Category Archives: Philosophy

Free Will and Non-Attachment

Perhaps it is the new year bug that made me think more about the “grander” stuffs in life like happiness, fulfilment, purpose of life, etc. To think of it, although New Year day is just another day, psychologically, it has a profound effect on one’s mind as it serves as a demarcation point and one will want to take advantage of the gap that exists or perceived to exist in this point of demarcation. The truth is anyday is as good as new year day to think about the “grander” things in life.

This post is actually inspired by two different events. The first is a reaction from a friend who read my post on happiness below and the second is a friend’s comment on my Facebook status where I said I hope to have more time to watch 26 movies in a week like I did in my prevous job. Let’s take each of them one at a time.

From the Buddhist viewpoint, true happiness is attained when one attains Nirvana-ship, that is one is no longer subject to the cause and effect that determines rebirth. The way to achieve is via the Eight-Fold Path. The teaching of Non-Attachment is also very important as it is said that our “suffering” is a result of attachment to selfish cravings and desires (The Four Noble Truths).

“This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”

To some people, they will look at Buddhism as a nihilistic philosophical system. For example, if one does not crave for delight and crave for existence etc. what is the joy of living? In my opinion, this argument is flawed because the Buddha did not ask you not to have happiness, not to have sensual pleasure. He merely said that ATTACHMENT to such desires is bad.

In this light, in my post on Happiness below, the key is that one can strive for things that makes one happy but one should not be attached to it. This is so true because things come and go, people live and die, jobs come and go, people get hired and fired, money made and lost. If we are too attached to what makes us happy, when that very thing is no longer there, we will suffer miserably and be unable to recover and the process will ultimately down-spiral, affecting many other things in our life.

Now, on Free Will. In the true Sartrean tradition, we are born to be free and condemned in that we are solely responsible for our actions. Steven R. Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People said the same thing, i.e. there is a gap between cause and effect, that we can choose our actions because there is a gap and as such we are wholly responsible for our own actions.

That is to say, in essence and in all simplicity, ok, I choose this course of action and will bear all consequences. But is real life that simple? For example, a person who needs money to support his family but has to work like a dog to earn that money, is it really that easy for him to say, “Well, dammit, I quit. I will look for another job. Meanwhile I will bear the suffering of my children not having enough to eat at the moment. ”

Of course, no doubts, he has a choice to quit. Of course he can make that decision but given the circumstances, can he REALLY make that decision even if he could have? In real life, there are many circumstances like this where one cannot simply say “I Quit!” because by doing that, one is irresponsible.

This is not to say that one has no control over one’s destiny but it is exactly the balance of this freedom to choose and the call for duty that makes life more complicated and not as easy as philosophical ranting on a piece of paper. There are many people in this world that do not have this freedom of choice, although philosophically, on paper, they do.

So say what they may, dinner still have to be served on the table.

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Sartre and Batman

“If I choose to kill Brisseau, I am defining myself as a murderer… By choosing my action, I choose it for all mankind. But what happens if everyone in the world behaved like me and came here and shot Brisseau? What a mess! Not to mention the commotion from the doorbell ringing all night. And of course we’d need valet parking. Ah… how the mind boggles when it turns to ethical considerations!” – Woody Allen, “The Condemned”.

In response to my earlier blog post “Kantian Morality”, my geeky friend left a comment (in my old blog) and ended it with a question. She asked, “Another sage (Descartes?) one wrote that “I think, therefore I am.” Do you?”. When Descartes asked that question, his point is to proof that we exist, that we are not a figment of our imagination or other people’s imagination. How do we know that we really exist in this world? Well, according to Descartes, the fact that we think of this question is proof enough that we exist.

I often think about this question when I was a lot younger, when we still have time for fanciful thoughts and the heart is still not hardened by the realities of the real life, so to speak. I sometimes wonder if the tree that I see is really there, how do I know 100% sure that the tree really exists? After all, we are a culmination of our feelings. We think that the tree exist because 1) We see it with our own eyes, 2) We can go and feel the tree and indeed it is there, 3) Other people who also sees it confirms that it is there, 4) When a car rams into the tree, we hear the sounds, etc. But remember, we get all these because signals are sent to our brains that will then interpret the signals, i.e. when we see, we don’t really “see”. It is just that through a complex chemical process, the data or information is translated from our sensors to our brains that then interprets it and let us know what we see. Given this, how can we be 100% sure that what we see is what is really out there?

Well, after all these years, I gave this up and just take things as they are. I am pretty sure that the tree is there and even if my brain decides to trick me, I don’t think I want to test it by knocking my head into it. So, yeah, ok. The tree is there. But at the back of my mind, I try to be careful when I experience new things or when I face questions or situations. From my experience, really, what the brain and the senses tell you is really wrong. One really has to have that judgment but that will come from experience.

Now, I am more of a Sartre and Nietzsche person but not really wholly an existentialist. Instead of “I think, therefore I am”, it is more like “I am, therefore I think”. There is a whole world of difference. Now, I believe that I exist above all, that this is what there is and I better make good use of what exist now. I am responsible for my own actions and so is everyone else. When everyone is responsible for their own actions, everyone will be happy. So the fact for me now is I am able to think now BECAUSE I exist. Not that I exist because I think. Come to think of it now, “I exist because I think” sound rather foolish, isn’t it? It has to be the other way round. Or does it really make much difference? Aren’t they both sides of the same coin?

After one watches the latest installment of the Batman movie, THE DARK KNIGHT, one cannot help but be philosophical. At least a little bit. This is really great because when was the last time one watches a Hollywood blockbuster which is a sequel to a comic book adaptation that is a top grossing movie but is at the same time well made, deep and inspire philosophy? Whoa, a long time ago if you ask me. Despite a couple of things that annoy me re this movie, most notably the horrible Hong Kong linked story and the cliched Chinese bad guy, I think that this is really a superb movie.

Above all, it raises a lot of moral and ethical questions. Are human innately good or evil? At the face of extinction, will human remain good or will there be anarchy and to each his own? I have heard many times that when there is really no food, when mankind fights for survival, well, as Darwin will put it, only the fittest will survive and thus there will bound to be anarchy. All moral foundations will collapse and the only thing that will be in person’s mind is to live another day. Is this really the truth? If you ask me, I think this is not. Because if I put myself in that situation, I would rather die than survive in such a horrible world. I don’t think I am alone and if really everyone thinks like I do, then there is bound to be solutions to our problems. When all of mankind can decide to die together, I think nothing in this universe can match that power. Maybe.

The DARK KNIGHT’s two main characters are of course the Batman and the Joker. Supporting them are Gordon, Rachel, the two faced man Harvey, Fox and Alfred. Each of this characters is distinct in itself and each represents a different philosophical proposition, so to speak.

[What is ahead may contain spoilers]

Batman’s purpose is to create law and order in the society but he can only choose what he defend and he cannot defend everything. By taking the law into his own hands, he is himself an outlaw and the citizens of Gotham demands that this outlaw be put to justice, even though all he does is to protect Gotham from the bad guys. This image that he created “inspired” a legion of Batman wannabes, and like Batman, they take the laws into their own hands and creating chaos. Batman knows that his existence is important to the order of the society there but he also knows that he cannot continue to be Batman, the hero that is an outlaw that lives and works at night. He knows that he must give way to the proper and correct way of justice, via the constitution and the law and their enforcers. Only then can real justice and peace be attained. To pass the baton to a person capable of doing that is his retirement plan and he found that candidate in Harvey Dent and plans to pass the baton to him.

However, here comes the Joker from practically nowhere. His origins were not said although some of his dark histories are pointed at when the Joker proudly tells the story of how he got the “smile” on his face. “Why so serious?”. The Joker is the opposite of what Batman is. If Batman is for law and order, the Joker is for anarchy (or so it seems). If Batman is for certainty, the Joker is for surprises. If Batman believes that mankind is innately good and can self-govern, the Joker plans an experiment to prove to Batman that he is wrong, that mankind is selfish to the core and will kill for survival. Ultimately, we see the struggle of the two opposing forces throughout the movie and how that played out. There are no right or wrong answers and there are no clearcut win or lose. It is a process of mankind’s self discovery, of the understanding of their own nature. In a sense, the Joker is very successful in pointing us towards that direction of discovery.

Ultimately, there is no black and white answers. The truth may not be the Truth and the Truth can be hidden for the better good of mankind. Is this right? Should the Truth always be told no matter what? I think perhaps this utopian idea that the truth must be told 100% of the time is truly not practical in this very complex world that we live in. We need to sometimes not tell the Truth so that the world can be a better place, so that Mankind can still dream and can still have hope. But then again, who should have the power to tell or not tell the Truth? Who can say that he is perfect and can be the guardian of Truth and can be relied on 100% of the time that what he does is 100% for the benefit of mankind? Maybe God? So, when Lucius Fox got to know that Batman has used the ultrasound technology to map the city, he said that no one, not even Batman or himself, should have this kind of power.

I think, in short, this is why THE DARK KNIGHT impressed me, by being bold and asked these questions, have the guts to not answer the question but instead make us think and at the same time, make an insane amount of money in the box office. Wonderful eh?

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Kantian Morality

In the light of all the dumb things that are happening in the Malaysian political scene right now, from murder, to black mail, to sodomy, one wonders whether there is still any sense of morality around these days. Perhaps as the world advance, the sense of morality becomes more and more lax, as we can see around us but this is probably also a sign of human progress, where rules cast on stones in old times is no longer relevant to the enlightened individual, whose personal freedom and choices come as priority against everything else. Perhaps, after all, Nietzsche is not too far wrong to say that God is dead.

But one sometimes wonder if this is really true, if this should be the way of life of our so-called “enlightened” human beings. Is religion still relevant? For a lot of people, it does. Perhaps it is not really because one really believes that one can go to Heaven after one is dead and enjoy eternal life there or one can have access to 72 virgins or such but the religion provides a system where a moral society can work, where mankind treats mankind morally according to the laws of the Creator. These laws are absolute and unchanging, and is universally applicable, what Kant called the categorical imperative.

Kant is very interesting, in many aspects. His categorical imperative is just this: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. For example, Do not kill, is such a maxim because it should become a universal law. If you kill, and everyone else follows you and start to kill, this cannot be good. Do you like to be killed?

Kant’s moral philosophy is akin to the religious view of morality, that is there are absolute things that mankind should and should not do. It is absolute inasmuch as it cannot be changed according to mankind’s whims and desire to “suit” the situation, which is really an excuse to escape from the moral laws and from one’s duty, whether duty as a Man, or as a father, or as a husband, or as a Prime Minister. When the principles of morality are derived from such sense of desire instead of absolute moral laws, the society can easily plunge into a mode of self destruction.

The difference, however, between Kant and the religious people is this, as is very significant. Kant’s morality is derived solely from reason, practical reason, and not blindly from what God tells us to do and not to do. Although the final outcome of some of the maxims could be the same, this distinction is significant as Kant rest the responsibility on us humans as rational and intelligent being, to ask us to verify the maxims ourselves and not to just follow maxims blindly. This reminds me of the Buddha as he said in the Dhammapada, that we should verify what he said based on our own experience and reasoning, and we should not just believe what he said just because he said it. This is also important because as we have now experienced, religion can be badly exploited by irresponsible people and masses of people die or live a terrible life just because of this, whether it is a real mistake in interpretation of what God said or purposeful misinterpretation of what God said to suit their own selfish agenda.

It is important that one uses his or her intelligence, common sense and reason to derive at his or her own conclusion of events and actions instead of just follow blindly what other people said. Only then could a person be really free and be really moral.

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Increase: Above Wind, Below Thunder

above Sun The Gentle, Wind
below Chen The Arousing, Thunder

The Judgement

Increase. It furthers one
To undertake something.
It furthers one to cross the great water.

The Image

Wind and thunder: the image of Increase.
Thus the superior man:
If he sees good, he imitates it;
If he has faults, he rids himself of them.

The tide of fortune is flowing in your favour. Problems can now be resolved. Relationships and projects florish. New opportunities beckon. Considerable change is possible. Even difficult tasks can be tackled successfully. But it is up to you to make the most of this favourable period. It will not last indefinitely. Now is the time to take whatever action is need to move matters forward. IHave the courage to make a leap in the dark if necessary. The outcome will be successful.Think in terms of what you can contribute to the situation rather than what you can get out of it.

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Paticca Samuppada

The other day, someone asked me if I am a Buddhist. The reason I was asked is because Wesak Day is just around the corner.

I am a Buddhist by birth. To be more exact, I was born into the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist family who also practices some Taoist rites which is quite common in Malaysia. Later in my life, I got a bit confused with religion and did some self study on Buddhism as well as on Christianity and Islam. I figured and arrived at the conclusion that Buddhism fits me the most. I admire the intellectual and logical approach that the Buddha encouraged, one that is not based on superstitions, hearsay, blind faith, emotions and that sort. The logic and rational way of the Buddha, the Middle Path, self-reliance and the idea that one is responsible for their own actions and fate and not relying on external force and blame fate, all appealed very much to me. And I thought that the Buddha said explicitly of the non-existence of the soul and a supreme being/creator all made a lot of sense to me.

However, I cannot consider myself a true Buddhist as I do not believe (yet) one key concept of Buddhism and that is the concept of Re-Birth.

I believe that this life is all we have and we make the most out of this life, not only for ourselves but also for other people and our environment. The purpose of my being on earth and doing good is so that I create good karmas which I hope will benefit myself in this life and other people, especially people I love. For me, my karmas, whether good or bad, are created and reciprocated in this life alone. My karma will die with me. BUT, the effect of my karma will last longer than me and will outlive me. It does not, however, has any effect on me after I die.

For example, if I am an evil polluter of the environment, destroying the environment for profit, I am creating bad karmas. This bad karma has many consequences and in many dimensions. However, for me personally, I could get caught and get fined/jailed, I could be ridiculed and hated by people, or I could get lucky and nothing happens to me while I enjoy the money that I have milked out of the environment. If I die, that’s it for me. Nothing affects me anymore.

However, my bad karma will continue to outlive me. The environment can become so bad, other people may die. My family may get sued or get hated by people and thus making the life of my family members hell, etc.

The same is true for good karmas that I have created. My good deeds may not have been rewarded in this life and if I die, that’s it. I won’t get anything out of the good deeds that I have done since there is no such rebirth for me to get the benefit of my good deeds in this life. However, my good deeds may have made other people’s life better, made my family members better loved etc. My good deeds will outlive me but once I die, my karma has no effect on me personally.

So one is tempted to ask, if there is no such thing as karma and rebirth, why is it that some people are born rich and some are born poor? Why is it that some people are born healthy and some are born sick etc? How does one account for this?

To my mind right now, this is just pure chance and there need not be an explanation for it, the same as there need not be an explanation on how the universe began. There is no need for a reason. It just happened! Why can’t things just happen? The fact that we humans need an explanation for everything is a human weakness. I am not saying that this is bad. No, in fact this human trait is admirable but not all things need to have an explanation of how it began because there simply is none. Because this idea could not be comprehended, humans create the idea of a Creator and because there is really no answers to many questions that we have, we created the idea of Faith. With the Creator and Faith, we believe we have found our answers, but is this really so or is this simply an illusion and a delusion for us to give peace to our heart?

The Buddha has spoken, according to the records, on Karma and this was recorded in the Culakammavibhanga Sutta. I still have problem believing in him there.

Given that I cannot yet believe in this idea, I cannot also believe in reincarnation and rebirth and these being the tenets of Buddhism, how can I call myself a Buddhist?

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What Am I Reading Now?

I have long found Communism fascinating (after reading the “Manifesto of The Communist Party” in volume 50 of the Great Books of the Western World series but could never really get past Part 1 of “Capital” and had to rely on secondary sources…sigh… such weakness), not all the cruelties that seem to be part of that system, but Marx’s philosophical foundation of communism. According to the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which is not really very good compared to say The Oxford Companion to Philosophy but alas! I have the Routledge in my library but not the Oxford):

“Communism is the belief that society should be organized without private property, all productive property being held communally, publicly or in common. A communist system is one based on a community of goods. It is generally presented as a positive alternative to competition, a system that is thought to divide people: communism is expected to draw people together and to create a community. In most cases, the arguments for communism advocate replacing competition with cooperaton either for its own sake or to promote a goal such as equality, or to free specific groups of people to serve a higher ideal such as the state or God.”

Isn’t this a wonderful idea? In fact, if we look at it, what is currently happening in the world inspired by open source software and blogs and communities such as MySpace is exactly what communism is about and see how far they have gone and how they have beaten capitalists (read for example, Microsoft) so convincingly?

The sad thing is communism is too great a political system for human beings because human beings are still, no matter how you want to argue it, base and vulgar, selfish and ignorant. In fact, communism as Marx has conceived it, is a system for an advanced society. But somehow, it appealed to a society that is far from being advanced but dominated by selfish people controlling the mass of poor peasants and exploited workers who are willing to give it a shot since there is nothing to lose anyways. However, as Eric Arthur Blair (a.k.a. George Orwell) said beautifully, “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. Until all animals are really equal, communism will not work as a political system.

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Condemned to be Free

“Professor Levy: We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”

quote from Crimes and Misdemeanors

Dostoevsky once wrote “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”. That, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can’t start making excuses for himself.

If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature. In other words there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exists, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, without excuses.

That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless free; because from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything that he does.”

quote from Jean-Paul SartreThe Humanism of Existentialism

****

I don’t know if this is happening to other people but the older I grow, the more stupid I feel. Everyday I grow more and more stupid. I sink into my routine and my circle of intellectual curiosity becomes smaller and smaller, and I find that my general knowledge is also becoming pathetic – besides the few things that I like and am passionate about, I dont seem to know – or put it more correctly, I don’t seem to be that interested in other things anymore like I used to when I was say, about 10 years younger.

When I was 10 years younger, I thought I was more intellectually curious – I dig into philosophy, history, literature, science and has built entire websites accumulating these knowledge with hard HTML codes using Notepad – each command self-learnt. Pages on the website will include a study on Chinese History and Philosophy (which I self studied using the UCLA course syllabus which was pubslished online last time), Western Philosophy, World History, Tagore, Emerson, Mahler, etc. etc. During the Mahler craze period, for example, I studied scores, read all available materials that I can lay my hands on, talk to experts, invite Maestro Benjamin Zander to give us a talk (read section two of the article linked), write articles that was published in various Mahler-related websites and one was actually used as a programme guide, get in touch with Mahler’s existing family and do up their paternal family chart, etc.

That was all before the Weiqi craze period but after the Chinese classical music period but no matter what, the point is 5-10 years back, I always had something on, something intellectually and spiritually stimulating and I find that I am dumbing down now. I am a lot less intellectual, a lot less eloquent, a lot less pushy and aggressive, a lot less energy – but perhaps a lot more elephant grace.

In this past year, there are many changes to my life, including a lot of travelling and of course working in India for almost half a year. I have certainly gained something, but I am not really sure what. But I am still very intellectually dull and I need to work on my general knowledge but what do I do now? How do I start? Do I have the time or is this merely an excuse? Or am I destined to go downhill from now on and become more and more a stubborn and pathetic old fellow clinging on to whatever is left inside this ageing, deteriorating shell? I really don’t know but I must do something as I am beginning to despise myself for being such an intellectual sloth!

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