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Friday, January 27, 2006

Philosophy or Religion?

Recently, a nice man by the username Father Time (his blog here), emailed me asking my opinion on this...

"How do you differentiate between a religion and a philosophy? I have met several people who say, "I'm not religious but I follow the Buddhist philosophy." Being an ex-engineer, I have the misfortune of looking at things as black and white. Consequently, the world of gray (my perception of philosophy so far,) is very new and perplexing to me right now.

Your thoughts are sincerely appreciated"
Interesting question. First, I'd preface what my take on it is by saying that, as with all matters of semantics/definitions/language, I suppose everyone has a slightly different impression of what the words mean and how they should relate to one another.

It seems to me that nearly everything falls under the umbrella of philosophy. Anytime we ask "what is" or "what should be" we are asking a philosophic question. This includes questions of how we know what is, and how we determine what should be.

Then, as subsets of philosophy we have science. The philosophy of science is that subset which uses the scientific method of empirical observation and analysis to answer "what is". All practical science is based on the philosophic underpinnings of the 'philosophy of science'.

There are other subsets of philosophy which attempt to answer "what is" through methods such as mysticism, revelation, faith, magic, alleged extra senses, pseudosciences, and so on. In my view they are unfounded, but they exist as positions people hold for answering "what is" and are therefore also under the umbrella of philosophy.

Among these, then, would be religious philosophies. All religions are predicated upon a particular philosophy, which asks "what is" and "what should be". Some philosophies are secular and some are religious.

So, short answer: science and religion (and much else) are types of philosophies and subsets of philosophy. Some are good philosophies, some evil, some rational, some irrational, some wise, some unwise, etc.

• If you believe that tooth decay is caused by bacteria (what is), and you think brushing teeth would be a wise way to prevent it (what should be), that is philosophy.

• If you believe that attachment leads to suffering (what is), and that mindfulness and detachment would be a wise way to prevent it (what should be), that is philosophy.

• If you believe that we have souls in danger of eternal torment (what is), and that accepting Jesus Christ as your savior is the only way to prevent it (what should be), that is philosophy.

The fact that I find some of the above sensible, some of it probable, and some of it ludicrous is irrelevant to the fact that they are all philosophic positions and part of 'philosophy'.

Then one might ask, "how are we to define which philosophies are religious and which are not (or, which are secular)?"

For this, one could take either a "structuralist" approach or a "doctrinal" approach (these are my own terms and there is probably a more 'official' term for these approaches somewhere, which I'd know if I were less ignorant). I prefer the doctrinal approach, where we say that religious philosophies are those which include the supernatural and/or faith-based beliefs.

For more on what I mean by these approaches, and why I prefer the latter, I would offer 2.2 from my Principles of Socio-Personal Humanism on my philosophy site (link HERE).

Hope this answers your question - at least as for what I think on the matter. Feel free to convince me differently if you have other notions, as learning is always appreciated!

Note: Incidentally, I have just added a short essay on my Philosophy Site called What Is A Philosopher? in which I outline what I believe to be a good Philosopher Code.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Google Alternatives

(note: if you haven't read my first entry on this, please do first, thanks.)

I've been reading a little around the blogosphere and it seems a lot of people are upset about Google's censorship pact with the Chinese government. There are also, sadly, a number of people who just don't get it.

Some say that this is 'better than nothing' (for a response to this argument, see paragraphs 3-5 of my last post). And then there are the 'business columnists' like Thomas Hazlett who suggest that once Google has its foot in the door, there will be a wearing away of controls which will eventually lead to greater freedoms. Google's Andrew McLaughlin seemed to imply the same notion in 'code'. In other words, he made a statement phrased in a particular way such that he means to suggest this to Americans while not making it obvious to the Chinese. He said,

"We firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China..."

Very interesting. McLaughlin was making this statement in defense of Google's recent move. But why would the statement that Google can help in technological innovation and development in China be something you'd say in this context? It seems to me he is suggesting that "meaningful and positive contributions" and "pace of development in China" means democratic and human rights reforms, but if asked about it by the Chinese, he can refer to the literal meaning of the words in the sentence.

I think McLaughlin and Hazlett may be right, and I sincerely hope they are. But this, nevertheless, amounts to nothing more than a rationalization for taking part in evil to make money. What they are saying here is that the Chinese government may end up being foiled, despite Google helping them, simply because of the nature of how oppression in the face of change works. It's like making some money on the side by giving aid to a fleeing murderer under the rationale that murderers are usually caught anyway. If it should turn out that Google/China find freedoms and information have someday spread despite themselves, it will be to the credit of the Chinese people - it will not absolve Google of their misdeeds.

Other things I've read referred to what an 'agonizing' decision this was on the part of Google management and how they thought long and hard about this for a long time. McLaughlin said it was an "excruciating" decision.

That's all fine and good, but what matters is what the final decision was. When and where did it suddenly become ok to do evil acts as long as one 'thinks long and hard about it' before doing them? In fact, it might have been better if Google's act was haste and not considered well. But to say that they gave it much thought and after considering it carefully, chose evil is even worse.

One last thing about Google being a 'company'. Many have said that Google is a company and is amoral. As I said in my last post, Google is made up of individuals who are human beings first. But in addition to that point, we now live in a society where corporations are considered legally to have all the rights as an individual. This is how they are able to lobby lawmakers and wield unequaled power and influence over the government. Well, if they are to be considered individuals, that means I can also personally hold them ethically accountable as I would an individual. You can't have your cake and eat it too; claiming individual status with rights but not with moral responsibility.

Now, I'm not one to boycott much. I have serious doubts about the efficacy of most boycotts (although some have admittedly worked well). Besides that, I realize that people have to live as they will and its unrealistic to expect much outside that range of comfort. Many online have made similar points about how they thought boycotts were stupid or wouldn't work.

But what I've decided is that I am changing my search engine of choice - not because others are or aren't doing it and not because I think a boycott will have some large-scale effect. It wouldn't matter if I'm the only one in the world not using Google; I am doing it because it's the right thing to do.

Aside from that, it is also an incredibly easy thing to do. There are many, many search engines out there, and many other places to get email and news. Here are some search engine alternatives...

GoodSearch (see below)
Ask Jeeves

(note: many of these are owned by the other, and may even be connected to Google, I'm no expert. Please feel free to share this information and/or other search engine alternatives.)

Update: August 23, 2006:
There is another search alternative I've just learned of called GoodSearch, which I've added to the list above. This search engine will donate $0.01 to The Institute for Humanist Studies for each search conducted from its site. I read that GoodSearch is 'powered by' Yahoo, which has its own set of problems, so I guess it's a balance of good/bad. :)

Update: June 7, 2006:
Google Reconsidering?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Don't Be Evil... Unless You Can Make A Buck

Google has recently made a pact with the communist dictatorship currently ruling China. If China allows them to spread their business in that nation, Google will agree to assist China's oppression of its people by censoring any sites mentioning democracy. Other sites that Google will censor for the regime include references to Taiwan independence, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan leader the 14th Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, and anything else the Chinese government doesn't want it's people to know about. In addition, Google will be providing a special edition of its 'news' service that will be confined to media sanctioned by the communist government.

Of course, that's not how Google would phrase it. They are attempting to fudge over this pact with a good amount of 'corporate-speak'. They called it an "excruciating decision" but said that it was a "worthwhile sacrifice".

Google's senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin would have us believe that this deal is a way to get at least something to the Chinese people, even if it can't be everything. He said, "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

The problem with this alleged reasoning is that the Chinese people aren't simply missing out on the information being censored. What is not being censored are the Chinese government's pages on those topics. So, when a Chinese citizen looks up 'democracy' he or she will see only the communist government's pages on that topic (explaining how horrible democracy is, no doubt).

That isn't 'better than nothing' and it isn't 'better than a heavily degraded user experience'. It's worse - much, much worse; thanks to Google.

McLaughlin also suggests that the pact with this regime is "better serving Chinese customers". If, by 'Chinese customers' he means the brutal and oppressive regime ruling China, then maybe so. If he means the people of China then he must be joking.

More corporate-speak from McLaughlin stated that their censorship would be "based on local laws, regulations or policies." He makes it sound as though he's talking about a responsible company obeying laws, regulations, and policies of a legitimately elected representative government. Is McLaughlin aware that the murder of Native Americans, the killing of Jews, or the beheadings of infidels are or were all "local policies" as well?

Google is a company with a contractual responsibility to increase its revenues to its shareholders. As such, the growing hotbed of economic opportunity in China is difficult for them to resist. They see great profits as yet untapped in this population of over a billion people with growing internet activity.

But each and every person who works in and for Google is a human being first. As such they have a higher responsibility not to do evil. Google's own motto is "don't be evil" and it appears this was only fluff. When it came to exploiting an opportunity to make money even while assisting in the oppression of others, Google chose that option over any other concern, and is now trying to whitewash it with corporate-speak.

I had been considering adding a Google ad banner to my site and have decided against that. I will also be removing the Google search bar from the bottom of my page. Lastly, I'll be finding some search engine alternatives and using them instead from now on. This site is hosted by blogspot, which I think may have been bought by Google. But, as far as I know, there are no ad banners or other means by which this gives Google profit, but I'll be keeping all options open.

If you are interested, there is a group called Reporters Without Borders which has recently voiced its concerns over this. HERE is there site, and HERE is their article on the Google/China alliance.

For Associated Press news articles on this, you can visit HERE and HERE.

Free China Movement

Also, check out my following entry on this for Google Alternatives.

Update: May 8, 2006:
It seems Google is having troubles over 'Click Fraud' for its advertisements. Click HERE to read the AP story on this. Also, there are further abuses associated with Google Adwords and THIS video clip illustrates what's going on.

If you have other resources, information, etc. on the Chinese government or Google relating to this, please feel free to comment or contact me, thanks.

Update: June 7, 2006:
Google Reconsidering?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Fatal Leap Of Logic

I just had a strange dream that I was sitting at my computer and it froze up. A window with a little red stop sign popped up that read, "Fatal leap of logic has occurred." I thought that was such an interesting phrase and dream I just had to log it! I [this slang phrase for internet searching censored] the exact phrase "fatal leap of logic" and got only two entries: one on a debate about George Bush and another about audio equipment. Then I searched for "fatal leap IN logic" and got only four entries: one about pre-war imperial Japan, one on discrimination, one on affirmative action, and one a document on a lawsuit involving Travelers insurance company.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Which Came First?

I've just recently discovered this "lost transcript" of a conversation I had with my friend Nathan a few years ago, in which we unlocked the secrete to the age-old mystery of "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" - Discover the Truth here!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Here are some links to learn about Marting Luther King, Jr. and his inspirational legacy of promoting non-violence and racial equality. A poignant example of how philosophy impacts lives.

Wikipedia Entry
The King Center

As I'm sure Dr. King would agree, it is not merely one man's memory that is important, as we are all simply human and imperfect. But what is important is that such lives and such holidays present the opportunity to reflect upon these timeless values and goals.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Visit To A Buddhist Temple

As part of my ongoing studies of various philosophies, I have been reading up on Buddhism lately. I have been attempting to understand the many schools of Buddhism and Buddhist history, as well as core Buddhist teachings. Along the way I have been, comparing and contrasting various elements of Buddhist thought to Stoicism, Christianity, and my own Humanism.

Reading is one thing, but I was curious to experience Buddhism in practice. Unlike most schools of ancient Greek philosophy, this can be observed in community practice all around us. Houston is a large city and has many Buddhist Temples, so my wife and I took our first visit to one today.

The one we went to is called the Jade Buddha Temple, in connection with the Texas Buddhist Association (Jade Temple website).

As you can partially get some sense of in the picture, the Jade Temple was a large and beautiful collection of buildings. As one might expect, the atmosphere was very tranquil.

I had called ahead a few days earlier and a woman told me that meditation is from 9am to 10am and Dharma (Buddhist philosophy) discussion is from 10am to 11:30am. We decided to come only to the Dharma discussion the first time, since we don't know much about meditation.

When we walked up to the entryway, a nice young man at a table labeled "information" asked us if it was our first time. When we said yes, he lead us back to a building where they would be holding English Dharma discussion (Dharma discussion in what I'm guessing was Chinese was held in a larger building to accommodate what was likely the larger portion of their membership).

The man introduced me to another man named Jack. Unfortunately, the first man walked away before I could get his name and thank him. Jack was very helpful in answering our questions. We took off our shoes and went into a room with short sitting benches (about 3-4 inches off the ground), but the room also had high benches around the walls. Several others were sitting in those and that's where we sat too (thinking the lower benches, with no back rest would be uncomfortable for us).

A bald woman in a grey robe, called Ven. Shiou-chih, was also greeting and speaking with people. She was a Buddhist nun and would be giving the lecture. At first she seemed unapproachable to us, but during the lecture we saw that she was smiling, very nice, and willing to share personal anecdotes; many of them humorous.

The discussion itself was quite interesting. The general theme was on mindfulness in our thoughts and reactions. The Sister used the example of someone accusing you of being wrong or bad and how we react to that. The idea was that there is a stimulus, and our emotional response often follows automatically. But being mindful is working on building the habit of interjecting your conscious intellect between the stimulus and the response. This principle is the same for sensual stimuli of all sorts which tempts us to do things we know are bad for us.

Throughout the lecture, there were several points I noticed that overlapped with other philosophic concepts I had been thinking of recently. In one part, the Sister made some remarks that were very similar to Stoic philosophy, to which I am partial. She was answering a question about how to react and interact with difficult people. She said that we can do things which we know are right, we can examine ourselves to see if the person is right about us, and we can seek to understand them. But in the end, we can only do what we can do, and must recognize and be content that what they do is outside of our control.

The Sister also mentioned something I found similar to something in the notes I had written on the Taoist Chuang-Tzu. She said that, when attempting to help another recognize a problem you have with them, that you must be patient, compassionate, and wait for the proper time and proper manner in which they are receptive. As Chuang-Tzu says, "Talk when he is in a mood to listen, and stop when he is not... let things take their natural course." This seems to me like the Wu-Wei I had read of elsewhere.

In a humorous moment, the sister recommended that a good place to practice mindfulness is at an all-you-can-eat buffet. To hear her describe in her English how people "pile on huge amount" of things they can't even finish was funny but true. She suggested that we practice intervening in the impulses we get from the sights and sounds of the food and discipline ourselves to not get carried away.

Other interesting moments were when she suggested that we work on one sense at a time, because all five senses are difficult to be mindful of at once for a beginner. This is something I may give a try. And lastly, another man named Josten stood up at the end to close the discussion, with a parting suggestion that a New Year's resolution of smiling more when seeing other people will have both external and internal positive effects.

Throughout the presentation, I was delighted to see that there was very little talk of supernatural interpretations and the discussion stayed in very practical matters. As Jack explained before the discussion, this represents only one small part of Buddhism and Buddhism as a whole has many schools with varying approaches to these things.

But I was reminded in this instance of something I read in A History of the World's Religions by David S. Noss. It concerned Gautama's (the Buddha's) rejection of speculative philosophy as a way of liberation...

"Purely metaphysical issues were to him of little moment. He had an intensely practical outlook, and issues unrelated to the human situation offended his common sense."
The author goes on to quote the Majjhima Nikaya 63 (Buddhist scripture) where Buddha notes that he has not elucidated on many things, such as if the world is eternal or finite, whether the soul and body are identical, whether we exist after death. Then Buddha says...

"And why have I not elucidated this? Because it profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion; therefore I have not elucidated this."
Spurious though it may be, Albert Einstein is rumored to have said of Buddhism,

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism."
As I pondered the above quotes I was moved by the simple pragmatism of the Dharma discussion. Truly, this is what religion is meant to be.

A free lunch was served afterwards but we didn't stay for that. All in all, it was a nice experience, and the discussion was relevant, pragmatic, and interesting. The Sister noted that her English was not good, but I thought it was good that people like her were willing to speak with English speakers because her English was way better than my speaking of her first language (which is non-existant). Besides that, it seems to me that her accent may actually help, as it forced us to pay close attention to what she was saying.

I wouldn't say we are considering becoming 'officially' or 'solely' Buddhist, but there are many Buddhist concepts I find interesting, enlightening, and true, so we do plan to attend again to learn more. In time, I will likely be paying equal attention to many other philosophies and traditions. As I told some of my nontheist friends, I'm still every bit a Humanist, nontheist, empiricist, and a naturalist, but I'm mainly a Philosopher seeking to learn what it means to live 'the good life' (as we should all be to some extent). Many of these things overlap. Therefore, I'll just continue to learn all I can, wherever I can, taking the good where I find it, and let other people worry about what to call me.

(note: I sent a link to this page to the Temple, along with our thanks and Josten replied kindly, giving me his name and the name of the nun Ven. Shiou-chih who gave the Dharma talk. I have edited the above to include these names. Many thanks to Josten for this information.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Jedi Philosophy

I've been meaning to post this on my blog for a long time. Of course, everyone knows that George Lucas' Jedi of the Star Wars films were an amalgamation inspired by a number of real-world philosophies and religions. Unfortunately, we only get to see glimpses of their beliefs in the films, represented by what Jedi characters said. However, there have been many books written on philosophy and Star Wars. Among them I have read and would recommend "Star Wars and Philosophy" edited by Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl, and "The Dharma of Star Wars" by Matthew Bortolin.

I have also compiled a listing of all quotes concerning views on the Force or other philosophical ideas throughout all six Star Wars films. I call it "The Jedi Q" and it can be read on my philosophy site or by clicking here.

May the Force be with you!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

10 Reasons Gay Marriage Is Wrong

This is a well written and funny, if sarcastic, list. It is apparently one of those 'emails going around' although I first heard of it from Scott Kurtz's online comic PVP. He didn't give any other source...

1. Being gay is not natural. And as you know Americans have always rejected unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.

2. Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

3. Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because, as you know, a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

4. Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can't marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

5. Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed. The sanctity of Britany Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.

6. Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn't be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren't full yet, and the world needs more children.

7. Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

8. Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That's why we have only one religion in America.

9. Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.

10. Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven't adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Is it safe?

I've recently had (or am having?) a very interesting debate on torture with my friend Nathan, and my brother Chris. I've put it on my philosophy site, and you can read it by clicking here.

Friday, January 6, 2006

The Book of Daniel

NBC will be premiering their new show, The Book of Daniel, tonight. It's a show about an Episcopal priest and his family, who have all sorts of problems from drug abuse to promiscuity (and a homosexual son, which is only a 'problem' to some). Along the way, there are conversations with a Jesus character, who seems to be used as an authoritative vehicle for delivering California/Hollywood "truth" to the rest of us ignorant folk living between L.A. and New York. According to this AP article, the show was created by a disgruntled homosexual ex-Christian who said that his partner's "emotionally guarded" family was an inspiration.

I'm not sure if I'll watch or not, as I have many reservations from what I've read. My first impression was that the show was yet another mean-spirited attempt to show Christians as bad people and hypocrites. Now, I fully acknowledge that Christian people aren't perfect and many of them do live hypocritical lives. There are also plenty of mean-spirited Christians who force their religion on others and promote the same sort of caricatures of non-Christians.

However, I would prefer we try to come to understandings with those of various beliefs by focusing on what we have in common, what values we share, and what problems we share. As an ex-Christian nonbeliever myself (Humanist), I have met many fellow atheists and some of them are atheists for the wrong reason. Some have made judgments about Christianity as a religion, belief system, and organization, based on their own anecdotal experiences with some unpleasant individuals. This is akin to making the logical error of Ad Homonym. How long before these people move on to some other belief system because they meet a few hypocrites or jerks who happen to be Humanists?

Although there are a lot of good teachings attributed to Jesus, I believe there are serious logical and philosophical problems with the common practice and belief system of modern Christianity which give good enough reason to question it. But I have no interest in demonizing members of any religion or philosophy, or engage in mean-spirited caricaturizing.

There is a more general problem I have with this show, which goes beyond Christianity and is found in nearly everything produced in the media these days. Whenever television or Hollywood producers say things like they want to, "depict how 'humor and grace' help a flawed man struggle with his faith and family" that's code for promoting the idea that there is no right or wrong, we're all 'dark grey', and anyone who says otherwise or tries to promote principles are either foolish or fascist hypocrites.

I fear this show may just be a 'jab' at caricatures of Christianity, and yet another attempt by the media to promote unprincipled living. On the other hand, I haven't seen the show yet. To present the other side, I'll quote a well written comment I read recently made by a Yahoo user called Adirondacklady66...

I was born and raised in a little town in the Adirondacks. A town that homed the headquarters of a world renown religious group that has missions across the country and around the world. At the age of 8 my parents began going to the local church that was supported by this religious group.

We would sit for ours being preached too about all the sins we could not do. How we are to be pure and etc. People were recruited every Saturday with a school bus to come to the church from the local towns, but then treated like they had the plague because they didn’t dress fancy enough or have nice enough homes. As I grew older I began to see things in a different light.

The deacons found out that my father was an alcoholic. Instead of supporting my parents and trying to be good christians and helping them along the way they treated my family like the black plague. My parents slowly stopped going to the church. In the mean time the daughter of one of the founding fathers returned home because her husband announced he was gay. Her father was getting shipments of wine and so on and so forth.

Ten years later my father had a heart attack, he was in the hospital struggling for his life. Along came four deacons from the church whom he had not seen in years wanting to pray with him. I said no, but my dad said ok. I think he wanted some peace with God for his sins.

When they walked out of his CCU room and asked me if they could pray with them, I looked them in the eyes and asked them if they thought this was Christianity. They looked taken back and asked me what I meant. I said to them "My father helped you build the addition on your church, he helped build the gymnasium for your school, he was a member of your church but when him and my mom needed your support you walked away from them and you have not spoken to them for ten years. Now as he is dying you want to pray with him, you men are the most hypocritical Christians I have ever met! And I would rather go sit on the top of a mountain some place and pray to God alone."

They were shocked and walked away. I was a good friend of the owners of a local video store that rented adult entertainment. The owner was told me one day that the management of this large religious group had come to the video store demanding that they see a list of their members. She refused on the grounds of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of America. The ironic part is that one of the men that was demanding to see the list, was one of her biggest renters. She said he was a bit peekish looking while he was playing his part in the shake down.

So as you see the Holy Rollers can scream their arguments but there is not one family in the USA, not even religious families, that don’t have issues. It is my belief the Religious community does not want this show aired because they are afraid it will strike a nerve and make them wake up and look around at their hypocritical life.

If these sorts of behaviors can be addressed in a beneficial and compassionate way by such a show, then maybe there is some value in it. I just hope that the producers, Adirondacklady66 and the rest of us keep in mind that there are many Christians who do take in those with problems, and the ugly tendency to do otherwise is not a Christian one, but one shared by all human beings.