Book review: Greek Buddha, by Christopher Beckwith

I first reviewed this book in December 2018. I don’t normally revise my reviews after publication but in this case I’ve done so because I don’t think I brought out its importance sufficiently clearly the first time.

This is a scholarly but still readable examination of early Buddhism that presents a pretty radical but well-substantiated revision of how Buddhism originated. It also argues that the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who founded the school known as Pyrrhonism, was influenced by early Buddhism. I think the book is important reading for anyone with a serious interest in Buddhism.

Read the review.

Thought for the Day – Woman taken in adultery

Last week in her Thought for the Day the Rev. Lucy Winkert cited the New Testament story of Jesus being asked to adjudicate in the case of a woman caught in adultery. This text is traditionally read in church on the day Winkert  was speaking (26 February).

The Jewish law prescribed stoning to death in such a case, but Jesus asks the woman’s accusers to say which of them is without sin. None  answers, so Jesus refuses to condemn the woman and tells her to go away and sin no more, thereby no doubt saving her life.

It’s a good story so it’s a pity that it doesn’t seem to be authentic.   It’s only found in John (the latest of the four canonical gospels) and it isn’t there in the oldest texts; apparently it was inserted by mediaeval scribes (see Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus).

‘Beyond Belief’ (BBC R4) debates free will

I’ve been fascinated (obsessed?) by the free will paradox for about 70 years, ever since as the recipient of a Catholic upbringing I realised  that it was a serious problem for religion. I seldom bypass any opportunity to scratch the spot, so I made a point of listening to the BBC Beyond Belief discussion broadcast on 22.7.2019. The participants were Rev. Sharon Grenham-Thompson, an Anglican vicar; Prof. Rasjid Skinner, a Muslim consultant clinical psychologist; and Dr Richard Christian, a philosopher.

As usual, the discussion was introduced by Ernie Rea in the chair. He got off on the wrong foot, to my mind, by focusing in the idea that our actions are caused by brain processes and these are deteministic. I agree with the philosopher Galen Strawson that this isn’t the point. Even if brain deteminisn isn’t true, this doesn’t alter the fact that our actions are the result of everything that has gone before.

Sharon, on the other hand, started off well. She said that “we choose what we want, and the question is, what determines what we want?”. This is exactly right. As Schopenhauer said, we can do what we choose but we can’t chose what we choose.

Perhaps predictably, things strted to slip when Sharon brought God into it. Actually, she didn’t like the term ‘God’, preferring ‘Love’ or ‘Divine Mystery’. I didn’t find this helped much.

I also didn’t find much illumination in Prof, Skinner’s contribution. He seemed to be saying simultaneously that predestination was true and freedom was true – the ‘with one bound Jack was free!’ answer to the conundrum.

The secular philosopher, however, got it right, at least for me. As a matter of fact there is no free will but we cannot ad should not escape from the intuitive conviction that there is.  “Free will is a necessary myth.”  This position seems to be quite similar to that of Galen Strawson as set out in his book Freedom and Belief,  which I recommend to anyone who finds this question as intriguing and perplexing as I do.

If our actions are not random, they arise from our mental state and our character. How we are determines what we do. But we cannot choose the sort of people we are. True, we can decide to become better people, as we are constantly urged to do by preachers and moralists, but this only shifts the problem back in time. We can only try to change ourselves according to principles which we have already accepted. So the quest for self-determination lands us in an eternal regression. We can never get beyond our given nature and disposition.

Note that this does not imply fatalism. We can act, Strawson says, and our actions do have important effects. “We can indeed be self-determining in the … sense of being able, by our own action, and in the light of our necessarily non-self-determined characters and desires, to determine to a very considerable extent what happens to us.” What we cannot do is to choose our own character.


Book review: Believers, by Melvin Konner

Melvin Konner is a medically qualified anthropologist who had a conventional Jewish upbringing and was a convinced believer in God until, at the age of seventeen, he lost his faith and became an atheist. But in this book he takes issue with four prominent atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens—”the Quartet”.

According to these authors, religion is an irrational and potentially dangerous superstition which is fated to disappear, and the sooner this happens the better. But Konner doesn’t think that religious belief is necessarily a bad thing, nor does he believe it will disappear in the foreseeable future. Continue reading.

Meditation, Spirituality, Enlightenment?

Do you meditate? If so, why? Is it because you are spiritual? Do you hope it may lead to enlightenment? What is enlightenment anyway? Does it even exist? In this article I discuss these questions in the light of my experience of two methods of meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Buddhist insight meditation (mindfulness). Read the article.

It’s also available at the Secular Web.





Book review: The Bodhisattva’s Brain, by Owen Flanagan

In 2003 Flanagan wrote an article for New Scientist with the title “The Colour of Happiness”, about preliminary research using brain imaging (PET and fMRI) to study the brains of Buddhists to see if there was evidence that they were exceptionally happy. They turned out to have a marked degree of activation in an area of the brain (the left prefrontal cortex) that had earlier been identified as related to positive emotions (negative emotions activate the right prefrontal cortex).  Continue reading

John Horgan on The Templeton Foundation

I just came across John Horgan’s piece on The Templeton Foundation. In 2005 he was invited to be one of the first batch of Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion. This involved spending several weeks at Cambridge University, listening to scientists and philosophers talking (‘pontificzting’) about science and religion. As an added inducement he would receive $15,000 in addition to all expenses.

Understandably, he accepted. The article tells us what happened and also how he feels about the organisation now.

Although there were no conditions attached to his attendance at least one offcial thought that some reciprocation was implied.

She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that~— given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history~— I didn’t want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

If, like me you’ve always wondered about the foundation, you will find this article interesting.

Horgan’s site has a lot of other interesting articles; well worth exploring.


New Scientist on free will

The current issue of New Scientist  gives pride of place to place to an article by Tom Stafford with the title: ‘It’s not an illusion, you have free will. It’s just not what you think’.

Libet’s research

Stafford refers to the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s (see Freedom Evolves by Danel Dennett and The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner). Libet seemed to show that brain activity precedes conscious choice by an appreciable interval and many have take this to mean that free will is an illusion. But Stafford disagrees.

These results aren’t the great challenge to free will that they might seem at first. Their apparent force relies on misguided intuitions about what it means to have free will…. The misconception arises because we have difficulty comprehending causation in complex systems.

In a complex chaotic system, Stafford says, you cannot predict the outcome because there are innumerable possibilities, and human beings are so complex that they will always be unpredictable.

To illustrate this Stafford has created an interactive essay which you can tweet; a bot will then allow you to explore “your own unique path through the story, following the areas that most interest you”. This will convince you that “we are free to make real meaningful choices”.

Yes, our thoughts are caused by our brains, our environment and our history, but this causal mix is unique to each individual at each moment. That explains why human behaviour is so difficult to predict.


Continue reading “New Scientist on free will”

Mona Siddiqui’s Thought for the Day on Trump’s visit

I’ve said in my previous blog that I generally like Mona Siddiqui’s contributions to ‘Thought for the Day’ and find them among  the best in this often rather irritating genre. However, I had reservations about what she said today in talking about President Trump’s forthcoming visit.

She though that Jeremy C9rbyn and the Speaker were wrong to refuse the invitation to a dinner given in Trump’s honour.  We might disagree with his views but he would be a guest and the demands of hospitality require that we welcome him courteously.

Certainly hospitality is an admirable tradition in Islam – I’ve benefited from it myself in the past – but Trump is not just any guest and his visit raises complicated questions. We are extending the invitation for our own (commercial) reasons and he is accepting it for his – presumably not unconnected with his forthcoming attempt to be re-elected. This isn’t something I’d wish to increase the chances of happening.

I don’t know what reasons Jeremy Corbyn and the Speaker have for refusing to meet him, but if they are motivated by a reluctance to demonstrate even tacit support for his political ambition I can see their point. I like the attitude of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who initially said he wouldn’t meet Trump but then changed his mind and said he would, in order to tell him why he disagreed with him.

As to what members of the public can do, I’d vote, not for demonstrating in the street but for simply  ignoring the visit as far as possible, or alternatively lining the route of his ceremonial progress up the Mall and maintaining complete silence.

Mind you, none of this would have arisen without Mrs May’s ill-advised invitation to Trump made soon after she became PM; just another of her many mistakes, but that’s a different story.