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Promising, Forgiveness, and Redemption

I am going to assume that all of us here have made and received promises. We may have even had promises made to us broken, and we may have have even broken some ourselves! We probably have forgiven some of these transgressions against us, and may have had our own forgiven. Promising and forgiveness are universal to all people, all cultures, and all times. Indeed, there is perhaps no other moral principle or ethical understanding so widely shared than the recognition promises ought to be kept. Exploring why promises have such a special position in social relations is something that we all feel very deeply, but it is curiously not something that is often explored. Thus, for a good third of this address, an attempt is made to describe some of the key features that make promises special. Following this, and with equivalent attention, an exploration of the notion of forgiveness. Finally, there is a exploration of the conception of redemption, which whilst having well-known theological overtones, incorporates the idea of "redeeming" or a returning to a prior state. In presenting this discussion there is an emphasis on interpersonal relations, that is, actions between natural persons. However, there are also interesting parallels in the activities with the contractual obligations between organisations as legal persons.

Pantheism: Beyond Atheism and Theism

There are really only three broad topics that are addressed here. Firstly, a definition of pantheism, especially in respect to theism and atheism. Secondly, an elaboration on what is meant by the word 'beyond', as there are multiple meanings being used, and thirdly, why pantheism can be expressed as being 'beyond' atheism and theism. For the first part, a significant portion is drawn from a presentation I gave to the Melbourne Atheist Society on August 9, 2016 entitled "Is Pantheism an Atheism?", which left the answer to subjective experientiality. For the second part, the elaboration especially draws upon the definition of "meta-" in Ancient Greek, and the German concept of Aufhebung and its role in dialectical reasoning. Hopefully, with these two parts in firm foundation, the concluding remarks of the presentation, which really encapsulate the title, will have equivalent confidence. But, with a warning in advance, there is an interesting concluding twist which can be a matter for a lot of further debate.

Meet Old Shuck, My Black Dog

I suspect almost everyone has a black dog in their life. I have Old Shuck, the legendary beast of East Anglia. I didn't always call him that, but he's been around my entire life. Which was confusing, because prior assessments on the presence of the dog suggested that he was not there. But I knew he was. In fact, it wasn't until quite recently that I could give Old Shuck a name and understand him. Perhaps like most people, at times the black dog has kept his distance, or remained small. At other times he has been bigger, and sometimes he is very, very big indeed. Whilst he has visited multiple times in the past year, in quite recently, I have never seemed him loom so large. Thus, it is opportune to put finger to keyboard, and compose a few words about this beast, silent and invisible to others, but so very loud and very present to me.

Contemplations on Suicide

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."
-- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1942).

One may question, in a contemporary view, Camus' association of the matter of suicide as the fundamental question of philosophy. Disciplinary boundaries move over time, and increasingly there are pragmatic reasons why philosophy is increasingly associated with foundational matters of epistemology, ontology, and logic; even if there were no humans alive these matters would still, in potential, exist. The matter concerning suicide is perhaps more a matter of normative moral reasoning and situational ethics, coupled with questions on the psychology of life. Camus would disagree, of course. He takes issue with the argument of the importance of ontology, for example, by citing how quickly Galileo abjured it when his life was at stake. But regardless if one shifts the disciplinary boundary, the importance of Camus' statement from a subjective perspective cannot be under-estimated. As is well known, Camus argues that existence is absurd, without innate meaning, and in this regard he does certainly raise an ontological challenge, not to the individual, but to existence itself. Suicide then becomes a symptom to the meaningless, the recognition that life is not worth living. Faced with objective meaningless, Camus asserts authenticity where the subjective, even recognising their own limits, creates meaning in "revolt" against objective absurdity. This is, quite obviously, prior to the linguistic turn in philosophy which now locates the greatest meaning as being generated through the relationship of trust and promises between authentic people.

The Year of the Rat: From Buddhist Pilgrimages to Extinction Events and Land-mine Detection Awards

In the opening paragraphs of Camus' The Plague Dr. Bernard Rieux spots a dead rat on the landing, the first sign of the plague that is about to sweep the city of Oran. That is how we associate rats in our culture, and have done for hundreds of years. They were assumed to be the bearers of the Black Death of the 14th century that killed an estimated 150 million people in Europe and North Africa. "How now? a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!", writes William Shakespeare in Hamlet. "You dirty yellow-bellied rat", James Cagney famously said (and is paraphrased) in the 1932 film "Taxi!". We exclaim "rats!" when things do not go our way, we don't "rat" on our friends, although we might "smell a rat", we can fight "like a cornered rat", and if things are looking bad it's always "the rats that desert the sinking ship", perhaps to avoid "the rat race". We'll need the "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"! Plague-bearing, dirty, unpleasant, selfish, and desperately violent survivalists, we best be rid of them. That is how we, in the Western world, have been brought up to percieve the rat.

Other cultures have a different perspective. From the Vedic tradition, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, remover of obstacles, has a rat (or mouse) as a mount. It is noted that in part this may represent an impediment to control (the Sanskrit word for mouse is derived from the root to steal) as rodents are a threat to village crops. It also suggests that ability to penetrate the most secret of places. In Rajasthan, in north-western India, there is the Karni Mata Temple also known as "the temple of rats", where 25,000 black rats are revered as reincarnations of the descendents of the Karni Mata the warrior-sage of the 15thC CE.

In south and east Asia where a Lunar calendar is employed, the rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac which cycles through a 12-year cycle of animals and the traditional five elements. This past year, from January 25th, 2020 until February 11th, 2021, is the Year of the Metal Rat. The year 2020 is also associated in popular culture with the Cyberpunk roleplaying game which meant, in my mind at least, that this was the Year of the Stainless Steel Rat, recalling the series by the author Harry Harrison. Indeed, in Decmeber I ran a virtual conference with this title which attracted authors, computer security experts, gamers, cultural aficiandos, and politicos from around the world. A publication of proceedings is forthcoming.

The Continuum of "Needs" and "Wants"

There are many discussions between the difference of needs and wants, from personal satisfaction and happiness to the aggregate social benefits. Certainly there is much in our political economy which actively encourages the idea that the path to happiness is to be achieved by having a bigger house (and more houses, and especially more land), a powerful car or three, expensive clothes, and the various trappings of luxury, such as being surrounded by gold and marble.

The earliest recorded advocacy of hedonism comes from Siduri in "The Epic of Gilgamesh". It basically suggested enjoy the sensuality of life, and don't worry about other things, specifically in the case of Gilgamesh, give up your quest for immortality. The Epicureans gave a more nuanced version, that we should seek a life of simple pleasures (especially intellectual pleasures), cultivate friendships and avoid conflicts (they didn't participate in politics as a result). It from the Epicureans that one witnesses the development of the many versions of utilitarianism and consequentialism etc.

Whilst both argued in favour of living in accord to nature, there is a stark contrast between the quasi-hedonistic Epicureans and their quest for "ataraxia", the freedom from disturbances, and the Stoic quest for "eudaimonia", happiness through the control of one's mind, virtuousness towards others, etc. The Stoics argued that this control and virtue could be achieved independently of wealth or poverty, sickness and health, etc. The the Peripatetics argued against the Stoics on this matter, with Aristotle suggesting that some external goods were necessary for virtue and control and beyond that the Delphic Maxim of the Golden Mean applied, i.e., moderation. This is clearly close to the teachings of Gautama Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path against the extremes of self-mortification through austerity and the coarse addictions of sensual pleasures.

Philosophical Summaries: Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

Expressed in over forty thousand words and separated into twelve "books", the Meditations by the Roman Emperor (161 to 180 CE) Marcus Aurelias has been recognised as one of the major contributions to the philosophy of Stoicism even if almost certainly written for his own consideration during a military campaign, rather than for wider publication. Indeed, the earliest manuscript title in Kione Greek was "ta eis heauton" ("to himself"). In particular, in these days of a devastating and ongoing global pandemic there has been a revised interest in Stoicism and especially Aurelius' Meditations.

With the exception of Book I, it is difficult to discern a temporal, logical, or thematic order, although some attempts have been made (e.g., Gourinat, 2012). Writing for himself has meant that they are written in an unassuming manner, even for an Emperor. But it also means that the books do seem to lack a sense of development; one often finds a returning to questions that have been previously considered, with a new angle, but similar dispositions. Whilst there is often pithy insight to be gained from these considerations, their repetition does lead one to consider whether Marcus was documenting his own attempts to use Stoic philosophy to stave off the challenges that it must confront with depression from the past, anxiety of the future, dissatisfaction with the natural world, and discontent with the behaviour of oneself and that of others.

Religious Freedom and Religious Charities

There is much talk at the moment about "religious freedom" in Australia, and there is about to be a great deal more. The Federal Coalition government, pledged a Religious Discrimination Act in the last election, and in recent weeks we have witnessed the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, declare that he is seeking a bipartisan approach to the Act with discussions with the leader of the opposition, Anthony Albanese. From all accounts the bill can be expected very soon; indeed a month ago a draft was prepared with suggestions that it would be presented to parliament in mid-August.

The End Is Nigh: Failed Stewardship of Planet Earth

Early this year Christian numerologist and astrologer David Meade proclaimed that April 23 would be the days of the second coming of Christ, the Rapture, the end of the world. It generated some media attention just prior to that date although, it must be said, not much after. Mind you, this was the second attempt of David Meade who also reported that end-times would occur on 23 September in 2017.

Some of you may remember that almost ten years ago, I an address gave at this church on the alleged prophecies of a 2012 destruction based on a destructive interpretation of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar and an associated science fiction disaster film. That address was entitled "2012 : From Ancient Brilliance to Modern Nonsense" [1], where I gave great credit to the Mesoamericans for developing a sophisticated calendar, and castigated contemporary (albeit fringe) interpretations for trying to make it something that it was not.

For this century alone there has been almost twenty-five major predictions of the end of the world that have passed, and several that are yet to come. Ronald Weinland, of the "Church of God Preparing for the Kingdom of God" has predicted the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus in 2011, in 2012, in 2013, and most recently June 9, 2019.

If we go back into the twentieth century there are of course many, many examples. The Jehovah's Witnesses made four such predictions. Herbert Armstrong, the leader of the Worldwide Church of God, also managed four. Some of these were quite tragic; on the 26th March 1997 thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide under the belief that the souls would join a UFO on the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, escaping the "recycling" of Earth (their website is still kept in its 1997 glory [2]).

The Philosophy of Technology

Inverting A Common Assumption

It is common that technology is defined as "applied science", deriving from Jacob Bigelow's 1829 definition as "principles, processes, and nomenclatures of the more conspicuous arts, particularly those which involve applications of science". Webster's defines technology as "industrial science; the science of systematic knowledge of the industrial arts", Collins offers "the application of practical sciences to industry or commerce", and Oxford has "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes". For what it's worth, the etymology of the word is from the Hellenic "tekhnelogia", tekhne art, creation, and -logia, explanation.

These contemporary definitions imply that science has priority over technology and precedes technology, and historically the philosophy of technology has been confined as a minor tangent to the philosophy of science, and occasionally touching on the history of technology. However, in the past forty years or so, various philosophers of technology invert this common assumption [1], claiming that it is an idealist view that places epistemology over ontology. Rather than technology being applied science, they have argued that science is applied technology. Once we are beyond our natural capacities of observation, all our empirical information is technologically mediated. Science is a rational abstraction of data gained from technology that predicts empirical results. But the empirical results have a priority, discoveries of fact trump the scientific theory, and the scientific theory must adapt to empirical truth or die (e.g., spontaneous generation, miasma theory of disease, phlogiston theory, luminiferous aether, classical physics, phrenology).


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