interpretation of his actual words. Here are the relevant passages, from The End of Faith, with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.”

And

“So Harris believes that there are scientific ("neurological") grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.”

Finally

“So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture as an instrument of policy.”

To which I responded with - (note I have requited Brown, along with a few other incriminating passages.)


To Mr Brown and to the editors of CIF (I subsequently complained to the editors of the paper)

“I Believe, indeed, I will prove, that MR Brown is engaging in intellectual dishonesty, and, perhaps, libellous activity by accusing Sam Harris of being a straightforward and “literal” advocate of torture.

He asserts that Sam Harris can reasonably be construed is a defender of Torture and an advocate of it.

So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture as an instrument of policy.

- From Mr Brown.

But Sam Harris is not a writer as gifted as Richard Dawkins. He has no talent for thought-provoking ambiguity. TheEnd of Faith , with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.

( again this would seem to imply that Sam Harris is unambiguously arguing for Torture)

So Harris believes that there are scientific ("neurological") grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.

Now anyone reading this post, will, conclude that Sam Harris is calling for torture -

However

Mr Brown has neglected to quote some key conclusions that Sam Harris makes in regard torture.

….we can take refuge in the fact the paradigmatic case will almost never arise. From this perspective, adorning the machinery of our justice system with a torture provision seems both unnecessary and dangerous, as the law of unintended consequences may one day find it throwing the whole works into disarray. Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust for most readers.

Page 198 - End of Faith.

Finally on page 199 Harris has this to say.

Still, it does not seem any more acceptable (torture) in ethical terms than it did before

What are we to make of this? Mr Brown has quoted Harris at length, yet he has clearly left out the key passages and conclusions where, despite a long philosophical argument - Harris comes out against torture.

I, can only conclude that MR Brown is guilty of a very grave offence against journalistic standards and intellectual integrity. I hope to see an apology and a statement repudiating the misinformation that has be peddled here.


To finally put this to bed here is a long quote from Sam Harris himself, taken from his website - a response to controversy.

While I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we cant control ourselves. While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I can readily admit that we are not suffering a total moral chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month. It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.
It seems probable, however, that any legal use of torture would have unacceptable consequences.
In light of this concern, the best strategy I have heard comes from Mark Bowden in his Atlantic Monthly article, The Dark Art of Interrogation. Bowden recommends that we keep torture illegal, and maintain a policy of not torturing anybody for any reason. But our interrogators should know that there are certain circumstances in which it will be ethical to break the law. Indeed, there are circumstances in which you would have to be a monster not to break the law. If an interrogator finds himself in such a circumstance, and he breaks the law, there will not be much of a will to prosecute him (and interrogators will know this). If he breaks the law Abu Ghraib-style, he will go to jail for a very long time (and interrogators will know this too). At the moment, this seems like the most reasonable policy to me, given the realities of our world."

Best

Michael Faulkner.
Recommended (62)


What is curious, perhaps to avoid libel, Andrew Brown trotted this, though, somewhat ambiguous, statement out later in a post

“In the totally trivial sense that he thinks we ought to do it. Apart from that, no, he's not argung for it at all.”

Posted at 8th of August 4.57 PM by Andrew Brown.

He would appear to be disowning his previous statement, where he argues that Harris unambiguously argues for torture; so i guess we can add inconsistency into the sorry mix.

I am not going to speculate on Brown’s motives, he has already stated that he loathes the “New Atheists” and “despises” Sam Harris in particular; he has, also, been a recipient of the Templeton prize - a rather notorious institution that “attempts” to reconcile religion and Science. In any case, I shall not be considering anything that Mr Brown has to say in the future, given his dishonesty or intellectual incompetence - take you pick: its either/or - or both.

Best

Michael.

Neuroscience, meditation and mind.

Check out this interesting podcast from Upaya Zen centre, on the mind, neuroscience, meditation and relationships. It is described thus-

“Psychiatrist, researcher, therapist and author Dan Siegel says there is a deep truth to the question, “Who are we?” If the brain is a social organ, as Dan’s research and clinical experience show, then what does “I” mean? It takes the practice of mindfulness to dissolve the delusion of the “I” that separates and makes disharmony out of our experience. We can use the mind to change the brain.”


http://www.upaya.org/dharma/mindsight-and-personal-transformation/

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Conclusion to How We are Wrong. Trying to be Right.

What I will propose here is a simple mnemonic to use as a general guide. It might not get us to the truth, but it will help us on the road to it, indeed, it is especially useful in seeing our views and beliefs in context. The tool, more or less comes from Socrates himself, as it is largely based on his Socratic Method.

SEPAR

S - State your position.

E - Evidence

P - Process (how did you come to your conclusion)

A - Alternatives

R - Recap and Review.


1. State you position

What is your belief? What is it you propose? Boil your belief, thoughts or views down to the fundamentals. Come to terms (understanding precisely the use of words and language) not only with yourself but with others. This is another source of value concening this tool - it can be directed at other people. For example, rather than engage someone in an argument where you are not sure that they believe what you think they believe (the epistemic fallacy) - the use of SEPAR, then, wil make youl more likely to find out the real grounds of dispute (if there is real dispute at all).

2.E for evidence.

What evidence do you have for your views? There is, of course, a number of additional questions- what kind of evidence is required to establish such and such? What would verify or falsify the belief? How reliable is the evidence? What source did I get the evidence from? Did I uncover it myself, or did I get it from a source? How reliable then, is the source? Do they (the source) have agendas?

One final note, once again, without going into modal logic, facts should never be disputed unless for very good reason, opinions are opinions and should be treated as such. This is fundamental, but it is something that can get missed. If debate turns on the question of facts - the best thing to do is consult an expert authority or a encyclopaedia or expert text.

3. P for Process.

How did you arrive at your conclusions? Was it a long process of inquiry and discovery, or did it come in a dream say, or a spark of inspiration? Have you, though, spent considerable time pondering the issue at hand? Do you have any recognised expertise on the topic? Have you read the “required” reading in the field? Was your inquiry open-ended or did you already know the answer before you began? Did you start out with an opposite view to that which you ended with?

4. A for Alternatives.

Who opposes you views or beliefs and why? Name two authorities who disagree with you and why they do. Do you believe that you have an accurate and fair understanding of their position? Why then, do you believe they are wrong? Have you got a persuasive "error theory" as to why they are wrong? What evidence would change you mind?

5. R for Recap, Review and Recapitulate.

Pretty much says it all. Review and check your beliefs regularly. Test them and make sure they are up to snuff like a man kicking his tyres. “Seek out argument and disputation for its own sake” and as a means of testing and strengthening your position. Always ask yourself “how can I be wrong?”. Try and be as sure as you can why you think you are right.

Best

Mike.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Project Eudemonia: Accept Your Limitations and Appreciate Your Strengths

“A mans gots to know his limitations”


- Harry Callahan, Magnum Force



On of they key commandments that Gretchen Rubin has on her happiness blog, is - to be Gretchen -

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.”

Coming to terms with our lives, coming to terms with our fundamental dissatisfaction, our sense of dis-ease, our limitations and disappointments is, I believe, absolutely essential if we are to have clear picture, and a sound purpose of our lives. Gretchen Rubin asks herself why she is sad when she admits to herself that life will be as it is, not, necessarily as she wants it to be -

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!--and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: "The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open." Which means -- at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not -- to acknowledge what I don't encompass.”

“die with your options open”. I like that quip, it is very revealing. Living with doubt and uncertainty is a hard thing to do; likewise, having to make a decision and hence being indecisive is also hard. As my recounting of the story of Buridan's ass shows, we agonise over decisions, because we fear making mistakes, in losing out, in failing. In many ways, our lives aspire to the ideal of NPD - Non Binding Decisions. If something goes wrong we can just press the reset button, we can change ourselves, we can reverse mistakes we made in the past. We can endlessly self improve. We can change, we can attain perfection. Our lives are not perfect and we want them to be perfect. All this, I believe, is a mistake. A corrective, or a way out of this mire is to come to terms: with a sound and realistic understanding of our strengths and weaknesses - our limitations, our lives.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.

Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible -- in fact quite easy -- to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.”

The philosopher AC Grayling notes that human life is less than a thousand months long - so it is imperative that we live life as wisely, and as productively as possible. Productively, as in the cultivation of our strengths, skilfully pursuing our ends, enjoying life and helping other people to enjoy theirs. In many ways, this is intimately tied to my third principle: living with purpose. As Gretchen points out - a life were one does what one loves and doing what one is good at - is going to be a life more likely to be happy. “Rejoice in what you are” she advises. There is only one life, and it is the only one you are living, so live it.

There is one further proposition I wish to offer. Both Aristotle and the Buddha thought that for a happy life a person needs to cultivate excellence in what he or she does. The Buddha prescribed this for lay people wishing to lead the good life, thinking that it was important for a person to cultivate excellence in whatever his living was, both as means to feeding himself, but also for the intrinsic enjoyment of his efforts and skill. Aristotle wrote about arete or excellence. That cultivating our, and especially, harmonising our various abilities, virtues, and excellences, are central to achieving eudemonia.

I think it is, then, important to have a certain pride. Not a pride in the sense of being better than others, but a pride of overcoming weakness and acquiring skill and excellence in one or more of our endeavours. A undertaking of this kind is something that will encompass our entire lives. So I guess we should be more easier on our selves, we are only human after all - we cant do everything, and we cant get everything overnight.

So perhaps then, we should have a “downsized self”. We should be prepared to reject our delusions, our fantasies, even - many of our hopes. Coming to a clear and realistic understanding of ourselves is one of the necessary conditions for appreciating the life that we have, for we are not lost in mental thought, either cursing the present state of affairs, or engaged in some fantasy of what the future might hopefully be. This, no doubt, is not easy, living mindfully is something I try to do, not always successfully, but I try, and I’m getting better at it - and that is the main thing. Gretchen Rubin captures this sentiment well - accepting who we are in this present moment yet striving to improve - “That’s another paradox of happiness: I want to “Be Gretchen,” yet I also want to change myself for the better.”

Quotes from Gretchen at -

http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2008/10/paradoxes-of-ha.html


Best

Mike.