Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704): leaving Buddhist haiku behind

Aki kaze ya
Ware ni kami nashi
Hotoke nashi

The wind in autumn
As for me, there are no gods,
There are no Buddhas.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Descartes, science & the mask

The sciences are now masked; the masks lifted, they appear in all their beauty. To someone who can see the entire chain of the sciences, it would seem no harder to discern them than to do so with the sequence of all the numbers. Strict limits are prescribed for all spirits, and these limits may not be trespassed. If some, by a flaw of spirit, are unable to follow the principles of invention, they may at least appreciate the real value of the sciences, and this should suffice to bring them true judgment on the evaluation of all things.

 — Réne Descartes

Psychology of Jewish humor

When simplicity hits the mark, it's genius. This Jewish joke, distilling an aspect of social psychology to its essence, could not be more priceless. What's funnier than Jewish humor?

A man gets shipwrecked on an island that’s less than half a mile around. When he’s rescued years later, his rescuers discover that he’s built two synagogues! “This one,” he says, bringing them into the sanctuary, “is where I’ve gone every week to talk to God and to keep my sanity. And that one,” he shouts, pointing at the second synagogue, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that one!”

Baron D'Holbach on the terror in religious belief

"The idea of such powerful agencies has always been associated with that of terror; their name always reminded man of his own calamities or those of his fathers; we tremble today because our ancestors have trembled for thousands of years. The idea of Divinity always awakens in us distressing ideas ... our present fears and lugubrious thoughts ... rise every time before our mind when we hear his name. [. . . .] When man bases morality on the not too moral character of a God who changes his behaviour, then he can never know what he owes to God nor what he owes to himself or to others. Nothing therefore could be more dangerous than to persuade man that a being superior to nature exists, a being before whom reason must be silent and to whom man must sacrifice all to receive happiness."

-- Baron D'Holbach, System of Nature

Hermann Hesse: 'The Glass Bead Game' (1)

Written November 27, 2009 at 6:05 am
It’s been 40 years since I read Hermann Hesse’s novels as a teenager. Actually, I read only a few, those most popular to the ‘60s generation: Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf. I don’t recall reading others, and I know I never read The Glass Bead Game. My reactions were mixed. Obviously, the sensibility of these novels overlapped with the ‘60s sensibility. The outsider consciousness of Demian resonated most. While I could relate to some aspects of Siddhartha, others left me cold, particularly the Buddha-figure who treats his disciples like children and rationalizes his position to the main character, who admires him even while going his own way. I found this encounter nauseating. On the other hand, I was taken with Steppenwolf, which also expressed the outsider sensibility in a compelling fashion. However, within a few years my outlook changed, and I still recall how I relished the put-down of Steppenwolf I read in a campus newspaper: “All work and no play makes Harry a dull boy.” Harry being the main character who takes his angst all too seriously, and me losing interest in this sort of reading material. And that was the end of my engagement with Hesse until now, lifetimes later.

I’m just guessing at this point, but there seems to be two warring loyalties in Hesse’s soul: one, the attraction toward the mysticisms of the East; two, the desire to preserve one’s independent, authentic, individual experience. The Glass Bead Game is predicated on another major element, which I do not recall in the other novels mentioned: a nostalgic feudal-traditionalist pole of attraction, which stinks to high heaven of political reaction. But since the main character, Joseph Knecht, harbors rebellious tendencies, and, who, we will eventually learn, leaves the hierarchical monastic order in which he ascends to the top, the jury must for the moment remain out on what Hesse is all about.

Dominique Lecourt on the "Sacred" as Contemporary Ideology

Before so liberally attributing such a ‘sense of the sacred’ to humanity, however, are there not good reasons first of all to ponder the meaning of this notion? Far from being eternal, the category of the ‘sacred’, such as we spontaneously contrast it with the ‘profane’, was in fact invented very recently—in the early years of the twentieth century, when Émile Durkheim published Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912), and Rudolf Otto a famous work entitled Das Heilige (1917). These books have inspired the two major currents in the historiography of religion. The first comprises the ‘immanentist’ historians, who regard religious facts as assimilable to the same type of explanation as the set of phenomena studied by the social and human sciences. The second inspires those who regard such facts as intrinsically different from other facts, because they refer to a distinct order of reality. But ultimately, the opposition between ‘immanentists’ and ‘transcendentalists’ proves secondary. The essential thing is that ‘religious facts’ exist and that they are observable, identifiable as such, throughout human history. What, however, of the conception of religion that has governed the characterization of these ‘facts’? Let us read Otto: it is clearly a Christian conception—the particular conception that prevailed in the Lutheran current of the Reformation, placing emphasis upon inner feelings, on the faith that would inevitably be born out of the experience of transcendence. By what right do we universalize this conception? Can the ‘facts’ assembled under the heading of ‘Greek religion’ really be conceived in these terms? Or Roman religion? Or Aztec rites and beliefs? Buddhism? There are excellent reasons to doubt it. What, then, is the purpose of such universalization? Otto—who at least does not conceal his hand—answers as follows: in the end, it involves a celebration of the superiority of Christianity, such as he practises it, over all other religions!

SOURCE: Lecourt, Dominique. The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the Mid-1970s; translated by Gregory Elliott (London; New York: Verso, 2001), pp. 89-90.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Science education & critical thinking in higher education

Rethinking the Way Colleges Teach Critical Thinking 
By Scott K. Johnson | Scientific American, December 14, 2012

Facing both conservative dogmatism and the decline in college students' critical thinking skills, the author is concerned about about the enhancement of both science education and the capacity of the people to engage in critical evaluation of knowledge claims. He is dissatisfied with the traditional approach: "Scientific literacy and critical thinking skills are seen as natural side-effects of studying a science."Opposing the tendency to reduce education to rote learning, even of science, the author proposes "an entire semester on critical thinking and the nature of science."
Where standalone critical thinking courses exist, however, they are mostly found within the humanities and social sciences. Those courses often center on argumentation and literary criticism, or instead on the philosophy of logic, but there are opportunities to expand this— particularly by giving science a larger presence. 
Johnson advocates the teaching of logic, rhetoric, cognitive biases and pitfalls,and the scientific method. Critical thinking courses are readily adaptable to the critique of American culture, and the incorporation of objective knowledge, or rather investigation of the basis for knowledge claims and determining their objective basis, is also useful. Such courses would have to be interdisciplinary.
Contrary to the criticism that classes like this would merely be weekly exercises in debunking, critical thinking is as much about problem solving and extracting meaning from complexity as it is about not falling for hokum. (Of course, conspiracy theories and sasquatches would certainly make an appearance.) And this is where science fits in so naturally. Practice with a scientific way of thinking—developing conclusions that flow from the data, rather than cherry-picking data to support your pre-existing conclusion—adds such an important tool to the kit.
To this I would add my own comment: note that in order to exercise critical thinking, there is an actual knowledge base that has to be acquired; there has to be content and a real-world background off which to bounce critical perspectives, which cannot exist in a formalistic vacuum. And, as the author insists, mere teaching of content does not guarantee the capacity for critical thinking. With this in mind, see my bibliography:

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking:A Guide

In my introduction I criticize both the old formalist and the new postmodernist conceptions of critical thinking. See especially the paragraph that begins:
While traditional elaborations of the formal characteristics of critical thinking are always useful, they do not guarantee the ability to think critically in real-world ideological, social, practical contexts. I contend that in effect there is no such thing as critical thinking in general, and that critical thinking is not formal, but content-driven. Here I am not thinking merely of credentials or qualifications, though such are customarily necessary in our time for scientific advances. Assuming legitimate expertise, the problem is that experts in one area may be cretins in others or in matters of common concern, because they are not at heart critical thinkers, or because they don't know how to engage other areas of inquiry, for lack of knowledge, the proper analytical skills or knowledge base, familiarity, etc. Furthermore, amateurs can be critical thinkers in the areas in which they are not experts, but to do so they have to engage enough of the content so that they can formulate meaningful questions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Howard L. Parsons on mysticism revisited

In my two previous posts on Parsons, I commented, inter alia, on his essay essay "Theories of Knowledge: A Dialectical, Historical Critique", with some complimentary and non-complimentary remarks. Revisiting it, I want to emphasize that this essay is unique and invaluable.

It's an example of how much philosophy arrives in the public sphere DOA, while academic philosophy, like the intellectual world at large, rolls on addicted to familiarity and fashion. I don't participate in the star system in philosophy any more than in any other area. My goal has been to rescue noteworthy work from oblivion. Parsons belonged to a particular tradition in Marxism too heavily indebted to CP/Soviet-style Marxism: these people produced some good work even though they took questionable positions in other instances.  And the more "worldly" philosophers get now, the more they lose perspective: the merger of popular culture and intellectual culture demonstrates how thoroughly the culture industry saturates the souls of people in our time.  But back to Parsons.

Of particular interest in this essay is Parsons' treatment of mysticism, especially its psychophysical aspects.  Parsons makes a number of interesting statements, including this one:

As a theory of knowledge and of reality, mysticism is false. It absolutizes a moment in man's interaction with the world—the sense of qualitative unity. It statically identifies that moment with reality and with knowledge. It destroys the distinction between man and the world and obliterates the dialectic between them. Mysticism is the practice and ideology of men bent on escape from their conflicts and struggles in the real world. It is a flight of the attention from continuous intercourse with things, events, and people to concentration on a single quality or experience. It is a flight of fantasy insofar as it elaborates a theory in defense of this flight in practice. In the Western Christian Church heretical movements have often been associated with mysticism because it represented a counter‑movement against abstract and verbal orthodoxy. But it remained an alienated protest against the ruling form of alienation, a religious answer to a religious mistake. That mistake, especially in Western supernaturalism but also in various forms and mysticism, is the division and falsification of reality in thought. Things and events are interpreted as static, fixed, and isolated from one another, with no real interpenetration, conflict, development, or qualitative change. Such an interpretation serves the interest of the ruling class, which wishes to keep things and classes as they are, and to avoid conflict, change, and development into a new kind of class society or into a classless society. Mysticism perpetuates this mistake by emphasis on an experience which presumes to absorb and transform (aufheben) all parts and conflicts into a final and unified whole. But the mistake of mysticism is that while the world is felt to be unified, it goes on, in separated processes that interact and change without ceasing, outside the skin of the mystic.