Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Dominion of Fear

Peace and Long Life

[Only] while under the dominion of fear, do men fall prey to [superstition. …]

The greatest secret of monarchic rule is
  • to keep men deceived, and
  • to cloak, in the specious name of religion, the fear by which they must be checked,
so that they
  • will fight for slavery as they would for salvation, and
  • will think it not shameful, but a most honorable achievement, to give their life and blood that one man may have a ground for boasting. …

They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and
  • as they plot against the enemy in time of war,
  • so do they against the citizens in time of peace.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 77), Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1677 (emphasis added).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge …

— Proverbs, 1:7, King James Bible, 1611.

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955):
A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.
Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
(Religion and Science, New York Times Magazine, 1930)

Arthur Doyle (1859 – 1930):
What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?
It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.
But what end?
There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.
(The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, The Last Bow, 1917)

Baron d'Holbach (1723 – 89):
If we go back to be beginning, we shall find that ignorance and fear created the Gods.
That fancy, enthusiasm or deceit adorned or disfigured them.
The weakness worships them.
That credulity preserves them.
And that custom, respect and tyranny, support them.
(The System of Nature, 1770)

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970):
[The] function of religion [is] not conducive to the exercise of intellectual adventure.
(Wisdom of the West, 1959, p 11)

James McPherson (1936):
The rise of education … since the seventeenth century [grew] out of the protestant Reformation.
The priesthood of all believers needed to know how to read and understand God's word.
(Battle Cry of Freedom, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2003, p 18)

David Hume (1711 – 76):
It is an absurdity to believe that the Deity [is subject to that lowest of] human passions, a restless appetite for applause.
(Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1776)

Henri Poincare (1854 – 1912):
We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling.

Gareth Southwell:
[A] 2012 report by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago … revealed that, since 1991, religious belief declined in 14 of 18 countries surveyed by an average of 2.4%, while atheism rose in all but three countries by an average of 1.7%. …
In Elaine Howard Eckland's 2010 book, Science vs Religion: What Do Scientists Say?, of nearly 1,700 scientists working at American universities, 64% [as opposed to 37% of the general public] had no religious belief (30% were atheists, and 34% were agnostics).
(50 Philosophy of science ideas you really need to know, Quercus, 2013, p 100)

Pope Gregory the Great (c540 – 604):
We are almost ashamed to refer to the fact that a report has come to us that your brotherhood is teaching grammar to certain people …
If it should be clearly proved here-after that the report we have heard is false and that you are not devoting yourself to the vanities of worldly learning, we shall render thanks to God for keeping you heart from defilement.
(Epistles XI, 54)

John Mill (1806 – 73):
Christian morality {is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience …}
It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life [giving] to human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man's feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow creatures …
What little recognition the idea of obligation to the public obtains in modern morality is derived from Greek and Roman sources, not from Christian …
[The] Christian system is no exception to the rule, that in an imperfect state of the human mind the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions. …
[A] large portion of the noblest and most valuable moral teaching has been the work, not only of men who did not know, but of men who knew and rejected, the Christian faith.

In former days, when it was proposed to burn atheists, charitable people used to suggest putting them in a madhouse instead …
(On Liberty, 1859)

Tim Minchin (1975):
Science adjusts its belief based on what's observed.
Faith is the denial of observations so that belief can be preserved.

George Berkeley (1685 – 1753):
[There] is not perhaps any one thing that hath more favored and strengthened the depraved bent of the mind toward atheism, than the use of [the term: 'matter'.]
(Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, 1713)

Alan Jacobs (1958): So when people say …
We all believe in the same God, we just express that belief in different ways,
we may with some justification commend those people for attempting to get beyond confrontation, dichotomy, [and] argument as [warfare.]
But we have to go on to say that the attempt is a facile one.
The real story will be far more complicated, and not to be grasped by replacing a fictitious polarity with an equally fictitious unity.
(How to Think, Profile, 2017, p 100)

Yuval Noah Harari (1976)

Professor of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For thousands of years, the scientific road to growth was blocked because people believed that holy scriptures and ancient traditions already contained all the important knowledge the world had to offer. …
[If you] already knew everything worth knowing, [why] bother searching for new [knowledge? …]
[The] Scientific Revolution freed humankind from this conviction.
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.
Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
(p 212)

[The death of God has] not lead to social collapse.
Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish.
Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans.
God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the atheist Netherlands.
(p 220)

[Industrial civilization's shortcomings] should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. …
[Doomsday] prophecies of collapse and violence have, [thus far,] not materialised, whereas the scandalous promises of perpetual growth and global cooperation are fulfilled.
[Capitalism] has not only managed to prevail, but also to overcome famine, plague and war.
For thousands of years priests, rabbis and muftis explained that humans cannot overcome famine, plague and war by their own efforts.
Then along came the bankers, investors and industrialists, and within 200 years managed to do exactly that.
(p 219)

Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people.
That's why divorce is so traumatic for children.
A five-year-old cannot understand that something important is happening for reasons unrelated to him.
No matter how many times you tell him that mummy and daddy are independent people with their own problems and wishes, and that they didn't divorce because of him — the child cannot absorb that.
He is convinced that everything happens because of him.
Most people grow out of this infantile delusion.
Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.
(p 173)

Religion is anything that confers superhuman legitimacy on human social structures.
It legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

Religion asserts that we humans are subject to a system of moral laws that we did not invent and that we cannot change.
A devout Jew would say that this is the system of moral laws created by God and revealed in the Bible.
A Hindu would say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva created the laws, which were revealed to us humans in the Vedas.
Other religions, from Buddhism and Daoism to Nazism, communism and liberalism, argue that the superhuman laws are natural laws, and not the creation of this or that god.
Of course, each believes in a different set of natural laws discovered and revealed by different seers and prophets, from Buddha and Laozi to Hitler and Lenin.
(p 181, emphasis added)

Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.
Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals.
God exists.
He told us to behave in certain ways.
If you obey God, you'll be admitted to heaven.
If you disobey Him, you'll burn in hell.
The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that.
They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations.
The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I?
What is the meaning of life?
What is good?
Whereas many people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied.
They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places you know well or wish to visit.
(p 184)

Religion is interested above all in order.
It aims to create and maintain the social structure.
Science is interested above all in power.
It aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. …
The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.
(p 198)

[The] idea of souls [is incompatible with the theory of evolution,] at least if by 'soul' we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal.
Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution.
Natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts.
But the soul has no parts.
If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps?
Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus?
But the soul has no parts.
(p 104)

Think of the first baby to possess a soul.
That baby was very similar to her mother and father, except that she had a soul and they didn't.
Our biological knowledge can certainly explain the birth of a baby whose cornea was a bit more curved than her parents' corneas.
A slight mutation in a single gene can account for that.
But biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul.
Is a single mutation, or even several mutations, enough to give an animal an essence secure against all changes, including even death?

Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities. …
From an evolutionary perspective, the closest thing we have to a human essence is our DNA, and the DNA molecule is the vehicle of mutation rather than the seat of eternity.
This terrifies large numbers of people, who prefer to reject the theory of evolution rather than give up their souls.
(p 105)

… Hitler's political career is one of the best examples we have for the immense authority accorded to the personal experience of common people in twentieth-century politics.
Hitler wasn't a senior officer — in four years of war, he rose no higher than the rank of corporal.
He had no formal education, no professional skills and no political background.
He wasn't a successful businessman or a union activist, he didn't have friends or relatives in high places, or any money to speak of.
At first, he didn't even have German citizenship.
He was a penniless immigrant.

When Hitler appealed to the German voters and asked for their trust, he could muster only one argument in his favour: his experiences in the trenches had taught him what you can never learn at university, at general headquarters or at a government ministry.
People followed him, and voted for him, because they identified with him, and because they too believed that the world is a jungle, and that what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger.
(p 256)

[While liberal humanists] tiptoe around the minefield of cultural comparisons, fearful of committing some politically incorrect faux pas, and [socialist humanists] leave it to the party to find the right path through the minefield, evolutionary humanists gleefully jump right in, setting off all the mines and relishing the mayhem. …
According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward.
Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded in the name of cultural relativism or social equality.
(p 260)

Christianity … spread the hitherto heretical idea that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God's favourite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries.

In addition to social and ethical reforms, Christianity was responsible for important economic and technological innovations.
The Catholic Church established medieval Europe's most sophisticated administrative system, and pioneered the use of archives, catalogues, timetables and other techniques of data processing.
The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.
The Church established Europe's first economic corporations — the monasteries — which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods.
Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centres of Europe, helping to found many of Europe's first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.

[The] Catholic Church … and the other theist religions have long since turned from a creative into a reactive force.
They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas.
(p 274)

[Liberal humanism] won the humanist wars of religion [and is] now pushing humankind to reach for immortality, bliss and divinity.
Egged on by the allegedly infallible wishes of customers and voters, scientists and engineers devote more and more energies to these liberal projects.
Yet what the scientists are discovering and what the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws in the liberal world view and the blindness of customers and voters.
When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.
(p 276)

It is dangerous to trust our future to market forces, because these forces do what's good for the market rather than what's good for humankind or for the world.
The hand of the market is blind as well as invisible, and left to its own devices it may fail to do anything about the threat of global warming or the dangerous potential of artificial intelligence.
(p 376)

So of everything that happens in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?
  • If we think in term of months, we had probably focus on immediate problems such as the turmoil in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe and the slowing of the Chinese economy.
  • If we think in terms of decades, then global warming, growing inequality and the disruption of the job market loom large.
  • Yet if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:

    1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms, and life is data processing.
    2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
    3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

    These three processes raise three key question …

    1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
    2. What's more valuable — intelligence or consciousness?
    3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

(p 376-7)

(Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Penguin, 2015)

Carl Sagan (1934 – 96)

[Better] the hard truth … than the comforting fantasy.
(p 191)

And if the world does not in all respects correspond to our wishes, is this the fault of science, or of those who would impose their wishes on the world?
(p 254)

Liberation from superstition is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for science.
(p 294)

(Demon Haunted World, 1997)

Epicurus (341 – 271 BCE)

Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.

Letter to Menoeceus

[Death] is nothing to us since:
  • when we exist, death is not yet present, and
  • when death is present, then we do not exist. …

By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.
It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.
Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. …

The Principal Doctrines

It was impossible for someone ignorant about the nature of the universe, but still suspicious about the subjects of the myths, to dissolve his feelings of fear about the most important matters.
So it was impossible to receive unmixed pleasures without knowing natural science. …

Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one's whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship.

Kenneth Clark (1903 – 83)

The older medieval philosophers, like Anslem, had said:
I must believe, in order that I may understand.
Abelard took the opposite course:
I must understand, in order that I may believe. ...
By doubting, we come to questioning.
And by questioning, we perceive the truth.
Strange words to have been written in the year 1122. ...

(The Great Thaw, Civilisation, BBC Television, 1969)

Scepticism Versus Dogmatism

Seeking the Truth

Knowing the Truth


How to think

What to think




Type 1Type 2




The Middle Way




DeterminismFree Will





EssenceFamily Resemblence


Organizing PrincipleEnabling Technology




Black and WhiteShades of Gray


External Locus of ControlInternal Locus of Control

A PrioriA Posteriori
Deducing Fact from TheoryInducing Theory from Fact
Quantity of LifeQuality of Life

Letting goGrasping
Having angry feelingsBeing angry


Wanting what you don't haveHaving what don't want

What WasWhat IsWhat May Be
Passing AwayChangingComing To Be

Functions of Prayer


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