27 October 2005

Karma and Damnation

Whether or not the modern Westerner wishes to believe in the real existence of infernal realms is in a sense beside the point. Evil simply brings forth suffering; and it hardly matters whether one conceives of this in the picturesque terms of Dante’s Inferno or shares the view of Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” Nevertheless, it is important to grasp that the idea of eternal damnation as a punishment for sin is foreign to Buddhist understanding. Suffering is a consequence of one’s own action, not a retribution inflicted by an external power. Infernal torments, moreover, though they may last for aeons, belong to samsara and are therefore not exempt from the law of impermanence. And even if the notion of a divine vengeance is regarded as an approximation, in mythological terms, to the concept of karmic consequences, it is perhaps worth suggesting that the impersonal view proposed by Buddhism should have the advantage of exorcising the paralyzing sense of guilt, or revolt, that can so often be the outcome of a too anthropomorphic theism. The doctrine of karma has only one message: the experience of states of being follows upon the perpetration of acts. We are the authors of our own destiny; and being the authors, we are ultimately, perhaps frighteningly, free.

--from the Padmakara Translation Group’s Introduction to Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) (Shambhala Publications, 1996).

17 October 2005

End Gerrymandering: a Modest Proposal

The whole issue of Congressional redistricting has become central to any analysis of why representative government in the United States is so dysfunctional. In Texas, Republicans were able to strongarm an overturning of the traditional ten-year cycle to force through a grossly disproportional mid-decade reapportionment, resulting, by some accounts, in a pick-up of five seats by Republicans. This is not because of any change in the votes of the electorate; merely in the system which determines what those votes will determine. In California, the governor has proposed an initiative to change the constitution of the State to create a commission of un-elected retired judges to make the determination of congressional redistricting . . . with no guarantee that the new system will lead to districts which any more accurately represent the actual views of the people than the current system.

My proposal is relatively simple, and to my knowledge has not been widely discussed anywhere before. I am not a statistician or mathematician, but let’s take it as a given that there are a limited number of mathematical solutions to the following problem: with minimal adjustments to prevent districts from bisecting buildings, etc., require the drawing congressional districts in a given state so that each has the same number of registered voters, and the minimum possible perimeter. (Which translates to the most compact area). This should amount to essentially a mathematical problem, or algorithm, to be calculated by a computer from the census data and geographical data points.

If this idea were put into effect, “gerrymandering,” which is the drawing of weirdly contorted borders for congressional districts in order to guarantee the re-election of incumbents, would be effectively outlawed, and there would be no negotiation over or arbitrary designation of districts. In the random fallout of advantage and disadvantage from such a system, no party would be prejudiced and none unduly advantaged. Such redistricting could occur with each census, or, based on politics-proof government updated estimates, more often.

12 October 2005

Plamegate heating up

Plamegate timeline, for anyone interested, here.

This thing is really heating up. See this and this.

It causes one to wonder if total meltdown is avoidable. It appears that Rove at least may be doomed.

See this for one take on "Why this matters."

07 October 2005

Ain't no use arguin' about religion

My nephew, an evangelical Christian, suggested I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, I suppose to encourage me, whom he knows to subscribe to Buddhist teachings, to at least have a better idea where his faith comes from. I’d actually read the book, or part of it, years ago, but I dutifully went out and found an old copy and read it. I can’t say I found it particularly profound. Professor Lewis, in the first part of the book, The Case for Christianity, tries to prove the truth of his religion in six sentences or so, but this seemed like a series of non-sequiturs to me. The conclusion was foregone. The rest of the book presumes at least a degree of acceptance of the basic premises, i.e. that the World was created by God, that he sent his Son, begotten not made, to Earth to save us, etc. He seems to be trying to make a logical case for belief in his religion, but I think his task is impossible, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t succeed. It isn’t that Christianity is any more difficult to prove logically, it’s just that religion, by practical definition, must transcend rational issues like real-world proof of its premises. Acceptance must be based on something other than… (more than, if you prefer) ... reason.

I suggested to my nephew nothing in return, not because there aren't useful commentaries on what I believe, but because I have no desire to try to convince him or any Christian of anything, or to question, or try to induce them to question, their beliefs. I’m perfectly content for to have different religious views from my friends and relatives, and only hope that they can be marked by mutual respect. Of course, no one follows, to any considerable extent, a religious tradition, without being convinced that it comes closer to Truth with a capital T than other traditions. That doesn’t mean, though, that he can’t respect those who have come to different conclusions, even if he believes they would be better off if they believed as he does, which of course is equally inevitable.

I think it is inherent in any religion, to at least some degree, that intuition, (or faith, if you prefer), is involved. Thus, the holding of belief or practice is in some degree dependent upon logically or factually indefensible acceptance of specific statements of belief taught or related by past spiritual teachers on whom one chooses to rely. Religious doctrine, again all but by definition, will necessarily contain that which is not falsifiable (or verifiable), and which is necessarily open to the charge, by those who choose not to believe in it, of being arbitrary. Were it otherwise, the doctrine under examination would be provably true, and would cross over from being religion to being science, and denial of such doctrine would go from being an intellectually defensible difference of choice to being mere stupidity. Yet most (not all) people find that if all they are willing to accept, or practice, must be derived from that which can be verified, i.e., that which is science, there is something missing, something important to their well-being. Thus, they make a conscious (or sometimes unconscious) choice to rely on intuition, or faith, and accept as true certain spiritual elements which they find irresistible, regardless of proof. In simpler terms, they choose to believe something not because it’s provably true, but because it seems to them that it just must be true; i.e. they feel it to be true. As an aside, the fact that many of these spiritual elements are in fact common to most spiritual traditions is at least suggestive of their universal truth.

Still, this lack of possibility of proof of spiritual belief is the uncrackable nut: just as the old saw says de gustibus non est disputandum, it is equally true that you can’t usefully argue logically about faith, or intuitive belief. These are ultimately personal matters, apart from the ethical and moral standards which we accept as societal conventions in the interests of public order, insisting not on belief in their truth but in obedience to their form, under compulsion, as the price of living in society. This is the borderland not between religion and science but between religion and law, which of course gives rise to a whole series of other disagreements, based on how people view ethics, but these cross the frontiers of religious categories as well.

Sometimes someone (usually a young person) is seeking something, and is open to suggestion about matters of intuition or faith. And sometimes people’s beliefs gradually evolve, or even spontaneously and suddenly change, in a process common enough that there’s a word for it: epiphany. But usually there are no logical arguments, and no amount of cajoling, short of brainwashing techniques, which will convince someone to change his mind about these essentially non-rational beliefs, on which all religions ultimately rely to at least some extent.