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Archive for January, 2009

Doing his impression of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, journalist Glenn Beck illustrates the looming danger of hyperinflation due to the ongoing government bailouts:

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Remember how we discussed how the God vs. Science debate seems to be simply a question of convenience (albeit psychological) rather than a question of truth? Well, recently blogger Star Larvae had an interesting email exchange that highlighted this:

People I encounter who have an interest in speculative cosmology, or whatever we might call our endeavor, tend toward extremes of scientific rigidity or New Age wooliness. At least, that is my observation. I try to keep my thoughts on these matters somewhere in the middle. The scientific types tend to be preoccupied with establishing scientific credentials for their ideas. While I have bolstered my speculations with scientific references, where I am able, I have grown less concerned with receiving blessings from science. My project is philosophical, theological, political, psychological and has many other dimensions, including the scientific. I don’t feel a compunction to position all other dimensions subordinate to the scientific. I think that humankind can be served by conceptual breakthroughs in philosophy, theology, etc., as much as by breakthroughs in science. (Of course science has a certain privileged veto power, and if any idea I propose is scientifically disproven, I will have to abandon or reformulate that idea.)

The context of this exchange was that Star Larvae was denied membership in an online forum that dealt with evolution and scientific development of man, simply because Star Larvae’s work left an opening to consider theological arguments.

I also notice either an outright rejection of God or a tendency to avoid the God question altogether in many science forums–and I think this is as limiting as the outright rejection of science and reason by religious discourse. This can be called “theophobia” and this kind of compartamentalized thinking is not conducive to critical thought and truth-seeking.

I do agree with Star Larvae that the scientific method is a robust one–and is used as the backbone of critical thought. To cement the point, in statistical inference there are two general kinds of errors: Type 1: rejecting a statement when in fact it is true, Type 2: failing to reject a statement when in fact it false. These two errors result from a failure to appreciate evidence, or even a lack of sufficient evidence. However outright blind rejection of possibilities without adequate evidence is NOT scientific by any definition.

The lesson we keep harping: face all possibilities squarely and in light of not just existing evidence, but potential evidence. And more than this: be brave enough to make an assertion and a judgment, and be willing to change your assertion as more possibilities emerge. Static thinking and passive thinking have no place in critical thought.

Between settling for convenience and pursuing truth, choose truth.

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Conspiracy literature is rife with the phrase  “New World Order.” The early root of this interesting slogan is a speech given by George H. W. Bush:

Since that time, conspiracy theory has burgeoned with speculations of a secretive international insider elite plotting to control the world and instigating global crises to further their aims. The formula: crisis = opportunity to establish controls.

The permutations and ramifications of the New World Order are too intricate to summarize here, but recently a statement by British P.M. Gordon Brown about the current financial crisis rings parallel to Bush’s mantra in the video:

“We face a choice. We could allow this crisis to start a retreat from globalisation,” Brown said in his speech.

“As some want, we could close our markets – for capital, financial services, trade and for labour – and reduce the risks of globalisation, but that would reduce global growth, deny us the benefits of global trade, and confine millions to global poverty.

“Or we could view the threats and challenges we face today as the difficult birth pangs of a new global order, and our task now as nothing less than making the transition through a new internationalism to the benefits of an expanding global economy, not muddling through as pessimists but making the necessary adjustment to a better future and setting new rules for this new global order.”

Understandably this kind of phraseology has alarm bells ringing on every conspiracy theorist’s desktop. This goes back to that question earlier posed: are these events due to collective incompetence, or collective genius conspiring?

For me, the only thing consistent about all these speeches is society’s ignorance of its own limitations and vulnerability until crisis strikes. Whether these crises were triggered intentionally or resulting from ignorance or both doesn’t change this observation.

Putting the weakness against a time-dimension:

The past we don’t understand fully, the future we can’t predict accurately, but more glaringly: the present we aren’t critical enough of. Of the three timeframes–it is ONLY the present that we can control. This is why critical thinking is very important. It’s our only weapon against cruel surprises… NOW.

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Ernest Hemingway had an interesting statement:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

This was quoted in an interesting article that described an inverse relationship between intellect and happiness. Accordingly to the article, the culprit is largely education:

Western society is not set up to nurture intelligent children and adults, the way it dotes over athletes and sports figures, especially the outstanding ones. While we have the odd notable personality such as Albert Einstein, we also have many extremely intelligent people working in occupations that are considered among the lowliest, as may be attested by a review of the membership lists of Mensa (the club for the top two percent on intelligence scales).

Education systems in countries whose primary interest is in wealth accumulation encourage heroes in movies, war and sports, but not in intellectual development. Super intelligent people manage, but few reach the top of the business or social ladder.

Although it’s definitely a debatable assertion, it’s nonetheless an interesting and controversial idea. What I gather is that the “happiness” the article harps on is grounded on moral values or prioritization that is assigned by society which is implemented and disseminated by the educational system. What society “values” highly: wealth, sports, etc.–are what defines “happiness” or success.

However, is intelligence necessarily anti-thetical to these values? I think there’s an implicit error here in that the article seems to differentiate or dichotomize between reason (intelligence) and emotion (happiness) when there isn’t necessarily a gap between the two. This is very apparent in thus further excerpt:

Children develop along four streams: intellectual, physical, emotional (psychological) and social. In classrooms, the smartest kids tend to be left out of more activities by other children than they are included in. They are “odd,” they are the geeks, they are social outsiders. In other words, they do not develop socially as well as they may develop intellectually or even physically where opportunities may exist for more progress.

Arguably these four “streams” are really just two: mental and physical. And these two streams are really just one: since the brain is a physical organ, and the mental stream encompasses intellect, emotion, and sociology. However by dividing a person into body and mind and the mental into further compartments, on the one hand it may give insight into human motivations, but on the other hand it may also be an excellent excuse for contradictory behavior.

Consider the following statements:

  • “Follow your heart instead of your brain.”
  • “Follow society instead of yourself.”
  • “Follow the right path, regardless of how you feel.”
  • “Follow what makes you happy, instead of what makes sense.”

Although these statements imply varying motivations: all these motivations take place in the mind, and are all still the province of reason/rationality. The contradictions and conflicts implied in these statements all exist in the mind.

The heart doesn’t make decisions–it simply pumps blood. It’s the brain that chooses the emotional route instead of the logical one. And arguably, in this case, the emotional route becomes the logical one for the person who chooses it. Society doesn’t choose for an individual, it’s the individual who values society that chooses to follow soceity’s dictates. The social need is still in the mind. Right or moral path vs. emotion is another version of heart vs. brain. In this case by choosing the right path–you are in effect putting morality as part of your logic or reasoning. What was really in conflict are the choices of what morality to value, not a choice between morality and emotion.

So back to happiness–which is an emotion, which is part of the mind. A happy person isn’t happy because he values certain things (e.g. wealth or the body) above intellect. In reality it is his intellect that produces the emotion–his intelligence that values those things. A sad person isn’t unhappy because he chooses intellect above all things–but perhaps those things his intelligence values are lacking in his life.

Maybe the proper question is not a dichotomy between the mind and happiness–but what kind of happiness the mind is looking for.

Finally–this doesn’t touch yet on that other controversial dichotomy: that of the body (which includes the brain and the mind), and the spirit/soul.

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In a controversial story that broke in Time in 2007, Mother Teresa’s secret letters confess an emptiness that troubled her in her last years:

The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever

Author Christopher Hitchens, an atheist and a long-time critic of Mother Teresa, described the revelation as eye-opening both to non-believers and believers alike. In this video, Hitchen’s jousts with Christian pastor Bill Donohue about Mother Teresa’s secret confessions:

(Thanks to Daniel’s site for bringing this video to my attention).

This undestandably raises a lot of controversial faith questions like is faith necessary to do good works? Mother Teresa actively sought for faith her entire life and decorated her life with charitable works, and yet despite this self-confesses to have not found God in her life. Against this benchmark, how do people evaluate their own faith (or claim to faith)?

Here’s some soundbites in reaction to the article:

Albert Mohler: The recent revelations of Mother Teresa’s spiritual struggle should remind all believing Christians that our faith is in Christ — not in our feelings.

Rene Bas: Why does God allow the dark night of the soul to visit His most faithful children? Because they are being deified! They are being engoddened! They must lose all feeling of self-love. They must learn to will to love God even if the senses get no joy out of it.

Simply put: if your feelings can’t feel God, don’t trust them?

What do you think?

*** edit add: Mother Teresa’s spiritual emptiness was cause for an exorcism performed on her, which we featured sometime back.

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Satish Kumar’s article on the guardian “Worshipping The Wrong God” is an interesting take on the present financial crisis, with a refreshing ethical and spiritual approach:

It amazes me to see that the great economists, industrialists, business leaders and politicians have even forgotten the true meaning of economy. They only think in terms of profit maximisation, whereas the true economy means good housekeeping; proper management of all aspects of the home. The criterion of good house management is to ensure that all the members of the household are living in harmony with each other and the place. Money is only a means to a good economy, not the economy itself.

Banks and business leaders, politicians and economists are looking for economic recovery, hoping to go back to business as usual: the good old days of growth without limit, consumption without restraint and profit without principles. From a spiritual perspective economy is good economy only when it is in harmony with ecology, ethics and equity. Day and night we chant the mantra of economy while our ecology is in ruins, our ethics shelved and our principles of justice are put on the back-burner.

Kumar statements highlight first the obvious issue:

There are two roads to economic recovery: the first option is to bail out the banks and fuel consumerism,

the second option is to think holistically, to invest in land and agriculture, in renewable energy and practical skills

But at the same time, he poses the deeper, neglected question to us:

But how do we choose the right answer without some guiding values? Such values can be none other than moral, ethical and spiritual.

Ah that word: “moral”–notice how it scares people into not thinking. But very brave and inspiring words Satish. We definitely agree.

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Taleb has taught us that history can lead to probabilistic fallacies since it is only one possible path events could have taken, which necessitates a practical skepticism on our part on the appreciation of historical events. Although this can be enough to make us critical of historical assumptions, I think it is only a partial framework in evaluating ideas.

Thankfully, K.M. gives us a complimentary angle which can help us in our critical thinking: on evaluating an ideal from a moral or philosophical standpoint apart from a historical (i.e. empirical) one–which we already know from Taleb is only a partial insight.

K.M. differentiates between political ideals and political systems, and which of the two can be approached from a philosophical or moral standpoint and which can be approached from the (imperfect) historical one:

political ideal is a moral ideal, not an economic one. A political system is an economic/organisational structure that attempts to realize political ideals. A political ideal of economic equality leads to a political system of communism (example: The Soviet Union). A political ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’ or ’social justice’ leads to a political system of socialism (example: India until the 90s). A political ideal of national superiority leads to a political system of fascism (example: China). A political ideal of liberty leads to a political system of capitalism (example: the early USA).

There is no such thing as the success or failure of a political ideal.Ideals do not succeed or fail. They are accepted or rejected. While the failure of a political system might cause some people to reject (or at least question) their ideals, the failure does not prove that the ideals are wrong. As long as one still holds the same ideals, the failure of a particular political system is simply useful empirical data for constructing a better political system.

For me the implications of this insight bolster the argument for an active, rather than passive appreciation of knowledge. People whom Taleb calls naive empiricists: will simply rely on evidence and history to allow them to discern the value of an idea in practice, and leaving the theory or philosophy behind the practice neglected (a sign of intellectual laziness). What K.M. explains is that despite a concept’s failure or success in history (i.e. the system), it still is separate from the philosophical or moral value of the idea–which still bears critique. Although as he says, ideals can never be wrong but they can be rejected.

There is another angle here that bears caution: the invention of the computer and internet has brought more data and evidence at the access of more people than ever experienced in history. So while this can help critical thinking in finding historical empirical support for ideas, this can also lead to the “sharpshooter fallacy” which we described earlier–where an observer simply looks at history and ignores the theoretical framework of any concept.

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