Sunday, June 29, 2008

Check It Out: The Science of Religion

In 2003 Richard Dawkins gave the Tanner Lectures at Harvard University. I spent most of the afternoon today listening to these lectures. Richard Dawkins is one of the many contemporary scientists I admire a lot. I have read many (if not all) of his books, including the most recent one - The God Delusion. I admire Dawkins primarily because of his knack of explaining complex ideas in a clear and logical fashion. I admire him even more for his polite yet forceful arguments against religious extremism, in fact religion itself and against irrational, non-scientific ideas like 'creation science' and 'intelligent design'.

In the first of the two lectures, Dawkins talks about the science of religion. The Darwinian framework of evolution through variation and natural selection is the most elaborate explanation we have to explain the evolution and diversity of life on earth. Any phenomena that have survived for millennia in human populations therefore beg an evolutionary explanation. Religious beliefs have appeared and continue to appear independently in human societies across ages in all parts of the world. The ubiquity of religious beliefs in human society makes it imperative to explore the evolutionary origins of such beliefs. Dawkins focuses exclusively on this topic in the first of the two lectures. Dawkins has devoted a full chapter of his latest book - The God Delusion - to this topic. I would urge anyone who is interested in this subject to listen to this lecture.

In my opinion this topic is of utmost importance today. Religious zealots are wrecking havoc in every part of the world. Islamic extremists in the middle east, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world; fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the USA, fundamentalist Jews in Israel, fundamentalist Hindu groups in India all want to impose their particular religious world view and way of life upon the society at large. Many, if not all of them are using violence to terrorize people into submission. Only by understanding the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs can we begin to treat the virus of religious extremism and perhaps some day cure ourselves of all faith based propositions.

In the second lecture, Dawkins talks about the Religion of Science. A common retort of people of faith against science is that science itself is a form of religion. They point out that the core hypothesis of science, that the universe is governed by a set of laws which we can reveal through careful investigation, is a faith based proposition in itself. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible." There is profound mystery, wonder and awe in the universe. There are befuddling questions such as why are the laws of that govern the universe the way they are? Why do the fundamental constants of physics have the peculiar values they have? Dawkins draws out the stark contrasts between the scientific, - evidence based - world view and the religious - faith based - world view. He concedes that there may be questions which science in principle cannot answer but he lands firmly against the proposition that the scientific world view IS in itself some sort of religious world view.

The whole series is available in mp3 format on Dawkins's website which is a worthwhile place to visit for anyone interested in evolution, reason, atheism etc. There is also a seminar with Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Keith DeRose as a follow up to the lectures.

Happy listening!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hinduism: An Open Source religion

Hinduism stands apart from the three organized, monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam and other major religions - Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism etc, as a weird sort of religion. All these other religions have a central defining entity. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have their prophets and their sacred books. Sikhism and Jainism have a line of sacred religious teachers but one or a few among them are considered most sacred. Buddhism has its founder - Gautama Buddha. Hinduism is a bit quirky. There are many books which can be considered sacred texts, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Geeta being the main ones. There are many Gods and Goddesses to worship. There are many schools of thought and traditions to follow. In fact, variety seems to be the single and most important defining quality of Hinduism. Hinduism is adaptable, versatile and most importantly it is an 'open source' religion. You can choose a flavor of Hinduism that suits your taste.

Let me just elaborate on the 'open source' bit. The Linux operating system is an open source operating system. The 'kernel' or the central component of the operating system is an open source component released under GNU-GPL for any developer to modify and re-distribute. Similarly the 'kernel' of the Hindu spiritual thought, the central idea of Hinduism, in my opinion, is a state of consciousness which can be experienced and freely interpreted by any human being. It is a spiritual experience. I am using the word spiritual a bit casually here. By spiritual, I do not mean to hint at something supernatural; although most traditional interpretations have a supernatural component. By spiritual I mean something relating to one's subjective consciousness, an experience that is available to oneself alone. This state of consciousness may correlate with a certain state or states of the human brain. This spiritual experience is termed variously as samadhi, awakening, enlightenment, nirvana etc. For brevity, I will here forth address this state as the 'samadhi'.

We know this for sure - in ancient India there were many people who followed a variety of contemplative traditions. Many people must have experienced samadhi in the course of the numerous mental and physical regimens they undertook as a part of their meditative practice and probably even under the influence of hallucinogenic substances (such as the mythical Soma) . Even though they experienced it, they were not in a position to know the neurological basis of it. All of the information we have about the nature of samadhi is from the descriptions of it, by people who at one time or another experienced it. Since samadhi is a state of consciousness accessible only to the individual experiencing it, we have no way of verifying that the experience indeed took place. But many, if not all, of the people claiming to experience samadhi seem like stand-up guys and gals. So we can safely say that some of them were indeed telling the truth. The numerous descriptions of samadhi have some common and recurring themes such as:
  1. The experience of a complete dissolution of the 'ego' (an 'I' separate from the external world),
  2. A perception of oneness with the external world
  3. A sense of profound bliss.
Most people who claim to have experienced samadhi describe it as a life changing experience, something that arouses the feelings of love, empathy and compassion in them changing their world-view in a radical way. I believe that it's this unique state of consciousness that is the kernel - the central concept - of the religion that was later on termed as Hinduism.

Like Linux, there are many distributions built around this kernel. By different 'distributions', I mean the different interpretations by different people, applying a combination of logic and metaphysical conceptions, to explain the various aspects of the samadhi experience. I think there were two important reasons for the emergence of such a variety of interpretations. In ancient India there was no single religious authority or single dominant school of religious thought. Differing ideas and debate between different schools of thought was often welcomed and promoted by rulers and elite in the society. Secondly, samadhi is a purely subjective experience. Even today we can only image and record in some detail the state of the brain of a person who is undergoing a meditative experience. As of yet there is no way to externally induce such an experience reliably. So the people who experience samadhi lacked the tools for understanding the physical and neurological basis of the experience. That combined with intense and profound nature of the experience, as judged from the lofty descriptions, must have evoked the idea that there must be something mystical behind it. The Hindu interpretations are not the only one which try to explain samadhi. Both Jainism and Buddhism arose as a result of prolonged contemplative practice and the experience of samadhi by their teachers. The distributions which broadly fall under the label Hinduism interpret the samadhi state in one particular way.These 'distributions' form the various schools of thought in Hindu philosophy.

The people who composed the Vedas believed that there is a soul (the Atman) that animates our bodies and that survives the death of our bodies. They also believed that natural phenomena were imbibed with souls as well. Hence a plethora of naturalistic gods and goddesses such as Agni (the god of fire), Varuna (the god of rain), Usha (the goddess of dawn) etc. When some of the Vedic philosophers experienced samadhi, they interpreted it thus - they ascribed the feeling of oneness experienced in the samadhi to the merging of their personal soul with the soul that pervades all of nature. They termed this soul that pervades all of nature as the 'Brahman'. This metaphysical idea of a Brahman is an important part of the 'Vedantic' interpretation of samadhi.

Contemporary Hinduism is a giddy mixture of this particular interpretation of that unique state of consciousness, along with a bunch of other baggage such as:
  • Other metaphysical hypotheses such as the laws of karma, rebirth of the soul etc.
  • A number of creation myths.
  • Belief in an amazingly large number of of gods and goddesses, each with their own rich and colorful mythology.
  • An equally huge number of rituals, rites and superstitions.
The reason I call Hinduism an 'open source' religion is because its central idea, the interpretation of the samadhi, is not controlled by any central authority. One is free to re-interpret to one's own liking. One is free to promote one's own interpretation. One is free to label one's interpretation as the most authoritative, most logical, most perfect interpretation. The history of Hindu philosophy reveals a number of such individuals and groups who chose to interpret the samadhi state in their own peculiar way. They squabbled, they argued, they constructed complicated logical arguments to refute the interpretations of the 'other' groups and establish the authority of their own interpretation. The Samkhya, Dvait (dualist), Advait (non-dualist), Vishistha-Advait (qualified non-dualist)... all these different schools are nothing but elaborate logical and metaphysical expositions of the samadhi state. Adi Shankaracharya's treatise on the Brahmasutras for example provides refutation of many different schools of thought and promotes Shankaracharya's own interpretation of Samadhi, the nature of Brahman, Atman, etc. All the schools of thought that are broadly termed 'Hindu' agree on the point that samadhi is the 'joining' of the Atman with the Brahman. Their disagreements stem from their ideas about the nature of Brahman and Atman.

How, one may ask, can one achieve this state? How can one achieve samadhi? There are many ways of doing this as well. One may follow any one of the many paths towards experiencing the samadhi state. Since samadhi is the joining or the yoking of the Atman to the Brahman, the Sanskrit word 'yoga' which means yoking is used to describe the various paths. One may follow the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga), the path of asceticism (Raj Yoga), the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), the path of action (Karma Yoga) - each with it's own prescription for achieving the supreme union of the Atman and the Brahman. There is never a dearth of mystics, sages, god-men and god-women in India, each claiming to have experienced the samadhi and giving their own for achieving it. New age paths like Siddha Samadhi Yoga, Art of Living etc. mostly comprise of traditional ideas repackaged and distributed through modern marketing mechanisms.

The choice of gods and goddesses to worship is my favorite aspect of Hinduism. If you are the nerdy type, you might like Ganesh - the elephant headed god of wisdom. If you are a gym loving health freak, you might want to worship Hanuman - the monkey god endowed with amazing strength and the ability to fly (like Superman but better because Hanuman is supposedly Chiranjeevi - one endowed with eternal life). Then there are a number of goddesses. Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) may be worshiped by one and all. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and Durga (or Shakti), the goddess of energy are equally venerable. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva... the trinity... the foundations of Hindu mythology are eternal favorites among devotees. So are the many incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna and Rama being the most preferred of them all. There are of course many rituals and rites you might choose to observe to please or placate your preferred god/goddess. You may choose to enjoy the beauty of many of the devotional songs (the Bhajans and Abhangas) or devotional dances. You may indulge in meditation and chanting. If you so prefer, you may also choose the almost sadomasochistic acts of worship like sleeping on a bed of nails or standing for days on one leg.

In many respects, Hinduism is like and operating system for your life. It is a way of life. You may choose your own favorite 'distro' of the Hindu operating system, your own favorite path, your own favorite deity and still call yourself a Hindu as long as you subscribe to the central idea - the concept of the supreme Brahman. The gods and goddesses are all manifestations of the Brahman. The various paths all lead to the union of the Atman with the Brahman. The Brahman itself is something beyond all concepts. According to the "Advait" school, everything after all IS the Brahman, including you.

Thou Art That!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hara-Kiri by Democracy

I'm emerging from a long break in blogging. So if any of you have still kept my blog in your feed reader... kudos to you for your patience and many thanks!

This is the first time around that I have followed the presidential nomination process in this country closely. Last time around, I paid attention only after the general election campaign had started. My political views are more on the liberal-Democratic side and even more so on the 'cynical of all politicians' side. Last time around the Democrats in this country picked John Kerry as their presidential nominee. Initially I felt that Kerry had a good chance to beat George W. Bush. But he fumbled a lot in the campaign. He failed to make a logical case about his opposition to the Iraq war after having voted for the resolution to authorize the use of force. The Republicans picked on this and portrayed him as a flip-flopper. Apparently, changing one's opinion in the face of new evidence is a character flaw in this country. Then he failed to respond aggressively to the swift-boat veterans for truth campaign. Compared to George W. Bush, Kerry's military record looked unbeatable. But Kerry failed to aggressively hit back at the swift-boat campaign 'shmear' and this, in my opinion, created enough doubts about his record in the minds of many independent voters. The rest is history. Bush/Cheney won by a 2.3% margin. The funniest thing I remember after that election was Jon Stewart's comments on The Daily Show about Bush's swearing in ceremony, which for your delight is embedded below:
(The punch-line, if you care, is around 2.00 min. into the clip. I am not ashamed to say that I was among the people who 'solemnly swore')

This time around, I have been following the Democratic and Republican nomination contests closely. The Republicans, because of the way they choose nominees (winner takes all delegates in most states), have ended up with a clear result very early. The competition for John McCain was not all that great. There were many candidates in the Republican race who were touted by the media as 'clear' front-runners but who were kicked out in the first few rounds, leaving Republicans to ultimately choose between war-hero and long serving US senator John McCain and the utterly ridiculous, Mr. 'I don't believe in evolution by natural selection', god-nutter, Mike Huckabee.

But this post is not about the Republican race. It's about the race for the Democratic party nomination. As I write this, the results of the last two Democratic primaries are coming in. Hillary Clinton finished her speech some time ago thanking all her supporters but saying that she will not be making any decisions about the future of her campaign tonight. As I am typing these words I am listening to Barack Obama's victory speech in which he claimed the democratic nomination. As I listen to the dizzy chants of "Yes we can!" I am filled with a feeling of both hope and fear.

Barack Obama has great oratorical talent and equally good speech writers. He has successfully inspired a lot young first time voters to root for him in the primaries and caucuses. His campaign carried out amazing grass-roots activism that finally resulted in his winning the democratic nomination. My cynicism of politicians forbids me from making any predictions about the kind of president Barack Obama would be if he indeed wins the general election, but I can safely say either of candidates this time around would be better than George W. Bush and 'Dick' Cheney combined. My hope is that Barack Obama goes on to win the general election in November.

My fear is that the Democratic party has committed 'hara-kiri' by democracy. Democratic party has this "everyone gets a trophy" type nomination process which proportionately allocates the delegates in each state to any candidate who wins more than 15% of the votes. This led to a lengthy and divisive nomination race. The nomination process chosen by the Democratic party is not like the general election, where the candidate who wins popular vote in a state carries the entire state in the electoral college. The Democratic party system is further complicated by an utterly undemocratic concoction called the 'super-delegates' who get to make up their mind irrespective of the popular opinion.

The candidates vying for the nomination in the democratic race were historical. Hillary Clinton if nominated would have been the first woman to lead the ticket. Barack Obama is the first man of color to be the presidential candidate of a major party in this country. The race between these two has left the democratic party deeply divided. Democrats further complicated things by first stripping the states of Michigan and Florida of all the delegates just because these states decided to have early primaries. Then, few days ago they divided the delegates among Clinton and Obama but gave each delegate from these states only 1/2 vote in the convention. The whole thing was ironic given that it was the "Democratic" party going though all this drama. Now that Obama has won the nomination, there is talk about unity in the party. I am afraid that it is a bit too late to achieve any unity after such a long and bitter infighting.

The thing I am even more fearful of is the fact that in the frenzy and enthusiasm created by Obama's charisma, people are not looking at the bigger picture. Sure he has run a great grass-roots campaign... sure has has been able to raise huge amounts of money from a record number of donors... but he has a long way to go to win the general election. Every time I hear talk about the enthusiasm and energy created by Obama's campaign, I remind myself that just four years ago 51% of the people who voted in this country thought George W. Bush is the right choice to run the country. This was in the light of a preemptive war that was turning out to be increasingly disastrous and dangerous for this country AND the world at large. It was also in the light of the amply evident incompetence, stupidity and arrogance of the Bush administration. I am not convinced that suddenly a majority of this country will wake up and vote for a black man with no military background, very little experience in the Senate and almost no experience in an executive position. Perhaps I am being too cynical. Perhaps, not unlike the swing of a pendulum, public opinion in this country too swings from the delusion of electing Bush/Cheney in 2004 to the giddiness of voting for 'hope and change' 2008.

I am afraid that this country is still not ready for a black man to become the President. I am afraid that racism will rear its ugly head in this campaign. In many places it will be utterly blatant. However I am afraid more of the subtle racism...that some people will cloak under the guise of "leadership experience", "military experience" or any other reason they can find to vote against Obama. I am not alleging that everyone who votes for McCain is a racist. Most of the people who voted for McCain (and will vote for him in the general election) in my opinion will truly believe him to be the right choice and for the right reasons. But I am afraid that there are just enough people in this country who won't vote for Obama simply because of his matter what his stance is on the real issues such as the economy, health care and national security. They may be a minority... but remember... 2% of the voting population is enough to tilt the scales towards the McCain camp.

I think Barack Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright is also going to hurt him. It is one of the things that annoys me about Barack Obama. What was he thinking associating with such a lunatic pastor for 20 years? I am guessing there are going to be many people who will be thinking likewise. I am sure many people will conveniently ignore all the crazy things uttered by some lunatic evangelical Christian leaders in this country. I am sure many will also forget that John McCain, who once called these god-nutters 'agents of intolerance' is now wooing them to secure the religious right-wing vote.

For Barack Obama to win the general election, the Democratic party needs to stand united behind him. Barack Obama needs to successfully convince enough independents and "white working class" voters to vote for him to win crucial states in the general election. The sum of all my fears about this election is that the divisions in the democratic party will not be healed soon enough, and this combined with the subtle racism and other factors will result in Barack Obama losing the general election and John McCain becoming the next President.. and that will be a tragedy.