A thoughtful American: “Western Culture has initiated and is leading a global assault on the biosphere.”

I do empathize with this feeling, shared by many people all over the world.

However, I think we should not equate Western culture  with just one aspect of Western/global civilization.

Yes, modern science first emerged in Western Christian Europe.

And from it grew a civilization rooted in modern technology which has given rise to serious threats to our very existence as a species.

This technological civilization is now being avidly embraced  by many Non-Western peoples, adding to the amounts of  environmental poisons that threaten our species.

So the culprit is global modern technology which involves consuming ever-increasing and  reckless quantities of matter and energy by an ever increasing number of people.

If the gunpowder invented in China had led to zillions of guns and bullets all over the world, it would be unfair/inappropriate to condemn Chinese culture for it.

If the decimal system had led to calculation-catastrophes in our binary computer systems, it would be unfair/inappropriate to blame India’s culture for it simply because the Hindus first thought of the zero.

Culture includes art and music and dance, poetry, literature, philosophy and ethics.

Our complaint should  therefore  be against, and our disappointment should be with, technology which, like tobacco, provided us initially with some kicks, but has been discovered to be the cause of many fatal ailments.

Western culture is more than two thousand years old, and its intellectual and aesthetic legacies are enormous.

It is part of Western civilization in which modern science and technological know-how had their genesis, with many positive fruits for all of humankind and an enormously ominous potential for many species.

To prevent the dangers that are lurking from rampant technology, people from all nations and races, all  religions, cultures and civilizations must join hands in their combined determination to solve the problems, without pointing the finger at this culture or that civilization. Such finger-pointing and shrieks of cultural mea culpa doesn’t contribute much to the solution of the real problems facing us.

America: Global Science Educator

News item: “A bill has  now been introduced in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican that wants to provide grants for scientific research to universities, businesses, and institutes in the Muslim world.”

Another well-meaning and misguided gesture: like spreading democracy, averting communism, and educating the world about American values.

It is surprising that American leaders just don’t get it: The world is sick of America playing the global policeman, educator, democracy-builder, and nuclear weapons-controller.

Such moves are the best ways to provoke a ground-swell of opposition from the millions, especially in the Muslim world, who hate America’s guts.  This move will be interpreted as yet another ploy by Americans to uproot the culture of those countries.

If  the oil-rich Arab countries don’t think it is important for them to spend money on educating their people in science (I trust they do) why on earth should Americans assume that responsibility?

How about spending the money for more science education within the U.S., in inner city schools, for example?

May 24, 2010

The Facebook Fracas

On the offensive cartoon day

So humanity has come down to this level: we are engaging in insulting internet exchanges on what millions regard as sacred. To taunt and deprecate the religious symbols of others is as vile an offense as to terrorize those who think differently about God and Holy Books.

As one who respects whatever is good in all religions, I feel  ill-at ease seeing some of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed (pbwh) that are splashed all over the world. I am not a Muslim, but if I were one, I would feel even more hurt and enraged.  I believe Islam has as many noble principles at its core like other religions; I also know that many of its followers have perpetrated shameful acts like their counterparts in other religions. Why? Because we are all humans, striving to live up to our highest potentials, sometimes uplifted in the process and sometimes mired in the ugliness of our lowest urges. And also because the interpreters of Holy Books (of all religions) often instigate their followers to denigrate others on the constraining conviction that theirs is the only true religion and holy book there is.

Free speech is the precious protection of people in some nations. Like science and enlightenment, it is not the intrinsic strength of any particular culture or civilization. It is not a genetic trait but an acquired capacity, a cultural conditioning that arises from value-instilling education. Freedom from the terror and fear of the Inquisition, of being burnt at the stake, of being ostracized or beheaded for blasphemy, apostasy, and atheism: freedom from such fears is quite recent, barely two centuries in the millennia of human history. Through the ages, people in various cultures have tried, but Europe and America  were the first to achieve this fearless state, this emancipation from terrorizing tyranny that ruthlessly chastises anyone who says anything against the state-sponsored God.  They achieved this after generations of struggle, for the zeal of true-believers is enormous and perniciously oppressive when they get to hold sway on the thoughts and minds of others.

Once this spiritual freedom is acquired,  one feels like one has been transported into fresh and wholesome air from the stench and stifle in a dark dungeon. Not so long ago, some people naively hoped that beheading for blasphemy would soon  become a historical embarrassment for all peoples, and that the freedom to say what one thinks would become as universal as vaccines and TV and other goodies that have flowed from science and enlightenment, and have been happily adopted even by those who rightly hate the West for its various misdeeds.

Every group  bears responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. The West intruded into other regions of the world, largely for economic exploitation, and in the process it also marginalized and trivialized the religions and cultures of other people. The rage of Muslims provoked by the presence of armed forces from the West on their soil is understandable, no matter how much good the West may have done to enable them to exploit their own natural resources and to benefit from its technology and medicines.

A major fear now is that the Facebook explosion is but a mild version of more formidable confrontations to come between the protagonists of free speech who (from their perspective)  are resisting courageously efforts  to terrorize everybody in all countries into accepting Islamic rules of blasphemy, and the defenders of traditional religions who (from their perspective) are fighting back the intruders who desecrate their religious worldviews. [God knows there are many in theocratic Islamic nations who would like to breathe a freer air, and many in the secular world who would like to see greater respect shown to religious values and symbols.]

Perhaps the time has come for all to recognize that none is without a blemish. We have all sinned:  inflicted pain on others, and forsaken the basic tenet of all religions: to regard fellow humans as children of the same God, described differently by different people. The time has come for humanity to proclaim itself as a single global family confronting a myriad common problems, and to engage in an embrace of mutual love and respect, while granting one another the freedom to think and behave the way one chooses, on condition we don’t intentionally hurt or harm a brother or sister.

March 23, 2010

News: ” Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell.”

The big, very big news from Science (both the journal and the enterprise) is that a large genome has been synthesized in the lab, using a computer. First a DNA was synthesized, and then it was transplanted into a host cell.

I am reminded of a very similar achievement more than 180 years who:  Friedrich Wöhler synthesized the organic compound urea from the inorganic ammonium cyanate in 1828: That was a major achievement which brought down one of the walls separating the living from the non-living. That created some controversies too.

Like every major scientific breakthrough, the achievement is applauded, the significance is debated, and the potential consequences are feared.

Now it will be proclaimed that finally humans (Craig Venter and his team) have created life which, until now only God (or Nature) could do.

Many scientists are convinced that this will lead to a number of extremely positive and valuable developments in energy production, pollution reduction, disease-remedies, and more, while others will fear this will facilitate the synthesis of lethal life forms over which even cautious researchers may have little control, and which may fall in the hands of anti-social and anti-civilization psychopaths who are ceaselessly scheming with the already available tools in basements and caves in various parts of the world.

So it has been with the onset of many major inventions and discoveries: from steam locomotives and vaccines to nuclear energy and pesticides: jubilation and fear, benefits and dangers, all real and imaginary. Some will call for a ban on such research, but it is doubtful that this can be imposed or will work, if imposed. International bodies may put some restrictions. But, for good or otherwise, never has a new path in science been successfully halted in its continuation.

May 21, 2010

Does a fine-tuned universe prove the existence of God?

God has existed in the hearts and minds of human beings in a variety of forms and modes since time immemorial.
His/Her existence has also be rejected as fantasy and concoction by many minds, ancient and modern.
To a handful of people the existence of God has been/has to be “proved,” preferably through the results and language of science.
But such proofs only confirm the already-held conviction of believers, and seldom transform unbelievers, inspiring them to go to church or mosque, temple or synagogue.
So this anthropic principle proof of God is only the latest in a never-ending series to prove God’s existence through logic, physics, and bombastic jargon.
Such attempts are interesting to some, tiring to others, and amusing to yet others.
But they are certainly better ways of spending one’s free time than insisting that one’s version of God is the only right one, or trying to hit on the head those who disagree.

May 13, 2010

On Lorne Ladner’s “The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology.”

Lorne Ladner, Ph.D., The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology, 2004. Harper San Francisco, U.S.$ 15.95.

We live in an extraordinary age of wonderful scientific breakthroughs and marvelous technological achievements. Possibilities for cure of pernicious diseases and for health and longevity keep increasing. But ours is also an age of spiritual anguish and moral confusions, of promiscuous sex and savage violence. Crudeness, combativeness, and religious intolerance seem to be on the rise. In this context, it is refreshing to read a book that brings us wholesome worldviews that could help restore some balance in human interactions, based on both scientific  and spiritual insights on compassion.

Though the title and principal theme of the book relate to compassion – the cardinal virtue in the Buddha’s teachings – the author, who is a trained psychologist and practitioner of Buddhism,  gives his readers many worthy understandings of the human mind and human capacities for good.

The book is spiced with interesting anecdotes and reflections. The connections between Buddhist tenets and findings of current psychology add scientific support to the recommendations in the book. Reminders of eventual death and the ephemeral nature of existence may not be original, but they can inspire restraining reflections on people on the verge of rash or harsh behavior. There are also intelligent analyses of the  basic urge for happiness in the book. The author presents a clarification of the notion of happiness which should be useful to readers.

There is no question but that raw aggressiveness and self-centered acts of cruelty and exploitation seem to pervade modern societies, and the book is meant to transform them to gentler and more civilized modes. However, it is important to remember that our appraisal of the world’s moral status is often derived from the daily news. This view of the world is, for most people, very different from the world in which most people normally live during their waking hours. When calamities arise, not just in our neighborhood but in distant lands too, the outpouring of caring, compassion, and concrete assistance has generally been at more than a modest level. In other words, the art of compassion is not as lost as the title of the book suggests.

Then again, it is not clear that even among peoples where Buddhism is the principal faith, there is the kind of universal compassion that one would imagine in that framework. When one reads about the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments in Tibet, the reader should not assume that all the people in Judeo-Christian societies put those nuggets of wisdom into practice.

This is not to say that the  wisdom and perspectives spelled out in this book are not relevant or significant. Irrespective of one’s religious affiliation or absence thereof, one can benefit enormously by following the recipes for Compassion Practices given in the last sections of the book, à la Dale Carnegie. These instructions are meaningful, enriching, and practical. If only all were to make honest attempts to live up to them the world would surely be a better place.

This is the kind of book that can have only positive impact on readers, especially if they are in the early stages of value-formation.

Variety in Religion


1.    The Judaic faith has this to say:
They’re true to God who His laws obey!

2.    The message of Christ is short indeed:
Be kind and helpful to those in need.

3.    They call themselves devout Jains
Whose faith feels for all creatures’ pains.

4.    The Buddha’s wisdom may be seen
In the rule known as the Golden Mean.

5.     God is great, Islam has said;
His sole messenger: Prophet Mohamed.

6.    The Sikhs say inner peace to find
Follow the Guru, with God in mind.

7.    Respect land and trees, rain and dew:
This is religion in the Amerindian view.

8.    Chinese wisdom, it would seem
Is to be with Nature and flow with the stream.

9.    All that matters, humanists say
Is being good in a reasoned way.

10.     Hindus say there’s many a way
To search for God, and to pray.

May 12, 2010