Religion and the US Presidential Election

The inspiration for today’s address comes from a nine-year-old front page of The Bulletin, the now defunct news magazine that closed down in 2008, less than three years after the death of its benefactor Kerry Packer. The front page referred to our 2007 federal election. It read GOD’S VOTE. John Howard and Kevin Rudd are desperate for the religious vote. Inside were comments by representatives of a number of religious organisations. Not in any order these were Catholic, Buddhist, Pentecostal, Islam, Lutheran, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, Uniting and Anglican. The religious influence on Australian politics has spawned several books, the most famous being God Under Howard by Marion Maddox, who teaches at Macquarie University. We’ve even had religious or quasi-religious political parties. I won’t list these as our talk today is basically about the United States, which has a different political system but, like in Australia, religion is an important factor in the minds of many voters. One point of interest is the fact that the The Bulletin article, written by Roy Eccleston, invited comments from representatives of four non-Christian religions. In the United States this would be very unusual.

Epistemology of Madness

1.0 Epistemology and Madness in Context
1.1 Epistemology, the study of the knowledge and scope of knowledge (intellectual and experiential), and the groundings and justifications of claims. It is differentiated from ontology (being, becoming, existence).
1.2 As an epistemological review it is not the reality of madness that is reviewed here (e.g., a review of causes); but rather how does one know whether a behaviour or person suffers from madness.
1.3 'Madness' has a number of definition; it can refer to insanity, folly, rage, or intense enthusiasm (as a proper noun, it can also refer to a 1970s/1980s popular ska band). It is mainly the former sense that is discussed in this presentation, although one could suggest that the definitions can be associated with the primary definition.
1.4 Note that 'insanity' derives from the Latin for 'not healthy' (sanus), a "sickness of the mind". Thus insanity can be considered a defective mental process.

Data, Information, Meaning, Intelligence and Consciousness

We feel that our consciousness is the very essence of our existence. The quality of life of each of us is just a matter of the particular content of that consciousness.

But what is consciousness, what is its content, and how did its content arise? The first of these questions, what is consciousness, seems to be inscrutable. Some of the content seems to be hard to describe and some straightforward. And there is a lot of complex argument about all of this.
I will try to untangle the matter by assuming that there are basic elements called data, and that the content of consciousness can, after a series of steps, be ultimately described in terms of data. You might say that the concept of data is just part of the content of our consciousness, so this might be a circular argument. I will come back to that later.

Some of what I say will sound like common knowledge. And some of what I say may challenge your concepts or definitions relating to data, information, meaning, intelligence and consciousness.

Some Greek Philosophers and Mindfulness

In this short article I will discuss the ideas of some (for the most part) early Greek philosophers with a view to delineating what there is of value to us today as regards the regular practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not a philosophy in itself. However, there are a number of philosophical ideas and principles that can be said to underlie the practice of mindfulness in its secular and non-sectarian form, and some of those ideas and principles are of quite ancient provenance.

Dealing with Disagreement

On many important issues of science, philosophy, politics, and religion, equally knowledgeable and intelligent people often disagree with
one another. In this presentation I argue that on such matters, it is not epistemically justifiable to hold firmly to the correctness of one’s opinion, defined as one’s own subjective evaluation of the evidence. Rather, I argue that one’s opinion should receive no greater weight in constituting beliefs than does the opinion of any other equally informed person. I conclude by considering some common objections to my argument.

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, November 2015

The Christianity That Might Have Been

Prior to the Christian era, Athens reigned supreme over Alexandria as a centre for the study of philosophy and higher learning. However, Athens was ‘too intimately associated with the faded glories of polytheism to dispute with [Alexandria] the supremacy’ writes the Rev William Fairweather in his book Origen and Greek Patristic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901, p 3). By the middle of the Second Century CE, Alexandria had become one of the intellectual capitals of the Roman Empire, in large part as a result of the hard work of the Ptolemies.

Moncure Daniel Conway: a Very Unusual Virginian

Address given at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church on 4 October 2015.

Moncure Daniel Conway came from Virginia, where his early years were privileged and orthodox. He was born on 17 March 1832, on a plantation near Falmouth in rural Stafford County, where his father, Walker Peyton Conway, was a local planter and judge. His mother, Margaret Daniel Conway, was the granddaughter of a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. The family were devout Methodists. According to Conway's biographer, John d'Entremont, the atmosphere that would have surrounded the young Moncure would have been "patriarchal values, unquestioned devotion to slavery and white supremacy, and a world view that set politics and power above artistic and intellectual pursuits".

As Moncure Conway wrote years later, "Destiny had lavished on my lot everything but freedom."

The patriarchal values did not, however, apply to his female relatives. Two paternal aunts, his sister and a cousin were opposed to slavery, and so was his mother, who was also critical of Southern patriarchy generally. She encouraged him to read widely, despite his father's disapproval of fiction. She was also a practitioner of homoeopathy, and took Moncure with her on her rounds. John d'Entremont says that "Moncure spent more time with his mother; the central lessons he drew from her and other female relatives were the legitimacy of the self, the importance of reconciliation, the value of intellectual endeavor, and the immorality of arbitrary power."

Reductionism and Emergence

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, October 4, 2015

Reduction is an analytical process, identifying the parts of something and examining their relationships to each other and to the whole thing in order to explain the thing’s characteristics.

But when someone puts forward an argument that sounds clear and logical, you may occasionally hear it dismissed with the words "that is just reductionist." The word reductionist is used in such cases to imply that the argument is unduly simplified or distorts the issue. And reductionist thinking, it is implied, leaves out something essential, perhaps some romantic or supernatural element. Reductionist thinking is integral to science. So doubt is sometimes cast on science because it is reductionist.

Another criticism of reductionist science is that it is not holistic: it deals with individual aspects of the world but ignores the overall unity. I agree that reductionist science looks at individual parts of the world, and that it looks only at identifiable evidence. But I think that reductionist science indeed deals with the whole, however large or small we might take the whole to be in any particular case.

What is Right?

What is ‘good’? What is ‘right’? How should human beings behave toward others? These questions are not just the stuff of religion. Indeed, they belong most properly to the realm of ethics, and Humanism is, at the very least, concerned with ethics and ethical conduct. However, is it at all possible to speak meaningfully of anything being ‘good’ or ‘right’ in a post-postmodern world?

A Modern Reconstruction of Buddhist Karma

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, September 6, 2015


This address comes with a number of caveats. I do not consider myself a Buddhist, although I have been an interested observer for some decades, and have skirted on the edges of being involved in the "three jewels" of community (sangha), the teachings (dharma), and hopefully the practise (Buddha). Personally I also have very fond memories of the pilgrimage my housemate and I took in 1996 to the Woolongong Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. This pilgrimage included spending a night in a ditch on the road to Gundagai, meeting a self-identified friendly elf, a mind-reading radio engineer, and spending some time with an electronic music collective and an IT company named the "The Evil Brotherhood of Mutants, Inc" in a mafia-owned warehouse. Perhaps one day this very strange and wonderful journey may one day be an address in its own right. Alas, time will not permit an elaboration today.


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