The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama giving his lectureToday, the Dalai Lama gave a lecture to members of the Japanese Diet, and I was invited to attend. Not, of course, because I’m a member of the Japanese Diet, but one of my students is, and I helped out a little bit with the preparations for the event, so I got an invitation in return. Obviously, this is the sort of invitation you don’t pass up; it’s not an opportunity that comes along very often, even with the Dalai Lama’s energetic schedule of public engagements.

There were 130 or so parliamentarians there, from all parties. The prime minister didn’t attend, because China gets very annoyed when people pay attention to the Dalai Lama, but Shinzo Abe, the leader of the opposition, was there, because he really doesn’t mind annoying China. He spoke briefly at the beginning, and was given a white scarf as a symbol of friendship by the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama spoke in English, with a following translation into Japanese. The interpreter was very good; on a couple of occasions the Dalai Lama spoke for almost ten minutes before letting her translate, but although she got the order of things a bit jumbled a couple of times, she did cover everything he said, and did so accurately. I don’t think she got a script in advance, so it was a very impressive performance. However, I have to say that the Dalai Lama told his own jokes better than she did.

The Dalai Lama started by saying that he thinks of all people as brothers and sisters, and would speak frankly, so he apologised in advance if he went against any local traditions. He mentioned that he has visited Japan a number of times, and has become quite familiar with the culture, and doesn’t really like it when people sit too stiffly and formally while he’s speaking. I still tried not to slouch, though.

His lecture fell into three main parts. First, he spoke as a human being, second as a Buddhist monk, and finally as a Tibetan. Speaking as a human being, he said that he wanted to emphasise that everyone was fundamentally the same, physically and psychologically, and that Tibetans and Japanese, in particular, looked pretty much the same. Everyone, he said, has the right to seek happiness, and we should support them in that. He pointed out that, in the past, there has been a strong barrier between “us” and “them”, and this has led to people trying to defeat “them” in order to secure more for “us”, whether through cheating, bullying, or outright war. However, he believes that in the 21st century we need to dismantle that barrier, and think of everyone as part of a large “us”. We should be working for the happiness of everyone in the world, not just for the betterment of our own group, and part of that is not emphasising the differences between groups.

He said that when we cheat or bully others, we are also hurting ourselves, because human beings are social animals, and always rely on others. In addition, hatred and hostility are physically bad for us, while habitual lying causes great stress. On the other hand, working honestly to benefit others gives rise to self-confidence and inner peace. We all need real friends, artificial ones not so much, and the only way to make them is to behave honestly and transparently, so that we can build trust with them.

Speaking as a Buddhist, he quoted a quantum physicist he met in Argentina, who said it was important for him not to get attached to quantum mechanics. He said that, as a Buddhist, he should also not get attached to Buddhism, because if you do that, you become biased, and unable to understand the other person’s point of view. He pointed out that, although religions claim to teach compassion and forgiveness, they have often been the cause of violence and oppression, a sad state of affairs. Religions, he noted, vary a great deal in their philosophy, some having a creator, while others, like Buddhism, have no creator and instead believe in self-creation. However, he insisted that these differences were good, because people are all different, and no one philosophy can be suitable for all of them. He said that if religions had respect for each other, they could get back to their original purpose of being a force for good in the world.

He went on to say that human beings have a great advantage over other animals: their intelligence. Other animals are controlled by their emotions, but humans do not have to be. They can use their intelligence to override their emotions, and suppress the destructive ones while encouraging compassion and toleration. He said that a lot of the problems with religion arise when people do not properly use their intelligence, and instead rely purely on their emotions.

Finally, he spoke as a Tibetan. His first point was about the ecology of the Tibetan plateau, which a Chinese ecologist has called the “third pole”, in addition to the north and south poles. (That phrase seems to have spread; I’ve seen it several times in Nature.) It is suffering from global warming and deforestation, but that doesn’t just affect the six million Tibetans. Around a billion people in Asia live along rivers that rise in the Tibetan glaciers, although there is no direct connection to any Japanese rivers. Preserving the environment in Tibet is also vital for their life.

Then there is the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. This, again, is not valued only by Tibetans, but also by people around the world, including a large number of Chinese. He stressed that there was no necessary connection between Tibetan Buddhism and separatism, pointing to the example of India, where languages, writing systems, and religions differ greatly across the country, but there is no risk of separatism. If the Tibetans were given the freedom to practise their culture within China, there would be no need for them to leave.

He then excused himself from talking directly about politics, saying that he had retired from politics completely, and that if, after saying that, he went on making comments about it, he would be a hypocrite. Finally, he mentioned that there were a lot of female Diet members in the audience (there were; I think they were probably somewhat over-represented), and commented that this made him very happy. He mentioned that when he visited the European Parliament, there were a lot of female parliamentarians, some of whom were very attractive, and that also made him very happy. (When you’re the Dalai Lama, you can get away with that. Especially when the translator uses a Japanese word that is less directly connected to physical appearance.) His main point, however, was that equality between men and women was an essential part of the modern world, and that he was happy to see that it was recognised in Japan.

There was only time for one question at the end, and one Diet member asked what they could do to help Tibet. The Dalai Lama suggested that they visit Tibet, taking ecologists and journalists with them, to see what was happening. He expressed concern that the central government in China was not receiving accurate reports from regional officials, but that foreign visitors might be able to tell them what was really going on.

The event finished with a declaration of support for Tibetans, and the announcement of the formation of a group of Diet members dedicated to working to support the Tibetans.

After this lecture, I can see why the Dalai Lama has a reputation for wisdom; everything he said struck me as wise (except, possible, the comment about female MEPs). Obviously, in a one hour lecture (half an hour when you factor in the need to translate) he had to leave a lot of the practical problems untouched, but I can’t find anything to disagree with in his general suggestions. It is, of course, refreshing to find a major religious leader stressing that the world needs lots of different religions, but I agree with everything else he said, as well. Does that mean I’m wise? Maybe I have one three hundred millionth of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom just as, as an EU citizen, I have one three hundred millionth of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Atheism and Agnosticism

Recently, atheism has become a a major topic of discussion. One of the most notable proponents is Richard Dawkins, professor of zoology and originally author of The Selfish Gene (which is, incidentally, a very good book). The debate has even made it into the Guardian with some frequency. All this attention to the topic makes me want to write my own blog article about where I stand, because my position is a little complex.

I’m only going to attempt to explain my position, not convince anyone else; I won’t be providing all of the evidence for my assertions. Since I suspect it will get quite long, I’ll also hide most of it from the front page.
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The Confessions of St Augustine

The Confessions of St Augustine is, of course, one of the great classics of western literature. It’s also one of the earlier classics of African literature, although it doesn’t seem to get put into that category very often; Augustine was born in North Africa, spent his youth there, effectively went to university in Italy, and then returned home. Of course, one could legitimately argue that if you are trying to broaden the literary canon, Augustine doesn’t count. It’s not like he hasn’t been in the canon for about 1600 years.

Having now read the book, I can see why it seized and held on to such a place. It is really very good. Apparently his Latin style is also excellent, but as I read it in translation (I’m such a lazy person), I can’t comment on that. The content, however, is very interesting. Some of the scenes are very famous, such as the “take and read” scene in the garden, or Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”.

It’s clear from Augustine’s account that he was a Christian, and a religious one, from birth. Even when he was a Manichee, he thought that he was a Christian, and arguably he was right, no matter how much he came to disagree later. However, he did a lot of anguished soul-searching, before finally deciding on celibacy and a particular version of Christian doctrine. It is tempting to label that version “orthodox Catholicism”, but a large part of the reason that position is orthodox is because Augustine held it. Within limits, there’s a pretty good chance that any position Augustine had taken would have ended up orthodox.

While the earlier sections of the book are largely autobiographical, there are philosophical and theological elements throughout, and the final sections are dominated by such discussions.

One notable feature is that Augustine was wrong on most of the important factual points he made. In his discussion of time, for example, he argues that only the present exists; that the past and the future do not. That position seems now to be untenable. Special and General Relativity mean that “the present” is not uniquely defined, so both the past and future must exist if the present does, because the present for some observers is part of the past and future for others. In his discussion of Biblical exegesis, he argues that Moses wrote so that everyone could understand, and interpret him in all the ways possible, consistently with truth. We now know, of course, that the opening of Genesis is, at the very least, highly misleading. It misled everyone who read it before the mid-nineteenth century, and continues to mislead a significant number of people now. It is possible to interpret it metaphorically so that it isn’t inconsistent with the known facts, but, basically, in any other context there would be no question about saying that it is simply false.

And that raises possibly the most important problem with his position. Augustine never questioned the authority of the Bible, in part because he believed that it was believed throughout the world. He appears to have been completely ignorant of the states of affairs in India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa. That may be forgivable, as the late Roman Empire had few contacts with those places, but there is a more serious point.

In Book Six (6.5.7), he says “Thus you [God] persuaded me … that I should not listen to any who said to me, “How do you know that these books were given to mankind by the Spirit of the one true and truthful God?” That fact was to be believed above all[.]” I have no problem forgiving his ignorance of relativity and evolutionary theory; Augustine was brilliant, but it’s asking a bit much to expect him to manage several centuries of science all by himself. I’ll even forgive his ignorance of the state of most of the world he lived in, because communications were difficult. However, his response to this question is unforgivable. Once that problem has occurred to you, it is deeply intellectually dishonest not to try to come up with an answer, and “I’m not listening! Not listening! La-la-la-la” is not an answer.

I find it very difficult to believe that someone of Augustine’s intellectual acumen and personality was not profoundly bothered by this issue. I know it used to bother me, back when I was a Christian, and I ceased to be a Christian when I decided that there was no good answer to that question. Some people are not inclined to worry about such things, but Augustine was the sort of person who writes a whole chapter on the nature of time, and the problems of trying to pin down what it could possibly be. He has discussions of epistemology in some of his other works.

In short, if he was preaching as he did while as unsure about the Bible as he should have been, he was intellectually dishonest. If he did not harbour the doubts, despite confronting the questions head on and having no answers to give (because I am fairly sure that he would have given them had he had them), he was culpably negligent, and probably lying to himself. It is somewhat disappointing to find that even Augustine falls in this way.

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Yesterday, I finished reading David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. It was, naturally, interesting. Although I read his Treatise of Human Nature years ago, and taught the causation and induction sections for something like ten years at Cambridge, I’d not previously read the whole of the first Enquiry.

One of the most notorious sections is chaper 10: Of Miracles. In this chapter, Hume argues that there can never be any reason to believe that a miracle happened. The basic argument is simple: it is always more likely that the sources are mistaken or lying than that a miracle occurred, so the reasonable conclusion is always that there was no miracle.

Hume’s reason for that belief seems to be that we have lots of empirical evidence that the laws of nature are never broken, so that testimony, which we know is sometimes false, can never be enough to convince us otherwise. It is interesting that he assumes that one will never personally witness a miracle.

This could be read as saying that it is irrational to believe something that you haven’t seen for yourself. That’s not what he means, however. He’s perfectly happy for people to believe testimony of the sorts of things that they have themselves seen; if someone tells me that they saw a flock of starlings flying through the air over Cambridge, I should generally believe them. When I lived there, I saw similar things many times. The problem comes with things that are very different from anything you have experienced.

Actually, I think there is a deeper problem. When Matthew’s Gospel says (27: 52-53) that, after the resurrection of Jesus, many formerly dead and buried saints went into Jerusalem and were seen by many, we can safely conclude that this never happened. Matthew was either lied to or lying. Somebody else would have mentioned it; at the very least, this mass resurrection would have got a mention in the other Gospels. More likely, it would have been reported, at least as a rumour, by the numerous Roman historians writing at the people. Large numbers of dead people getting up and walking around is not a common occurrence, after all.

However, consider the cases of resurrection that were reported to medieval shrines. These were reported within a few weeks of the event, by people who were there, with witnesses. A typical pattern is as follows: A child falls into a river, and, being unable to swim, sinks. After some time the child is pulled out of the river, but he is not breathing and has no apparent heartbeat. Efforts are made to revive him, but they fail, and he is pronounced dead. The child’s mother, deeply distraught, petitions the saints to save him. (Sometimes, she petitions several saints, but nothing happens at first.) Suddenly, the child coughs, sits up, and is well. The miracle is attributed to the saint who was being invoked at the relevant moment.

Now, I think it is much less reasonable to reject this account out of hand. This sort of thing happens today, particularly, in fact, with children who have fallen into water. As I understand the cases, even modern equipment cannot immediately find signs of life, but after warming up a bit, the child revives, apparently none the worse for wear. It’s rare, but it happens.

However, even if we accept the event, that does not mean that we accept that it was a miracle. A miracle is the direct intervention of God, suspending the laws of nature. It is true that, as far as I know, doctors do not currently understand exactly what is happening in these cases, but that is not enough to assume a miracle. There are lots and lots of perfectly common, everyday, events that science does not yet fully understand, including my ability to type. That doesn’t make that a miracle, so why should lack of understanding make these apparent resurrections into miracles?

And that, I think, is the deeper problem here. No matter what you see, that can only give you a reason to believe that you have seen something you do not understand. It cannot give you a reason to believe that you have seen something that breaks the laws of nature. One event is simply never enough to do that.

This does not mean that there are no circumstances under which it would be rational to believe in, say, ghosts. If the ghosts of several people appeared frequently to a number of people, appeared when being filmed for television, and appeared even when massive batteries of scientific instruments were set up, then it would be reasonable to believe that there was something there. After further investigation, it could even become reasonable to believe that there was something there that could not be explained by current science. There are, in fact, numerous examples of such things. Radiation is one; when it was first detected, it seemed to be impossible, but it kept showing up, and so eventually it was brought within the ambit of science.

There may even be things that happen lots of times, but which are not predictable, and so which do not get explained. Ball lightning is an example of this; the scientific consensus appears to be that the events happen, but there is no consensus on what causes them (other than that they are not lightning). The events are just not common or predictable enough to investigate properly. But that still doesn’t show that they are miracles.

The problem here, then, is that the supporters of miracles have not finished their job when they have proved that people rise from the dead. They still need to prove that they rise from the dead because an undetectable, ineffable deity wills them to. And there can never be any evidence for that. In fact, they need to show that the dead rise because the particular undetectable, ineffable deity described in their scriptures wills them to, and I cannot see any way to even begin doing that.

There is even some textual evidence that this is the sort of miracle Hume has in mind; he says that the miracles of different religions cancel out, which is only true if the miracles are supposed to imply the truth of the religion. If they are treated merely as events, there is no reason why all the events could not have happened. Obviously, a lot of people will be wrong about the causes.

And now, before I get distracted into epistemological relativism (because things are different for people who believe in God already, just as reports of radioactivity are different for people who believe in that already), I will leave things there.