Moncure Daniel Conway: a Very Unusual Virginian

Address given at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church on 4 October 2015.

Moncure Daniel Conway came from Virginia, where his early years were privileged and orthodox. He was born on 17 March 1832, on a plantation near Falmouth in rural Stafford County, where his father, Walker Peyton Conway, was a local planter and judge. His mother, Margaret Daniel Conway, was the granddaughter of a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. The family were devout Methodists. According to Conway's biographer, John d'Entremont, the atmosphere that would have surrounded the young Moncure would have been "patriarchal values, unquestioned devotion to slavery and white supremacy, and a world view that set politics and power above artistic and intellectual pursuits".

As Moncure Conway wrote years later, "Destiny had lavished on my lot everything but freedom."

The patriarchal values did not, however, apply to his female relatives. Two paternal aunts, his sister and a cousin were opposed to slavery, and so was his mother, who was also critical of Southern patriarchy generally. She encouraged him to read widely, despite his father's disapproval of fiction. She was also a practitioner of homoeopathy, and took Moncure with her on her rounds. John d'Entremont says that "Moncure spent more time with his mother; the central lessons he drew from her and other female relatives were the legitimacy of the self, the importance of reconciliation, the value of intellectual endeavor, and the immorality of arbitrary power."

Reductionism and Emergence

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, October 4, 2015

Reduction is an analytical process, identifying the parts of something and examining their relationships to each other and to the whole thing in order to explain the thing’s characteristics.

But when someone puts forward an argument that sounds clear and logical, you may occasionally hear it dismissed with the words "that is just reductionist." The word reductionist is used in such cases to imply that the argument is unduly simplified or distorts the issue. And reductionist thinking, it is implied, leaves out something essential, perhaps some romantic or supernatural element. Reductionist thinking is integral to science. So doubt is sometimes cast on science because it is reductionist.

Another criticism of reductionist science is that it is not holistic: it deals with individual aspects of the world but ignores the overall unity. I agree that reductionist science looks at individual parts of the world, and that it looks only at identifiable evidence. But I think that reductionist science indeed deals with the whole, however large or small we might take the whole to be in any particular case.

What is Right?

What is ‘good’? What is ‘right’? How should human beings behave toward others? These questions are not just the stuff of religion. Indeed, they belong most properly to the realm of ethics, and Humanism is, at the very least, concerned with ethics and ethical conduct. However, is it at all possible to speak meaningfully of anything being ‘good’ or ‘right’ in a post-postmodern world?

A Modern Reconstruction of Buddhist Karma

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, September 6, 2015


This address comes with a number of caveats. I do not consider myself a Buddhist, although I have been an interested observer for some decades, and have skirted on the edges of being involved in the "three jewels" of community (sangha), the teachings (dharma), and hopefully the practise (Buddha). Personally I also have very fond memories of the pilgrimage my housemate and I took in 1996 to the Woolongong Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. This pilgrimage included spending a night in a ditch on the road to Gundagai, meeting a self-identified friendly elf, a mind-reading radio engineer, and spending some time with an electronic music collective and an IT company named the "The Evil Brotherhood of Mutants, Inc" in a mafia-owned warehouse. Perhaps one day this very strange and wonderful journey may one day be an address in its own right. Alas, time will not permit an elaboration today.

Living Mindfully is the Answer to the Absurd

‘If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn't matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.’--Thomas Nagel.

Life is absurd---and I will hear nothing to the contrary.

Submission of the Cultural Diversity Review of the Australian Bureau of Statistics

Status of the Submission

The following is a response to an invitation to participate in the Cultural Diversity Review by providing information on possible improvements by the Australian Bureau of Statistics standards and classifications.

This submission follows previous correspondence with the Australian Bureau of Statistics in August 2012 concerning the classification of Unitarians (and Unitarian-Universalists) under Christian (Other) in document 1266.0 - Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups, 2011. The content of this submission is substantially the same as that correspondence.

The Philosophy of Computation and Computers

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, Sunday August 2nd

1.0 Definition and Types of Computation
1.1 Computation is defined here as any type of calculation and is the foundation of the discipline of computer science. Computer science includes the theory of computation, data structures, programming languages, computer architecture, networks, databases etc. The application of computer science technologies has utterly changed our social life and access to knowledge in an extraordinary manner leading to a global computerised society and with hypothetical explorations on the computation aspects of mind, the possibility of transformation of the human species, and even speculations that the universe itself is computational model.

1.2 Pure computation also has approaches which can be distinguished as (a) digital versus analogue, (b) sequential versus parallel (versus concurrent (c) batch versus interactive (providing feedback as the program completes instances of computation), which can be combined in practise (e.g., analogue parallel interative computation, such as The MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) created in 1949).

1.3 A function is a set of input-output pairs that performs a specific task; it can be embodied as a named section of a program as a procedure or routine. They encapsulate a task with input and output parameters. A function can be described as a formula, and can be considered computable is there is an algorithm (from Al-Khuwarizmi, an Arab mathematician, ca. 780-850 CE) that computes the function. Programmers often use "procedural forgetfulness" when writing functions once written.

1.4 Bill Rapaport, who holds a rare position of a "philosopher of computing" noted four Great Insights of Computer Science (2013)

Albert Camus on Living For This Present Moment

Ever since studying French in college some 45 or more years ago I have loved the works of Albert Camus and, in particular, his 1942 novel L’Etranger (The Stranger/The Outsider).

There is a philosophical tension in Camus’ philosophy of life. On the one hand, life is absurd, irrational, futile, and manifestly unjust, but on the other hand we are rational beings—at least in potentiality—and therefore not absurd. Additionally, it is possible for us to be happy even in a world of tragedy, irrationality, manifest injustice, and suffering.

Enlightenment Without the Bullshit

I have a great interest in Zen. Now, Zen is not a religion or belief-system of any kind nor is it a philosophy as such. It is a way and view of life. The practitioner of Zen seeks to attain enlightenment---I’ll have more to say about that shortly---through a direct and intuitive insight. Zen is difficult for Westerners to understand as it does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. Now, what is enlightenment---without the bullshit?

Dealing with Major Depression: Managing Malignant Sadness

(Talk given to the Existentialist Society, Melbourne, on 2 June 2015.)

This talk is a revised and expanded version of one I gave in January 2013 to the Melbourne Unitarian Church; and that in turn was based on an article I first wrote in 2003.

Please note that I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but just someone whose life has been profoundly affected by depression. So although I know a fair amount about my own depression, this does not mean that I can speak with authority about other people's depression. Indeed, my experiences have taught me that, where depression is concerned, what is right or wrong for one person may be wrong or right for another.


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