Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Logical Path from Faith to Extremism

This post was triggered by Richard Dawkins' words in his debate with John Lennox in The God Delusion debate (the relevant portion is from 1:11:56 to 1:15:22). I recommend watching and listening to the full debate. The audio transcripts are available here.

In this post, I disagree with Dawkins, and present my response to Prof Lennox's statement.

Dawkins quotes John Lennon ("Imagine ... a world without religion", etc.) in the beginning of his book The God Delusion. Prof Lennox asked the audience to imagine one without atheism too, in which there would be no Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot (all Marxist atheists) to burn the temples and torture the believers. Prof Dawkins then responds by saying that atheism is less harmful than theism. He says to the effect that acceptance of theism as an article of faith is worse than the acceptance of atheism because there exists a logical path from theistic faith to extremist violence, whereas atheism does not lead one to violence on its own.

I disagree, with a proviso. I think any belief system is separative, whether it be theism or atheism. Now it can be argued - successfully, I think - that atheism is not a belief, it is the absence of a belief in God. However, it is a viewpoint, whether it be a belief or a lack of belief. And this viewpoint has many vehement backers and propagators. Atheism is a movement today which seeks to convert people to its viewpoint just like religious groups seek to convert people from other religions.

Now while I agree with the content of atheistic viewpoint ("There is no God"), what I find puzzling is Richard Dawkins' seeming obliviousness to the hatred many atheists have towards believers. Richard Dawkins himself uses the words "petty", "nutcases", "lunatics" for theists and creationists in his arguments.

Might one not conclude that it is possible for someone vehemently attached to the atheistic view to logically proceed from disapproval to verbal violence to physical violence? This conclusion is possible. I am quite confident that Richard Dawkins won't come to blows with John Lennox, but it is possible for some people (the mentally weak and unbalanced ones, whom Dawkins wants to protect from indoctrination), who choose to wear a cloak of blatant atheism and wish to teach a lesson to the benign and harmless theists in society.

The problem is that our selves are emotionally invested in our viewpoints, and disagreement is an assault on our sentiments. Whether someone believes in God or not, he exists as a separate "self" with certain precious feelings. His feelings and self can get hurt. An atheist's feelings, for example, can quite possibly get hurt if someone criticizes his viewpoint. This emotional investment in our viewpoints is the more important issue facing humanity, and not what our viewpoint is (which is also important). The validity of viewpoints is very important, but a person with a valid intellectual viewpoint is not very different, in his essential animal nature from one with an invalid intellectual viewpoint.

People can come to blows over the simple choice of a hotel room, because they are emotionally invested in their opinions and because they view disagreement as hostile behavior.

Though, to be fair, there is some truth to the fact that religious people fight not just because of an emotional attachment to their belief or viewpoint, but also because their scriptures and leaders actively command them to tame or kill the heretics and the philstines. To that, I say that religious commandments are not ab initio, their perversity is not incidental, their perversity is because belief invariably seeks to infect others, and passionately so.

Atheists are not content with being atheists. Aside from the valid concerns about education, evangelism and about children being denied the virtue of scepticism, atheists are usually quite impudently eager to engage in a debate about the existence of God with unwilling believing adults. If faith be private, let it be. If someone is infecting impressionable others with a questionable belief, then by all means counter it with reason and debate and high level policy changes, but not with vehemence or hatred.

Even then, if the impressionable others be adults, let them be. It is reasonable to do some research about the belief system, or about the scripture, or the spiritual group, and publish one's findings, but to actively seek to convert others to atheism smells like evangelism to me.

Hence, my response to Prof Lennox is: Faith in a commandment and passionately intolerant attachment to a viewpoint both lead to violence and oppression, whether it be an atheist or a theist. Religion is obviously a faith, and doubly, it can be fanatically intolerant at times. Atheism is not a faith (it is the lack of one), but people who are atheists can be fanatical and intolerant as well. The violence in Communist regimes, if due to being Marxist-atheistic, was the oppressive violence of intolerance, and not the violence of atheistic injunctions (there are none).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Films Seen Recently

  • Milk (Gus van Sant, 2008): I have written about homophobia earlier. The world becomes more modern and democratic in its laws and institutions usually not because of majority opinion (homophobia is alive and kicking in most parts of the world), but because it becomes too much of an effort to oppose the demand for equality by a spirited minority. Whether it be the suffrage movement, the movement for Black and immigrant rights, and so on. Democracy doesn't work when beliefs and morals are in question. Most people would vote against what they perceive as immorality. But if the so-called immoral create enough of a ruckus to be a threat, the state usually relents. On a side note, I have always maintained that non-violence works - when it does - as a tactical move, and not as a principle. Non-violent hunger fasts of Mohandas Gandhi, for example, carried behind them the threat of civil war if he was allowed to die. So it is in this film as well. The gays are willing to protest peacefully as long as it is understood that violence is an option.

    Sean Penn's acting in this film is of the highest calibre. His facial expressions, his mannerisms, the way he walks and the way he talks, and his very eyes express his gay-ness in a near-miracle of method acting. Wow!

  • Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008): What a film! All the more astonishing since almost the entire artistic output is of a single person. An irreverent take on Ramayana, with a delightfully less than subtle dose of criticism for the Maryada Purshottam (Propreity Personified) Rama, the film also recommends itself for the exuberant mix of media, especially the mixing of animation with the Blues songs by Annette Hanshaw. The film juxtaposes Nina Paley's autobiographical tale of heartbreak with Sita's response to Ram's treatment of her. The high point of the film, for me, was the satire sung by Luv and Kush for their father. The artist has released the film, more or less, into the public domain, and a good quality version is available here (this is a 1.5 GB download). Subtitles and director's commentary are available here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Common Sense is alive and well

I received a rather interesting forwarded message today, and based on preliminary research, it seems to be floating around on the internet for quite a while.

Here it is, in its entirety:
Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:Knowing when to come in out of the rain; why the early bird gets the worm; Life isn't always fair; and maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims. Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, sued, and was awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust; his wife, Discretion; his daughter, Responsibility; and his son, Reason. He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers; I Know My Rights, I Want It Now, Someone Else Is To Blame, and I'm A Victim.

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone. If you still remember him, pass this on. If not, join the majority and do nothing.
Having some free time on a lazy Saturday afternoon, I decided to find out about each incident referred to above. It is an interesting, and educational exercise. This exercise is also instructive in that it makes one understand that in this age one must not base one's judgment on the reports of incidents carried in mass media, as the reports invariably are meant for entertainment rather than information. The reports of deviant or odd behavior in modern mass media are calculated to elicit a self-righteous chuckle from the ill-informed.

If one is at all interested in knowing more about a particular incident, it pays to do one's own research. The internet is obviously of enormous help in this exercise. Many incidents are more complex than one assumes at first glance, as I will try to show in this post.

1. "Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate"

The incident in question happened in Lexington, NC in 1996. More details here, and here.

There were more such incidents, including one in which a young student was charged with sexual harassment for touching the waist of a fellow girl student. In short, schools were wary of lawsuits and erred on the side of caution. The boy in question was not "charged", he was suspended from school for a day and was banned from an ice cream party. The incident created wide awareness about the factor of age in sexual harassment, and led to new guidelines.

2. "Teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch"

The incident in question (or at least, one of its kind) happened in Loudoun County, Virginia. More details here.

In short, mouthwash contains alcohol. Schools prohibit bringing liquids containing alcohol to school as many teenagers use these to get drunk, or worse. In this particular incident, there was clear evidence of misuse.

3. "A teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student"

I was unable to find the specific incident, so cannot comment on this one. But I did find a large database on sexual harassment and other abuse by teachers in the US.

4. "Parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children."

I found at least one incident reporting a physical attack on a teacher by an aggrieved parent.

It is simplistic to just blame the parent in the above article, even though the violence or vehemence of their reaction is clearly uncalled for.

Bullying and else is very much alive in schools, and parents can no longer physically restrain children from violent behavior, due to the threat of being charged by the police themselves for corporal punishment. Calling police for restraining an adolescent bully is considered an overreaction, but what else is a parent or teacher to do, when a precocious teenager just won't listen? It is a complex question, and while not regulating it can lead to a brutalized child, regulating it can mean, at times, paralysis for the teachers and parents alike.

5. "schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion."

Conservative parents will not allow abortion in many regions, and the law (forbidding teachers to disclose a pupil's pregnancy to her parents) is therefore at least prima facie of some benefit. As for administering medication to students, parental consent is usually required for evading lawsuits in case the medication has an adverse effect, or if it is contraindicated for some rare physiological condition.

6. "churches became businesses;"

This seems to betray the conservative bias of the forwarded message. What else should churches be if not businesses? In fact, their claimed immunity from auditing and public scrutiny (which is de facto required for normal businesses) has resulted in their corruption. I am all for considering religious places as bona fide business establishments, as they have anyway always been providing a certain perceived value (emotional, spiritual or otherwise), food, song and dance, courtship opportunities etc. to its members in lieu of fees and patronage.

7. "and criminals received better treatment than their victims."

Once again the conservative bias is visible. Perhaps the author wants an "eye for an eye". Criminals must receive a fair and humane treatment, even though they themselves treated others inhumanly or unfairly, because to treat a criminal criminally (as in brutally, violently, etc.) will become a never-ending cycle of crime.

8. "you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault."

This refers to a 1999 incident in UK. Details here, and here.

The statement is misleading and probably comes from a spirited belief in gun rights (Charlton Heston, the NRA chief, came to the rescue of the home owner). Possession of weapons of some sort, self-defense and armed defense against trespassing are all legal around the world. In this particular incident, the shooter did not have a firearms license and shot a large bore shotgun, without warning, in the dark without perceiving the burglars, one of whom he killed. The case was a complicated one, to determine whether the plea of self-defense could be reasonably applied.

9. "a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, sued, and was awarded a huge settlement."

This is one of the most important (and interesting) incidents. Details here, and here.

In short, the cup was not steaming since it was covered. And she didn't spill a "little", she spilled enough to require skin grafts.

McDonalds' coffee was scalding hot, and McDonalds refused a simple payment for the treatment of a 79 year old lady who suffered severe third-degree burn injuries requiring expensive treatments (which itself is an indictment of the skewed health-care system in the US).
During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.
I also think that sometimes, the adverse reaction to a payment in a seemingly frivolous lawsuit like the above can be founded in simple envy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Gulaal by Anurag Kashyap

I can recall only a few realistic feature films about democracy and politics in India. Gulaal is a cross between realism and style, whereas New Delhi Times (Romesh Sharma, 1986), Woh Chokri (Subhankar Ghosh, 1994), Yeh Wo Manzil to Nahin (Sudhir Mishra, 1987) and Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2003) are exercises in realism without a self-conscious cinematic language.

Gulaal has a complex narrative. It has multiple protagonists, none of them black or white. The film does not have an explicit message. It, however, expresses the complexity of politics (gender, caste, state) and is ultimately a tragic film which offers no solutions.

The film is quite dense and though the narrative proceeds somewhat linearly, there are multiple parallel stories. There are stories of homes and parents and siblings, of young men and women, of politics and ambition, and of violence and retribution. This is a film with elliptical narrative streams.

The multiple characters are quite interesting and complex. The four main male characters in the film: Dukey Bana (the revolutionary), Ransa (the hedonist-escapist), Karan (the aggrieved lion in waiting) and Dileep (the impotent-introvert) are contrasted with the four female characters in the film: Madhuri (the appearance-centric one) Anuja (the angst-centric one), Kiran (the pragmatism-centric one), and Dukey's wife (the suffering one).

Gulaal, at least partially, is an oblique take on Mahabharata, but one in which the defeated are still alive.

If Karan is the Karna of Mahabharata, Dukey Bana is the Duryodhana (the similar sounding name would be too much of a coincidence). Pandavas (the democratic politicians taking turns at bedding Draupadi, the nation) have got their power through Vallabh Bhai Patel (the wily Krishna) and Duryodhana is assembling his army while Karna is plotting his revenge against both the Pandavas and Duryodhana.

Pandavas are now an institution, whereas Duryodhana and his 99 brothers are powerless. The film narrates the story of how Duryodhana seeks to reassert his power, and how Karna outwits him and takes his place. Whether Karna succeeds or not is left unsaid. What the film does say, however, is that there is no essential difference between the Pandavas and Kauravs in today's age, and that power has become an end in itself. At multiple points in the film, the question is raised, "Power to do what?", and the answer is strangely conspicuous by its absence. The question sounds absurd, and that is the whole point.

The tale is quite involving, though and one never knows how it will all end. Apart from keeping the audience guessing, the director seems to at times consciously defeat audience expectation (for example during the "respect the uniform" scene, where a policeman is murdered).

And being Anurag Kashyap, he is not too subtle about his surreal touches as well. I am not too sure if he has been inspired by Kubrick or Lynch, but some of his touches are going to be lost on Indian audiences. Observe the surreal costumes in Jadwal's room, or at Dukey Bana's home. Speaking of which, I found certain of these surreal juxtapositions jarring. In the middle of many a serious scene, the director seems to revel in expressing his surrealism, to the detriment of the film, I think.

Some cinematic flourishes do work, however. The poetry is quite funny (and thought-provoking), for example. And notice the names of the liquors in Ransa's bar (Liberty, Constitution, Republic). Some visual treats as well: the saturated colours, the playing around with the depth of field in various scenes, and the lighting. I particularly noted the spinning dots in Prithvi Bana's glasses when he is grieving towards the end.

However, just like Dev.D, I find the editing in the film a little too fast for me to properly appreciate certain compositions. For example, the arid landscape where Dileep and Ransa live should have been given a more patient treatment. Same goes for certain close-ups. Let the camera linger!

And like in Dev.D, the modern Indian woman is shown as subjectively aware, or rather, having a "soul" of her own. She is not merely a piece of furniture, even though she is treated like one at times.

I did find certain parts of the dialogue self-consciously crass. Normal folks don't use so many expletives. Mere expletives do not make for realism. The director seems to be sometimes playing for the gallery when he uses phrases which have till date not been heard on a big screen.

One final note: it is very interesting to analyse the trinity of Dukey Bana, Prithvi Bana and the half-man. I am not too sure if the director meant it the way I understood it, but anyway! On reflection, I saw the three men as different attitudes to life. The "doer" (the will), the "jester" (the intellect) and the "witness" (the conscience). Note that the "doer" (Dukey Bana) never jests in this film. The "jester" (Prithvi Bana) is insightful but never earnest. And the "witness" is silent, throughout. The "witness" is also a mythical creature: simultaneously a man, a woman, and an animal. And notice that the "doer" finally kills the conscience because he can't take it anymore.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Addiction and Boredom

Exhibit A: Ben Sanderson (played by Nicolas Cage), a compulsive alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995).

Exhibit B: Dan Mahowny (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a compulsive gambler in Owning Mahowny (Richard Kwietniowski, 2003).

Addiction is primarily about the need for self-forgetfulness and absorption.

Whether it be addiction to work, addiction to smoking, addiction to the internet, addiction to pornography, this need is fundamentally because of boredom, the default state of a normal, sane human being. Addiction to substances (nicotine, drugs) can also lead to physical dependency, but it is very interesting to note that withdrawal symptoms exist for psychological addictions (compulsive behavior patterns) as much as for physiological addictions (substance abuse). And once addicted, due to various processes in the brain (which involve dopamine, and are well documented), the state of boredom is reached much more easily.

From a dialogue in Owning Mahowny:
Psychologist: How would you rate the thrill you got from gambling, on a scale of one to 100?

Dan Mahowny: Um... hundred.

Psychologist: And what about the biggest thrill you've ever had outside of gambling?

Dan Mahowny: Twenty.
What is this thing called boredom? Boredom is fundamentally because of "my" alienation and separation from the physical world of the senses and of people.

I have the highest sympathy for addicts, as they are people like us, but who have been unable to keep their boredom under control, and who have been unable to find meaning in an occupation, or to resign themselves to a sedate life of occupation. Due to various influences, they start on a path of self-destruction. They get stuck with their addictions which harm them as well as others, whereas well-adjusted people manage to find occupations which add value to their lives and others.

The disease of boredom, and of the need for absorption is global, it is not restricted to just social misfits and addicts.

While psychiatry, family and community, and ordinary self-help attempt to correct boredom and alienation through engagement and socially useful occupations, spirituality offers a more radical solution. However, the fundamental flaw in spirituality is that from a state of alienation ("I exist and am lonely") it seeks an illusory union with everything ("I am all that is", "Love"), or an illusory dissociation from everything ("I am God", "It's all a dream"), and not annihilation ("I am this conscious flesh and blood body").

All these attempted solutions (insofar as they try to defeat boredom) - engagement, oneness, dissociation, or annihilation - are difficult to varying degrees. The status quo is easier than all these. But even amongst these attempted solutions, annihilation is in a different league altogether.

Only annihilation seems to be the one which is of no use to "me", while others keep "me" alive (as a seeker, or as a dissociated Witness or Being, or as a Presence). And hence, to find someone who says "yes" to psychical suicide is almost impossible to find.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Before you die

Have you come across articles (e.g. this one) which provide lists of places you must visit before you die, films you must watch before you die, dishes you must eat before you die, songs you must listen to before you die, and so on?

If these were adverts, it would still be somewhat acceptable. One of the primary ways in which marketing works is to make the consumer feel inadequate.

But these are articles proper, in magazines and e-zines! I don't think there is a conspiracy behind it (the magazines are not secretly hand-in-glove with film production companies to endorse old classics). It is perhaps just a catchy way to present a list.


The reason why it is catchy is because we do not want to miss out on great experiences. We want to see/visit/feel the "best" in the world. But why the hunger for those "great" and "best" experiences? Because one is unfulfilled and thinks that by partaking of those experiences, there will be fulfillment. It obviously doesn't work (otherwise the Lonely Planet guides and travel photographers and film critics would be fulfilled people). But the allure is very strong.

It is in essence, the allure of beauty and of the unknown. "I" wish for a peak experience to make me forget myself, to let me escape from my sordid world.

But the sordid world is of my own making. "I" stand in the way of my fulfillment.

Indeed, it is a waste of a life to have died unhappily, bemoaning my lot. But instead of pursuing triggers of peak experiences, it is far, far important to investigate the sordidness of my existence, to put an end to the causation of it, and to experience the peaks not at 8848 meters, but in one's daily life.

And I don't mean to smoke a joint. :-)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two Excerpts

Two Excerpts from the Actual Freedom mailing list:

Excerpt 1

The root cause of the contradictory nature (a polite word for ‘perverse nature’) of human beings lies in the basic instinctual emotions: fear and aggression (savage) and nurture and desire (tender). The inherent perversity of all ‘being’ can be easily seen by examining the way that some noteworthy human beings have arbitrarily selected a certain bundle of tender feelings, chopped them off from the rest of the surging flow of savage feelings and then realised themselves as unitive and enduring entities swimming in the ‘Ocean Of Oneness’ (by whatever name) for all ‘Eternity’ (by whatever name).

They have failed to face up to the facts and actuality of hereditary instincts squarely … which comes out of a failure to understand human nature (which is quite understandable as all the ‘Great Beings’ throughout history have remained stuck in the Human Condition and seek to resolve problems instead of dissolving the cause of them). They merely add to the confusion ... and suck otherwise intelligent people into following them blindly into heroic self-sacrifice. All the while they weep crocodile tears at the abominable slaughter and misery that they actively promote and perpetuate out of their abject ignorance.

All religious and spiritual thought – being mystical in origin – is nothing but an extremely complex and complicated metaphysics that does nothing to eliminate the self – the ego and soul – in its entirety. In fact, when one applies these eastern-derived religious and spiritual systems, one’s primal self is endorsed, enhanced, glorified and rewarded for staying in existence. And this is a monumental blunder. All the wars, murders, tortures, rapes and destruction that have eventually followed the emergence of any specially hallowed religiosity or spirituality attests to this. Also, all the sadness, loneliness, grief, depression and suicide that has ensued as a result of following any specifically revered religious or spiritual teaching renders its mute testimony to anyone with the eyes to see.

Culpability for the continuation of animosity and anguish lies squarely at the feet of the Master and the Messiahs; the Saints and the Sages; the Avatars and the Saviours; the Gurus and the God-men. And their feet – upon close inspection – are feet of clay. They lacked the necessary intestinal fortitude to go all the way ... they stopped at the ‘Unknown’ by surrendering to the ‘Unmanifest Power’ that lies lurking behind the throne. To stop at ‘dissolving the ego’ and becoming enlightened is to stop half-way. One needs to end the soul as well, then any identity whatsoever becomes extirpated, extinguished, eliminated, annihilated ... in other words: extinct. To be as dead as the dodo but with no skeletal remains. To vanish without a trace ... there will be no phoenix to rise from the ashes. Finished. Kaput.

Then there is peace-on-earth.

Thus this self – ‘me’ – is not only ‘simple, undemanding and peaceful’ yet ‘very complex, dynamic and associated with emotions and attachments’ in some unknowable and paradoxical way at all … by ‘my’ very nature ‘I’ am defiled; by ‘my’ very nature ‘I am corrupt through and through; by ‘my’ very nature ‘I’ am perversity itself. No matter how sincerely and earnestly one tries to purify oneself, one can never succeed completely. The last little bit always eludes perfecting.

By ‘my’ very nature ‘I’ am rotten at the innermost core.

Excerpt 2

Brain biologist Paul MacLean has put forward the attractive idea that the human brain is a composite structure, composed of three interlocking but distinct elements – three partly separate brains, each with its own software and its own input and output channels. The oldest is the reptilian brain. Next, layered above it is the paleocortex or limbic system, while layered above that is the neocortex (…) the limbic system (together with associated brain elements like the hypothalamus) is the engine of the so-called ‘instincts’ which MacLean has wryly described as the four F’s – feeding, fighting, fleeing and fucking. This behaviour is conspicuously cyclic and repetitive. The pre-human part of our brains still listens to the beat of nature. The outermost layer is our ‘thinking cap’, the part which boasts the cerebral cortex, the seat of language, imagination and reasoning skills. Under this lies the limbic system, which may be loosely thought of as the seat of emotions.

These two layers enfold the ancient reptilian core common to all (higher) animals. These deep brain structures predate the human species by hundreds of millions of years (…) the human brain preserves, in its present structure, the history of its past development. The newer layers are built on top of the older layers, just as younger strata in a geological formation lie on top of – and conceal – the more ancient strata which preceded them. In particular the ancient reptilian core and the next-oldest rind wrapped around it, the limbic brain … the seats of the so-called instincts (…) the fight or flight reaction [is] the instinct which drives us to defend the integrity of our body/self in the face of danger.

When life is threatened, the mind-computer has to make a rapid choice between two options – to avoid the danger by trying to escape from it or to confront the danger by engaging in real or mock combat. Associated with this instinct are the emotions of rage (fighting) and fear (fleeing). These emotions correspond to a sense of crisis which means that they are rapidly aroused and demand an immediate response. Whereas we can ignore or suppress feelings of hunger and thirst, rage and terror dominate the psyche until the threat that engendered them has been dealt with. The [sex instinct is the] instinct which drives us to reproduce. Associated with this instinct of sex is the emotion of lust, by which I mean simply the direct expression of sexual urge without taking into account any of the complicating value judgements which arise when the biological drive is viewed through the distorting prism of the symbolate mind. These value judgements colour the underlying instinct so deeply that the sensation of love, which we normally associate with sex, is seen as the ‘highest’ of all human emotions.

These instincts conform to a common pattern. In cases studied in animals, the instinct is often triggered by a specific signal which behavioural scientists call an innate releasing mechanism or IRM. The role of hormones in instinctive behaviour is often misunderstood. Hormones are responsible for the ‘state of arousal’, the ‘turn-on’ that accompanies the instinct but they do not trigger it. This is the role of the IRM. What hormones do is determine the threshold of response. There has been an enormous controversy over the question of whether IRM’s exist in humans and, if so, whether these are learned or inherited.

The controversy need not concern us. There is no doubt that we share the instincts of the four F’s with our vertebrate relatives (for example, the chemical changes in the blood of a terrified man are identical to those in the blood of a terrified cat), and it seems hard to dispute that these instincts are activated by powerful stimuli or signals. Once an IRM has set the scene in an appropriately primed individual, the final step is the carrying out of a specific action pattern which leads the animal to physically engage in the particular behaviour which the specific hormone has prepared and the specific IRM triggered. Behaviourial scientists call these selective action patterns ‘consummatory’ acts because they remove the source of their own motivation.

The pattern common to all instincts is thus encoded in the following paradigm. Hormones raise the level of arousal and thereby diminish the barriers that inhibit the action pattern; the IRM triggers the action and the consummatory act completes the sequence. Instinctive behaviour is fundamentally goal-driven and goal-oriented. This is why it conveys such a strong impression of purpose (…) we are sexually reproducing creatures so our genes are a 50:50 blend of those from each parent. This mixing of genes makes each of us a physically unique individual. Experience builds on these genetic differences, differentiating us increasingly from our fellows as we grow up.

By the time we are 13 years old, we normally have strongly developed ego-selves – we are recognizable individuals, labeled by society with identity tags called names. Manifestly then, evolution still works on and through individual differences between people (…) human society experiences a mode of natural selection based on competition between ego-conscious individuals. What this process selects for is, in the main, what one might expect of such a system: greed, survival at all costs, a ‘killer instinct’ in business, a massive emphasis on goods which reflect enlarged ego structures, wealth, power, indifference to others – in short, selfishness. Selfish egos replace selfish genes.

The basic nature of the ego-self shows up in the way it is constructed within each individual brain. The ego-self is an expression of the learned layers of memory stored in the cortex but – and here is the crucial point – the ego-self remains inextricably locked into the survival software permanently written into its genes. The genes of every human being create in the physical brain a robot, the limbic/reptilian complex which houses the survival instincts. This robot is the same in all of us. Blindly, it pegs each emerging layer of the ego-self to the ancient feedback loop of self-preservation. The process is one-way. Once an experience has been added to memory, it becomes part of the ego-self, to be conserved along with every thing that went before. Thus the robot – something we all share as part of our evolutionary heritage – becomes the unwitting agent by which our emerging personalities – the source of our differences – become hostage to foreverness. The chemical loop of self-preservation takes into itself the psychological ego-self.

According to its program, what the robot must do is maintain the status quo. This has a far-reaching consequence. Once a strong sense of ego-self has developed during the later years of childhood and the teens, the new (and mostly unimportant) day-to-day experiences of life usually serve to reinforce (or at worst only slightly modify) the current status quo structure of the ego-self. We cling fanatically to our sense of identity, of me-ness, because it has become our lens of life, our window to the world, our personal guardian of the universal survival imperative of the selfish gene. Because selfish egos spring from selfish genes, the ‘desires’ built into the ego-cage are open-ended. It is the nature of the ego to reinforce its own ‘self-image’ by always wanting more of those things which strengthen its ‘definition’ – more money, more power, more time (whence springs its open-ended urge to last forever).

To put this another way and so make my next point, what we dread above almost all else is change. By this, I do not mean the simple addition of ordinary day-to-day experiences which are easily accommodated within the existing ego-self structure: I mean changes that profoundly alter the ego-self, reshaping and remaking it. The reason for this is fundamental. If we change the ‘I’ self-image too deeply, we create a new creature; the ‘me’ that emerges from a profound personality change is, in a real and factual sense, no longer me – it is a stranger, it is other. For this reason, and I believe this is a defining feature of human growth, the transformative experiences of life, those which involve suffering and pain, and ‘shake us to the core’ are innately resisted by the self-preserving robot whose task it is (remember) to blindly maintain the status quo.

Human psychology is inherently self-protective and conservative (…) the discovery of evolution, more than anything else, heightened an age-old tension that has ‘always’ existed between the conservatism of our subconscious (the seat of instinct) and the flexibility of our cerebral cortex (the seat of intelligence). I once described man as a ‘machine that dreams’. The machine is the robot in the limbic brain, fixed in form and programmed by genes to maintain what is as it is. The dreamer is the cerebral cortex, a free-wheeling adventurer whose software programs are written not by genes but by experience. A dreamer dreams of things that are not yet. He dreams of change. And change is what the ego-self fears. We are in literal truth at war with ourselves, the robot in the limbic brain struggling to keep the status quo while the adventurer in the cortex toys with novelty.

This war within our psychology, like the day/night cycle, has become externalized in our myths. Almost every human culture has developed a folklore which shows the universe polarized between warring opposites: God versus the Devil, Good versus Evil, Light versus Darkness, Osiris versus Set. The pleasure/pain centres of the limbic cortex act as ordering foci for these opposites of experience. Now we see that the ‘struggle’ between the pleasurable (good/bright/day) centre and the painful (bad/dark/night) centre is also interleaved with an unresolved conflict between the bottom story of the mind, where instinct dwells, and the upper story where thought lives (…) bedded deeply in the mind then are dual programs which are exactly reciprocal in the sense that one arouses while the other diminishes the desire to consummate the ‘drive’ in question, be it eating, fighting or mating.

These linked opposites are reflected in a wide range of contrasting human attributes: pleasure and pain (the primary feelings) and reward and punishment (the derived values). Carried to an extreme, the primary feelings of pleasure and pain become intensive emotive hyper-states: ecstasy and agony. I believe these linked opposites find direct, unambiguous expression in two of our most fundamental myths, the opposing hereafters of heaven (bliss equals reward) and hell (agony equals punishment);they are also strongly linked to the contrasting opposites of good and evil.

The ancient Aryan Indians talked of the Gods Indra and Soma hurling ‘sinners’ down to ‘hell’ and Vedic scripture contains dark references to a black underground for ‘wrong-doers’. The heaven/hell duality was also mirrored in and reinforced by the other great contrasting principles of human experience – day and night (again), male and female, hot and cold, etc. Most religions contain some symbolism based on the duality of linked opposites – yin/yang (widespread in Oriental religions), light/dark (Zoroastrianism), heaven/hell (Christianity) (…) the fact that our personalities are ‘divided against themselves’ points to a profound evolutionary paradox. Whenever a better adapted form of life appears during evolution, the old form of life from which it arose is doomed. In a sense, a superior variant is a traitor to its own kind for, given time, it will eliminate its own antecedents. Instinctive behaviour is fundamentally goal-driven and goal-oriented.

This is why it conveys such a strong impression of purpose (…) to bring out the inner nature of instinct, we can recap it thus: eating and drinking equals self-maintenance; fighting or fleeing equals self-preservation and reproduction equals self-continuation. We possess all these instincts; they are our ‘original sin’ – the genetic memory of our animal ancestry. However, the selective action pattern of each instinct does not, in the human case, take place in a mindless mechanical automaton like a thermostat. The chemical states associated with each instinct register in our conscious awareness as feelings.

("The Death of Forever; A New Future for Human Consciousness"; By Darryl Reanney; Teacher of microbiology and biochemistry, University of Canterbury. N. Z. ,LaTrobe University, Australia. Publisher: Longman 1991 ISBN 0 582 87054-2)

On Gratitude

We all know what gratitude is. It is almost universally maintained that gratitude is a good thing. That to be thankful is a sign of civility and maturity and that being grateful for one's (howsoever mildly favorable) lot in life is a sure way to beat cynicism and bitterness and to become peaceful and contented.

I will consider two forms of gratitude. One is a polite acknowledgment that one has noticed something being done for the body and is glad about it (e.g. if one provided with a glass of water when thirsty). The other is a feeling of reaching out and being affectionate, and reverentially bowing in one's imagination to the help one has received (e.g. the Filial Piety Sutra). The second form of gratitude is what one normally feels (or is asked to feel) towards one's parents, towards the circumstances (and the forces of nature) which have helped one become what one is.

I consider the first form of gratitude as a sensible response, and the second form of gratitude as an impediment to freedom.

The first form of gratitude is in most cases a behavioral convention which acts as a marker in human transactions. It is akin to nodding one's head (or saying "Hm") after the other person speaks a few sentences in a conversation. To not do otherwise in a conversation is to signal disapproval or scepticism towards what has been spoken. Only with these markers of approval can the conversation proceed. Try not giving such markers in your next conversation and you will see what I mean.

In an interaction between strangers, "thank you" and "sorry" (which is a short form of "thank you for bearing with me") are signs of acknowledgment of the other's consideration or gesture, or of one's mistake. For example, to be silent and not say "thank you" when another gives you a glass of water is to be rude because you discount his/her presence and gesture. As another example, to be silent and not say "sorry" when you bump into another on the street is again self-centredness where the inconvenience you have caused him/her hasn't registered with you. It is not that by saying "sorry" you lessen the inconvenience, but by acknowledging it, you admit it as being inadvertent and you also admit that you are now paying more attention.

How does it matter to the other if you did it inadvertently or not? If it is a small inconvenience like a brushing past, it may not matter. But if is a noticeable inconvenience (e.g. you cut someone off while driving on the road), then the other person may justifiably wonder if he should be on his guard in a callous or hostile environment. After you say "sorry", he can understand your act as an aberration and not as a norm in the environment. And therefore, he can relax and lower his guard.

On the other hand, affective gratitude is fundamentally linked to being an identity within the body. Consider the following instances:

1. I am grateful to my mother that she carried me for 9 months.

2. I am grateful for all the philosophers and saints who have been there and whose teachings have made me wiser.

3. I am grateful towards existence for the cruel stepmother I had, beacause without that harsh experience, I could not have become mature and wise.

4. I am grateful for this plate of food as it will nourish my body.

5. Thank God I and my family are healthy.

6. We should thank our lucky stars that we are not in Africa battling hunger.

7. I am filled with gratitude when I look at this vast and beautiful nature.

8. I have gotten much more than I deserved. I am grateful to Providence.

Now some observations about the above instances:

1. To be grateful to one's parents is based on the assumption that they sacrificed some aspect of their lives for me. As in, that they suffered for me and that my loving gratitude can heal their pain and suffering. Ruthless as it may sound, one must ask what kind of psychic pain it is that seems to be healed by gratitude. And one must ask what made them sacrifice? And the answer to both the questions is: their desires and their nurturing instincts and passions. Gratitude towards nurturing passions keeps them (and the affective faculty, with its gamut of psychic pain and joy) alive.

2. To be grateful to the saints and philosophers in the past is to admit that it has saved one from the agonizing difficulty of standing on one's own two feet and finding out about life on one's own. One can appreciate and use their findings without being grateful. Being grateful binds one to not be too critical, for example.

3. To be grateful towards existence for the suffering one has undergone (which may have made one learn and become mature) is silly for two reasons: Existence is a imagined as a supernatural entity towards which my psychic gratitude flows (that is why this instance sounds like a spiritual proposition), and the gratitude is a very effective antidote to the bitterness one feels for a bad patch in one's life. Instead of covering up one's bitterness, why not just get rid of the bitterness without countering it with another affect?

4. To be grateful for the creature comforts and food is an implicit admission that "we sinners don't deserve all this." This is supposed to be a humble stance, where we are thankful for what has been given to us despite our dark sides. Insetad of working to demolish our dark sides, this ritual of humility makes us feel good, and somehow worthy of what we are getting. Why this inferiority complex and tacit admission of one's unworthiness in the first place? Happiness is one's birthright. But because human beings are aware of their dark sides, they are grateful for whatever joys they can get (which they see as acts of grace and forgiveness by Existence). It is far harder for a humble sinner to give up his reasons of "sinning" than to indulge in humility.

5. To be grateful for favorable circumstances is obviously born of fear of difficulties (e.g. disease, old age, death). Not to mention the entity for which such gratitude is meant.

6. It is easy to come across powerpoint slides and forwarded messages which show us the extreme suffering of some people in order to finally tell us "Be grateful for where you are." To be grateful for being better placed than other human beings is easily seen to be born of fear and is a placation of the powers of destiny to keep us in its good books.

7. The universe is neither beautiful nor ugly. It just is. People spend a lot of money to be at beautiful places. The feeling of beauty and its ensuing gratitude and elevation are affective responses which keep one firmly away from a pure sensual enjoyment of perceiving the universe in all its forms.

8. To be grateful for what one got "un-deserved" is borne of a deep feeling of inadequacy and resentment towards life. After all, what is keeping one from deserving it all?


"Gratitude is one of the many ploys designed, by those who expound on the merits of self-imposed suffering, to keep one in servile ignominy and creeping despair. As strange as it may initially seem, gratitude has the same deleterious effect upon one's well-being as the resentment it seeks to reform. When gratitude is realised as not being the panacea that it is, one will gladly renounce it along with the resentment it promises to replace. To successfully dispense with the despised resentment, its companion emotion, the extolled gratitude, must also go. It is a popular misconception that one can do away with a 'bad' emotion whilst hanging on to the 'good' one. In actualism the third alternative always applies. 'Good' and 'Bad', 'Right' and 'Wrong', 'Virtue' and 'Sin', 'Hope' and 'Despair', 'Gratitude' and 'Resentment', and so on, all disappear in the perfection of purity."

" ... gratitude - instead of appreciation - with which comes "beholden", "indebted" and "obliged". First there is relief - for no longer being deprived - and the ensuing thankfulness re-establishes 'me' at the core of 'being' ... a humble 'me'. It has all to do with "not deserving" such splendor and this uncalled-for perfection - which is, of course, one's birthright - is felt to be a gratuity bestowed upon one who is specially chosen."

(both excerpts by Richard from the Correspondence on the Actual Freedom Mailing List)
I also recommend reading an article titled Effects of Gratitude on the Body, though perhaps after reading my article you will have a different view of those effects.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Con-men and Human Nature

I have generally believed that con-men have a deep understanding of human psychology. A recent email made me sit up and wonder about it even more.

Here is the email:
Hello My Dear,

I am Melissa Pascal now undergoing medical treatment for Cancer. I was married for Sixtheen Years before my Husband (Professor Phillip Pascal ) died on September 15 2006. Well I will only try to let you know who Professor Phillip Pascal is by stating his philosophy of life. "Life is worth living only if lived to the service of mankind" and "You make a living by what you earn, but you make life by what you give" This will give you an insight of the spirit behind what I believe and what I live for.

My Doctors has confirmed to me that I have less than Three Months to live, so I have decided to donate my funds (US$8.6 Million) to a trustworthy individual who will utilize it to assist the poor and the needy in accordance to my instructions.

As soon as I have received your response, I shall give you further directives on how you are to go about the claims of the said funds.

Best Regards,
Mrs. Melissa Pascal.
Notice a few things:
  • The "My Dear" phrase
  • The few very deliberate spelling errors (she is human, after all, eh?)
  • The theme of mortality: Cancer, widowhood
  • The goodness of both her husband (who was a Professor Philip, a gentle and educated man) and herself (they were married for sixteen years, presumably not too unhappily since she respects her husband still)
  • The astonishing generosity of both her husband and herself (the two aphorisms).
  • Pleading to the recipient as being a good person ("Trustworthy"). Note that for most people, the brains will feel good at being called "trustworthy", and our neural circuits automatically switch on the "trusting" aspect as well. Since we are trustworthy (or so we are being so generously told), how can we be so mean to not consider her trustworthy as well? (This line of thought is for the "good" people.)
  • For the "bad" amongst us, the naivete of the sender will provoke a desire to cheat her. "Yeah sure - I will assist the poor! Just wait and see!"
  • The ambivalent might want to help the poor a bit, and also help themselves a little.
Have you come across any good cons in your life?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Chariots of Fire by Hugh Hudson

I became interested in this film in 1995 after listening to its masterful soundtrack by Vangelis, which made me listen to his other works (I highly recommend, in addition to Chariots of Fire, his albums Voices and El Greco).

I remember seeing this film prior to my introduction to Actualism, and being "elevated" by it.

I saw it again recently, and was amused at my response this time. The film is about two British athletes who fervently wished to win a medal at the 8th Olympics for very different reasons. One, Harold Abrahams, wanted to win it to show others that he, as a Jew and an Irishman, was capable of high achivement. The other, Eric Liddell, wanted to win it as a paean to the glory of God.

It was not just a race to either of them. They had strong affective and symbolic reasons for running. Yes, they won. And the film tries to show that their winning was a consequence of their intense belief in themselves and their cause.

However, this time it was clear to me that their winning was no more than happenstance and they could have easily lost as well. Many athletes who have struggled no less and with unknown and equally strong affective stories do lose, and cry bitterly at their "fate"! An intense feeling of euphoria and achievement - if one is successful - is the flip-side of an intense feeling of dejection and sorrow - if one fails. Sportsmanship is not just for losers, but for winners as well. However, winners don't get accused of being too happy on their success, and are commended for their hard work and training, whereas losers are told that sometimes it is just a matter of chance.

The metaphysical rendering of the protagonists' victory in this film ("they won because they believed!") is elevating to our being (the film won the Best Picture Oscar), and that confirms to me that even the secular and atheists amongst us (in the audience) are Beings at heart and experience feelings which can only be called spiritual.

Feelings, of elevation and of love, make us spiritual beings. Whether or not we meditate.