Aug 25, 2006

Solar System Downsized

In a move said to be due to rising costs and increased competition, the solar system has been reduced from nine planets to eight. Officially, the system has said it regrets having to let Pluto go after billions of years of "exemplary service," but privately industry insiders have complained about Pluto's eccentric orbit, retrograde rotation and other anomalies. "Pluto doesn't even travel in the same plane as the rest of us, and sometimes he even slips inside Neptune's orbit. Let's face it, Pluto is just not a team player."

The same insiders are quick to refute rumours that the re-organization is not complete. "Contrary to what you might have heard, we are not considering out-sourcing any of the inner planets to Tau Ceti."

Pluto, together with his long-time partner Charon, will continue to free-lance as a dwarf planet.

Aug 23, 2006

One More on Lebanon

Hopefully this will be my last post on the topic (unless they start fighting again then all bets are off.) But I would be remiss if I didn't steer readers toward this really fine piece of analysis;

Israel's Water Wars by Jason Godesky

The writer makes a very convincing case for what I've stated here before; it had nothing to do with the ostensible pretext of two soldiers captured; it was all about water. I'll say it again; all wars are about resources; land, oil, water etc. etc. There is always a much-hyped casus belli which is nothing but a propagandistic smoke-screen. Don't pay any attention to the little man behind the curtain.

Read the article if you still think this was a war of self-defence.

Aug 22, 2006

Why Do We Believe Anything?

There is a very good essay on pharmaceuticals as a faith-based initiative (my phrase but I guess the author would concur) at the Dust blog. I pretty much agree with the Dust's perspective here, but that's not what I want to blog about. Instead, I'm intrigued by a question he asks in passing;
it would be nice if we all came to deeper understanding of just how we “came to believe” the things we believe.
Everyone believes something. Some of us can manage, like Alice, to believe five impossible things before breakfast. Others like to imagine they are "without beliefs" (even "Buddhists without beliefs") but that's a dodge, a fancy card-trick. Agnostics and skeptics are as much rooted in belief as Southern Baptists or Wahabbis. Just different beliefs; in particular the materialist world-view, or at the very least the reality of the external world.

Most of what you think you know, you probably just believe. Most everybody these days believes, for example, in the heliocentric model of the solar system. But very few could come up with cogent arguments as to why the earth moving around the sun and not vice-versa is the real model.

People believe all kinds of things less rational than this, and with less reason. Creationism, materialism, grey aliens, perpetual motion, the Rapture, the benefits of Free Trade; heck, I'm told some people still believe the official version of 9-11.

People who believe any of these things, or their equally faith-based opposites, or anything else at all, can come up with all kinds of rational arguments, and snippets of evidence, to back up their beliefs. Cruise around the internet and you won't take long to find heated debates on stuff like creationism vs. evolution, with carefully constructed arguments on both sides. But here's the really intriguing thing; almost no-one seems to ever change their position based on these arguments. The best constructed arguments on the other side just force a true believer to refine his or her own counter-arguments in an endless dance.

I would like to suggest that evidence and logical reasoning are only called in after the fact, to justify and bolster a belief. In most cases, they really have nothing at all to do with why we believe what we do.

So why do we believe what we believe? I would like to suggest that the real unspoken criterion of all beliefs is aesthetic. We believe what we believe because it is more beautiful, or more elegant than the available alternatives. We feel intuitively that if x is true then the universe is a more satisfying place. This makes belief a matter of taste. Some people revel in the cold, stark vision of materialism. Others go for the warm fuzzies of eternalism.

To go back to the example of the heliocentric solar system; it would be theoretically possible to construct a completely geo-centric model that fits all the observable data equally well. The only problem is that it would be horrifically complicated. This was in fact the reason the geo-centric model was abandoned in the first place. As more data came in, the astronomers had to keep adding epicycles upon epicycles. What really makes my case is that at the time when Copernicus's theory started to gain general acceptance, the geo-centric model, with all it's centuries of accumulated tinkering, actually fitted the known data better (mostly because Copernicus still assumed circular orbits.) The helio-centric model was adopted not because it fit the evidence better, it didn't. It was adopted because it was more elegant.

So it's all a matter of taste. At least, that's what I believe.

Aug 21, 2006

Fundamentalism and Triumphalism

We hear a lot about religious fundamentalism these days. I suppose we are stuck with the term, but it is actually used imprecisely. Fundamentalism, according to one dictionary definition is "strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology." This in itself may not necessarily be a negative thing. Fidelity to a tradition and it's teachings is one legitimate approach to religion. It may be thought by some to be narrow, by others to demonstrate an integrity and clarity of thought.

However, what is often called "fundamentalism" these days is probably better called "triumphalism." This is the view that one's religion is absolutely right, all others are wrong, and usually leads to the conclusion that force is justified to promote one's beliefs. The Buddha condemned this kind of thinking; "this is right, all else is wrong" as leading to disputation and conflict. We can certainly see that today.

The triumphalist imperative pollutes any religion it touches. While it seems more natural to arise in mono-theistic religions ("my god is bigger than your god") sadly even Buddhism doesn't escape. We had the sorry story this week of fundamentalist monks in Sri Lanka breaking up a peace rally with fist-fighting. How anyone can defend this behaviour as consistent with the Buddha's teaching is beyond me.

There is also a Hindu fundamentalism, whose deeds included the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the wrecking of the historic Babri mosque in 1992 (which sparked bloody communal riots.) These type of actions are hardly compatible with the Hindu ideal of ahimsa. (harmlessness)

We hear a lot about Islamic fundamentalism (or Islamo-fascism in the fanciful neo-con lexicon.) Often the discussion simplifies complex and contradictory movements within modern Islam, which seems to be in a period of ferment and renewal not unlike the Protestant Reformation of 16th Europe. That period too, had it's "mad mullahs," it's iconclasm and it's struggle to come to terms with a changing world.

Certainly groups like the Taliban, with their ultra-strict moral codes violently enforced, and their wanton destruction of imagery like the Bamiyan Buddhas, and their valorization of war and conflict, qualify as "triumphalist." Some among the Shiites also have a dangerous fascination with apocalyptic thinking; awaiting the end of this world and the coming of the twelfth imam.

The Christians also have a powerful fundamentalist (or triumphalist) wing, especially in the United States. Like their Muslim shadow-selves, they have a very strong belief in the imminent "end of days." It's kind of scary when people who think the end of the world is a good thing are close to the policy making apparatus of major powers.

There is also a Jewish fundamentalism that complicate the Middle-East problem by seeing a religious sanction for occupation of the whole of Palestine to the Jordan. Some of them even want to re-construct the Temple of Solomon, which would involve destroying the Al-Aqsa mosque. To them, a minor detail. To the rest of the world, a major conflagration.

(I'm not aware of Taoist or Jain fundamentalism - maybe I'm just not informed)

These fundamentalisms feed off each other; they need each other to thrive. Where would the Christian Right in the US be without the "evil axis" of "Islamo-fascism" to rant against? Where would the Islamic hard-core get their juice without the "Great Satan" or the "Zionist entity?"
The Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka are largely a response to the very aggressive and unethical proselytizing of Christian fundamentalist missionaries.

Too bad we can't all just get along.

Arrow River Announcement

We are having the Annual General Meeting for the Arrow River Forest Hermitage, all friends and supporters of the hermitage are welcome. Date and time; 1:30 PM Sat. Sept. 9th. There will also be a pot-luck and BBQ at 11:00 AM. Please RSVP if you are intending to participate in the lunch.