Posts Tagged ‘religion’

June 21, 2012

What is mathematics? It’s neither physical nor mental, it’s social. It’s part of culture, it’s part of history.

It’s like law, like religion, like money, like all those other things which are very real, but only as part of collective human consciousness. That’s what maths is.

Reuben Hersh, interviewed by John Brockman

emphasis mine. via davidaedwards


June 16, 2012

JBS Haldane on courage and nonviolence:

I AM a man of violence by temperament and training. My family, in the male line, can, I think, fairly be described as Kshattriyas. …From 1250 to 1750 we occupied a small fort commanding a pass leading from the hills to the plains of Scotland. Our main job was to stop the tribal peoples of the hills from raiding the cattle of the plainsmen; but perhaps once in a generation we went south to resist an English invasion, and at least two of my direct ancestors were killed while doing so. …

When I was a child my father read to me Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather, which are legends of the warlike exploits of the Scottish nobility, and trained me in the practice of courage. He did not do so by taking me into battles, as his ancestors might have done, but by taking me into mines. I think he first took me underground when I was four years old. By the time I was about twenty I was accompanying him in the exploration of a mine which had recently exploded, and where there was danger from poisonous gases, falls of roof, and explosions. So when in 1915 I was first under enemy shell fire, one of my first thoughts was ‘how my father would enjoy this’.

… The second word of the Gītadharmakshetre, gives an exact description of my feelings when I went to the trenches for the first time in 1915. I was well aware that I might die in these flat, featureless fields, and that a huge waste of human values was going on there. Nevertheless I found the experience intensely enjoyable, which most of my comrades did not. I was supported, as it were, on a great wave of dharma. The European Kshattriya, or knightly, virtues include a detestation of various kinds of meanness, and a hatred of violence against the defenceless. The European knightly vices include an addiction to gambling.

In the war of 1914-18 I was on several occasions pitted against individual enemies fighting with similar weapons, trench mortars or rifles with telescopic sights, each with a small team helping him. This was war as the great poets have sung it. I am lucky to have experienced it.

We have now to consider two facts. The Gīta, which is an exhortation of Arjuna to violent conduct, was the favourite poem of Gandhi, the great exponent of non-violence.

War has changed its character completely in my lifetime. Modern war has two principal forms. One form is characterized by the wholesale massacre of defenceless civilians with atomic bombs and other weapons. The other, which is going on in Algeria, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and other regions, is characterized by the use of ambushes and individual murder by the less armed side, and the killing of prisoners and the enslavement of whole populations by the more strongly armed side.

Modern war does not evoke any of the Kshattriya virtues except courage. But yet these virtues are absolutely needed in modern Life, as Gandhi saw. … but even Buddha, the great preacher of non-violence, [was a] Kshattriya. … How then can we combine the Kshattriya virtues with non-violence?

Gandhi gave one answer to this question. There are other answers, quite compatible with Gandhi’s answer, but in different spheres. Gandhi was always concerned in struggles between human groups. He did his best to eliminate violence and hatred from them.

There is another kind of struggle. I quote St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the translation from the Greek (from memory) being my own:

‘For our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against first principles, against powers, against the lokapalas of the kali-yuga, against the spiritual sources of evil in the heavens.’

I translate his word kosmokrator or world governor, as lokapala. The phrase translated as kali-yuga means literally ‘the darkness of this age’. I think that the notion of the lokapalas had reached Western Asia from Buddhist sources in St Paul’s day.

Some of us struggle against the natural forces which in India are too often worshipped as minor deities, for example cholera and smallpox. My father was mainly concerned with such matters as the ventilation of factories and mines, which is important both in safeguarding health and preventing explosions. When he wished to investigate why men died after colliery explosions when they had received no physical injury, he first examined dead men and horses after underground explosions, convinced himself that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and then proceeded to poison himself with this gas. That is to say he breathed a known amount of it until he had fallen over unconscious, and a colleague pulled him out of the gas chamber. In this way he found out how long it takes for a given amount of this gas to overcome a man. He also found that small birds are overcome much more quickly than men (and recover much more quickly). He was however averse to experiments on animals which were likely to cause them pain or fear (carbon monoxide poisoning causes neither). He preferred to work on himself or other human beings who were sufficiently interested in the work to ignore the pain or fear. His experiments on the effects of heat could perhaps be called tapas. He found that he could live in dry air at 300 °F. At about this temperature his hair began to singe when he moved it. But I do not think his motivation was that of an ascetic practising tapas.

He achieved a state in which he was pretty indifferent to pain. However, his object was not to achieve this state but to achieve knowledge which could save other men’s lives. His attitude was much more like that of a good soldier who will risk his life and endure wounds in order to gain victory, than that of an ascetic who deliberately undergoes pain. The soldier does not get himself wounded deliberately, and my father did not seek pain in his work, though he greeted a pain which would have made some people writhe or groan, with laughter. I think he would have agreed with the formulation that the atman or buddhi in him was laughing at the ahamkara.

I have tried to imitate him. I have drunk or breathed considerable amounts of various poisons, certainly more than half the fatal dose in some cases, and have done similar experiments on other human volunteers, including my wife. For this reason I feel a certain annoyance when I am excluded from a temple of Siva, who, according to a well-known legend, drank poison to save the other gods. If Siva exists, he may be more pleased by such an action than by the recitation of a lakh of mantras.

June 6, 2012

At the local viewing of the transit of Venus, I asked an astronomer named Lisa how people noticed a planet going in front of the Sun in the first place. (Surely they weren’t just staring at the sun all day?)

She told me:

  1. Edmund Halley predicted the transit of Venus. He died before being seen right, which seems sad, but we didn’t discuss that any further. Theory preceded observation. EDIT: Apparently Jeremiah Horrocks first wrote of the transit of Venus.
  2. The first observed transit of Venus killed that last free parameter to allow scientists to figure out the absolute distance from Earth to the Sun. (Previously they’d only known relative distances between planets.)
  3. I asked her the question I had formulated while watching Lawrence Krauss’ talk: how can you know, as in know-know, know know know, whether a star is bright or close?

    Her answer: astronomers make a lot of assumptions. (Ahhh, satisfaction.) In particular they assume that most stars are normal (Gaussian, not just usual). Well, that makes a lot of sense then.

  4. Nowadays another telescope is being built (thank you, government) that will triple the range within which relevant things can be seen, so we will be able to see to the centre of the Milky Way galaxy (and equal distance in the opposite direction) — and do so very precisely.

    So precisely that we will be able to measure parallax — the difference in how stars appear in winter versus summer, when we’re on opposite sides of the Sun — and obtain precise knowledge of where many, many stars are. (Tripling length means roughly times 3³ volume, so more like 20-30 times more stars’ positions will be known.)

  5. Now this is the kicker in your Popperian dirtsack. Ancient Greeks had the right theory (heliocentric solar system) but discarded it on the basis of experimental evidence!

    Never preach to me about progress-in-science when all you’ve heard is a one-liner about Popper and the communal acceptance of general relativity. Especially don’t follow it up by saying that “science” marches toward the Truth whilst “religion” thwarts its progress.

    According to Astronomer Lisa, it’s not true that the Greeks simply thought they and their Gods were at the centre of the Universe because they were egotistical. They reasoned to the geocentric conclusion based on quantitative evidence. How? They measured parallax. (Difference in stellar appearance from spring to fall, when we’re on opposite sides of the Sun.) EDIT: More by @rmathematicus, suggested by @sc_k. How did heliocentrism eventually triumph in the Renaissance?

    Given the insensitivity of their measurement tools at the time, the stars didn’t change positions at all when the Earth moved to the other side of the Sun. Based on that, they rejected the heliocentric hypothesis.

    If the Earth actually did move around the Sun, then the stars would logically have to appear different from one time to another. But they remain ever fixed in the same place in the Heavens, therefore the Earth must be still (geocentric).

I always told this story to myself as the gradual removal of anthropocentrism from the natural order. First we learn we’re not the centre of the Universe, then we’re not the only Galaxy, we’re not the only species that falls in love, we’re evolved by chance like everyone else, and so on. But that story is wrong. It doesn’t fit this bit of the history of ideas and I bet it doesn’t fit other bits of history either. I need a new story.

May 22, 2012

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb

A five-year effort, published in 2009 A.D.

“In setting out to illustrate the Book of Genesis, I quickly learned that I had to read the text very carefully and closely in order to render as accurately as possible the words that were actually written there. … What’s remarkable about the Torah is the unbroken longevity of its preservation…. These writings were never buried and then rediscovered later. They are the oldest texts in continuous use in Western civilization.”

the Begats

May 22, 2012

The word < is normally defined to mean less than in some quantifiable sense. For example, considering the set {3,6,1441}, one could say that 3<6<1441.

But in the abstract language of partially ordered sets, < is reinterpreted many ways — to mean proper subset of ⊂  (contained by), divides, “is hotter than” or … any transitive relation — even begat.

Consider the set

  • {Cain, Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methusael, Lamech₁, Jabal, Jubal, Tubal-cain, Naamah} ∪ {Adam, Abel, Seth} ∪ {Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch₂, Methusaleh, Lamech₂, Noah} ∪ {Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth}.

Transitivity means that it’s impossible for Adam < … < Adam < … (where Adam refers to the same man, not to another person also named “Adam”. We can call him Adam₀ if it’s a problem).

Then the fourth and fifth chapters of Genesis yield the following relations among the members of that set.

  • Cain < Enoch₁ < Irad < Mehujael < Methusael < Lamech₁ < Jubal
  • Lamech₁ < Jabal
  • Lamech₁ < Tubal-cain
  • Lamech₁ < Naamah
  • Adam < Cain
  • Adam < Abel
  • Adam < Seth
  • Adam < Seth < Enosh < Kenan < Mahalalel < Jared < Enoch₂ < Methuselah < Lamech₂ < Noah
  • Noah < Shem
  • Noah < Ham
  • Noah < Japheth

It’s not like we reduce Enoch₂ to “the thing between Jared and Methuselah” — there is other information attached to Enoch₂ such as that he walked with God and was no more (whereas all the others were noted to have died). Likewise to say that 18 is the integer between 17 and 19 isn’t to ignore the fact that 6 divides 18 or that it represents a legal bright-line in some countries.

Nor do we assume that every pair (a,b) from that set should be comparable. (In a totally ordered set either a<b or b<a, ∀a,b.) But in case of the begats:

  • Mehujael Noah
  • Shem Tubal-cain
  • Jared Jabal

April 29, 2012

In AD 312 a pretender to the imperial title by the name of Constantine marched from Gaul … towards Rome…. [V]ictorious … the dominion of the Roman[s] was set upon a radically new path … an imperium christianum….

[O]n the shores of the Bosphorus, what had formerly been the pagan city of Byzantium [became] a Christian capital. Constantine … mark[ed] out the street plan … guided by the figure of Christ following before him … Constantinople….

A seat of empire, to be sure — but hardly a monument to Christian humility.

The leaders of the Church were unperturbed. Scarcely able … to credit the miracle that had transformed them … from a persecuted minority into an imperial elite, they raised few eyebrows at the spectacle of their emperor’s magnificence…. [I]t struck most of them that it would be a waste of time to preach revolution. Far more meritorious … to labour at … order, not egalitarianism…. What were the saints, the angels and the archangels if not the very model of a court…? A Christian emperor … could serve not merely as Christ’s ally in the great war against evil, but as His representative on earth…. In the bejewelled and perfumed splendours of Constantinople might be glimpsed a reflection of the beauties of paradise; in the armies that marched to war against the foes of the Christian order an image of the angelic hosts.

What had once been the very proofs of the empire’s depravity — its wealth, its splendour, its terrifying military might — now seemed to mark it out as a replica of heaven.

[T]he Christ to whom Constantine and his successors compared themselves bore little resemblance to the Jesus who had died in excruciating and blood-streaked agony upon a rough-hewn cross…. [Christ] began to resemble nothing so much as a Roman emperor. Whereas the faithful had once looked to their Messiah to sit in awful judgement over Rome, now bishops publicly implored Him to turn His “heavenly weapons” against the enemies of the empire, “so that the peace of the Church might be untroubled by storms of war.”

To [those] in the Church … desperate to see the imperial centre hold, the strident anti-Roman sentiments of St. John’s Revelation had long been an embarrassment. In 338, a council of bishops had sought to drop it altogether from the canon of Holy Scripture. In the East … the more prosperous half of Rome’s empire … the Book of Revelation would not be restored to the Bible for centuries.

Tom Holland, The Forge of Christendom

March 4, 2012

Without science, explaining why there is something rather than nothing requires explaining every leaf, rock, beetle and star.

Cosmology and evolutionary theory pare the explanation requirement down … we might have to explain only a physical law or three, and everything else … can follow naturally. … [I]t might be that we don’t have to explain why there is matter and energy, perhaps not even why there is three-dimensional space and time or why physical constants have the values they have.

It is also possible, although harder to conceive, that we could explain everything down to nothing: no physical laws, only logic. Putting that another way, it might be that naive mental pictures of nothing are logically impossible.

Aaron C. Brown, reviewing Why There is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

February 23, 2012

The place where [Satan] was, in my mind, the most successful and first — first successful was in academia. He understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest.

They were in fact smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different — pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart. And so academia a long time ago fell.

Rick Santorum

February 20, 2012

Then, after a religion has become a public affair, quarrels arise, to settle which watchwords are drawn up. This business gets into the hands of theologians: and the ideas of theologians always differ appreciably from those of the universal church. They swamp religion in fallacious logical disputations.

Thus, the natural tendency is to the continual drawing tighter and tighter of the narrowing bounds of doctrine, with less and less attention to the living essence of religion, until, after some symbolum quodcumque has declared that the salvation of each individual absolutely and almost exclusively depends upon his entertaining a correct metaphysics of the godhead, the vital spark of inspiration becomes finally quite extinct.

Charles Sanders Peirce
CP. 6.438 (via flaudio, matryoshhka)


Echoed as well by C.S.Lewis in The Abolition of Man:  Theologians ruin religion.

Jesus himself never used the word “omnibenevolent” or worried about whether God could make heavier rocks XOR lift them. Those problems arose from trying to marry Hellenic logic with the dominant religion (Christianity) centuries later.

As they say in git: Merge failed.

February 19, 2012

I’m looking for a quote I saw years ago. It went something like this:

Here are two different stories of Creation.


The first is that G-d sculpted each and every animal, flower, fungus, gymnosperm, archaeobacterium, and primate individually, like the most colossal micromanager ever known to the Cosmos. 


The second story is that G-d was smart enough to write a “computer” program which, from a few simple rules, would evolve not only the stars, galaxies, and planets, but also all of the life-forms mentioned above (as well as whatever’s yet to come).


Which Creator would you find more impressive?

I’m pretty sure the writer was an Israeli game theorist. Can anybody help me source this please?