No Alternative

The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin is yet another blow to the freedom of expression by the religious radicals and fundamentalists who take offence at the drop of a hat. The instances of such attacks — started in 1989 when the Indian government banned Satanic Verses — have increased dramatically in recent years, and the offence-mongers’ purview has expanded from books to movies, artists, and even celebrities. This is not surprising. When a society obliges to a culture of mutual intolerance by capitulating to those who are easily offended, it results into an if-them-then-why-not-us race, with every faction of society vying appeasement for their injured self-esteem.

the hindusI read this book back in 2009. Although the size and scope of this epic was prohibitive (with more than 700 pages), I found Doniger’s vantage refreshing and thought-provoking. The book offers an alternative history of the Hindu religion, looking through the prism of scriptures and tales, zooming into the role of women, members of the lower caste, and animals. It’s a story about the alternative people and characters. Her rationale is to provide an auxiliary viewpoint to show that the so-called marginalized groups (women and Pariahs) actually did have substantial contribution to the development of Hindu tradition. The book is a “celebration of diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus “.

By renouncing such scholarly work, the Hindu radicals are not only attacking the liberal values of our society, but (ironically) also weakening the pluralistic nature of Hindu tradition. It doesn’t surprise me that this regressive act is braced by the right-wing Hindus that are often politically motivated. What troubles me more is the passive support from the moderates. “Yes, I believe in freedom of speech as well, but we have to draw the line somewhere”, “We need to be careful about hurting other (religious) people’s sentiments”, “No one gets away with an offensive book about Muslims, then why shouldn’t we protect Hindu sentiments as well?” are some common responses to this controversy by the religious moderates. It’s dismaying to see a rather large section of the Indian society supporting (however passively), and hence fortifying, the spirits of offence-mongers.

A culture with no space for alternative interpretations and ideas is a culture of putrid orthodoxy. We must not succumb to these regressive forces that are destructive to an open society. 

Ant Zombie

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similarly manipulative parasites infect fish, and mice, among other species. These hitchhikers cause their hosts to behave in unlikely—even suicidal—ways, all for the benefit of the guest, not the host.

800px-A_Formica_rufa_sideview

Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains. The Arabic word islam means “submission,” and every good Muslim bears witness, prays five times a day, gives alms, fasts during Ramadan, and tries to make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca, all on behalf of an idea of Allah […]. Christians and Jews do likewise, of course, devoting their lives to spreading the Word, making huge sacrifices, suffering bravely, risking their lives for an idea. So do Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists. And don’t forget the many thousands of secular humanists who have given their lives to Democracy, or Justice, or just plain Truth. There are many ideas to die for.

[…]

The comparison of the Word of God to a lancet fluke is unsettling, but the idea of comparing an idea to a living thing is not new. I have a page of music, written in parchment in the mid-sixteenth century []. The text (in Latin) recounts the moral of the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13): Semen est verbum Dei; sator autem Christus. The Word of of God is a seed, and the sower of the seed is Christ. These seeds take roots in individual human beings, it seems, and get those human beings to spread them, far and wide (and in return, the human hosts get eternal life — eum qui audit manebit in sternum.)

Excerpt from the opening chapter of Breaking the Spell.

Here’s the link to a post I wrote about this book. Read more about lancet fluke here, and watch a video about their parasitic mind control on this link.

[Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]

The Watchmaker Argument

One of the most popular arguments in support of God’s existence is what’s called the watchmaker argument: the world is so complex and refined that there must be a designer. Without an intelligent designer, the existence of such an intricately beautiful world is impossible. This theological argument – that design implies designer – is attributed to Paley, and I’ve heard several versions of this improbability argument during religious discourses over the years. Daniel Dennett calls it one of the oldest ideas known:

[T]he idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call it the trickle-down theory of creationism. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter.

Richard Dawkins refers to another metaphor (attributed to Hoyle) in his book The God Delusion:

[T]he probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. […] The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory.

This is indeed a strong argument. The biological complexity and diversity of life on Earth seem to, quite logically, require an intelligent designer; it all just can’t happen by chance alone.

However, when analyzed throughly, the argument can be shown to have a circular logic, and instead of proving the necessity (and hence, existence) of an intelligent designer, it works in the opposite direction. The self-refuting idea of ‘an intelligent designer responsible for design’ doesn’t solve the problem, it just passes the baton, and raises another question.

Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable [as a universe] would have to be even more improbable than [the universe itself]. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

The improbability argument states that the universe is too complex, ergo there must be a God. But then God himself/herself/itself must be even more complex than the universe. Who created God? You can easily see how this can spiral out to an endless regress. The only way you can get out of it is by saying something like ‘No one created God.’ But then why not make the same argument for the universe itself?

What is the solution then, to this problem of improbability? Well, to understand the solution, the first roadblock that needs to be cleared off is the wrong assumption that chance is the only possible alternative to intelligent design.

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean that it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine an alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. […]

Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.

Understanding Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection removes the necessity of an intelligent designer. And God suddenly finds himself left with fewer things to do than before. What shouldn’t be surprising here is that science has consistently done this over the years: shrinking God’s circle of influence. We have come long way from superstitious mythologies —  draughts are caused by angry gods etc. — to the current understanding of the universe that leaves fewer things left for God. This, of course, is a continual process. One of the things that makes science awesome is its denial to admit that we’ve reached a final, ultimate, unchangeable truth. (All scientific truth is provisional.) However, this doesn’t stop the theists to proclaim that science does not have all the answers.

Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians […] is that the gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.

Jerry Coyne hits the nail on the head:

Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It’s not – it’s a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an ‘I dunno’ dressed up in spirituality and ritual. If someone credits something to God, generally what it means is that they don’t have a clue, they’re attributing it to an unreachable, unknowable sky-fairy. As for an explanation of where that bloke came from, and odds are you’ll get a vague, pseudo-philosophical reply about having always existed, or being outside nature. Which, of course, explains nothing.

On that note, here’s a hilarious comic by Jesus and Mo.

[The quotes are from Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. Emphases are mine. Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

The Importance of Pedigree

Consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose there is an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s experience?

This, obviously, is a rhetorical question. And I would assume that for most people answer is a curt “No”. We think that actually playing a game is somehow superior to a mere (stimulated) experience of playing a game; even if the brain attached to electrodes can’t tell the difference. Doing something is better than the experience of doing. We just don’t want to experience things, we want to do thing and be someone.

Here’s another scenario: Person A mistakenly believes that his favorite team won the game last night, and person B correctly believes that his favorite team won. [Assume that there are no consequences of the mistaken belief.] Even if there is no difference in their subjective degrees of happiness, if you had to choose between the two, you would choose to be person B. In terms of well-being of a person, the illusion-based happiness is perceived inferior to the fact-based happiness. You don’t want to rejoice for your home-team just for the sake of being happy. You want your home-team to have actually won as well. Otherwise, it’s just not the same. (Again, even if there’s no subjective difference in what we feel from the inside.)

“Happiness, at least if it is understood to correspond to well-being, turns out not to be all in the head”, writes Leo Katz in his intriguing book Ill-gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law, from which these scenarios are taken. He quotes an Oxford philosopher to elaborate more on this:

I prefer, in important matters of my life, bitter truth to comfortable illusion. Even if I were surrounded by consummate actors able to give me sweet simulacra of love and affection, I should prefer the relatively bitter diet of their authentic reactions. And I should prefer it not because it would be morally better, or more noble, but because it would make for a better life for me to live.

… because it would make for a better life for me to live. Touché!

The pedigree of experience matters – that’s the lesson from these thought experiments. But alas, when it comes to the belief in God, the majority of us seem to prefer the comfortable illusion — there’s an after-life, God is watching and helping us etc. — to the bitter truth that there’s no God, and we are on our own.

Knowledge versus Belief

I consider myself an atheist as well as an agnostic. And whenever I mention that to someone, I get a puzzled or disapproving look. (See this comment on one of my previous posts: Religion, Culture and Mr Hitchens.)

Many perceive agnosticism as the middle way between atheism and theism. And people who consider themselves agnostics with that definition in mind seem to feel that both atheism and theism positions are dogmatic. “How can someone be 100% certain that God exists (or does not exist)?”, they ask. From this POV, atheists seem to be making the same mistake as theists (cocksure certitude about an un-provable hypothesis), and agnosticism sounds like a reasonable, open-minded and rational position to take.

This is a flawed understanding of what agnosticism (and atheism) is about. Let’s start with the etymology. The word agnostic comes from the Greek word ‘gnōsis’ which means knowledge. And atheism comes from ‘theo’ which means god. So while agnosticism is about the lack of knowledge about God’s existence, atheism is about the lack of belief in God. They both operate in different paradigms:

In the diagram above,

A = An agnostic theist who does not claim to know for sure whether God exists, but he choose to believe in God anyways.

B = An agnostic atheist who does not believe in God and also thinks that the existence of such entity cannot be known for sure. (This is where I belong. I think the absence of evidence does make God improbable, but not impossible. I do not claim to know for sure that God does not exist. But I think God’s existence is very unlikely.)

C = A gnostic atheist who claims to know for sure that such entity does not exist, and (hence) does not believe in God. This is an unreasonable position – and perhaps very few atheists belong to this category. Atheists usually believe in science and reason, and recognize that all scientific truths are provisional. (“I believe x.” does not mean “I can prove x.”, but “It would be unreasonable to doubt x.” See my earlier post Science Never Proves Anything for more details on this.)

D = A gnostic theist who claims to know that God exists, and (hence) believes in God. I think most theists probably belong in this category, because they are usually pretty sure that their belief is reasonable and justifiable with “evidence”.

So there. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. Also, while some of the above positions are logically more coherent (and hence more prevalent) than others, theoretically, one can belong to any of those four quadrants. I belong to the agnostic atheist quadrant. Where do you belong?

The Moral Landscape

About a year ago, I posted an audacious TED video by Sam Harris in which he argued that science can play a role in understanding and defining morality. This was a retort to the widely held belief that science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be — that you can’t derive ought from is. Now Mr. Harris has published a book on this subject: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which I just finished reading. Unlike his earlier books he is treading uncharted territories this time, but the book does live up to the standards set by his earlier work (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.)

Harris’ core argument is this: Ultimately, the question of values and morality are really questions about human well-being. And the well-being of conscious creatures can be scientifically understood. Think neuroscience and neurophysiology which can observe and explain emotional impulses (happiness and suffering) in the brain as a result of outside stimulus (violence, mercy, co-operation etc.) By understanding how actions relate to impulses in the brain we can categorize those actions into two groups: actions that elevate human well-being, and those that hamper it.

We do have to assume, however, that improving the well-being of conscious creatures is intrinsically good. But once you make this assumption (which seems an obvious and reasonable one to make), science can step in and help us improve and maximize the human well-being.

This claim is a controversial one (especially among moral relativists). For centuries, science has busied itself in discovering empirical truths about nature, and stayed away from giving out opinions about values and morality — as if morality belonged to a realm beyond the reach of science. Those who believe that morality comes from religion have the biggest issues with this claim. If what Sam Harris proposes is right, this would increase the ever expanding sphere of science even further and there will be almost nothing left for religion to do. Philosophers like David Hume and Stephen Jay Gould have long argued that science and religion belong to two different and non-overlapping magisteria: science deals with discovering facts that help us understand the world, while religion deals with values and moralities. If, instead of Jesus and Lord Rama, we start looking up to science for  moral guidance, then wouldn’t that give a pink slip to religion? This fear seem to drive disagreements (with Harris)  in the religious circles.

The second, and more rational, critique comes from scientists and philosophers. The crux of their counter-argument is: how do you measure well-being? In order to improve something, we need a measurement scale. What’s the unit of well-being? To this, Harris responds with an example of health. There’s no specific metric in which we can define health. But that doesn’t stop us from using science to try to improve health. There might be various different ways (as opposed to one objective and universal way) to improve health, but that doesn’t stop us from saying that there are answers to the question related to health. Similarly, there might be several peaks of well-being on the moral landscape – more than one ways to be happy – but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to define what those peaks are, and how we can attain by the means of science. There might be multiple answers to questions about morality (different people find happiness in different things) but not-having-an-objective-answer shouldn’t deter us from studying what those answers are and how they affect our well-being.

Whether one agrees with Harris’ stand or not, this book is a very interesting read; he does raise some very convincing points, arguing with such specificity, that make you think hard and deep. The book has already stirred a lot of intellectual discussions (see here, here and here); many don’t agree with him completely but they all concur that The Moral Landscape is quite a stimulating and novel idea.

Amazing Universe

Reminds me of a quote by the Nobel prize winner physicist Richard Feynman, who described himself as an avowed atheist: “I thought nature itself was so interesting that I didn’t want it distorted [by miracle stories]. And so I gradually came to disbelieve the whole religion.”

[The comic is from Calamities of Nature]

Does God Exist?

A friend posted this video on Facebook: Does God Exist?

A quick web search revealed that this is actually a TV campaign from the Republic of Macedonia. The campaign proposed to bring religion back to the schools.

First things first: I don’t think it is, but let’s just assume that the logic of this argument is correct. Then I don’t see any reason why the same logic can’t be applied to prove the existence of Evil too. One can argue that God is non-existent (like cold) and merely the absence of  Evil. And why just God? The same logic can be used to prove the non-existence of almost every opposing phenomena that tickle your fancy (like love and hate, honesty and treachery etc.)

This is bad logic at its best and “lying for Jesus” at its worst. Yes, lying. Because there’s no evidence that the renowned scientist had anything to do with this incident – if it ever happened. (Here’s a starter if you have a doubt.)

This is not the first time Einstein’s name is used by theists to profess their belief. The most famous and eagerly quoted remark is: “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind”. Yes, he did say that. But he also said the following:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Einstein was most likely a pantheist – and definitely not a theist. But cherry-picking his quotes and fabricating stories (like the one in the video above) to support their side of the argument is a tactic the theists have been using for a long time. No surprises there.

On the Infallibility of Holy Scriptures

I do not permit women to teach or have authority over men; she must be silent. 1 Timothy 2:12

Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.” Qu’ran 8:12

To become clean after killing an unchaste woman of any of the four classes, a man should give a Brahmin a leather bag (for killing a Brahmin woman), a bow (for killing a Kshatriya woman), a billy goat (for killing a Vaishya woman), or a sheep (for a Shudra woman). Manu’s Dharma-shastra 11.132, 137, 139

These are just few of the many examples found in the scriptures of various religions. Can someone, with a sane mind, seriously believe in the literal truth or derive morals from these verses? The scriptures are filled with such contradictory, ghastly and outright immoral statements. So how do one explain and believe in the veracity of the holy books?

Not surprisingly, the religious mind has found a way out. When a passage or verse in the scriptures doesn’t make sense any more (after genuine inquiry, or a scientific rebuttal, for instance), these moderate theologians would say “Oh, we don’t actually believe in its literal truth. It is symbolic. An allegory.” And beliefs such as “God made the universe in six days” or “Mohammed ascended bodily into heaven” are suddenly transformed into emblems of divinity. Other times, they would cling dearly to beliefs like “Jesus was born of a virgin” and “The human soul survives bodily death” because, although they defy common sense and logic, science hasn’t found any strong evidence to disprove them yet (or can never disprove them, given the nature of the belief or the times of its occurrence).

But such compromises (“It’s symbolic!”) or stubbornness (“Science hasn’t disproved this yet, so it must be true.”) conveniently ignore the fact that such scriptural claims were taken literally and believed firmly by our ancestors for centuries! So what makes them think that the religious beliefs that they hold so dearly today will stand the test of time (and science)?

What they can’t, or perhaps don’t want to, see is that science has been steadily reducing the sphere of religious beliefs and claims. It was science that showed us that the Earth is not the center of the universe (contrary what the Scriptures say). It was science that enlightened us with the amazing simplicity of evolution that explains the complexity of life on earth. It is generally accepted now that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old — not 6,000 years as the Bible claims (or, as Sam Harris wittily put it: “About 1,000 years after the Sumerians invented glue.”)

Yes, science has not yet explained everything, and one can argue whether science can explain everything. But only a duplicitous or disillusioned person will deny the fact that scientific discoveries, along with a raised conciseness of human beings over the centuries, has been consistently reducing the role of religion in our lives.

The progress in our moral instincts have taught us that we shouldn’t treat women as livestock or take slavery for granted (as the Bible often did). The abolition of slavery and emancipation of women owes everything to the changing moral zeitgeist, and nothing to the religious beliefs. We have moved on from the primordial laws of the scriptures that approved of – and even propagated – things like slavery, caste system, and polygamy.

Why don’t we realize and accept the fact that we have been adjusting and repudiating our religious beliefs to accommodate scientific discoveries and moral zeitgeist for centuries now? And if we do, then why not just stop this charade once and for all, and embrace rationalism (i.e. science)? Why can’t we shake off the religious dogmatism that’s obstructing our moral and rational progress?

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