- 11 January 2005 : Garth
- You are such a breath of fresh air.
You've wonderfully articulated many of the things I feel but have seldom articulated (mostly not to alienate friends or co-workers or get punched-out). The rationalist viewpoint you so assertively present blows away ignorance, mis-information, muddy thinking and wishfulness masquerading as faith.
Two comments: I've found that combating religion with rationalism is like trying to put in a screw with a hammer, wrong tool. The faithful often make the same mistake in reverse, by erecting rational 'proofs' of the existence of their God. The more intricate the structure they erect as my 'stairway to heaven' the more of a wall it becomes between me and any kind of spiritual truth. Spiritual experience is entirely subjective, therefore objectively improvable. In fact the movement towards objectifying the religious impulse, which led to the writing of the Bible, the Koran, the Crusades, Jihad and the current mess is entirely the result of trying to make concrete that which cannot be expressed. The fact that it cannot be expressed in any manner that that isn't exclusionary to someone, somewhere does not make it an invalid truth (as opposed to an objective fact).
If you haven't read any of Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, I would highly recommend him. Although he recognized the interchangeability of all the world's mythologies, as you do, he was, nevertheless, a highly spiritual individual. It sounds like you and he are similarly educated, as far as religion goes, yet you seem to have rejected the possibility of an underlying truth, because it couldn't be factually proven, whereas he seemed to have embraced the possibility of the 'unknowable' as a potentially valuable tool for living a productive life. I would ask you to consider the possibility of other modes of 'knowing' besides the rational.
My second comment is more brief but at least as paradoxical; the net effect of your incisive musings on faith and religion will hopefully wipe the sleep from some people's eyes and allow them to see reality in a whole new way (to them).
I find what you are doing to be a spiritual service and I hope you don't find this insulting. I'm not implying you're a 'tool of God' or some such nonsense. From what I've seen of your website your comments are constructive and intended to enlighten, and compassion is not something one can easily attribute to purely human origins.
- 21 January 2005 : Garth
- You've given me much food for thought and I'd like to try to respond to some of your points, in the spirit of sharing differing perspectives. People do definitely project their own attitudes on what they see and hear, especially since we tend to make up our minds without really evaluating the other person's position. This is as true for rationalists as much as it is for those who are faith-based. Ironically, one usually gets a much clearer picture of the internal biases of the latter, since they're usually convinced that they are the custodians of 'truth' and aren't shy about telling you. On the other hand, getting a rationalist to investigate, let alone admit that they might have a bias based on the nature of the intellectual and physical tools they are using is rather more difficult. For instance, consider a tree. The word 'tree' is a generally agreed-upon metaphor for an object that is itself an energy field of an infinite of particles so small they can only be perceived by the traces they leave as they vibrate, so small relative to the distances between them that what our eyes perceive as a 'tree' is, seen from another viewpoint, mostly empty space. This almost mystical description is a product of the rational science of quantum physics. So, even the most ardent intellect is bound by the limitations of the five senses and the mind that is conditioned by them. That is truly wondrous — makes me wonder what we're missing out on!
Language itself is totally arbitrary. Write the letter 'A'. Why should it sound the way it does? Why should it be shaped the way it is? It, too, is a metaphor, something that stands in the place of something else; the sound, which is also a metaphor, especially when it is put together as a series, e.g. the sound of 'tree'. All, with infinite potential and no rational reason for their existence or meaning, yet forming the bases for all the sciences, religions, cultures that have ever or will ever exist.
Anyway, the point of the foregoing is that maybe physical truths and spiritual truths aren't that far apart after all. The internal and the external cannot exist without each other. Subjective and objective are largely illusory (I say largely because I have no definitive proof, being part of each).
I couldn't agree with you more — doctrine, dogma, intolerance are the root cause of the world's woes. At the heart of fanaticism is an unutterable fear that they may be wrong and they must eliminate any who cast aspersions on their faith, or convert them, on the principle that 'If you can't get them to join you, then beat them.' I'm not sure I agree with your comment re the "classical polytheistic cultures" being tolerant. The Mayans, for instance, happily enslaved and sacrificed those unfortunate enough not to worship the same gods. I'm not sure such a 'Garden of Eden', excuse the reference, ever existed. Which cultures are you referring to?
I'm glad you don't reduce your emotions to their components as you're feeling them — I know people who do and they're not very happy. I tend to compare the practice to that of writing the notes of a work of music on a page as you're creating it. I wouldn't call it reductionist as much as phrasing the event in another language, that, like all languages, is limited in what it can express by it's medium. The written notes and the sound exist separately and yet, paradoxically, they may be both the cause and effect of each other. The musician is the creator of each, simultaneously.
Anyway, I've found that there are philosophies of life that are more inclusive than either rationalism or faith. As I get older, I seem to become more aware of possibilities I hadn't considered in my youth.
- 04 February 2005 : Garth
- My interest in language tends to be an over-riding theme in most of my pursuits; semiotics in general actually. The strength of language can be its specificity or its ambiguity and, depending on context, so can its inadequacies. So, if I indulge in a little close reading of your responses, please don't think I'm being unreasonably picky — I merely want to indicate what I am grasping of your thoughts and, occasionally, questioning your assumptions. For instance, when you claim 'everything we experience is an interpretation' that undergoes 'translation' the assumption seems to be that there is an original 'language' that we are translating from. Is there more than one, depending on the sense employed e.g. sight vs sound? Or is there only one that is transmuted by our senses into useable data? If that's the case, it's as though the nail changed to a screw when we put down the hammer and picked up the screwdriver! I realize we're straying into philosophical territory here but only from the observed facts do we do so. That would mean that the nature of Reality is infinitely malleable, depending on the nature of the instrument through which it is observed, by which it follows that it is totally dependent on the instrument for it's expression. Startin' to sound a trifle religious, if you ask me...
You make an interesting point re the multiple 'translations' done at the perceptual stage, then, almost simultaneously, at the storage stage (which, as an aside, seems to be done more efficiently with some senses than others) and then, the recollection stage. When we read a book, we aren't simultaneously transcribing it's look, feel, smell; we don't memorize it; when we listen to a conversation, we don't record it with our brains, absorb the smell of the speaker as well as the sight of everything they're wearing and how they're standing — we seem to pick salient features, through some, only partially understood mechanism, involving our physical and mental states, our environmental and cultural context and who knows what else. When we recollect the event, that too depends on when and where we do so, as well as the afore-mentioned contexts.
Your example of what you believe happens (or does not happen) while you're sleeping struck me on several fronts;
- your assumption that death means the cessation of consciousness and that you will cease to exist. IMHO, intellectual rigour demands that you make no assumption either way until the evidence is in;
- your use of the phrase 'common experience', by which I understand to stand in for 'common sense.' I think it was Churchill who characterized common sense as all the biases and prejudices one accumulates before the age of 17. The common experience of a culture may be unscientific and often is, but it is usually the deciding factor in social affairs, like it or not. And I'm not sure I would have it any other way. This attitude doesn't exclude rational viewpoints; it gives them a voice as much as any other, proportional to their usefulness. One example — mad cow disease in Britain. For many years, the media and other non-scientific types said, in effect, 'our cattle are causing medical problems, we should stop buying beef until it's fixed'. The beef industry fought tooth and nail against this 'common sense' viewpoint, resting its argument on the ' unscientific' methods of its critics and demanding definitive proof that the problem lay in its products. By the time the science confirmed it, the British beef industry was devastated, its reputation in shambles, even now, where a case of CJD in Japan has been traced back to a one month visit to Britain in 1989. If they'd listened to the majority of so-called irrational fear-mongerers then, we might still have a British beef industry. But I digress..
- a comment on your version of belief as 'projecting into the future based on past evidence' This may have been what the citizens of Hiroshima were doing just before they were vaporized 60 years ago, unable to conceive of what was about to happen because it had never happened before. I don't mean to be flip, but there doesn't seem to be much room for imagination in that concept.
I must also comment that I find many of your comments on religion to be accurate only as they are applied to the more radical, fundamentalist fringes of the world's major religion. I know many individuals of moderate religious views who, I believe comprise the majority of their particular faiths.
Your last point, perhaps the Classical Western philosophers did codify social behaviour but they certainly did not invent it. Polytheistic and monotheistic religions of all stripes have, for millennia, been so inextricably woven into the fabric of their adherents lives that their social behaviour was merely another expression of their faith. To say that 'only later did religion take on this role and become a total system for living' not only gives the Greeks and Romans way more credit than they are due, it also fails to take into account the pervading influence spiritual beliefs of all stripes, the world over, have had on people's daily lives for almost as long as there have been people!
- 18 February 2005 : Garth
- I appreciate this dialogue greatly; few people are willing to converse on these issues without an agenda of their own beyond a simple exchange of views.
When you refer to the PC concept where everyone can be right and no-one is offended, I did not, at the time, have ethical concepts in mind – I was speaking of physical reality only. However, the "macro level" you mentioned I would characterize as the perceptual level, bearing in mind it is the limitations on our perceptions that restrict us to those ranges of energy they can detect (vision, for example, sees only a small fraction of the light spectrum). For everyday living you're absolutely correct; it's all we need. Nevertheless, you seem to be discounting the long term effects of some of the marvellous discoveries that have been made in, for example, quantum physics. It seems to be the same kind of argument that may have been made to discredit, for instance the flat earth theory i.e. that whether the Earth was flat or spherical made no difference to how people lived. Obviously, it ultimately did, inconvenient as it may have seemed at the time.
As I've implied, your "smoothed-out average" is a function of our senses, nothing more (or less). The fact that everyone's perceptual tools are constructed similarly means that we all create patterned predictability out of chaos. Humankind has always had curiosity as to the composition and behaviour of the so-called 'bases' of our reality and how we relate to them. The results of this continuing search have an effect on our behaviour, as they should and that includes moral behaviour, which doesn't need to be religious in nature. If the scientific facts were put forward as forcefully as most of the religious claptrap we're force-fed, instead of being given only 'equal' billing, we'd be better off!
I understand, now, what you mean by 'common experience' but I still consider "common sense" to be a sub-set of it, being the less obvious shared experiences of a culture, including morality, art, religion, social customs, attitudes etc. Cultures make decisions based on all that and more and to say that those decisions should be made based purely on one or two principles, such as science and imagination is utopian in the extreme. Among other things, the Japanese' misplaced faith in their Emperor and their convictions of cultural superiority prevented them from imagining even the scientifically theoretical possibility that they might be bombed into oblivion and therefore should be preparing for the happenstance. To "speak purely of conceptual limitations" is an academic exercise for ideologues and has the same place in the real world as the idea that simply 'loving thy neighbour 'will cure the world's woes, i.e. dangerous on its own, might be considered a starting point for discussion only. Sorry if this sounds harsh. Anyway, as societies accrete values, laws and so on, usually the best we can hope for is that a significant portion of its citizens are intelligently involved in the process, not blindly accepting received wisdom or considering too few factors!
Actually, common experience provides one with the starting point for the search for meaning we all go through from birth to death. One of my consuming interests is how meaning is arrived at and accumulated by individuals and societies. A vast subject but endlessly fascinating.
Your bio particularly intrigued me, as your education seemed to have results diametrically opposed to the intentions of your teachers and probably assertively different from many of your classmates. It brings to mind what is probably a parable of sorts; the tale of two brothers, one a pillar of the community, one a drunken lout, both of whom cited the same reason for their situation — an abusive father. What is it in a person that can create such different results if exterior circumstances are the same? Are we back to the same theory about the observer's perceptions conditioning their perception of the observed? Unfortunately this lends credence to the moral relativists who would have us believe that all attitudes are equally valid and we shouldn't be upset if they beat their women — it's just part of their culture. And that's not my intent. Free will is involved and similar formative circumstances for children obviously don't necessarily lead to similar adult behaviours or beliefs — nor should we judge the results as equally acceptable because the original conditions were.
No need to apologise for the length of your letter — I love long, meaty epistles, it's a lost art.
- 21 March 2005 : Garth
- I've been sick for the past few weeks or I would have written sooner.
The religious right in this part of the world has been flexing its righteous muscles in its usual unwholesome manner lately, over a number of issues that, in a world that had its priorities right, wouldn't even make the back pages of the local paper. I'll give you a few for instances — same-sex marriage in Canada is on the verge of becoming an institution on the same footing as heterosexual marriage, with the legal definition of 'marriage', as between a man and a woman about to be changed to reflect that fact. Gays and lesbians already have most of the same economic and social benefits of straights, which didn't seem to cause the zealots too much angst but when word came that they were actually going to be declared equal, well that was just too much. I compare it to the civil rights movements many years ago, where the segregationist credo was 'separate but equal'. Separate has already been shown to be anything but equal when it comes to the treatment of those with other skin colours, now it's time to demonstrate its inapplicability to those of other sexual persuasions. In Canada this debate is in much less danger of being hijacked by organized religion than it is in the States where religion is such an integral part of their political life that many Americans consider George Bush to be a messenger from God. But how can you have a realistic debate with people whose ultimate answer is "God told me so"? I don't deny that those with religious feelings should be able to express their opinions but they shouldn't claim to represent the majority, nor have they cornered the market on ethical pronouncements, nor are they immune to cricism.If we bend to the wishes of those noisy minorities who claim moral authority in the name of a cultural myth then we are headed down a dark road of intolerance, repression and hate.
Unfortunately, I do tend to agree with you that we are headed for a new Dark Age. This will probably coincide with the draining of the world's last oil reserves sometime in the next century. I hate to lump myself in with the 'end-times' conspiracy freaks but there are quite a few signs, including the increasing gap between rich and poor, the oligarchical tendencies of some the world's most powerful institutions and governments, like the Catholic Church, the U.S. government; the polarization of opinion, discouragement of debate, demonization of opponents. There is a siege mentality evolving in the developed world, on the economic, moral and religious levels that can only lead to more conflict. Sound familiar? Yes, it's in your Bible because it's happened before and we don't learn! Not that I'm saying that God has punished us for turning from Him, and is going to punish us again because we're a bit dim when it comes to Divine Retribution. Nonsense! What we haven't learned is how to live together harmoniously, and religion, contrary to popular belief, is a prime cause of that inability. It's amazing to me that those who look to the Bible for guidance completely miss the lessons of history embodied in it and would rather put their faith in the rationalizations of (in the Old Testament) Jews, who want to attribute Divine intervention to the chronology of their race's bloody story and spend a lot of time molding it to fit prophecy, and in the New Testament, where a fledgling Christian church suppressed dissent and hid the true facts of their religion for political reasons. Imagine if it could be demonstrated to believers that the Resurrection was fabricated to conceal that Jesus had not only survived the Cross, but was a fugitive from Roman justice? One early Christian cult, the Essenes, claimed this, among other things, but they were exterminated in the sack of Jerusalem around 70 A.D. Their legacy is the Dead Sea Scrolls, of which only about half of the 800 found and collected by Catholic scholars have ever been published. What if Jesus was not meant to have been a spiritual leader but merely a political one? Christianity would fall apart like a house of cards. And good riddance to any system of values founded on lies.
By the way, I just recently discovered the origin of your website name, very clever, Palmyra, the intersection of the roads to Damascus and Baghdad, in Syria. Fascinating Greco-Roman ruins I understand; love to visit the place someday.
The virulence of the response to any attack on the R.C. Church far outstrips any threat that be may be present. Their recent official reaction to the work of fiction The DaVinci Code is absolutely ludicrous — they now feel compelled to defend themselves against murder mysteries?! Their credibility has dropped yet another notch, even in the eyes of some of the adherents to that cartoon religion, run by a drooling Elmer Fudd.
Another for instance of blind ideology intruding itself into personal affairs is the story out of Florida of that poor woman, who's been in a vegetative state for 15 years and her husband is attempting to follow her wishes and remove her feeding tube, thus allowing her to finally die with a semblance of dignity. Unfortunately, her parents (who are not her guardians) have successfully lobbied everyone up to Bush to prevent this and, apparently, the U.S. Congress (Republican-dominated) is going to enact legislation to, as they say "come down on the side of life." What life — that of an empty shell whose brain shows no activity whatsoever? The same views that would prevent abortions and stem-cell research, have students recite the Lord's Prayer every morning, regardless of their beliefs, repress healthy sexual urges, shun homosexuals, ensure marriages within one's own race only, bomb other countries into democracy and so on, are exerting their increasing influence in varied and frightening ways. The one thing they have going for them is unity; their views are quite similar no matter where you find them, which gives them an extraordinary power base, unlike liberals/rationalists who are willing to tolerate, indeed encourage, diverse intellectual positions and debate, a weakness when it comes to attaining political power. It's too easy for their opponents to accuse them of inconsistency, hypocrisy and pragmatism, therefore being unfit to govern.
I've been boning up on the Greek philosophers lately, for which I have you to thank for motivating me. Athens must have been a marvellous place in the time of Pericles — the center of art, a hotbed of intellectual cut-and-thrust, yet withal a tolerance of pagan activities and beliefs. From what I understand, it was there that the scientific method separated itself from theology, where the 'why do things happen' became the 'how do things happen' and the search for knowledge became more 'what are the physical causes' and less 'what is its (divine) purpose'? It's an incredible anomaly when you consider that they existed in the same world as the 'living gods' of Egyptian royalty, whose nation they would shortly rule through Alexander the Great.
- 22 December 2005 : Garth
- I see it's been about a year since we last spoke and the quantity of virulent emails condemning your position on faith and religion seems to have diminished significantly (or are you simply not posting them in the interests of not being boringly repetitious?) Here in North America the far-right fruitbars have just being dealt a decisive blow in the courts, to whit; their Intelligent Design theory (another version of Creationism) has been denied status as a science and cannot, therefore, be taught as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution in schools, as many zealots, including George Dubya, had devoutly hoped. Same-sex marriage is alive and well in Canada and we currently also have the dubious status of being the only country in this hemisphere to have a municipally-sanctioned safe place to inject yourself with illegal drugs (Vancouver). The Supreme Court in the States may re-consider whether to criminalize abortion and Christian groups are boycotting Wal-Mart for insulting their religion by advertising "Happy Holidays", not "Merry Christmas". And who says the world's going to hell in a hand-basket?
Have you ever done any research on the creative principle/process, what it is, how it works? I'm also researching the history of Freemasonry, including the Templars and the so-called Rex Deus families — your site doesn't appear to have anything on it in that regard; I was wondering if you knew of any reliable sources.
Anyway, have a Happy Christmas, as my Mum would say, in whatever way you celebrate the season.
- 19 January 2006 : Garth
- I have read summaries of Jones' opinion (he's a Republican, BTW, so apparently not all of them have lost their objectivity) and articles/blogs of opinion of his opinion. Some of the more salient points are symptomatic of the wave of inappropriate subjectivity that is sweeping the planet. Not that I think either objectivity or subjectivity can be clearly defined but the effort to articulate them has, at least since the Greeks distinguished science from opinion and, obviously the battle continues. It's too bad that the Idiots and their ilk must resort to subterfuge — it seems, in their world, that the end justifies the means and misrepresentation as well as misdirection are considered legitimate tools in their war with Satan, for example:
- The Discovery Institute's Centre for Renewal of Science and Culture (reminiscent of the Nazi Ministry of Culture whose innocuous name masked sinister motives) has a manifesto known as the Wedge Document whose strategic plan schemes to replace science with "theistic and Christian science"(?), to "defeat scientific materialism and its destructive cultural and moral legacies" and to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."
- The Institute tried to throw a smokescreen up by making the teaching of ID an issue of academic freedom for science teachers while conveniently ignoring the fact that ID isn't science!
- The book referenced in the trial, "Of People and Pandas", is published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (or should that be the Control of Thought and Manipulation of Ethics'?) another seemingly forward-thinking organization whose Internal Revenue filing describes itself as a religious Christian organization (even the most dedicated right-wing zonko can't turn down a tax exemption)
- In early drafts, the book's definition of ID was identical to that of creation science and later was substituted for it; it talks about the appearance of fully-formed creatures on the planet, a concept I can't respond to until I stop laughing.
Creationism itself, at least in Christian thought, dates back to Thomas Aquinas, experienced a revival from various 19th century Christian apologists and has been discredited time and again. Renaming it changes nothing. Speaking of Christian apologists, what do you think of C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" on film? Or are you waiting for the DVD :)?
On the subject of Templars and Freemasons, I've done a lot of entertaining reading lately of so-called 'secret histories', actually mostly by British writers, Knight, Lomax and, most recently, Lawrence Gardiner whose Grail lore can be repetitive but he does have a knack for picking out inconsistencies in the Bible. The Grail and its attendant Arthurian legends, as well as the Celtic Church are recent fascinations for me; I must visit Glastonbury one day.
The most outstanding characteristic of all this literature, and I use the term advisedly, is its huge anti-Catholic bias, which I find myself tending to agree with. I find more and more evidence, from legitimate sources, of 2000 years of corrupt, venal, power-seeking avariciousness on a grand scale, right from the Roman naming of Christianity as the state religion for purely political ends, through centuries of manipulation, censorship, distortion and outright suppression of the words of a man who merely wanted to cut through the jungle of conflicting and inflexible Judaic religious practice to a more universal model of moral behaviour, inseparable, of course, from his religion (and incidentally, unite the Jews against the Romans).
The Churches of today are in much the same boat, with no Messiah in sight (unless you count George Dubya, and some do!). I wade through this torrent of words with the intention of finding a better representation of what was actually spoken and done two millennia ago than the conventional wisdom and traditional sources can supply, hoping that a rational approach, as well as some sense of discrimination, gained through experience, will give me a truer picture. You're right, most current Freemasons have little idea of what they practice, it's antecedents or implications — a friend of mine, a Mason of high degree, is only now doing the research to find out what it all means from a more esoteric viewpoint. He is no more interested in faith than I am, merely an enhanced understanding of what some view as ultimate reality and others as the genius of the human mind to construct sophisticated cosmologies through an innate need to impose meaning on the world. I'm still on the fence on that one. What I am convinced of is the necessity and awards accruing through creative and productive relationships, even long distance ones!
- 24 March 2006 : Garth
- Death and the Midden
Sorry about the bad pun on a mediocre movie's title (Death and the Maiden) but I just buried my uncle last week, a Londoner, born and bred, who was a paratrooper in WWII and spent two years in a POW camp. Nevertheless, he survived, in good health, until the age of 90 and his wife, my mother's sister is still kicking (from her wheelchair) at 91. The rituals of death seem to be in a state of transition these days; for example, the memorial at the funeral home was an Anglican ceremony but no-one knew the hymns and none of my family has been near a church in decades. Yet somehow, a religious ceremony was what seemed appropriate, if not ardently desired by my uncle's immediate family. Secularism has not yet found its way into our methods of coping with death as much as it has with our ways of dealing with life. It all seems so desperate, these 'death-bed' conversions, just in case there actually are places called Heaven and Hell. Possibly because we don't want to deal with life's ending at all, until it's virtually upon us, that we grasp at stale tradition because it offers the illusion of certainty in the face of irreparable loss. We need to find meaning in suffering or we give in to despair. So we invent faith, no small thing — it has been known to move mountains! In the absence of absolute knowledge about those things 'beyond mortal ken' can resolute rationality offer comfort to human beings who, uniquely among all creatures, are aware of the inevitability of their own deaths? I don't believe it can but I'd like to hear your point of view on this. Abstract philosophical concepts are fine in the drawing room but don't seem to cut it in the funeral parlour. BTW you never did respond to my last epistle — I look forward to it.