Archive for Philosophy of religions

nothing’s sacred [Charlie Hebdo repost]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , on August 18, 2022 by xi'an

[Reposted a tribune by the Charlie Hebdo writers in Le Monde, 15 August]

The assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie is a reminder to those who seem to have forgotten that the basic freedoms of modern society, such as the freedom to create and express oneself, are constantly threatened by totalitarian ideologies around the world.

These hateful and contemptuous ideologies are based on political or religious theories whose self-proclaimed legitimacy raises questions. Salman Rushdie’s case forces us to question the place of religion and sacredness in our modern world.

If freedom of conscience gives each person the right to think what he or she wants about the origin of the world and its creation, the truths of religious revelation cannot impose their precepts on the whole of society. But for several years, we have noticed that religious practices are becoming more and more intrusive and authoritarian – when they are not outright threatening. This slippery slope seriously affects the subtle balance of democratic societies and creates a climate of insecurity, intimidation and violence that is no longer acceptable.

This is the goal of religious fanatics: to dissuade, through terror, the creation of works that challenge their dogmas, which are based on little more than a few visions from great mystics.

Can our modern societies be built around texts written by exalted minds? Nothing is sacred. The paradox is that today the mobilization to condemn the attack on Salman Rushdie seems stronger than the mobilization of artists to continue producing works that will perpetuate his vision. After those who have already been murdered, like Theo Van Gogh, and those who get stabbed during lectures, like Salman Rushdie, who will be left to continue their thinking and their struggle?

While global warming endangers living organisms on Earth, religious intolerance and unbridled mysticism threaten minds by suffocating them with prohibitions and irrevocable sentences.

To those who repeat: “We love death as much as you love life”, we must oppose limitless creativity and incessant insolence. No amount of moderation will allow us to enjoy the slightest indulgence from fanatics. The response must not only be political, through laws that protect freedoms and repress those who attack them. It must also be cultural and intellectual. We must never cease to challenge, using arguments and ideas, the dogmas and narratives of these so-called “sacred” books, which seek only to burn all others and to put to death those who wrote them.

What is luck? [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2021 by xi'an

I was sent—by Columbia University Press—this book for a potential review in CHANCE: What are the chances? (Why we believe in luck?) was written by Barbara Blatchley, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. I have read rather quickly its 193 pages over the recent trips I made to Marseille and Warwick. The topic is truly about luck and the psychology of the feeling of being luck or unlucky. There is thus rather little to relate to as a statistician, as this is not a book about chance! (I always need to pay attention when using both words, since, in French chance primarily means luck, while malchance means bad luck. And the French term for chance and randomness is hasard…) The book is pleasant to read, even though the accumulation of reports about psychological studies may prove tiresome in the long run and, for a statistician, worrisome as to which percentage of such studies were properly validated by statistical arguments…

“…the famous quote by Louis Pasteur: “Dans les champs de l’observation, le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés”s (…) Pasteur never saw a challenge he couldn’t overcome with patience and preparation.” (p.19)

Even the part about randomness is a-statistical and mostly a-probabilist, rather focusing on our subjective and biased (un)ability to judge randomness. The author introduces us to the concepts of apophenia, which is “the unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied with a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness”, and of patternicity for the “tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”. She also states that (Neyman-Pearson) Type I error is about seeing a pattern in random noise while Type II errors are for conclusion of meaningless when the data is meaningful (p.15). Which is reductive to say the least, but lead her to recall the four types of luck proposed by James Austin (which I first misread as Jane Austin).

“There is a long-standing and deeply intimate connection between luck, religion, and belief in the supernatural.” (p.28)

I enjoyed very much the sections on these connections between a belief in luck and religions, even though the anthropological references to ancient religions are not strongly connected to luck, but rather to the belief that gods and goddesses could modify one’s fate (and avoiding the most established religions). Still, I appreciate her stressing the fact that if one believes in luck (as opposed to sheer randomness), this expresses at the very least a form of irrational belief in higher powers that can bend randomness in one’s favour (or disfavour). Which is the seed for more elaborate if irrational beliefs. (For illustrations, Borgès’ stories come to mind.)

“B.F. Skinner believed that superstitious behaviour was a consequence of learning and reinforcement.” (p.85)

There are also parts where (a belief in) luck and (human) learning are connected, but, unfortunately, no mention is made of the (vaguely) Bayesian nature of the (plastic, p. 188) brain modus operandi. The large section on the brain found in the book is instead physiological, since concerned with finding regions where the belief in luck could be located. In relation with attention-deficit disorders. (Revealing the interesting existence (for me) of mirror neurons, dedicated to predicting what could happen! Described as “predictive coding”, p.153). The last chapter “How to get lucky” contains a rather lengthy account of “Clever Hans”, the 1990 German counting horse (!). Who, as well-known, reacted to subtle and possibly unconscious signals from his trainer rather than to an equine feeling for arithmetic…

One of the clearest conclusions of the book is (imho) that a belief in luck may improve the life of the believers, while a belief in being unlucky may deteriorate it. The Taoist tale finishing the book is a pure gem. But I am still in the dark as to whether or not my exceptional number of bike punctures in the past year qualifies as bad luck!

“Luck is the way you face the randomness of the world.” (p.191)

As an irrelevant aside, one anecdote at the beginning of the book brought back memories of the Wabash River flowing through Lafayette, IN, as it tells of the luck of two Purdue female rowers who attempted a transatlantic race and survived capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic. It also made me regret I had not realised at the time there was a rowing opportunity there!

humanism [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2018 by xi'an

Along Atheism a very short introduction, I also bought Humanism a very short introduction, as they come by two at the Warwick campus bookstore (!). And here is a very short review.

Written by Stephen Lee, the book is much less irritating than Atheism. In my opinion. Maybe because it is constructed in a much more positive way, maybe because the quotes and illustrations suited me better, maybe because it was another day, or maybe because the stress on the “human” rather than on the “a-” is closer to my own philosophy. Still, the core of the two books is essentially the same, namely a rebuke of the argument that morality only comes as a byproduct of religion(s), and a rather standard processing of arguments for and against the existence of god(s). Plus entries on humanist education and the meaning of life. And a nice cover. Pleasant but not earth-breaking to the point of convincing sceptics.

atheism: a very [very] short introduction [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by xi'an

After the rather disappointing Edge of Reason, I gave a try at Baggini’s very brief introduction to atheism, which is very short. And equally very disappointing. Rather than approaching the topic from a (academic) philosophical perspective, ex nihilo,  and while defending himself from doing so, the author indeed adopts a rather militant tone in trying to justify the arguments and ethics of atheism, setting the approach solely in a defensive opposition to religions. That is, in reverse, as an answer to faiths and creeds. Even when his arguments make complete sense, e.g., in the lack of support for agnosticism against atheism, the link with inductive reasoning (and Hume), and the logical [and obvious] disconnection between morality and religious attitudes.

“…once we accept the inductive method, we should, to be consistent, also accept that it points toward a naturalism that supports atheism…” (p.27)

While he mentions “militant atheism” as a fundamentalist position to be as avoided as the numerous religious versions, I find the whole exercise in this book missing the point of both an intellectual criticism of atheism [in the sense of Kant’s best seller!] and of the VSI series. Again, to define atheism as an answer to religions and to their irrationality is reducing the scope of this philosophical branch to a contrarian posture, rather than independently advancing a rationalist and scientific position on the entropic nature of life and the universe, one that does not require for a purpose or a higher cause. And to try to show it provides better answers to the same questions as those addressed by religions stoops down to their level.

“So it is not the case that atheism follows merely from some shallow commitment to the primacy of scientific inquiry.” (p.77)

The link therein with a philosophical analysis seems so weak that I deem the essay rather belongs to journalosophy. The very short history of atheism and its embarrassed debate on the attributed connections between atheism and some modern era totalitarianisms [found in the last chapter] are an illustration of this divergence from scholarly work. That the author felt the need to include pictures to illustrate his points says it all!

Nature highlights

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by xi'an

Among several interesting (general public) entries and the fascinating article reconstituting the death of Lucy by a fall from a tree, I spotted in the current Sept. 22 issue of Nature two short summaries involving statistical significance, one in linguistics about repeated (and significant) links between some sounds and some concepts (like ‘n’ and ‘nose’) shared between independent languages, another about the (significant) discovery of a π meson and a K meson. The first anonymous editorial, entitled “Algorithm and blues“, was rather gloomy about the impact of proprietary algorithms on our daily life and on our democracies (or what is left of them), like the reliance on such algorithms to grant loan or determining the length of a sentence (based on the estimated probability of re-offending). The article called for more accountability of such tools, from going completely open-source to allowing for some form of strong auditing. This reminded me of the current (regional) debate about the algorithm allocating Greater Paris high school students to local universities and colleges based on their grades, wishes, and available positions. The apparent randomness and arbitrariness of those allocations prompted many (parents) to complain about the algorithm and ask for its move to the open. (Besides the pun in the title, the paper also contained a line about “affirmative algorithmic action”!) There was also a perfectly irrelevant tribune from a representative of the Church of England about its desire to give a higher profile to science in the/their church. Whatever. And I also was bemused by a news article on the difficulty to build a genetic map of Australia Aboriginals due to cultural reticence of Aboriginals to the use of body parts from their communities in genetic research. While I understand and agree with the concept of data privacy, so that to restrain to expose personal information, it is much less clear [to me] why data collected a century ago should come under such protections if it does not create a risk of exposing living individuals. It reminded me of this earlier Nature news article about North-America Aboriginals claiming right to a 8,000 year old skeleton. On a more positive side, this news part also mentioned the first catalogue produced by the Gaia European Space Agency project, from the publication of more than a billion star positions to the open access nature of the database, in that the Gaia team had hardly any prior access to such wealth of data. A special issue part of the journal was dedicated to the impact of social inequalities in the production of (future) scientists, but this sounds rather shallow, at least at the level of the few pages produced on the topic and it did not mention a comparison with other areas of society, where they are also most obviously at work!

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