Monday, December 22, 2014

Atheist morality

According to CNN, atheists have composed their own 10 commandments...
1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

4. Every person has the right to control of their body.

5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.

7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

9. There is no one right way to live.

10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
So, what do I think? In addition to the uncertain voice for and of the rules, they contain quite a lot of dogma, contradiction, repetition, wishful thinking, and vagueness. An interesting challenge is to encapsulate each of them. Here is what I come up with:
  1. Open-minded beliefs
  2. Probable truth
  3. Scientism
  4. Physical autonomy
  5. Divine superfluity
  6. Mindful responsibility
  7. Tinsel catchall (aka Golden Rule rev. 2587)
  8. Mindful responsibility
  9. Ignore these rules
  10. Delusion of grandeur

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Let them eat red herrings?

In the past and up to the present day, there have always been food shortages in one part or another of this world. However, it is only in modern times that we can say with some certainty that there is absolutely no need for any human being on this planet to face death by starvation or malnutrition. There is no good reason why that should occur. Hence, I view most of the ballyhoo about population growth as a red herring. Instead of focusing on the fear that human population is expanding at a rapid rate, we should focus on the fact that for the first time in human history we can eradicate hunger. For the first time in human history, we can and therefore we must free humanity from that affliction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Invisible hands

The notion of an invisible hand benevolently guiding economics comes packed with some unstated assumptions.

The first unstated assumption is that all economic activity is homogeneous. That is to say, regardless of whether we are talking about macro-economics or microeconomics, regardless of the product that is produced and distributed, regardless of how much scope there is for profit, regardless of how many people are impacted, and regardless of how essential a product is for survival or for developing the potential of human beings – regardless of any or all that – each aspect of the economy can only be handled in the same way as the rest of the economy. It can only be planned or unplanned, command or laissez-faire. This assumption is not logical.

The second unstated assumption is that an unplanned economy is good, and a planned economy is bad. Of course, even Adam Smith did not go quite that far. He recognized the dangers of monopolies. The problem is that, in practice for people who promote the notion of an invisible hand,  planning an economy is treated as bad and therefore to be avoided as far as possible. This point of view might also be a corollary of the first assumption that I mention above. If only one approach is possible for an entire economy, then that approach would be good on the whole, whereas any other approach would be bad on the whole.

Most people imagine that Adam Smith's concept of an invisible hand is somehow akin to some natural process. More accurately, it would be a supernatural process, because Adam Smith was talking about an invisible hand of Providence, not Nature. Providence (with a capital P) is just another name for God, specifically God in the role of "sustaining and guiding human destiny"(Merriam Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary). Hence we have a largely anthropomorphic God with a "hand" that is "invisible".

For reference, Adam Smith introduced his concept of the invisible hand in 1759, in Paragraph 10 of Part IV Chapter 1 of the book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Below, I reproduce that paragraph:
And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants. It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.
In the above paragraph, Adam Smith is quite clear that greed is the main factor at work on the human level. His assertion is that despite the greed, there is an "invisible hand" (of God) that transforms rampant greed ("natural selfishness and rapacity") into social welfare. ("They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species... In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.")

Smith's later - and more often quoted – use of the term, invisible hand, in his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, is not any different in its thrust. Smith again talks about humankind's selfish greed and states that somehow that greed gets converted by an invisible hand into social welfare. Here is the relevant paragraph, Paragraph 9 from Book IV Chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations:
But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
Of course, in the above paragraph there is no direct reference to Providence, but there is also no suggestion that the invisible hand belongs to anyone or anything other than Providence. Indeed, because Smith includes the phrase, "as in many other cases", in the sentence where he mentions the concept of an invisible hand, it is highly unlikely that Smith was talking about market forces, which pertains only to a specific case (commercial economy).

So what may we conclude from the above?

First, there are market forces. Those market forces – essentially supply and demand – can be studied and understood. Indeed, that has been a major – and perhaps the major – focus of the fledgling science of economics over the last 200 years. In that context, it is somewhat absurd to describe market forces as an invisible hand. Market forces are not at all invisible (unlike God or God's hand).

Second, and for what it's worth, we should be clear that the concept of market forces is really not what Adam Smith was talking about when he used the term, invisible hand. Adam Smith was promoting a laissez-faire economy (and ultimately British imperialism) by arguing – albeit unconvincingly – that the invisible hand is the most effective mechanism for achieving an equitable or just distribution of wealth.

Third, and finally, while it is true that market forces do exist, it is absolutely primitive and even inhumane to paint every dimension of economics with the same brush. Economics is not unidimensional. People and their various needs should not – and ultimately cannot – all be addressed in terms of the marketplace. Commercial economy is just one dimension of a multidimensional – I would argue quadridimensional – science of economics. Unless we take into account all of those dimensions – unless we limit commercial economy to just one of those dimensions and impose appropriate restraints on and within that dimension – there is no way other than a fully planned economy (and possibly a fully commanded economy) to hold in check the type of  rapacious greed recognized by Adam Smith. The notion that an invisible hand (an agency of Providence) or the workings of supply and demand (market forces) will provide the distributive justice that humanity requires – or even the amount of distributive justice that Adam Smith falsely or foolishly alleged that humanity already receives – is a dogma that must be rejected and exposed by all rational and well-meaning persons.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Is sustainability a myth?

No matter how vast they may be, all resources are limited. And all resources are interconnected. So, when talking about resources, it is better to speak in terms of utilization rather than consumption. Consumption is largely a concept of economics, and it therefore tends to limit our thinking on the subject. In other words, consumption may not accurately reflect the possible range of uses and methods of using a resource.

Any type of developmental activity – or even mere survival activity – is bound to strain multiple resources in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. So, the goal of utilization (be it sustainability or anything else) cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. That goal is invariably connected with political, social, economic, and legal factors. With such a range of variables, it is inconceivable that sustainability can be attained in any meaningful, long-term sense. In other words, sustainability is simply not sustainable. The notion of sustainability goes against the very laws of nature. There is no such thing as physical immortality. Nothing and no one lives forever.

As the way in which attempts to achieve sustainability are implemented would inevitably depend on political, social, economic, and legal factors, so the notion of sustainability comes packed with various unstated assumptions, a hidden (or perhaps just unclear or obscured) agenda. Prominent among the unstated assumptions is the sacrosanct belief in Adam Smith's invisible hand, nowadays interpreted to mean market forces rather than Providence (as Adam Smith originally conceived it), although both are equally and conveniently vague. (Under capitalism, both "invisible hand" and "market forces" are utopic rationales for greed.)

Sustainability is a cowardly, unworthy goal for human beings. In theory, it is largely retrogressive and reactionary. In practice, it tends to be inhumane and ultimately self-defeating (regardless of any clever marketing slogans or good intentions). In short, from an ideological perspective, sustainability is a very poor choice, almost a non-starter. The only reason it has gained traction in the world is that it currently serves the interests of wealthy capitalists by exploiting common fears and sentiments among people in the developed world. The moment that advocates of sustainability start to point out that the biggest obstacle to sustainability (other than nature itself) is the unbalanced distribution of wealth – the over-accumulation of unutilized, under-utilized, or poorly utilized resources by a relative few – the irrational notion of sustainability will lose favor with capitalists and quickly be replaced by another popular dogma.

What is our ecological niche?

Some people argue that human beings don't just require food. Rather, they need a sustainable ecological niche. Here we find yet another capitalist dogma. Yes, people – and indeed every living creature – requires a congenial (beneficial) environment (ecological niche). But do people need a sustainable environment? Obviously not. For better or worse, the vast majority of people never even think about what type of environment they are passing on to their children and their children's children. If there is no air to breathe today, people feel need. If there may not be air to breathe twenty years from now, people might feel a slight twinge of fear, but they won't feel need.

Let's say that 100 years from now - all things being equal (which is, of course, never the case) – there will not be enough food for the projected population at that time. Would the human race commit collective suicide for that reason? Would the human race become extinct because of a hypothetical future condition?

The simple fact is that sustainability is largely a fiction... especially nowadays when much of what is consumed comes with planned or inevitable rapid obsolescence. It's comforting to know that when a product one relies on is no longer available, a replacement product – possibly improved – will be available in its stead. But the transition often requires a more expanded vision. For example, today we mostly conceive of the surface of planet Earth as humanity's ecological niche. Tomorrow, we may expand our vision and our lifestyle to include the floor of the oceans and the whole of Earth's atmosphere in our ecological niche. And soon thereafter, we may embrace the solar system or even the cosmos as our ecological niche.

Can they all be fed?

Some people wonder whether we can feed the projected population of planet earth. The answer to that question depends largely on political, social, economic, and legal factors. Clearly, under capitalism, with its legal dogma regarding private property, economic dogma regarding distribution of wealth based on an invisible hand, social dogma regarding upper and lower classes based on income and education, and political dogma regarding democracy - in other words, what we have now – the answer is No. Even our current global population cannot be fed under capitalism. Nor can many, many species of fauna and flora be fed. However, I don't see any reason why human population size would be an insurmountable obstacle for society – or why so many species of fauna and flora should die out – under PROUT.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

An alliance of evil?

In this news report, note the shift in tone of the reporting... sometimes perplexed and sometimes downright accusatory. With an unprompted, unabashed confession of guilt – referring to three teenagers as settlers and their kidnap as well as subsequent murder as an heroic operation – one Hamas spokesperson has single-handedly forfeited much of the sympathy and support that Hamas had accrued over the course of the current war. This is not to say that Israel has been or will be widely forgiven for its savage slaughter of innocent civilians. But Hamas has now freely admitted that it was their own savagery that prompted the Israeli response. The only persons likely to appreciate the Hamas announcement, coming on the back of some ruthless, public executions of Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel, are the members or supporters of ISIS and Boko Haram. Could this be the beginning of an alliance?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

According to President Obama...

No just God would stand for what [ISIS] did yesterday [by beheading the American journalist James Foley] and what they do every single day. (Barack Obama, 2014 August 20)

I've been listening to the speech by President Obama in which he commented on the murder of James Foley by ISIS. The speech was full of references to religion and to God. Historically, that rarely bodes well; and this speech was no exception. Obama's words were loaded with implications and innuendos that are not just biased or bizarre but even fanatical. When Obama expresses and exploits religious prejudices, does he effectively distinguish himself from those whom he would condemn?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Evidence-based sentencing

The concept of evidence-based sentencing makes as much theoretical sense as any evidence-based practice. The rub comes when we consider the context - what is recognized by society as evidence and what is accepted by society in terms of application or implementation, as well as a host of broader environmental factors.

The first question that arises in my mind about evidence-based sentencing concerns the aim of reducing recidivism. How much improvement can evidence-based sentencing make to the primary correctional aspect of the correctional services? No doubt, there will be a reduction in recidivism, and not all of that reduction will be the consequence of longer prison sentences for likely repeat offenders. But is such a reduction sufficient in and of itself?

There is much to be done in respect to creating a system of correctional services by which even an innocent person wrongly convicted would still benefit from the experience. But any alleged improvements to the correctional services would be moot – and possibly even somewhat fraudulent – if the vast majority of crimes remain a direct or indirect consequence of the wealth gap.

In short, without eliminating the social disease of capitalism, evidence-based sentencing may not be ethically sound. It might prove to be no more than a high-sounding methodology for enabling the wealthy elite to more effectively suppress opposition to their exploitative opportunism.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Amazon versus Hachette... and Paul Verhaeghe

I just received a letter from Kindle Direct Publishing that, somewhat hypocritically, tries to garner support for Amazon in their dispute with Hachette.

While I find it absurd that the Kindle version of a book can be more expensive than the paperback version of the same book... as is the case with Paul Verhaeghe's What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society... Amazon's letter on this subject is clearly self-serving and manipulative.

And perhaps it is also a bit absurd (and hypocritical?) for Paul Verhaeghe to decry a market-based society while actively participating in and profiting from that which he deplores.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why not sonar?

It is an oft-stated maxim that great power incurs great responsibility. Parents should not get in the habit of beating their children but rather should strive patiently to educate them. We don't chop off a limb each time it gets scratched, and we don't lop off our heads just because we have a headache.

So I'm of the opinion that the Israeli Defense Force should be just that in relation to the Palestinians. It should focus on defense and shun offense. There simply is no justification for the number and percentage of civilian casualties that is being reported today. In war, it may be argued that the best defense is a good offense. But, nowadays, what war lasts for 50 years? And if a war does last that long, then someone should have long ago implemented a more effective solution than the military one.

Israel was and still is concerned about rockets fired from Palestinian territory. But now we see that the Iron Dome defense system has proved quite effective at minimizing that risk. Yes, definitely, the disruption to daily life from such rocket attacks is more than a small headache; but does it call for the deaths of more than 400 Palestinians of whom 70% are non-combatants, many of them women and children? I say No.

Israel is also concerned about tunnels being used for attacking communities on the border of Gaza. Given the circumstances, it is a legitimate concern. But what about sonar? Can it not function under land as well as water? Can sonar not detect underground caverns, construction, and movement? And are there no radar satellites that can detect underground construction? If the technology is not yet up to the standard required for countering the tunnels built by Hamas, then Israel and the world's well-wishers should rapidly bring it up to that standard.

Of course, neither sonar or radar is a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor is the so-called two-state solution. As Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar was wont to say, "The present age is not the age of large animals and small states." (Sarkar, Prabhat Ranjan (1984). "Socioeconomic Movements" published in A Few Problems Solved Part 9. Ananda Marga Publications.) The only long-term solution in the region is for Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side as fellow citizens of one and the same nation.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Flipping the switch on human consciousness?

These are my observations after reading a Washington Post article on this subject.

It is remarkable to me how many definitions or interpretations of the word, consciousness, exist. Personally, to avoid confusion, I prefer not to use that word in the context that we find in the referenced article.

An on-off switch in the brain for awareness? I don't think it is as simple as that. Imagine a desktop computer. It is largely useless without its peripheral devices. For the sake of this analogy, let us just consider the computer in association with a single input-output device, a touch-screen monitor. 

Try to turn on either the computer or the monitor without first plugging it into an electrical outlet, and nothing at all will happen in respect to the unpowered device. 

Power up the monitor without powering up the computer; and you won't see any information processed by the computer, and you won't be able to send any commands to the computer. 

Power up the computer without powering up the monitor; and again you won't see any information processed by the computer, and you won't be able to send any commands to the computer via the monitor (although in this case the computer is able to process data). 

Finally, even when you power up both the computer and the monitor, still the monitor won't report any data processed by the computer and you won't be able to send commands to the computer if the monitor is not connected to the computer. 

As to the anecdotal event reported in the article – a primitive experiment at best – it is interesting, but we should not be hasty in drawing general conclusions from it. We don't know whether the same procedure would have a similar impact on other persons. But, even if it were to have the same impact on others, there could be several explanations for that impact. To extend the earlier analogy, here are three possibilities:

(1) The electrical impulses at that point in the brain could be putting either the 'computer' or the 'monitor' or both into sleep mode.

(2) The electrical impulses at that point in the brain could be disconnecting the monitor from the computer (without putting either of them into sleep mode). 

(3) The electrical impulses at that point in the brain could be disconnecting the monitor from the computer and also putting one or both of them into sleep mode (directly or indirectly).

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Critique of Victor J. Stenger's "The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason"

This critique is in response to the book description found on
In recent years a number of bestselling books have forcefully argued that belief in God can no longer be defended on rational or empirical grounds, and that the scientific worldview has rendered obsolete the traditional beliefs held by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The authors of these books--Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger--have come to be known as the "New Atheists." Predictably, their works have been controversial and attracted a good deal of critical reaction.
I completely agree with the statement in regard to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. However, this is not a refutation of belief in God. It merely refutes the (Western) Judaeo-Christian-Isalamic religious tradition. The fact that the authors of those books – all of them Westerners – deem this to be equivalent to a refutation of belief in God merely reflects their own cultural arrogance, their irrational sociosentiment.
In this new book, Victor J. Stenger, whose God: The Failed Hypothesis was on the New York Times bestseller list in 2007, reviews and expands upon the principles of New Atheism and answers many of its critics. He demonstrates in detail that naturalism--the view that all of reality is reducible to matter and nothing else--is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe, from the most distant galaxies to the inner workings of the brain that result in the phenomenon of mind.
This statement is patently false. We don't have an adequate materialist/naturalist explanation of subjective conscious experiences (qualia). And naturalist/materialist proponents have – like most Western thinkers – only addressed cosmological issues regarding efficient cause, never touching on the subject of material cause. The belief that material science can answer all unanswered questions regarding this universe is a type of faith that is essentially religious in nature. It is merely belief, not science but scientism.
Stenger disputes the claim of many critics that the question of whether God exists is beyond the ken of science. On the contrary, he argues that absence of evidence for God is, indeed, evidence of absence when the evidence should be there and is not.
That dog won't hunt when spiritual people – and even religious people – deem there to be evidence of God's existence all around them. Stenger expresses his own materialist point of view and treats that as if it is the only point of view. In other words, Stenger looks at the universe and sees no evidence of God, whereas the spiritualist looks at the universe and sees everything as evidence of God.
Turning from scientific to historical evidence, Stenger then points out the many examples of evil perpetrated in the name of religion.
In his book, Stenger also acknowledges many examples of evil perpetrated in the name of materialistic notions – German Nazism, Russian Communism, Cambodian Communism, and so on. But then he tries to pooh-pooh it away. "As we saw in chapter 5, believers try to argue that atheism is more evil than theism because twentieth-century atheists such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot killed more people than the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, and the kings of Christendom put together. I showed that this statement is disputable since Hitler was not an atheist and the numbers themselves are arguable." (Section on "Religion and Morality" in Chapter 6 "Religion and Morality")

How does the fact that Hitler might not have been an atheist negate the atrocities of Stalin and Pol Pot? And, hold on a minute... "The numbers themselves are arguable"? And why would anyone want to replace one bad thing with another bad thing? Why not replace the bad thing with something good?

Stenger argues: "Hitler killed six million Jews for at least partially religious reasons. They killed God. In any case, if there had been no religion there would not have been a group so separated from the rest of society that they stood out as different." (Section on "Lessons from Mormonism" in Chapter 5 "Holy Smoke") Once again, hold on a minute... "They killed God"? Who is talking here: Hitler or Stenger? And, just out of curiosity, how does one kill an entity that is posited to be all-powerful and eternal? Furthermore, was Hitler's reason for killing Jews religious, economic, or racial? (Personally, I find it hard to believe anything said by politicians, political people.) But leaving aside these somewhat minor issues, here we find Stenger effectively blaming the victim for the crime. "If there were no Jews, there would have been no Holocaust. If women were not weaker than men, and if they did not look different from men... and if they did not expose themselves by going out on the streets... they would not get raped."
He also notes that the Bible, which is still taken to be divine revelation by millions, fails as a basis for morality and is unable to account for the problem of unnecessary suffering throughout the world.
Certainly I agree that the Bible fails as a basis for morality. But the system of Yama-Niyama found in Tantra/Yoga is far superior to anything contrived by materialists/naturalists.

I find it interesting but not surprising that Stenger never once mentions the ethical code of Yama-Niyama. He talks about the moral codes of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which were based on Yama-Niyama (with focus on the first point of Yama, Ahimsa). But Stenger never even mentions the word Ahimsa either. Instead, he absurdly attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole by asserting that there is a "universal morality" that is somehow embodied in the "Golden Rule" (or a more stringent form of it). Stenger then dogmatically asserts that the Ahimsa of Buddhism and also Jainism is somehow a mere extension of the Golden Rule. This type of preposterous straw-man analysis might fool someone with little or no knowledge of Eastern religion and its ethical roots, but such shoddy intellectualism is not worth a farthing to a serious seeker of truth.

According to Stenger: "The entire philosophy of Jainism... is based on avoiding the suffering of any living thing, a true altruism much more demanding than the Golden Rule." (Section on "Universal Morality" in Chapter 6 "Suffering and Morality") This is utter nonsense. While it is true that Jains take the concept of not hurting other living creatures to be their primary religious duty – a duty that they extend to an extreme and untenable extent, to the point of feeding termites in their own house while employing military force to repel human invaders – it is utterly idiotic to claim that this is "true altruism" and that "the entire philosophy of Jainism is based" on that.
Finally, he discusses the teachings of ancient nontheist sages such as Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius, whose guidelines for coping with the problems of life and death did not depend upon a supernatural metaphysics.
It is rather interesting that when considering existential and ethical issues, the ancient nontheist sages that Stenger considers are mostly Eastern. But let's look a bit closer at the three persons mentioned here, because it is not a given that all of these three philosophers were "nontheist".

Buddha might well have been theistic. The fact that he did not reply to a question asked on this subject is not proof that he did not believe in God. It could simply have been Buddha's way of pointing out that God is ineffable. In any event, Buddha's concept of Ahimsa was taken from the theistic Tantric tradition.

As to Lao Tzu, like Buddha, whether he was theistic or nontheistic is not clear. However, it is clear that he was not materialistic or 'naturalistic'. "The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao; the Names that can be given are not Absolute Names. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; the Named is the Mother of All Things... He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know." (From Chapter 1 and 56 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu) Furthermore, Lao Tzu's path of Taoism may be viewed as a Chinese derivative of Tantra. According to Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, over time the Sanskrit word tantra underwent various metamorphoses in China: tantra became taota; taota became taoa; and, in modern Chinese, taoa became tao. (Chapter on "Acoustic Roots" in "Ananda Vacanamrtam Part 14")

Regarding Confucius, he might indeed have developed a secular ethical code. But, in my opinion, that secular ethical code is not significantly better than the ethics found in the Bible, because it tends to entrench the status quo and serve the interest of imperialists.
Stenger argues that this "way of nature" is far superior to the traditional supernatural monotheisms, which history shows can lead to a host of evils.
Once again I would point out that what is referred to here as "traditional supernatural monotheism" is merely the Western religious tradition (which, in fact, is not at all the same as the much older tradition of Tantric monotheism). And, while Western theism has led to a host of evils (as demonstrated by history), undoubtedly Western atheism has also led to a host of evils (as also demonstrated by history). So, instead of replacing Western monotheism with Western atheism or Western materialism or Western naturalism, it makes more sense to look in a different direction – a direction that is non-Western or not exclusively Western.
The New Atheism is a well-argued defense of the atheist position and a strong rebuttal of its critics.
How strong a rebuttal it is would be best demonstrated in the setting of a debate, not a monologue. Personally, I find Stenger's arguments to be weak and sometimes quite objectionable.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"The Brain And The Meaning Of Life" by Paul Thagard

Recently, while discussing the meaning of life, a self-described naturalist brought up a 2012 book by another naturalist, Paul Thagard. In that book, Thagard allegedly argued that "reality is what science can discover". That argument struck me as highly absurd. It is the essence of scientism, a religion that effectively worships science by attributing divine qualities to it and by treating scientists (and inevitably pseudoscientists) as priests. What makes scientism somewhat less refined philosophically than most religions is the fact that we all know how fallible science is, but in most cases the fallibility of God is much harder if not impossible to establish. Those who worship a transcendent God may not be able to prove the existence of their God, but neither can anyone prove the non-existence of their God. But if the God who is worshiped is not transcendent - for example, if it is a deity with physical attributes allegedly living on the top of a mountain or if it is a system of knowledge with frequently shifting content - then it is rather easy to discredit such a deity.

Given the absurdity of the notion that reality could or necessarily should be validated by science, I decided that I would give Thagard the benefit of the doubt and have a look at his book, The Brain And The Meaning Of Life. Unfortunately, Thagard does indeed adopt the aforementioned stand. And reading it in his own words – which turned out to be identical to those used by the reviewer – does not make Thagard's position any more palatable. He comes across just as fanatic – and just as irrational – as any religious zealot. I quote the last paragraph beginning on Page 8 of the book:

What is reality? My answer will be that we should judge reality to consist of those things and processes identified by well-established fields of science using theories backed by evidence drawn from systematic observations and experiments. This view is highly contentious, as it rules out both religious faith and a priori arguments as sources of knowledge about reality. Chapter 2 will provide an argument why philosophy, like medicine and science, should be evidence based rather than faith based. Tying reality to the results of scientific investigations does not in itself rule out spiritual entities such as gods, souls, and angels, for there could be observations and experimental results that are best explained by theories postulating the existence of such entities. Historically, however, the development of naturalistic explanations in terms of physics, biology, and other sciences has rendered supernatural explanations dispensable. I will describe how theories in physics and biology have demolished theological arguments for hypotheses about divine creation to explain the origin and nature of the universe. Chapter 3 will similarly argue that neuropsychological theories are now sufficiently powerful to make it plausible that minds are brains, so that hypotheses about the existence of the soul are as superfluous as ones about gods and angels. Reality is what science can discover.
'Looking Ahead' in Chapter 1: "We All Need Wisdom"
This was not the only disappointing paragraph that I read in the early pages of Thagard's book. Earlier in the same Chapter 1, Thagard presents a two-page section entitled "Sources of Wisdom". In that section, Thagard talks about various things. He describes wisdom (as he sees it), and he draws a distinction between wisdom and knowledge (although he falls short of actually defining wisdom). He also encourages the pursuit of wisdom (despite his vagueness regarding the concept). In this section, Thagard even declares what he considers to be "the meaning of life" - "love, work, and play" (a trinity that he had already used eight times earlier, mostly as 'examples') - and he also gives the reason for that assessment (that is, "because they help to satisfy vital human needs"). (With that basis for ascertaining the meaning of life, it is a wonder that Thagard did not include "food" as a fourth element in his "meaning of life".) Thagard ends that section of Chapter 1 by declaring "[his] own approach to wisdom" ("experimental psychology and recent research in neuroscience to develop a systematic account of what matters to people and why it matters"). But, oddly enough, although the section is entitled "Sources of Wisdom", Thagard only meanders hither and thither, without even indirectly, much less directly, attempting to address the topic that he had specified in the section title.

I could go on describing the flaws in Thagard's outlook and the weakness of his arguments. Some reviewers have described his book as "tightly reasoned". I found the exact opposite to be the case. I do not expect to finish reading this book, and I certainly will not be commending it to anyone. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Piketty

I've begun reading the new book by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I have not read the entire book yet. Indeed, I may never find the time to do so. However, let me share two observations based on what that I have read so far:
  • This book seems to be well written and well organized. As such, I believe the central concepts should be accessible to any moderately intelligent person - anyone who occasionally reads a book and ponders over it.
  • Piketty disparages the expression of mere prejudiced speculation on the subject of wealth distribution, but he seems to engage in exactly that type of speculation when it comes to politics.
The first observation does not require any amplification, but the second observation most certainly does. Nevertheless, let me point out in advance that Piketty's political naivete (if I may call it that) does not significantly diminish his contribution in the fields of economic research and economic analysis. It merely diminishes the credibility of his proposed solutions, essentially the final one-fourth to one-third of his book.
At the bottom of Page 10, we read:
Some people believe that inequality is always increasing and that the world is by definition always becoming more unjust. Others believe that inequality is naturally decreasing, or that harmony comes about automatically, and that in any case nothing should be done that might risk disturbing this happy equilibrium. Given this dialogue of the deaf, in which each camp justifies its own intellectual laziness by pointing to the laziness of the other, there is a role for research that is at least systematic and methodical if not fully scientific.
But when it comes to politics, Piketty has already declared his own intellectually lazy and effectively deaf position. Earlier on that very same page, he dogmatically asserts:
Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts—and that is a very good thing.
Regrettably, Piketty makes no effort whatsoever to substantiate either of those two assertions. Nevertheless, dogma aside, Piketty presents as an honest academic. And so, interestingly (or perhaps better to say, inevitably), Piketty does appreciate the importance of economic democracy. If not earlier, this becomes apparent in the last portion of his book, "Part Four: Regulating Capital in the Twenty-First Century". (Part Four is essentially Piketty's proposed countermeasures to the inequality issues that he painstakingly exposes in the first three parts.) For example, on Page 515, we read:
It is then easy to say that workers and their representatives are insufficiently informed about the economic realities facing the firm to participate in investment decisions. Without real accounting and financial transparency and sharing of information, there can be no economic democracy. Conversely, without a real right to intervene in corporate decision-making (including seats for workers on the company’s board of directors), transparency is of little use. Information must support democratic institutions; it is not an end in itself. If democracy is someday to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognizing that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.
Unfortunately, Piketty's aforementioned political prejudices severely blinker his vision of practical solutions to the very problems he diligently describes over the course of the first 420 pages of his book. For example, on Page 465, Piketty presents what he describes as the ideal solution and then quickly dismisses it as utopian. I quote:
To regulate the globalized patrimonial capitalism of the twenty-first century, rethinking the twentieth-century fiscal and social model and adapting it to today’s world will not be enough. To be sure, appropriate updating of the last century’s social-democratic and fiscal-liberal program is essential, as I tried to show in the previous two chapters, which focused on two fundamental institutions that were invented in the twentieth century and must continue to play a central role in the future: the social state and the progressive income tax. But if democracy is to regain control over the globalized financial capitalism of this century, it must also invent new tools, adapted to today’s challenges. The ideal tool would be a progressive global tax on capital, coupled with a very high level of international financial transparency....
A global tax on capital is a utopian idea. It is hard to imagine the nations of the world agreeing on any such thing anytime soon.
Indeed, even before presenting this solution Piketty had already dismissed it at least once and possibly twice or more. I quote from Page 425:
As I have already noted [perhaps a reference to Page 32, around the middle of the "Introduction"], the ideal policy for avoiding an endless inegalitarian spiral and regaining control over the dynamics of accumulation would be a progressive global tax on capital. Such a tax would also have another virtue: it would expose wealth to democratic scrutiny, which is a necessary condition for effective regulation of the banking system and international capital flows. A tax on capital would promote the general interest over private interests while preserving economic openness and the forces of competition. The same cannot be said of various forms of retreat into national or other identities, which may well be the alternative to this ideal policy. But a truly global tax on capital is no doubt a utopian ideal.
To be fair to Piketty, he does grudgingly admit that his own ideal solution might be possible (eventually). On Page 466, he writes:
To reject the global tax on capital out of hand would be all the more regrettable because it is perfectly possible to move toward this ideal solution step by step, first at the continental or regional level and then by arranging for closer cooperation among regions.
While that does indeed make sense, Piketty then offers reasons why what he described as perfectly possible is not so simple – reasons that are outside the scope of my remarks.

Democracy regaining control over capitalism seems to be a recurring theme in the book. It starts as early as Page 9:
There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests, while preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions. The policy recommendations I propose later in the book tend in this direction.
Unfortunately, as evidenced by the type of pessimism about solutions that Piketty demonstrates, the notion of political democracy satisfactorily restraining capitalism is just a pipe dream. Had Piketty opened his mind just a bit more, he might have grasped the symbiotic relationship between political democracy and capitalism. The prospect of economic democracy in an environment of political democracy is a fantasy, far more utopian in nature than the notion of establishing a global progressive tax on capital. All that is required for a global progressive tax on capital is the establishment of a world government. But nowhere in the 605 pages of Piketty's impressive book does he contemplate such an institution. Indeed, even the few times that Piketty mentions the United Nations (not at all the equivalent of a world government but tending in that direction), it is only as a reference for data and not as an institution that could be instrumental for socioeconomic change.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all of the above, it is the importance of understanding the interplay among the various elements (or levels) of our social existence. In this respect, the five fundamental principles of Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar's Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT) are highly educative. In PROUT, economics is located as the second tier of a five-tiered pyramid in which practice flows upward and theory flows downward. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sample from an article on Sarkarverse

Lord, I found You in my contemplations and my thoughts.
In the clear blue sky, in the champaka fragrance,
In a lonely heart, full of love and devotion,
Lord, I found You.
In the show of affection, in light's reflection,
In the vibrant resonance of nurturing earth,
Lord, I found You.
The lofty mountain prostrates before You;
With bowed head, his snow melts.
Lord, I found You.
Translation of a song by Shrii Sarkar 

Sarkarverse: The wikipedia of all things Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar

Sarkarverse is now easily the very best resource on the Web to get information about anything and everything connected with Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, a.k.a. Shrii Shrii Anandamurti. Everyone is welcome to participate in creating or editing articles there.