Rebirth: A Buddhist Doctrine That Doesn’t Quite Make Sense

This is not what Buddhists are talking about.

When people are introduced to Buddhism, one of the first things they are told is that Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is that after death one will live again and again in countless, innumerable bodies (of various sorts, human, godly, and demonic).  Most people don’t really get any further than this but, should they ask more questions, they will have it explained to them that this is not the same thing as reincarnation – how so?  Buddhists, it will be recalled, accept the doctrine of anatta, or ‘no(t)-self’, that there is nothing anywhere in existence that can be pointed to or identified as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ – that is, there is no soul.  Now, reincarnation is the notion that oneself, the soul, moves from body to body and life to life, but since for Buddhists there is no soul, there cannot be anything literally moving from life to life – you cannot literally be reborn since you, properly speaking, don’t exist.  What to make of all this Buddhist talk about past lives, then?

The Buddhist notion of rebirth is bundled with the notion of karma.  Without going too deeply into details, the story is this.  Whenever we act intentionally, through those actions (karma) we are creating metaphysical causes that will have future results (vipaka).  However, since we act constantly and we only live for so long, by the time we die we will have created a bunch of causes that still have to manifest their results.  So what happens then is that these effects do come about by conditioning the psychology/life history of some yet to be born entity –  in a very important sense they are the causes of the existence of that being [1].  Rebirth is not of a person but of a causal process – what makes past lives mine is that they are the ones that directly conditioned the life I am now living.  Similarly, what will make future lives mine is that they are the results of the actions I take in this one.  But this account has some pretty big pitfalls (whatever one thinks about the metaphysical plausibility of the whole affair).

First off, there’s the problem of establishing diachronic identity conditions (which becomes even more complicated across lifetimes).  This is a very familiar problem to philosophy, especially when souls are abandoned – even if my actions cause a future being, in what meaningful sense is that being me if it is entirely different?  Say I am ‘reborn’ as a frog – what about the frog and its mind is similar enough to my own that we can be thought of as being the same in essence?  I should say nothing – the fact (if it is one) that I caused the frog and its mental states to come into being is irrelevant to identifying the frog and this human person as the same thing.  Consider that our parents also caused our existence but they are definitely not us [2].  I cannot see how being the source of the mental causation of some yet-to-exist entity qualifies me for identification with that being any more than its parents are so qualified for being the source of its physical causation.

It says it all.

Which brings me to the next trouble for the rebirth hypothesis – there are innumerable causes for features of my mental life that come from outside of myself.  Perhaps I watch an extremely sad film or I read a profound passage in a book that forever changes my life: in either case, my system of mental causation (and hence my future-life trajectory) will have been irrevocably altered by mental causation arising in other minds.  Similarly, my parents, genetics, and cultural environment all helped to mould my mental ecology.  Why should only one source of mental causation (i.e. ‘my’ past lives) be privileged over all the others in any analysis of future-life causation?  I can’t think of any non-tautological or non-overdetermined reasons to do so.

And looking to causation across lives, there are problems related to that just raised:

The first is that rebirths are presumed to be serial, never simultaneous.  This would, of course, be simple common sense were there a soul or self that travelled from life to life, body to body (“of course it can’t be more than one person at a time because it defines what it is to be a person and it is singular”).  Buddhists, however, deny that there is such a thing as a soul but still maintain that rebirth is serial.  I can see no reason for this – in the absence of a soul it is difficult to see why actions should produce results only within a single body-mind instead of several.  It would be like two billiard balls being struck simultaneously by the Cue Ball but only one of them reacting to the impact.  Surely everyone has committed enough intentional acts to build several future lives out of, so why shouldn’t they happen at the same time?

The second is that, having given reason to believe that multiple-source mental causation is active within one lifetime, there is no reason to rule it out across lifetimes either –  that is, perhaps I am not a consequence of just one individual’s actions, but of the actions of many.  Again, the soul hypothesis would preclude this possibility, but this is not a live option for Buddhists.  Similarly, future lives may in some sense be conditioned by one’s mental acts, and so in that sense are one’s own, but also be conditioned by other people’s mental acts, and so be theirs as well.  Again, I cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case.


[1] Indeed, whereas we consider the causes of pregnancy to be the presence and joining of the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, Buddhists consider there to be three causes, the third being the existence of karma which must ripen.  Without such karma, mommy and daddy could try all they want but no pregnancy would result.

[2] At least, not at first – there is this utterly appalling tendency to ‘turn into’ one’s parents as one matures.

I considered tagging this piece under ‘travel’. 🙂


Buddhizing Halloween

As Buddhism left India it came into contact with other, sometimes remarkably different cultures.  The result is that there is a religion that incorporates and expresses itself through images (and the concepts they represent) as colourful, complicated, and symbolically laden as this:

Now that’s busy! (Click to embiggen some)

… but also as simple as this:

Enso. (Go ahead and embiggen if you want to, but I’m not sure what the point would be)

The point here being, of course, that as Buddhism has moved into new cultural spaces it has adopted the forms of those cultures, using them to express peculiarly Buddhist themes and sometimes supplanting their original meanings entirely [1].  Naturally, as Buddhism becomes rooted in the West we should expect the same treatment to be applied to Western cultural forms, even though by all accounts it appears to be appalling to many culturally conservative Buddhists that Westerners should want to practice and celebrate Buddhadharma in ways that resonate for their own cultures.  But, speaking for myself, I see this as a good thing – I am not Tibetan/Japanese/Chinese/Thai/etc. and I do not wish to be [2].

Which brings me to an upcoming and super-fun holiday: Halloween [3]!  If there is any holiday that I want/is a good candidate for being Buddhized, this is it.  There are several reasons why this is so:

  • Although the broad outlines of the origins and meaning of Halloween are known, they are not believed in.  The holiday is widely celebrated by Western (at least, North American) society, but is largely devoid of meaning.  Indeed, the actual meaning of “trick or treat” never occurred to me until I was an adult – it had always just been a phrase that got you candy (which was good enough).
  • More specifically, Halloween has no Christian content, which makes Buddhization much easier for two reasons.  First and most importantly, to Buddhize Halloween will not cause outrage among/backlash from the Christian community.  Secondly, there’s no metaphysics that will need abandonment or difficult reworking in order to fit with Buddhist thought.
  • The West needs to take the dark side of life more seriously.
  • There are tantalizing hints of existing traditions that could, by mere suggestion, be transformed from simple fun into meaningful ritual.
  • It’s so so so fun.

I can think of a few obvious ways this could be done:

  • Teachings about hungry ghosts/hell realms.
  • Pointing out the emptiness of ‘external’ perceptions (what’s behind the mask?).
  • Transforming emotional reactions, demonstrating purity of the world (the old peeled grapes as eyeballs, spaghetti as brains, etc.).
  • Chod practice!
  • Death and rebirth teachings/meditations.

I know that I’m not the only Buddhist to be thinking about this holiday specifically or about similar themes, so what does everyone think?  Western Buddhists, what are your ideas and suggestions?!

Getting in the *spirit* of things (har)!

Update:  The pic of the grim reaper on the lotus comes from here.  I wanted to give the artist any traffic that might flow through, ’cause I think that’s a pretty awesome pic (but sorry everyone, I bought the last print!).


[1] Buddhism is not the only religion to have done so – Christianity has done so for Christmas and many of its saints.

[2] Which has just now inspired a thought vis-a-vis the Christianizing of old Pagan traditions throughout Europe.  Modern historians generally talk about this in negative terms (since there is a palpable anti-Christian bias in academia) but I wonder how much of this really was imposed by the Church.  If I as a Westerner want Halloween Buddhized, couldn’t former Pagans have wanted their festivals Christianized?  Food for thought.

[3] I know it’s a little early yet, but I’m thinking about it because I’m thinking about costumes!

Just Because It Sounds Science-y Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Faith-Based*

Beyond the limits of reasonable expectation.

There is a perception out there that whatever issues from the mouth or pen of one who wears a white coat is completely rational, reliable, evidence-based and trustworthy.  While this is more probably true when the white-coat is discussing some matter of little social or political import – electron spin, say, and not neuro-physiological differences between the sexes, etc. – we shouldn’t be too certain that this is always the case.  Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the failings of reason and intelligence that goes along with being a member of our species.

This all comes to mind as I was flipping through the latest edition of Scientific American (cover pictured to the left).  This ‘special issue’ includes a number of essays by some far-out looking people about the future of ‘Science’ and where it’s going to take us.  Of course, the contents of these essays are interesting (entertaining, to be more exact) but fundamentally have no real basis for some of the claims they make – rather they are expressions of faith that Science will continue to uplift, enlighten, and transform the human race into whatever the authors of these pieces would like for humans to be.

Here’s a guy who looks like he has predictions you can trust. Just look in his eyes.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that per se – we all have to have faith in something, after all – but we should recognize religious-style beliefs for what they are, even if they come with the trappings of Science, because Science/science has a place of privilege among powerful decision-makers [1].  And when powerful people can be convinced that something is a good idea on the basis of Science, a lot of money, effort, and time can be wasted on pointless endeavours.

SETI is a paradigm example of this dynamic in action.  A number of scientists got together and convinced important people in the US government that there is a high enough probability that alien life is somewhere out there that it would be worthwhile to set up (at grand cost to the taxpayer) a series of listening-stations to see if we couldn’t pick up ancient signals travelling across the void.  Presumably they used math to help bamboozle the decision-makers in question. Now, there are a number of practical problems with the program [2] but there are even nastier issues on the purely conceptual side of things.

Specifically, the program only makes sense if one has a reasonably high estimation of the probability of there being other intelligent beings out there, but at the time that the program was being set up there was really no (good) reason to think that such is the case.  Sure, there were inferences and assumptions drawn from what we knew/know about how the world actually is – paraphrase: “it is simply inconceivably improbable that in a universe this vast in which intelligent life has arisen once, intelligent life should not have arisen multiple times” – but none of this constitutes any reason to think that it is so.  Perhaps it is improbable that a universe with laws and a history such as our own should only have intelligent life emerge once.  OK, so perhaps we happen to live in a really improbable sort of universe?

“But we can’t know if we don’t check!”  Ah, yes, true, but here’s the difference between SETI-fans and myself: I don’t expect (or hope) to discover anything and, moreover, I don’t think that a failure to find evidence would demonstrate anything about the universe we inhabit (remember those practical difficulties I mentioned?).  But if one believes without evidence that there must be life out there – or that it’s inconceivably improbable that there isn’t – it does raise the question of why this is believed.  Perhaps, like me, they find the grandeur of a well-populated universe appealing or, also like me, they find the prospect of human solitude infinitely depressing.  But those are not scientific reasons, to be sure, and today, after the program has been running for several decades without any positive results, it seems ever more probable that we are alone.  “But we can’t give up!  What if we do and we miss our chance to know?  It would be horrible!”

No, it wouldn’t.

USA! USA! (They’d’ve actually mooned Russia too, if it weren’t for decompression-related issues. This seemed the next best thing.)

Granted, this does not comprise reason not to engage in the program.  For all the bluster about the advancement of science that has flowed from NASA, the real point of the thing was never really about ‘Science’, was it?  It was more about having the best vantage point in the universe from which to flip Russia the bird (also, something about weaponizing space).  The science stuff has been a nice bonus but I sincerely doubt that it was what was foremost on JFK’s mind when he decided that humans would set foot up there.  And this is fine because we don’t need to have Science decide what our every act, individual and collective, should be – what more reason do we need for landing on the moon than “because it’s awesome” (awesomeness, I note, is not a property of objects/events measurable by ordinary scientific methods).  But pretending that because SETI might have some scientifically valuable side-effects means that it is principally a scientifically driven enterprise is simply misleading – it’s a(n ugly) Hail Mary for those who wish that ST:TNG was a documentary film.

An ugly cathedral of sorts. Did I mention ugly?


* Not the catchiest title ever, so perhaps I ought to have gone with the alternate title for this entry: “SETI Is a Waste of Time, Effort and Money and Should Be Shut Down.”  That one is a bit on the blunt side, though.  Oh well.

[1] Despite much upset about the “War On Science” being perpetrated solely by those nasty Republicans (after all, who else could possibly have any non-scientific reasons for rejecting scientific findings) there really isn’t anyone (important) who is actually against science as an endeavour, just findings that are inimical to his or her particular agenda(s).  Whenever I hear the phrase “War On Science” trotted out I immediately start wondering whose research agenda is being impeded or whose political agenda stands to gain by painting the other guys as low-brow, fundamentalist rubes.

[2] I can think of a few off the top of my head.  First and most simply, there is no guarantee that any radio signals that an alien civilization might have sent into space would reach Earth without having degraded in pure noise.  Second, there is the matter of timing.  Could such signals even have had the time to reach us if they did exist and if so, how do we know they haven’t already gone by and we’ve missed our chance?  Heck, maybe we are the first intelligent lifeform to develop technologies that would send signals out into space (in which case, listening stations: no dice).  Third, why should we assume that any alien civilization will be using media enough like our own that we could even recognize their communications for what they are – alien tv broadcasts may just look like noise to us (and vice versa).

Postmodernism Taken Too Far, Not Taken Far Enough

A little while back I was having a conversation with a fellow student with whom I share a goodly number of perspectives.  Our conversation began on the topic of the absence of free will (of the kind that most take it for granted that we have) and the worry about the justice of punishment in light of that fact (if it is a fact)[1], but then it drifted into a general conversation about the ideological state of the West generally.  Interestingly, we both agreed that postmodernism (I doubt that I shall need to explain this idea to my readership) has proven a significant failure.  [2]  Now, we agreed that postmodernism had some useful perspectives on many issues – indeed, postmodern thought has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about things and I would be remiss in not saying so – but its over-application, or its being taken to extremes, has proven disastrous.

Take, for example, the doctrine that maintains that all beliefs are really ideologies of power, that all beliefs serve the political purposes of particular actors.  I think that there is some valuable insight here – particularly that beliefs and ideologies are used for power-politicking, and that the social and political order is always justified (at least in part) on the basis of claims about how the world ‘really’ is.  Also of importance is the insight that there is no uncontroversially objective access to reality, that the things we believe will invariably reflect our desires and needs.  These are some very important things to acknowledge, but when they are over-applied to the world, they result in obviously stupid notions.  For example, that the whole of modern science is just another ideology of power [3], so that any and all purported sex-based neurological distinctions are fabrications intended to promote patriarchal norms (Newton’s Principia ought to be renamed Newton’s Rape Manual).

The same analysis applies to ethics (and particularly to cross-cultural ethics).  Since ethical systems are based in the particularities of different cultures and their power structures, there actually is no way to judge between them, since any judgements we may make about another culture’s practices (e.g. slavery, female circumcision, burkas) will be done on the basis of our own beliefs.  As such, we cannot judge their moral validity without either making a category mistake [4] or doing violence on that culture: nonsense or imperialism.  This, too, should strike us as obviously wrong – though it may be true that I will be imposing my values on another culture should I argue that slavery or the burka are bad, it shouldn’t follow that what I am saying is without meaningful content or that it should not be said.  [5]

I have this suspicion, however, that these stances are the result of a failure to take postmodern ways of thought seriously enough.  If we accept that our beliefs are grounded in the social fabric, that our epistemology is tainted, this makes the giving of reasons even more important.  We can no longer trust that authorities [6] are right, so the justifications of their arguments are crucial.  Though we have to maintain a rigorously skeptical epistemology, we nevertheless can acknowledge that there are better and worse justifications for claims, justifications that are good enough to confirm belief and to act upon.  Similarly for cultural practices – their very groundlessness is what allows for their proliferation and creative variety.  We do not necessarily do wrong by promoting our way of life, since there is no one way of life that makes a fit for all human beings everywhere and throughout history – if we appreciate our way of life, that is enough to justify our partisanship, and if we don’t, that is justification enough to strive for reform.

Or am I missing something?  Maybe what I am suggesting is totally incompatible with postmodernism, rightly considered.  In that case, transcendence is required.  How to do it?


[1] This was the upshot of a class we both took on the topic of free will.

[2] I wonder whether this is evidence of an impending generational shift in ideas.  I sincerely hope so, since I am not a great fan of PM in the way it has influenced politics and much of academe.

[3] Not that this doesn’t mean politics doesn’t enter into scientific research – it certainly does, just not in the way that postmodernists claim.  From what I can tell, politics’ greatest impact on scientific institutions and inquiry is by influencing what the research questions will be.

[4] Since our values are incommensurable, judging a practice as ‘bad’ would be like judging a song for being inadequately red.

[5] Besides which, it is unclear to me how the giving of reasons can be considered ‘imperialism’.  Isn’t imperialism ultimately backed up by the application of force?  Aren’t reason-givings attempts to persuade without relying on force?

[6] Authorities of any sort, that is, not just the typical authorities pointed to by most postmodern theorists.

Shaming Believers?

Dawkins' 'Proposal'

A post over at Thoughtful Faith discusses Dawkins not infrequently given bit of advice to shame and mock believers in an attempt to, let’s be frank, coerce them out of their beliefs – such behaviour is repellent to me.  Now, as an atheist, I will disagree with the author about virtually everything, but the responses offered by the atheists in the comments section were disappointing to me – so it seems that it falls to me to play the part of the dissenting atheist.  There were three basic lines of response: 1) theists do it to us and turn-about is fair play; and 2) satire (i.e. mockery) does a very good job of revealing the failings of institutions and beliefs, so is a legitimate tool in the struggle against religious belief; and 3) religious belief is so harmful that these sorts of tactics are entirely acceptable.  I think that all these arguments are wrong in their own way and do not, individually or collectively, justify the mistreatment of theists.  Moreover, Dawkins and those who support such measures are, in any case, simply wrong about the effectiveness of shaming as a strategy to change people’s minds.

As for the first vein of response, that turn-about is fair play, I have the following to say.  There are atheists out there who really and truly were badly treated by religious doctrines, individuals, or institutions.  These people may feel anger towards the source of their pain, anger that may be completely justified, but this does not justify one’s own becoming an aggressor or victimizer even if one’s new belief set is more correct or overall leading to a better life.  Remember that it is not Believer-x who harmed you, it was some particular believer(s) who did (and who are the rightful targets of one’s anger).  Furthermore, it should be remembered that attacks on believers will be attacks on people who are, per hypothesis, in the grip of delusion and at risk for precisely the same maltreatment as once was one’s own fate – it would be ridiculous to abuse a slave for refusing to rebel, would it not?

Turning to the question of satire and its effectiveness, there is not much to say.  I am in complete agreement that satire is a useful and effective tool for the pointing out of bad institutions and beliefs.  But what Dawkins is suggesting isn’t (only) that we satirize the Catholic Church (an institution that richly deserves it) or its officials (horny nuns and gay priests, etc.), but that we also just mock individual believers, wherever we find them.  I shouldn’t have to point this out, but there is a difference here – the one is an attack on an ideology, the other an attack on people.  We want to change the ideas, not hurt people.

Finally, there is the suggestion that because religious beliefs motivate such dangerous behaviour as suicide-bombings and wars, aggressive tactics are entirely legitimate.  I should only point out the inconsistency in that suggestion.  If believers are dangerous because of their belief set, and you attack them and those beliefs, you have just signalled not merely that you disagree, but that you are an enemy.  From this two things follow.  First, you will be provoking the sort of dangerous behaviour you claim to want less of in the world.  Second, you will have made yourself a target.

All this brings me, at last, to question the very notion that mockery is an effective strategy for changing people’s minds.  I think Dawkins is letting his obvious disdain for those who think differently than himself cloud his judgement (as he frequently does).  Mockery and shaming do represent extremely powerful tools for maintaining cohesion in human social groups, but this is because those at whom the treatment is directed already belong to the group.  Social ostracism is an in-group mechanism and it has precisely the wrong effect on members of out-groups.  With members of out-groups, such tactics will only drive them deeper into the fold and strengthen the division between the two groups.  Mockery and shaming, then, are the wrong ways to go about changing minds – but they feel really good to use, since they feed two human, all too human psychological needs for group-identification and feelings of superiority.

I close with verses 3 – 5 from “The Pairs”, found in the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harboring such thoughts keeps hatred alive.

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Releasing such thoughts banished hatred for all time.

Animosity does not eradicate animosity.  Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved.  This law is ancient and eternal.

Morality Without Gods or Souls

I have been inspired by a commenter to my last post, M. James, to write a bit about morality without gods or souls.  He writes: “taking away the immortal soul opens quite a can of moral worms. If death is really all she wrote, I don’t see why any rational person would choose to be moral.”  This, as other atheists and agnostics can attest, is a very common rejoinder, although this is a unique articulation of the worry (usually it’s “without god…”).  In any case, I think that the worry is an unnecessary one to have.

Why should I say this?  It certainly isn’t obvious to most that morality and religion can be teased apart.  Indeed, as a matter of sociological fact, I think that it is obvious to most people that religion provides the only framework within which and out of which morality is really possible.  Religious systems all take it upon themselves to provide their adherents with moral frameworks and to serve as exemplars of same.  And I will even concede that fear for one’s immortal soul might make one stick to the rules more assiduously than otherwise.  But I believe the worry is really founded upon a deep a misapprehension about what morality is.  So we should ask ourselves what, if we set aside gods and souls for a moment, would be left of morality?  What would be its content, its function, its use?  What would make it binding on us?

I think that, god absent, there’s still a bunch of ‘there’ there.  For example, in worrying that without God people will have no reason to behave, the religious tacitly accept that one of morality’s important functions is to facilitate social cohesion (we won’t have very nice lives if everyone is busy robbing each other blind).  This is very important, obviously, since humans need to live together to have flourishing lives, so whether or not god/gods/souls/etc. exist, we would still want and have to find some ways of bringing people’s behaviour in line in some appropriate way.  Nor do we need a god to tell us what is right or wrong (and as an atheist, I don’t think that we have ever had a god tell us what was right or wrong, we just mistakenly believed that it is so).  If morality is about living good lives together as human beings, the content of morality makes itself clear to us in pretty obvious ways.  Whatever disrupts social cohesion is bad, so behaviours that make oneself and others untrustworthy (e.g. aggression, lying, theft, miserliness, the deliberate bucking of social norms) are necessarily bad, and what promotes social cohesion is good (e.g. calmness, truthfulness, generosity, justness).  Similarly, acts which are harmful to oneself can also be seen to be bad on this conception, because they are self-destructive and make living a good life harder (so we could still condemn the lazy or gluttonous man for his dissipations).  Or the rock-star.

But all this is just an explanatory outline to make sense of morality in a godless world.  It does not describe the mechanisms by which adherence to a moral code is made compelling upon individuals in a society.  Divine retribution, however, is not required for morality to be truly functional – why?  Firstly, we simply are the type of creatures who find morality compelling.  We are a social species and, like all other social species, have to have psychological mechanisms suitable for individually accommodating ourselves to the group dynamic (this is seen in chimps, bonobos, wolves, other great apes, and more) and we do (e.g. there are obvious instincts towards fairness).  Secondly, there is the reality of worldly punishment.  When members of the group break the rules and we find out about it, we punish them for it (and feel the need to do so, perhaps another instinctual bit of psychology).  Sometimes the punishments are harsh (e.g. torture and death) and sometimes they are mild (e.g. mocking, shunning, shaming) but they always are.  So there is fear generated by the reality of punishment.  Thirdly, because we dislike (even hate) others who break the rules, when we think of ourselves breaking the rules, we preemptively feel disgust without ourselves.  Similarly, because we enjoy others’ generosity, when we are generous we enjoy seeing ourselves as generous.  Fourth, morality on this view just is acting rationally.  A rational individual will have perfectly compelling reasons to act well if he fully understands the reasons for/against committing a certain act.  Finally, but certainly not least, we can see ourselves in others – we have a natural capacity for compassion (or love/empathy/sympathy/ whatever the favoured term is).  Most people find themselves troubled by the suffering of other human beings and simply want to do what is best for them (admittedly, within limits).

So I think morality is perfectly possible without gods or souls.  Many do not, however, and I have some pet-theories as to why this may be so.  It may be as simple as morality having always been explained to them as explicitly linked with the demands of god (or the universal law, or somesuch) so that it becomes very difficult for the two to even be imagined separately.  Morality on this conception becomes a much narrower item that consists solely in doing as a powerful lawgiver has ordered.  This view also has weird implications.  It means that being good is doing what the boss tells you to, however no matter what the content of that command.  Is it even sensible to say that we are acting morally when we are only doing something for fear of punishment?  I don’t want to say so.  And it also means that morality cannot change (which it evidently does – look at how much of Leviticus no one pays any attention to).  What might once have been harmful is later seen not to be (or no longer is, thanks to technologies, etc.), while what once seemed unobjectionable becomes immoral (say, picking your nose and then shaking someone’s hand) because we recognize the harm in it.

Dennett’s ‘Deepities’ and His One Simple Policy

While I have several reservations about Dennett’s philosophy, I have to hand it to the man – he has panache.  His written works are like this – narrative and entertaining.  And I love the idea of ‘deepities’.

Again, I have reservations.  He (like Dawkins, et al.) want to make religion a thing of the past and so he offers this policy.  However, he (like Dawkins, et al.) misunderstands people – even if you made Christianity and Islam and Judaism and all the rest disappear tomorrow, people would still be prone to irrational, intolerant and dangerous behaviours.  Neither of the two major murderous ideologies that captured state-control during the twentieth century (that is, communism and fascism/Nazism) sprung from deep-seated religious motivations.  Besides, as long as people desire transcendence, they will believe in it.  In any case, I think that’s a good policy anyway – not least because it might make people mellower about what other people think, but also because there’s just so much fascinating stuff to know!