Back

Did you know that the most attractive part of you
is your back?

It is supple, simple
but most importantly,
Strong

It is the sort of back
that I wouldn’t mind following
down a trail in a leafy, green forest
through a busy, cramped corridor
or onto a bridge arching across a still, brown river
even if the bridge is in the middle of nowhere.

Your back always seems to have direction
in a directionless world.
It moves forwards ever so swiftly, gracefully and consistently
never turning back
even if it occasionally pauses and rests.

But there is a price to always being behind you.
It means we never face each other
and exchange emotions
honestly and fearlessly
as equal friends do.

It means that we rarely walk side by side
to a common destination
however much I cherish those journeys.

The most attractive part of you is your back,
but I wish I knew more of you.

[First time I have written a poem in a long time. I seriously underestimated how emotional and difficult the writing process is. But the catharsis and release is worth it.]

Forgetting

Sometimes when I think about all the things I used to know, I feel a little bit sad. My Mandarin used to be proficient, and I used to have a comprehensive knowledge of Richard Feynman’s life, as a result of reading multiple biographies on him. The knowing of those things in themselves felt good, even though the content itself isn’t exactly relevant or useful in my life right now.

There’s something sad about putting effort in reading and gathering knowledge, only to have it disappear eventually. What I retain is nothing but vague hints and gestures at what should be there, but isn’t. And let’s not even start on the things that I have forgotten that I’ve forgotten (or ‘unknown unknowns’ in Rumsfeldian terms).

Will all this learning be worth it?

A Statement of Intended Character

  1. I will be humble and empathetic in my treatment of others, whether in my words, thoughts or actions.
  2. I will never be quick to anger.
  3. I will treat happiness and my mental well-being my top priority in a situation where trade-offs have to be made.
  4. I will have a resilient and positive mind, which expounds that which is good, and seeks to minimise the bad.
  5. I will be honest of my feelings to myself and others – nothing should be a source of shame.
  6. I will love and appreciate those who love and appreciate me the most.
  7. I will make good all my promises.

“Happiness”

At this point in history, when faced with the question, “what do you want to achieve in life” (or any similar variations of the question), I would dare say that many of us would answer simply- “to be happy”.

“Happiness” is the most intuitive goal that anyone can have- even the phrase “I want to be happy” seems circular and tautological- to be happy is to live the way you want to, isn’t it? One cannot possibly “want to be unhappy”- if being “unhappy” is an individual’s overarching aim, isn’t being unhappy just a means to the same end? 

At this point I am convinced that the phrase “I want to be happy” is meaningless, but a better question lies ahead- why the obsession with happiness?

Here I propose an answer- (a largely unrigorous and callous one, but an answer nonetheless): human “happiness” is but an evolved decendant of animalistic “pleasure”, which is a critical survival tool. I would venture to say that us conscious beings are here today because our biological ancestors have incredibly developed sytems of pleasure which help them to survive. Our obession with “happiness” is but a biological accident. One only needs to think about the pleasure that a monkey (presumably) get when it fills its empty stomach with a ripe banana, giving it the nutrients to live on and procreate; or the displeasure (or unhappiness) that an antelope has when it sees a tiger, which then causes it to flee, and to survive. “Happiness”, in these cases, is not a philosophical end, but a highly effective, purposeful system- a faithful boat which has carried the genes of our ancestors across the vast, deep seas of time.

At this point, it is impossible for us to verify if animals think about happiness just as we do- but what we can be sure of, are two things. Firstly, we can think about happiness; and secondly, “happiness” is no longer necessary to survive. This means that happiness is no longer a necessary system we need, but a choice we can choose to make or not.

For the first time in known history, we can try to deviate ourselves from “happiness”. The faithful ship that our ancestors relied on has hit the shore, and we are free to walk in any direction we choose.

Why I Do Not Believe.

Nazzeef commented on the previous post:

I can understand your reasons why you don’t/can’t believe in religion. I just don’t understand why you can’t believe in God. From my point of view, religion is a way for one to be closer to God, ergo the existence of many different religions. When any religion is broken up into its simplest equation, it simply conveys the message that we should believe and appreciate the fact that there IS something that creates us, and is greater than us. It is a matter of choosing what type of religion you wish to follow (that fits you best) to feel or be closer to God. After all, not everyone has the same taste. It is true that you can only believe in one religion at one time, but they all convey the same message. Lets take Heaven and Hell as an example. Follow this religion and you’ll go to heaven. Don’t follow this religion and you’ll go to hell. But if all religion says that if you follow it, you’ll go to heaven, won’t following any of these religion allows you a spot in heaven? Or the hidden message is, won’t simply believing in God allows you to go to Heaven? (provided that you’re been a good boy. and not a naughty one. hehehe) The problem is most people are too proud to admit that all religion are equally valid and should be respected. The normal way of thinking would be that, I’m a muslim, you’re a christian, i’ll go to heaven, and you won’t. When in actuality, a religion only ask you to follow it to be closer to God. Religion is up to one’s interpretation for him/her to be closer to God. Yes, there are verses of the Quran that says, the kafir, or non believers won’t go to Heaven, but not once did it said in specific who the kafir’s are or point to any other religion. Not to be rude or anything, non-believers are meant to those who don’t believe in the existence of God, not those who don’t believe in the teachings of Islam. A religion is there to provide faith and hope and something for mankind to aspire to. To do good. Although i must admit, most people use the teachings of any religion for their own benefit which often resulted to violence. That is the weakness of Man, and the very reason why we need faith in God even more. I have a grandfather who believes in all religion and only follow certain beliefs of certain religions, but nevertheless, he believes in the existence of God even though his thinking is not generally accepted by people. My theory is, it is probably easier to only stick to one religion because there is so much to know about one already, so people just generally go with the flow. The way i see it is, I strongly believe in God for God inspires me to be better in every way, and i choose Islam as my religion because it suits me best. I hope i don’t sound like im imposing my truth on you or anything, it’s just my opinion. You are free to choose your own truth. It is what makes us special. Joel told me this the other day, “wouldnt it be easier to believe in God, die, and realize that there is a God, then to not believe in God, die, and realizing that there is in fact a God?” Anyway, forgive me if i appear biased or rude to you in any way, i just really strongly believe in God, and as a friend, I guess im just providing you with the means to widen your options.

At any rate, this is a lengthy comment with quite a number of claims and assertions, and in my opinion, it deserves an equally lengthy response. The above comment will be quoted partially as we move from argument to argument. On to the actual response:

I can understand your reasons why you don’t/can’t believe in religion. I just don’t understand why you can’t believe in God. From my point of view, religion is a way for one to be closer to God, ergo the existence of many different religions. When any religion is broken up into its simplest equation, it simply conveys the message that we should believe and appreciate the fact that there IS something that creates us, and is greater than us.

Firstly, the idea that it is necessary and beneficial to worship God. The first, natural question one should ask in response is this: does God even exist in the first place? Many people presume that the evidence pointing towards the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent being  is plentiful, when it isn’t really the case. Over the course of history, the strongest arguments for the existence of a beneficent Creator have largely been hinged on mankind’s ignorance. Hence, the arguments for a God have also waned with the decrease in man’s ignorance regarding the nature of the universe and life. The trend has always been consistent- these arguments have progressively held less and less sway over our collective conscience, not the other way around. The ‘first cause’ argument is gradually being explained away by physicists like Hawking and Einstein, while the argument from design was dealt a fatal blow when Darwin published On The Origin of Species. This is something no one can afford to ignore within the discourse about a general divine entity- that the evidence isn’t really sufficient to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a God exists. Granted, it might be difficult to prove that God doesn’t exist, but the reasonable position in this instance would be to suspend belief and admit that “we really don’t know” if God exists or not, rather than falsely imply that we do know that he exists. I’ll use an thought experiment (loosely based on Russell’s Teapot) to explain this idea.

Assuming that I make a very specific claim, that between Jupiter and its moons, there is a tiny ceramic elephant orbiting Jupiter. The ceramic elephant is too small to be spotted by conventional, modern telescopes and satellites, and to make things worse, it is an invisible, ethereal elephant which cannot ever be seen or touched by a physical being. With that said, I ask you to believe that this minuscule ceramic elephant exists.  The natural response of most people to such a claim would be disbelief, and also a demand for evidence. “Show me proof that this ceramic elephant exists before you expect me to believe in it,” you might say. Why aren’t similar amounts of intellectual rigour and evidence required when the entity that we are talking about happens to be a divine being?

So why is it imperative upon us to find the best way to worship God, when the reasonable position to maintain that the chance of a divine being existing is far below the threshold required for reasonable belief? In a way, we are all atheists- those who believe in God believe in a very specific kind of God, which naturally means that there is an infinite number of gods that a ‘believer’ doesn’t believe in. For example, the regular religious person doesn’t believe that God is evil, or that God is an alien, or that God is generally clueless about what goes on in the universe. We don’t believe in Osiris, Ra, Anubis, Xenu or Zeus anymore- the God we would like to believe in is a God that we were constructed in the image of- a humane one we can all relate to, with no evidence showing that this is a God that is likely to exist.

Even if we presume that the specific kind of God we would like to believe in exists, would it still be imperative upon us to worship him? Because it seems to me to be more than a little self-gratifying to create a universe out of nothing and then expect the inhabitants of that universe to worship you (all this is reminiscent of Sim City or the Sims) – as if God has an ego to satisfy. Why wouldn’t God be happy if we just went on with our own lives, living blissfully and happily?

We also hear claims about how all religions are the same:

It is a matter of choosing what type of religion you wish to follow (that fits you best) to feel or be closer to God. After all, not everyone has the same taste. It is true that you can only believe in one religion at one time, but they all convey the same message.

I bear no ill will, but it is more than slightly naive to presume that all religions are the same. Besides the obvious common ground that all ‘religions’ have a supreme, divine leader at the top (it’s in the definition, so that ‘common ground’ isn’t really much to brag about anyway), the nature of the religions and the methodologies of worship within different religions differ vastly. The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may have some common ground, but any common ground found there is almost wholly due to the fact that those religions emerged from the same region, and the fact that their holy texts and scriptures are largely based off each other’s anyway. However, when two geographically separated groups worship a higher being, they often do it in extremely different ways. For example, I wouldn’t exactly consider the Trinitarian doctrine of Christianity (the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost) to be analogous to African rain-gods or the Shinto god Amaterasu. If all religions were the same, and the purpose of religion would merely be to worship God, why don’t we just cook up our own religions, like Keefism or Nazzefism (I was tempted to write Nazism). Wouldn’t God be happy if  we just worshipped him in our own, personal ways? Apparently not- Shi’a Islam is outlawed in Malaysia, and a well-meaning old man whose worship somehow necessitates teapots is forced into exile in Southern Thailand. Freedom of religion isn’t exactly as thriving as we’d like to think. For example, if you tried to leave Islam, the punishment for the apostasy would probably be death (correct me if I’m wrong). This isn’t meant to be harsh, but chances are, you aren’t a Muslim “because it suits you best”, but instead it is because you were born into a Muslim family, in Malaysia where conversion isn’t allowed. If you were born in the American Deep South you’d probably be saying the same thing about Jesus, much the same way that if you were born into a Hindu family you’d be saying the same thing about Shiva and Brahma, or if you were born in Viking Scandinavia you’d be saying the same about Odin.

Moreover, the differences in worship between religions aren’t exactly benign ones either, because they often result in misery, fear and conflict when two differing religions meet. At this point I have to clarify something. While it is true that some conflicts do not happen exclusively because of religion, it is even more true to say that many conflicts happen entirely because of religion. Prime examples of belligerents and their respective conflicts would include Jews and Muslims in the Israel- Palestine conflicts, Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats in the Bosnian War, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and closer to home, the killing of minorities from the Ahmadiyyah sect in Indonesia. In Pakistan, within two months, Shahbaz Bahti, Pakistan’s only Christian minister, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were publicly assassinated for their opposition towards a proposed blasphemy law. It wouldn’t be so bad if the killings were publicly condemned; instead, the murderers became public heroes cheered in the streets of Pakistan.

If there really were a beneficent God, why would he make so much suffering necessary in worshipping Him? All this pointless suffering, fear, and death could be averted- if God made only one form of worship possible, in other words, only one religion. But the problem here would then be the problem we see today, religions and sects clambering to claim position as the ‘true’ religion.

From here the best way out is clear- instead of one religion, have none. There will no longer be a war over divine legitimacy, and neither will there be religious zealots strapped with bombs to their back claiming to do God’s work, under the divine instruction of His representatives on Earth.

But ah, all this evil is a result of Man, and not God:

A religion is there to provide faith and hope and something for mankind to aspire to. To do good. Although i must admit, most people use the teachings of any religion for their own benefit which often resulted to violence. That is the weakness of Man, and the very reason why we need faith in God even more.

The problem with this claim is that it is tautological: everything that comes from God is defined to be good, and hence everything that is bad has to come from another actor (i.e Man in this scenario). The problem with this is that it is particularly hard to look at everything that happens in this world, separate the good and bad bits, and then nicely label them as “caused by Man” and “caused by God”. Whenever a  natural disaster, like a tsunami that kills millions of people in Indonesia, or an earthquake that wrecks hundreds of thousands of homes in Haiti happens, religious people are quick to interpret it as “God is angry because mankind hasn’t been behaving himself”. Almost no one interprets a natural disaster as “God was bored and just wanted to have some fun. Religions, or at least the ones which teach the doctrine of original sin, give divine entities far too much credit for the good that exists in the world, and give man far too little. Values like empathy, respect and love can very well thrive in non-theistic societies, such as Confucian China, or Shinto Japan. (I also hope that I, as a personal example, show that atheists too, can lead fulfilled, happy lives)

Here, while I am still addressing the claim of “religion can help us behave better”, I must introduce something I call “Hitchens’ Wager” (mentioned by Christopher Hitchens in many interviews and debates): name me a single act of good that a religious person can perform, that a non-religious person cannot. I daresay that there is only one answer (hint, it starts with ‘n’ and ends with ‘othing’).

Now we reach the final part of the comment, which is also one of my favourites, Pascal’s Wager:

Joel told me this the other day, “wouldnt it be easier to believe in God, die, and realize that there is a God, then to not believe in God, die, and realizing that there is in fact a God?”

This ‘argument ‘ can also be rephrased as such: “What if you’re wrong that God doesn’t exist? You’d burn in hell, so why not play it safe and just believe? (Oh, and by the way, when hell burns, its forever.)” Some analysis will show that this argument is essentially a mathematical one: the odds are better if you bet on God, than if you don’t. The plain and simple response is that the odds of choosing the right God are horribly small. (I’ve made this argument in a comment on the previous post, but I’ll repeat it here.)

Presuming that

1. There are infinitely many past, present and future Gods (I hope I’ve named enough at this point)

2. All these gods have an equal chance of being the right God (the one that really exists)

3. You can only believe in one God at a time

Simple probability will show you that the chances of a person believing in the right God will be (1 / Total number of gods) = ( 1 / infinity), which more or less equals to zero.

To quote Dawkins, What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong, and the God that we meet after death is Zeus, or Apollo, or the African Juju At The Bottom of The Lake? I doubt that he’d be pleased.

However, the second, and equally important response to Pascal’s Wager (or God’s Veiled Threat), is this- a reasonable, fair and just God would reward the honest search for the truth rather than a false belief in him. As the way things are, God has made me in a way so that I cannot believe. I could lie through my teeth and say that I believe in Him, but it would be an excruciatingly painful, but more importantly, thin, lie- a lie that God would have no problem seeing through. A famous British philosopher, Bertrand Russell famously said, when faced with the question: “What will you do if you die, and meet God in the afterlife?’, to which he famously replied, “But sir, there was not enough evidence!” I would think that a reasonable God would prefer truth over lies, and honesty over falsehood. And honestly, there just isn’t enough evidence. If God wants to punish me for my honest quest for the truth, I’d gladly burn in the deepest circle of hell.

To which I would like to conclude with a counter-wager to Nazzeef and Joel, the Atheist’s Wager:

You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in god. If there is no god, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent god, he will judge you on your merits and not just on whether or not you believed in him.

Contrary to popular belief, not being religious does not mean that I do not try to live a moral and responsible life to the best of my abilities; it just means that I spend less time worshipping an invisible, unknowable deity, and more time understanding the full capabilities of Man’s capacity for good, and also more time trying to expand that capacity. Living without faith in God does not mean that I live a life without hope, it means that I believe in the goodness of real, living people, and not the deeds of prophets who lived in an age forever removed from our own. Being a secular humanist enables me to look past things that divide us like religion, and it allows me to identify the basic ground that unites all of us- our humanity.

This, is precisely why I do not believe.

Journal Entry #6- Truth

Jonathan made an eloquent and much needed attack on one epistemologically disturbing trend which sorely needs to be addressed. To quote him:

It is a commonly held perception in civilized society that we are required to respect the opinions of others, regardless of how absurd and nonsensical they are.

The human mind may be well-trained and naturally inclined to handle pleasure and pain, but I thoroughly believe that its faculties are flawed when it comes to truth. This relates to the important, main point of this week’s journal: that which is desirable is not necessarily true.

There are some things which just aren’t true, even if the truth may be hard to swallow.

To be completely honest, I’m not the most passionate advocate of the existence of objective, absolute truth (debating has that curious effect on you), but I am pretty convinced that ones personal tendencies, wishes, and desires, even in a collective group, can do nothing to affect objective truth (assuming that it exists).

An example most of us can relate to would be the existence of imaginary friends. Most of us, at some point in our childhood, talked to things which weren’t really there- imaginary people, soft toys, blankets (my blanket was named Cousin Blanky- I originally wanted to name it Blanky, but my brother claimed the copyrights to that name before me) and other similar, inanimate objects. In retrospect we laugh at how silly it all was, and we can all unanimously agree that those imaginary friends we had never quite existed, and all the soft toys we gave names to have been, and and still are, lifeless combinations of cloth and stuffing.

However, it is easy to forget that at those very moments in our childhood, when we were seven or eight or nine or ten, there was no doubt, in our hearts, that these things were real. Our happiness and sadness was so closely intertwined with our imaginary friends to the point that the mere conception that all of it was untrue was impossible- we simply refused to believe it. We told the truth the same way a wide-eyed child would tell the truth: these things existed, and they meant the world to us.  But did our sincerity have any effect on what actually existed, and what didn’t? No.

It is absolutely possible for people, in fact, billions of people, to believe a lie just because it is a lie which makes us happy- a lie that tells us that everything is going to be alright, that the future is nicely planned out ahead of us like a rolling mat which unfurls with our every footstep. But the fact that all this is pleasurable doesn’t change the fact that all this is still what it actually could be : a lie.

This is something that we need to seriously think about: do we still need to be childish in our thoughts, and protect ourselves with our wishes and fantasies; or do we want to be adults, and deal with the world as it really is?

Journal Entry #5- Sex

I have never been able to comprehend Government’s (or any third party, in any case) obessession with a citizen’s private use of his / her sexual organs. It consistently bewilders me how the state sees it within its ambit to criminalize acts such as oral sex and sodomy as punishable crimes even if said acts are committed with a consenting party.

I specifically refer to laws such as Section 377A of the Penal Code in Malaysia, (no pun intended with ‘penal’) in which , ‘any person who has sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person is said to commit carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The definition of the offence intuitively, brings forth two questions:

1. Why is ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ worth prosecuting, and

2. Even if it were worth prosecuting, which things are ‘against the order of nature’, and which things aren’t?

To address the first question, the only possible reason I can imagine that a Government can use as an excuse are the ‘potential harms’ of carnal intercourse. Which doesn’t quite add up because firstly, carnal intercouse isn’t dangerous- or at least not significantly more dangerous than regular sex, which probably has all the potential harms that carnal intercourse could bring. Secondly I’d say that granted that Government already legalizes personal lifestyle choices like smoking, which not only harms yourself but also others, it’s a huge contradiction to ban carnal intercourse.

With all that said, I find the second question even more damaging to the whole question of prosecuting ‘carnal intercourse’- what on earth is ‘natural’ and what isn’t? If ‘carnal intercourse’ is unnatural, then things like clothes, medicine and law would all be similarly ‘unnatural’ and should be discarded. Secondly, if it really were ‘unnatural’, then why would we be doing it in the first place? Paradigms and values shift with time, and the last thing we need for a healthy societal concept of sex is the Platonfication of it- that there is only one ‘pure’ form of sex out there, and that we should adhere to it the best we can. Sex, like everything else, evolves and changes, mostly for the better. Embracing and understanding those changes would be a better use of our time.

With that cleared, my criticism of sex is not limited to Government- it is also specifically directed at you and I. Chances are that most of us indulge in sexual bigotry- we gasp and squeal when sex scandals appear in the newspaper, we gossip when people sleep with each other, and we just generally hold a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude regarding sex. We are prudish and bigoted, but most of all, we judge for no good reason. I could sympathize with Datuk Dr. Chua Soi Lek when he maintained that Malaysians behaved ‘holier than thou’ when news of his sex scandal broke. The fact that he has extramarital sex was probably wrong- but only wrong in the limited sense that he betrayed the trust of his wife, or his children, and not in the public sense that all of a sudden all his credit and effort as Health Minister would warrant being cancelled out.

My stance is clear. Sex is a completely personal and private act between two parties in which few other people have a right to fuss about. Furthermore, the prosecution of sex also has no place in modern jurisprudence. Sex is an integral part of our life, and the least we can do is to think about it more maturely.