Friday, June 29, 2012


Recently, I read an article about the (ab)use of railways in the nazi genocide. Now, there is a lot to say about that, but I would like to focus on one specific half-sentence that spoke of the jews "...whose biographies didn't count in that murderous nazi system".

I think that there is more wisdom in these few words than, probably, even their own writer was aware of.

When we start to listen to what other people have to say about their own lives, this creates empathy. It does so automatically, perhaps by way of our mirror neurons firing away. Whatever the mechanism, I think that it is next to impossible not to develop that empathy - provided you actually listen to the other person, instead of silently judging and negating their every word.

Have you ever noticed how people will sometimes say, "I'm NOT AT ALL INTERESTED in your problems!"

My guess is that, when we do that, we fight with all our power, in order to avoid that empathy. Because we think that it will weaken us. Because it gets pretty damn hard to sack that employee, denounce that bitchy secretary, walk away from that beggar, press that poison needle into that death row prisoner's arm, or to kill off that jew like he was sub-human, once you have started to understand their motivations and their lives. Once you've seen their old childhood photos, read their first love letter, heard tales of their marriage, and how worried they were when their firstborn son had this accident with his bicycle, or suffered from the measles and wouldn't recognize his own mother in his high fever.

Now, I'm not saying that empathy with others is always, at any time, the best option. We have to care for ourselves first. "If you can't help yourself, you can't help others" is a very wise saying indeed - of buddhist origin, as far as I know. If I give my money to every beggar who approaches me on the street, I'll be out of money soon, and probably won't have achieved all that much.

But empathy is what keeps us from becoming monsters, our fellow men's wolves, genocidal True Believers.

And there is yet another good news: Empathy is like a muscle. It can be practiced.

And I wholeheartedly believe that we all could use some more of that practice!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Examples of kindliness

I just stumbled upon this little video.

Now, it makes me kind of sad to see huge companies exploiting stuff like that for their advertisements. It seems like ads are the last resort of happy feelings. And that is a sad thing.

But, let's skip that for a moment. And let's also forget that security cameras are a highly two-sided affair.

For the moment, let's focus solely on a vision: What if, one day, the evening news were full of images of people helping other people? Just for a week, maybe. What if, just for a few days, we all focused on what positive and friendly acts people around the world commit all the time? When you look at footage like that, doesn't it inspire you to be a little better yourself? To just pick up that phone that someone dropped, and hand it to them?

After all, we learn mostly by example. Therefore, showing examples of kindliness should make the world a better place.

Well and maybe, perhaps, we can even get it going without a soft drink label attached.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


I often thought that I should do a posting about buddhism. Only to then procrastinate/forget/otherwise weasel my way around it.

See, I had a fling with the thing. While I never was a real, professed, meditating-all-day follower of the Tathagatha, I adopted a lot of its most important tenets and tried to incorporate them into my own life.

And then, I stopped. And instead of trying to explain this in general terms, I think it will make more sense to break it down into smallish portions.

Let's start with the teaching of karma.

In its most basic form, adherents will inform you, "karma simply means cause and effect".

This formula makes me cringe when I hear it. If that was all there is to karma, then why not simply call it causality? After all, causality is a well-established concept. Why would we need a new name for an old ceremony?

Of course, as you probably already knew, that simple formula does not cut it. In a very important way, it's a lie. There is more to it - and every buddhist knows that. Yeah, sure, I get the need to sometimes have a cute little formula when you don't really want to discuss the details. But here, in this blog posting, we are actually concerned with those details.

So let's start with this: "Karma is the law of cause and effect, but EXTENDED TO THE REALM OF ETHICS."

Now it gets interesting.

Let's talk about causality first. It is such a well-established concept that most people would not hesitate even a second when asked whether they "believe in causality". Of course we do. It's obvious, right?

Weeeeell... yes and no. Sure, causality works pretty well. It works so well, actually, that it makes sense to assume that it is universal.

But there is a trap right in there. See, causality is based on observation. We have seen the egg fall from the nest and break to pieces. We have seen the cat catch the mouse, and inevitably the mouse ended up dead. We have seen it millions, trillions, unfathomable numbers of times.

So it must be universal, right?

Well, no. In fact, claiming that causality is universal is one hell of a bold claim. Sure, we can and we should ASSUME that causality is universal, given how many instances we have seen at work. It is the pragmatically useful thing to do. But we cannot be sure. Never. We derived this idea purely by inductive logic. And inductive logic may fail at any point. A quantum mechanic may have something to say about that.

In short, it's a necessary assumption. And a necessary assumption is not the same thing as an absolute and universal truth. We should never forget that difference.

And that is the first issue I have with the buddhist concept of karma.

In buddhism, causality is treated as an absolute. (In fact, it is even used in refuting the idea of a deity - because such would contradict causality.) But it isn't. It's nothing more than a useful concept. One of the most useful concepts we ever came up with, to be sure - but still, not necessarily universal, and definitely not absolute. If you witness something tomorrow that does not adhere to causality, then that's it - no more law of causality. It's proven to be less than universal. Then we have to do something about it.

(Don't catch your breath though - if you were really absolutely positive that you witnessed something non-causal, chances are you need a visit to the doctor. In fact, if you want to complicate things further, think of causality as a necessity of human thinking itself. It may well be an attribute of the brain, rather than an law of reality. And then, the next time you turn on the light, medidate the implications of that. It's quite mind-boggling, I tells ya.)

The second issue? I mentioned it above.

In basically all of mainstream buddhism, karma is treated as a law regarding ethics. You behave well, you get a good reincarnation. You behave badly, you're reborn as a slug. Or as a woman. Your call to decide what is worse.

Yeah, I know, it's not quite as simple. Buddhism actually has a very cool builtin safety measure: ONLY A BUDDHA KNOWS THE INTRICACIES OF THE LAW OF KARMA. Therefore, you puny non-enlightened being are not to try to judge me based on my ill-fortunes in this life. Case in question, as witnessed by yours truly: a baby born with congenital ichthyosis. Some said he must have done something incredibly bad in his past lives. Others interjected that we cannot tell, because none of us are buddhas.

Well, okay then - but what, then, is karma meant to be? Is it purely a FUD campaign? A way to wag your finger at people who misbehave?

Regardless of whatever the original intention - that is, of course, one of its major applications. I imagine that buddhist children don't get to hear that baby Jesus will be mad at them if they don't do their homework. They just get to hear that they will PROBABLY be reborn as Michael Jackson. Yeah. Much better.

But what really bugs me is that it just does not work in any predictable way. Talking about future incarnations is fine and dandy - but who will be around to check the truth of those claims? - And, really, if it works across incarnations, shouldn't it work much better, much more reliably and effectively, WITHIN this one small, short life? I mean, yeah sure, if I'm kind to my neighbours, chances are they'll be kind to me. I understand that. Society is, to a large part, a karma-producing affair.

But try to tell that to a Jew, in Germany, around 1939.

All the Jews were evil in their past lives. That's the unavoidable conclusion, if you want to stick to your karma. It really is - think about it, what other explanation would there be? I mean, sure, Hitler probably spends a few houndred billion incarnations as a single-cell organism in some remote, very hot place now, but is that really any solace? Do you honestly, SINCERELY, want to go there?

I certainly don't.

In short, karma is bonkers. It's a somewhat nice idea, and most probably it's nicer than baby Jesus and his obsession with my masturbation habits. But it's still rather stupid. At least as long as you think of it as a "law".

But there is another way. And I do believe that this way is actually rather cool.

See, how about seeing karma not as a law, not as an absolute - but simply as a rule of thumb, a very rough guideline to a live as a human among humans?

If you understand it that way, it makes a whole lot of sense.

After all, humans tend to live most of their lives in social situations. And in almost all social situations, there is some reciprocity involved - some one-hand-washes-the-other, some social glue. I smile at you, you smile back. I sell you cheap car-parts, you send me new customes. I kill your beloved cat, you kill my beloved parrot (a danish blue, no less!).

And that's just the thing with buddhism. And that's why I hesitated for years to make my first blog posting about it: Most of its tenets are rather ridiculous when you take them as absolute laws, as formulas that aim to describe the totality of reality. But if you take them as rules of thumb, as generalisations based on some people's rather acute subjective observations, then they suddenly start making a whole lot of sense.

And maybe - just maybe - the same goes for many teachings, in many religions. Not all of them, perhaps. But most.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tim Minchin

I'm shamelessly advertising Tim Minchin here. Not only is he a fellow skeptic and highly intelligent, but also hilariously funny and highly talented. His musical comedy is just classy.

Just two examples of his awesomeness:

By the way, I discovered Minchin by way of the Axis of Awesome video "4 chords", which is itself an act of grand-greatness:

Minchin appeared in the google suggestions to this video, I think.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Evolution as a Study in Relativism

There is a lot of talk going on about creationism and evolution. A lot of it is politics, a lot is moneymaking, and another part is just bad science.

I always had the vague feeling that the loud protesting about 6000 years, fossiles and carbon dating overshadows an underlying issue that somehow seemed much more important to me.

After reading the first half of Dawkins' Selfish Gene, I think I can now point to what this issue is, and why I think it matters.

As is always the case with me, it's not so much about content, and more about forms of thinking.

See, when you start to understand what evolution means, it forces you to re-evaluate a few basic concepts. For example, what exactly does it mean to be alive? If life on earth started out as some "replicator molecules", who simply replicated themselves due to their chemical properties - can that be called "life" in a meaningful way? We might hesitate here. On the other hand, looking at the people surrounding me, I'm pretty sure that I can safely label them as "alive".

So somewhere in between, a line needs to be drawn. We need to be able to distinguish between not-alive and alive. A stone and a monkey.

Right? Right?

Well, in fact, no. I don't think so.

I'm sure that we can come up with some definition of life that would allow us to draw a line somewhere. I'm sure that scientists do that all the time. And that is a good thing.

However, I also think that those distinctions do not exist in nature. And evolution is like one big road sign pointing this fact out at every turn. It's like when you walk up a mountain and you're deeply given to all the nice flowers by the side of the road, and then at some point, you turn around, and suddenly you realize how far up you've already gone. It's almost like a shock. No one single step brought you there. It's not fair to say that the last step was the one that changed you from "not-there" to "there". Every little step contributed its part, and by themselves, none of those steps was too impressive. Only when you look at all of them, in the very order that they appeared, do they lead you up the mountain.

And this concept is pretty much unacceptable to any religious mindset, especially the fundamentalist one. For that mindset is deeply rooted in metaphysical, absolute assertions: Life is what god gave to Adam. Good is one thing, evil its opposite. Dogs are dogs, and cats are cats. There can be nothing in-between, so they cannot be related.

And, what matters more, knowledge is either absolute, or it is not knowledge. (In that one regard, I thank the presuppositionalists for being unusually candid about a subject that most christians like to sweep under the rug to some degree.)

When those assertions are shaken - who knows what might happen? Definitely nothing good, wholesome, healthy.

And so it goes, across the whole spectrum of human knowledge. It's not about whether the earth is 6000 years old, or 4 billion. Not really. I mean, sure, that's an interesting and important question, but - in everyday human experience, it doesn't really matter. The earth is not a sphere, either. It can be described, with some accuracy, as something resembling a sphere. But regardless of how accurately you phrase it, there will always remain some margin of error. And that, it seems, is completely unacceptable to our religious friends.

What DOES matter is to what degree you can accept that your knowledge is limited, your concepts are arbitrary, you are always wrong about everything to some degree, and you will eventually die.

Because that's the way to open your mind to new ideas, better theories, better solutions, which might perhaps help humanity survive the challenges that this century has in store for us.


Incidentally, rozeboosje has just explained what I meant by that mountain-climbing metaphor in a very instructive video which you can view here:

Or in other words, evolution is a bit like the distant aunt visiting the family, who sees the family's youngest and goes "Oh my, how much you've grown" (while the child is desperately trying to escape her firm loving grip). And all the while, the child and his family haven't realized how he's grown, because they've been around him all the time and never noticed the bit-by-bit, gradual change that occurred.