Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Religion and civilization

Just read a kind of interesting note on religion and its effect on people. The writer noted (sort of) that complete hostility seems misplaced when treating religion even from a skeptical point of view, since most people need religion to support their morality most of the time. Religion has a "civilizing effect", and while religious fervour might have led to outbreaks of savagery, human society might well be more brutish without its influence.

Well, that's a lot of ifs. I have to admit that I'm rather skeptical of religions. Faith in general is something I look upon more kindly, and I can understand the belief in the existence of God. Unfortunately, I can't in good conscience accept such belief as truthful, because doing so would mean forsaking strict standards of thought for comforting superstition. Kind of like taking all the things you don't understand and slapping on the label "religion".

In any case, I've come across this idea before, and I can certainly accept it with some reservations. Religion is probably an essential feature in the process of civilization we go through, and it answers our need for explanations in a rather simple and understandable manner. It is also a structuring process taking place inside a society, or perhaps better said to be a structural part of the whole society and thus part of the whole process that instills values in individuals.

An interesting aspect of this is how different religions are suitable for different social conditions, and of course, how they adapt to those contexts. Unfortunately, the most powerful religions pretty much end up as part of the established power structure, and often impose severe limits on intellectual freedom inside the society. General attitudes and interests tend more and more towards truths established by the dominant religion, which in turn means that other explorations are rejected or even treated with hostility as a challenge to the reliability of the religion's message. The more powerful a religion is, the more extensive and insidious this effect tends to be.

Well, that should be enough of high-handed generalizations for now.

Anyway, happy Chinese New Year. Year of the Rooster, here we come.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Light in a keyhole

Many people seem to think that to define something is to crush the mystery that surrounds it, to take away the very spirit which animates it. As if in understanding, the true realization slips through your fingers.

Nonsense.

It is true that mystery may be alluring, even comforting. Nevertheless, if one truly understands something - and I am not talking about just slapping on a suitable label - then one also grasps the wonder inherent in it, an affirmation of existence, if you will. Mystery is a pale thing in comparison, although it certainly can be lovely - Moon reflecting the light of Sun.

However, labeling is something quite different from understanding, and far more common. We have a limited amount of direct experience and a great amount of acquired information, and we tend to mesh these together in response to new information we need to absorb. In best case, one is careful of drawing conclusions and perhaps even enjoys the direct experience of the situation, but often we use ignorance to breed more ignorance.

Well, that's at least one way of looking at the process, although hardly a very comprehensive one...

That said, I guess I should note that since we humans tend to be rather incomplete beings and our understanding is equally so, it is unavoidable that mysteries should be so attractive (and possibly frightening) to us. While I don't appreciate mysteries as an end to themselves, I recognize their importance as steps on a longer journey. They entice us and fire up our imagination by their refusal to conform to the labels of our expectations and leave us free to probe our way towards a greater understanding.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Just asking

You know, sometimes I think I spend most of my life wondering what I should do with my life. Actually, that is merely the surface of the real question, or perhaps a way of inquiring. What is life? What is its purpose? Does it have one?

Perhaps that is the root issue. Does life actually have a purpose? Is it merely a biological and psychological extension of a process which perpetuates itself, perhaps merely to sustain itself? And if so, is this just a viewpoint, one which is actually quite divorced from human experience? After all, if humans are part of a larger process in which individuality is a simple sideproduct, does that not mean that in terms of that individuality we can determine our own, individual or even collective purpose? What would the lack of a priori purpose for individuality mean to us?

Of course, it is very tempting to think that life or maybe in a broader sense existence would have a purpose besides being. A goal toward which it is proceeding. However, the problem with this is that it can - to my limited knowledge - only be intuited, at least for now. And arguing over intuitions is sort of pointless.

Thus, what methods can be used to gain understanding of that purpose? Even given the possibility that it exists, is it actually possible?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Belief, Ideology and Premarital Sex

It is curious to see how ideology and reality crash together and fail to find common ground. One example that springs to mind is the Catholic church's official stance on condoms. While their use is not actually forbidden (I think so, anyway), they view those little rubber thingies very negatively. On the other hand, they are under increasing criticism over this as AIDS is spreading unchecked in many Catholic countries without the use of prophylactics.

Now, I see no reason why people shouldn't use them, but it is easy to see why the Church is unwilling to accept their usage. After all, in their doctrine sex is something that happens only between married couples. Since there is no sex outside the marriage, there is no need to fear infection.

Of course, this AIDS angle is still a minor issue in the whole use of contraceptives for them. Good catholics should not use protection, because preventing impregnation is against the Will of God or something like that. And since the said impregnation would happen only in holy matrimony, it's all good.

It's easy to see where reality clashes with ideology. Unmarried people have sex. Certainly not surprising, but since the Church seeks to hold up moral standards of its ideology, it can't condone pre( or ex-)marital sex. It would be nice if they could take a bit more relaxed approach to this - "Well, since you're sinning, do it so you don't hurt anybody" - but I guess that's not going to happen any time soon.

Ideals are a great thing to have. I personally think that aspiring to become a better person and seeking to constantly improve yourself is what truly makes us human. Ideology, however, can easily become a dead thing restricting that growth. People seem to be much more desperate to assert their beliefs, if they are hard and brittle constructions instead of deep seated and experience-based beliefs that are strong enough to be flexible. I guess learning by rote is a far cry from actual understanding.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Effort and laziness

Most people tend to wonder about what they will want to do when they grow up. Including me. Well, I'm pretty grown up already, but I'm still wondering.

Now, I do have a reasonably clear idea of what I would want to do, but the problem is that I can't seem to get around to doing it. I manage to distract myself with entertaining but rather empty diversions - gaming, fiction and so on. Only occasionally do I manage to rouse myself to read or write something with a bit more depth to it, but mostly I whittle away my free time doing things for the short term pleasure they give me. I suppose the only constructive thing I do is martial arts training, but even that tends to be rather minimal with some occasional bursts of enthusiasm.

Of course, there are many ways for me to rationalize using my free time simply booting my own systems, so to speak. Having one basically full-time job and another part-time one nagging at the back of one's head can be draining, certainly. Add to that an underlying stress of getting on with my university studies so that I could, God forbid, actually graduate at some point. Good reasons for lack of energy, I guess.

Nevertheless, I think it actually comes down to habits. I'm used to playing around with my computer or just reading on my free time, and I find it hard to do what I think I would like to do in the long run - train, write, think and read philosophy and similar topics. The problem is that I see all that as requiring effort on my part, so I approach these pastimes as energy-consuming, instead of offering relaxation that I gain from my usual ways of spending free time.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Intellectual context

One thought that has just struck me is the influence our surrounding, exterior mental space has on our interior mental space over extended time periods. Well, that is a bit of an overly pompous way of putting it - basically the idea is about how the thoughts of your peer group influence your own thinking. In a way, people tend to be mental chameleons, adapting themselves - to a varying extent - to the perceived and experienced opinions and interests of e.g. their work place.

However, the adaptation is something one does not just shake off when not within that group, i.e. it follows you home. It is not that easy to just ignore what you go through for long periods throughout your day. Eventually, you absorb some of that into your own attitudes. I guess this is one of those mechanisms that encourage forming peer groups, as people increasingly identify their own inner landscape with that of the said groups.

(Argh, I hate writing like this, but I'm too lazy to couch this into more readable format right now.)

In any case, the thought occured to me when reflecting on my own and my girlfriend's behaviour. We are both reasonably intelligent people, but it is interesting how our work environments affect us or how we perceive them. My girlfriend has been complaining about how much her work sucks and how much she would want to get to a university to be in an environment that does not have such a stultifying effect on her personal growth as that office hell she seems to be trapped in. Well, she did not put it quite like that, but that's the gist or at least a major part of it.

It just occurred to me that her work has affected some of her views or to be more exact, the things that occupy her attention. In effect, getting opinions from rather narrow-minded people, she absorbs some of them without really noticing and fails to inquire into things as clearly as she could. In effect, she does not really think things through.

As for my part, I connected this to my thoughts on my other job, as I do assistant work at the University of Art and Design. In there, all its design-parlance still smacks kind of strange to me, since I work there only a limited number of hours each month. However, I can easily see myself adapting to it if I was more involved in it.

And it is not, of course, just the way things are talked about, it is the way things are thought about that's the point here. Different environments treat things differently - an office environment might treat a piece of news as entertainment and justification of one's opinions, while a research environment might well dissect meanings and contexts. And when one habitually relates to things in this manner, it kind of follows that it influences one's way of thinking.

But the main idea is that the whole environment forms a kind of a partly self-sufficient mental construct that is made up of its members, but not tied to them. The members can come and go, affecting it to varying degrees, but the construct stays, influencing its members in turn.

Oh well, just a thought to occupy a few moments on a boring work day.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Stupidity veiled as ideology

I just read an article on how Martin Luther King's daughter led an anti-gay march for Christian fundamentalists in the States, apparently attempting to send the message that late Mr. King would have been anti-gay as well. I guess that from the POV of Christian right, being anti-discrimination would not preclude one from being anti-gay, since the Book sayeth that them people be naughty in His eyes. Or perhaps being anti-discrimination simply means that it's not ok to oppress black people, but with other people its pretty much ok.

Honestly, few things irritate me as much as this kind of rampant idiocy you see all around you. The above mentioned instance is a particularly blatant and offensive one, but on smaller scale it goes on all around us. Mostly people can manage to keep their baser instincts - like fear of the Other - in check, but at least in the States the situation seems to be sliding steadily for the worse. I guess it's not all that surprising, since pendulum of prevailing attitudes tends to swing back and forth, but it is nonetheless unfortunate.

In any case, thinking about these cases always leads me to think about the group mentality people often tend to exhibit in these things. The most vocal people can gain disproportionate amount of influence, because fewer people can be bothered to put up a resistance to their ideology, no matter how misguided it might be.

Here's where the unfortunate side of religion tends to exhibit itself, since many people use religion as a justification for their own intolerance. For example, Christian "fundamentalists" use Bible to justify their hatred of gays, jews and other groups they find distasteful, happily ignoring what a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth taught about loving, compassion and many other quite noble ideals. But this is paradox does not even seem to enter the equation for them, which is a pity. And religious groups can be quite vocal and cohesive.

And so I return to late Mr. King. While Martin Luther King never took a public stance on homosexuality in his speeches, his own rhetoric for anti-discrimination would either force him to recognize that there is no excuse for oppression if one follows the truly Christian ideals, or condemn himself a hypocrite by his own mouth. A firebrand he might have been, but not one to lit bonfires under people.

People do tend to be a prejudiced lot - not surprising, since we relate to any given subject as an idea, and the actual substance is probably the least part in these ideas. As a result, people are often suspicious or simply ill at ease over things they find strange or unfamiliar. However, this is just human nature, and nothing to feel ashamed of - as long as we control that feeling and do not let it control ourselves. I'm not going to go into a discussion of what constitutes a human or how baser instincts should be treated, at least not here, but I do want to point out that unless we remain mindful of what goes beneath that surface we present to the world, we can hardly talk of our opinions as our own convictions.

Anyway, enough with ranting.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Zzzzz...

So, Christmas is over, and here I am, second day at work, trying not to nod off. Well, actually I'm almost done. Not having anything worthwhile to write about, I will point you to a new direction, with lots of fun and wackiness (laced with some intelligent thought) to enjoy - go and see www.sinfest.net . I'll be going home, now.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Coming home for Xmas

So, here I am, in the middle of nowhere, ready for Christmas at my parents'. Lots of snow all around, dogs running around and plenty of food, I hope. I came here fortified with some four or five books to read during the next couple of days, so I should be able too keep myself busy enough. And let's see what tomorrow brings, too - not that I have too high hopes in the gift department. Something fun would be nice, though.
But in any case, I'm mostly looking forward to good food and enough rest. No work, no worries...

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Ok, I guess it's customary to write some "Hello, world"-message here, or then act all cynical and write something that criticizes such practices. Umm... which to choose?