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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Science agendas in transition

Posted by robertpriddy on April 15, 2015

There has been a promising change in the public face of science which has occurred in many media since the 1970s and 80s. I trace in outline some recent trends in perceptions of science by the public, the media and by scientists themselves. Of course, science is in exponential growth and a very considerable outreach and development has taken place in many of the sciences in the past few decades, especially due to the ubiquity of virtually unlimited computing power and its related technologies.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the prevailing attitude of many intellectuals in the official media often showed an almost unquestioning belief in the efficacy of science with very little critical reflection about major underlying issues. The sciences and those referred to collectively as ‘scientists’ were often regarded too simply as the final court of appeal on virtually all the most important questions facing humanity. The near-deification of the sciences, at least in Europe and the US during the second half of the 20th century, made it the chief measure of human progress in many of the world’s most influential minds. This attitude was encouraged by the nature of claims made by some very prominent figures, especially in the physical sciences, claims which developments have sometimes confounded, sometimes made redundant. Together with powerful commercial interests and governments in highly industrialised states, a rather dangerously overstated view of the capabilities of the sciences to solve most vital human problems was promoted. The need to reexamine the limitations of science in the understanding of ourselves and the cosmos seemed long overdue.

Certain great challenges to the scientific community have shown up the relative uncertainty of scientific applications in dealing with major issues. One such was the debate over the safety of nuclear power, in which a hard-core of scientists gave excessive assurances, only to be confronted by the disasters of Three Mile Island and, above all, Chernobyl. A second challenge was to the scientific community’s unfortunate judgements and misrepresentation of such an embracing and admittedly complex issue as the decisive causes of global warming. The original huge consensus among scientists that the over-production of carbon-dioxide and other industrial waste gases were the determining cause of an oncoming global warming catastrophe became highly controversial when by the discovery of major inaccuracies in their important data (such as the rate of decline of Himalayan glaciers). This made the general public aware of the difficulties of scientific prediction on global and other matters which cannot be studied under laboratory conditions. Though opponents of the hypothesis of global warming caused by human activity were often outright anti-scientific or in blatant denial – not least religiously inspired – the intricacies of this major issue and the struggle of scientists to handle it became widely debated. This appears to have stimulated a considerably greater public awareness of – and healthy moderate skepticism about – the practical limits and theoretical uncertainties of much scientific research. Also, and somewhat paradoxically, the global warming controversy helped to publicize the ever-increasing expansion of research efforts – and the consequent increasing successes – of many scientific endeavours. The attack mounted on scientific theory of evolution in the form of religious creationism also came to the fore in a well-known U.S. court case in the USA against teaching ‘creationism’ in schools, with the result that the attack was defeated both scientifically and legally in a most decisive manner.

The overall achievements of science are immense, both from the viewpoint of the vastly increased knowledge bringing answers to questions that have always mystified humankind and from the unlimited practical improvements to human life. Yet this should not occlude pointing out and investigating remaining weaknesses – the often unproclaimed ‘gaps’ in its data and understanding of where the limitations to its explanation lie. Further, the theoretical avenues it explores, the practical and directions it takes at the expense of other potential aims are a matter for increased scrutiny, even though this is often strongly influenced by political forces. In the later 20th century its power, virtual certainties and superiority over other kinds of understanding were often made without requisite reservation of judgement, especially through the popular media, though this tendency has since fortunately been on the decline. Many shortsighted and truncated dogmas were long upheld by the inertia of ‘average’ scientific opinion, as the history of scientific breakthroughs and wider ‘revolutions’ richly illustrates. Some such linger on. The social inertia of out-dated or truncated theory of science and attitudes are doubtless operative to some extent in all countries, especially those with backward and traditional educational systems or unreformed academic universities.

Some of the signal changes in recent science include the shift away from a narrower kind of physicalism and quantitative methods in the biological and human sciences, which will shortly be discussed under the title ‘Science and materialism’.

Further, the overriding role of major interests from governments and  military-industrial complexes in the direction of sciences has changed as post Cold War public concern and pressures to deal with a wide range of relatively neglected issues took effect. These include a wide range of environmental issues, from pollution, destruction of habitats and eco-systems, to depletion of various vital earth resources and climate change. This will be discussed under the title ‘The changing role of sciences’ effects on human society’

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God left no footprints anywhere

Posted by robertpriddy on February 5, 2015

The absence of any positive evidence or any circumstantial evidence of any entity having the nature or alleged abilities of a creative intelligent deity abolishes the idea that God is anything more than a human idea. The theme of the excellent book ‘Soul Fallacy‘  Longish excerpts can be read by clicking here and then on ‘Look Inside’. No entity we can call a self or a permanent ‘ego’– other than as a post facto mental construct – can be perceived inwardly as such (Sartre proved this though rigorous phenomenological analysis in his difficult but rewarding ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’). Julian Baggini has since then explicated many grounds for denial any kind of timeless or ontologically self-supporting self, which has important consequences for philosophy, psychology and religion.

See also:-  The Ego in psychology and philosophy  and   The Confused and Systematically Ambiguous Doctrine of Ego vs. Egolessness

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Can religion and ideologies lead to cognitive disorder?

Posted by robertpriddy on January 20, 2015

Religious faith depends upon a system of beliefs, not proven facts and certainly not scientifically verifiable facts. It depends on much more than belief as such. The influences of parents and the mental and emotional imprinting to which their children are subjected forms a basis – naive childhood acceptance of beliefs. The strength and nature of this influence will affect the ability of the adult to think otherwise. The memories, feelings and thoughts in a human brain are sustained in the form of connections between neurons or circuits which result from impressions received. How strong the impressions remain depends upon and how often memories and thoughts of them etc. are repeated. The strength of the neuron circuits preserving them grows with constant repetition and falls off the less they are reawakened. 

Having learned a religious or other wide-ranging ideology, developed and nurtured for decades, it is often harder to give it up that to retain it. One may modify it but those who have invested much in it – study, hopes,  social connections and activities to promote it or put it into practice – most likely would seldom reject it fully. In the face of the compromising and even most destructive facts, the first reaction is to seek answers, explanations which preserve the faith – possibly modify parts of it. These are examples of ‘psychological denial’  and are found in both religion and politics (as well in many other spheres of thought). Such denial is a known phenomenon and understanding its mechanism has been important at least since the work of Freud . Modern understanding of human reactions, mental and emotional, is expanding rapidly through the growth of the neurological sciences (with their breakthrough advances technologies). Both religions in the modern world are such belief systems. So how does such denial work? For many people – those who are less thoughtful and perspicacious – it seems that a certain feature of our brains is the answer. “Denials are nothing more than a statement with a ‘not’ tagged on, and it’s often the statement rather than the ‘not’ that seeps into the brain.” This is illustrated well by Cordelia Fine (in  ‘A Mind of its Own‘, Icon Books) where she compares the subconscious to a butler who looks after everyday duties so that our conscious minds can concentrate on more uncommon or elevated work. The best butlers, however, keep their masters happy by acting to protect them from supposed undue concerns and concealing various truths from him. Thus, our  predisposition to believe what we want to believe is aided by the brain function which conveniently side-lines ‘what the butler saw’.  “…evidence that fits with our beliefs is quickly waved through the mental border control“, while “counter-evidence must submit to close interrogation and even then will probably not be allowed in“. The moral: we should keep our mental butlers in check… not be a defenceless martyr to the fictions of the brain, and watch out in particular for its instinctive bigotry, which leads us to jump to conclusions.

One aspect of what is known as  ‘religious indoctrination’  is the regular repetition of beliefs and all other set formulae, such as holy names, prayers (like Hail Mary), creeds, hymns, mantras, bhajans, and also repetitive actions like ritual worship and other constant reminders or symbols of faith. This strengthens the belief network and its related mindset in the brain and at the same time weakens its opposites, like doubts, criticisms, alternate views, and other beliefs. This is common practice in many sectarian cults. So automatic or unquestioning acceptance of statements that come from sources positive towards one faith also tend to crowd out stimulate the mind ideas and facts threaten it and soon pre-judges or rejects such problematic information out of hand in advance. Recognition of this state of affairs by communist regimes was often behind various attempts of ‘brain-washing’ through enforced indoctrination techniques backed up by psychological torture and violence. The constant and boring repetition of communist slogans and text in the USSR and its satellites was also back up by fear of a draconian system of oppression, though it apparently proved less successful in removing contrary ideas in its populations, as the eventual overthrow of  the USSR showed.

However, and fortunately, it has been shown experimentally that such systems of increasingly fixed and very strong thought patterns are not immutable, but that neither is changing them easy, even if there is any stimulus to change (such as unwanted and emotionally negative events which bring on a serious a crisis of faith). If this were not so, people would not be able to go through thought revolutions, major shifts of belief, opinion and attitude etc. and all human culture would stagnate. So automatic or unquestioning acceptance of statements as long as they come from sources positive towards one faith also stimulates the mind to reject in advance whatever ideas and facts threaten it. Likewise in dismissing all problematic information out of hand or prejudicially.

When people become highly dogmatic and unwavering in set opinions and beliefs, it can be said that the brain has developed a condition of relative cognitive disorder. However ordered the set system may be within itself, if it has a fanatical aspect, it necessarily meets conflicting influences from the social environment it can only take in with great mental and or emotional difficulty . This disorder can be localised to certain subjects, like religion, politics or whatever other field of discourse , yet in many instances it tends to overflow into many even remotely related spheres of the person’s life.

What so affects a personal life can, under given conditions, spread to affect the lives of many others and therefore most fanaticism, is potentially dangerous to the society. In the case of religious fanaticism this is almost self-evident nowadays.  As Voltaire, who was among the first in Europe to confront religious fanaticism effectively in public, wrote “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. (Questions sur les miracles 1765 – summary translation).

The mind in evolution, brain-dependent and temporary
The human personality and the ego vs. the self

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The ‘Labyrinth fallacy’ in extensive belief systems

Posted by robertpriddy on November 24, 2014

There are systems of thought and belief which are seldom easily recognised as being a convoluted circular ‘labyrinth’ of ideas. The logical fallacy involved is circularity or self-contradiction, but this is not easily detected because of the complexity and extended nature of the particular idea-system or ‘labyrinthine’ doctrine.

Wherever there is a vast collection of thoughts, ideas, beliefs and practices which are based on speculative reasoning and unlikely assumptions, one can become lost to oneself. This fallacy is strongly at work on astrologers, conspiracy theorists and religious sects and cults. It relies on a maze of teachings with very many tenets and thousands of absorbing details so constructed that, once inside it, it is near impossible to find a way back out. Every dead-end one meets causes one to retrace a bit and the new route will again lead you back to other routes and your mind gravitates more and more within the circle of belief. It gradually takes over one’s thinking, substitutes itself increasingly for normal perception so the escape from the cultist trap and the ingrained neural reinforcement becomes more and more unlikely. One needs some ‘Ariadne thread’ to find one’s way back to unbiased perception, reflection and pragmatic and critical thinking.

Belief systems employ reason – however well or badly – to explain whatever matters they would cover. Invariably they also explain and justify their own validity or supposed truth by reasoning. While no belief system can constitute genuine knowledge or lay valid claim to being tried and tested as true in any strict sense of the word, it may be a precursor of gaining knowledge, just as it may contrariwise be the forerunner of disillusion or defeat. With the labyrinth fallacy there are so many routes through the network of meanings created that one can form and re-form almost any conception more or less as one wishes. This is achieved by imprecise and generalised wording (i.e. open to various and differing interpretations). Wherever a fairly large degree of uncertainty about what is or is not being stated, divined or predicted arises, the labyrinthine explanations required and the tortuous confusion of meanings mislead.

Theories exist and multiply on virtually every conceivable subject. Some kinds of subject lend themselves more to the Labyrinth Fallacy than others… some examples of the former areas include metaphysics, religion, politics, conspiracy, secret intelligence, criminality, inexplicable or imagined phenomena. The list could obviously be extended greatly. Other subjects are less prone nowadays to the Labyrinth Fallacy because they are less open to large scale and factually-unsupported speculation, such as the nature of the physical world as studied by the natural sciences, the data on subjects collected by governments, statisticians, engineers and other well-accepted kinds of major investigation. In short, systematic investigations carried out in the spirit of scientific reasoning on the principle of minimizing sufficient explanations (Occam’s Razor) are least subject to the said fallacy.

The often-encountered urge to fit facts to match adopted theories or beliefs, rather than the opposite, invariably underpins the Labyrinth Fallacy. The fitting of facts to any ‘Procrustean bed’, when not done by outright falsification or neglect of negative instances or the like, mostly involves falsifications such as unreasonable de-contextualisation or reinterpretation of facts, obfuscation or other misrepresentation of the facts themselves or the methods by which they were obtained and so forth. Where a theory or belief-system provides – or else is open and prone to – a variety of alternative and loosely applicable approaches to the same fact or phenomenon, the ground is fertile for the Labyrinth Fallacy to complicate and confuse.

Throughout my adult life I have heard many stories from people – and read much – about Indian astrology being able to predict with great accuracy the future events of a lifetime – and also of subsequent lifetimes. During my nine long visits to India I came across pundits and ‘astrological seers’, which interested me despite my former rejection of Western astrology. In my younger years I studied that variant rather deeply – casting horoscopes and doing follow-ups as well as reading critical work about it. I eventually had to conclude that it relies mainly on psychological projection or else on self-fulfilling prophesy (not to mention vagueness, ambiguous language, credulity and even cold reading. It is such an extensive and involved art (not science) that it entraps its followers into a labyrinth of possibilities, always allowing for rationalisations and ‘deeper reinterpretations’, one from which only those with a strong analytic bent can normally extricate themselves. Hindu astrology seemed it may have offered more than that, not least because of glowing reports of its vast accuracy and ubiquity in India. Firstly, however, here is an interesting Indian critique of the country’s most dominant astrologers:-

Some examples: Hindu astrologers defeated by events
The Indian Sceptic magazine (under Basava Premanand) chose India’s most consulted astrologers as endorsed by Indian’s most well-known politicians and other professionals, to predict the outcome of the 2004 Indian elections. See the hilarious result: Top Indian Astrologers fall down on the job – badly

Again in 2009, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations offered one million rupees to astrologers who could predict the elections results. Others have also challenged astrologers to make correct predictions, offering large sums to those who subject themselves to a serious test. Despite even the prize of a million dollars, no one is known to have won the challenge. (see

One exposure of a central ‘mechanic’ that often operates in ‘birth chart’ astrology – which relies a lot on the Barnum and Forer effect, which are statements that can apply to anybody – was demonstrated by Derren Brown, the ‘honest illusionist’ whose shows helped me understand much what Indian gurus can have done to achieve the reputation of miracle makers. Brown presented a group of young individuals with the same horoscope. They all claimed it was accurate and personal. (this may be seen on-line here). Though this did not demolish astrology as such, it showed the ‘Barnum and Forer effect’ and how impressionable young people can react to and interpret generalising statements about themselves. The process of thinking about oneself to search out memories which support the chacterisations is instructive. They were far from being objective about themselves (especially since they had limited time to decide reflectively on the statements) and were easily influenced by the content of a prediction as well as by the setting in which it was perceived.

Hindu doctrines  A current example of promotion of the Hindu belief labyrinth is Sathya Sai Baba’s extremely voluminous and most often hazy, generalising discourses, which are wide open to this ‘labyrinth fallacy’. His doctrine (‘teachings’) constantly refers to almost the whole range of ancient Indian scriptural ideas and beliefs, which are often mutually incompatible and have considerable depths of interpretation due to the complexity of languages, religious sentiments, beliefs and sub-beliefs. In this way Sathya Sai Baba left the field wide open for the Labyrinth Fallacy to operate on many levels. The many-sided and eclectic doctrine is such that all one’s perceptions have to be considered as a mirror of one’s own mind. This creates what may well be called a mental hall of distorting mirrors where great perspicacity is required so as to find the exit and liberate oneself from all the inherent fallacies!

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Humans have created life – a new organism!

Posted by robertpriddy on September 13, 2014

This unprecedented scientific breakthrough changes life as we know it, for the first time in history in 2010, geneticists created a new self-sustaining and reproducing species, in the laboratory. 

UPDATE as of January 2017: Organisms created with synthetic DNA pave way for entirely new life forms .

The famous geneticist Dr. Craig Venter, who revolutionised genetics when he led the human genome project, has with his team designed and created a new life form, a unique bacterium. He wrote the DNA code digitally, converted it into chemical DNA and successfully put it into a cell to power it. (exclusive film of Discovery Science ‘Creating Synthetic Life’). See this video

This is of huge importance and surely transforms how mankind will think in future. It seriously challenges the entire past traditions of all the religions and philosophies that claim God alone could have created life. Natural processes can themselves be manipulated to an extent that was unimaginable a century ago. This advance once again shows how all the mysteries of a supposed creator are gradually being explained and shown to be reproducible. Though this new life form was created out of an existing cell, which it totally transformed, and the original design of DNA was constructed from elements of other DNA strings, this was virtually creation of life. This does not means that everything required for life was created, but a self-supporting entirely unprecedented bacterium was created

The sciences are pushing out the boundaries of knowledge in every direction and the implications are profound. Their understanding of our minds, our memories, metabolisms, brains, personalities and their techniques of improving these are growing exponentially. 

Genetics, robotics, information- and nano-technology are being employed fruitful in the manipulations and control of matter, energy, and life itself at the most basic levels. “We’ve never seen anything like this before and this is raising profound questions about what it imeans to be human and what our lives and future and children will be like” (Joel Garreau on Discovery World). These transformations and their applications in technology are already well underway throughout the advanced industrial world.

The old world of religious and belief-rooted thought has long been giving way to rational, empirical and pragmatic thought and during the last century and has energised advanced countries in the West and elsewhere. The majority of the world’s population still lives within the confines of pre-scientific thought, predominantly religious ideas and their philosophical and common derivatives and, though the flat-earthers have all but disappeared, creationists are evidently still a world majority, living in basic ignorance of fundamental truths. Their world-views are now fundamentally challenged as wishful beliefs. Religion consists in memes, cyclic patterns, deterministically imposing and perpetuating themselves,. They have a repetitive life of their own and hundreds and thousands of years. Looking backwards (e.g. to early scriptures) and invariably setting false limits to thought and life, they have built up an inertia which cannot be stopped overnight. This kind of propagation of culture, often persisting from the cradle to the grave, is diametrically opposed to the education which so many populations strive towards.

Freedom of thought, investigative and critical of ‘established truth’, self-reflective, creative and open-minded is the future. Those countries in which a scientifically-informed public dominates public life will continue as world leaders in education, science and all the forms of technological industry. These drive most economic advances and improvement in the conditions and security of lives. The world is becoming more and more dependent on the fruits of science and technology, and it is already a necessity of life to billions. Societies which remain steeped in the ignorance of traditional beliefs and hinder secularism are at a huge disadvantage today and will be more so in future. Increasingly in future, whether societies sink or swim will largely depend on the real knowledge resources of its population. An illustration of this: though millions can  use modern appliances such as home machinery, mobile phones etc., it is quite another matter altogether to design and manufacture them, which requires an advanced society’s educational resources. Had there existed great sages or omniscient spiritual masters of any denominations, they should have been able to predict at least some of the findings of science today, but there is not a single reliable example of this. Their domains were the entirely subjective ‘world’ of inner feelings, thoughts, speculations and inherited beliefs about otherworldly entities and spheres that were detached from the world we actually live in. Yet there are still many who believe in their ‘wisdom’, superior powers of healing and miracle-making. Such people do not and will never again have any impact on the great human enterprise and endeavour.

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The agnosticism vs. atheism issue and and secularism

Posted by robertpriddy on July 19, 2014

Some key distinctions for the science-religion debates: If ‘atheism’ means “100% certainty or conviction that there is no god or cosmic intelligence which created or sustains the universe” then there must be few who can – on proper reflection – subscribe to its literal sense. To do so it to become a rigid know-all who thinks his conviction is infallible. By ‘atheism’ however very few generally intend such an absolutist pronouncement, they leave open the possibility that – despite all evidence and likelihood, there may be a remote likelihood that they could find out they were not right. A sensible reservation of judgement at all times! However, to call oneself an atheist is reasonable without having to hold oneself permanently infallible. It is impossible finally and scientifically to prove or disprove the existence of God (whatever or whoever that is supposed to be). To deny this is to become like those fanatics who preach the various religions as being the absolute truth and word of God, or that they have personal contact with God.

Though Professor Dawkins tends to uphold an iron distinction between agnostic and atheist, it does not take account of ordinary usage, of common sense or scientific scepticism (i.e. reservation of final judgement). His agenda with that schism is to try to confront certain all-too-religiously-tolerant ‘agnostics’ aware of their actual position and its consequences. He no doubt wants to firm up their skepticism. However, I regard myself as a convinced non-believer and sometimes speak of my attitude as agnostic, sometimes atheist. The term ‘non-theist’ is often preferable, though it tends not to cover certain kinds of mysticism which accept a depersonalized cosmic intelligence of some kind.

Based on definitions in Prof. Sindre Bangstad’s book “What secularism is and is not” the following is important to recognize:-

Secularism is not the same as Atheism, it is primarily a political doctrine which makes it possible to take many kinds of positions with regard to the place of religion in the public sphere, including politics. Secularity is something else, which mainly describes a cultural process in which religious faith only gradually becomes one possibility among many others; while secularization refers to social differentiation in which the secular spheres are separated from one another and from religious institutions.

These distinctions may seem meticulous but they show that what seem to be the same positions are often quite different. Secularism says nothing about whether people are religious or not, but about the institutional structures in place to guarantee representation of different ways of life. Secularism may be thought of as a society which embraces cosmopolitism.

Comment received:-


Good explanation about secularism. Hearing the term on a regular basis, I had come to the same conclusion on its meaning, even though we tend to immediately think of it implying a ‘non-religious/spiritual’ country; rather than a society that completely separates religion from the political sphere.

As for belief itself, I always tend to describe myself as agnostic, as it is so much more peaceful when dealing with fanatical people who believe in a god. Though the idea of one single creator and sustainer of the universe, who has all powers and knows all, is ridiculous and up to 99% impossible, I still hold the last one percent in reserve of judgement. Perhaps as stated, in part due to observing so many self-righteous 100% belief declarations of religions, cults, etc. Truly, there is no way to know anything 100% when it concerns the world of mental imaginations of what might be beyond the physical universe (and even then, much depends upon each individual’s perception!).


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Ever unstoppable expanding scientific discovery and human understanding

Posted by robertpriddy on July 14, 2014

The old adage ‘believe only half you hear’ is, of course, not even half adequate as a guideline for making up one’s mind about more difficult or controversial matters of fact. Even back in the 1960s and 70s, the natural sciences had not yet secured the huge exponential increases in knowledge that have resulted since computer technology was developed on a wide scale. Rapid changes in cutting-edge scientific theories like astronomy, astrophysics, micro-physics, often had the effect of creating further uncertainty, because new theories – often conflicting – about the universe and matter came and went in regular procession – even though the most general theories (relativity, quantum theory) remained largely unshaken by experiment or continued observation. However, what may seem to be the ‘theoretical antics’ of astronomers and physicists still occur today, in such problem areas as dark matter and the disappearance of vast amounts of light which should be there, among other anomalies. Yet these kind of examples are a natural result of operating at the extreme outer rim of accumulated knowledge and using the trial and error of research theory.

More and more uncertainties about the security of scientific knowledge are being removed, and computing has definitely led to a “quantum leap” in most of the sciences. Even the ‘inexact’ or less experimental and quantitative human and social sciences are improving due to information technology and reduced national provincialism in globalised society. Add to this the fact that there remain issues about the mind and consciousness – also even about soul and spirit – concerning which advances unimaginable before the advent of experimental neuropsychology and ‘live’ magnetic resonance imaging are rapidly pushing back the dark frontier of unknowing considerably. There remains evidence of a wide range of what must still be termed extra-scientific or ‘paranormal phenomena’ which are not yet satisfactorily resolved by scientific methods and technologies at the current state of the art. Another century of progress in understanding what now seem arcane matters can therefore be expected to resolve many such questions at a fundamental level.

Much is made by religionists of the claimed fact that the sciences cannot provide anyone with genuine answers to any of the most important human questions; why do we exist, what real meaning does anything have, what should I do?  While it is a fact that these are often extra-scientific issues which no special science researches, it would be wrong to suggest that science has not increased the understanding of the human being and life in many important respects. Before modern science, absurd superstitions and religio-mystical assumptions ruled the scene the world over, which is definitely no longer the case to such an extent.  Granted, it is a fact that science does not pretend or set out to answer all emotional and existential questions, such as on how best to relate to others, how to develop human understanding, to obtain mental equilibrium and lasting fulfillment. But these are no longer really so-called ‘extra-scientific’ issues, since the expansion of empirical studies through vastly improved information resources are already tackling what once were considered questions only philosophy or religion could answer. The different and very often conflicting religions have occupied the vacuum of our ignorance of the real causes of so many things to fill it with doctrines, moral imperatives and a vast range of beliefs about matters which could not then be tested scientifically. More now than ever, the resources necessary to resolve most question about human life are becoming available – and widely so – creating daily advances into matters which would have been ignored as too vague and uncertain some decades ago.

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The heart versus the head: a false dualism

Posted by robertpriddy on June 15, 2014

One of the most influential ideas in religion, especially when it would defend its irrational ideas and beliefs, is that of ‘the heart’. It is held that acts done ‘from the heart’ are superior to those merely motivated by ‘the head’ (representing reason, logic, and thought as opposed to emotion. Religious or ‘spiritual’ conceptions of the human heart as the ‘seat of emotions’ and human feeling are always vague, never defined in any practical or precise way, but always assume the heart is a driving force in human affairs. In one sense it is, being the playground of the desires, longings, hopes, ambitions or wishful thoughts and hence is regarded as the breeding ground of will power. The word ‘heart’ has many literary and poetic uses and connotations, nearly all of which are inimical and often directly to well-founded intelligence, experiential insight, pragmatism, rational understanding and scientific knowledge. In short, the impulses and longings of the heart are basically non-rational. So there is much confusion about the so-called ‘heart’, and much conflation of terms altogether in talk about it. It is based on an antiquated and highly erroneous belief of its importance to our supposed soul or spirit, but in fact, the heart is of course nothing but an organ of pumping blood through the body. The usage of ‘heart’ as a vital innermost core of the human being is so ingrained that one can only hope to modify the understand of the fallacies involved in applying it as if it were a real (but invisible, subtle) organ of personality. It is obvious today that desires and the emotions arise in the human mind, which is to say the brain (with the most instinctual perhaps arising in the cerebral cortex). 

The tendency is to identify the heart with positive values like forgiveness, compassion, sympathy and altruism, as in modern usages like “have a heart”, “from the depths of my heart”. Whenever the heart is invoked to support romantic notions or religious faith, it is assumed that the human heart is always of a righteous nature and is on the side of the good, the righteous and against ‘the heartless’. This conveniently overlooks the fact that the heart is also perceived in negative ways, as shown by the words black-hearted, hard-hearted, evil-hearted, and is where reside human envy, spite, enmity and all negative emotions. As the supposed ‘organ’ from which will power springs, the heart cannot be only a fount of goodness, because of course the most terrible evils have been and still are visited on humanity by the strong will of despots, criminals and those who wish to dominate or eliminate their fellow-men. A cardinal fact to remember is that our emotions and all those values we consider to belong to the heart rather than the brain, are entirely generated and expressed by means of the brain.

Douglas Hume famously and notoriously wrote: “Reason Is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” and he saw human will as “the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind” (T II.3.1 399). “If the will did not determine a person’s actions, we would have no way to trace those actions to their springs in character, which is the prerequisite for forming moral judgments.” In this, he certainly overlooked the nature of many crucial human decisions and actions, which are a result not merely of desire and emotion, but are based upon a wide-ranging understanding of the many circumstances and consequence that determine the conditions of life, health, security and happiness. The will may require a personal subjective motivating feeling or desire, but it is often directed and formed to a very large extent by pragmatic concerns and rational knowledge. Human history and experience teach us that when this is not so, the consequences can be serious and even disastrous.

The progress of civilisation is not driven only or mainly by desires and non-rational motivations, but by increased understanding of the world, of society and oneself. Humankind sees to view the spectrum of warring desires and ideals so as to reconcile them where possible and find ways of weighing and planning the optimal course to take. This arises overwhelmingly through worldly experience, the sciences and human invention aided by incisive critical thinking, rational philosophy and literature, taking account of the conflicting human ‘passions’ that may be involved. 

Religions tend to praise the heart as being what makes human beings human and even holy in nature (whatever such divinity may really mean and imply). But the heart is not special to humans. However, from ancient times the crucial nature of the heart to life was soon observed and it was variously concluded that it is the organ that houses the life force. It was believed to be the seat of human emotions because it beats faster when excited or fearful and so on, and when it stops, we die. It was a short step to thinking it is where the personality resides. Some religious doctrines and philosophies held that there is a strict dividing line between humans and animals, a divinely ordained difference. Evolution and modern biological sciences shows there is no such thing. Of course, all animals have hearts and the higher mammals’ hearts are little different from ours and it is increasingly being shown that they have a number of the same or very similar emotional reactions to our own, all according to the level of their physical and neurological evolution.

‘The head’, on the other hand, is regarded by many more fundamentalist religions and cults as a main cause of the endless illusions (Maya) and miseries, considering the human mind as the seat of the ego and so as at root of all the ills that beset mankind. The cure advised are such rituals as worship, prayer, and other thought-destroying practices like the constant repetition of mantras, holy names, singing ritualised praises of deities or gods, which are presented as a way of ‘following the heart’ to develop true values and seek faith in some imagined God. Such blind faith ignores the achievements of the human intellect and its sciences and technologies, its social contracts and humanistic values.

The supposed heart is one of the shibboleths of so-called ‘spiritual education’ as not uncommon in religions, some faith schools, and New Age substitutes today. The schism between the rational and the irrational mind of much traditional religiosity – as seen in the contrast created between sacred and profane living – is based on the fantasy of two different realities – that of (outward) worldly life and a supposed (inner) eternal spiritual realm. It underpins most religious moralism, suppression of the individual, the critical mind and not least arises with the age-old stigmatization of women.

The human heart is misidentified as having spiritual qualities: The tendency is to identify the heart with positive values like forgiveness, compassion, sympathy and altruism. (as in modern usages like “have a heart”, “from the depths of my heart”). The heart is often depicted as the seat of our emotions, vague intuitions, personal hopes and beliefs, especially in religious and transcendental faiths. Meanwhile this overlooks the common usages like “hate in the heart”,  the heart as filled with envy, enmity, ill-will, even evil,  ‘black hearted’  and other emotions or values regarded as negative (mistrust, loathing, lust for revenge) which have also long been related to the idea of the human heart.   All this is sheer obfuscation of the true state of affairs, which is that the emotions are generated and sustained by neuron connections in the brain and they are virtually inseparably bound up with thought, arising from the brain’s established neuron pathways. Therefore, the contention that “sacred qualities” of the heart – as opposed to rationally guided worldly activities – are ‘positive in nature’ and “cannot be acquired through the study of books” since they reside in our hearts is a confused and out-dated obscurantism. ‘The heart’ as conceived in religious sentiment is not an entity, the heart is a necessary organ of the body for circulating the blood and no more than that.

From ancient times the crucial nature of the heart to life was soon observed and it was variously concluded that it is the organ that houses the life force. It was because it beats faster when excited or fearful and so on, and when it stops, we die.. and was so believed to be the seat of human emotions and related values. It was a short step to thinking it is where the personality resides. Of course, it is no such thing. Its functions are in circulating blood to convey oxygen to cells and the like so as to keep the physical body alive. It is exclusively the human brain that is ‘the seat of human emotions, thought and intelligence’. So the fanciful opposition so often quoted by those still bound up in religious views, or in language traditions and poetic iconography. Any opposition between ‘the head and the heart’ is an empirically and rationally empty, false construct. This dichotomy is very vaguely defined or explained well and can be most misleading. The premium put upon ‘acting from the heart’ in the face of pragmatic reasons and well-understood considerations has many bad consequences for those who adopt it and apply its apparent meaning to themselves,  especially it is used by  ‘spiritual masters’ or ‘gurus’ as a kind of doctrinal stick to induce the disciple to do otherwise than reason and best interests dictate.  Since the emotions cannot easily be transformed from negative to positive – certainly not though acts of will or tricks of thought – those ‘aspirants’ who harbour negative emotions will often suffer from ineradicable guilt feelings, which the basic feelings remain in the subconscious (i.e. or “in the heart”) and will weaken self-esteem and confidence, tending to reject rational arguments about the matter and so distorting perceptions and social relations outside the sect or cult to which they adhere. Experience shows that such emotions can usually only be modified through some major shock to the awareness or else a long process of maturing or possible by rational forms of psychological therapy.

When feelings become too detached from reasonable judgement or are in opposition to the thinking mind (the ‘head)’ – they easily become deleterious and irrational. In depth psychology these impulses have been shown to arise from the subconscious mind and will often be disturbed, obsessive or compulsive and involve strong affect. Contrariwise, reasonable feelings, sympathies and antipathies— they are not irrational or unduly projective of false qualities onto others, being based on rational value judgements, on necessary or else natural desires and the concerns and cares of normal life.

The alleged difference between speaking and acting “from the heart” and “from the head” (which is seen as comparatively cold and even negative) is a miasma. That one can distinguish roughly between ‘the language of the heart’ and ‘of the head’ does not alter this false dualism. In all cases it is the brain and never the heart which controls the feelings, and which also controls the forms of expression used both for feelings and abstract thought. The prosaic and the poetic are simply different general forms of language with each their appropriate sphere. Precise language is less open to ambiguity and false interpretations than the former. The precise kind of prose such as is most used in non-fictional literature, in standard journalism, and in the many sciences are less open to wide interpretations and meaning distortions than the former. The language used from medicine to mathematics, the law to philosophy, technology to business and of course, in much everyday conversation – is neither more nor less an expression of human values than are the symbolic and emotive styles which use literary, tenuous, and sublime imagery.

A monograph on “The History of the Heart” by Ole Martin Høystad of Syddansk University (215 pages) combs through religion and philosophy from the earliest records up to modern time and charts how the heart became a symbol of our essential desires. The work is mainly historical and – though it illustrates the wide range of different and conflicting speculations about the nature of the heart as a symbol – seriously lacks sufficient critical insight into the overall fallacy which makes that non-mental and non-emotional organ into something more and ‘higher’ than the brain, compared to which it is a relatively primitive conception without any specific organ.

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The origins of worship – and now

Posted by robertpriddy on May 7, 2014

Religion usually tries to impose an orderly pattern on the chaotic appearance of reality, while science aims to discover what order and regularity are to be found in reality. Science has established without any doubt whatever that reality is ordered according to predictable laws wherever it can be observed.

The beginnings of religion certainly lie in mankind’s inability to predict very much due to the lack of knowledge of the causes of natural events. The emerging belief in good and evil spirits, deities and gods was a way of explaining what one did not understand as the actions of such entities, and also provided a focus for ways of trying to influence those imaginary entities: offerings to them from food and valuables to animal and even human sacrifices, from expressing thanks for perceived gifts and prayer and onwards to all manner of activities designed to propitiate these spirits. Many of these elements are still found in differing forms in all the mainstream religions, their sects and ‘spiritual cults’. Belief – as opposed to the urge to learn facts about reality as represented by the sciences and related enterprises – leads to a personal deprivation of reality, of being in touch with the world as it is, not as it is wishfully imagined it is or may become. In this era the need to rid human society of all unfounded beliefs and false practices they encourage is pressing, as the world is faced with the greatest challenges to the continued security of humanity, challenges of climate change and overpopulation, scarcity of resources and much more that can only be hindered by false beliefs and advanced by determined worldly action on the basis of knowledge.

This viewpoint is among the central themes on a website entitled ‘god is imaginary’ which takes a standpoint on a large number of issues concerning the validity of prayer, belief, scripture and science. By clicking on the headings below one finds a wide range of arguments refuting religious beliefs.

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Investigating scriptural truth

Posted by robertpriddy on March 20, 2014

All ancient scriptures like the Vedas, The Bible, The Hadith, the Quran and so on were written and put together when human civilisation had not progressed very far in development of information or refinement of the cognitive faculties. Writing as recorded language was a most uncommon occurrence, and even those reading texts were very few and far between. Copying was the only means of reproduction and it was prone to error. Only modern printing developed by Gutenberg in Europe made texts at all widely available. The tools of serious literature such as editing, correcting, reviewing and translating were yet in early infancy, if done at all. Those considered sages in the late Bronze Age had no systematic knowledge and could only guess at answers to a vast range of questions that arise for thinking beings. Therefore no one of historical, anthropological and semantical insight can put much faith whatever in such scriptures other than as fables, the works of a moralising priesthood trying to control and regulate to some extent the huge vagaries of humans, nature, life and death. 

The ‘knowledge is power’ motive certainly very often played a major role in the constant human struggles of survival and dominance through religious ritual and beliefs. The same applies today, no doubt, both in secular and religious contexts, though the levels and extent of knowledge and of possible power have changed beyond all recognition. Likewise today, the pretence of knowledge – the mere belief (that one ‘knows’ truths) can also be an instrument of considerable social power, but one incapable of contesting seriously and reasonably with science. The vast and accelerating growth of objectively testable knowledge – based on proper observation, science and reason – has achieved a status which is beyond the power of all belief systems to shake fundamentally. One proof of the pudding which secures this kind of knowledge is the modern unavoidability of technology, which is dependent on scientific knowledge.

One way in which knowledge progresses is by discovering inconsistencies, illogicality and irrationalism. Any system of knowledge, any philosophy, must be rational and logical in order for it to be consistent if it is to reflect truth. Subjecting statements which go to make up a system to observation, testing and empirical methods wherever this is possible – assuming that the statements assert some alleged fact or state of affairs. By contrast, the rigid and traditional views in most religions that their particular scriptures state the truth, God’s infallible word etc., are too unreasonable and unsupportable by knowledge to consider seriously in any serious truth-seeking debate.

The scriptures of religion cast a spell, which should be broken. It has created commandments and taboos way over and above what is fruitful for the best functioning of mankind. Leaving people to their own superstitions without a word of criticism, however abject the beliefs, is not right or beneficial either for them or for those whom they affect.

That mankind would not know right from wrong without a supernatural, celestial dictatorship is an unsupportable thesis, both on empirical, rational and common-sense ground. A supposed divine creator which hides itself behind layers of personal superstition and illusion based on ancient flawed scriptures is not credible at all. God perceived in a glass darkly, and inscrutable, unaccountable, and irresponsible is an indictment of religions everywhere. Where that God is ‘recognised’ as being extremely cruel, revengeful and a jealous being… or having created inhuman punishments and even an eternal hell for unbelievers and ‘sinners’ it becomes irrational to an extreme degree, if not the result of patent control-seeking dishonesty to manipulate their anxieties and fears.

Religionists are ever speaking of the arrogance of scientists because they insist that everything that can be known will eventually be explainable by science  Yet they exhibit a breathtaking arrogance themselves, claiming to know that God exists – based entirely on subjective speculation and faith (which is blind by definition as it is not knowledge at all), and even that they know God. Though they speak of humility before God, there is no discourse in human culture which enforces humility more rigorously than science – humility before the facts. Scientists are the first to admit when there is something the do not know with a high degree of likelihood.  They will often reply to questions that “it is not my speciality”, but that kind of humble reservation of judgement is seldom heard from promoters of religion.

Constant reading and chanting of scriptures, the recitation of prayers and ‘mantras’, performance of endless ineffective rituals, and meditation of holy figures, deities, god and oneself have the function of closing the mind, deadening and even debilitating it, which last is even made a great virtue by some religions like Hinduism.

Religions preach about mythical figures and their doings as if they really had existed, or even still exist in some imperceptible realm. They seldom make clear that a scriptual tale is only metaphorical or a mere parable, and almost never refer to historical researches (which invariably show that the authenticity of reports are far from certain or genuine). Faith is built on a mesmerising mix of ‘stories’, unfounded accounts of events, doubtful and unclear or unworkable divine commandments and so forth. Such is the case, for example, Adam and Eve and countless other Biblical figures, and it is the very basis of many Hindu stories about Rama, Krishna and a galaxy of other figures in legends and myths of ancient scripture which are taken as literal truth by most of the Hindu population.

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