When you can't live without bananas

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

"I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else." - Richard Dawkins


"Also missing from the Secular Islam Summit are Western women’s organizations. One would expect that the oppression of women in Islamic societies would be a defining issue for Western feminists. Instead, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in 1999, "Feminist theory pays relatively little attention to the struggles of women outside the United States." Western intellectuals’ “hip quietism,” she said, “collaborates with evil.” The Web site of the National Organization for Women lists the following as its “Top Priority Issues”: abortion rights/reproductive issues, violence against women (domestic violence in the United States), constitutional equality (the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution), promoting diversity/ending racism, lesbian rights, and economic justice. Yet if it is a feminist issue that some women make less than men for the same work, then it must be a feminist issue that other women are forbidden from leaving their homes unaccompanied by a man. If it is a feminist issue that some women are stigmatized for their sexual orientation, then it must be a feminist issue that others are murdered with impunity by their male relatives for the crime of “dishonor” or stoned to death by the government for extramarital sex. (“Paradise,” Muhammad is said to have remarked, “lies at the feet of mothers.”) Yet in a morally relativistic universe, all are given equal gravity. It is a bizarre case of moral dysmorphia that blows the failings of one’s own society out of all proportion while diminishing the failings of others. And this for the sake of respecting difference.

Admirably, political leftists instinctively seek solidarity with the dispossessed and oppressed. So, when they see that the perpetrators of Islamic terror are brown-skinned people from backward societies, they assume they must in some way be allies against the common foe of Western imperialist aggression led by America. They are blinded to the fact that the enemy of Islamism—the self-professed enemy—is secular liberalism itself.

A noteworthy exception is the Feminist Majority Foundation, which launched a campaign in 1997 to call international attention to the inhumane treatment of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Working with human rights groups, the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) succeeded in persuading the United States and the United Nations to deny formal recognition to the regime. This was too much for some of their sisters. An article in the International Feminist Journal of Politics accused FMF of colonialism: “The FMF’s campaign narrative is one of colonialist protection rather than of solidarity. [It] capitalizes on the images of prominent white Western women who construct themselves as ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ and thus in the best position to ‘save’ Afghan women.” For these pious feminists, the preservation of their own imagined moral purity appears more important than protecting real women’s lives.

In 2006, Ayaan Hirsi Au emigrates to the United States and publishes two popular books critiquing Islam from a woman’s perspective. The reception in the liberal press ranges from condescension to hostility, while “neoconservatives” embrace her... Renaissance humanist Montaigne had a line from Terence inscribed on the wooden beams of his tower library: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, nothing human is foreign to me). The slogan of too many Western feminists is Tu quoque (You, too). Incessantly pointing a finger at their own societies, they cannot reach out to others...

The mainstream left wing remains more fixated on embarrassing local conservative parties than on protecting women and religious minorities in the Islamic world. As Salman Rushdie put it in a speech on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in October 2006, “The fellow traveling of a great section of the left with Islamic radicalism” is a “historical mistake as great as those who were the fellow travelers of Stalinist Communism in an earlier age.”...

As Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri observes:

The only valuable dialogue between Islam, in its multiple forms, and the West, also in its diversity, can take place at a people-to-people level. Muslims should be allowed to read books and newspapers, see films, watch television and listen to the music produced in the West. In exchange the peoples of the West should be able to have direct access to Islam’s cultural, artistic and philosophical production. And, yet, we know that this cannot happen as long as censorship remains a key element in the policies of most majority—Muslim states.

... Practices that would today be considered intellectual piracy were crucial to America’s technological ascendance. Early American patent and copyright systems rewarded those who introduced technologies taken from European markets...

A public good invites “free-riders,” making it difficult for the producers to extract value from it. Just ask the Pythagoras estate about the royalty check they don’t cash each time someone calculates the area of a triangle...

Religious institutions ought to be private, but the religious conscience is not. The Privacy Fallacy must be abandoned. Sectarian reaSons cannot be barred from public debate; they can and must be held to the same critical conversational standards as all serious contributions to public debate. Religion inevitably makes truth-claims that are susceptible to examination and evaluation by others and continuous at many points with the sciences. Many beliefs that go by “faith” are actually attempts at reason: trusting on the basis of past experience; believing in the face of uncertainty. So-called religious experience is not a reliable guide to truth. The sole alternative to reason is raw, baseless, intransigent intuition, something to which no decent person aspires. But even “subjective” intuition can be evaluated and found immoral or unwise. Faith cannot escape the judgment of reason."


"Political liberals might insist that respect makes the further demand that we offer to each citizen reasons that are compelling to him or her. Call this the strong conception of respect. The strong conception of respect, however, places liberals in a dilemma. The principle of public reason would have us construct our political arguments out of public reasons. But especially for the devout, public reasons sometimes will not be among the most important or relevant with respect to a political decision. For example, a Christian opponent to capital punishment might regard the Ten Commandments as a reason more important than some “public” considerations, like fairness or racial justice. This might be the case even if he endorses the public considerations as well. If respect demands that one offer each citizen reasons that are compelling to him, then arguably one ought to offer religious considerations to such an abolitionist. By offering public reasons to all, one fails to offer to some the reasons that they find most compelling."

"Rawis claims that reasonableness is an attitude that lies between rational self-interest and altruism. It includes rationality but also a certain commitment to social cooperation. Reasonableness among citizens, in his view, is like the relations among acquaintances who share an apartment building. They are bound to interact with one another under conditions of limited scarcity (peace and quiet, hot water, and so on) and they mutually and openly seek cooperative arrangements to govern these interactions. In these arrangements, tenants are not expected to sacrifice themselves altruistically to satisfy the preferences of their neighbors. Yet neither are they expected to simply aim at maximizing their self-interest but instead to genuinely seek and follow rules for the collective that are generally regarded as fair."

"In America, God is always on the ballot. This is an American tradition that did not begin with Bush, or even Jimmy Carter. Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism was rooted in a Presbyterian belief that America should “exemplify that devotion of the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”...

Harry Truman worked to enlist Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Greek Orthodox churches in the cold war, to “mobilize the people who believe in a moral world against the Bolshevik materialists” (Spalding, “True Believers,” p. 44). In his 1949 inaugural address, after taking the oath of office on a Bible laid open to the Ten Commandments, Truman intoned that “human freedom is born of the belief that man is created equal in the image of God and therefore capable of governing himself.”...

A candidate’s religion is often a poor predictor of how he will behave in office and what policies he will pursue. The religion of the 2004 presidential hopefuls was a perfect example [on stem cells, abortion and preemptive war] which most denominations opposed...

The Pew Foundation found that 42 percent of Americans said politicians should be guided by religious principles, and 46 percent said "religion and poltiics don't mix." A 2000 survey by Public Agenda indicated that among those who want religion and poltiics to mix more, three-quarters don't care which religion it is, only that it's sincere... the American preference for religious candidates is not necessarily a preference for religious politics"

"Sometimes science hits upon unanticipated methods of inquiry. A recent colorful example comes from the field of hyperbolic geometry. Hyperbolic geometry, created in the 1820s and '30s, studies certain kinds of spaces and objects that don’t obey Euclidian assumptions. A hyperbolic plane, for example, is a counterintuitive surface in which the space curves away from itself at every point. Since the 1950s, geometers had been trying to construct models of hyperbolic spaces but with limited success. Many believed it impossible, until Daina Taimina came along. Taimina, then a mathematician at Cornell University, made a discovery in the handicraft she had learned as a girl in her native Latvia: crocheting. In 1997, she crocheted the first usable model of a hyperbolic space. Together with her Cornell colleague and husband, David Henderson, she wrote up the results and submitted them to the journal Mathematical Intelligencer. According to Taimina, the editors’ response was something like, “You want us to publish what? A sewing pattern?” Of course, it was the first time that crocheting directions had been submitted to a peer—reviewed math journal"

"Maybe such suffering is permitted by God for good reasons that we finite, imperfect beings cannot know. Then again, one can just as easily imagine that there is a being who permits the good things that occasionally happen in our world because they ultimately serve a higher evil, which we cannot know. Maybe every silver lining has a cloud, and every success is necessary to bring about failure on a grander scale. We have no reason to believe that there are any such unknowable evils, but we have no less reason to believe in them than to believe in unknowable goods. The insistence that there must be such goods is merely an attempt to save the hypothesis of a perfectly good God from refutation at all costs, not a rational response to any independent reasons."

--- The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life / Austin Dacey
"Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it." - George Orwell


"There are in fact at least four distinct worries about morality...

Would anything be valuable if there were no beings doing the valuing?... Can the same moral claim he “true for” one community, society, or time period but not others?... Do an individual’s attitudes alone make it the case that something is valuable?... Are there any moral obligations to anyone other than one’s self?...

Freshman ethicists also conflate the making of a truth-claim with the determination to force others to believe it. But there is nothing illiberal about asserting an objective truth, a claim that is made true by the way the world is. You do it every time you give the time of day to someone who asks. You don’t thereby coerce your neighbor into believing it is noon, you give him a reason to believe it. Consider these six statements:

1. I’m right, but I could be mistaken.
2. I’m right.
3. I’m right, you’re wrong.
4. I’m right, you’re wrong, here’s why you should change your mind.
5. I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell.
6. I’m right, you’re wrong, change your mind or be killed.

... The relativist’s impulse is to broadmindedness, but there are some things that a mind cannot fit no matter how it is stretched. When I claim that Connaught Place is in New Delhi. and you claim it is in Dublin, then my being right will amount to your being wrong. If condom use is advisable, then those who hold it to be morally abominable must be mistaken, as moral abominations are not to be recommended. One cannot make a claim without being committed to denying its denial, any more than one can wish one’s team to win the World Cup without wishing that everyone else’s will lose...

Every serious argument is at least a statement of type (3), and often, under favorable conditions, a statement of type (4).

Benedict is correct. Secular values can turn a society inside out. In post-Christian Europe, entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education, and hopelessly low rates of violent crime. Perhaps a future papal encyclical will target the kind of relativism that leads to real harm. This is the misguided multiculturalism that keeps Western liberals from criticizing the oppression of women, religious minorities, and apostates in Islamic societies for fear of being accused of “Islamaphobia.”... [Benedict] can accuse secularists of believing in the wrong things, but that’s not the same as believing in nothing.

What about love? Isn’t love enough? What more do we need for meaning, for morality?... [Agape] was not invented at all, but discovered, in many places and many times by many peoples. Not all of them made love an ethical ideal. Aristotle was not a fan; the Greeks and Romans esteemed temperance, prudence, courage, and justice... Surely, love—agape, ren—is not enough. We need reason and truth, for we can be mistaken about how and when to love, about what do to about it...

When someone fails to recognize the force of the reasons of love, can we say he is objectively wrong? Some would say that even in its domain, ren is not sovereign, that its authority is the grant of somehiuig transcendent. Ethics, some suggest, cannot make use of love without first laying its metaphysical anchor outside of ordinary human experience.

I submit that this is not how we ordinarily experience love. Ask yourself, if there were no divine creator or life everlasting, would you love your friends or family any less? Would your care for a child be diminished by the discovery that you were the only one caring? Were the heavens empty, would your heart no longer be full? It is worth wondering what sense can be made of the religious alternative, that the objective moral worth of humanity depends on God. How would that work? Could it be that God simply decides that we have value? That doesn’t seem right, for we don’t suppose that God could simply decide that a lump of coal is as valuable as a person. Rather, it must be that God recognizes something about us that is morally important: maybe our capacity to suffer, or to have interests and plans. But if that is so, then God drops out of the picture. It is these morally important features that determine our value. And these we have in virtue of facts about us, not facts about God.

What Would Jesus Do? is a good question. But a more important question is, why would he do it? Presumably Jesus’s injunction in Luke 18:22 to “sell all that you own and distribute money to the poor” was not a whim. He must have had some reasons for it (for starters, he thought the world was coming to an end soon). If there are such reasons, then they must be binding on Jesus’s choices and therefore exist independently of those choices.

Why Would Jesus Do What Jesus Would Do? is what Socrates would want to know...

Take another look at the story of Abraham and Isaac and it becomes a meditation on the nature of conscience. For although Abraham faces the Almighty, he remains free to disobey... When Abraham reflects on the reasons that flow from his love of Yahweh, and on the reasons that flow from his love of Isaac, and still in freedom chooses to obey, then and only then could his action be pleasing to God... Read in this way, the story of Abraham and Isaac turns on its head the conventional belief that conscience depends on religious faith...

The second-most generous nation on Earth as of this writing (measured both in individual charitable contributions and in government aid to developing countries) also has one of the lowest rates of regular church attendance (and the highest level of self-reported fulfillment in life): Denmark. Christopher Hitchens’s challenge remains unmet: name a single morally praiseworthy act by a believer that could not have been performed by an unbeliever...

Perhaps the secular conscience is taking too much credit for itself. Ethical secularists in the West, it could be argued, are spending the moral capital accumulated by millennia of Judeo-Christian civilization. The moral knowledge and practices of the secularist—such as the affirmation of the inherent dignity of the person—are actually parasitic on religious tradition. According to this moral capital argument, European societies have survived secularization because they remain culturally Christian. First, setting aside the historical experiences of China, South Korea, and Japan, where civil morality obviously is not the afterglow of monotheism, it must be said that the moral capital argument gives short thrift to contributions to European civilization by the pagan Greeks and Romans, to say nothing of literal capital— values such as prudence, temperance, and honesty probably flourished in bourgeois society in part because they are nurtured by capitalist commercial activity...

Despite its elegance, the Categorical Imperative fails as a reliable test of right action. Some maxims that do not pass the universalizing test are not obviously immoral; other maxims that are morally problematic pass it. “Always arrive ten minutes late” would not survive universalizing (if everybody did that, no one would be late). Yet it is impolite at worst, not wicked...

[Khatami] delivers a lecture at Harvard University titled “The Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence,” saying, “We should not be thinking about how we can kill each other better. We should be thinking about how we can live and coexist together.” What he neglects to say is that during the two terms of his presidency, over a thousand citizens were executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that the regime held more prisoners of conscience than any other state in the world, closing down 150 Iranian newspapers while remaining the world’s largest state sponsor of Islamic terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah.

Even Khatami’s name, as presented to the American audience, is a disguise. He drops the traditional title Hojat al-Islam wa al-Moslemeen (“Proof of Islam and of Muslims”) and Sayyed (“Master”). which designates him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He chooses his words carefully so that the listeners in Cambridge hear one thing and those in Tehran hear another. While Khatami’s English interpreter speaks of “Osama bin Laden,” Persian speakers hear "that gentleman" (Aan Agha). Talk of “sodomy’’ becomes “gay sex’’ in English...

For this former president, who refuses to be interviewed by memers of the Iranian-American media during his US visits, “dialogue” requires no precondition of openness, honesty, and transparency... Certain Western liberals seem to need this character too, to make guest appearances in their morality play in which everyone, in the end, wants the same thing, and love and understanding are enough...

Fearful of the taint of American imperialism, most [Liberals] are submerged in silence. The result? Public discussion of Islam tends to veer between chauvinistic denunciations by conservative Christians (“Muhammad was a child molester”) and useless generalizations by politicians (“Islam is a religion of peace”)...

Receiving a life sentence in court, Bouyeri [the murderer of Theo van Gogh] clutches a copy of the Quran and declares, “The law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet.”

Mohammad Bouyeri has a final message for secular liberals, but so does his victim. Witnesses report that in his last moments, van Gogh attempted to engage his assassin, imploring: “Surely we can talk about this.” The life and death of Theo van Gogh teaches that the invitation to dialogue must always remain open, but never for the mere "celebration of difference"; that the culture of conversation cannot survive the toleration of intolerance, intimidation, and violence. From the outpouring of shock, grief, and outrage after his murder, there are signs that the European public is beginning to understand this. Not so with the majority of spokespersons of the European establishment and the “international community.” Well-practiced postcolonial guilt, dogmatic adherence to a blinkered multiculturalism, and sheer craven fear will lead them into a cycle of self-blame and appeasement... In Rotterdam, a street mural featuring the date of van Gogh’s death and the words “Thou shalt not kill” is removed by the police after the leader of a nearby mosque calls it racist...

If there is a fault to be found with Huntington’s formulation, it is not with the “clash” but with the “civilizations,” for civilizations cannot be parsed neatly along religious lines. The world that jihad seeks to undo is not Christendom as such; it is secular modernity—the world built ot critical reason, science, and humanist values. From Iraq to Bangladesh, the contest of the culture of totalitarian faith with the culture of secularism is also a struggle within Islamic societies, and its warriors claim the highest number of innocent casualties among fellow Muslims. Of the victims of terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2005, 10,615 were in the Middle East, 994 in Southeast Asia, and 3,639 in East, Central, and South Asia. Fatalities in Western Europe for the same period were 272 and in North America, 3.

In March 2007. nearly two dozen leading intellectuals and activists of Muslim heritage gather for the first Secular Islam Summit in the United States... The event is covered by Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Kuwait News, and meets with an outpouring of support from people across the globe. But Western moderate-liberal media are derelict. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose self-described mission is “to enhance understanding of Islam” and “encourage dialogue,” denounces the meeting as “illegitimate” and “anti-Muslim.”"

--- The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life / Austin Dacey
"The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office." - H. L. Mencken


Baltics trip
Day 15 - 30th May - Kernave, Lithuania
(Part 2)

Field of cow parsley

The children were stopped at the line of rocks, as if held back by some invisible barrier, so I was free to frolic gaily in the fields of flowers.

Camwhoring. At this stage I had not yet reached that level of awesomeness which peaked in late October (I have not uploaded some of the more FAIL attempts)

Looking back at the mounds through flowers


Field of ?

Field of rapeseed

Walking through fields and reaching the river, I was greeted by an idyllic sight

I then enjoyed the birdsong by the riverside for a while. The grass was wet so I sat on a bough.

The slope I carefully tiptoed down

The rapeseed looked slightly better than the white flowers, so I commenced more camwhoring:

With some attempts at doing it while lying down:

As you can see, it didn't quite work out; this picture is labelled "bad". "Worse" and "worst" are not displayed here.

Path back

(Un)Fortunately the horde was still there, so I had to push my way through it

Grave (?)

Side of Church

The kids milling around outside the site

There was a souvenir vendor there. I tried bargaining with her a little despite the joys of doing so with no shared language (I punched in numbers on my handphone), so I gave up and paid her (doubtless inflated) price.

Walking around the area, I then discovered a graveyard.


There were a lot of shared graves there - some with space for the spouse/sibling who hadn't yet died. I'm not sure how I'd feel about having my name engraved on a tombstone before I died, but it certainly makes things easy for the Funeral Parlor director (or Lithuanian analogue).

Presumably a family grave, since there're 3 graves here

One of the unique graves. I forgot to check if it was wood. If it was, it probably didn't date from 1927 (when the fella died). Or maybe his estate is rich and can afford to keep reconstructing it.

This seemed to have no name

There was a lot of room for the cemetary to expand. Ah, the joys of New Europe!

The perimeter wall had not caught up.

The specter of deforestation

More graves

You'll notice one tombstone has space for two but only has one name on it. Maybe they divorced?

Friday, January 30, 2009

"We confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no large ones." - Francois de La Rochefoucauld


"Whales and dolphins lack one part of the system called Factor XII, yet their blood clots just fine. Or consider the bacterial flagellum. ID predicts that without all of forty to fifty biochemical components, none will be functional. But this is demonstrably false. If you take away all but about ten components you get something called a type-Ill secretory apparatus, the very micromachine used by yersinia pestis, the organism that caused the Black Death.5 Would that it were nonfunctional!...

Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, writes in The Fabric of the Cosmos:

A common misconception is that the big bang provides a theory of cosmic origins. It doesn’t. The big bang is a theory.. . that delineates cosmic evolution from a split second after whatever happened to bring the universe into existence, but it says nothing at all about time zero itself. And since, according to the big bang theory, the bang is what is supposed to have happened at the beginning, the big bang leaves out the bang. It tells us nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged.

As physicists trace the expansion of the universe backward in time, they reach a point at which current theory breaks down...

Critics respond that the fine-tuning of the universe would imply theism only if we knew that the life-permitting values of the fundamental constants are brute facts that won’t be explained by any deeper physical laws. However, there is no consensus in physics about this... it would be folly to base a sweeping metaphysical conclusion on a highly speculative, unfinished frontier of advancing science...

Especially since Darwin, many theologians and ordinary believers alike began to defend the biblical traditions as alternative theories of biology, geology, and cosmology. Hence “scientific creationism.”... The late, great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould took the other route to the independence of science and religion, defending a principled division of labor between the empirical and nonempirical, which he dubbed “non-overlapping magisteria,” or NOMA.” On this view, religion and science can peacefully coexist in neighboring yet isolated domains...

The sciences cannot preclude the supernatural in principle for the general reason that there is no way to legislate in advance what may or may not be used in our scientific exploration of the world. The history of science is filled with examples of novel entities, processes, and methods of inquiry that were once unknown or disregarded but that came to have important places in science.

For example, from its beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, modern science had confined itself to entities that are directly observable by the naked eye or with the aid of instruments such as the telescope. Yet in the 1800s, this standard was eventually revised so that by the end of the century, leading researchers found it perfectly acceptable to invoke unobservable entities, such as electromagnetic fields. Why? Because their hypotheses explained a great many facts, pointed to interesting new insights, and found support in persuasive indirect evidence; namely, the observable effects of the unobservables...

How strong is the presumption of naturalism? Strong enough to prevent anyone from crying, “God did it” whenever there is a gap in our understanding of natural causes. As philosopher Paul Draper puts it, “Very strong reasons to believe there is no hidden naturalistic explanation would be required as well...

Although there is a growing body of scientific knowledge about autism, the basic nature and root causes of the illness remain largely mysterious. There are significant gaps in the current naturalistic understanding of autism. Yet you don’t hear anyone calling for a supernatural explanation, the “intelligent design” of autism. Why not? First, there is the general confidence based on past experience that natural causes will be forthcoming. Second, there is a body of background knowledge concerning the roots of other disorders in genes and environment or some complex mixture of the two. A naturalistic account of autism would fit with this background better than a supernaturalistic account. Finally, the present gap in our understanding of autism is not at all surprising given the relatively immature state of our understanding of the brain...

Bare-bones creationism also illustrates how evolutionary science and theology could have something to say to one another no matter how thin the theology. If it were correct, then among other things it follows that everything in natural history was intended by God (or at least, everything that was not for some reason unavoidable). Theological insights tumble out: the creator has—in the phrase attributed to the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane—an inordinate fondness for beetles (or better yet, bacteria, which appeared on Earth two billion years before any other living thing and continue to dominate the planet in sheer numbers and distribution); the creator is prepared to sacrifice any number of innocent creatures as research subjects in his experimentation with life... Even if biology says nothing about the supernatural. it can still have implications for theology...

The Cartesian model of the person was dustbinned for two main reasons. First, it is not at all clear how an immaterial soul could cause changes in the physical body. Consider: Souls are thought of as purely nonphysical—they can’t be weighed, split in half, heated or cooled; they lack mass, electric charge, and so on. But then how could they possibly have a cause-and-effect interaction with bodies, which have exclusively physical properties? Second, there are many specific correlations between mental phenomena and brain activity. For example, language use and spatial reasoning appear to be localized in particular areas of the brain. Brain injuries cause very distinctive changes in perception, cognition, and even personality. Some mental diseases like schizophrenia have a genetic component. But why would any of this be if the mind were independent of the brain9 After all this evidence, anyone who still believes in the Cartesian model ought to have someone else’s head examined...

The openings in our throats for breathing and swallowing are so close together that we often choke. The birth canal is too small, increasing the chances of injury, even death, during delivery. The list goes on. What’s more, we know that almost every species that has ever existed on Earth is now extinct. Every museum of natural history is a scrapheap of failed experiments. An engineer whose designs were this intelligent would not have a job for long...

Sometimes people talk as though such deprivation and suffering is necessary to preserve a “balance of nature.” There is nothing redemptive in balance. Any balance of nature is just a state of equilihrium that is, a state of a system such that, when the system enters that state, it tends to stay in it. That says nothing about the value of the state. The most stable balance of nature is everything being dead...

The Golden Rule in its common form is neither evolutionarily nor morally sound. The Golden Rule does not win an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. It counsels cooperation always (assuming that is what we would want done unto us). But the Tit for Tat strategy counsels us to cooperate only if the other players do. If they defect, then they get the same done unto them. The Golden Rule is also indefensible as an ethical principle, since it is satisfied by wicked actions so long as the actor is consistent: the genocidal Nazi executioner who, upon discovering that he is Jewish, consents to his own execution. He does not do unto others anything he would not want done to himself. There must be more to morality than the Golden Rule...

Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser has conducted a large-scale cross-cultural study of people’s judgments about hypothetical moral dilemmas involving the permissibility of killing another person...

First, the effects of demographic and cultural variables on the pattern of moral judgments are insignificant. Second, there is a dissociation between judgment and justification, such that people rarely produce coherent justifications for their moral verdicts of right and wrong. And third, there are three principles that appear to unconsciously guide people’s judgments, when consequences are held constant: People judge intended harms as worse than foreseeable harms, harms resulting from action as worse than harms resulting from omission, and harms involving physical contact as worse than those involving no contact.

On the basis of these findings, Hauser has hypothesized that a shared “moral grammar” shapes the moral reasoning of all normal human beings, a set of universal assumptions embedded in our psychology...

Thank goodness, there is such a thing a nonreligious objective ethics. In fact, there is no alternative to it. Conscience is secular by its nature. Not only is the secular conscience possible without religion, the religious conscience is impossible without it...

Maybe the problem with secular standards in particular is that they can never be certain—another meaning of “relativism.” However, the alternative to certainty is not ignorance but fallibility, the idea that a belief can be reasonable even though it is not justified conclusively or beyond all possible doubt...

This second source of consternation about ethics... can moral claims be known with a degree of confidence less than certainty? Again, it would not bankrupt the idea of morality to admit that moral knowledge is imperfect and revisable in light of future experience. After all, the most successful ways of knowing that we know of are found in the natural sciences. In the sciences, fallibility and revisability are virtues. Why should moral knowledge be held to a higher standard?...

What else could relativism mean? It could mean that apart from a transcendent order, nothing is better or worse, right or wrong, period. Truth is opinion, and “objective moral truth” is opinion on stilts. Taken to the extreme, this is just nihilism, the doctrine that nothing really matters. It is hard to argue that nihilism is the reigning ideology of our time, except perhaps at certain dance clubs and on cable TV between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Just ask yourself how many nihilists you’ve met today (if they found a reason to get out of bed in the morning, they probably weren’t nihilists)"

--- The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life / Austin Dacey
"To my embarrassment I was born in bed with a lady." - Wilson Mizner


"Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine, a reform-minded Iraqi Shiite cleric and one of the true revolutionaries calling for absolute separation of mosque and state in Iraq: "I am a Muslim. I am devoted to my religion. I want to get it back from the state and that is why I want a secular state... Secularism is not blasphemy,” he asserts. “The Koran is a book to be interpreted [by] each age. Each epoch should not be tied to interpretations from 1,000 years ago. We should be open to interpretations based on new and changing times.” Jamaleddine’s notion is not at all alien to Islamic tradition. In fact, it is deeply Quranic. Traditional thought makes room for a procedure known as naskh (literally “deletion”) by which certain Quranic verses are modified or abrogated by others, a procedure sanctioned by the Quran itself. The towering figure of the Islamic Enlightenment, Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës), believed that whenever scripture contradicts reason or knowledge, scripture must be reinterpreted allegorically to remove the conflict.

Another entry point for the theological transformation of Islam is the concept of revelation... The skeptical Muslim philosopher Ibn al-Rawandi observed in the ninth century that the Prophet himself admitted the fallibility of prophecy. Muhammad claimed that the Jews and Christians cling to many false beliefs that were revealed to them by their prophets. The celebrated medieval medical pioneer, chemist, and philosopher Abu Bakr al-Razi argued that an all-wise deity would not give a special revelation to just one person, knowing that this would incite antagonism and disagreement...

Some of the most famous arguments for intermingling religion and government have been premised on the presumably public values of civil order and national self-interest. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that a “civil religion” is necessary to motivate citizens to follow the law and thus to maintain the social order... Illiberal it may be, but the rationale for Rousseauian civil religion is a public one: the necessity to motivate citizens to follow the law and keep the peace...

In 2001 a Pakistani professor named Younis Shaikh at a medical college in Islamabad was put on death row on charges of blasphemy. The blasphemy charge had been brought against him by some of his students after he remarked in class that that Prophet Muhammad could not have become Muslim until the age of forty, the age at which he received his first revelation, and that his parents were non-Muslims, since Muhammad had not yet founded Islam at the time of their deaths...

In the end, it is not religions that deserve our respect. A religion is a collection of metaphysical ideas and moral ideals. Ideas are believed or disbelieved; ideals are pursued or rejected. What deserves respect (or not) are people. We do not respect people by accepting whatever they think and do, but by holding them to the same intellectual, moral, and legal standards we apply to ourselves... Sometimes in order to respect religions’ peoples, we must critique people’s religion...

You can’t found a religion on a book. If you try, you’ll be confronted with two questions: “Why this book?” and “What does this book mean?” And these questions necessarily cannot be answered by the book itself. For if you look there for an answer to the first question, you will have already presupposed that the book in question is the book to look to. Likewise, claims about the meaning of the book found in the book are useless unless you already know what such claims are supposed to mean.

How would you go about deciding which text, or which version of a text, is to be scripture? Unless your decision is to he arbitrary, you must appeal to some principles or reasons that lavor some text over others. One can either gel such principles 1mm a source external to the text or from the text itself. But to get them from the text would be to presuppose an answer to the question at issue; namely, is this text credible? The situation is the same even if the text is the product of divine inspiration...

Of course, in the real world, sacred books are not the work of one person. a secretary of the invisible. They have complex histories... The Gospels we are familiar with were produced by a careful process of selection, editing, and rewriting undertaken over an extended period by early Christians in order to record the approved theology of the emerging Church and aid its missionary expansion.

Similarly, the story of the Quran is in some ways more interesting than the stories in it... The caliph Uthman made the Medinan text canonical, but competing manuscripts remained in use for centuries. Over the history of Islamic scholarship, over forty different Qurans were available, depending on the methods one adopted to determine what counts as a part of the canon. By the 1920s, an Egyptian edition of the so-called Hafs transmission became a standard, although the competing Warsh transmission persisted in west Africa and northwest Africa. One Islamic scholar has found over a dozen versions used across the globe. Even in Islamic studies today there is no textus receptus, a single universally accepted form of the Quran, as there is in studies of the Hebrew Bible.

A further difficulty is that books do not read books. Only people read books. And any book interesting enough to inspire a religion will be capable of being read in different ways by different people, with significantly different meanings. Here again the Quran is illustrative... the original manuscripts could hardly have been less transparent. They were written in Arabic that was not “pointed”; it lacked the dots and dashes that mark the vowels and that distinguish consonants such as z from r or b from t. As a result, a great many readings were possible depending on how the text was pointed and vowelized. Thus, early traditional commentators sometimes came up with as many as forty explanations for a single word. Perhaps the greatest of these commentators, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, who died in 1505, concluded that only God knows what some of the words mean. In the first three Muslim centuries, scholars came to recognize thousands of variants on the Quran corresponding to different schools of interpretation...

According to one leading historian, a favorite Bible passage for Protestants was “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). “Many insisted that hearing the Word preached was the only means of salvation. Not even reading the Bible would work. Some doubted whether deaf people could be saved.”...

Given the possibility of degrees of uncertainty, there are two ways we could elaborate the meaning of faith. On the first understanding, it becomes shorthand for holding on to a belief when the probability of its being true falls somewhere between 50 percent and 100 percent, in your estimation. In this case, faith collapses into reason...

The alternative is to say that faith consists in picking beliefs utterly without regard to our rational confidence in them, following “intuition” or a “gut feeling.” Faith is the invisible means of support for a belief when reasons fall out from under it. This is faith as intuition. Unfortunately, consulting entrails has never been a reliable guide to truth, even when those entrails are your own. As Nietzsche put it, a casual stroll through a lunatic asylum is enough to convince us that faith alone proves nothing. For the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, it may have just felt right to strap on their sneakers and drink poison in anticipation of hitching a ride on a passing comet. Guts are important. Your guts are what digest things. But it is your brains that tell you which things to swallow and which not to swallow.

Sometimes people long for the time when God spoke to humanity regularly, as he is portrayed as doing in the Old Testament. In truth, we find ourselves besieged with voices today—voices from Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Tehran, the Vatican. The problem is not the absence of revelations but a cacophony of revelations. Which ones should be heeded, if any, and why? Once you ask that question, you have gone beyond raw intuition and have reentered the realm of reason. Faith as intuition is a kind of faith that no thinking person should aspire to.

On every plausible understanding of faith, then, it is not a real alternative to reason or evidence as a source of belief. Faith as trust bleeds into evidence because it is based in past reliability. Faith as fallible belief folds into reason because it is based on assessments of what is more or less likely to be true...

It might be convenient for theism if there were some particular spiritual or psychological state that prevents people from seeing signs of the divine, but we have been given no independent grounds for thinking that there is such a state.

The last, desperate attempt to explain why God is absent from experience supposes that God has his reasons for remaining mysterious that our minuscule nerve cells just cannot grasp. His hiddenness serves purposes that we cannot know. That could be. Then again, it could he that God revealing himself to everyone would serve purposes that we cannot know. There is no more reason to believe in unknown
purposes for hiding than to believe in unknown purposes for revealing, and therefore no reason to expect divine shyness instead of exhibitionism."

--- The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life / Austin Dacey
"I can't understand it. I can't even understand the people who can understand it." - Queen Juliana of the Netherlands


Cows find milky way to happiness - "Happy cows produce more milk, according to researchers at Newcastle University. Cattle that are named and treated with a "more personal touch" can increase milk yields by up to 500 pints a year."

Peer reveals 'cello scrotum' hoax - "A BMJ spokesman said the inclusion and subsequent debunking of "cello scrotum" had "added to the gaiety of life"... The spoof was inspired by a similar report of a phenomenon called "guitar nipple", which happened when the edge of the guitar was pressed against the breast, causing irritation... "Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim.""

Johann Hari: Why should I respect these oppressive religions? - "Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate stood up to announce discussion of shariah "will not happen" and "Islam will not be crucified in this council" – and Brown was ordered to be silent. Of course, the first victims of locking down free speech about Islam with the imprimatur of the UN are ordinary Muslims... As the secular campaigner Austin Darcy puts it: "The ultimate aim of this effort is not to protect the feelings of Muslims, but to protect illiberal Islamic states from charges of human rights abuse, and to silence the voices of internal dissidents calling for more secular government and freedom."... Today, whenever a religious belief is criticised, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of "prejudice"... When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade."

Ten sci-fi devices that could soon be in your hands

Obesity Caught Like Common Cold - "Studies on humans show that 33 per cent of obese adults had contracted an adenovirus called AD-36 at some point in their lives, according to an article in the UK's Daily Express, whereas only 11 per cent of lean men and women have had the virus."

How many babies can fit inside one woman? - "There's no scientific limit, but the largest reported number of fetuses in one womb was 15... How do so many babies fit in one woman? The limit isn't so much the number of babies as their volume and weight. In general, once the total weight of the babies inside reaches about 12 pounds, the uterus goes into labor."

Eating dirt can be good for you - just ask babies - "In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with "dirt" spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma. These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries... Ruebush deplores the current fetish for the hundreds of antibacterial products that convey a false sense of security and may actually foster the development of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria."

Study reveals 'shocking' kebabs - "The average doner they tested contained almost 1,000 calories - half a woman's recommended daily intake... Among the kebabs sampled - without salad or sauces - the average doner contained 98% of an adult's recommended daily salt and 148% of their daily saturated fat allowance. Under the supermarket "traffic lights" system, red marks would be earned by 97% for fat, 98% for saturated fat and 96% for salt... Six kebabs were found to include pork when it had not been declared as an ingredient. Two of the six were described as Halal... The worst doners inspectors came across contained 1,990 calories before salad and sauces - over 95% of a woman's recommended daily calories, 346% of a woman's saturated fat intake and 277% of an adult's daily salt intake."

The bogus Sarah Palin Banned Books List - "Palin Derangement Syndrome strikes again. This time it’s hysterical librarians and their readers on the Internet disseminating a bogus list of books Gov. Sarah Palin supposedly banned in 1996. Looks like some of these library people failed reading comprehension. Take a look at the list below and you’ll find books Gov. Palin supposedly tried to ban…that hadn’t even been published yet. Example: The Harry Potter books, the first of which wasn’t published until 1998."

Super Friends with Benefits Shirt - "Sure, we're all super friends. But in this biz it's hard to keep it professional. Reveal your secret sexy identity to basically everyone you know!"

Become A Real Princess - "Have YOU ever dreamed of becoming a 'REAL Princess'? Well, now you can. Though women of all ages have desired to become a real princess, their only option was to marry a prince, however due to the limited supply of eligible princes, this is a nearly impossible task. Recently, the nation Kingdom of Hylanthia, per Royal decree, has offered those of royal mind and spirit the opportunity to actually become a real princess with personalized Princess Gift Packages designating them as a 'Real Princess'! Each Princess Proclamation can be purchased in a variety of thoughtful and classy gift packages that can be given as the perfect present to daughters, girlfriends, wives or even yourself! You have always felt like royalty and you have always dreamed of becoming a real princess, now you can make those dreams come true!"
... women

The loose cannons of daytime TV - "Loose Women is, in many ways, hateful. And that prompts a question. How can a lively, long-running programme with an all-female presenting roster get it so completely wrong? It is particularly disappointing when you consider the central conceit of the show, which is that it features a group of sassy, liberated female panellists, able to speak their minds on any subject from politics to celebrity to family life... The first thing that will strike a first-time viewer of Loose Women is the objectification and/or denigration of any man who happens to drift into the panellists' orbit... Male viewers embarrassed at the lechery on Loose Women could well complain that this is a case of feminism "going too far". There could never be an all-male equivalent to the show called Talking Balls, where a crew of laddish reality-TV rejects and failed boybanders leered at the female soap stars brought on to sate them. Not only would it obviously be sexist, but the idea would never be floated in the first place."

Chinese Premier visits quake-hit zone to extend greetings - "In a community of makeshift houses, Wen went into a kitchen shared by the Wu's and two other families and joined them in preparing dinner for the Spring Festival's Eve. He even cooked a dish of Hui Guo Rou (Sauteed sliced pork with pepper) for them." If Wen Jiabao can cook, so can you

World gets its first gay head of state - "Johanna Sigurdardottir, a former air hostess, is expected to be sworn in as Iceland's Prime Minister by the end of the week... her lesbian union was no big deal in this calmly progressive nation of only 300,000 people. "

Just what is it about moobs? - "The number of men having breast reduction operations in the UK is rising dramatically, but is this really the result of the media spotlighting the physical flaws of male celebrities?" One comment: "I like my moobs. They belong to me. I would not like to have them cut off with a scalpel. Ouch!"

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum." - Arthur C. Clarke


"What started as the confirmation hearing for the federal court appointee William Pryor in July 2003 soon turned into a holy war of words... limits? In a letter to the New York Times, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference condemned the judicial committee’s treatment of Pryor by describing any questions regarding “deeply held beliefs inspired by religious convictions” as “dangerous.” Secular liberals would be forced to agree, if they insist that religion is a private matter. One key meaning of private is “personal,” and personal matters are just those to which we may deny others access...

At the same time, in a free society everyone has a right to access information about religion, as your local librarian can tell you... they mean [that] you can’t bring information about my religiosity into view without my consent. But suppose I put it there in the first place. When President Bush tells Ladies Home Journal that he takes great comfort from reading Charles Stanley devotionals every morning, he has effectively invited the public in for a look around the interior of his woridview. Whenever citizens or politicians voluntarily present their own religious beliefs in politics, it makes no sense for secularists to object on grounds of personal autonomy...

It may be an invasion of a person’s privacy to disclose his homosexuality, but it is not therefore an invasion of his privacy to engage in political debate or action concerning homosexuality...

Many liberals draw the conclusion that political decisions must be made on the basis of public reasons... appeals to conscience constitute an illegitimate use of political power and therefore are inappropriate... liberals often use [conscience] to cry foul when religion is invoked on behalf of a cause they oppose, but not otherwise. You don’t hear anyone protesting about the privacy of conscience when the pope calls for world peace, or Episcopal ministers cite scripture in defense of gay marriage. This invites the charge of hypocrisy. It also suggests that what liberals actually find objectionable is the content of certain claims of conscience, not their source. Why not identify these objections for what they are and let honest debate ensue?

A number of commentators have also observed that a rule of public reason would unduly restrict the liberty of religious citizens by requiring them to refrain from acting on their beliefs in public. Freedom of conscience means nothing if it does not include the freedom to speak and act socially and politically as conscience compels, even when its conclusions are not universally shared.

Another serious problem with restricting debate to public reasons that everyone agrees on is that not everyone agrees on what counts as a public reason... Is the opposition to antibiotech religious? It is not easy to say. Critics claim that it springs from a quasi-spiritual, nondoctrinal melange of environmentalist politics, Mother Earth worship, Romantic idealization of nature, and the voodoolike farming techniques of Rudolph Steiner. Activists on the other side prefer to think, instead, that their views are based in objective factual assumptions and oncern for public health. Here again, the secular liberal rule of public reason is of no use. Antibiotech is a complex mix of factual reasons md nontraditional, post-Christian spirituality, and the parties to the debate disagree on where one ends and the other begins. A better approach is to forget about what kind of arguments they are and concentrate on whether they are any good.

Finally, the strictures of public reason would not only cut against the religious conscience. A filter fine enough to keep religious ideals and values out of political debate will also keep out fundamental moral convictions, such as the ideals of freedom, fairness, or benevolence. Matters of morality, as much as matters of faith, are subject to disagreements among sincere and sensible people. Therefore it would be arbitrary to single out one but not the other for political exile. Yet to exile both would leave citizens with next to nothing to discuss... There is no nonarbitrary way to bar religious conscience alone from politics. Either bar no claims of conscience, or bar them all. Unless liberals are ready to abandon moral discourse altogether, the choice is plain...

American Airlines flight 1304 was scheduled to leave Southwest Florida International Airport for Dallas, Texas, one afternoon in March 2004 when the Transportation Security Administration received a call that there might be a bomb onboard. The caller was a self-professed psychic who had apparently received this information via extrasensory powers. The TSA and Port Authority police investigated, delaying and consequently canceling the flight, but nothing was found...

The point of this story is not that psychics are a serious threat to air safety. Rather the story illustrates something important about subjectivity; namely, that the source of a belief in an intuitive or first- personal experience does nothing whatever to remove that belief from the realm of interpersonal scrutiny and accountability... The fact that a belief originates in a subjective experience does not inoculate it against interpersonal criticism. Would it change our moral condemnation of the three Rwandan Roman Catholic nuns convicted of aiding the slaughter of ethnic Tutsis to discover that they were impelled by secret spiritual visions?

So long as the reasons we introduce into public discourse—reasons of conscience included—are regarded by all as open to public scrutiny, then the challenge of subjectivity can be grappled with, if not totally eliminated. Ideally, conversation in politics abides by the norms of all reasoned conversation. Unless we are willing to present others with reasons for what we say that are open to analysis by them, we are engaging in monologue, not dialogue. A serious, earnest claim of conscience should be held to the same standards as any other: honesty, rationality, consistency, evidence, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisability...

Honest religious believers have nothing to lose and much to gain by treating their faith as objective in this sense. Susceptibility to criticism is the price of admission to serious public life. But it is a price that they should be willing to pay, for convictions take their strength from surviving trials, not from avoiding them. Anything less would be a trivialization of religion, the notion that “religion is like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial—and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults.”...

The argument [against stem cells] favored by the President’s Council on Bioethics, and its chairman, Leon Kass (an MD and the author of a hook called The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis), was that techniques like cloning violate the “dignity of human procreation.” Of course, since 1972 Dr. Kass had been making similar warnings about an emerging reproductive technology called in vitro fertilization, or IVF... Has human life lost its humanness? Apparently it... has not...

The conviction that zygotes are not just biologically human tissue but full moral persons is indispensable to the stem cell and cloning debate in America. But it is an utter failure as an argument against the practices... if week-old embryos are persons, then we should prohibit not only stem cell research but IVF as well, which also involves creation and destruction of excess embryos, hundreds of thousands of them. The only “compromise” in such a situation would be to stop the practice and conduct proper burials for the thousands of frozen embryos now stored in the nation’s fertility clinics. In vitro ad absurdum. Suffice it to say that if any one of us were passing by an in vitro fertilization clinic in flames and we had the ability to save a five-year-old girl trapped inside, or save two or even ten thousand frozen embryos instead, no one would hesitate for even an instant...

It is impossible to seriously engage the opposition to stem cell research without taking on the question of the moral status of the embryo... This exchange from the debates in the US Congress is typical. An opponent of embryonic stem cell research invokes the sanctity of life... A defender responds with anecdotes of medical miracles... Is the legislator advocating the state-sanctioned killing of a large number of people to benefit the health of one? That is what is at stake, unless zygotes are not persons...

John Calvin, the great Protestant theologian [had] Michael Servetus executed in 1553 for denying that Jesus was his own father... The Iranian revolution that would usher in a clerical tyranny under the Ayatollah Khomeini was embraced by the fashionable French structuralist thinker Michel Foucault, who said it represented the “perfectly unified collective will” of the people...

In the Laws, Plato... [says that] piety is important for virtue. So the regime ought to use its power to encourage right religious conduct.

None of these ideas is honkers. Most of us believe that governments are legitimate to the extent that they accord with some more fundamental, prepolitical norms. We believe that murderers are punished because murder is wrong; not that murder is wrong because murderers are punished. If homosexuality were gravely immoral, why shouldn’t this, too, be reflected in law in the same way?... Many of us believe that the state ought to have a hand in inculcating certain traits of character, necessary to self-government, such as trustworthiness and civility. But if fidelity to one’s word is important, fidelity to one’s God must be paramount...

"Scripture demands nothing from men but obedience, and condemns not ignorance, but only obstinacy." Even Moses was more lawyer than philosopher. He presented the Jews with a covenant, not an argument. Rather than attempting to persuade them of the truth of doctrine by reason, “He induced the people to obey the Law under threat of punishments, while exhorting them thereto by promise of rewards.”...

America was the project of heretics, but they were not secularists. The Massachusetts Puritans came not to escape theocracy but to escape someone else’s theocracy. They soon set about erecting one they could call their own...

From its beginnings, Christian thought placed a wedge between the temporal order and the spiritual order: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”... This foundational Christian dualism has no analogue in Islamic civilization. Muslim life took its blueprint from the Quran and the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions... Sharia presents itself as a comprehensive path for living. It is a self—help manual, municipal Code, and Constitution combined, legislating everything from personal hygiene and diet to the running of a judicial system— Augustine’s two cities merged, Gelasius’s royal and priestly powers fused into one hegemon. Muhammad was simultaneously the spiritual, civil, and military leader, a tribal chief...

Islam cannot simply be “restored” to the personal sphere since, unlike Christianity, it was never there to begin with. As practiced by the majority sects, Islam is essentially political. How could the faith be privatized without being obliterated? Here it is important to distinguish between so-called moderate Muslims and reform-minded Muslims.* While moderates condemn violence and repression but deny that Islam is in any way responsible, the reform- minded take it as their religious duty to change their religion.

* - Islam's Other Radicals: "Canadian author Irshad Manji... whose documentary "Faith Without Fear" airs on PBS next month, describes herself as a "radical traditionalist" and draws a sharp distinction between Muslim moderates and reformers: "Moderate Muslims denounce terror that's committed in the name of Islam but they deny that religion has anything to do with it," she says. "Reform-minded Muslims denounce terror that's committed in the name of Islam and acknowledge that our religion is used to inspire it."""

--- The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life / Austin Dacey
"Very little is known of the Canadian country since it is rarely visited by anyone but the Queen and illiterate sport fishermen." - P. J. O'Rourke


"Something disquieting has been happening to the Western mind over the last half century. One philosophy professor reports that while none of his students are Holocaust deniers, a disturbingly rising number are worse: “They acknowledge the fact, even deplore it, but cannot bring themselves to condemn it morally. ‘Of course I dislike the Nazis,’ one student comments, ‘but who is to say they are morally wrong.’ They make similar observations about apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing.” For these young people, to pass judgment, “they fear, is to be moral ‘absolutist,’ and having been taught that there are no absolutes, they now see any [judgment] as arbitrary, intolerant, and authoritarian.” Cultural critics trace creeping moral relativism to the permissive, antiauthoritarian ideology of the 1960s. Observers across the political spectrum agree that the relativistic shift has been correlated with lamentable social trends, for example, a dramatic rise in crime and social dysfunction in the United States and the United Kingdom in the decades following the 1960s. But the ideology of the 60s can be seen as an outgrowth of the more fundamental liberal notions of autonomy, freedom of choice, and freedom of conscience...

When a rare few secularists push back against religious belief in print, they are branded—often by fellow seculars and liberal religionists—"dogmatic," “evangelical,” “militant,” and “fundamentalist” atheists. Their scandalous premise is that religion is an urgent topic of conversation and therefore subject to the intellectual and moral standards of all serious conversation. There are dogmatists of every stripe, but God knows what an atheist fundamentalist would look like. If the mantra of religious fundamentalism is “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell,” the atheist creedo seems to be “I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s talk about it some more.”...

Most secular liberals today seem to be incapable of standing up for their values in public debate.

In the summer of 2003, the Vatican finally speaks out against violence against children. It is not referring to the Church’s child sexual abuse scandal then raging but instead to gay adoption. In a document titled Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserts, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” Permitting children to be adopted by gay couples, the congregation continues, “would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.” The language got the attention of liberals around the world. But precious few could bring themselves to publicly disagree with Rome’s claim that same- sex coupling is “evil.” Most objected along the same lines as editors of the Boston Globe, who opined, “The greatness of America is its pluralism, and neither president nor pope can impose his religious beliefs on the public realm.” Apparently, there is no mistake in thinking that same-sex couples who adopt are perpetrating violence against children; the mistake lies in mentioning it in public. As the influential American philosopher Richard Rorty put it, “Religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized.”...

A New York Times columnist writes of the “dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence,” namely, “policies that are likely to lead to more people dying of AIDS at home and abroad, not to mention more pregnancies and abortions.” Then he goes on to chastise fellow secularists: “Liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical- backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable.” Secular liberals are being asked to perform an act of cognitive contortionism, to object to the “consequences” of conservative religion without objecting to the moral precepts that cause them. What could be more appropriate than to evaluate a system of beliefs on the basis of its consequences for individual and social behavior? If causing more people to die pointlessly is not an objection to a system of beliefs, what would be?

Everywhere secular values are under assault, and almost nowhere are they being defended. On questions of religion, ethics, and values, secular liberals are strangely silent...

Where did secular liberalism go wrong? It has been undone by its own ideas... The Privacy Fallacy consists in assuming that because matters of conscience are private in the sense of nongovernmental, they are private in the sense of personal preference. A related confusion comes from the idea of freedom of conscience. This confusion begins in the core liberal principle that conscience must be left free from coercion. The mistake lies in thinking that because conscience is free from coercion, it must be free from criticism, reason, truth, or independent, objective standards of right and wrong. The indispensable principle of freedom of belief has mutated into an unthinking assumption that matters of belief are immune to critical public inquiry and shared evaluative norms. This is the Liberty Fallacy...

The press is protected, left free and open, not so that it may be private but so that it may perform a vital function in the public sphere. In the same way, conscience is protected in order that it may pursue—in dialogue with others—its vital questions of meaning, identity, value, and truth.

The press may say what it wants, but we don’t say that therefore it is subjective or arbitrary. The press is free, but not a free-for-all...

Susceptibility to public criticism is the price of admission to public debate. Religious conscience does not get in free. Many secular liberals have convinced themselves that freedom of belief entails respect for all religions, and that respect means refraining from criticism. But that is not respect; it’s just blanket acceptance, even disregard. Understood correctly, respect is not just compatible with criticism—respect entails criticism. To respect someone we must take him seriously, and taking someone seriously sometimes means finding fault with him...

The conventional view that genuine conscience requires religion has it precisely wrong: genuine religion requires conscience. If one’s practice of a religion is to be authentic, it must be based on one’s own honest assessment of what makes sense. The difference between believers and unbelievers, then, is not that the latter lack a conscience but rather that their conscience inclines them away from belief. That same conscience, however, can guide them in living ethically, without religious reference points. In this way, the secular conscience stands prior to and independent of all religions and points toward a shared vocabulary for public debate in a pluralistic society...

God is always of many minds, and so thoughtful people must turn to their own minds for guidance. God’s followers are of many names and tribes, and so citizens must appeal to a law higher than God’s if they wish to coexist in peace. That higher law is the rule of conscience...

Historian of philosophy Charles Taylor had documented what he calls the “inwardness” of the self in Christian culture. He begins his story with Augustine of Hippo. Augustine could be seen as the most self-absorbed of saints. He expended inordinate theological energies on explaining his inability to control his erections (God is not the only thing that moves in mysterious ways). Taylor points out that for Augustine, introspection was essential to religious wisdom...

Although it claimed fewer lives than the Protestant revolution, the scientific revolution precipitated no less of a metaphysical and epistemological crisis in European thought...

Someone could argue therefore that “secularism” carries with it some unwanted theological freight. This argument is vulnerable to a general difficulty: etymology is not destiny. That is, word origins do not permanently color present-day meanings like the stain of original sin— they matter only insofar as they are responsible for changes in the behavior of actual current language users. Clearly in this case no such influence remains from the Church origins. Only a relatively small number of people even know about the word’s origins. But not even they use the word that way. In modern usage, secularism has no more connection to Jesuits and Dominicans than lunacy has to the moon...

In its written decision in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court acknowledged that at stake in the case of abortion was a grave moral question: whether the developing fetus deserves full moral consideration as a human person... Whatever one thinks about the jurisprudence of the case, the strategy of bracketing the moral issue just doesn’t make sense upon reflection. For “whether it is reasonable to bracket, for political purposes, the moral and religious doctrines at stake depends largely on which of those doctrines is true.” If the Catholic Church “is right about the moral status of the fetus, if abortion is morally tantamount murder,” then the liberal defense of abortion on grounds of toleration and women’s autonomy must become “an instance of just-war theory; he or she would have to show why these values should prevail even at the cost of some 1.5 million civilian deaths each year.”

To appreciate the force of this point, try bracketing some other moral issue you care about; capital punishment, perhaps... Because public institutions aren’t in a place to say whether a practice is immoral, they are justified in acting as though it is not."

--- The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life / Austin Dacey
"All television is children's television." - Richard P. Adler


On something we watched in Secondary School:

Brainiac: Science Abuse - Alkali metal experiment with forged results

"One experiment conducted by Brainiac aimed to illustrate periodic trends in the alkali metal series. It showed the violent reactions of metallic sodium and potassium with water, in which the hydrogen produced subsequent explosions, and intended to demonstrate the even greater reactivity of rubidium and caesium by dropping them into a water-filled bathtub. However, the reaction was not particularly spectacular, and the crew substituted explosives for the alkali metals. This is clearly visible in the footage, in which an "explosives" sign can be seen on the premises, and an exploding cloud of hydrogen gas, which one would expect in an alkali metal reaction with water, was not visible.

The Brainiac staff have admitted that the explosions had been faked. According to Tom Pringle, Brainiac's "Dr Bunhead", very little occurred in the real reaction of caesium and water, as the large volume of water over it drowned out the thermal shock wave that should have shattered the bathtub. The crew decided to set up a bomb in the tub and use that footage to generate the explosion.

Similar experiments with caesium or rubidium have been repeated; these include Popular Science columnist Theodore Gray's experiments with the alkali metals, the "Viewer Special Threequel" episode of MythBusters, and an attempt made as part of the Periodic Table of Videos series created by several faculty members at the University of Nottingham. In no case were the rubidium and caesium reactions extremely violent, much less quite as explosive as the Brainiac episode depicted."

Damn, so much for that Caesium Bomb idea!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"If living conditions don't stop improving in this country, we're going to run out of humble beginnings for our great men." - Russell P. Askue


The next time someone accuses you of being NATO (No Action, Talk Only) or of being a whiner or grumbler, and that you should put your body (or election deposit) where your mouth is, remind them of the incredible power that words have:

Offensive booklet reported

"A MUSLIM administrative manager said she felt offended and angry after reading a small anti-Islamic booklet sent to her by post.

Madam Farhati Ahmad, 36, said she received the comic book called The Little Bride through the mail at her Woodlands home on March 6, 2007...

She did not know who sent it but suspected that a Christian organisation had done it. She said she felt very insulted by the booklet whose objective was to insult and confuse Muslims.

'I also feel that its intention was to instigate feelings of anger or hatred for Islam as a religion,' she said...

When Deputy Public Prosecutor Anandan Bala asked why she made a report instead of throwing the booklet away, Madam Farhati said if the publication which she described as dangerous were to fall into wrong hands, it might disrupt racial harmony in Singapore. She also said people could use it to cause harm and chaos."

(Perhaps we should expand our list of banned books, media and materials. Qin Shi Huang had the right idea; all that's left is to bury alive those who disseminate such material as well)

Now, if "dangerous" words (or rather, ideas) could be "dangerous" in the "wrong hands", "disrupt racial harmony" or "cause harm and chaos", imagine what "helpful" ones could do.

What a revolutionary idea.

If we prosecute those who disseminate dangerous ideas, perhaps we should hand out Public Service Medals to those with good ones.
"I hope that when I die, people say about me, 'Boy, that guy sure owed me a lot of money.'" - Jack Handey


An exchange with My Facebook Spouse (MFS) on sedition, culture and language:

Me: "No wonder Singapore doesn't really have a culture (it is the most culturally bland country I have ever seen...and I have visited >20)."

The reason our government has to construct identity so proactively is because it keeps destroying it - anti-Singlish campaigns, destroying old buildings, pissing off the creative class (e.g. censorship, repression, anti-gay laws), encouraging materialism etc.

MFS: the whole "young country argument" is not a very valid one, we cannot just date the start of the development of our culture to 1965, or 1959 for that matter, nor can we say that just because we are a multi-racial society, the culture's that come forth somehow negate each other into oblivion. A majority of the people in Singapore are descended from immigrants who had their own unique cultures that stretch back for the longest time - tapered perhaps by modern social and economic developments and the changing realities of life.

the reason we don't have a culture is because it is not allowed to flourish as well as it should - a strong emphasis on science, engineering, mathematics over arts, humanities, dance, drama and architecture. A general inability to think out of the box, fostered by a rigid education system. A social set up that stresses monetary practicality over existentialist purpose, and a political climate that discourages the free wheeling development of culture - breakdancing at the esplanade underpass, OB markers for political discourse, bureaucratic hurdles and mindsets when it comes to bucking the trend, the linguistic development of local communication, and an emphasis on up keeping and maintaining the social status and order.

Our model of cultural development is more state led than anything else - social campaigns that encourage the change of behaviors, mostly driven from an economic perspective, a dearth of the creative class to free and controversial expression, and an education system that trains us to keep up to the status quo (which inevitably is an ever changing MOE syllabus) that discourages thinking, creative analysis, or artistic development. Also, the people are in some ways to blame as well, as there is little ability to appreciate, stomach or extend the reach of high culture.

Its complicated, in some ways, the people are to blame, in other ways, the government is to blame. Culture I think is in many ways the way people chose to live their life, their expressions of creativity - whether in writing, painting, photography, dance, drama, etc, the fundamental beliefs held by the populace and the institutions that either encourage, discourage or abhor such developments.

I think in Singapore, the goal is to create a society of docile, hardworking, highly obedient serfs to the cogs of Singapore INC - upkeep our attractiveness to foreign investors, and keep driving the increase to our GDP per capita, especially in "an increasingly competitive world" - and anything that detracts from that vision of an economy with a 1984 working class- like counter-culture hippies, non-comformists, the nails that stick out to try new things contrary to the state led efforts of development and the promotion of what it believes to be the "right culture and values" is simply forbidden.

Perhaps that's why they get uncomfortable with Royston Tan's 15, as it documents a part of our society and culture that does not fit into the perspective of investment stability. Or that drama and plays at times which tend to lean onto politically contentious issues are censured, and in an environment like that, those that can affect our culture go abroad to find their own cultural havens in Europe or the US.

The theory of individualism, is still, at best, an uncomfortable one within the nationalistic narrative of "asian values"

i think the current gahmen's political philosophy has shifted to becoming more libertarian in nature - that is, pretty much anything goes, so long as nothing threatens their grip on power, that it does not stand in the way or detracts from economic growth, or that it is not in the "public interest" for it to happen. In the latter two, both are quite vague, and usually driven by political agendas more than anything else.

Thus, the creative class, which seeks to extend the relative consciousness of the people and make them aware, to think, to actualize a deeper understanding of the world that governs their lives is perhaps a threat to the beneficial state's version of history, culture and the plan and path for what is right and what remains wrong.

Its like if you chose to put on a play about how awesome national education is, GREEN LIGHT. But a play on how there should be more opposition in parliament, not likely. Or local movies that reflect the social hierarchy and nature of society (i not stupid, money no enough) its more than likely to receive a go ahead - but if it documents the lives of sex workers, gays or migrant workers or other groups pushing for change - then the "political agenda" reason is used to stopper them because of "public interest" concerns.

I think the development of culture in Singapore would be so much more free wheeling and easy going, but there definitely is some elements of stifling it if it does not adhere to the political-philosophic guidelines of the ruling party. And perhaps that's why we hear the oft repeated argument that a western styled liberal government won't work in singapore - just rehash it and it becomes "a western styled liberal culture won't work in singapore"

i think its very hard to kill a language, especially when the vast majority of the population speaks it. I think the roots are in the bilinguial policy - designed obviously for economic reasons to engage both east and west. As someone who has studied the linguistic aspects of psychology, and the cognitive/neurochemical aspects, I can say that it is VERY difficult for the average person to speak two languages fluently. Of course there are the experts and the linguists and the translators, but a majority of the population in Singapore basically speaks bad english and bad chinese, or else good in one language and bad in the other. Maybe not in RJC, but its definitely something very consistent in my life across society and groups of people.

Singlish, I think is the perfect vehicle of communications that banks on the simplest aspects of dialects and languages - i.e: lowest transaction costs when communicating, plus it helps to bridge the gap between people of different ethnic backgrounds i.e: everyone knows what "wah lau, chee bye, sia lah, bagus," and the liberal sprinkling of other languages means when its colluded into one sentence. Its hard to argue that most people would not understand a sentence like "eh! wah lau, why you so like that one ah?" - it works just fine for pretty much anyone. gahmen wants to rid us with it because we are not able to "converse fluently with westerners" as a result. Unfortunately, I've yet to find an American friend who can understand singlish - besides the ones that currently work or have lived in singapore for a couple of years - they just don't get it. And singlish, is "detrimental" to the original economic focus for the bilingual policy - that is to bridge east and west. Instead of speaking great english to one side and great chinese to the other end of the world, we are bridging both with bad english, bad chinese and linguistic shortcuts... and it does not bode well for "economic competitiveness" - and so the campaigns to speak good english... and the campaigns to use it not lose it come forth. Its kinda sad actually. I think Singlish is the one thing that really binds Singaporeans across the world.

I was at Chicago's O'Hare airport a few days ago, and at Gate 16, they have the Singapore to Chicago flight back via United Airines. And I tell you, it is comforting just to be able to sit there and hear folks speak in a familiar accent, language and words - to the utter incomprehensibility of the surrounding Americans.

Everytime I meet up with a Singaporeans in New York/Boston, its a pleasure to just speak singlish - "eh how's life ah" / "wah xiong leh" / "weather si bei leng ah" / "let's go jia roti" that kind of thing.

i think the gahmen should just stay outside of regulating culture. just let people do what they want to do, and as long as they aren't doing crazy shit like sacrificing babies based on cultural reasons (an example given by my professor in political philosophy) we should just let people do whatever they want to do to make them happy.

Me: That it is very hard for most people to speak two languages fluently is a proposition I tend to believe, though I have been shouted down by naysayers. Perhaps a good place to try to falsify this proposition is India, but I don't know how fluent they are in English and their native Indian tongue.

Can you enlighten me about the cognitive/neurochemical aspects?

MFS: brudder, brain chemistry is quite difficult! actually, i'd say besides game theory, it might be the hardest thing i've learnt in college - and i thought that psych classes would be easy, until it went to hell with neurobiology.

the thing with languages is that we have a LAP - Noam Chomsky theorized about this Language Acquisition Period, that is within the first 24 -36 months of birth, up to five years. As long as a child is exposed to a variety of languages - and babies can distinguish between R & L sounds in the womb or something, and the difference between french and spanish or german and dutch at 6 months is a major factor in picking up language. After the age is past, it gets extremely difficult to gain second language mastery

my friends who are philosophy-neuroscience-psychology majors explain that even with intensive training, it is usually very difficult for the average adult to pick up mastery of second language - to the point where linguists and psychologists are working together now to design programs to see if they can improve on this seemingly natural defect of our humanity

the idea in India is that a vast majority of the population speaks their native languages of what I think would be the indo-tibetian branch of linguistics, and India was a formerly a British colony, so there is a good sprinking of English through the continent - including Pakistan and Afghanistan and Bangladesh to. The idea is that the people who speak both fluently are exposed to the languages during the LAP, and so pick it up seemlessly.

i believe the theory holds for my friends who grew up in households that spoke english, hokkien and chinese - fluent in all three, or friends who grew up in europe and were exposed to four languages growing up, and are reasonably fluent in all of them.

with Singapore, I think, a majority of families either speak only dialect at home, or only chinese at home, or only english at home, and that's perhaps why we see this strong correlation between the languages spoken by both parents, especially within the context of a nuclear family, and their proficiency across both english and mandarin.

sometimes, the kids are lucky and mom speaks chinese and dad speaks english, so they grow up to be reasonably good at both. But for the most part in my life in Singapore - my friend's parents (and I do know quite a lot of people) either speak dialect, chinese or english as the sole means of communication at home.

perhaps this explains the disparity that many english speaking households tend to send their kids to english schools - "it just make sense" and maybe the same reasoning applies to chinese speaking families too. The home environment at a very early age reinforces language acquisition - that's why I have friends at ACS who went through 12 years with me and their english is still not very good, yet I also have chinese high friends who went to ACJC who went from an E8 to a B3 in Eng

for the biochemical basis of language, if i am not wrong, the xposure to language formulates the development in the language part of the brain (somewhere in the middle on the right side if I remember correctly - parietal lobe perhaps?) and shapes its development accordingly. Memory is also suited and developed as the result of being exposed to language. The theory is that with English you need to know the more formal rules of the language in order to construct it, the base roman characters themselves being easily acquired. But for Chinese, you need a prodigious memory for the recognition of characters and their sounds, and less so on the syntax and grammar. Plus different languages engage different parts of the brain, english is more left brained (if i'm not wrong) and chinese is more right brained (because it tends to be more visual in the recognition of characters) so if you grew up developing language acquisition and cognitive development on one side of the brain, its going to be much harder, though not impossible to develop it on the other half of the brain at a later stage. This neuro-chemical basis of language also ties a lot into developmental psychology - because obviously the percentage the brain is increasing in size at its fastest from the age of infancy to about five years old

i think when people discount being unable to pick up a language based on things like "attitude" or "lousy teacher" or "not being smart enough" - these are just folk explainations that do not comprehensively take into account the complexity of the linguistic nature of the language itself, the nature of the person, perhaps a little bit on the attitude part, but things like age, and cognitive capacity also matter. I have an extraordinarily smart friend at college who like picked up five languages during her time here. But can't even differentiate for shit [she's fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and English]! Some are predisposed to be great at language (howard gardner's theory of mutiple intelligences) and some just aren't! And we need to consider the upbringing and background of people too - if you were brought up learning, speaking and writing latin, it is arguably easier for you to pick up spanish, french, german, english since they all have common latin roots. But to go from English to learning Sanskrit or Chinese or Japanese or Thai - that's really difficult for a lot of people.

Language is complicated, and if anything, the bridge between the languages spoken, written and used in the East and the West are about as different as they can get linguistically, grammatically, how they are recognized and written and how they just engage different aspects of the brain in understanding, interpreting and 'making sense' of the overall structure and nature of the language.

the trend of forming sentences in english and then translating it into chinese is not unheard amongst my friends here who are picking up other languages too, so they form sentences in english, then translate it to french or german or swahili and "it just sounds weird" as a result. So I don't know much about language, but I am for sure as certain that the constant chinese cultural explaination to not knowing the language - the argument of "bad attitude" - doesn't comprehensively take so many other factors into the background.

also, eastern societies need to advance their notion in general that language is linked to a culture and a race of people. Like if you're chinese, you NEED to speak chinese to KNOW your culture. Fair argument. But even Barack Obama's energy advisor - Steven Chu, can't speak a drop of chinese, claiming that his parents always spoke to him in English when he was growing up, so never had a need to learn the language. As a nobel prize winner, he probably could pick up the language without too much issue, but it also goes to show that family upbringing is an important factor in language acquisition as well.

hopefully the idea that skin color has to be connected to languages spoken will gradually be eroded as time goes by. though I am not hopeful. And the idea of Chinese as a unique homogenous language is perhaps a myth too in my opinion. Surely, the characters are generally standarized either trditional or simplified, but their pronunciations across China are so different! Perhaps the same way in America between the Bawhstun Akhsent and the Saufern Ackcent even though its pretty much the same characters, grammar, syntax and all.

same words, but everyone speaks differently, what works in Brooklyn may not work in El Paso, and what works in Harbin may not work in Canton either. Language is very complicated. Its so basic that we don't think that much about it, but it sure as hell is complicated
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