Friday, April 1, 2011

Conscious Internet/Computer Usage

I'm working on another post right now, one on ethics, and it's coming along pretty well thus far (~4-5 pages in). However I have a few things coming up that demand my attention, so I decided if I wanted to ACTUALLY POST any time soon, I should make a shorter post. As such, I figured I could talk about something I've been thinking about recently that wouldn't demand much time, research, or arguing.

I missed the start of Lent this year, so I started my own celebration of it on Tuesday. One thing I promised to do was to get much better at using the internet (as well as the computer in general) properly, and I figured today I'd talk about some of the goals and principles I'm figuring out about doing that.

Now it should be said that my ultimate goal, in general, is to become wise (which I see becoming super knowledgeable as a part of) and to use this wisdom and knowledge to improve the world and help people. So then how do my goals in conscious internet usage relate to this?

Over time I've come to understand the internet as a hugely complex and quantitative source of information. In considering this, it makes sense that I'm only going to receive so much of this information in my ridiculously short life span, and that I'm going to have to make some tradeoffs in choosing what information I choose to receive/process. Some bits of information will thus be much more qualitatively valuable to my goals than others will be (for instance, a list of Laguna Beach episodes on Wikipedia probably won't be as conducive to truth-seeking as a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy").

This is an important point I think, because so much of our time on the internet we're probably not thinking about the implications of watching/reading/playing certain things. However, if you watch a physics documentary or a TED talk every day, it's most likely going to be much more conducive to a healthy mind than if you spent that time on /b/. It also will most likely change how you think, behave, etc. Our time is valuable, and our use of it (as well as the information we derive from such use) decides who we are as people.

So for now I'll go over some specific principles I've been doing which have been good for my Lent period (hopefully I'll continue such principles after it's over):

-No Facebook, Twitter, or Social Networking Sites: This was kind of hard at first, as I'm on Facebook a pretty large amount. However it's exactly because of this that I banned myself from it. There's a lot to be said about responsible use of social networking (it's how I largely keep in touch with a few people, and sometimes I find interesting articles on it). However there are two main downsides to it. The first is that it's a notorious time-waster, which isn't so bad - that can be fixed by setting restrictions for oneself. The other one though is probably something we should keep an eye on as social media becomes more pervasive: one's real, day-to-day face-to-face social interactions can be reduced to meaningless online relationships. I can attest to how isolating this is. Sometimes I've maintained vibrant Facebook relationships with people whom I don't even really know in real life, and probably wouldn't hang out with often. And the reverse is often true - the people who I really love and hang out with a lot usually aren't on Facebook. Why use it then?

-Educational Videos, Text, and Audio: This stuff is really plentiful, though right now I'm just scratching the surface of what you can find. Most of what I've found so far is surprisingly well done, and there's a surprising amount of very well done documentaries, videos, journals, audio of lectures, etc. for free out there. TED talks, Big Think, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are my favorite (suggestions of related sites are appreciated!).

-Minimal usage of YouTube/video sites: Keeping off of video sites except for educational videos or some higher quality entertainment is a good idea. I'm not saying there's nothing good on YouTube other than its educational videos, only that it's easy to get sucked into watching video after video of pointless crap as the minutes and hours tick by (internet addiction is a concept I'll be looking more into and discussing).

That's what I've been doing for now. There's definitely a lot more to be said on this topic, and I'm not finished with it by any means. Consider this a starting point for further research and thought on this.

P.S. Check out this site:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Philosophy of Religion - Hell, Labels, and Agnosticism

Today I'm going to make an attempt to flesh out my philosophy of religion (and perhaps my religion itself). This is a huge topic which I know that I cannot just outline or try to write an 8-page paper on. At least not right now, when I'm starting school, but also when I haven't developed it nearly to my satisfaction. So I'm going to start with some short (~2-5 page) papers, each on a particular subject of philosophy of religion. I'm definitely not going to be able to be systematic in this, but I plan on synthesizing (and expanding on) these topics in the future. Today I think I'll start off by discussing my general views on the idea of religion as personal identity.

The notion of a person following or not following a particular religion is so universally accepted that it may seem strange to scrutinize or question it. However, the onset of modernity and globalization has forced religions to interact in a way that civilization seems to be relatively unused to (i.e., tolerating, by choice or not, one another's existence). We now live in a world of more or less competing religions, where instead of sending swords to deal with infidels, they must stick with missionaries.

To many followers of the Western religions (and of course with non-followers) this relative nonaggression toward other religious traditions is seen as an improvement, since they believe that conversion-by-the-sword is the wrong way to inspire a change in a person's soul. Instead they advocate a more moderate, 'respect others' wills' approach. Others see more aggressive tactics (violent or not) as integral to missionary work, because the salvation from hell takes priority over being nice or tolerant of a person wishes.

It is interesting that this concern with hellfire may have much to do with how we define ourselves. If you are a non-Christian, you risk suffering the wrath of Jehova. If you are a non-Muslim, you risk a similar fate at the hands of Allah. This puts a stark difference between the non-Christian and Christian, non-Muslim and Muslim. It makes the issue black and white, a matter of either falling into an abyss or being saved. Interestingly, Jews neither have a hell nor actively attempt to convert people. Jewish identity is more complex than other conceptions of religious identity, for it has ties to culture and ethnicity that are not necessarily found in most others.

If you're reading this, you're probably like me in that you either don't believe in hell or believe that if it does exist it is not the hell of popular conception (eternal fire burning all unrepentant sinners). There are many reasons for this: disbelief in God or the supernatural, belief that God's benevolence contradicts notions of eternal (perhaps even temporal) judgment, etc. The rest of this essay will more or less assume this in order to draw out implications to be had from disbelief in eternal hell (though I might comment on reasons for this in a later work). Whatever reason for agreeing with this point, its potential implications are important: religious identity perhaps need not be so stark of a contrast between those who follow certain practices and hold certain beliefs and those who don't.

Obviously more has shaped religious identity than belief concerning hell. Ideas about meaning, the way the world works, etc. have shaped such an understanding. Whether or not religious identity has been shaped by Western conceptions of religion is something I am not prepared to comment on, due to my own ignorance on the subject and evidence either way. However, with the view that being a non-believer does not have eternal consequences for a person's soul, it seems that the distinction between religions may be relaxed in favor of comparing and contrasting, and incorporating elements of one another.

It is with this in mind that I have approached religion for some time now. Incorporating elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Gnosticism, and even atheist and pantheist ideas, I have come to have a rather complex (not necessarily sophisticated) view of religion. I have also incorporated scientific understanding and ideas like deep ecology to an extent. With this in mind, I have to ask: am I a Christian, a Buddhist, a pantheist, an agnostic, all, none, some? Perhaps such terms are useful in understanding what has shaped my perspective. But none of these really define me, give me a sense of purpose and identity in and of themselves. It is because of this that I gave up trying to define myself, because it was ultimately too restricting to force myself to think within a certain paradigm.

Oftentimes labels become less useful as an issue grows less absolute. Religion seems to be much more complex than a debate between theists and atheists, and framing the issue as such can be detrimental to both involved parties. However, I'm not necessarily convinced that taking no stance on the matter is the right way to go about it. It seems entirely possible to support a particular position without letting it define oneself. In other words, to say "I don't know what God is, understand this world, or know what my purpose is, but I've got a general idea and I'm going to live my life while trying to figure it all out" without needing a label to define it.

Of course, perhaps the question we should ask here is if identity is something that we should have or not have. On the one hand, it's a reason for conflict among the religious, and if a distinction is lost between religions a great reason for hatred and separation could be undone. On the other hand, identity can be a way to present a coherent worldview and way of life that gives both individual and shared purpose. The task seems to be in understanding if we can have purpose and coherence without division, which would seem more desirable than having all of these things.

Frankly, yes we can. Besides the fact that I know that myself and others around me do this on a daily basis, it's a well thought-out aspect of Buddhist psychology that if one dissolves one's ego or extensions thereof, then conflict will naturally settle. This peace is not without purpose, but is inherently valuable. It is perfectly fine to say that I have no religion, but derive purpose, culture, and understanding from wherever I find it.

This is not to say that the idea of a Christian tradition, Buddhist tradition, etc. isn't helpful in making one's source of thought coherent. It is useful to understand some basic ideas and beliefs that can help lead one to wisdom. And it would be missing the point to say that we should combine traditions into a 'unified religion'. The idea (whether one accepts it or not) is to let go of religious identity, not combine different ones (which would ultimately just make a new one).

Now if one believes that he/she should give up their identity as a Christian, Hindu, etc., it does not mean that they need give up their values, their beliefs, or really anything more than a label and the notion of exclusivity. I feel that, while it is of course up to individual choice, this practice should be standard for how we treat religion. Instead of calling ourselves and our children Muslim or Buddhist, we should think of religion as a personal commitment that doesn't fit simply into categories. It's a mode of being and living that simply is a part of the human condition, and there is no need for it to be more of a source of conflict than differences in music taste.

As a final note, I think it is fair to end this by keeping with the idea of not letting ideology define you, but still looking to give some description of religious ideas, by giving a bit about what I believe. I have dodged such a question in my own mind for some time now, but I will give it here in brief.

In short, I am what I call a 'positive agnostic'. Agnosticism has a perception of being a weak position, where one simply ignores the question of religion. Here, I do the same thing, but defend such a (non-)position by arguing that humanity's position is one where knowledge is a scarce resource. Our ideas about the divine and of the universe may be completely off, and to pretend certainty about anything pertaining to these would be a ridiculous venture. Maybe we can come to know such things, but I don't wish to give unnecessary credibility to positions which confirm or deny ideas concerning the divine.

Not to say that I don't have some ideas about the divine. I think God is 'the answer to the question implied in being', the meaning given to one's existence. From this perspective I seek to understand God.

I'm also one who disbelieves in the notion of self, which helps to shape my ethical stances. I am a utilitarian, though it might be fair to call me a negative utilitarian* (I am more focused with reducing suffering than maximizing pleasure, and I believe that happiness is much different from attaining pleasure). This mode of ethical thought is not grounded in God's commands, due to the problem raised by the Euthyphro dilemma.

Besides this, I believe in trying to live a good life like Jesus did. Jesus had a profound impact on the way I shaped myself and he still does today.

That's all I can say for now, because I'm tired and I haven't thought it all out completely. But I think it's a start.

*Edit on September 1st: Due to my working out some of the problems with this school of thought, I've decided to go with the distinction of "Non-hedonistic utilitarianism", which views the good as that which maximizes happiness. Happiness here is a stable condition that is distinct from pain and pleasure in that it is more lasting and self-transformative. I'll expand upon this point much more later; I might even work on it as part of my undergraduate thesis.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Objectivity within Prescriptive Statements

Paper I wrote a while back. My apologies for just posting philosophy papers from last year; I haven't had much free time as of late, but I'll hopefully start a series of short papers soon.

Among one of David Hume’s most oft-cited passages is one made toward the end of A Treatise of Human Nature, in which Hume points out that in order to get from statements of how the world is to ones concerning how the world ought to be, one must necessarily add an evaluative premise. Such an observation shows that there is an epistemic gap between facts and values. Many have thus taken to a non-cognitivist account of morality. Indeed, this seems the only logical conclusion: that morality is based, not on a series of moral facts, but non-cognitive prescriptions (what Hume describes as ‘the passions’) of how the world ought to be.

However, in this paper I will show two things: firstly, that it is possible to have a ‘semi-cognitivist’ account of morality without sacrificing the distinction between facts and values; this is due to the fact that values necessarily base themselves off of an objective understanding of the world. Secondly, through such a conception one may observe moral systems with some degree of objectivity (which I will demonstrate through an observation of facts and values within Marxist thought).

The Problem
In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume formally raised a distinction between what is and what ought to be, by stating the following:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

There has been much debate as to what Hume meant in this conclusion to the Treatise. However, a generally accepted viewpoint (as endorsed by contemporary philosophers such as R.M. Hare) is that Hume was making a distinction between the way the world is (facts) and the way the world should be (values). While the point may seem obvious, even trite to some, it is a crucial observation, which attempted to answer moral questions debated in Hume’s day.

One such question was epistemic: how does one acquire moral knowledge? In other words, how does one accurately determine whether something is good or evil, right or wrong? Most of the answers provided in Hume’s time were based on the idea that reason or divine command were the source of moral knowledge. However, another group of thinkers (such as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson) held that moral sensibilities are emotional responses; they were ultimately who Hume would agree with. Hume thought that through contemplation of character traits and action, we experience feelings of approval or disapproval that shape our understanding of good and evil. Interestingly, this appears to be the viewpoint of modern evolutionary psychology. (Downes)

Against moral rationalists and ethical naturalists, who said that morality was reducible to factual claims, Hume insisted that “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” He famously said that reason is the “slave of the passions”, which is to say that human will is motivated by sentiments that are not ever solely rational.

Of course, this has frustrated naturalists for a long time, due to many wanting to find moral knowledge that is verifiable the way that facts about the world are. However, while is/ought does present a problem that more or less spells the end to an absolutely naturalistic ethical account, it is possible to retain some of the benefits of naturalism (i.e., the ability to evaluate certain ethical systems) while losing its insistence on blurring the line of distinction. I will demonstrate this in the following pages.

I will make no pretensions to disagree with Hume’s distinction: an ‘ought’ cannot be derived solely from an ‘is’, and there is no point in pretending otherwise the way that ethical naturalism does. However, I do wish to focus attention to a certain point; namely, the necessity (not the sufficiency!) of reason in determining values. Put simply, while moral judgments depend on moods and motivations other than reason, reason often plays a vital role in making such judgments. To this it seems Hume would agree, but I feel the point may be missed without understanding why.

If we take Hume’s is/ought distinction as saying that an objective treatment of facts cannot say anything about values, we lose out on a critical feature of devising moral structures; namely, facts. To another extreme, if we deny the distinction between what is and what ought to be, we are merely ignoring the fact that statements such as “lying is wrong” contain evaluative propositions within their formulations. So we must find a synthesis, where we can say to what degree our facts inform our values, without confusing the two.

Let us first turn to the issue of delineating the difference between facts and values, and thus defining our terms.

What is a fact and what is a value?

A ‘fact’, in the manner that I use the term here, is an objective, verifiable proposition concerning the way that reality works. It is simply a statement concerning an observable truth (or rather, what one believes to be true). Whether certain facts are actually true or false is not a matter of concern here. The possibility of scientific truths to be overturned upon the discovery of contradictory evidence, or that a degree of personal bias and unfounded/false presuppositions may always be a part of scientific endeavor, bear little weight in defining a ‘fact’ as opposed to a ‘value’ (though such concerns are important to an understanding of the practicality of knowledge and objectivity).

The methodology used to observe a fact has little bearing on its ontological status, beyond the criterion that it not include moral sentiments of any kind. What’s necessary in defining a fact as such is merely for it to be a statement about reality with an absence of evaluative premises (statements of a given action or consequence being good or bad, right or wrong). For example, the sentence “torture causes pain to individuals” is a fact, rather than “torture is wrong.”

A ‘value’ is a sentiment concerning the way the world should be. Values are characterized by being non-cognitive: they are ‘prescriptions’ or commands for action, but do not themselves represent facts of the world. They are by definition subjective perspectives, as they involve decisions that are ultimately relative to individual determinations of right or wrong. Morality is thus a concept which is dependent upon beings evaluating the world.

How facts relate to values
However, despite the subjective status of values, they must necessarily make implicit and objective assumptions about the way the world is. This point may not seem directly obvious as one considers that facts are cognitive propositions and values are non-cognitive prescriptions. But cognitive or not, we start off all judgments based on our current understanding of how things work.

As an illustration of this, let’s consider the thought process of a hungry individual. This individual says “I should eat.” However, behind this sentiment there are certain ideas about the way the world works that she starts any process of judgment with. One such idea is that “hunger is what happens when the body is devoid of proper nutrition”. From there, she may work deductively: “to cause hunger to cease, I have to eat”, “hunger is a sensation that leads to an unpleasant state of being”, etc. The sentiment “I want to avoid unpleasant states and experience pleasant ones” is more or less where the evaluation of the facts comes in. At this point, we are left with several facts of the world that are contained in the evaluation “I should eat.” Despite the non-cognitive basis of hunger, facts help to make an evaluation a cognitive one. For simplicity, I will call this model of facts/values ‘semi-cognitivism’, which I define as the notion that values are cognitive propositions (e.g., “I should lie to my friend”) consisting of cognitive and verifiable facts (“the truth would hurt my friend”, “lying would produce better results for my friend”) and non-cognitive propositions (“I want my friend to be happy”).

It is here that facts may be evaluated objectively and (perhaps) scientifically. The world of facts acts as a representation of the world; the world of sentiments and ‘passions’ does not. Let’s take the first example and alter it so that the person in question does not want to eat. In this instance, she does not want to eat, because she is depressed and suicidal. Her sentiment “I want to avoid unpleasant states” has changed, but not her evaluation of facts. Tweaking it again, let us say that this time the person is an ascetic who believes that starving oneself will lead to enlightenment. Here, the sentiment of wanting to avoid unpleasant states of mind and find pleasant ones has not changed, but the evaluation of facts and his methodology of attaining such states has.

As another example, let us imagine two monks of different religious orders. The first believes in the law of karma, which guides his actions by saying that all good actions have good consequences, and bad actions are met with bad consequences. He takes his actions in accordance with this principle, and seeks to make good actions in order to ensure good consequences for himself. The other monk is a materialist, and believes that the physical world is indifferent to moral actions. He takes his actions based on the idea that personal happiness is increased by making others happy. Ultimately the monks come to similar yet different conclusions (roughly deontology and utilitarianism, respectively). Both start off with the premise that personal happiness is good, but diverge in their understanding of the world around them.

Thus we can reduce values to both sentiments and facts, and objectively evaluate the facts while leaving sentiments up to the individual. None of this is to say that a certain ethical system or way of thinking morally is ‘wrong’ (which is akin to saying ‘this heat is cold’). Rather, it is to show that our ethical deliberations can be mistaken, in the sense that they do not lead to desired results.

Mistaken values
An understanding of this gap has implications for how we treat morality. Throughout human history, many ethical and political systems have been proposed, each with intense variance in methodology, aims, and results. Ultimately we cannot evaluate such systems as good or bad based on what they aim to do (with the exception of individual determination). We can, however, say that a system will or will not work in achieving such aims based on analysis of its assumptions, methods, and previous results.

Take, for example, the political thought of Karl Marx. Marx set out a theory known as historical materialism, which focuses on giving an account of history as continuous struggle between classes. This theory has been the thesis of a movement within literary criticism and has attempted to give unique perspectives to historical events by seeing them through the lens of class struggle.

Yet Marx’s understanding of human nature in constructing this account seems to be off. In the sixth of his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, he writes “… the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Through methods such as evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, analysis of why the Soviet Union and other socialist or communist economies collapsed, and perhaps a dose of common sense, we can understand why this thesis is verifiably wrong. Human nature does not appear to be malleable, as there are cultural universals in human societies such as hierarchy, a strong tendency for social interaction, and gender roles. In this and in other ways we see that human nature does not appear to be infinitely malleable, and can evaluate one of Marxism’s basic claims as wrong.

However, we again can say little concerning Marxism’s aim, which more or less appears to be reducing suffering and promoting economic well-being. With an understanding of how Marxism fails to accomplish this, we can reform the system of thought, and thus through analysis of the facts our methodology is changed for the better. Perhaps this system would be unrecognizable as ‘Marxism’, but its aims could remain exactly the same as before.

We can see that Marx was coming from a perspective that was heavily based in reaction to Hegelianism, Kantianism, and other philosophical movements. Yet his understanding of history and the ideas he was working with were uniquely his own, and were in sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries. While there may have been some disagreement in how vast of a moral circle (to paraphrase W.H. Leckey's term) Marx wanted, it is clear that much of his values matched up with his contemporaries. The disagreements often arose more in relation to methodology than to aims. Mikhail Bakunin, an anarchist and rival for control of the First International, critiqued Marx for his understanding of human nature and his advocating totalitarian rule in accomplishing his aims. However, both wished similar ends in the liberation and well-being of individuals. The source of these disagreements is a proper demonstration of how argument can arise and be debated: through analysis of fact, not through analysis of the will.

In understanding the difference between facts and moral sentiments, we are able to construct values which are consistent with both. Sentiments will always vary between individuals, and individuals may choose to ignore facts in carrying out such passions. But our values are inevitably formed by our understanding of facts, and we ignore them at our own peril.

With an understanding of where the difference lies we can find that the vast moral systems which are constructed need not be evaluated on the basis of opinion, but on the basis of cold and clear analysis. This is important; even if in practice we have yet to fully understand processes of evaluating schools of thought to any satisfactory conclusions, in principle we are able to submit such schools to the tyranny of evidence.

It may seem strange to think that an embrace of Hume’s meta-ethical distinction would lead one to conclude something that sounds so similar to ethical naturalism, but fears of moral relativism via the denial of realism should be all but extinguished when one recognizes that non-cognitivism need not necessarily follow from the acceptance of non-cognitive sentiments within value judgments.

1. Cohon, Rachel, "Hume's Moral Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
2. Downes, Stephen M., "Evolutionary Psychology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =
3. Morris, William Edward, "David Hume", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =
4. Sayre-McCord, Geoff, "Metaethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
5. Singer, Peter. A Darwinian Left. United States: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

God as Purpose

This is a paper I wrote for a philosophy class. I am far from satisfied with it, but I'm going to post it here for now because I know that if I wait for it to be perfect it never will be. I may use it as a nucleus for further discussion later on.

God as Purpose
The oft-asked question of theology and philosophy, “Does God exist?” is sometimes followed (even preceded) by inquiries into the nature of God itself. This is often done with the (implicit or explicit) assumption that God’s existence is in the affirmative (for example, the characters of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). While such an assumption is useful for thought experiment and is perhaps a necessary one to carry on any meaningful discourse concerning the nature of something, the assumption often leads one to retain many presuppositions about God that might best be abandoned in the interest of a truly objective analysis. There are many conceptions of God: animist, polytheist, monotheist, deist, pantheist, panentheist. The common traits such conceptions share are often few and far between, but the central idea that most religions express on the subject is the idea of an intelligent, otherworldly being or set of beings which create(s) the universe. Here too, there is variation: not all conceptions are all-powerful, benevolent, or even have intention in their act of creation.

It should be apparent, then, that while in order to have any meaningful discussion concerning the nature of something as ill-defined as God we must try to find its points of commonality, we must also understand that these are generalities which often have intense variation. Perhaps the best approach to understanding God, then, is to understand the reasons why the idea came into being. In fact, this point is one that is especially important: if we were to define ‘God’ as something without relevance to a person’s existence, it would be a strange occurrence for it to still be called ‘God’. This is because in most, if not all contexts that we have seen a god or gods arise as a significant entity within a culture, it has been to satisfy basic human needs for fulfillment. Religion as a cultural phenomenon is said to have arisen, among many other things, out of a need to find fulfillment, meaning in one’s existence.

In the debate on God’s existence, people will not be satisfied by an answer which is not relevant to their individual situation. A God which gives no sense of meaning or purpose to those who believe in it seems not a God at all, more a mere fact of the universe, like the laws of physics (or perhaps for better analogy, the law of karma in Indic faiths, which is taken as a metaphysical truth but is not worshipped or venerated).

In the beginning of Volume I, Part 2 of theologian Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, Tillich states, "The basic theological question is the question of God. God is the answer to the question implied in being." Tillich’s account of religion was unorthodox and seems slightly inaccurate. He defined religion as the ‘ultimate concern’ in a person’s life, which seems not necessarily true; whereas one may be ultimately concerned with a religion, others may partake in traditional religious ritual yet not be ultimately concerned by it. However, Tillich was not attempting to work within current guidelines of language concerning religion, but sought to redefine those terms (or rather, to correct them, claiming they had been misunderstood and misused). In this sense, we can see religion as being something which occupies a special reality to those who participate in it. Anything less than ultimate concern is what is often referred to as the ‘exterior’ part of religion; showing all the signs of religious concern but not having that core essence.

So let us take Tillich’s basic point and run with it, that of God and religion as being something that must be understood as relevant to the individual. This is a point that the existentialists seemed to agree upon: Kierkegaard (an ardent Lutheran) felt that it was better to be a pagan with infinite faith than a Christian with only a passing interest in their religion. Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead” was an attempt to show people that the implication of disbelief in God was that one was left adrift in a sea of despair, with no moral foundation (such as that created by ~2,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition) and that we must therefore seek new values. Sartre said that, though God is an utterly absurd concept, It is a desire for completeness and self-sufficiency for man.

If God is the answer to the question implied in being, then defining God ultimately becomes a matter of understanding being, and what question is immediately implied within it. The question of being appears to be what Tillich describes as a "metaphysical shock", that one is thrust into a world of existence that is without inherent meaning or divine purpose. This is ultimately the heart of the concern in existentialist thought, what Kierkegaard describes as 'angst'.

Once one understands the question implied in being, then one is able to say what God is. But because of this very criterion, the definition becomes a matter which is completely relative to the individual. In order to distinguish what we mean, let us say that there are two relevant conceptions of God: the objective, which is something about the universe that remains independent of individual minds (although the possibility of verifying such conceptions can still remain problematic). Here we see the argumentation of philosophers and theologians: cosmological, ontological, teleological, etc. But there is also the level of which is meant to ask what concerns a person ultimately. This is the subjective conception, which is whatever the individual chooses to accept as their answer to the question implied in being. Having faith in God is to be concerned with It totally and ultimately, all other concerns subjected before this one. So the subjective definition of God is 'that thing which concerns one totally and ultimately.’

To demonstrate this difference, let us suppose that there is a certain conception of God which is contradictory or unverifiable. The theistic model of God displayed in the Abrahamic faiths often is faced with such inconsistencies or contradictions: omnipotent and all-loving but allowing suffering within the world; omniscient and omnipotent but allowing for free will; grounding morality yet not making it arbitrary. While these issues have of course been dealt with over the centuries with vigorous debate and reasoned argument, and theologians as such have developed more nuanced ideas concerning the nature of God, let us suppose that one has faith in this God. To the individual, an objective truth concerning this God (that it is contradictory) does little to the individual’s conviction in this God. It is only when one seriously considers such objective truths and relates them to oneself that the individual’s subjective conception of God is altered. But one may take this to be God regardless of such truths. In other words, while a conception of God can more-or-less be rendered objectively untrue, the fact that it is a matter of utmost importance and concern to an individual remains true, and in this sense this God still exists.

However, discussing the question of God's existence presents an interesting problem, because in raising such a question one must automatically assume many things about the very nature of God. While in common usage there are assumptions which concern certain characteristics (such as benevolence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc.), the implicit assumption of any inquiry into God's existence is that God is something (almost always an intelligent being) which can be said to exist or not exist. While this may seem a trivial point, the implications are potentially far-reaching. For if God is something which may not exist, it cannot truly be the answer to a question implied in being. If God answers being, It must be universal to being. As Voltaire famously put it, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

The difficulty, it seems, is in matching up the objective with the subjective; finding a conception of God which is universal to being and answers it as such. It must be a necessary conception: with the arising of being necessary comes the arising of the answer. What is the answer? Here we must admit that there is no easy answer, and herein we can admit controversy and complexity of the issues involved. Some advocate the idea of a single Creator deity, who actively participates in the universe. Others advocate a more aloof conception, of one who activated a single event (e.g., the Big Bang) and set into motion the entire universe, but does not interfere beyond this. Still others say that what is universally answering of being is the attainment of self-awareness, wisdom, and compassion. Whatever the answer may be, it must fit the criteria discussed above in order for the conception to succeed in solving being.

God, then, is the meaning that one chooses for their existence. This meaning may or may not be the correct meaning, in the sense that it may or may not solve the problems one faces as a temporal, fallible individual. However, it is up to the individual to find what gives them the meaning that answers these problems to their satisfaction.

1. Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume I. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
2. Wainwright, William. "Concepts of God". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = .
3. Crowell, Steven, "Existentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Defining Religion

So I haven't put anything up yet, and I figure I should do something with this blog, so here is my final 2-page paper for "Introduction to the Study of Religion" from first semester of 2009-2010.

Defining Religion
Clifford Geertz offers a valuable and well thought-out definition for religion: A system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [(wo)]men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. Geertz was indeed a formidable scholar within the field, and his definition appears to be as flawless as one can possibly hope for. However, the question that I think should be raised is whether the very act of defining the concept is flawed by the origins of the term. [1]

Religion, as J.Z. Smith puts it, is an anthropological, not a theological category. It is a second order category, meaning that it is imposed from the outside and thus characterizes phenomena in a way that is shaped according to the scholar’s own experiences with them (as well as that of the social, cultural, and academic background the scholar hails from). [2]

It is these problems with the term that plague a scholar of religion. Forced to make do with a category that is externally produced, ‘religion’ becomes a matter of studying the various aspects and features that appear to be universal to a certain class of phenomena that is classified as ‘religious’: ritual (or ‘performance’), belief, culture, practice, experience, etc. This creates the potential (perhaps a necessity) for a unique blending of approaches: psychological, philosophical, theological, anthropological; all must more or less work in unison (at least in theory) to understand religion.

Perhaps this is the best possible way for us to understand religion, through understanding its composites and then piecing together a complete picture from them. But there may be other routes to be considered. If we accept (or at least entertain the idea tentatively) that ‘religion’ might have been an anthropological misstep, then we can rework our historical understanding of the various phenomena that have been labeled ‘religion’.

Such a major revision of acquired knowledge has certainly been tried in the past in a variety of fields. In pre-Newtonian physics, the concept of impetus held that an object will move only if a force is continually applied to it. Newton not only overturned this concept, but also completely disregarded it, for it had no relevance to his own formulation of the laws of motion. In studies of literature and of history by feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic writers, various ideas regarding women, class, and important social and cultural forces were exposed as being unfounded, unscientific, or imperialistic (though some of these attempts have turned out to have similar results). And of course, within religious studies itself, there has been substantial revision to certain concepts, such as ritual theory (see Catherine Bell, “Performance”). [3]

To attempt a revision of the history of religion is no small task, nor is it something that should even be attempted without proper analysis of the consequences that a de facto abandonment of the term would entail. But there are real problems with a field whose very definition repeatedly fails consistent and agreed-upon definition. They are, of course, issues that may be worked around without ever raising life-or-death consequences for the field (philosophy has managed to survive and thrive for much longer without definition). Still, the idea should at least be explored before we to continue to use such a problematic heuristic as ‘religion’.

1. Geertz, Clifford. “The Interpretation of Cultures”. Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. Olson, Carl, ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, c2003. 285-297. Print.
2. Smith, Jonathan Z. “Religion, Religions, Religious.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Taylor, Mark C., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 269-284. Print.
3. Bell, Catherine. “Performance.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Taylor, Mark C., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 205-221. Print.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Who I am and Why I'm Here

So for my first post on here, I think it will be appropriate to say who I am and further, why I'm on here in the first place. In short, I am a freshman in undergraduate studies at New College of Florida who is double-majoring (concentrating, if you go by my school's lingo) in philosophy and religion. My background may be a little complicated, but I think a general overview of the ideas I've had over my lifetime will be helpful in determining my outlook.

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, I've been a very spiritually* and philosophically-minded person. From ages 13-17, I was a devoted protestant Christian (and largely politically conservative, while remaining socially moderate and liberal). At 17 I became a Buddhist, while largely retaining much of my Christian roots (I identified as a Christian-Buddhist for a while afterword; at some point I became more agnostic/atheistic). Only recently (about a month ago now) did I decide to renounce Buddhism, not because I don't think that what it says is true, but because I did not wish to be confined to a specific doctrine in anything I did (this is seen in Buddhist thought as well: see "Killing the Buddha", a Zen koan; the Kalama sutta, where the Buddha admonishes one to not accept anything unless he/she sees it for him/herself; etc.). Now I am nothing: I have given up Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, conservatism, liberalism, anarchism, etc.; I accept no doctrine on any basis other than on my own experience and reason. While such doctrines can inform my understanding, ultimately I have to make the final decisions on what I believe and how I act.

At this point one may be tempted to ask, "well then, what do you believe?"** That's partly what this blog is for. I'm writing this blog because it gives me an important outlet for expressing ideas concerning philosophy, religion, politics, and other issues. In order to make any progress in these areas, I have to be able to make some arguments and decisions about them. Doing so will allow me to make some important observations, revise my own opinions as I see them fleshed out, and hopefully cross the ever-present gap between theory and practice.

The blog will hopefully read as something between a journal of ideas and a series of independent essays. For the most part, I will probably be concerned with a few central goals:
  1. Understanding the history of philosophical and religious thought, specifically that of Western philosophy/theology and that of Buddhism.
  2. Creating a consistent philosophical viewpoint of reality.
  3. Addressing modern concerns, such as ethics, politics, and religion in America.
I hope to stay committed to these goals over the course of my writings, though they may vary over time. I encourage anyone reading to offer critiques or suggestions as they see fit; you will find I am very receptive to criticism, constructive or otherwise.

I look forward to future writings!


*I realize immediately the problems with this word, as it is vague and has many unnecessary connotations to it. The problem is that there does not appear to be a suitable replacement. To give a general working definition of what I mean when I say 'spirituality': "any personal attempt to try to understand the nature of the mind and that of reality."

**A related question might be "how do I act," for in going through different phases of thought my way of action has ultimately changed over time as well. At this point in my life, I try to live a very ethical lifestyle (veganism, non-consumerism, speaking and acting in a way that isn't harmful to others) and to live in the present moment with mindfulness and compassion for fellow sentient beings.