Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Appealing non-theist insights by Somerset Maugham

Posted by robertpriddy on January 9, 2012

by Somerset Maugham (from A Writer’s Notebook’ 1949)

Among the many interesting comments on religion in his once private – later published – notebooks, Somerset Maugham  discussed 1) intuitive belief 2) spiritual and sectarian differences.
Here I present some scanned excerpts which deserve further promulgation, making some comments as to why I consider them just as relevant as when he wrote them:-

This, it seems to me, would probably be what most educated persons who also have active, not mainly passive, minds cannot avoid thinking, even though they may admit of natural uncertainty and at times also entertain hopes that there is somehow something better than the condition most experience at the end of their lives, if not also through much of their existence with so many cares, sorrows and travails.

Philosophers have shown the illogicality – invalidity – of every argument for the existence of God that has ever been forwarded. Likewise, one can no more prove that God does not exist than one can prove that the entire universe is run from within a brain of some person hiding in India or elsewhere (though there are plenty who completely believe this latter to be true! The ontological status of the claim that God exists, or Jesus lives is no different from the claim that ‘Elvis lives’, as Sam Harris has so amusingly put the matter. In short, the fact that we die and are not resurrected is one that can only be faced with some courage. That we should be reborn – reincarnation – is equally impossible to prove, and would require the most fantastic funds and methodological advances in science to study empirically. Retribution and reward by God or any entity in any way or future existence etc. are – as far as human ingenuity can discover through all its manifold oceans of knowledge and related resources – merely a figment of speculation, imagination, hope or existential desperation. The entire explanation for the idea of some Divine (or more primitively, some demonic?) retribution obviously arises from the refusal to believe that justice does not eventually rule and bring all evil-doers to book! The same goes surely for rewards – sojourns in heaven and even absorption into the Godhead as some immaterial unprovable and totally brainless consciousness (known variously as nirvana, moksha, liberation from the wheel of life). 

Maugham uses the term ‘intuitionism’ to refer to that which moves most people to hold absolute views on right and wrong. Another aspect of it, as Maugham was also aware, is so-called ‘conscience’. Both a person’s intuitions and conscience are formed and developed through prolonged interaction of the physical being with the environment – unquestioningly absorbing the values and precepts of those who bring one up from babyhood onwards. Education invariably sets about inculcating certain values – not least through constant repetitions and lessons that are the accepted form of indoctrination to the mores and acceptable practices of the society involved. Even when bodily maturity is reached, many remain in the figurative ‘intuitive crib’ of their parental surroundings. Those who diverge from their family in views are often simply absorbed into what may be called a regional or national ‘crib’, perhaps adopting one of the accepted religions, or becoming agnostic and going through various changes in ideas of what is right and best, what is wrong or excusable, as influenced by their peers and the many group pressures which apply in specific culture and societies. In short, what conscience and intuition decide in one setting, one society, one religious culture etc., differs very greatly – not only in detail from person to person, but in the broadest sense between cultures which are opposed on many central issue and belief systems.

The many effects of relativity, the fact that there is no absolute knowledge, social structure, religion etc. means that cultural change, increasing knowledge, even shifts in physical environments, upset the certainties once held, often entirely, sometimes by modification large or small. Even since Maugham wrote his notes, the picture of the universe has altered beyond what one then could usually imagine, vastly more detailed and its laws penetrated far more deeply with empirically proven knowledge gained through – to the layman – almost inconceivable perfection of instrumentation and computational facilities. The same goes for the entire globe, and also for the microcosmos, with manipulation even of atoms. Meanwhile nano-technology is weekly creating wonders that show the reliability of the entire new insight into existence at all levels that have been achieved. Nowhere is there a hint of any transcendent ‘spirit’ stuff or immaterial intelligence.
 This kind of proven, tried, tested and re-constructible understanding is not to be found anywhere in any religion, of course! Though people continue to believe in religions on such a large scale, the globalization of culture and information had brought culture virtually ignorant of one another closer, and so often into conflict.  We see the warring between the mainstream ‘faiths’ is intensified at all levels, and not least that between genuine knowledge and beliefs themselves.  When the globe is technologised yet more fully, the science on which technology depends will be a sine qua non in most national education systems (if only for reason of economic survival), and this will almost inevitably weaken the religions.

I shall follow this blog with more of Maugham’s mature reflections soon… including on pleasure, hedonism and its suppression as sin.  

Posted in Atheism, Belief, religious faith | Leave a Comment »

Theism and the ‘God Within’ ploy

Posted by robertpriddy on November 6, 2011

Theism involves belief in the existence and influence of a transcendental Creator. Because of the impossibility of providing the slightest unambiguous empirical proof of this imagined Being, those who find this position untenable have tended towards imagining that God resides only within the individual person’s deepest reality… in the human “heart”.  It can be discovered within oneself and experienced, it is found through variously differing ‘methods’ from prayer, to meditation, doing good works to simply having steadfast faith (in the supposed God). These ideas are widespread in Hinduism and the teachings of the mystics of most traditions. Christianity is increasingly turning towards this apparent way out. So-called New Age writers and gurus are among the most active promoters of the “inner path” and the ‘universal super consciousness’ which is equated with God. The location of this is supposedly everywhere and the route to it is via the “human heart”. The appeal to ‘the heart’ as superior to ‘the head’ is a numinous but ultimately vague and confused conception arising from primitive beliefs that the mind resided in the beating heart rather than in the brain. The physical heart is thus considered (most wrongly) to be the seat of human emotions and even of human wisdom and judgement.

To claim, as in some religions, that “all people are divine in essence” or Divinity is like a spark in everyone (and/or in every living being) is not to eliminate the assumption of the existence of God, it is simply to assuage the perplexed by diverting attention from the inability of proving that God has a separate existence – invisible, inscrutable, beyond human intelligence and ‘out there somewhere’. Others insist that God is both ‘within and without’. The inner reality of God is stated in a variety of summary ways – all of them without exception – when looked at closely – vague and ultimately insubstantial. The simplest version is perhaps ‘God is Everything’. Another is ‘All is one Divine Consciousness’. Both imply that we are God. However, to explain to unbelievers how we are not aware of this, God is said to be “within us all”, though our born ignorance, ego desires and much else hide the fact from us. Advaita holds that God is our true nature, that we really are God (sometimes qualified by ‘in essence’). Indian gurus preach advaitic variants like ‘God resides as consciousness in the heart’, ‘God is omnipresent’ and many other such vague and always untestable imagined conditions. The highly misguided doctrine of ‘god within’ is often promoted in mantra-like repetitions. None of it makes any proper sense because it is totally divorced from anything whatever which is observable by anyone anywhere. It rests entirely a a handed-down belief… that God is Almighty Creator and Ruler of All. “The scientific method is rejected in favour of revelation, belief and otherworldly projections and hopes, and one is trained to construct and maintain a view of reality which fits the mould set by the guru.” (Kramer & Alstead, ‘The Guru Papers’). This doctrine – known as advaita – incomplete and full of sheer speculation – is itself what one might call the final outcome of a long process of rejection of God concepts.

Human history presents a desolate mindscape of broken beliefs, especially religious beliefs which have
successively had to be abandoned because they could no longer be upheld in the face of mankind’s increasing discoveries of a majority of the actual causes of every kind of phenomena. Nonetheless, the remnant religious beliefs still rule the lives of billions of earth’s inhabitants… idols, deities, holy incarnations, holy places, holy men and women, saints, avatars. The various theologies of each religion meet with more and more insuperable difficulties in explanation, whereupon they retreat more and more into the abstract and the mystical.

The flat earthers eventually had to bow before Columbus’ discovery, the earth-centered universe before Copernicus, while scientific advance after advance dispelled all manner of false religious ideas concerning the earth’s history, human origins, the causes of all manner of human suffering, and even the origin and development of the entire universe. The flight of religion into the insubstantial bastion of the abstract and the unknown – that there are mysteries we cannot fathom because they are God’s preserve – is the result. Christianity usually asserts the ‘Holy Ghostliness’ of God, advaita the total but entirely unseen permeation of everything and everybody totally with incorporeal God. Theologies which put some limitation on God – like Catholicism, has to invoke Satan as God’s weaker counterpart even today to try to explain ignorance, wrong-doing and all that is fearful and destructive in mankind and nature. The doctrine of there being both eternal heaven and hell most likely go right back to early mankind’s attempt to explain the mysterious fact of the unreachable sky and the fearful outflows of volcanic magma.

I have written a somewhat lengthy analysis which shows the degree of conceptual and general confusion that reigns throughout these sectarian ideas.
God is everything, in everyone – as a spiritual teaching 

also Advaita – historical flight into abstraction and speculation

and The Ultimate Fallacy, which I wrote here some time ago.

Posted in Catholicism, religious faith | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The psychology of faith and belief vs. doubt

Posted by robertpriddy on September 14, 2011

“For them. life begins with death”
“Which is as if one were to say ”Day begins with night.’”  (from Quo Vadis)

The belief that death can be defeated, that there is a life afterwards, that one may be reborn and all those fondest of imaginings, plays some part in all religions. Such unsupported beliefs are bolstered up by countless other surrounding scriptures, sayings, accounts of supposed miracles and divine interventions, of what seem to be answers to prayers (i.e. the relatively very uncommon fulfillment of a strong desire that comes about). In short, beliefs, once adopted, tend to grow of themselves.  When fed by what are marshalled together rather uncritically as supportive ‘facts’ and experiences, they continue to grow. Otherwise, they tend to subside and fragment. The same goes for doubts. One adopted, they grow and the more so when facts appear to justify them. Doubts can also weaken and disappear if facts and positive experiences arise sufficient to counteract them.

The history of humanity emphasizes how faith can mislead people into the most bizarre of experiences and beliefs and bring about the most severe consequences imaginable in terms of suffering, violence, wars, genocide, torture and debasement of the human spirit. Yet worse are supposed possible consequences of divine retribution, constant rebirth as animals of prey, immersion in eternal hell fires and just about any perversion of goodness the human mind could invent and attribute to the supposed ‘Divine Creator’. Putting one’s trust in an unworthy person usually leads to disillusionment, putting one’s
faith in religious teachings and spiritual leaders is also a serious gamble where the stakes can be high indeed.

The religious believer invariably seeks all that can reinforce belief and inherently tends to ignore and rejects whatever may conflict with the belief, especially radically. Often a belief may help inspire with an apparent meaning to life and strengthen good qualities in oneself and positive action towards the world. When the tinder of such a positive intention are fed by constant supportive ‘spin’ and stories of many others’ subjective experiences (i.e. which no one can control and the fewest can investigate to any reasonable extent), they ignite more faith by reinforcing what one want to believe. Our personal experience – being all that we really know first hand (however delusive or deceptive it may be) can often be interpreted and distorted by a doctrine or ideology.. whiten is what religions are. Personal experience becomes formed by indoctrination and narrowing of one’s scope of information, and is easily overshadowed by false expectations generated by a sect or a cult

When one has sought hard for a long time and finally arrived at something one can believe in quite strongly, the believer looks further for what is positive towards that belief and can reinforce. At the same time, there is a tendency to put aside or reject outright whatever may conflict with it. One will be loath to give up a belief which helps inspire and strengthen positive feelings, a more hopeful world view (then formerly held). If one adds to this a belief which gives one a sense of a meaning in life and and purpose in the cosmos, then it will be difficult to backtrack, and any challenges will be unlikely to dislodge it.

Many belief systems are of course shared by vast numbers, the mainstream religions into which one is more or less born and indoctrinated before one can use one’s own judgement at all. Should the belief system be more peripheral and diverge appreciably from mainstream cultures, it is most often part of a support network, a like-minded community or sect. As with mainstream religion, this often gives an outlet for social service and self-improvement, the increased sense of self-worth further strengthens the belief system.

There is a threshold of belief which, when crossed, sets off a psychological process of reinforcement. As in the Kirkegaardian ‘existential leap of faith’ the confusion of not knowing and uncertainty cause people to ‘take the plunge’ into some doctrine or faith which seems to promise to be rewarding spiritually, emotionally and usually also in various other ways. It is both intriguing and not least distressing to see how people become so entirely trapped in a ‘faith’ as to be unable to see even when the most glaring discrepancies for what they are. Even then a pivotal personal crisis or mental-emotional upset – perhaps a major emotional shock or personal loss – may be required for freeing oneself from the ganglion grasp that a system of belief and its associated way of life and behaviour.

When serious doubts emerge, doubts that could only be ignored with difficulty, however, they too can grow as the facts support them further. This is one way in which an internalized faith and system of ideas be shaken, and there is usually some critical personal event which sets such a process in motion. Once crossing the ‘threshold’ in reverse, doubts can grow as facts emerge to support them. Doubts can be corrosive at time, but it can also mitigate the severity of inflexible doctrines and not least fanatical ideas. Without any doubting, everyone would become a doctrinaire fundamentalist of whatever brand, which would be another bane on humanity.

If faith in some doctrine or religion revives, and radical doubts are overcome, a certain euphoria often follows – one to which critical doubting seldom gives rise. The process cannot but involve interesting and challenging shifts in ideas and perceptions, when thought is stimulated by novelty and seems to move forward into unknown but exciting territory. One feels free of brakes or cross-checks that may have been part of one’s former mentality. The positivity generated by ‘having found the answer’ and reached certainty makes for a self-fulfilling strengthening process. Reaching the apparent security of a spiritual renewal, if not also a worldly kind, and ridding oneself of uncertainty along with the trust that promising developments (‘blessings’) will eventually ensue can be a very beguiling matter.

Eventually novelty always wears off, and both practical and other hindrances invariably resurface, contradictions arise in new guises and reality exerts its usual resistance against anything that is too uncertain, too otherworldly.

Posted in Atheism, Belief, Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Cognitive processes in religious and other dogmas creates major delusion

Posted by robertpriddy on August 25, 2011

Some overarching ideas are like hydra – the more we entertain them, muse over them, think our way into their meaning and possible consequences – the more they spread and entrench themselves in our minds. In fact, they entrench themselves in the memory circuits of the brain and every time they come to mind they reinforce the neural connections. Many entertain not just a ‘big idea’ but commit themselves unduly to an entire ideology. It is often germane to an ideology that it ‘totalities’ itself as the one and only way to understand whatever it claims to cover. Among such totalistic or ‘exclusive’ ideologies, we find of course totalitarian belief systems, from Nazism, Leninism, Maoism, to an even partially-fundamentalist theology. Their explanations invariably require that other (conflicting) belief systems be negated, denied and preferably ignored.

The countless ganglia of the human brain – as neurological research is now penetrating to a far greater degree than ever – can be dominated by a build-up of connections so as to cause the relative exclusion of whatever is not dwelt on enough to make comparative impressions (i.e. as strong memory connections). This is how major and near-total indoctrination is possible or – in a more expressive term – ‘brainwashing’. What is washed out is anything that contradicts or throws doubt on the dominant ideology.

The more one concentrates on an ideology, the more it tends to take over a person’s mind-set until a way back from the whole of it becomes more and more tortuous and difficult to trace. When people make an exclusive ideology too predominant as a doctrine, they interpret life and the world only on the premises it enshrines, and invariably it rejects without reasonable discussion explains way all or most other competing doctrines in the process, then a cognitive disorder id developed. The person may be or appear quite sane and normal in other respects, but has a seriously distorted perception nonetheless. This can lead to dangerous and anti-social actions too.

Contrariwise, as interest shifts to other concerns and ideas are side-tracked, the neural connections are weakened. There are, however, other causes which can overcome even an obsessional dogma or indoctrination, of course. Major psychological shocks can cause a person to have to rethink it all, or people can be influenced by other, stronger ideologies and not least by education and even specific ‘deprogramming’. People may have other resources (previous education, or other cognitive skills and experiences) to fall back on which, once activated, give them a critical or doubting perspective on their main beliefs. 

Believing in a largely unsupported system of ideas can be taken so far that – in common parlance – the ‘mind flips’ into unrealistic modes. Some become pathologically obsessional, paranoidal, and so on up to megalomania and related conditions. To be mentally deranged is to suffer a malfunction of normal thought operations involving a loss of common sense, reality sense and the use of self-corrective reflection. It occurs in all degrees of seriousness and triviality and probably very few persons indeed are entirely free of it in some form. Yet a large or crucial part of a person’s mental life can develop in such a way that one’s ideas – and even perceptions – become very far removed from common sense and reason.

The more ‘official’ term for mental derangement nowadays is ‘cognitive disorder’. There are numerous kinds of cognitive disorder.

1) Illusory correlation. This is a misjudgement of how likely an event is. To confuse one thing as the cause of another is also an illusory correlation.

2) Memory bias. A number of biases can affect memory (Schacter (1999). These include false memory in recalling one’s past attitudes or behaviour as more similar to one’s present attitudes than is factual.

3) Egocentric bias. This can occur when one wants to hold a positive self-image so as to avoid negative facts about oneself. The conflict of negative and positive facts about oneself is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’, which there can be a strong tendency to avoid.

4) Ignoring relevant information is a cognitive bias, which occurs when one gives undue importance to a minor but salient feature of some problem. One’s judgement is warped through irrelevant information. Examples are found where there is ‘framing effect’. In social theory, a frame means a sets or system of interpretations – often a collection of root assumptions or set of stereotypes which people use to understand and act on events. Framing involves selective influence over how one understands words, phrases in description, labelling, or presentation of a problem. An unduly narrow perception or description of a situation or issue is a case of framing, whether wilful or unconscious, whereby attention is directed away from important facts or aspects of a matter.

5) Assymetric insight: This illusion “is a cognitive bias that involves the fact that people perceive their knowledge of others to surpass other people’s knowledge of them. The source for this bias seems to stem from the fact that observed behaviors of others are more revealing than one’s own similar behaviors. Relatedly, people seem to believe that they know themselves better than their peers know themselves and that their social group knows and understands other social groups better than that social group knows them.” (Wikipedia –

6) Self-serving bias: A self-serving bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control. The self-serving bias can be seen in the common human tendency to take credit for success but to deny responsibility for failure. “It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.” (Wikipedia
See also

Posted in Atheism, Belief, Ideology, religious faith | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Sam Harris on free will; is all ‘freedom’ a miasma?

Posted by robertpriddy on June 9, 2011

Sam Harris, for whose ideas I otherwise hold in calm approval,  has now decided: “Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do?  The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

Though his declaration is unnecessarily compounded with what he believes our sense of freedom results from, the core idea that free will is an illusion cannot be proven false. Nor, of course,  can it be proven true. When I pay attention to “what it is like to be myself in the world” I come to an entirely different result than Sam Harris believes anyone would. This test he proposes is really so vague that it can be taken a hundred ways, so it is rather useless as an argument for his contention. I can see conditions over which I had no control, but also alternatives between which I had to decide – after long deliberations as to which of the most likely consequences were the best bet. I note also that, fortunate as I am in my life situation, I have far more alternatives and possibilities than many who are less ‘free’ (i.e. live under far more constraining conditions). 

Without giving a definition of ‘free will’, which presumably Harris finds impossible since he claims there is no such thing – he has (on his own theory) involuntarily plumped for physical determinism as the reason for no free will being possible. The whole idea of ‘freedom’  – one of the vaguest and most misused words available (if not comparable to ‘God’)  is itself under threat here, of course. (But has not our freedom ever been under threat… o.k., joke over). The idea of choice between real alternatives as an illusion has consequences of an extremely far-reaching nature… and they would be revolutionary if it were eliminated from human thought and intercourse. I do not see that Harris has considered this, and I find the reason to be his over-generalizing approach…. and that means his language imprecision. What does he mean by ‘freedom of the will’ exactly?

One cannot reduce the entire issue of human freedom to some either-or propositions (eg it exists or it does not) without falling into the trap that some Vienna positivists did when they wanted to abolish all words and phrases which did not have a corresponding referent (and so leave us with a ‘scientific language’ devoid of poetic nonsense and imagination that would eventually solve all disagreements). Wittgenstein abolished that mythology, of course. The issue of freedom is not encompassed by one ‘determination’ – whether there can be an uncaused cause or not.

Before proceeding please note that freedom of the will is not a necessary component of theology and religious moralizing, for there have been many a religious determinist since the Stoic Zenon, and most pre-Greek religion is highly fatalistic/deterministic, not least in India where a deterministic brand of ‘karma’ theory is one root cause of the widespread fatalism seen among the Indian masses today. Sam Harris seems to think determinism could be a conceptual tool against religious moralism… for if we have no choice, then all moral preaching is totally futile. It can equally well be a tool of fanatics… all is Allah’s will, being one example for contemporary comparisons.

One problem with Sam Harris’ thesis is that he narrows the discussion to what is little better than the ‘clockwork universe’ conception: one interpretation of the famous dictum ‘every event has a cause’.  That every event has a cause is not proven, of course… every single event cannot be studied and tied to a preceding event. So it is an assumption, a principle – fruitful indeed in respect of scientific investigation. It is the desirable carrot before the donkey that doesn’t know the answer (yet). But then the universe is a continuously interacting complex of countless influences – multiple causes if you like, a mutually-dependent ‘ecology’ of events – so that the reductionist method of isolating one event to one cause is rather comparable to missing the forests for one tree. Admittedly, one tree tells us a lot about a forest, but far from all that is involved. The ‘one cause-one effect’ hypothesis is fruitful as an analytical instrument but not much use in that we are also faced with the synthetical task (holistic if you prefer) or understanding in terms of greater and greater wholes. One such greater whole is the human brain, another is nature, another is  ‘society’ and the question becomes – is everything running on predetermined lines, or is there any point in mental development, education, politics, upbringing to responsibility, or any of the countless attempts to ‘liberate’ people progressively from the worst burdens of life? (How to ‘liberate’ someone who can never be other than unfree?)

All explanations must end somewhere (in practice and in theory), so proving what causes what in the super-intricate human mind will always remain largely an open question. In such an uncertain situation, how should we think about ourselves – as ignorant automatons, as unwitting slaves of circumstance? Harris’ thesis implies that is just what we are! But he might rather take a leaf from Maimonides’ book, “We ought to exert our efforts in everything as though they were absolutely free..” (That Maimonides added, “… and God will do as he sees fit.” need not phase us… one can substitute ‘natural causes’ for God and ‘determine’ for ‘as he sees fit’).

It is (theoretically) totally predictable what he draws from what he must logically recognise as his involuntary plumping. There is nothing new about his theorizing – despite a few references to research which suggests – but does not prove (of course) – that the brain as a totally causally-determined entity.

Let us explain how ‘free will’ is understood by many people. It is to have options and to be able to distinguish and so select those alternative courses of action one chooses or wishes (whatever the multiplicity of circumstances that lie behind the choice… including conscious intentions and subconscious predilections). This makes free will – or freedom – something that is relative to the level of one’s control over the environment and oneself. Those who have the opportunities provided by upbringing, education, social position, self-help and resources have a greater degree of freedom – and can exercise their ‘will’ (desires, motives, and aims) accordingly. In this respect, it is patently obvious that there is a difference between freedom and it suppression (by whatever agencies or natural facts).

The key issue about free will is not whether it is a metaphysical possibility or not, but what it is used for, how its scope can be increased in a fair way within a society.

See review on Harris’ latest (one-track) book ‘Free Will’.

Posted in Atheism, causality, Free will, Philosophy, Science, Understanding | Leave a Comment »

Stephen Hawking: “philosophy is dead!”

Posted by robertpriddy on May 26, 2011

Stephen Hawking: “… almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead”
Now, there are other interpretations of why we are here and where we, as individuals, came from than the astrophysical ones. Hawking really ought to know enough about philosophy to realize that it is highly misleading to make sweeping generalizations (i.e. imprecise and therefore are open to differing interpretations). Such as the old slogan statement “Philosophy is dead”.

Of course, on his kind of interpretation he is wholly correct. Philosophy is neither capable nor actually trying to add anything to the fundamental questions of the natural of the physical universe. The origins of philosophy as the first natural science are long since superseded. But philosophy embraces much else than physics (which it still embraces as the most valuable source of information about the composition and origin of nature). Physics is itself limited in important ways – it can add nothing to the philosophy of law, to medical ethics, to the interpretation of meaning and the comparative analysis of language, to pragmatics and semantics, even to logic. We even have eco-philosophy and meta-philosophy of the cultural, psychological and social sciences. Still, there is real substance in Hawking’s claim that ““Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” and that new theories “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it”. He also wisely notes, of course, what all know – that physics’ most complete ‘M theory’ is not yet fully or satisfactorily verified by a long chalk.

Another sense of ‘philosophy is dead’ might be that it is no longer practiced – properly and within its legitimate scope.  (However, we may wonder whether some of those professional academician philosophers are alive in a wider connotation of the word). It would be easier to defend the generalization “Theology is dead” and Hawking would surely agree with that, even though there are as many theologies as Gods or religions.  Despite all the faith of theologians in God as a being which is more alive than ever, they deal only with the dead matter of scripture – the past warmed over and projected into the future. His latest book ‘The Grand Design’ claims that no divine force was needed to explain why the Universe was formed. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

Thereby Hawking has rejected his former musing about a possible mindful God. He denies the existence of such a being – other than figuratively as equivalent to ‘the law of science’ – including any ‘personal god’ is. In this he is an outright atheist, and it should be pointed out that this amounts to a conviction, a belief… and, if he were a philosopher, he would reserve absolute judgement (until all the facts about everything may finally be in). This would give no substantial succour whatever to religionists, but only to the principle of scientific inquiry and scepticism. On safer ground, one is inclined to say, Hawking ridicules the idea of heaven as a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark”. He might have added that hell a myth for those afraid of fire (or a place suggested by the inside of volcanoes)!

He has a liberating view – parallel to his liberating life: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.” No need to fear beliefs that no one can every test, like the existence of an afterlife, rebirth, the continuance of one’s accumulated karma (good and bad). Instead, with here and now sanity he says: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”

Posted in Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology, Science, Theology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

On moving towards grasping the mystery of existence

Posted by robertpriddy on May 24, 2011

On paranormal phenomena and the explanations sought to explain them: That the brain is claimed to be merely a frequency receiver, which I once also tended to believe possible (also because it fitted with spiritual beliefs I held then) I now find to be almost wholly unsupported. Empirical studies show it has some subliminal precognitive features (seconds before an event, it can ‘react’). Yet to derive from this an entire ‘mentalist’ and ‘spirit’ philosophy is stretching credibility too far. Current such theories (like the ‘holographic universe’ speculation) seem to be based on the thinnest of empirical observations in nuclear science, most probably not correctly interpreted. Such ideas had the briefest life in European though, such as with Bishop Berkeley.  I am of course also well aware of the uncertainties of sense perception (it’s lesson one in philosophy) – and also the limits within which our senses operate, but that does not alter my views on the uncertainty of all spiritual ‘hypotheses’ about sense inputs having an extra-sensory – pre-sensual – input (‘hypotheses’ usually put forward as established doctrine). The truly astonishingly vast extent of phenomena to which technological instrumentation and computing has brought within our scope does exceed and so extend the human senses vastly, and the pace of development has been accelerating enormously along with the miniaturisation and multiplying computing power. The evolution of science and the direction the technologies it made possible took in the last decades was totally unimaginable in mid-C20 – and even in most science fiction then.

One small item comes to mind: it is now established in neuro-science that the human uses the entire brain all the time… and real-time magnetic imaging even illustrates this clearly. The once much bandied idea that we use 10% (or whatever) was a primitive judgement which first gained prominence back in the 1950s. One believed that there had to be a massive unused capacity because of the so-called ‘transcendental’ experiences, such as can be reproduced with certain psycho-mimetic substances and by diverse other means. The underlying reason for the myth of the 10% capacity was the belief in a God Creator who made human beings in his image, which is of course ‘creationism’. It is, however, most unreasonable to believe that the brain evolved with a large unused capacity, for nature soon abolishes ‘useless’ appendages and genetic developments. Just today research has shown that parts of the brain may temporarily react as if ‘asleep’ (see scan on right)  Evolutionism is not a doctine but a particularly well-established master theory the only creditable fact- and empiri-based explanation of life on earth and human origins that can already account for the larger part of all variations we find in living nature.

Personal development: My own case is the best know to myself, so I proceed from it. I have studied a wide range of books with embracing all manner of paranormal and/or spiritual phenomena and a range of suppositions about their origins and all-explanatory theories of many kinds. Some are based on holography, on transfigural mathematics, on solipsist assumptions, on quantum theory (usually by amateurs), on ancient Indian psychological speculations (not empirical), mysticism, even shamanism and more besides. Now, all these now appear to me to have a similar epistemological status as, say, the Continental rationalists and other metaphysical and pseudo-theological system-builders. Kant’s view of sense perception was, for its time, more advanced than that of Kapila, Triguna, Nagarjuna or other Indian thinkers reaching back apparently even to the Indus civilization. Most of what makes up so-called New Age theories came through the spiritualist movement and Madame Bravatsky from India, most of these ‘alternative’ traditions being prefigured in speculative Indian thought reaching back to former centuries where one knew almost nothing about the ‘secrets of nature’ compared to present day (developed on the basis of the Vedas – virtually a set of hymns, myths and some primitive natural philosophy)

Which ideology a person adopts – whether a political theory, a religion or a philosophy – is partly a matter of choice, partly chance, What one is brought up to believe, or else what one comes across firstly is seldom intelligently chosen. Everyone has to start somewhere and it takes a long time to investigate each ideology philosophy and evaluate it. Many will not even get so far as to think, question, analyze or put to the test the assumptions and beliefs in the culture in which they grow up and live. Many will be more or less unwittingly attached to the set of beliefs, doctrines or systems of thought they happen to be taught or come across early on.

I investigated many movements, political, scientific, social, humanist, and religious too, but always moved on, impelled forward by the need to break false boundaries and learn more, go beyond conventional limits in search of greater understanding.  I soon gave up writing philosophy papers and planning books (my professional status being already sufficiently secured) because publishing and conforming to peer standards slowed down progress in investigation and freedom to search.  After my interest in mysticism was awakened through a very powerful personal experience, several inspections of gurus and various ventures into that sphere ended up in each case with unsatisfactory results. In my mid’40s, unusual circumstances (recorded in my now out-dated and deficient book ‘Source of the Dream’) eventually caused me to threw myself wholeheartedly into a ‘spiritual quest’ in relation to the Indian self-proclaimed divinity Sathya Sai Baba. His claims were so special that I was drawn to visit and see him for myself.  For 18 years my definitive plunge with total commitment into what I would call ‘the spiritual world’ in practice. I did eventually obtain a great deal of new self-knowledge from it, because otherwise I would still be involved in it! Not of course what I expected and not what was supposed to result! On the contrary, I find myself more in tune with certain Zen ideas (except that they supposedly have none, as such). When I allowed myself to raise serious doubts and bring to bear all my former insights and knowledge on the whole thing, I progressively rediscovered the value of critical, analytical thinking (which had been my forte before I put it on ice for the purpose of spiritual endeavor). The advances made in world science even since I has ceased to pursue it thoroughly were so astonishing that, looked at with a clearer eye and on a much broader basis, it uncluttered and cleared my mind in many ways and also necessarily brought me more down to earth than ever (a liberating experience after decades of self-sacrificing idealism and largely wasted ‘spiritual efforts’). The result so far does not seem at all to have been a matter any single set of choices, but rather the sum benefit of my whole life so far. There is no philosophy I could choose today, none are adequate in enough respects… life has pushed me beyond any one set of assumptions on which any philosophy is necessarily constructed.

I no longer adhere to any particular philosophy – I have my own relation to all of them, and my own Weltanschauung is not a system – rather, it is more of a refined reflection of my entire mental and experiential life – the end product of all that went before gathered and sorted in an on-going process or dialectic. It is about extracting the truth content of each ideology – for few lack all truth – and carrying this over as one progresses ‘holistically’. My views today at age 74 are the result of a lifetime of intensive search after knowledge wherein I have plunged into one theory and practice after another, finding the inadequacies and unanswered questions in each new enthusiasm and – by and large – retaining the valid content on into the next venture. My Weltanschauung is therefore very intricate and embraces a great variety acquired knowledge of human experience.

On the meaning of being: The word ‘existence’ is perhaps the most ambiguous there is… so misunderstandings involving it are bound to be very considerable. It is extremely difficult to define existence, for a start. Perhaps the most precise definition is in terms of a protocol sentence (i.e. x is observed). No being can exist without there having been an evolution prior to it’s existence. No human can grown and develop without coming under the influence of doctrines of various kinds (some are not even formulated as doctrines) …  For whatever reasons or causes, most people (seems to me) do not seek the truth sufficiently to free themselves from the sway of doctrine, and thereby live in a relatively illusory world-view. Human being is so multi-perspectived that it would be virtually meaningless to speak of anyone having (or being) ‘pure being’. Only a highly abstracted generalised idea of existence can seem ‘pure’ .

I do not want to make ‘scientific’ sense out of existence, not unduly at any rate. That is the trap, to apply any doctrine to it, and especially primitive speculations by awestruck early humanity (i.e. dawning religious ideas). I find that there is a great deal of meaning in existence, though it is admittedly incomplete and often problematical to live out. I have not come to my own conclusion, but have rejected a great many unsatisfactory conclusions… which amount to knowing much more than before. Systems which are totalizations – especially spiritual theories, doctrines, religions, ‘ways to realization’ etc. – are largely predetermined not to discover the meaning, but sustain or invent further constructions, for it and give the illusion that one knows all the answers (more or less, or potentially – i.e. a subtle mental straightjacket). Looking back, faith of such kinds I now consider the very worst way to find meaning, nothing but a means to generate personal confusion and resignation to fate!

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Sam Harris, Religion, the open mind and traps for the unwary

Posted by robertpriddy on May 13, 2011

Sam Harris has a knack of stating what is wrong with religion in such a succinct and convincing way that I cannot do better than this quotation from his book ‘The End of Faith’:-

Of course, there is a lot more to be explained for the benefit of those who cannot absorb this due to lacking insight into the labyrinth of errors called ‘theology’ or not having the knowledge – or the critical mental tools to extract it from out of the confusing tapestry of human ideologies.

Young people who have not been too much surrounded by a church, a sect or religiously minded educators are all too often left unprepared to think for themselves and are thrown out, so to say, into the maelstrom of warring beliefs, sectarian theories, doctrines that promise this, that and the other (even without all the conspiracy theories). That is why it is so essential that they should understand how what is called ‘critical thinking’ is not a negative scepticism but rather the investigative spirit of have a genuine openness to knowledge and the facts, wherever they may lead. Critical thinking is a basic and unavoidable element in a humanist and secular attitude.

History demonstrates to the full that there are many pitfalls to the seeker of truth. Among the more obvious is outright deception by those who would mislead for their own purposes. Much less obvious but more insidious and difficult influence to detect is that of excessive group identification. This applies with full force to those who are brought up within a religious community or subjected to groups which they find agreeable and which hold common beliefs or faith. The spell of a major world religion is difficult to break, especially if one is unaware that it is but one of many entirely different religious belief systems, themselves in conflict with many other accounts of the nature of reality, especially those based on science, such as the marvels of the genetic code and paleontology, what they demonstrates about evolution and the origins of mankind and life itself in clearer and yet clearer ways with the massive advances made through hyper-advanced nano-research and the use of super-computers of unimaginable capacity.

So finding that someone agrees with us  –  even about relatively trivial matters such as a favourite film or book –  is undoubtedly one of life small pleasures. But now scientists appear to have put their finger on why we take such delight in being of the same mind. Discovering that we are agreed with lights up the brain’s pleasure centres, they say.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) in collaboration with Aarhus University in Denmark have found that the ‘reward’ area of the brain is activated when people agree with our opinions. The study, published today in the journal Current Biology, suggests that scientists may be able to predict how much people can be influenced by the opinions of others on the basis of the level of activity in the reward area. This article at machineslikeus. com makes interesting reading (Even to neurons, the opinions of others matter).

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Nature and Divine Retribution – science undermines belief

Posted by robertpriddy on March 23, 2011

Consider the statement: “Scientists today are exploring the powers of nature with a view to enjoying them without limit. They want to bring all those powers under human control for their unrestricted enjoyment. This is responsible for so many of the natural disasters we witness today.”

This seems reasonable to very many people in this era, not least because of the intense and ever-mounting pressure on the environment, ecological systems and nearly all usable natural resources. It is of course vitally important to recognize the effects of human exploitation on nature and to work to contain and counteract all life-threatening enterprises. However, once one combines this aim with religious teachings – whether Christian or Hindu, Judaic or Islamic or New Age etc. – a peculiar warped attitude to science and technology soon arises. One speaks of ‘Mother Earth’ (Bhoomidev . a deity in Hinduism) and ‘Gaia’ – as if the earth is a living, sensing and intelligent entity. Alternatively, many religious scriptures attribute all that happens to the will of God.. the (illogically conceived)  ‘uncaused cause’ of everything. Yet another variant -contradicting the previous – is the claim that human moral decline is the root cause of all ills, including what are otherwise known to be independently-caused natural phenomena. That is, not caused by God by only by humankind!

Consider another quote by the same person as the first quote above: “Many natural catastrophes are entirely due to ‘man’s behaviour. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wars, floods and famines and other calamities are the result of grave disorders in Nature. These disorders are traceable to man’s conduct. Man has not recognized the integral relationship between humanity and the world of Nature”.(December 1992 by Sathya Sai Baba – in the journal Sanathana Sarathi).

It is true that some natural disasters may have been triggered by human activities (massive dam building causing earth movements, as one example). But the sweeping claim in the quote exhibits confused thinking indeed. God is somehow no longer the cause, especially not of bad things. Human actions which alone can make ‘wars’ are included under natural calamities, while ‘volcanic eruptions’ and ‘earthquakes’ are supposedly caused by human (mis)conduct!  Granted, floods may sometimes be the result of bad land management, but only a tiny percentage of such calamities, not to mention major tsunamis.  As the scan above shows, the tsunami of  2004 was attributed to human lapses by Sathya Sai Baba – who has a multi-million following which includes 4 Presidents of India and 6 Prime Ministers (including the present incumbents!).

Richard Dawkins has illustrated the same ideology in Christianity, and pointed out the hypocrisy of those who support a faith, yet cherry-pick what to believe or not from the canonical scriptures. This selectivity is necessitated by the inroads science has made into most key statements in the Bible about the natural world, its origins and how to explain it (not to mention any details of many similar disproven ‘truths’ in the Koran):-

See article on Dawkins’ web site here

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Another God-transfixed religionist – Karen Armstrong

Posted by robertpriddy on March 19, 2011

A writer and travelling lecturer on the history of religion who wants to bridge the gaping gaps between the fundamentalisms etc., Karen Armstrong, took part in on a panel interview on Norwegian National Television (NRK) 18-3-2011. She was interviewed about her once having revoked the Roman Catholic faith after seven utterly fruitless and depressing years as a nun from age 17, returned to religious faith of a diffuse, universal kind when she discovered the fascination of Judaism and Islam, and went on to examine Hinduism, Vedanta and Buddhism.

All of that revived her faith in a transcendental divinity far, far beyond human comprehension, which has given her a sense of purpose in that she now preaches inter-faith dialogue around the globe. (Not quite the same divinity, we suppose, who had remained adamantly silent while she suffered and tried to pray to in her convent). She now propounds awe before the enigmas of existence, and a fascination with mysticism. She had pointed out that she learned about God since she was tiny, as most do, and that many persons get little further in their conception of divinity than this infantile faith. However, despite her late studies, she again expresses a similar kind of awe-faith, a strong attraction to the unexplained mystery. Yet the available objects of religious study are really only the beliefs and practices of other faiths, rituals, theologies the reported experiences of unusual states of mind… in short, only what humans have thought or done. The much-embraced mystery (God) remains occult…  this is itself wound together with many wildly non-empirical assumptions about intelligence and speculations about superhuman design in the universe. and the fascination with it is a main driving force behind what is called ‘New Age spirituality’, the success of gurus and ‘spiritual seeking’ of all kinds, arising in more and more ludicrous forms.This interest in mysticism invariably leads only further into to mystification and the piling of uncertainty on uncertainties into a seething mass rather than any genuine clarification of anything. It is all too popular in this religiously highly divided world where fundamentalist terrorisms are now  clashing globally in ways never possible before. Armstrong does not dwell on the inherent contradictory certainties at the basis of the “countless warring sects” (Fitzgerald in Omar Khayaam). She is after the unifying aspects, which reminds somewhat of the appeasers trying to reconcile Hitlers and Stalins. Her intentions are no doubt good, but the remedies are based on yet another kind of belief, not on knowledge, science or a pragmatical mindset. Much thought is expended in studying what faiths have in common, where a bridge might be built.

Armstrong came on strongly – rather too enthusiastically for any neutral, balanced researcher it seemed – and she launched into a polished spiel which she has no doubt perfected after countless such self-introductions. One thought at first that she was a debunker of religion, but all the anti-convent story was a preamble to establish her previous qualification as a sceptic who learned to hate religion, before she demonstrated her dialectical conversion back to her species of faith and hope that never die. She eagerly agreed with the Sami, Marie Boine, about the importance of the search for truth. Then Boine punctured her balloon somewhat by telling that a Russian film director had once said “If you see a person who is seeking the truth, follow him. But if he think he has found it, then run away as fast as you can!” Armstrong came up with a howler in her reply to a question about religious fundamentalists, saying that there were “secular fundamentalists”, naming Professor Dawkins as an example. Fundamentalism usually means maintenance in opposition to modernism, of traditional orthodox beliefs, including literal acceptance of creeds. To call secularism ‘fundamentalist’ is misrepresentation, a subreption and this is typical of the zeal and irrationality involved in all faith… but then irrationalism is unavoidable part and parcel of every religionist’s attitudes. Armstrong’s search for truth falls short of science and the philosophical work related to it, as shown by her off-handed rejection of Dawkins… a recognised genius whose brilliant but difficult tour de force ‘The Selfish Gene’ (one of many such) one suspects may be beyond the mind of Armstrong fully to comprehend. She would cheaply label this world-recognised scientist, who is always open to discussion (as his many very polite but penetrating TV interviews in the lion’s dens of religionists demonstrate). That blunder alone destroys any claim she may lay to intellectual integrity, reservation of judgement or balanced appraisal.

Despite her partly informed musings  – as a writer in the history of religion – about the religious impulse in early mankind and how it developed, she is evidently unable to grasp the obvious fact that the idea of deities, a god etc. were part of the mythological culture which was unable in any other way to explain natural occurrences… like why it rains, what the sky is (‘heaven’), what makes things grow or not, why droughts occur, why diseases kill people, and so on ad infinitum, and that this confusion has been sustained and developed very widely, gaining an inertial momentum very difficult to overcome in a very under-educated globe.  The highly abstract (and literally ‘insubstantial’) ideas of God as a transcendent Unity (and countless variants on that theme) were surely brought about step by step as the more specific beliefs and explanations (enlivened idols, angry dream-spirits and the countless sacrifices, spells, rituals were more and more discredited due to the advance of human knowledge. God became less and less corporeal, an unmoved mover, a being as evidently invisible as ever nowhere to be found by any means whatever (especially prayer), until it ends up as a nothing, which is regarded as the cause and sustainer of everything.

Looking around the web I found an excellent informative, subtle and amusing blog by someone calling himself ‘phil’ (i.e. philosopher, I’s say) where he comments on Armstrong’s (non-)conception of God most aptly, as follows:-

“Doesn’t this run the risk of vaporizing God into something too thin to grasp, even imaginatively? That’s the old knock on the “god of the philosophers.” But if you make Him too “real,” there’s another risk: you won’t like him.”
Highly recommended web log ‘Delight Springs’

I could not resist borrowing from that blog a short cartoon illustrating Armstrong’s embrace of what Russell called ‘a night in which all cows are black’ (this is also Indian Advaita)

Advaita – historical flight into abstraction and speculation

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