Tuesday, 30 June 2009

How can we be Wrong? Part Three. Beliefs.

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

-Bertrand Russell.

Beliefs control behaviour. What we believe about the world, determines not only our actions, but our emotions, they are operative, cognitively, socially, politically and scientifically. What we believe about the world, then, is immensely important. The corollary to this then, is the importance of where we get our beliefs from, and how we form them, finally, perhaps, crucially how we change or modify beliefs. I intend to deal with where we get our beliefs from during the discussion of the Shaming Code, here I will discuss only the latter two: forming beliefs and changing them.

Beliefs, if they are to be useful or informative must, as best possible, accurately reflect reality. This would entail that one attempts to get as clear and accurate a picture of reality as possible. This means that evidence is crucial to beliefs. It should be said, that even people who harbour the craziest views and occupy the lunatic fringe of political or religious discourse, still view their beliefs as eminently rational. For example, if you were to find yourself in discussion with a 9/11 “truther” he would, no doubt, have a plethora of reasons for why it was the CIA and not Al Qaeda that flew the planes into the twin towers.

Nevertheless, we find that a good deal of our neighbours believe the preposterous. How is this so? Following on from what I wrote in the last paragraph, the idea that people always look for reasons and justifications for what they believe, would suggest, that there has been a misfiring or mistake in their attempt to ascertain reality. Robert B. Cialdini in his book Influence The Psychology of Persuasion, documents all the cognitive defects and misfirings of reason that humans are susceptive too. In short, we have a complex and vast suite of cognitive abilities and procedures that we deploy to make our way in the world. For example, we are susceptible to authority figures. Now, there is plenty of good reasons why authority is important, and why it is useful to follow experts and authorities, however, we are at risk to charlatans and hucksters, or even people who are themselves deceived of their own authority.

How then can we overcome these problems? There has probably been no other human endeavour other than science, that has systematically tried, as best possible, to eliminate bias and woolly thinking. I remember, my initial reaction when reading Richard Dawkins on the difference between the thinking styles in science and politics. Dawkins, gave the warming story of a professor who had been shown to be wrong in a theory he had held in biology by a visiting American professor. Rather than being angry or critical, he said to his young challenger “my dear fellow I have been wrong all these years.” Dawkins asks us to consider what would be the likely outcome of something like this in politics. Even if, miraculously, a politician did admit to being wrong on some policy, he would be pounced on as weak (the refuted professor’s colleagues and students clapped their hands in admiration for being magnanimous.) This was to me, a truly “consciousness raising” moment, to use a favourite phrase of Dawkins.

Tools scientists use such as experimental bias, peer review, abduction, verification and falsification, meta analyses - represent our best attempts to get a clear and untainted a picture of what’s real as possiable.

In our everyday formations and modifications of beliefs, what is important is that we keep the critical mindset, that we hold our beliefs tentatively, that they are always open to the possiabilty of change. We should, furthermore, welcome every opportunity to challenge and have challenged our beliefs, so we should as Christopher Hitchens proscribes “seek out conflict and argument”.

Following on from my last post, where I linked a video of the ten questions of Michael Shermer’s baloney detection kit, they are.

1. How reliable is the source of the claim.

2. Does the source often make similar claims? Ie lots of extraordinary, unproven, miraculous claims? Or just one or two extraordinary ones alongside perfectly ordinary ones.

3. Have the claims been verified by someone else?

4. Does the claim fit with the way the world works?

5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point.

7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?

8 Is the claimant providing positive evidence? Ie not just criticizing a position or explaining away why there is no positive evidence.

9. Does the new theory account for as much phenomena as the old theory?

10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim.





Monday, 29 June 2009

The Baloney Detection Kit From Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

Check out this video from RDFS

Pretty good stuff when coming to judge claims and evidence and sources.

How can we be wrong? Part Two

2. Prejudicial emotions.

We are continually beset by emotions that, if unchecked would make us all monsters and tyrants. Ask yourself this simple question. Whenever you encounter a stranger, someone say, who is very different to you, dresses different, talks different and acts different. What is your initial reaction? The ideal reaction from the point of view of say Buddhism and Christianity is that we love the stranger. This might be a tall order (consider a group of cracked, young teenage malcontents stumbling towards you with quizzical malevolence on their face) Liberalism, would preach a more pragmatic doctrine of tolerance or cheery indifference. So are you on this side of the equation? Or when seeing these people does your heart start to beat a little harder, your jaw tightens and cold hatred appears on your face? Malice then, runs through your veins, and the language of damnation unspools in your mind. In short, do you feel a sense of connection with people or separation?

Consequences might not seem to clearly follow from this, but consequences there are. I think it would be true to say that, many of the worlds problems is a consequence of this feeling of separation. “Some people and not others” as Jonathan Glover writes in Humanity A Moral History of the 20th Century. Some people are worthy of our respect and moral concern, and some, are not. We show an alarming disposition to divide ourselves along class, country, race, religion, politics and sexuality. For present purposes, the argument I am making - is that these emotions, visceral and sometimes subliminal and unconscious, can and do, influence and control our actions towards others, influence, and sometimes determine how we reason through abstract socio/political problems. Psychologists talk about each of us having an innate folk psychology, I would argue that we have an innate folk philosophy. It is an extension of our psychology and it influences how we think, how we deal with empirical questions, how we respond to evidence and how we decided the notorious question - What Ought to Be Done?

Consider what is (or at least appears a basic question), the answers offered, however, determines an entire philosophical and political outlook - How good are we? Do we, have for example, a natural disposition for kindness or are we inherently bad? Do social ills come from institutions and economics or human nature? Conservatism's (broadly defined) view of human nature is the tragic vision; in its more religious guise it is embodied in the doctrine of original sin. Man is inherently sinful-therefore bad. Any attempt at reforming say, institutions, economics and society is foolish and dangerous. Dangerous, for the walls that keep order(which also oppress and seperate), when torn down will unleash all the selfish, atavistic ugliness that our species is uniquely capable off. In secular conservatism, the basis, would, ironically, be Darwin’s Natural Selection. There is also another irony here, if it were not for the literalist religious folk, then Natural Selection would be seen as almost scientific proof for the doctrine of original sin or if you will, the first noble truth of Buddhism, for what, in a single word is the consequence of greed, selfishness, struggle and enmity-suffering.

Liberalism however, takes the opposite view. We are Rousseau’s noble savage. It is the institutions, it is society that has made a mess of our lives. Since the enlightenment, many of liberalisms attempts at reform and its philosophical offshoots have attempted to reform society--with consequences that are not always pretty to say the least.

There are two problems here. If the recent investigations as to how we acquire our beliefs-are being shown to be more influenced by heritability than was once thought - that conservatism and liberalism are not just political philosophies but are temperaments, and as such deeply emotional and intuitive. This indicates the problems we have of attempting rational discourse, and even claming objectivity. The second problem is really the crux: what happens when the evidence and reasons go to support one particular view and not another?

For our purposes however, what we need to do is notice whenever we are feeling hatred and anger towards people, notice it, and ask ourselves have we any good reason for it? If not, then let it pass. Even if we do, we should not let the emotion get a hold of us, we ought to examine every political and philosophical question dispassionately, as if we were counting pennies. There is plenty of opportunity to let the emotions roar, but in dealing with people we don’t like or disagree with, we ought to deal with them with the greatest care and with dispassionate, objective mindset. We, especially, ought not to allow our provincial emotions and experiences to inform how we deal with social questions. In short, we ought to think clearly, compassionately, and ask ourselves what are the facts.

Our emotions are like our muscles, we should value them, we may even think them beautiful and that life would not be worth living without them (it would, of course, not be possible either way). However, without the proper use of ones faculties we could just as easily smash someone in the face as help carry them on our backs, so to with the way we think and feel, in that our emotions and thinking can be used wisely or foolishly and hence, harmfully.



Saturday, 27 June 2009

How can we be wrong? Part one.

I am beginning new section on my blog, I am going to call it critical thinking. Firstly, here is something I was working on last month but never completed, its long, so I have decided to post it in sections. It comes in five parts, so I intend to put the rest up whenever I complete it.

Also for this category, I intend in the future to select OP-Eds, books, and arguments and point out the spurious and fallacious thinking behind them.

How we go wrong.

I was reading recently a short primer on Socrates, the great Athenian philosopher, or troublemaker, or intellectual messiah, and came across his famous dictum, “All I know is that I know nothing”. It got me thinking - Socrates mission, in many ways, was to expose pretenders to “Wisdom” or expertise. He did this in two ways. 1. Asking for a definition of the thing in question, backed up with appropriate examples and evidence. If this was not forthcoming, then Socrates would reject the person’s knowledge as insufficient to count as wisdom or expertise. 2. He would, by questioning and prying (unleashing the "dogs of philosophic war", as Will Durant puts it) to find contradictions or paradoxes in a person’s argument. The statement “all I know is that I know nothing” is an apparent contradiction, for he professes to know that he knows nothing. Still, this apparent flaw is explained away, which I will not go into for present purposes- Socrates challenge - is how can we acquire wisdom, and to know that we have acquired it. What is, perhaps, more important, rather, than say positive knowledge, is that knowing when we are wrong, and to know when we are likely to be making mistakes in our thinking.

So, when I woke up this morning, before trooping off to sweat it out at the gym, while still in semi-conscious awareness-these five rules of thumb came to me. So, I apologize in advance, if my thoughts seem somewhat woolly. I believe that the following five items are what commonly lead us astray in our thinking. What I will say, is, I believe, common sense. Good sense rather, as opposed to "common sense", however is what is needed, for many times, our common modes of thinking is what leads us into the misty, deceiving, smoke of unreason. I will also propose a tool, or mnemonic, to help us organize and clarify our thinking, at the end. The five ways we can be wrong are 1. Failure of understanding. 2. Prejudicial emotions, the trivium of evil- greed, hatred and fear. 3. Beliefs. 4. Moral Paradoxes. 5. The Shaming code.

Coming to terms and Common Understanding.

In my experience, the most common forms of being wrong is simply a failure of understanding. Humans uses language to convey information, both oral and written, however, because of the well known complexity of language, words and terms, (never mind the deliberate obfuscations at times of philosophers, theologians and critics.) People will dispute for no other reason other than a confusion of language and meaning. This is expressed in a simple example. Jay thinks football is the best sport, John thinks football is the best sport. Jay lives in New York and supports the Jets, and really thinks American Football is the best sport. John lives in Newcastle and supports-who else? Newcastle United and really thinks Soccer is the best sport. If this seems piddling, then consider the arguments that break out over words like- Freedom, Privacy, Government, Faith, Belief, God, Drugs, Justice, Equality, Human-Rights, Evolution, Creationism, Science, Morality. Entire books can be written, articles offered in rebuttal, and OP-Eds trotted out over, what is, or at times what can be, a confusion over meaning, terms and words. Of course, there really is at times dissent and disagreement, but real dissent can only take place when each party fully understands the other party and vice versa. This sounds simple, but the difficulty of achieving it in practice and enforcing it in principle is consistently challenging.

The consequence of this, is that, we should simply suspend judgment when we fail to understand something or don’t understand it yet. How then, can we judge competency in understanding? Mortimer J. Adler has offered three criteria for this. We can say that you are, or an author, speaker etc is informed if there is no facts, evidence or information that either contradicts what he believes or falsifies (proves to be wrong) what he holds to be true. If the obverse of this is true then you are uninformed. Of course, the facts that you do use, and the theories by which you explain the facts have to be elegant, consistent, and compelling. Now, Secondly, the author or speaker along with ourselves can either be misinformed. This is to say, that your are wrong in principle, for example, someone who believes the sun circles the earth is misinformed and uninformed. That is to say, they are wrong in principle and have not been instructed correctly. A final way of being misinformed about a subject - can also be understood as commiting the "straw man fallacy" that is, that the picture they have of an argument or position is wildly inaccurate. Thirdly, our understanding or the author, speaker etc, is not insufficient or incomplete. Strictly speaking, this is not being wrong per se, but it is a form of epistemic fallacy. I have a limited understanding of Greek history, but this knowledge would be insufficient for me to grade a paper by an undergraduate in Ancient History. Many, most, or all of my assertions and views, would likely be wrong.

So to recap, firstly, to check the soundness of our beliefs we must ask - is there any facts or information which contradict what we hold to be the case. Secondly, we must ensure that we have, as best possible, the most accurate understanding of, not only what we are contending, but also, other peoples’ positions. We must then, be sure of our facts and resources. Finally, we must ensure that our understanding is both comprehensive and sufficiently complete, in other words, our argument or analysis we must not leave out factors with are essential to the matter at hand.

It can also be in art or entertainment that we can also be wrong. I have a friend who, with me, has watched a few David Lynch films. He comments that Lynch’s films are “erratic” and “disjointed”-I view I would share. However, is this not just analysis? A descriptive comment not an evaluative judgment - I believe so. Does analytic descriptions imply evaluative judgment? My friend was using the words “erratic” and disjointed” in a negative, critical way, though I believe they are an accurate description of the use of narrative in Lynch’s films, however, it is possible for me to use the same words, and conclude, paradoxically, with a positive appraisal of Lynch’s films. Is this is a problem? No. Consider this statement. “James told Martha she was ugly and overweight”. Lets agree that Martha is ugly. Lets also agree (for the sake of argument) that James was wrong to say this. Does the fact that he said these things, imply(remember just sticking with the language itself - not the social/cultural implications of it) that he is a nasty man and was wrong to do so? No. For the reason that we could say that James is being truthful, or funny, or even that he is nasty, but so what? Our judgment,however, of James being nasty has to rely on reasons outside of the analysis which form the judgment. So for example, we may say that we don’t believe we should be nasty to people, or that we were brought up to be kind etc. (note these reasons can, too, be examined thus instigating a infinite regress, any terminator, however, we wish to use-God, Law, Expert Opinion runs into the same problem - regress.)

So, when we form opinions on art, music, novels, games, films, stories, we ought to understand the emotional and intellectual impression that the artist is trying to convey to us. Take the HBO TV drama, The Wire for example, a female culture critic watched one episode, (the pilot) and concluded that the show was sexist and derogatory to women. Has the woman even tried to come to terms of what the show was trying to convey? Did she not understand that the few depictions of women in the Pilot were not chauvinistic but realistic? (what are female strippers supposed to do in a strip club after all?) Did she not think of showing a little humility in light of the fact that she had only seen one episode-and only watched it to see what all her male colleagues were up to? Calling it great TV etc? Should she not have watched a few more episodes before writing her piece? Take anouther case - It is a cliché for example, to call Radiohead depressing. Is it really? And if it is, is this a bad thing? Perhaps ist not depressing but reflective and soulful, perhaps we should attend to the ideas the music and lyrics ponders over, before being dismissive. To appreciate, whether or not the execution of the project was skilful, incomplete, innovative, creative or not.

To sum up, we should ask ourselves-what is being said and how is it being said. What is its meaning and do I understand it? What are the reasons supplied for it? And finally, it is not uniformed, misinformed or incomplete in any key particular.



Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Project Eudemonia: Principle Four, Cultivate Zestful Joy.

What does it mean to culivate zestful joy? Joy or happiness or eudemonia does not fall into our laps, indeed, like anything worthwhile it must be attained, effort must be expended in the conquering of it. This is the reason why Bertrand Russell called his book on the subject, The Conquest of Happiness.

Firstly though, a definition of zest. Russell, from whom I take this word, described Zest as “the most universal and distinctive mark of happy men,”. Zest, one would think, follows naturally from my last principle, living life with purpose; if for example, one has purpose, a purpose that one finds agreeable, then it is easier to have enthusiasm for it, to engage in it with a sense of enjoyment and energy. Russell gave an analogy by what he meant by the world zest, namely by describing various types of eaters, and how they have a similarity to people who view life the same way: as someone who views meals. “There are those who begin with a sound appetite, are glad of their food, eat until they have had enough, and then stop. Those who are set down before the feast of life have similar attitudes towards the good things which it offers.” this account: the healthy eater, corresponds to the man who has zest.

Zest for life can take many forms, just like life can afford many different purposes. Zest however, cannot be generated by reflection or reason, it is an emotion, a state of being, a will. How then can it be sought and maintained? The feeling of being loved, in particular sexual love, is, as Russell notes one of the chief sources of zest. The esteem of ones friends and colleagues along with a sense of self respect in the activities that one is doing is important. Having projects, aims and values are also indispensable in cultivating Zest. A further analogy to help demonstrate, is to liken zest to a engine that gives power and hence motion to a vehicle, we are the vehicle, zest is the engine, figuring out, personally, what fuel we need is like finding our purpose, one of the tasks of life.

Joy can be seen then, as the consequence of zest. In Buddhism, it is considered one of the seven factors of enlightenment. It does not take an enlightened being however, to recognise the intrinsic and extrinsic importance of this state. Not only is our attitude to life healthier, indeed, there is plenty of good evidence to think that a happy life has adaptive functions for us: namely success and wellbeing. Joy or happiness, or indeed, eudemonia - makes us shine, we are better at forming and cementing relationships, and better at deepening the ones we have already, we are better equipped, mentally and emotionally, to deal with life’s vicissitudes. I should say that joy is not some temporary, somewhat effete or vulgar experience a “joy joy click your heals” kind of happiness, it is a strength of mind. It is almost like an attitude of unconquerable hope or optimism; and an awareness of everything (all your experience) that is placed before you, and finding peace by accepting it. Joy, then, is something that is developed and deepened throughout life. The state of ecstasy, in contrast, is a high, it is a temporary from of bliss. Joy is much more stable and steady. In a marvellous book, The Experience of Insight, Joseph Goldstein writes that joy as a state can be compared to “a person walking many days in the desert, very hot and tired, dirty and thirsty. Not too far in the distance, he sees a great lake of clear water, the joy he will feel, that’s like the enlightenment factor of rapture”. Russell concludes his chapter on zest, the key chapter, perhaps, in his book, The Conquest Of Happiness, by saying “ zest is the secret of happiness and wellbeing.”



Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Project Eudemonia. Principle Three: Live Your Life With Purpose.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” the kernel of this maxim, from Socrates, is that we choose values and principles that premise our lives, that gives us a purpose and a reason for living. Our life should, as Bertrand Russell noted “ spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations.” Putting it anouther way, the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, identified, what he believed the key philosophical question: should one commit suicide? If the answer is no, then it implies that one has a reason to live. A life then, without some hope or reason for living, or some guiding purpose, would be one so open to chance, so open to the manipulations and coercions of others, that it would be a existence - “flying by the seat of its pants.” - a tumbleweed being blown by the wind.

It cannot be overestimated, then, how important it is that we find something that we love, something we are good at, and something that we can sink hours or years of our lives into. We can find purpose and pleasure in many things; figuring out what is one of them(purpose in finding purpose alas). The result then, is a stable, purposeful and worthwhile existence. Ends are important however, we should ask whether or not our lives contribute to the over all good, and that the consequences that we create do not bring about unnecessary suffering to others and to ourselves. It would also need to be stressed, that we place a not to great an emphasis on achieving specific goals; we should take pleasure in the doing more than the achieving. Finally, via Sartre, we should have as many reasons for living as possible, so, if one happens to fail us, we will not lapse into despair or futility.



Monday, 22 June 2009

The Ethics Of Rape.


Last Sunday I happened to catch the topical debate show, The Big Questions on BBC. One of the issues being discussed was the contentious issue of whether or not a woman could be responsible for being raped. I enjoy watching a lot of these shows, not generally for their informed debate, but, for their ability to give me a good metal work out. Many times, around contentious issues, there is a real lack of clarity, important distinctions, and a inability to come to a clear understanding of words and meanings. In short, a lot of heat is generated without the corresponding benefit of light.

So I will attempt to clarify the issue, and make firm distinctions between the many confusions that people on the show made. It cannot, of course, be overestimated how much emotion and feeling entered into the debate, here I will attempt to reason as coolly and dispassionately as possible.

Here is the link to the programme.


Here is the question;

Can date rape be a woman's fault?

I intend to analyse this question through two categories. 1. Risk and Responsibility. 2 Legality. After discussing the issue through these two categories I will be able to make important definitions and distinctions in regard to the word “fault”

Risk and Responsibility

Firstly, let me ask two questions and see what answers we get. “can a woman’s behaviour or actions contribute to a greater risk of being raped?” and “are there ways of behaving responsibly that, all things being equal, limit the possibility of being raped?” Before answering these questions let me give an analogy that will prove instructive. Lets consider a scenario that is used many times in these debates. Suppose you are a man, well dressed, walking in a poor, crime ridden, unfamiliar neighbourhood, perhaps even, in a neighbourhood that is ethnically different. You are walking with an expensive phone, talking imperviously to your friend. Now ask the question: Is his behaviour contributing to a greater risk of being mugged? Is he acting responsibly? Now, I want you to hang on a moment, I think I might know what your thinking and feeling about what this seems to imply, wait, I am not implying that at all.

So, now I turn to the issue and ask, can a woman’s behaviour contribute to a greater risk of being raped? And are there ways of acting that would, as best as possible limit the chance of being raped? The answer is of course yes, one would only have to consider the amount of stay safe advertising and material promoted to raise awareness in women to stay vigilant and be safe.

Now, there is a gigantic fallacy that people fall into when seeing this conclusion. The fallacy is this, if a woman acts irresponsibly then this means that the rapist is absolved of the legal and moral consequences of the crime, or that it somehow mitigates the crime. This is TOTALLY false. Even if a well dressed man with an expensive phone is mugged in a crime ridden area, the legal and largely the moral responsibility lies with the perpetrator.


I think the source of this problem is twofold. The historical injustice around women and rape in particular, and the fallacy of equating morality with legality. I should not need to say anything on the first problem. I will say a few things on the second. Simply put, in legal proceedings there is either the reality that a crime has taken place or it has not. This is for a jury to decide. The legal consequences or to put it another way the agency lies with the accused, the causal reasons for the rape or murder or theft are in legal proceedings irrelevant.

What this means, is that legally, a woman can act as irresponsibly as she wishes and should not expect to be raped or abused, it does not diminish the criminal culpability of the offender, it gives a man no right to take advantage of a drunken woman. This naturally, should go without saying.

However, legal rights are one thing, safety and security in the real world are another.
In a perfect world, everyone should be able to act as they please provided they do harm to no one. However, this is not a perfect world, and there are many inconvenient things we have to do to ensure that we are safe.

Now I come to one final important distinction. Lets now consider fault. Legally, as I have noted, the rapist bares total legal responsibility for the crime committed. Now what about morally? Morally, once again the rapist bares the majority of the moral responsibility, but I believe the woman does, in some, but not all or most circumstances bares some moral responsibility.

Let me qualify this. Morality is not the same as legality. I believe telling lies to hurt someone immoral but it is not illegal. Some people consider sex outside of marriage immoral but again it is not illegal. The standard secular liberal definition of morality would be actions concerning the health and wellbeing of sentient creatures, hence, moral actions result in a increase or preservation of health and wellbeing while decreasing or avoiding the bringing about of harm and suffering. Two conclusions would follow from this. 1. That, as I have said the majority of the moral responsibility would rest with the rapist, as he is bringing about a huge increase in suffering and harm to someone. 2. That, in some way, if the woman has put herself at risk and behaved irresponsibly, then she has acted, in some way, immorally, in that she has brought about a unnecessary and unwelcome state of suffering through her actions.

Though I believe, these conclusions are sound, I understand that the use of the term immoral has connotations that are very much open to misinterpretation, so I think that using such words are unhelpful. To conclude, even though this has tidied up a few confusions, there is still many practical problems (ensuring more rape convictions for example) that I cannot explore fully here. In short, what is needed is greater public awareness, both among men and women, especially when it comes to the murky issue of date rape. The issue of whether or not a person is competent to give consent is a ambiguous issue, one that really needs explored with sound information disseminated to the public.



Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Don’t Believe Your Thoughts. Project Eudemonia Part Two: The Second Principle.

Don’t believe your thoughts, is a Zen quote, that comes up time and again in the discourse of meditation. I cannot find the origins of the quote, however it probably traces back to an ancient master, maybe even Bodidarma

This neatly dovetails with the last principle I blogged on, “All is as thinking makes it so.” While the kernel of that principle recognises the fact that we can “direct the mind” as Marcus Aurelius might say, (we can view events and experiences positively, negatively, or indifferently) “don’t believe you thoughts” seems a more radical, sceptical principle.

Some qualification is needed here. What the quote means, is that when sitting in Zazen (meditation) or simply observing your mental experience, you will see that, thoughts, feelings, and judgements arise spontaneously and disappear. Thoughts start out like little seeds, at the periphery of our consciousness, they then become recognised, the seeds have now grown into weeds, more thoughts and judgments pour forth, they then envelop and entangle the mind like ivy, then we have emotional reactions to those thoughts and judgments. For example we remember someone at sometime criticizing us, either we believe what they say and get all upset about it, or we think how wrong that person is, and what all their faults are - why they are at fault etc etc. In the end we are caught up in a perpetual cycle of thought, reaction, judgment, emotion, thought, reaction ad infinitum.

Not “believing” thoughts is simply to see them as impermanent, and insubstantial. When you calm the mind in meditation you are able to see, feel, understand, that thoughts or concepts just arise, and then just fade out. You are untroubled by them, you don’t “believe” or need to follow them up with more thinking, you simply observe the thought or judgement dispassionately, and let it go on its way.

The practice of meditation is not achieving a thought free state, but being able to break our emotional attachment to the thinking process. Freedom, like I said in my last post is being free from the opinions of ourselves and others; thought is not reality, there is the world as it is and the world as we want it to be. There is a disconnect here, a kind of ought and is fallacy, when we see this fact and henceforth integrate into our lives - we will experience the liberation of non-duality. That is to say - “you don’t believe your thoughts”.

Belfast Bigotry.

A sad example of raciest violence occurred in Belfast on Tuesday the 16th of June.



In my experience, the people who harbour raciest views, and especially in this case, who will resort to violence and intimidation are from “disadvantaged backgrounds” read- unskilled, uneducated and bored young men. Northern Ireland is a still a very divided place, not only class and religion but sexuality, as Fiona noted in her OP-Ed, NI is very hostile to homosexuals. All this, is both paradoxically shocking and unsurprising.

One night, for example, as I came home from Belfast, to the little town of Comber, I saw two small posters, one was for the KKK! Yes the KKK, the wholly discredited and humiliated KKK from America in the fifties!. The other, using similar design read FUCK ISLAM. All this is very disturbing.

In my experience, these problems do seem to come from the Loyalist or Unionist side of Northern Ireland. There is a good reason why this is so, even if the people engaged in the recent attacks did so without this in mind - NI is largely a “protestant” country, most immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe are Catholic. They fear, perhaps, being swamped by Catholics. More Catholics, hence united Ireland. I doubt this is rational, nor am I confident that this is what motivates the hatred Ulster Protestants have for outsiders. The simple explanation would be hysteria, ignorance and bigotry whipped up to a crescendo by the economic downturn.

All Is As Thinking Makes It So. Project Eudemonia: The First Principle.

““All is as thinking makes it so.” The retort made to Monimus the Cynic is clear enough: but clear too is the value of the saying, if one takes the kernel of it, as far as it is true.

“By This anticipation of Hamlet, Marcus (Aurelius) means that the nature and impact (for good or ill) of any external event or circumstance- all “indifferent” things - is determined solely by the rational judgement of it formed by the directing mind, not by the event itself. “Remove the judgement , and you have removed the thought “I am hurt, and the hurt itself is removed”: “If you remove your judgement of anything that seems painful, you yourself stand quite immune to pain.”

(Quoted from Mediations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Martin Hammond, extract by Hammond.)

Stand back and objectively assess your experience, your consciousness, indeed, the entire terrain of mental life, you will find that your thoughts, judgments, opinions, are the cause of much unnecessary unhappiness and suffering. The ability to recognise this fact, and maintain a mindfulness of your thoughts - will allow you to remain free from the tumultuous vicissitudes of experience. This, is true freedom, a freedom from the opinion of others and from ourselves and our fantasies. This will allow ourselves to become less preoccupied with the ego, as Bertrand Russell and many others have pointed out, true happiness is largely built on a life less preoccupied with the self.

Project Eudemonia. Introduction

Project Eudemonia

Recently, I have been reading this blog


There is some interesting reading, and its certainly interests me, I spend a good deal of my time addressing the immortal question of “what is good?” What is the good life? What does it consist off? Is there such a thing as wisdom that can turn mental suffering or dissatisfaction into joy and contentment? How do we discover such things?

Gretchen Rubin, has inspired me to start my own happiness project, only I have decided to rename mine, Project Eudemonia. The word eudemonia comes from Greek, generally meaning well living or flourishing, a term Socrates and Aristotle would have bandied about. The dictionary on this computer defines it as “morality evaluated according to happiness: an ethical doctrine that characterizes the value of life in terms of happiness”

I will have more to say about such terms in a later post. For now, however, I wish to set out what I aim to do. As often as I can, I will post on subjects, questions, research and philosophies related to the good life. I will be exploring the conceptions of wellbeing in both an eastern and western philosophical tradition. There are however, a number of key figures that I will explore in more detail, what they taught or wrote, analysing it, and judging it as useful or otherwise for a modern contemporary life.

These figures are somewhat eclectic, they are the Buddha, Marcus Aurelius and Bertrand Russell. In the future I hope to explore more authors, but for now I will focus on these three very contrasting men.

However, first, I will post on what I wrote to be my commandments, little lines or phrases from other authors or made up by me, that I use to try and ground myself with some values and foundations, that I live my life by.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Why there is no refuge from politics.

Last year I wrote a post--Why Politics Sucks.


One year on, I reconsider my views.

Christopher Hitchens in the introductory essay to Love, Poverty and War, states that there is no refuge from politics; even a life hermitically devoted to poetry, music and literature will have the cruel wind of the world intrude. A few weeks ago, I was asked, why study politics? I replied that everything about our lives is, essentially, political. That, every time you criticise someone’s actions or some social policy or promulgate some ought - “I believe we need to cut teenage pregnancy” “We need more jobs for British people” you are engaged, whether you know it or not. in politics. An interest in politics, is, probably, an interes, or a concern with power. Those who wish to change the world, or keep it the same, want implicitly or explicitly power. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, people who do not desire power or who are indifferent to their fellow man, are either mystics or lunatics. The Ancient Greeks had a name for persons not interested in public affairs--they called them idiots or idiotes

So, me being a very opinionated person, apt to criticise his fellow man, and equally willing to instruct him in matters political, ethical and religious, it is no surprise then that I have a interest in politics. However, it is an ambivalent relationship. I have no real interest in the grind of daily politics, or in politicians themselves. I prefer ideas, big ones, many of which were first thought and argued over by the Greeks, but mere contemplation and disputation of ideas without practical resolutions is vacuous and, ultimately, pointless.

Last August I decided to attend University. It was not a easy decision, however, the degree I signed up for was rather easy to choose. Why? In many ways, I am committed to a rather old fashioned idea of an educated gentleman: - one who educates himself in as many matters as possible, literature, culture, science and history. For me to have selected either a English degree or a science degree would have, I felt, limited me. That of course, does not mean to say that there will be no specialisation or hair splitting distinctions and arcane terminology in the degree I chose, indeed, far from it.

One of the issues I am interested in is the relationship between politics and science. For me there needs to be more of the scientific mindset in politics: a politics more clearly based upon empirical fact rather than feeling or intuition, and what the press wish. So, studying politics, perhaps, allows me to think and address these questions with greater freedom. I should say I wished to do a joint degree in philosophy, but could not because of clashing timetables, to digress a little, I believe in the Russell/empirical/ Quine model of philosophy as a extension of the natural sciences. That good philosophy be science enabling and science extending, for me, personally, I believe that philosophy can play the valuable role of midwife to a new politics, one based on reason, science and empirical research.

Economic Meltdown

What a year in politics it has been! Many time I said to myself, that this is my political baptism. Firstly there was and is the economic meltdown. I know little of economics, an ignorance I intend to rectify. It would seem, that economic reform will be the dominant theme of the next decade, after global warming and Islamic fundamentalism.

Palin, Obama and the US culture wars.

I don’t know which is more important or surprising, the election of a black US President or the Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin-- fundamentalist Christian and conservative darling. The culture war in America was especially virulent during the election, taking on an almost hypnotic pornographic quality. A major question that is occupying my mind - is the election of Obama a blip? Will Palin come to symbolise the America future? Fascinating questions, my suspicion is that we have not heard the last of Palin

Israel and Gaza

The Israeli bombardment of Gaza was in many ways a pivotal moment. I have always been interested in this dispute, now over 60 years running. It is in many ways a ground zero of all the ways humanity can go wrong. I am not, like so many liberals or leftists, (indeed I repudiate such terminology for myself,) “hostile” to Israel. I put hostile in quotation marks for it is a blatant understatement of the rancour, hatred and sheer lunacy of writing, opinion, and hand wringing over Israel. I do not have space to fully itemize or explore this issue, but the commentary, opinion and news reportage by the Guardian, BBC and other left/liberal magazines and writers was shockingly misinformed, wildly irrational and borderline anti-Semitic. This is a issue that is, and will be endlessly fascinating.

Pakistan, Iran and Islam

Islam exploded onto the world scene (or the western scene) on 9/11, this issue is, perhaps, in my top three interests. I have been following Islam in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Europe for the past several years. This is going to be, I believe, the number one political issue after global warming. Among the man questions that need exploring and answering: - are the West and Islam locked in a clash of civilisations? Can Islam reconcile itself to secular modernity? If there is a clash, who will win? Who is better equipped to win? Will Pakistan go under a Taliban like rule? Will Iran modernise? What role will British and European Muslims carve out for themselves?

Political reform and the Expense Scandal.

Returning to domestic politics, everyone is engaged in the expenses scandal, and Gordon Brown’s woeful reputation in the country. I prefer to look deeper, there is chance for some real reform--but will it happen? I don’t want a conservative government, but it seems inevitable if Brown stays. The only party that seems committed to the kind of reform I want to see is the liberal democrats, slim chance of them getting power however, though, a partnership with labour if a hung parliament results from the General election is possible.

What is needed

It has been a tumultuous year, not just for me but for politics in general, politics may “suck” but there is no escaping from it. Humans today have enormous power, we are in a position to influence and control events that no group of humans before us ever conceived possible. I believe that the enlightenment hope of a better world (one that has come under sustained attack) is a project that needs to be fought for and extended. We need to continually break down the barriers of division and irrationality, to grow the moral circle, and to educate and improve ourselves. We need greater international co-operation, a world government, a properly armed UN with a mandate to intervene in cases of genocide and mass murder. A commitment to extending and developing global human rights, social justice and the eradication of poverty. A universal education and politics based on reason, in short, enlightened cosmopolitism.



Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Meeting David Simon.

Meeting David Simon.

Last Sunday I attended a book signing and a Q and A by David Simon, Journalist, writer, filmmaker, AKA the creator of the Wire and Generation Kill.

The event was held at Ulster hall Belfast, sponsored by the Guardian. It was part of the 2009 Hay festival. I thought my friend was pulling my leg when he sent me a text saying that David Simon was coming to Belfast. Though, sure enough, when I checked online, it did indeed say he was going to be in the City of yours truly, a great opportunity to meet the man himself.

The Wire is, the best Television show I have seen, belonging to the same elite rank of shows that came out of HBO in its hayday. Simon is no one trick pony, though, his book-Homicide a year on the killing streets, is a masterpiece of crime reporting, subsequently made into the long running TV show of the same name. Working as a Baltimore city crime reporter, especially spending a year observing the homicide unit, give Simon the necessary experience and material that would form his future career. Fans of the Wire will instantly recognise many characters, jokes and situations, from the book that made it into the HBO show.

It was not just experience and material from working in the homicide unit that helped Simon, it was where he forged the partnership with ED Burns (former police detective and teacher) the Co -creator of both The Wire, The Corner, and Generation Kill. Simon was clear on this point, Ed Burns along with three or four of the top key writers were crucial to the brilliance of the show. In this sense, the Wire is a fascinating case study in so called authorship, or auteurship. What is especially brilliant about the Wire (the same could be said for “his” other shows) is that it really is a team effort. Not only that, the majority of the writers, and this is especially true of the two main creators, have worked, lived and breathed in the environments they portrayed. This is a stark difference to what is the norm of the film/TV industry. This difference is especially apt when compared to David Chase--the creator of the Sopranos.

I was not able to ask how important this aspect was to the success of the Wire and The Corner, but I think that it cannot be overstated. In many ways this makes the Wire one of a kind: a brilliant multi layered narrative, that contains a tremendous amount of anger and social criticism. I do not expect a show like the Wire to come along again anytime soon.

My friends and I arrived towards the end of the book signing, I was not expecting much of a crowd, to my surprise though, the cue for signing was end to end (I just about got my original copy of Homicide signed) Even more surprising, was when I looked around at a packed Ulster hall to see a more or less full house of several hundred people.

My Homicide book now reads “To Michael, its all in the game, David Simon”. I got a laugh from both Simon and his PA, “that’s good, original”. I made some small talk with Simon, telling him how much me and my friends appreciated his show. I mentioned that his book was probably my favourite book in the field of journalism, comparing it to Michael Herr’s Dispatches ( Herr’s account of being embedded among the US armed forces during the Vietnam War.) he agreed saying he had a lot of time for that book. And that was that.

During the Q and A, Simon came across self deprecating, funny and articulate. He knows what he’s talking about without an air of intellectualism or elitism, the kinda guy who pollsters like to say “you could have a drink with”. We were sitting near the back of the hall and, at times, his soft, rolling, Baltimorean accent was hard to pick up at.

A taste of some of his opinions.

He thinks Obama has a good handle on what he is doing, though he doubts that any real progress will be made, ie drug reform, inner city schools etc.

It was revealed that in Season 3, where they were shooting a scene in a gay bar, a previously considered heterosexual character was to be shown - the writers quickly settled on Rawls-the “anal” stats obsessed Deputy Director. This got huge laughs from the audience, especially, as Simon noted, Rawls had been spouting homoerotic references and sexually suggestive remarks throughout the seasons. The funniest was his reply to Daniels in season two, Daniels - “I need McNulty” Rawls - “I need an extra 3 inches of meat-aint going happen”.

He responded to the question of why he killed of the likes of Stringer, Omar and Prop Joe by referencing the Greeks, Greek tragedy and Antigone. “ these characters aren’t going to change, they aren’t going to go into therapy or get a real job”.

He revealed how surprising it was for him to see how successful the show became. He quipped that he did not expect the show to be understood in Philadelphia never mind London, Belfast, Amsterdam etc. He was also, once again, full of praise for HBO. He confirmed an idea I had while reacting to the end of Season 3. Season 3 was meant to be the end of the show. By this time, everyone knew that the Wire was not going to become a commercial success. Simon went to HBO, told them his ideas for season four and five, and, they agreed. He quoted a huge number, maybe four million that HBO could have used creating two new shows, which could have been money makers, but they decided to stick with the Wire. This display of gratitude on the part of Simon was sincere, he has been know to harbour grudges and has been publicly vocal in his criticism of people (the editors of the Baltimore Sun for example), so it was a suprise to hear him giving his due.

Simon explained that when he and Ed Burns were working on the Corner, they wanted to detail all the socio-political factors that created the malaise and arguments they had realized living and working in Baltimore, they could not show this in the personal and microscopic Corner. The Wire then, was conceived as a panoramic response to this.

I asked Simon an out and out political question. I wanted to get him on record over his views of drug criminalization. “ I have a simple question, do you support drug decriminalization and if so how should it be implemented, and what consequences good and bad are likely to flow from this?”.

Simon was surprisingly candid and forceful (as usual) in his response. He believes it should be legalised, his reasons are that the war has failed, it has created failed societies and has essentially became a war on the American underclass. He cites that US prisons lock up legions of non-violent criminals and carry out early release for violent criminals to make way for drug convicts. He makes an interesting point concerning the image, perception and terminology of the use of the term war “War on Drugs”. He says that when fighting a war, you create an enemy, in order to perpetuate that idea of an enemy you essentially have to stir up hatred, you have to demonise them and stereotype them. Simon asserts, that this is what has happed to the underclass of which the black underclass make up a large proportion.

In terms of consequences, he envisions that the violence and gang culture would drop off, police would go back to real policing, communities would not be torn apart. He says the risks would be that slightly more middle class children are likely to become addicts. I, myself, support drug decimalization, believing it to be the only sensible policy we can do to fix the mess that The Wire documents. However, its highly unlikely we will see any progress on this issue.

One final observation, this time on the audience. I cannot help but notice that the overwhelming amount of people who attend the event were from the upper middle class. Indeed, the Guardian: darling of liberal left middle class did much to promote The Wire in the UK. How many people from the kinds of backgrounds that the Wire portrays are aware of the show? Did any of the people in attendance intend to take a greater political interest: in political reform and social justice? There is a kind of irony here, The Wire is down and dirty, dealing with many characters and situations that mainstream society does not want to look at, yet it is predominantly watched by people, in comfortable homes and jobs, from the kinds of places that Bubbles gazes vacantly at when he is accompanying McNulty to his kids soccer game.



Friday, 5 June 2009

What Obama can and cannot say. Reactions to his Cairo speech.

The reactions to US President Barack Obama has left me somewhat perplexed and baffled. Perplexed as to what they (the liberal and Muslim commentators) expect of America and likewise of Islam, and baffled as to the sloppy moral equivalence, inaccuracy, and chronic myopia of the writers. That of course, is not to say that I found the speech profound, persuasive or likely to mark a new rapprochement in the West’s relationship with Islam, on the contrary if anything its likely to make the extremists more determined (As America does not have the stomach for a fight--what Bin Laden predicted) and the more moderate Muslims will remain defiantly sceptical.

I want you to pause over the sentence. “ West’s relationship with Islam”, Obama in his speech mentioned repeatedly the US relationship with Islam. This is curious terminology. Is it not suggestive, that, on one hand we have a President of a sovereign nation entering into dialogue with a single, monolithic and monotheist religion? (never mind all the factionalism and irredentist, ethno-chauvinist tribalism).

Indeed, During the cold war, no President ever talked of our relationship with Marxism or communism, or our need to reach out to the communist world. The fact that a democratically elected politician, a secularist, and a liberal would frame such a rapprochement in these terms is already begging the question of the gulf between Islam and America and of course the West. Obama’s speech is covertly giving credence to Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations model. That is, the Americans and Europeans identify themselves in political and national terms not religiously or in terms of race. Our values are ultimately democracy, Human rights, freedom and liberty. Muslims, do not see themselves in such terms, they define themselves religiously. For them no authority is greater than God, society is to be governed by Sharia law, and concern for fellow Muslims trumps concerns for other non Muslims. Needless to say, this, is a problem, and it will continue to be a problem for the demands the Muslim world will make on us, are not likely to be political, social or economic, but religious.

Obama’s speech was, though, politically excellent, but historically naive, factually inaccurate, and morally dubious. This is a strange feature of our discourse, especially when it comes to Islam. That is, the perfect acceptance of lying when it comes to this subject. Imagine the world reaction if Obama has of said this--

“On September 11, America was awakened to the fact that it is deeply hated and resented in the world. That this hatred and resentment is, in large measure irrational and unjustified. America woke up to the fact that there are millions of people in the world who think it is perfectly acceptable to use violence in the name of God. America was starkly awakened and reminded, that the end of history has not been reached, that secular democracy, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience, the values that our forefathers fought so hard to achieve and maintain are not shared by most of the world. But, America, was not alone in being awakened, the rest of the world was awakened, awakened to witness the failure of Islam. Its failure to adapt to modernity, its failure to undergo an enlightenment, failure to progress, to commit itself to universal education, equality for women and respect and tolerance for non-Muslims. Islam, as it is practiced today, cannot continue, it is not only in America’s best interest but the world interest that Islam undergoes a radical process of change.”

Pie in the sky? Riots in the streets? Death to America? Probably, what I wrote above, is I believe, a honest assessment of our relationship with Islam, but to utter such words would entail political suicide and most likely a violent reaction. I am sceptical that Obama’s speech will do anything of substance. However, caveats aside, he was right to do this speech. Why? Because I think no other President and no other President for the long conceivable future has a hope of repairing America’s “tarnished” image in the world. So, while the make nice policy will quickly go down the drain, if America is attacked, the Israel-Palestine conflict rolls on, or Iran gets the bomb or another riot breaks out in the lands of Islam over a cartoon, a comic or a book. In short, we await the next terror attack, the next Muslim riot, and the next example of western liberal masochism as it censors or refuses to publish some author on the subject of Islam.

Now as to the commentators.

Consider what Ahdaf Soueif an Egyptian short story writer, novelist and political and cultural commentator had to say…

“There is a difference between believing that ultimately the interests of the inhabitants of the planet are genuinely interconnected and believing that the interests of the world can be made to seem compatible with America's. Obama has said that America should have not only the power but the moral standing to lead the world. Today we waited for him to demonstrate that moral standing and assume the leadership of the world. He did not; he remained the President of the United States.”

This is rich considering that state of Egyptian democracy and Human rights records. More ironic, is that this is the birthplace of Sayid Qutub the intellectual grandfather to Al Qaeda and birthplace to AQ number two Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Here is Ali Abunimah a Palestinian working in Washington for a 1 state solution to the problem with Israel.

On Palestinian dislocation and what Obama could not say.

“Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?”

Perhaps this, and I will be boringly unoriginal here--is simply not true.

And on the origins of Muslim terrorism.

“It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor's notion that "violent extremism" exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America's (and its proxies') exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the "enormous trauma" done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi's flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the "necessary" war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.”

A short counter to would be to remember what author of Terror and Liberalism Paul Berman and Islamic historian Bernard Lewis had to say on America relationship to Islam prior 9/11. That no other country has done more to help Muslims, from expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, helping, if belatedly, the Albanian Muslims and Muslims of Kosovo from the tyrant Milosevic. To all the aid we send Pakistan, the help we sent Afghanis over a clear example of imperialism--the Soviet invasion. never mind all the patience and time and money spent over the Israel-Palestine conflict, and all the navel gazing and masochism that followed the 9/11 attacks. But, Perhaps, as Sam Harris wryly notes this is just another contribution to “Muslim humiliation”.

It was not just Middle east writers who were expecting some kind of apology from Obama, Robert Fish was at it.

“There was no mention – during or after his kindly excoriation of Iran – of Israel's estimated 264 nuclear warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their violence – for "shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a bus". But there was no mention of Israel's violence in Gaza, just of the "continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza". Nor was there a mention of Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon, of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this.”

For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into Afghanistan – a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of Arabs and Westerners – there was something brazen about all this. When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam – the "light of learning" in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course, lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism.”

Consider the more measured NYT columnist David Brooks who had this to say.

“In the Obama narrative, each side has been equally victimized by history, each side has legitimate grievances and each side has duties to perform. To construct this new Middle East narrative, Obama strung together some hard truths, historical distortions, eloquent appeals and strained moral equivalencies.”

“The president’s critics complained on Thursday about Obama’s distortions: The plight of the Palestinians is not really comparable to the plight of former slaves in the American South. The Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 was not really a glorious example of Muslim-American cooperation, but was a failed effort to use bribery to stop piracy.

“But this is diplomacy, not scholarship. Obama was using this speech to show empathy and respect. He was asking people in different Muslim communities to give the U.S. a new look and a fresh hearing. He was showing people in a region besotted with tiresome hysterics how to talk to one another with understanding and dignity.”

For once I seem to be in agreement with the Republicans and the conservatives (as to the truth of the speech not the political necessity) on this issue.

The Republican Jewish Coalition offered faint praise for the balance the group said Obama struck between the interests of Israel and the Palestinians.

"We urge President Obama to return to the policy of holding the security of Israel as a key American priority and requiring significant, concrete, and verifiable moves toward peace from the Palestinian side," executive director Matthew Brooks said in a statement.

Rachel Abrams wrote on the website of the conservative magazine Weekly Standard: "His greatest portion of criticism was reserved for the only nation in that otherwise benighted region that actually does believe in human rights and practices democracy, namely Israel."

Robert Spencer, a rightwing critic of Islam, said Obama had failed to confront Muslims with the words and actions of violent extremists like al-Qaida among his "platitudes and naivete".

"He assumes that it is his responsibility, and America's, to dispel mistrust that Muslims feel for the West," Spencer wrote.

Radio talk show host and former Reagan aide Hugh Hewitt, wrote that the speech was "deeply dishonest in its omissions".

The conservatives are right as to substance, but as I have said, there is no other President who has a chance of trying to overturn America’s image as an evil country.



Quoted from








The Cartesian Circle and The Clockwork Orange Paradox.

It was Rene Descartes who coined “Cognito ergo sum” -”I am thinking therefore I exist” or more popularly “I think therefore I am”.

What Descartes is trying to prove is that there is a Élan Vital, A soul, a metaphysical essence that exists as a separate entity from the body. This is known commonly as Dualism. Descartes’ reason for this was to establish firm knowledge. Without going into too much detail, he needed to prove God existed, as a guarantor of firm knowledge. So, his taking up of Dualism was part of a long argument to establish that we can have firm knowledge.

I will first discuss some context before considering whether or not this idea has been proved. The origins of the doctrine of Dualism, generally, traces back to ancient Greece. More specifically to the religion of Orphism. Orphism held that humans have souls, that Transmigrated after death, presumably into other human beings. Pythagoras, I believe, was a member or at least followed this religion. He further elaborated on the idea of a soul, as timeless, eternal and otherworldly. Plato was greatly influenced by Pythagoras , and in turn greatly influenced Christianity and the early church thinkers.

It would seem that most cultures have this idea of a soul, however, (ie there is a “real me” behind my eyes ). The other day I read an anecdote concerning an African tribal custom. When two tribes were in dialogue with one another, they would send a emissary to walk from village to village, when the emissary arrived he would take the rest of the day to rest, (he had, perhaps, only walked a few miles) the reason was to let his soul catch up (imagine what our lives would be like if we believed this!)

There is one major world religion or philosophical tradition that differs on this issue, and that is Buddhism. There is, however, a contradiction lurking within Buddhist thought. Buddhism posits no soul, or Atman. There is no thinker behind the thoughts, no seer who sees. Thoughts are impermanent and insubstantial. At first look this would mightily disagree with Descartes, Christianity and our common sense, indeed it does. However, there is a problem. If there is no soul, no distinct self, then what about Nirvana? (The idea of souls or essences transmigrating) It would appear that Buddhism has contradicted itself before it’s even tied its shoes. This does seem to be the case, but, Buddhism was influenced by Brahmanism (which believe in a soul) and, probably, picked up the Nirvana idea from them. It would seem that the Nirvana idea was grafted onto Buddha’s thought and hence Buddhist theology. As Laplace would say “it works fine without that assumption”.

Buddhism, however, is unique, fantastically so, in recognising that there is no “Ghost in the Machine”. I might be begging the argument here, but the vast majority of philosophers and scientists especially scientists working on the brain reject Dualism. Why? Well for Buddhists they argue that thoughts and feelings are generated by a process of cause and effect. The way our language, cognitive perception and emotions operate-- producing a by-product- an impression of a self. This self or ego is really a response to fear, hatred and desire. Thoughts come up and we latch onto them believing thoughts or impressions as expressing our true selves (little homunculi in the brain or the soul.). Buddhism, however, sees these thoughts as empty, they appear and then dissipate. Buddhists see this process in meditation and claim to be able to be free from the prison of thought by attaining enlightenment. So, rather than saying “I am angry, and I am angry at him” they frame it “this body is experiencing anger, and it is experiencing anger by my expectations of how this person should behave.” In short, a famous saying in Zen is “don’t believe your thoughts they are not real”.

There are a few notable exceptions. The Stoics had a similar belief to the Buddhists. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, seemed to have transcended dualism, Hume’s “bundle theory”. I believe in short, that Hume believed that we notice impressions, “thoughts, feelings, sensations” but it is superfluous to put forward that there is someone who is experiencing the sensation. Ie there is simply the impression without the added thought that it is happening to someone.

The problems with the theory of Cartesian Dualism.

The problems with the Cartesian theory are. 1. It is circler. If there is someone or something who resides in the brain that is watching, who watches it? 2. Casper the friendly ghost paradox. Ever wonder how Casper is able to both fly through walls and hold sticks of wood in his hand? Neither do I. Descartes holds that the soul is immaterial, but how does immaterial interact with the material while staying immaterial? This paradox leads me to. 3. Where is the captain of our ship? Where is the soul? Where is the part of the brain that houses the place where I think? Where does the élan vital reside? I am reminded of the joke Douglas Adams made. A modern day scientist explains to someone from the past how a TV works. He opens it, showing that there is no “little men” inside. He explains how the TV works, but in the end the man says “there is probably still a few little men in there”. This leads me to- 4. Redundancy. Most, if not all, brain scientists explain the workings of the brain, and hence our sense of selves in purely material and naturalistic terms. Bringing up Laplace, again,--we don’t need that hypothesis. Leibniz in response to Descartes, conceived of the brain like a barn with lots of different machinery and processes, taken together they produced an effect--the impression of a self. Nowhere though, could any person point and say “there is where I reside, this is the part of the brain which makes me a person”.

Most people, reading this, will probably conclude that this is a lot of sceptical nonsense. And in one way they are right. This calls for a good error theory. Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked how could so many people be wrong about the earth rotating the sun. His famous reply was well how would it look if the earth was rotating the sun?

In terms of our everyday interaction with people, we perceive people (and animals) as agents. Agents that want something, that have goals, aspirations and beliefs. They are agents with intention, they also show regular features. Ie personality “I don’t like coffee, and tennis is my favourite sport I play it every Saturday” and memory “I remember when we were all at school, I was a quiet lad and did not get into trouble.” Rocks don’t have intentions nor do they have memories, hence we don’t think they have selves and hence we can throw them about with abandon (hopefully not near windows alas).

I am a self. To clarify this, I mean I am a person who has unique personality and memories different from other people. This is a perfectly fine definition. The problem is when we start to go in search on where this SELF IS. We will not find it, its not there. So its not I think therefore I exists, its rather I exist therefore I think.

If we define personhood in terms of unique personal experience and memories. Then it follows that, if we alter and remove those features that make a person a person or a human body a unique individual then that person is no longer the same person.

Lets say we have X, and A and B constitute X necessarily and sufficiently. If we remove A and B then X is no longer X. lets say we want X to be Z, and factors D and E make up Z. So if we implant D and E into the entity that was X then it becomes Z.

Who cares? Well this is a potential problem. Lets call it the Clockwork Orange Paradox.

Imagine that Science can do this. Science can alter memories and personality. Imagine then, that child rapists and murders can be changed in this way. Their memories of the crime, and the personalities and life experiences that led them to commit the crimes have been altered. So, the person is no longer guilty of the crime and is free to carry on a new life.

I am sure you feel uneasy at this possibility (such possibilities are not that fanciful). And there is good reasons to oppose such an idea. However, logically and empirically it would be true that the person (the child killer) no longer exists, but this is counterintuitive to the very innate ideas we have of personhood (souls and invisible essences and so on.) So to clarify, we have reached a “repugnant conclusion”. A conclusion that, although justified rationally, is still offensive, disgusting, or “repugnant” to our emotions or perceptions.