Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Comparative Religious study - Buddhism

I joined the girls’ cell group at my church last Friday evening. I have been joining the girls cell group session since the start of the year because the guys’ discipleship group which I am in hasn’t been meeting regularly, and I was interested to get to know the girls around in my church a little better. Frankly, I find the gender segregation for cell group for youths around the same age group at my church somewhat inane. It has been that way since I was in secondary school because a youth leader who was at the church back then felt that this was the way in which the respective cell groups should be organized. I can partly understand the reason that gender segregation would allow for group members to talk about things that are personal to the respective gender group, but I thought it was unhealthy in the sense that it build barriers in socializing members of the opposite genders. Anyway, the church scene has changed somewhat in the passing years, along with the leaderhip in the church youth group. It is more autonomous now, and considering that most youths of yesteryears are now in their 20’s, I thought that there is somewhat more prerogative for individuals to choose who they want to socialize with at church.

The girls’ cell group was going through the second part of their comparative religions study on Buddhism. I had missed the study on the first part. They had previously went though comparative religious sessions on other religions like Islam and Hinduism. Typically, the session would seek to teach the basic tenets about the respective religion, and highlight inadequacies or unsatisfying aspects of the religion according to the view of the cell group leader.

The study session touched upon the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism. The handout prepared by the cell group leader defined Nirvana as the cessation of all conditioned thoughts and desire which are purportedly the root of suffering. It then went on to highlight the moral contradiction in the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana by quoting from an excerpt from David Johnsons’ A Reasoned Look at Asian Religions:

“The moral contradiction is precisely this : A person should want to get saved from desire or selfishness. But wanting to save oneself is just as selfish as any other act for selfish ends. If a person wants enlightenment, he still wants. And wanting, desiring, is the very fault which prevents enlightenment.”

I have never really understood this aspect of Nirvana in Buddhism. It seems to me like a quasi-mythological concept in an otherwise philosophical and secular religion. Why does Buddhism speak of ‘entering Nirvana’, as if Nirvana is some place like the Christian Heaven, when it has been defined by some at least that it is simply a cessation of desire? I am also somewhat skeptical of the critic provided in the handout about the moral contradiction of Nirvana. For one, it appeals to me as somewhat nit-picky, or overly-semantic. So the wish to end desire is also a desire, therefore the contradiction. It is quite similar to another critique levied by some on relativism – “The proposition that everything is relative is an absolute, therefore the contradiction.” I used to be quite impressed with such identification of contradiction by virtue of self-reference, but I am less impressed now because I think that such critiques assume that the proposition must be treated as making an absolute statement. It can be dealt with if the proposition is qualified, such as qualifying Nirvana as being the aim to end all unnecessary desires instead of all desires, or such as qualifying that there are some things which are relative in nature, and others which are absolute. That way, there is no contradiction.

I just don’t wish to dismiss possible merits to the propositions of other religion or ideas simply on the pretext of some logical fallacy which seems trivial to me. And I think that Buddhism might have its valuable insights to offer if we don’t completely dismiss it for some of its radical views. On the one hand, I think it is radical that Buddhism suggests that all suffering is an illusion. I don’t think such philosophy is empathetic to those who are truly suffering. However, I think that Buddhism may be somewhat instructive when it talks about how suffering is a matter of perception. Well, I think that suffering is in someways due to how an individual perceives it. For example, two individuals may be suffering from the same illness or misfortune, but one is more affected by it than another. I think that it helps to have a good attitude and a healthy sense of optimism towards dealing with one’s misfortune or suffering.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What makes God God?

I went for my church cell group meeting this afternoon. My church cell group rarely meet up these days because everyone is tied down to their respective commitments and issues, but I decided that I shall take some initiative to get people together since I am feeling a little better these days. Today’s turn-out at cell group was small, and we had sharing session with one another.

A cell group member that I shall call Jim was giving something like a mini-sermon to a fellow cell group member who is new to the Christian faith. Jim was saying that he had friends who thought that Jesus’ love for humanity by dying himself is not all that superior because they might choose to die as well if their death saved other people. Jim said that God’s love is different from just the death of a human being to save others because God chose to come down to earth to be a human being, even though he was God, and that he died for the undeserving people like us who are sinners. The new member said at the end of Jim’s talk that he would like to read more of the bible to find out about what Jim said.

I didn’t say anything while Jim was giving his evangelical sermon, because I didn’t want to turn the session into a pedantic theological debate; certainly not when there is a new Christian around where I can think that there is a greater purpose to help him in his faith. But since I am with myself now blogging this post, I shall write about the thoughts I have regarding what Jim said.

What Jim said is not something that I would find unfamiliar amongst Christians of my evangelistical circles. They are trying to draw out God’s superiority compared to human beings, even on traits such as love. But I am at the point of time in my life where I am full of doubts of God’s love, and am somewhat cynical and skeptical about some of these assertions made by fellow Christians. Why should God be considered superior in his expression of love just because he is God when he choose to die for humanity? It is not a fair evaluation in my opinion, because someone may choose a similar action if he or she were God as well. Is it unthinkable to ask the question what one would do if he or she were placed in God’s position? Which brings me to my second point of reflection – What makes God God? I wonder whether God asks such a question to himself – “Why am I God instead of something else?” My point is that we as human beings find ourselves bornt into an existence as human beings, not by our will, but simply as how reality would have it. Isn’t God subject to such a mystery of his own existence as well? That he finds himself a superior spiritual entity by virtue of simply ‘being’.

I encountered a matchmaking question on a dating website which is relevant to the point I made above.  That question asks what you would do if one day, God were to tell you that he would like to trade position with you as a human being for a day because he needs to be a human for some reason or another. Would you give ‘God’ his position back after the day has ended? There are some really interesting multiple choice responses that you can choose to this question. One such answer is “Yes, because I have no right to usurp the position of God.” Another is “No, I would make an awesome God.” Yet another is “No, I probably can’t do much worse as a God anyway.”

I have always wished that God was more interventionistic in solving the ills of the world and in my life, but I admit that I don’t really know whether such actions would necessarily be good. I believe that there is a movie with a similar theme about playing God titled Bruce Almighty starring Jim Carrey. The storyline is about a man who gets to play God by God. I haven’t watched it yet, but I have read a synopsis on it, and it seems to feature a moral of the story that one might make things worse rather than better even though one thinks he is using his power as God for the better. And there is that oft quoted pronouncement by Lord Acton that “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I wonder whether that applies to someone as God as well. Yet, I also wonder sometimes, at the risk of sounding heretical, whether I can do some things for the world better than God if I were in his position.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Watching the trial of Oscar Pistorius

I was watching the trial of sprinter Oscar Pistorius which was televised on CNN yesterday evening. I had been following the proceedings of the trial since it first began a week or so before. For those who haven’t been keeping up to date with the news regarding the event, the case is about amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius who is being prosecuted for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He is accused of shooting her in the middle of the night in their apartment when she went to the toilet cubicle in the bathroom. Pistorius’ defence is that he had thought that it had been an intruder who was in the toilet when he heard the noise while from the toilet while he was in bed.
In the past few sessions of the trial, the prosecution, led by Gerrie Nel, tried to take apart Oscar Pistorius’ account of the shooting. Pistorius had said that when he shot at the toilet door out of fear for his life, he was at the same time yelling out to his girlfriend who he believed was back in the bedroom to call the police. He only realized that his girlfriend might have been in the toilet when he went back to the bedroom and found that she was not there, and he immediately went back to the bathroom to knock down the toilet door in the hope that the person inside was not his girlfriend. The prosecutor questions Pistorius why he had not checked the balcony of his house to see if his girlfriend was there. Pistorius’s reply was that he was alarmed by the possibility that the person in the toilet might have been his girlfriend and wanted to quickly attend to this possibility in case it was true. The prosecutor asks why Pistorius did not check for signs of intrusion into the toilet such as a ladder via the open bathroom window. Pistorius says that he was simply too distraught by the possibility that the person in the toilet was his girlfriend to take this into immediate consideration. The prosecutor asks why Pistorius was still holding his gun when he went back into the bathroom. Pistorius replies that he was simply not in a rational frame of mind to realize whether he was holding a gun or not when he went back into the bathroom.
I believe that the prosecution was trying to make the point that Pistorius had the intention all along to kill his girlfriend because he was holding the gun when he went back to the bathroom even though he knows that the person inside the toilet was his girlfriend. The judge, Thokozile Masipa, interjected to say that she disagrees with the prosecution on the ground that it is possible to know something, and yet hope for another. The session was subsequently adjourned.
Personally, I find the defence case theory weak. I find it incredible that Pistorius would assume that the noise coming from the bathroom was that of an intruder instead of his girlfriend. In my opinion, a normal person would assume that any noise in the house is coming from that of a family member first, and would check for the presence of his family member before concluding that the noise might be from an intruder. It would have been obvious to Pistorius that his girlfriend might have been in the toilet since she usually slept next to him in bed, and thus it would be apparent to him that she was in the toilet because she was not next to him. Secondly, I think it is odd that Pistorius had his gun near him during the time of the incident. I believe it was the prosecution point that Pistorius normally did not kept his gun with him on other occasions, and Pistorius reply to why he had his gun kept near him at that time was “I don’t know.” Thirdly, I don’t think there were reasonable grounds to discharge his gun into the door even if he thinks it was an intruder. I don’t believe Pistorius testimony that he was put at such state of fear of his life that he would accidentally shoot a few times at the door with the gun. Why should he be so fearful when he has a gun in his hand, and why did he shoot a few times? Wouldn’t a normal person placed in such a situation shout at whoever is in the toilet to identify himself or herself? And if Pistorius had did that, it is expected that the girlfriend inside would have responded, and he would know that it was her instead of an intruder. This point may be taken into account even if Pistorius were to be found guilty on a lower charge of using excessive force for self-protection, but I believe that it can also be used to point towards murder because it is simply unreasonable to exclude such a safe-checking measure. Moreover, isn’t it odd that an intruder would go hide himself in the toilet, and that it would be more reasonable to expect that whoever is inside is a family member using the toilet instead of an intruder trying to harm him? Another damaging witness evidence from the prosecution which I am not sure has been effectively discredited by the defence counsel is that a neighbor said that she heard screams from Pistorius’ house during that night. It corroborates with forensic evidence showing that Reeva Steenkamp was killed not by the first shot, but from the second shot from Pistorius’ pistol. If there was indeed a scream from Reeva, it would show that Pistorius had indeed known who was inside the toilet when he fired his lethal second shot.
However, I am not sure whether the prosecution is proceeding along the correct direction in trying to indict Pistorius. I think Pistorius’ explanation quite effectively explain away the argument that the prosecution is trying to make. I don’t think that holding the gun and going back to the toilet necessarily shows any intention of using the gun again. I don’t think that Pistorius’ not checking for the presence of a ladder by the open bathroom window when he went back to the toilet necessarily show that he did not suspect an intruder all along. Oscar Pistorius simply reasonably rehashes the point that in those circumstances, a normal person would not be considering these things as well. I think what would be a stronger line of questioning would be to show where it was not reasonable for Pistorius to omit such considerations. For example, why didn’t he noticed that his girlfriend was not next to him in bed when he heard the noise from the bathroom. This is certainly most peculiar especially when the girlfriend sleeps next to him all the time! Or why didn’t he check for the ladder by the window when he first went into the toilet to confirm that the person in the toilet wasn’t an intruder. It was simply a short look to his left by the toilet door. Or why he didn’t give a warning shout to whoever is in the bathroom to make sure that the person inside was not an intruder. It is a rather simple way to identify whoever is inside and one that is beyond any reasonable grounds to omit.
Pistorius seems to be relying on a certain line of defence that he might not have been the ‘normal’ person during the time of the incident. Throughout the cross-examination, Pistorius was saying things like “I was not in a rational state of mind”, “I was so afraid that it was an intruder that I didn’t consider trying to find out where my girlfriend was”, and “I was so afraid of my life that I accidentally discharge my firearm”. I am not sure whether such a compromised irrational psychological state is actually possible. It seems to me to be a convenient way for someone who is culpable of killing another to excuse himself. Yet, I asks, is this really possible? Especially when one wakes up in the middle of the night and is still feeling groggy or mentally foggy. Pistorius seems to be heavily relying on this defence, and I am not sure whether the judge will buy it.
I used to watch videos of Oscar Pistorius run back in my junior college days when I was preparing to run for a 400m inter-house event. I actually admired Oscar Pistorius as an inspirational figure who overcame his physical debilities to excel at what he does. Boy could the guy run with those pair of prosthetics running blades, even faster than many other professional athletes who had real legs! It’s sad that things come down to this today for him. If he were indeed guilty, I wonder what the motive was for killing his girlfriend. I believe that it may have been relationship issues, but all this is speculation. Objectively though, the facts seems to point towards intention to murder, and this is all the law needs to convict someone. As a judge who came over to my school to preside over an advocacy competition said, “Arguing from motives carries less weight than arguing from the facts, because motive are subjective, while facts are objective.” Nevertheless, if motives can be shown, it does strengthen the case theory argued from the facts.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A short reflection about money

I have peers my age from whom I would hear statements such as “I want to become a billionaire in the future”, or “One day, I will get myself onto the Forbes list as one of the richest people in the world”, or “Ultimately, money is everything.” Such statements may come from peers I have in law school, and even from Christians. I have been thinking about money, and have been reflecting on how this pervasive concept that humans have invented and put into practice in its commercial dealings should be put in perspective.

There is this video that I chanced upon presenting the illuminati conspiracy theory of how the Rothschild rule USA. The video was giving an account of how money and banks came into being. The primitive method for transaction was barter trading whereby physical goods were exchanged as the sole means for commercial transaction. But this was inconvenient, and soon people found substitutes like gold that were easily carried and had value in themselves due to their rarity and difficulty of production and replication, such that they could be traded for other goods. Subsequently, the banking system developed, people placed their gold in banks for investment and security purposes in return for a piece of paper guaranteeing these deposits and promising return of gold on presentation of these ‘I Owe You’ papers. The character in the video says that these “I Owe You” papers were the first invention of paper money, which later became transactable in themselves in place of the physical gold. To digress a little, the character in the video claims that bankers unscrupulously started printing more of these papers and handing them out as loans for interest when there were no equivalent value of golds stashed in the banks. When those who had deposited their golds found out that the value of their paper money were being eroded by inflation and made a run for the bank to repossess their gold, they found out that the bankers had absconded with their gold. And now, modern day currencies are no longer backed by gold but are fiat currency that obtains its value based on recognition by government as legal tender, giving those who control the production of money (which is supposedly the Federal Reserve that is allegedly owned by the Rothschild) a subtle way to repossess wealth from the common people into their own hands through the printing of paper money and the control of interest-based central banking system.

But my main point for this article is not to examine the conspiracy theory, which I have indeed some questions about, but to ask, how should we view money, and put it in its place? I hope that I can find a way to state my opinions in a manner that retains a sense of realism about the importance of money, but find certain insights that would place money and its acquisition in a perspective that places it for what it is.

For one, I believe that too many people place their sense of self-worth upon the quantity of money they possess. Take for example, the statement “I want to be so rich that I appear on the Forbes magazine”. It is as if having money simply for its value as a medium for commodity transaction and acquisition is not enough, but to the degree that one is recognized in society that one is in possession of such wealth. I have read the writings of a girl on her blog about how she believes in Darwinian theory of evolution, and she exhorts that it is only understandable that girls should go for guys who are rich because wealth is an indicator of the guy’s good genes (such as intelligence) that is responsible for his acquiring of such wealth. I can’t help but say as a guy that I feel a certain uneasy cringe to know that some girls may indeed think like this.

But my comment is this. A man can be both rich or poor in his lifetime, owing to circumstances such as luck or misfortune. Moreover, there is more than just intelligence that is at hand for the wealth of an individual. We should not forget things like ethics, and there are people in the world who stoop to no minimum limits on their standards of integrity to obtain money, such as trafficking drugs, or embezzling funds. Why, I encountered this Singapore case from my law studies where a lawyer absconded with $10 million from his client’s trust fund that was meant for the conveyancing of his client’s property purchase and was never found again up till today. He left his family, which includes his wife and daughter behind. I don’t suppose that should a girl who sports the mentality that I just mentioned above meets a nefarious guy like this, she would fall heads over heels with the criminal simply because he splurges on her with the tainted money he had obtained, and I would think it quite sad if all girls were to see guys like this.

Moreover, I find the publication of a magazine that details the accumulation of personal wealth by the various richest individuals in the world somewhat dubitable. Firstly, what is there to verify that these individuals have indeed such wealth, or if the figures are concoted for some individuals who had bribed the magazine publication to give them a place on the rolls for bragging rights. Secondly, there are probably individuals in the world who are rich enough to qualify on the Forbes list, individuals who might indeed be even richer than Bill Gates, but who would prefer to be discreet about their wealth acquisition, perhaps to avoid inquiry into the nefarious means by which they have acquired such wealth, to avoid tax, or on a more nobler purpose, to avoid jealousy.

That said, I wish to also talk about my opinions about the importance of which money entails. I don’t think I can identify with the other extreme view which is completely denunciatory of money or its possession. I think a sensible understanding of money should highlight the function of money foremost, which is a portable means of exchange by which to conduct commercial dealings and transaction. An apposite quote by my favourite philosopher, Bertrand Russell, comes to mind, though I am unable to remember the exact quote and where it came from. He says that a man who loves money more than anything else falls in love with an abstraction, and it is a curious quality of man to be able to derive his happiness from abstractions.

One point of my reflection of money is that it is a means of resource distribution. A society is comprised of many individuals working in different capacities that cater to the respective needs and wants of one another. We need money to spend it for the acquisition of goods, and such expenditure is the means by which another human being who produced the goods that was bought acquires his money for the purchase of his own goods that was similarly produced by another individual.  And society is this mass web of human beings interconnected to each other in a certain manner of goods and services provision, with money being the intermediary means of transaction. A man acquires money insofar as he is able to provide a certain service or good in exchange for the money, which can be used for the commercial dealing with other third party individuals because ultimately, all these individuals are connected to one another in the mass web of commercial dealings that exists. By way of analogy, the barber who cuts the hair of a teacher might be someone who buys his food from a hawker who sends his child to be taught at school by the teacher. Money allows for this transactional quality whereby services provided by one individual to another need not be directly exchanged for a good in kind, but is paid for by way of providing services or goods to another societal individual whom the first societal individual is dependant upon for his or her service.

What then is to be thought of an economic system whereby one individual has overexceedingly so much more money than the rest, such that his accumulated wealth is able of covering his needs and reasonable wants a few times over with spare, while his fellow man wrangles in poverty? Isn’t this more of an indictment of a flawed economic or political system whereby resources are not going to those who need them most? Wouldn’t it be better if some of the wealth of the rich man goes to the poor man so that the poor man is able to afford some of the produces in society, rather than the rich man buying some of the goods the same times over and wasting perfectly good and usable goods? And shouldn’t it be conscience-pricking that there are rich individuals in society who parade upon their wealth as a show off their status symbol, when there are people who go hungry and live off a meager wage in society?

There are many reasons why someone becomes poor. I don’t believe that all of them are due to cases of laziness or financial mismanagement. Illnesses or misfortune may be one of them. I have read an article that makes the claims that a lot of homeless people suffer from mental illness that makes it difficult for them to work. Personally, I fear ever becoming ill to such an extent that I am incapable of working, and I have seen cases of such before when I help out at the meet-the-people session with the MP of my constituency. There are people in Singapore who rely on financial and welfare handouts in order to get by in life because the sole breadwinner in their family had been incapacitated with terrible illnesses. And I won’t deny that such circumstances in life may happen to me. Why, I have never felt such prospects more acutely than coming down with the terrible chronic tension headaches that has put me on medical leave of absence for up to a year and a half now. And to think that I was so happy and grateful when I first got into law school thinking that it is my ticket to the upper socioeconomic class in society It is therefore that I hope that those in relatively good fortune, upon reflecting their own susceptibility to misfortune, may not stinge or gripe should they be taxed a little more should such taxes be necessary for assisting individuals in really dire financial circumstances.

That said, I also acknowledge the negative prospects that a society that redistributes wealth might bring. The common label used to describe a society that wantonly distributes wealth is ‘welfarism’, and the alleged associated evils commonly cited are people becoming lazy or unproductive. But I think that such reasons might be overly-used by those in possession of wealth to not help those who in circumstances of genuine need. An economic system that puts the unfortunate in such a state of economic duress to the extent that they have to prostitute themselves or be exploited in order to obtain money for their basic needs is one that I would call inhumane and cruel, and I believe that this might indeed be the case for some countries. I hope not Singapore.

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