HeroicLife’s photostream

lighting incense on Qíyūn ShānDSC01497DSC01447DSC01432from a peak on QiYun mountainQiYun mountain
shrine at QiYun mountainshrine at Qíyūn mountainJudges of the deadZen poetry on Qíyūn ShānXuantian Taisu Palacelittle shrine on a peak
Yuehua street on QiYunYuehua streetYehua street, Qíyūn mountainQíyūn mountain, Yellow Mountain provinceburning incense at a Buddhist shrinejiao
Qíyūn mountain, Yellow Mountain provinceview from Qíyūn mountain, Yellow Mountain provinceDSC01407dinnerbreakfastCampfire songs and stories

HeroicLife’s photostream on Flickr.

I’ve posted the photos from my trip to Qíyūn Shān on Flickr!

Are philosophical claims scientifically provable?

This question makes the logical fallacy of the stolen concept.  The question of what is “scientifically provable” is derived from our metaphysics and epistemology.  We use our basic philosophy to derive the epistemological standard by which to investigate the specific aspects of reality (e.g. physics, chemistry, mathematics, and economics).  To demand that philosophical statements be scientifically validated is to demand that a derivative which depends on philosophy be used to prove philosophy.  This is like trying to build a house by assembling the roof, walls, and windows before the foundation.  It is fine to examine the whole structure of knowledge to verify that it is internal consistent and sound.  But we cannot use a higher-level deduction to prove the premise that it depends on.   The only way to validate philosophical claims is to use reason: to use logic to validate abstract ideas by reducing them to sensory evidence.

What is the difference between science and philosophy?

Science is distinguished from philosophy by subject matter: science studies the specific nature of the universe, and philosophy (of which religion is a primitive form) studies the fundamental and universal of the universe and man’s relationship to it.  Both are concerned with facts, but they differ in subject matter and the standard of evidence.  In the field of philosophy, we must be logically rigorous, but we cannot, and need not measure the physical evidence quantitatively as in the subject-specific sciences.

Science is made possible by the acceptance of certain philosophical axioms in metaphysics and epistemology. In metaphysics, science requires recognizing that all entities behave in a causal manner according to their nature. In epistemology, it recognizes that man is capable of perceiving and understanding reality by the use of his senses, and because his consciousness is fallible and not automatic, he needs to actively adhere to reason and logic to reach the right conclusions.  Science requires a systematic method to collect evidence and correctly interpret it because knowledge of how nature works is not self-evident.

Science is different in degree from informal empirical methods such as “trial and error” and in kind from non-empirical methods such as revelation, astrology, or emotionalism.   But the basic method – of rational investigation based on the evidence of reality must be used in all fields, whether philosophy, law, chemistry, mathematic, or cooking.

More: The One Minute Case for Science.

What if we took religion seriously?

Virtually no one in the West takes religion seriously.  This is fortunate, because if people did, there could be no such thing as “Western civilization.”  With 82% of Americans professing a belief in God, does this sound like a silly statement?  Let me explain.

The Origin of Religion

The definition of “religion” varies between cultures and scholars, but generally speaking, it originated in pre-history as a solution to a problem:

At some point at the dawn of history, men discovered themselves to be in possession of powerful mental abilities able to perceive the events around them and communicate them to others, but they lacked an explanation for most of the cause of these events.  These men needed to know how to act in response to these events, both social and natural.  Instinct and imitation no longer sufficed in complex social structures and dynamic environments.  Men responded to the challenge by inventing religion.  Religion provided both an explanation of natural phenomena and a set of rules for social behavior.  It was a primitive form of philosophy — a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of existence and man’s relationship to it.  The nature of these beliefs evolved dramatically over time:

1. The Animism of Primitive Man

Primitive pre-literate man dealt with the chaos of nature by creating animistic spirits which he begged to improve his condition.  Since his prayers and offerings were no better than chance, he led an unpredictable existence dominated by fear.  Nevertheless, a philosophy of existence, crude as it was, was an important survival asset to the first human settlements.  Many thousands of years of pre-history passed in this state.

2. Technological Priesthood & Early Civilization

The first civilizations organized spirits in polytheistic anthropomorphic cults, which held centralized political and religious power.  The technological priesthood was an elite which was either closely related to or was ruling elite and monopolized the dissemination of both practical knowledge and supernatural doctrines (there was little distinction between the two), and was thus able to control the peasant masses which it taxed and enslaved to remain in power.  Their monopoly of technical knowledge was the cause of their eventual downfall:  Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoa, the Indus valley civilization, the cults organized around the Hebrew temple in Palestine, and the native New World empires successfully kept their secrets from the masses, but were all destroyed by innovative external invaders.

3. Classical Civilization and the Discovery of Reason

At some point, around 600 B.C., several classical civilizations developed an innovative intellectual elite which was distinct from religious cults which catered to the masses.  The first Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophers introduced a secular natural philosophy, and broke the monopoly of the theistic cults. In these societies, and especially in classical Greece, the invention of a rational worldview, and the decentralization of knowledge made possible rapid technological progress, a rich cultural tradition, and military and trading empires spanning the globe.  Technocratic bureaucracies swept away the old pre-literate world in the Hellenistic world, the Roman Empire, and in imperial China.

Materially, the classical age was a time of great progress.  Yet there was no unified philosophical basis for personal freedom, no systematic application of reason to nature, or a moral basis for self-improvement and ambition.  Self-sacrificing and self-abnegating philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism provided both stability and stagnation in the East, while the West gradually forgot its philosophical traditions under increasingly totalitarian political regimes.

4. Mysticism & Medieval Civilization

The invention of Christianity was an evolutionary yet radical change.  Its chief innovation was an individualistic moral theory.  Its success is due to two factors:

First, it is non-falsifiable, because it does not need validation by any specific material events or rewards (unlike animatistic and anthropomorphic polytheism and sacrifice cults, and much later, Marxism).  A policy of strict informational hygiene (often by the simple expedient of killing all apostates) kept the emphasis on the core ideology of individual reward in the afterlife.

Second, Christianity devolved secular authority from religious authority.  “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” implied a distinction between ideas about existence at large and submission to “practical” political authority.  Unlike most previous religions, Christianity did not depend on a central political authority, and could persist as a philosophy of existence apart from the current political regime.

The Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas, detail. Paris...

Image via Wikipedia

5. The Re-discovery of reason and Enlightenment Civilization

The distinction between secular and spiritual subjects was not realized until the thirteenth century, when, due to the re-introduction of Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas, the idea of reason-based thinking was distinguished from revelation.  This distinction is unique to Western civilization and is the origin of the Western concept of “religion” as a realm of thought distinct from “philosophy.”   From this point on, religion was increasingly seen as having a special domain apart from ideas of “practical” matters.  This distinction made all rational studies of nature, including what we know as “philosophy” and “science” possible.

The Enlightenment was the product of the recognition of reason as a tool for learning about and manipulating reality, first as a supplement, and later as a replacement for revelation.  Gradually, as the power of reason was discovered and applied, the role of religion was delegated to ever-narrower domains.  While the word “religion” (from the Latin “religare” meaning “to bind”) originated in 1200 as a reference to monastic life, the modern concept itself dates to the 1530’s, when it became necessary to distinguish rational philosophy from non-rational mysticism.   Western philosophers eventually replaced all the functions religion provided with rational (or at least what they claimed to be rational) explanations.   Today, every field of knowledge known to man has been transformed by the power of reason.

This is a controversial claim, because the majority of Westerners, at least in the United States, claims to derive ideas in certain fields from religion.  But the evidence is easily seen if we compared a medieval man from the tenth century to a modern man.  The modern man’s metaphysics, epistemology ethics, politics and even aesthetics have been all radically transformed by secular philosophy.  This was not always an improvement, as in terms of their validity and morality, some secular modern philosophies have been worse and more destructive than  the worst of the mystical ones: such as, Kant’s subjectivism, Marxist materialism, and all the varieties of Socialism, Communism, and Fascism which derived from them.  But in its essence, the Enlightenment was based on sound premises and vastly improved the fortune of mankind.

Conclusion:  What does it mean to “take religion seriously?”

The concept of “religion” as it is known in the West is a modern invention made necessary by Western civilization, due to the need to distinguish between rational philosophy (I mean its archaic meaning – the examination of the natural world) and the remnants of pre-rational philosophy.

While Western ideas have spread rapidly across the world, we can still witness the state of philosophy as it was prior to the split:   For example, in many Muslim countries the idea of a separation of church and state is absurd – what other source could there possibly be for law other than revelation?  In some African countries, albinos are hunted and eaten as a cure for disease – not as a “religious” practice, but as  “practical” medicine, because what’s so impractical about casting out evil spirits?  The unity of “practical” matters and “spiritual” matters is the default historical state for man – it is the classical Western world, and specifically the Greek philosophers which are responsible for recognizing reason as the proper means of discovering reality and discrediting mysticism and revelation as serious guides to existence.

So what would it mean to “take religion seriously”?  It means reversing 2500 years of Western philosophy and discarding the separation between rationality and mysticism as sources of knowledge and guides to action.  Whatever a priest, rabbi, imam, shaman, or holy book says would be just as valid a source of knowledge in any field as any rational consideration.  This means re-introducing, witch-hunts, astrology, tea-leaf reading, and flagellation to ethics, alchemy to chemistry, and the Inquisition and Crusades to politics.  No criticism could be made of these practices if no systematic distinction between supernatural and natural explanations were recognized.

And this is why I am glad that Americans don’t take religion seriously.  The near-universal acceptance of the concept of “religion” itself represents the progress of reason over pre-rational mysticism.  It is a largely unheralded and unrecognized victory, which leaves room for uncertainty, but is nonetheless a victory which is sweeping every field of human study and every part of the world, and I hope will never be extinguished entirely.

“Free-speech” is for collectivists

Freedom of Speech (painting)
Image via Wikipedia

It is a serious mistake to use the term “free speech” as a noun – as if it were an entity distinct from “non-free” speech.

This error comes from the premise that certain (politically-correct) ideological speech should not be regulated, but other kinds of speech may.  The origin of idea is the collectivist premise that the sole freedom guaranteed to all individuals is to participate in the democratic process.  No other rights exist, as the actions allowable to individuals (including non-political speech) are to be decided by the democratic process.

According to this ideology, everyone should have the freedom to “have a say” in which politician should be elected, but no one is to be granted any other rights, including the freedom to engage in commercial speech and non-mainstream ideological speech.  Furthermore, this philosophy of “letting everyone have a say” leads to the violation of legitimate rights, via such things as campaign-finance laws and the use of government funds for political campaigns.

This political philosophy is a reversal of reality, as there is no inherent right to participate in the political process.  The existence of a free society depends on the existence of limitations that ensure that only qualified citizens decide on the future of their civilization.  For example, this is why (as a minimum) people convicted of serious crimes should not be able to vote.

In conclusion, the right to communicate with others is derived from the individual’s right to life, and the need to cooperate with others to successfully co-exist in society, not the need to participate in a democratic dictatorship.

There is no such thing as “free speech.”  All forms of communication should be free of coercion.  If you want to refer to the right to communicate, say “freedom of speech.”

Why you can’t pick and choose from your holy books

A 12 year old girl in Saudi Arabia is seeking a divorce from her 80 year old husband. (Girls as young as 8 are regularly sold to and raped all over the Middle East and North Africa- 77 percent in Niger.)

Saudi clerics and judges are defending the marriage on the basis that the Prophet Muhammad married (and had sex with) a nine year old girl.

Apologists in the Islamic and Western world will inevitably argue that selling young girls into sexual bondage may be something that was acceptable 1,400 years ago, but not today.

That this response is offered as a defense of the Quran/Bible/Torah reveals the fatal flaw in their logic:

By what standard is something not morally acceptable today that was acceptable earlier? If a superior standard of morality exists by which we can judge human action, what is the point of “holy books?” If the holy books sanction slavery, rape, murder, genocide (as they all do), then why would anyone claim that they are a source of moral authority?

Even if you disagree with a single instruction of the Bible (such as the command to kill any bride who is not a virgin, or any child who disrespects his parents) then you acknowledge that there exists a superior standard by which to judge moral action, and there is no need to rely on a bunch of primitive, ancient, barbaric fairy tales.

What is a corporation?

Following this week’s Supreme Court ruling, there is much confusion about what legal rights a corporation has and how it is different from other groups:

In a free society, any person has the right to associate with any other person by mutual consent. As long as both parties consent to their transaction, no third party (be it a government or anyone else) has the moral right to prevent or punish their interaction. This is as true for friendships, romantic relationships, and political advocacy as financial transactions. The only difference is that financial transactions exchange material values whereas social interactions exchange non material values.

A business – be it a sole proprietorship or a multinational corporation is just a group of people who share a common purpose. Their motive may be profit, but it may be something entirely different (such as changing the world with a new product, or just getting paid to do something cool, such as fly planes or invent new things).

The primary difference between a corporation and any other type of business is limited liability. Anyone who does business with a corporation (be it another business or a consumer) agrees that any liability incurred by the corporation covers the assets of the corporation, but not the individual assets of its employees. For example, just because you own Wal-Mart stock, Wal-Mart’s debtors cannot demand all your personal assets as collateral.

It’s important to understand that limited liability does not apply to criminal law. That is, if an employee of a corporation commits a crime, he is still personally liable for his actions. In no way does acting on behalf a corporation shield people from breaking the law. (Of course that is not universally true, but that is a corruption of the law, not an aspect of limited liability.)

Furthermore, individuals acting on behalf of a corporation have the same rights as individuals acting on behalf of any other group because people do not lose their rights by the nature of the voluntary associations they enter into. It should make no difference whether you act on behalf of yourself, a political pressure group, a union, a sole proprietorship, or a corporation – you do not lose your rights as a human being because you represent a particular association of other human beings acting toward a common purpose. Silencing the speech of an individual because he represents a particular group is censorship – no matter what the purpose of that group is.

If you really want to get business out of politics, get the government out of business. As long as governments try to control corporations with regulations that go beyond the protection of people’s property rights, corporations will have an incentive to control governments. Interventionism creates a vicious downward cycle hardly unique to corporations – first a lobby tries to extract special privileges from some politically neutral group, the group hires lobbyists to defend itself, and ends up using the influence it has gained to extract privileges at the expense of another neutral group, which must defend itself in turn. Campaign finance regulations just hide that process from the public and make it more difficult for non-elites to get elected or have a say in government. The only real solution to the problems caused by interventionism is to end interventionism – to separate government and economy.