Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much

Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

Continue reading “Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much”

The Moral Compass

Wheel of the dharmaI have a laminated card beside me, wallet-sized so it can be carried around easily. I made it at my shop a few years ago; just a simple, two-sided business card with some text. It’s part of my personal moral compass. We all benefit from some guidance, at times, something to remind us of the higher things.

I look at it frequently through the day, as a reminder when I find myself in Dante’s dark wood. Every problem, every concern, every moment of doubt can be worked through using these basic principles, if you step outside the flow and think them through.

One side has the Four Noble Truths. These state the core beliefs of Buddhism in a simple, non-theistic manner.

My card says:

  1. Life means suffering. To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things, and the ignorance thereof.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. It can be achieved through the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment.
  4. The end of suffering is through a gradual path of self-improvement described in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between extremes of self indulgence and self mortification.

Suffering isn’t always what you associate with the English word. The Pali word is ‘dukkha”  and it can also mean anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, unease. A range of emotions. Wikipedia tells us:

Dukkha is commonly explained according to three different categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of developing insight into the nature of dukkha, the conditions that cause it, it how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not pessimism, but rather objective realism that informs this view. We all have anxieties over jobs, money, love, dying, sex, health, politics and more. They cause us stress, they cause us to suffer, to agonize, to hate, to conspire, to hurt.

“Life,” as this BBC page on the Buddhism says, “is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations.”

So true. And we live in a culture where happiness is a marketable quality: we are brought up to believe happiness can be bought.

The Buddha also recognized happiness, but like suffering, he also knew it is impermanent.

We become happy when we get a new toy, a new car, a new pet, a new spouse, a new cell phone or computer, when we get drunk, when we get laid, when we watch a funny TV show, when we hear a good song on the radio – but suffering returns because the new becomes the old quickly. We become disenchanted. Happiness wears thin.

We always want the new, sparkly, shiny things. The newest model, the latest game, the puppy or kitten when the other pet has grown up. We want the emotional surge that new stuff gives us. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

We also get a surge of pleasure when we win a game, when we triumph over another, when we sink the ball into the basket.

Some feel pleasure when they hurt others, too. Suffering makes them angry, bitter, lonely. Frustrated. They attack others in a vain attempt to relieve their own distress. But it doesn’t work. They need to keep attacking and hurting to try to keep their suffering at bay. Hurting others alleviates their own pain.

Continue reading “The Moral Compass”

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World

Walking quoteThe title of this post is a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking, published posthumously in 1862, but which he wrote and rewrote during the 1850s. I was thinking of that line this week when Council officially opened the new Black Ash Creek Park, in the northeast of the Georgian Meadows subdivision.*

I was thinking of it not in terms of the park – a pleasant, family-oriented, structured space with playground equipment, a small pavilion, basketball court and a chess table – but rather about the untamed green spaces around the park. It is this small patch of wildness that delights me, not the carefully manicured grass or artfully curved sidewalk that borders it.

I’m sure kids – the older ones – will see those woods, the trail, the fields as a magnet for play. I’d hate to think we live in such a paranoid, dangerous world that children can’t be free to explore such spaces, to discover for themselves the magic of the woods. Maybe I’m naive, but I want to believe children can still play outside the confines adults build for them. At the very least, I hope parents take their children for walks into those woods: teach them to love, appreciate and respect the wild, to care for it, to protect and defend it.

Not all unbuilt space should be clear-cut for a housing development. Some wild space has to be retained for our collective enjoyment, and sanity. We need, as Thoreau wrote, wildness to complete ourselves.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Walking defined Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, described through his experiences while walking into the nearby woods; like Buddhist walking meditations on our role in nature and civilization. It later became one of the key essays in the American Transcendentalist-environmentalist movement of the mid-late 19th century. It still has resonance today.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Continue reading “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World”

What’s it all about, Alfie?

Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

Continue reading “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Christmas Creep in August

Xmas XcessOn August 22, we got the Sears “Christmas Wish” catalogue delivered to our home. It was a sunny, hot day that almost reached 30C. The sprinkler was watering the garden while we enjoyed a cold beer on the porch, sitting in shorts and T-shirts.

The last thing I wanted on my mind was winter. But there it was, two pounds of wildly-inappropriate seasonal shopping choices, refusing to be ignored. As welcome as a fart in a crowded elevator.

It seems every year “Christmas Creep” advances down the calendar, earlier and earlier. Last year I heard Xmas music in stores on November 1, right after Hallowe’en. I was told that canned Xmas crap played on November 11 – while we stood in silence during the Remembrance Day memorial service – in stores where no one takes a mere two minutes of silence to remember our veterans.

That’s seriously ugly and not a little demented. Are we so shallow, our values so twisted that we can’t stop marketing, can’t stop advertising and promoting for a mere two minutes of respect? This egregious commercialism is eroding our values, like the inexorable ocean waves erode the shoreline.

The Urban Dictionary defines Christmas Creep as:

Universally hated, market driven phenomenon that if left unchecked will eventually culminate in an uninterrupted decade of concatenated carol medleys, closely followed by a glorious moment of frantic arson destroying every Christmatastasized mall in America.

Add Canada into that definition, please. I’d call for boycotts, but it seems too tame after that.

Shoppers heard Xmas carols blaring through stores on Oct 27, in the American city of Frederick, in 2010, spurring customer complaints. Didn’t stop everyone from maxing out their credit cards, it seems.

That’s not the earliest, by the way. But shoppers may be getting immune to the hypocrisy, to the calendrical backstep that brings Xmas shopping earlier every year.

One day soon, I expect, we’ll hear Xmas music in stores right after Labour Day. Think I’m crazy? Groupon had “beat the holiday rush” coupons out in July, and Costco had Xmas decorations on display this August!

Despite what the calendar says to the contrary, summer is over for many retailers and Christmas Creep is in full swing.

In Australia, though, Charles Areni, a professor of marketing thinks getting out the Xmas decorations and playing the music the sooner the better is good for sales:

“Christmas carols are a very specific genre. They’re in a major key, they have nostalgic value, they have a reasonably fast tempo – generally they’re pretty happy. With Christmas carols it’s very much about getting people to think about buying Christmas gifts, so they have a very specific purpose.”

In addition, music is specially chosen to appeal to a shop’s target market. If people like the music, they are more likely to stay longer in the shop – the longer they stay, the more likely they are to make a purchase or spend more money.

Continue reading “Christmas Creep in August”

Hell 2.3

IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
Continue reading “Hell 2.3”

Hell 2.2

Stream of ConsciousnessMight be time to recap my reasons for writing this series. New readers could get confused about the content in the Hell posts, of which this is the fourth.

They’re all the result of a convergence of several recent themes and activities in my life; a lot of which have to do with recent reading and research.

I started reading several books, more or less simultaneously this summer, some of which I’ve blogged about. One of them is Dante’s Inferno (I’m currently reading Mark Musa’s translation in the Penguin edition, but also have Pinsky’s and a few others). Another is AJ Jacobs’s book about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Know-It-All.

That latter book (which I’m still reading, by the way), intrigued me, as has Jacobs’s goal to become smarter by reading.

Wisdom comes from knowledge, and is the result of making connections between all the information, the data, the accumulated and seemingly unrelated content. It doesn’t make you smarter (which is a measure of your ability to reason and conjecture, not simply accumulated data), but it can make you wiser to know more (if you use your intelligence to make those quantum leaps across nonlinear data).

Lacking access to the Britannica, I decide to experiment in a similar fashion, albeit with something smaller, something related directly to my current reading regimen and to my own library (and my access to Wikipedia). And something I had easily available: Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell.

It’s really a stream-of-consciousness writing experiment, albeit not at the Joycean level. As I read through this book (one related to some research I’m doing for a novel I’ve been working on the past year), I use the entries as a springboard to other areas of interest, to personal memories, to other content I’m reading or exploring.

And what I comment on in the posts is hit-and-miss rather than entry-after-entry commentary. This isn’t the Talmud, after all; I am neither as educated nor as analytical as that. I appreciate the layered commentary in the Talmud, the intellectual forum for debate and discussion it represents. But it was complied in more civil times, it seems.

Continue reading “Hell 2.2”

Hell 2.1, a small update

Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

Continue reading “Hell 2.1, a small update”

Hell 2.0

Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

Continue reading “Hell 2.0”

What in Hell…?

DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

Continue reading “What in Hell…?”

Review: The Life of Pi

Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading “Review: The Life of Pi”

What if you’re wrong?

Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars. Continue reading “What if you’re wrong?”

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education

CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

Continue reading “Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education”

Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes

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What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

Continue reading “Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes”

Speaking with the dead

EVP hookumCan the dead speak to us from beyond the grave? No, of course not. But that doesn’t stop literally millions of superstitious people from believing they do. And some think they can use technology to facilitate the conversation. Of course, when you put technology into the mix, it simply cements the belief in place, no matter how ludicrous. And the internet has provided a platform for this silliness to reach worldwide.

A recent post on the BBC website made me do some investigation. The BBC story is really about EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomenon. EVP, as Wikipedia tells us, is:

…electronically generated noises that resemble speech, but are supposedly not the result of intentional voice recordings or renderings. Common sources of EVP include static, stray radio transmissions, and background noise. Recordings of EVP are often created from background sound by increasing the gain (i.e. sensitivity) of the recording equipment.
Interest in EVP surrounds claims that it is of paranormal origin, although many occurrences have had natural explanations including apophenia (finding significance in insignificant phenomena), auditory pareidolia (interpreting random sounds as voices in one’s own language), equipment artifacts, and hoaxes.

Hoaxes. Put that near the top of your list. The Skeptics’ Dictionary is more caustic, as expected:

Despite widespread belief in EVP, scientists have shown about as much interest in the phenomenon as they have in John Oates’s reverse speech theory, and probably for the same reason. We already understand priming and the power of suggestion. As Alcock says, the simplest explanation for EVP is that it is the product of our own wonderfully complex brain, aided by the strong emotional desire to make contact with the dead.

In other words, we hear what we want to hear and what we expect to hear, because our brains are designed to hunt for patterns in everything, even randomness. It’s not a picture of Jesus on your toast or your grilled cheese sandwich: That random pattern on cooked bread is just pareidolia.

I know, you’re thinking this is just another of those chemtrails or anti-vaccination idiocies that are rampant online. But these people are much further into the deep end than that. They bring in the hardware and, since few of us are electronic engineers, it sure seems to be doing something amazing. Well, it is, just not what you think it’s doing. Read on.

Browse over this report of an allegedly technical study. A causal reading would make it seem almost serious. Until, of course, you read about hooking up a “psychophone.”

Despite the belief by some, the device commonly referred to by this name wasn’t a device invented by Thomas Edison to speak to the dead; the first patented device of that name was a photograph designed to play subliminal messages while you sleep, and condition you for the next day (see here). The device referred to in the article is an electronic box; the “invention of Austrian scientist Franz Seidl for the reception of the alleged transcendental voices during his experiments with Raudive (Breakthrough pp. 362-365).” You can see more about this device here.

And what do the samples recorded on this device sound like? Take a listen here. None of those I listened to sounded anything more than electronic noise. In fact, most sounded like the old crystal radio sets of my youth; picking up bits of stations, fragments of transmissions, wrapped in that echo-y, chorus-y sound they used to make. Not a single one sounded to me like “Paul is dead,” either.

And likely that’s all they are: stray radio waves picked up by an unshielded receiver. The listeners just delude themselves into hearing something more in them. Could easily be snippets of cordless phone conversations, utility service walkie talkies, AM radio broadcasts, even cell phone calls.

As the BBC story notes,

The simplest explanation is that EVP voices are just stray radio transmissions. Usually they are so faint and masked by static interference that it’s hard to make out what they are saying, and the EVP investigator has to “interpret” them for you.

That might seem like a weakness but that’s also their power. As Joe Banks, a sound artist, points out, a dead person speaking in studio quality wouldn’t be nearly so convincing as a voice you must strain to hear.

The other giveaway in the article that they’re deep in the codswallop are the 12 references to the phase of the moon during the experiments. Wingnuts believe that the moon affects paranormal activity (not surprising since millions of them still follow astrology as if it was something more than entertainment):

Over the centuries people have associated the full moon with the paranormal and supernatural. And it would seem that the full moon phase can be a very favorable time to ghost hunt.

The new moon phase is another time people associate with ghost hunting. During a new moon, the moon rises at the same time as the sun. Because of the suns bright rays you can’t see the moon, making it really dark for ghost hunting.

But the best time to experiencing paranormal phenomena is two to three days before or after the full moon and new moon. Which would be a waxing crescent phase, the waxing gibbous phase, the waning gibbous phase, and the waning crescent phase.

I know, the words gullible and superstitious claptrap go through my head, too, when I read that stuff.

And if you can’t build yourself your own handy-dandy psychophone? No worry: just listen to your wireless router, says this guy:

As you may know, one of the theories out there is that “entities” use different frequencies that are flowing through the air around us on a constant basis in order to communicate through EVP. With that said, what else has increased in the past 10 years aside from occurrences of EVP evidence? The answer is Wi-Fi. Could they be using the unique frequency used by your every day wireless router to more easily communicate?

And I though all those little annoying voices were the sounds of pop-up ads or incoming email. So why don’t the spirits just talk to people through the air so others can hear them? One comment in this paper says they dead use radio frequency because they can “manipulate energy”:

The “departed” can somehow suppress those signals in such a fashion as to generate intelligible speech. As the machine was being tuned for the best operation, the technician was being “guided” by voice from the other side. A most interesting arrangement…

Since there is no physical matter on their level, all they have to work with is energy. By causing the energy to flow in a vortex, it naturally achieves a focal point which allows action to occur from their level to our physical level.
The technician stated that they were still learning how to “tap the spiral” which shows that the ever tightening spiral segments increase in power as they condense toward the center or focal point.

Amazing how much pseudoscience gibberish you can pack into a couple of paragraphs. The author also mentions “13 waves, the magic number” – numerology is another form of quackery the wingnuts pursue.

Listening to the original tapes made by one of the EVP pioneers, Konstantin Raudive, author of Breakthrough, the BBC reporter was not impressed:

According to a book published at the time by Smythe’s partner, a Russian voice at that session said “Stefan is here. But you are Stefan. You do not believe me. It is not very difficult. We will teach Petrus.” But on the tape there was nothing, just hiss.

Makes you wonder why the spirits can’t speak in coherent sentences. Raudive went from loony to huckster in a very short time, sounding more like a Monty Python skit than a serious investigator:

But once you start experimenting with EVP, it’s hard to stop. After Breakthrough was published, Raudive progressed from voices captured on tape to voices coming from animals, in particular a budgerigar named Putzi, who spoke in the voice of a dead 14-year-old girl.

Who says madness isn’t contagious? Decades later, the BBC reporter adds, other EVP “researchers” are hearing dead people’s voices in animal sounds, even in creaking doors:

Similar work today is being done today by EVP researcher Brian Jones in Seattle.

He records the noises made by seagulls, dogs, cats, and even squeaky doors and crunching pebbles. They all contain voices. One dog says, “Where’s Sheila?” referring to its owner. Another complains of its owners, “they always sail away”.

Jones thinks he can capture thoughts that somehow are in the air. “I have documented a lot of things that are pretty stunning that way,” he says.

If you read down towards the bottom of this report, there are several technical comments about the construction of these “psychophones” that identify them as noise generators with oscillator circuits:

I have carefully studied the schematic of this device and built a test unit, I have noted a few things. First, not every oscillator is a radio transmitter. Second, the oscillators in this device are highly unstable circuits, and have adjustable potentiometers that will literally allow you to make it talk. By rotating the knobs you can alter pitch and cadence. As for “transcendental voices to modulate” I
have yet to see that proof. What this device will do is allow any frequency present in the audio range to modulate the carrier. Twisting the knobs will also modulate the carrier. This thing is a win/win situation. If you don’t detect an EVP, you can generate one.

So you generate what you’re looking to hear. And another comment from a different author in that paper:

These boxes are essentially synthesizers, very similar to the one invented by MOOG in the early 1960’s. In fact I have an old synthesizer here in the lab and I can make say whatever I want. It certainly is no proof of voices from the dead, although I could make it seem as such.

I had an old Moog synth back in the 1970s, and now that you mention it, it DID sound like those sound samples linked above. Maybe they should just add small piano keys to it. At the end of this piece, the above author notes:

But the truly astounding thing is I have talked to witnesses that are firmly convinced that they spoke to a dead loved one… The same results could most likely be achieved using a white noise generator, a magic 8-Ball, or a deck of Tarot cards.

In this report from the same website, it says there is a “a correlation between EVPs and EMF” which suggests to me simple feedback from the electromagnetic fields of the recording devices.

So EVP is, like the rest of the psychic, paranormal world: just more bunkum to suck in the gullible. People “hear” voices in the electronic noise because they want to believe, desperately want to believe that death isn’t the end. They want to believe we can carry our ego on to another “realm” and maintain our individual selves. That when we shuffle off this mortal coil, we wake up in another world. We willingly suspend belief in logic to avoid the alternative: that death is the end. Period.

Sorry to debunk that for you.

I suppose it’s better to have these folks glued to their “psychophones” for hours on end than engaged in some social activity. Who knows, what they might be up to if let loose.