Friday, October 17, 2014

A few thoughts after watching a Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck discussion involving Islam, and how the Liberals in the West should be more inclined to criticize the human rights violations inherent in certain political ideas practiced by Islamic states.This discussion took place on Bill Maher’s show in early October (I’m not sure of exact date and time)

This discussion can be seen on YouTube, and it is a painful thing to watch, because the irrationality of Mr. Affleck goes beyond anything I have ever had the misfortune to witness. Affleck appears to have had no idea of, or any desire to understand, what Maher and Harris were arguing, and his constant jumping in and interrupting with irrelevant, angry statements made this very clear throughout the entire ten minute segment.

Incidentally, almost all of the subsequent comments by the “talking heads” on this pathetic performance also missed the essence of the Harris-Maher argument. I believe their main point was simply the following: a great many of the ideas of mainstream Islam, as represented by Sharia Law, are bad, and lead to blatant violations of basic human rights.

Their point was not so much that, as so many talking heads argued, more prominent muslims should condemn the violence associated with “radical islam”, jihad, or “extremist islam”, although surely a reasoned argument could be made along those lines. It is just that that was not the main point Maher and Harris were making.

Affleck, showing painful ignorance, came back at Harris early in the discussion with accusations of “bigotry” and  “racism”. Ludicrous, since Islam is a religion, and its practice is not limited to a “race” of people (muslims are not a race, they are a religious group consisting of many ethnicities). Apparently Affleck may be OK with Sharia Law, which for example prescribes execution to anyone daring to leave the faith of Islam, or to anyone found to be gay, or to a woman that has committed adultery. The treatment of women generally under Sharia Law is unfair to an unbelievable extent. Harris is claiming that there is, in the West, a prevalent, misguided “multi-culturalism”, leading many self-styled “liberals” to fail to denounce such evil concepts, and this failure enables such ridiculous laws to persist in many nations dominated by Islamic people (indeed, many are theocracies, and so “Sharia Law” often has the force of that countries’ government behind it).

At one point in the discussion, Maher stated something like “Islam is the only religion in the world where if you try to leave it, they f__ing kill you”. Mr. Affleck did not address this comment.

Here is how the United Nations has addressed the issue of punishment for leaving ones religion, according to Wikipedia:
“Laws prohibiting religious conversion run contrary to Article 18 of the United Nations’ 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, which states the following:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Islamic nations have criticized the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a non-Muslim world's attempt to impose their values on Islamic people, and presumption of cultural superiority.”

Cultural superiority? No, it’s moral superiority. This is Harris’s point, I believe. By objective standards, Sharia Law violates human rights at a level that is above any particular governments or cultures domain of law. Attitudes of some Western liberals appear to be, “Well, this is what they believe. Who are we to condemn or even criticize their practices?”  The fact is, we must condemn them, because such practices as implicit in Sharia law are in fact evil by any objective standard.

The precept of innate and universal human rights is well stated by this passage in the US “Declaration of Independence”:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.“

Seemingly unable to understand that one can criticize Islam and Islamic theocracies while not wishing physical harm to any of the followers of that religion or citizens of such states, Affleck blurted out something indicating that he thinks that Sam Harris and Bill Maher want to wage war and kill Muslims. My goodness, how could anyone possibly infer that from their arguments? Well, I guess it would be easy to explain how; namely, if one were not listening to the arguments of the other side, and had perhaps decided ahead of time what their positions were going to be. 

The point of this blog post is not such much to heap scorn on Mr. Affleck, though there is something to be said for that since these days the American public seems to accord too much credence to the banal political pronouncements of attractive film stars, as perhaps typified by Mr. Affleck. The point I would like to emphasize is the point I think Harris and Maher were making, that “liberals” in our country and Europe should, whenever the opportunity arises, point out the inherent badness of governments founded on such principles as Sharia Law.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

My take on Cognitive Dualism

Understand that this may not be exactly what philosopher Roger Scruton meant in his essay on Cognitive Dualism. What I write here is my interpretation of his idea.

I have always been mystified by the concept of free will. Even though I am firmly convinced that all conscious beings (well, at least humans) have free will, I have never been able to see any way that we can have it, in view of two highly convincing arguments for determinism (that may in some sense be the same):
  • Type 1, According to which all motions in the universe are determined by the laws of physics. In this view, the atoms in any brain are determined in a self consistent manner with all the other matter and energy in the universe. There is no room for free will in this mechanistic picture. Not surprisingly, this version of determinism seems to be prominent among physicists.
  • Type 2, Which would determine animal behavior even if Type 1 can be gotten around (which I think it can). This corresponds to the complete determination of a person’s actions, behavior and thoughts by a combination of that person’s genetic makeup (“hardware”) and the persons experiences after birth (and the memories of those experiences). Hence there is no room for free will in this picture. This version of determinism seems to often be held by those in the social sciences.
It would seem to me that it is hard to escape the conclusion that a person’s actions are entirely determined by Type 2 (I tend to think that Quantum Mechanics (QM), which implies that causeless transitions and motions occur, undermines, and allows an escape from, Type 1 determinism).

But this leaves a troublesome inconsistency. What role would reason and consciousness play in deciding what course of action to take? It seems that a reason for an action is redundant if genes/experience would determine what one would do. It is like an “overdetermined” quantity in mathematics.

We humans are seemingly “programmed” to look for causes of all actions and motions. If I understand Kant in his “Critique of Pure Reason”, he maintains that the idea of cause and effect is built into the human brain. That things have causes is, in a sense, an axiom within the human brain.

But what if not all phenomena have physical causes? As I mentioned, QM suggests that causeless transitions occur, for example the causeless dropping down of an electron in an excited atom to a lower energy state, giving off a photon of light. Of course, there is a cause of the transition in the sense that the electromagnetic interactions is responsible for the transition, it is just that there is no reason why the electron “decided” to make the transition at a given time. It is a statistical thing, just as it is with the familiar idea of radioactive decay and the half life concept.

Another physics consideration: in QM, a photon can manifest either wave or particle aspects, depending on the context of it’s interaction with a given experiment or observation. So we have an example of a hard science being content with two incommensurate models of a physical entity.

OK, perhaps by analogy we could argue that there are two incommensurate ways of looking at the world:

View 1: Cause and effect, the mechanism of physics, the complete determinism of inanimate objects and energy. In this view, animals are collections of atoms all obeying laws of physics, and there is no room for free will. In particular, consciousness itself is a deep mystery__unless as many physicists do, it is argued that a machine of a threshold complexity can lead to the emergence of consciousness. A big problem here is that this latter idea is untestable, since consciousness is subjective, and only resides inside the mind of a given person. It cannot be objectively accessed by methods of science.

View 2: Free will, consciousness, and reason are an entirely distinct picture of the nature of human life (maybe to some extent, animal life also). In this view, some actions of conscious entities are not caused by physics mechanisms. This perspective is separate and obviously incompatible with view 1. Free Will would simply involve the “causing” of an action by the concomitant effects of reason and consciousness on the part of a being. (Of course, no doubt many actions, perhaps the majority of them, are in practice not undertaken because of reasoning, but are undertaken rashly or impulsively without much thought being involved. Perhaps such actions fall under the category of Type 2 determinism.)

Yes, it might seems that the two views have to be relatable, or reconcilable,  in order to make sense to us beings “trapped” in a realm where all things seem to be caused. But, taking the cue from the aforementioned photon’s dualistic nature in QM, isn’t it plausible that the two views must simply co-exist, in full recognition of their incommensurate nature? 

To explore a little further the implications of this cognitive dualism model: Consciousness is not caused by any physical mechanism, but simply is. A conscious being can choose, through its free will, to use, or not use, reasoning processes to decide what to do. 

The physical world, in the absence of any conscious beings within it, is purely, strictly, deterministic. Many process that would occur are chaotic and hence “unpredictable”, but are still deterministic (a coin toss is chaotic, and hence unpredictable, but no one can doubt that the dynamics of the coin is absolutely determined by Newton’s laws). The cosmologist Andre Linde has pointed out that the Schrodinger equation for the entire Universe does not depend on time, but that this changes when conscious beings enter the picture. Novelty in the universe thus requires the decisions of conscious beings.

Bertrand Russell’s phrase in “A Free Man’s Worship” (which has had a very great effect on me all of my life) that we are “accidental collocations of atoms”, is thus dubious, since there are no accidents in a strictly physics-determined universe. Time and chance in such a universe are superfluous concepts.

But what qualifies as a conscious being? Is an amoeba or a slug a conscious being? I doubt it. There must be a threshold degree of consciousness, in some sense, in order for novelty to emerge.
(to be continued)