robinturner: The sacred Chao (chao)
After some lively discussions on Eray Özkural's Facebook on the topic of agnosticism (which he regards as utmost stupidity) I was moved to think some more about the subject of my earlier post, “An Argument for Agnosticism Against Atheism”. Here I made the case against an argument known as Russel's Teapot, which is one of those charmingly absurd examples beloved of philosophers. It goes like this: one would not believe in the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars because there is no evidence for it; the argument that there is no evidence to disprove the existence of the teapot is absurd. This is used as a stick to beat not only theists but agnostics, since we do not have an open mind on the existence of the teapot—we assume that there is no teapot, even if some people maintain that there is. My argument was basically that belief in the existence of God is not analogous to belief in an orbiting teapot (or leprechauns, or the Great Old Ones) because it is not an assertion that the universe contains something but an assertion about the nature of the universe, and in particular an assertion that the universe is created. Rather than an infinite number of objects that could possibly exist, we are simply choosing between one of two alternatives: either the universe was created or it wasn't. The absence of strong evidence for either of these hypotheses makes agnosticism the most tenable position. (I later found that Brian Garvey has made a somewhat similar argument.)

However, this argument involved only one view of God—a Deist one. There are plenty of other conceptions of God, or gods, and I was curious about whether the teapot argument applied to them. (Incidentally, militant atheists seem only to be interested in the Abrahamic view of God, something which Dawkins admits in The God Delusion.)

1. God as Creator and Director
The Deist position, as we've seen, is that God is the First Cause, and the teapot argument does not apply for the reasons stated. The Abrahamic view of God takes that and adds a more active role for God, who not only creates the universe but directs it. If we see this as stating that God creates a universe that works perfectly well on its own but nevertheless chooses to interfere with it from time to time, then I think the teapot argument, or something similar, should apply. Interference implies that from time to time things happen which would not have happened if the laws of physics were working normally—in other words, miracles. The very eagerness of religious believers to supply evidence for their miracles (“A hundred people saw the statue move!”) seems to imply that evidence is needed; however, the evidence provided is by no means convincing, putting miracles in the same class as orbiting teapots. There is also the theological objection that it would be absurd for a perfect and omnipotent being to create a universe that required tinkering, but that's off-topic here.

An alternative view of God as both creator and director is that everything in the universe happens as the result of the will of God. This view is expressed in some Abrahamic theologies and in Stoicism, for example. While Occam's Razor may apply (why have something directing everything rather than everything running itself?), I don't think Russel's Teapot does. But this view takes us in the direction of our next conception of God.

2. God as World or World-Soul
The view of God that most atheists argue against is a transcendent deity: God is separate from the universe, which God creates and/or directs. An alternative view is that God is the universe (pantheism), the universe is part of God (panentheism) or God is a part of the universe (not sure what you call that). We find this conception of an immanent deity to varying degrees in Western philosophies such as Platonism and Stoicism, and most radically in Spinoza's pantheism, but it is a minority view in the history of Western religions. The further East you go, the more immanent the deity becomes, moving through Sufism and Hinduism to Taoism. Of course when you go that far it becomes questionable whether what you are talking about is really a god (calling the Tao a god would certainly be stretching the point); on the other hand, the doctrine of panpsychism, currently popular with atheists, is only a smidgeon away from pantheism. In all these cases, the teapot argument does not apply because these are all hypotheses about the nature of the universe, not the existence of some entity in the universe.

3. Gods as Powerful Quasi-Physical Beings
One case where the teapot argument definitely does apply is classical paganism. The ancient Greeks, Romans and so forth had a pantheon of deities who were perceived as powerful physical or quasi-physical entities. (It's worth remembering here that, Plato notwithstanding, most people in the classical era were more-or-less materialists.) The Greek gods not only influenced the physical world, they wandered around it using physical bodies, a phenomenon attested to by the large numbers of pregnancies they caused. As far as I can see, this makes them no different from leprechauns, unicorns or Russel's teapot.

4. Gods as Personifications
Even the Greeks and Romans started to realise that the theology of their fathers was untenable, though not necessarily for this reason. What many educated people in the ancient world started to believe was that Mars, for example, was not a guy dressed in armour who went round starting wars, but was in some way a personification of War, or the warlike aspect of the cosmos. Similar things were happening over in India, where the straightforward deities of the Vedas were evolving into cosmic principles. This principle also forms the basis of Neo-Paganism. The teapot argument does not apply here because no argument does. If you want to personify natural forces, that's your business.

Neighbours

Friday, January 10th, 2014 04:07 pm
robinturner: 2010 (tricycle)
Back in the '80s there were three tunes you could not escape. One was the theme tune to Eastenders, one heralded Dallas, and the other went “Neeeighbours … everybody needs good … neeeeighbours.” Out of curiosity, I dived into YouTube and found that this series actually still exists and is on episode 6750 or thereabouts. This is a triumph of, er, something, but that is not what I was going to write about. I was actually thinking of who I would like to have as a neighbour if I could choose, and that song sprang forth unbidden.

I'm excluding A-list celebrities, because living next to a celebrity wouldn't be much fun what with all the fans and paparazzi, and I'm excluding people I know but most people don't (e.g., my mum) so this is a list of moderately famous people I'd like to live in the same building as.

Tim Ferriss

Now Tim Ferriss has published his third best-seller and got his own TV show, he's getting dangerously close to the A-list, but I still think it'd be possible to live next door to him without being annoyed by fans camping out on your doorstep. I'd like to have him as a neighbour because of his infectious enthusiasm for learning just about anything. Conversations on the staircase would go “Hi Tim, how's it going?” “Not so bad—I just started learning Indonesian nose-yodelling.” He's also a great cook, which is always a good trait in a neighbour.

Josh Waitzkin

Josh Waitzkin is similar to Tim Ferriss in that they're both obsessed with learning, but is in a way his opposite. Ferriss is interested in becoming the best you can at something with the minimal expenditure of time and effort; Waitzkin is just interested in becoming the best. And he does: eight times US chess champion and three times world t'ai chi pushing hands champion. He also comes across as a really nice guy. Anyway, it'd be fun to have a former world champion to do pushing hands with, though I think I'd pass on the chess. I played a lot when I was a kid—enough to realise that I'd never be that good at it, and that there were more enjoyable games to be played, which neatly brings us to …

The McGonigal Twins

Jane McGonigal shot to geek-fame after her TED talk on how games can make a better world, which if nothing else demonstrates the power of telling people what they want to hear. Inspired but a tad skeptical, I ordered her book Reality Is Broken and was not disappointed. But even if her claims for the benefits of games are wildly exaggerated, I'd love to have such a bubbly, enthusiastic neighbour to play games with. Her sister, Kelly, is a yogi and health psychologist and seems like she'd make a wonderful neighbour too. And hey, twins! Twins are always fun (unless you mix them up, when they can be quite unforgiving, as I found out the only time I dated a twin).

MFÖ

Mazhar Alanson, Fuat Güner and Özkan Uğur are talented musicians and interesting people, performing a unique variety of Turkish folk-pop-rock laced with satire and Sufism since 1971. If you're not Turkish you probably won't have heard of them, unless you used to follow the Eurovision Song Contest in the days when Turkey could be relied on to get “null points”. This is a pity, as they have some great songs (though I don't count their Eurovision entries here). Mazhar Alanson has added his deadpan humour to a couple of films, and Özkan Uğur also acts in sitcoms from time to time. And as I said, they're into Sufism. Definitely the kind of neighbours you'd like to have round for drinks.

Yaşar Nuri Öztürk

Another person I'd like to have round for drinks, though in this case non-alcoholic ones, is the theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk. Again, this is someone you probably won't have heard of unless you're Turkish, which is a pity, as he's one of the best writers on Islam around. In Turkey, he's controversial mainly for demonstrating that the so-called "Islamic headscarf" is not Islamic at all. Even if you're an atheist, it's hard not to be impressed by his intelligence, scholarship and good humour.

Malcolm Gladwell

I never paid much attention to Malcolm Gladwell until I watched another TED talk, where he spoke of spaghetti sauce. At this point, I realised his true genius, which is making pretty much anything interesting. What better person to bump into regularly? “Hi Malcolm, how are you?” “Fine thanks, and did you notice the design of this stairwell?”

Ursula Le Guin

Every neighbourhood needs a Wise Old Woman, and since I'm not allowed to include my mum here, who better to fill this role than Ursula Le Guin, who was born in the same year? Not only is she one of my favourite FF/SF writers, she just oozes wisdom. She's like her own character, Ogion the Silent, except fortunately not silent.

So my Sunday would start with yoga with Kelly, followed by t'ai chi with Josh. I'd have elevenses with Yaşar and Malcolm, then learn Ecuadorian juggling with Tim in the afternoon. After dinner (cooked by Tim) we'd have MFÖ round for a sing-song, then Jane would teach us her latest game before Ursula reads us all a bed-time story.

(no subject)

Saturday, December 21st, 2013 04:08 pm
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
I generally tell my students not to write titles for their essays but just write the question instead. All too often they ignore this advice, so that a question like "Critically compare Plato's and Aristotle's views on education" will generate a title like "Plato vs. Aristotle" as though this were a boxing match (after Rumble in the Jungle and Thriller in Manila, I suppose this would be Horror in the Agora). On the other hand, this time round my title-loving students have come up with some that, even though they wouldn't get through peer review. at least make me curious about the essay. I mean who wouldn't want to read a philosophy essay entitled "Happiness is a Warm Gun" or "Dinner with Lucretius"?
robinturner: Citizen Smith (wolfie)
In France, a country where the hate crime laws are almost a crime in themselves, Bob Dylan has got himself in trouble for comparing Croats to KKK members and Nazis. The sentence that caused the brouhaha was "If you’ve got a slave master or the Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that ... Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood." There are at least two levels of irony here. The first is that someone is being accused of a hate crime for reminding us of racist atrocities committed in WWII by a fascist regime. Sure, he made a serious mistake in saying "Croatian" not "Ustaše" (the Croatian fascists) but that's hardly enough to be taken to court for. If I'm talking about WWII and I say "the Germans", I could be forgiven for not adding "and of course I am exluding those Germans who didn't support the Nazi Party." The second irony is Dylan's using the notion of "blood" in what was supposed to be an anti-racist speech. I was going to say it was also ironic that the writer of some of the greatest lyrics ever should have such problems getting is words right, but then it occurred to me that the fact that Dylan is such a great songwriter may be the problem. If he'd sung that stuff about blood (pronouncing it "bleeerd" in his inimitable way), it might not have been such a problem.

There is also some tragi-comedy to be seen in the debate that immediately sprang up (see the comment section of the article I linked to): specifically, the way Serbs and Croats think they're so different from each other. From the perspective of the rest of the world, what we see here is just an unusually vicious turf war between two micro-nations who have the same language, the same culture and almost the same religion. OK, Croats are Catholics and Serbs are Orthodox, but all that means is that they've been killing each other over some obscure theological dispute which for anyone outside Eastern Europe is about as exciting as the difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen. Or maybe it's the Cyrillic alphabet that's causing all the problems. Or the fact that the Croats got all the good beaches? Beats me.
robinturner: (Default)
Every so often I catch myself getting frustrated at individuals, groups or societies who don't seem to have cottoned on to the 21st century. It can be a small slip into the last century, like the university authorities insisting on our being physically present in our offices during the holidays to ensure that we are "contactable". It could be a dramatic throw-back to the Paleolithic, like Syrian rebels munching on their victims' internal organs. It could be something in the middle, like Russia's anti-gay legislation, or Christian groups trying to ban dictionaries that contain the phrase "oral sex". My reaction is always the same, though: I want to scream "Come on guys, it's the 21st century!"

This is a silly reaction. Of course we are in the 21st century, but that century is in its infancy, and in any case, a century is not really a long time. Forget the information age, the pace of change over the last two centuries has been dizzying, so it's not surprising that a lot of people haven't kept up. (In case anyone is about to protest that this implies a linear view of history, yes I do have a more-or-less linear view of history. Anyone who thinks progress is a myth should be put in a time machine and dumped in the middle of seventeenth-century Europe, preferably as a woman with a suspicious-looking black cat.) Anyway, this got me musing about what was going on, and what hadn't yet happened, in the year I was born, which in turn got me thinking about the world when my mother was born, and so on.

When I was born, the cool kids were listening to Elvis (and the cooler kids were listening to Blues), television was the big new thing but was in black and white, Blacks and Whites could not marry in South Africa and 18 US states, sodomy was illegal in the UK and all US states, a woman could legally be paid less than a man doing the same job, computers were giant pocket calculators, calculators were machines you worked with a handle, and no one had been to the moon.

When my mother was born, the cool kids were listening to Louis Armstrong, radio was the big new thing, alcohol was illegal in the USA, unmarried mothers could be put in mental asylums, the sun never set on the British Empire, it was socially acceptable to be anti-Semitic (though perhaps not quite as much as that young Hitler chappie), and no one had climbed Mt. Everest.

When her mother was born, the cool kids were listening to music hall songs, moving pictures were the big new thing, there was a tsar in St. Petersburg, a sultan in Istanbul and emperors in Beijing and Vienna, women couldn't vote, Roosevelt had just become the first American president to ride in a motor car, and no one had been to the South Pole.
robinturner: Citizen Smith (wolfie)
Conservative men respect women in just the same way that progressive men do: by not treating them merely as sex objects. The difference is that in order not to treat women as sex objects, the conservative (Christian, Islamic or whatever) requires that women become as asexual as possible, by covering their bodies, avoiding certain words, places or activities and so on. Anything that reminds them that women have vaginas is a deal-breaker. It's rather like respecting Black people only on the condition that they wear face paint to disguise those provocative skin tones. I mean how can you blame a guy for coming out with a racist comment occasionally, when there are people flaunting that brown skin all over the place?

Breaking Bad

Friday, November 8th, 2013 03:48 pm
robinturner: Raybans + Matrix coat (rayban)
Nalan and I have finally finished our Breaking Bad marathon, which took in all five seasons in around a month. Life basically stopped for Breaking Bad, a series I never managed to arouse interest in while it was still airing, but thought might be worth watching after all those Emmy nominations. These are some random thoughts it has left me with.
  • Chemistry is really interesting. The real tragedy of Breaking Bad is that Walter swaps a genuine passion of the magic of chemistry for a lust for power. Well, that and all the dead people.
  • It's never too late for a career change.
  • Hooking up with former students maybe isn't such a good idea.
  • I feel squeamish about using Stevia now.
  • It is becoming difficult to resist the temptation to end sentences with “yo.”
  • Likewise, I really want an opportunity to say “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”
  • Actually, not really. After almost every BB session, I thanked my lucky stars I am an ordinary person with good health and no criminal activities.
  • When it comes to health provision, Turkey beats America hands down.
  • Having seen a record number of underwear shots, I can conclude that the real reason Walter White wants to start a meth empire is penile diminitude.
  • It's time to break out the hat.

Autumn Cleaning

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 09:56 am
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
Over the last few weeks, due to religious and national holidays here in Turkey, I've finally freshened up Sensible Marks of Ideas after neglecting it for years. After reading Josh Kaufmann's The First 20 Hours, I was tempted to learn Ruby and rewrite the whole site, but I resisted the urge and contented myself with tweaking. Although the site still doesn't look wonderful (not least because my transparent PNG images don't seem to be properly transparent), I have at least fixed the broken CSS and PHP that was plaguing it. It could do with a complete redesign, but I don't have time for that.

On the content side, I've added a few more quotes to Learn Logic With Beavis & Butthead, put up “Guns… Lots of Guns”: The role of violence in The Matrix, which originally appeared in the unfortunately defunct Molly: a Pop-Culture Zine, and wrote the first new article in years, 80/20 Happiness. So all in all, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.
robinturner: (Default)
That's "book" as in "turn something into a book," not as in "book a hotel." Having nearly finished working the preceding posts on happiness into a proper article, it's occurred to me that there's a book in there. At the moment I have around 5,000 words, and each section could fairly easily be expanded fivefold, giving me 25,000 words, or 100 standard paperback pages, which is around the minimum length for a book. This is an appealing prospect on one level, because I've only written one-and-a-half books (my book on how to write a term paper and half of Lojban for Beginners) so it's high time I wrote another. Moreover, given the subject matter, the potential audience is much larger (people who want to be happy, as opposed to people who need to write a term paper or learn one of the more obscure constructed languages). This suits both my nobler impulses (the urge to help people be happy, for example) and my baser desires (fame, fortune, groupies) though if I'm going to be realistic, noble is a better bet here.

On the negative side, I know that I am much better at starting things than finishing them, and a finished article is much better than an unfinished book.

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Robin Turner

June 2014

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