Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good God

And the Lord spake unto the philosopher, "I'm the Lord thy God, and I'm the source of all that is good. Why does thy secular moral philosophy ignore me?"
And the philosopher spake unto the Lord, "To answer I must first ask you some questions. You command us to do what is good. But is it good because you command it or do you command it because it is good?"
"Ur," said the Lord. "It's good because I command it?"
"The wrong answer surely, your mightiness! If the good is only good because you say it is so, when you could, if you wished, make it so that torturing infants was good. But that would be absurd, wouldn't it?"
"Of course!", replieth the Lord. "I tested thee and thou hast made me pleased. What was the other choice again?"
"You choose that which is good because it is good. But that shows quite clearly that goodness does not depend on you at all. So we don't need to study God to study the good."
"Even so," spake the Lord, "you've got to admit I've written some pretty good textbooks on the subject...", (Source: Euthyphro by Plato)

This has been the age old debate - the role of religion in morality. And it somehow seems all the more fitting when in today's world morality is being blatantly violated in the name of religion. This chapter also questions one's faith and belief in a supernatural being - God. Being a very sensitive subject, I hope to not offend anyone with my views. This is my little disclaimer :).

My views on God and religion have been evolving for many years now and they continue to evolve and change with every passing year. I have also come to realize that some phenomena in the universe are beyond the comprehension and reasoning of my current state of mind, and I'm ignorant of how to train my mind sufficiently to stretch its limits of comprehension. Be that as it may, I gave a whole week to ruminate on this chapter; to collect my views, question them again and arrive at some conclusion.

In my view, religion is one form of judicial system to keep society in order. It holds the strength to be a robust form of judiciary, because the one who framed the laws is a supernatural power - God (or so it is claimed). One who is omnipresent and omnipotent, unlike us mortals who try to frame laws on morality. It's ironical that a principle which tries to keep society in order, now wreaks havoc. Morality derived out of religion is called the "Divine Command Theory". There are no questions, no confusions... the laws are in the scriptures.

God is our collective belief and faith of everything positive and good around us. A belief in a supernatural being who looks after us, who knows how and when to punish the bad and reward the good. In that sense, since we attribute every possible good attribute to God, God is a personification of everything Good...

When I was young I believed in an actual God sitting up on His throne and looking down at earthlings and engaging his messengers to ensure good wins over evil. I had no doubt that if someone did something wrong, they would be punished. As I grew up, I realized there is no such clear line between good and evil, and the good did not always win over the evil; especially if the Divine Command Theory were followed. What is good in the Hindu moral code is bad in another religion and vice versa. This confused me. This, in my opinion, is the reason why Religion cannot guarantee good; it enforces morality that is not absolute. As the universe comes together and populations and cultures get homogenized, we are in need of a moral code that is more absolute and objective. But, this is one part of the argument.

If there were no God associated with good, would that work? I have my doubts. I started with a spiritual/religious grounding that perhaps is at the bedrock of my decisions. There have been many many times when I have succumbed to disregarding my faith in God and the balance of good and evil... and it threw my world out of focus. There was no more any meaning to existence, to life and our decisions. It seemed to pluck away the meaning of Hope. I no longer understood why some babies were born blind and some healthy, why some "good" people were put through horrendous tortures while the "bad" thrived.  The explanation of randomness playing a role, did not appease me; it further confused me. I didn't understand why one had to do good if life was just a matter of survival. Isn't the lion hunting the deer for it's survival justified? Why then should I be the deer in my society, why can't I be the lion? Why then should I try to be moral all the time when there are those who play a wiser game?

And therein comes the belief system that seems to restore order, serenity and comfort. A common thread of spirituality across religions that begs us to look into ourselves, search for our true peace within ourselves and to detach from the mundane of the material society. It is a tonic for the tortured mind... be it true or not. Not every person on this earth is blessed with a good family, a good upbringing, a good exposure to knowledge, intellectual stimulation and hence a clear mind to reason with clarity on morality for the sake of society.

If there were no rules from scriptures, no belief systems in a higher authority, a mind that has gone through violence in tender ages and abuse to intellectual growth, cannot be expected to reason with clarity, or be expected to apply absolute moral codes that asks one to be good for the sake of the society. For such millions, good can rarely exist without a spiritual grounding, and a belief system to hold on to. In many ways, it's a tribal culture. Fear is instilled in the name of religion and God, Hope is infused through inspiring mythologies, Peace is brought about through rituals like prayers that try to discipline the mind.

Sadly, this is also one way for people to stop reasoning, to stop applying their minds. Every situation in life is looked at through religious codes... most of which tend to be heavily misinterpreted. Wisdom fails to grow, barbarism is festered. Herein lies the responsibility of religious leaders to clarify the principles and ideologies. But sadder it is, to realize many such leaders lack openness of mind. And therein lies the flip side of religious fanaticism.

I still don't know enough about spirituality to claim the real presence or absence of God. But I do know that while good can be studied without God, applying moral decisions at all times without a grounding of God is only possible for a mature, strong and pure mind. Such a mind is found in every one in a million of us.

To me, religion and God are belief systems to reinforce wisdom, sort of like training wheels on a bike to help us balance.. but something from which we all should graduate, as our minds mature....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Stifling Expressions

"The student watched his brother with surprise. He did not know, he who wore his heart on his sleeve, he who observed only the good old law of Nature in the world, he who allowed his passions to follow their inclinations, and in whom the lake of great emotions was always dry, so freely did he let it off each day by fresh drains, he did not know with what fury the sea of human passions ferments and boils when all egress is denied to it, how it accumulates, how it swells, how it overflows, how it hollows out the heart; how it breaks in inward sobs, and dull convulsions, until it has rent its dikes and burst its bed. The austere and glacial envelope of Claude Frollo, that cold surface of steep and inaccessible virtue, had always deceived Jehan. The merry scholar had never dreamed that there was boiling lava, furious and profound, beneath the snowy brow of Aetna.", Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Beautiful words from a stirring book. I'm yet to read another book laden with precious literary and philosophical gems page after deeply moving are the words, that I truly revere the book. This post is not part of the series on the book I'm currently reading. Just a little venting of my own...

Why is it that we have culturally evolved to stifle expressions - especially positive ones? In a "civilized" gathering it is always frowned upon to openly express true happiness, joy or love. Many of us have been strictly raised to be stoic, to not let our emotions seep through our behavior and facial expressions- be it good or bad. I can understand why it is better to calm or repress negative emotions such as anger, jealousy or hatred.

Unbridled expressions of anger tend to result in heat-of-the-moment passion crimes which are mostly regretted when the red film of anger tones down. And it's most certainly "uncivil" if we heard Obama and McCain exchange honest expressions of anger through rude insults, that held the potential to escalate to a physical fight if the parties involved refrained from maintaining the decorum. It is also signifies each others' level of tolerance towards different view points, and their maturity in being able to open their minds and reason passionately, yet fairly so.

But why try to stifle the "good" ones? I realize it's tricky to define good. Aren't all emotions natural? Then why label them as good or bad? In my definition (restricted to this article), "good" implies no harm done; psychological or physical to anyone who is a recipient of the expression. Why then are there hushes when we want to jump up with joy, or yell our throats out to vent our happiness? Why is it looked down upon to see open expressions of love? Why are such open expressions associated with being undignified?

How many of us can freely articulate what we feel, through simple words or gestures? Not me, I know. I can feel the heat from the stern stare of my mom looking down at me with disapproval writ large on her face when I "giggle too much", or I lose myself to share a hearty laugh. I guess the words to focus here are "lose myself"... getting us to vulnerability.

It's sad to realize how many people around me keep stifling their expressions to guard their emotions from "leaking through". This only results in unspoken words, unexpressed gestures that are struggling to be released, yet tightly leashed. Is it only because we are so afraid of being vulnerable if we exposed our true emotions? It's almost like watching all those sci-fi robots and monsters that are seen struggling to exhibit emotions like sadness and love (Kong-Kong for one), when they can so freely vent their violence and anger. Deep down are we all like those monsters struggling to freely express our gentler emotions, when we don't flinch to show our anger and distaste?

Well, in the case of King-Kong he struggled to even realize he had such emotions... their expression is another category I guess. But we humans keep building walls to maintain a stoic exterior that is deceptive of the person's true emotions - just like how Victor Hugo describes Frollo. And I don't understand why culturally we have been taught and conditioned to stifle expressions as pure and refreshing as happiness, love and joy. Does this tie to the philosophy of moderation? Is unbridled expressions of pure happiness really undignified?

Friday, December 12, 2008

When no one wins

This chapter is along the lines of a horrific Holocaust story that always leaves me with the utter shock at how humans could ever be so cold-hearted.

Private Sacks had been ordered to rape and kill a prisoner whom he knew was a perfectly innocent civilian who happened to be from the wrong ethnic background. He knew what he was ordered to do was entirely cruel and immoral. But he thought of the situation again and surmised that if he didn't execute the orders, not only will he be killed, but the prisoner will also be invariably put through the torture by someone else. If it were him, he would at least make sure the prisoner faces a "bearable" amount of abuse and be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible, rather than be cruelly tortured by another agent. He reasoned this would be the best course of action given the circumstance. Is he justified? Can this mean that sometimes it is inevitable for even the best course of action to be grossly immoral?

This situation echoes the use of the Utilitarian principle again. If Sacks decided to preserve his integrity, he loses his life and the prisoner gets killed and abused, probably more violently. So there is no "win" here. If Sacks went ahead with the order, he saves his life and is more "considerate" in ensuring a far less painful and violent, albeit inevitable death to the prisoner. This seems to ensure "greater good". But it is still immoral beyond doubt. Or is it? If Sacks goes ahead with it, how will he face such a guilt, how will his conscience punish him for the rest of his life?

For the purpose of not circumventing the severity of such a situation, we will assume that Sacks is not as adept as Batman or James Bond to try and do something miraculous to save the prisoner and himself.

All of us face similar dilemmas (similar in principle but not in magnitude). There are often crossroads when we're torn between which road to take, knowing that either one will end up hurting someone, or yourself. It's common for us to consider ourselves first and go ahead with a choice that leaves us searching for ways to assuage our guilt, and we end up justifying our ends through the means...probably how Sacks tries to convince himself of providing a painless death to the prisoner, to save his own life.

But when we do take the road of self-sacrifice in an attempt to do the moral thing, it still results in consequences that are dire. If Sacks decides to take the bullet and honor his integrity, in what way is he helping the prisoner? Does he then resign to his fate and that of the prisoner? Is it better to resign ourselves to the uncontrollable forces of fate than commit an immoral act?

Obviously there is no solution or right answer. But I know that people like Sacks are much needed in the world. If he remained alive, he could probably help in preventing more such crimes because of his heart and head being in the right places. There are surely many more prisoners and innocent people whose fates could be altered, if a genuine agent were still alive. If Sacks is confident of saving the lives of at least two other innocent people in his lifetime, then for that reason alone he is justified to stay alive to commit his crime. If he knows he can't help the other prisoners anymore than what he can with the current, then he has no option but to resign, and at least save his integrity.

Wheel of Fortune

Marge is an ordinary woman; she is no genius or a mathematician and she would love to earn some easy money. She had been observing how roulette was being played at the casino and she had discovered an apparently foolproof system of getting rich playing it. She noticed that it was quite common for the ball to fall into only black or only red slots during consecutive spins of the wheel. But the ball falling into the same color for 5 times in a sequence was unusual, and rarer it was for the ball to fall into the same color for six times or more in a row. As a matter of fact, she observed this happen only a couple of times in an entire day.

Hence her plan was to observe the ball falling into the same color for 5 times in a row, and then bet the next spin of the wheel on the other color, confident that her chance of winning was very high than losing. Can Marge afford to believe so?

I wracked my brain for a bit, struggling to find a flaw in her reasoning. You see I'm no mathematician myself, and as much as I tried to recall my classes on Logic and Probability, I really couldn't find anything amiss. And when I finally resigned and read what Baggini had to say, I still didn't get it!! Call me hopeless with Math. So I read it again, carefully, very carefully, and then the bulb finally glowed.

Since I've essentially not been successful in cracking or reasoning this puzzle myself, I don't want to merely repeat Baggini's reasoning. I will leave this as a fresh puzzle to anyone who chances by this article. But a little hint : we often miss out on subtle details of a problem due to our inevitable urge and selective processing, to look for what we want to find...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Pig that wants to be Eaten

Ah... finally the book's title is uncovered. The chapter is no euphemism, it means exactly what it reads :). What if you meet a pig that wants you to eat him?

Charles has been a vegetarian all his life, for not wanting to kill or hurt animals. But he had always wondered how meat tasted, and of late he'd been craving to try and have at least one meal of meat. Of course his principles forbade him, so he stopped himself. Imagine you're in a world where animals can talk. Or perhaps Charles just happened to meet one special pig that could talk. The pig tells Charles that his/her life time's ambition is to be eaten by someone else. The pig was reared comfortably and was not ill treated in any way. As a matter of fact, the pig has been looking forward to his day at the butcher's place. Oh so crushed would be the pig's soul if no one ate him.... and Charles wondered if it's unfair to disappoint such an animal's lifetime wish....

If that's not enough, Charles comes to know of a genetically modified chicken that was born in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). The chicken was no much aware of itself than a carrot would be of itself. Eating the chicken was no different than eating a carrot. Charles argues if it's against his principles to eat such a chicken. (Source: The Restaurant at the the end of the Universe, Douglas Adams)

If Charles's principle is towards saving the animal from trauma, and nothing more, then I guess both the animals will face no trauma (the pig will go through painless execution, and both animals were not cruelly reared). If I did meet such a pig or a chicken what would I do? Well, to make matters a little more interesting (and weird) why not consider this - what if Charles meets a man who wants to be eaten? I think I've heard of such a man/case somewhere sometime in an article. Cannibalism is frowned upon, because we humans associate value and dignity to our lives even if we lose all state of awareness and get into a state of PVS. Therefore meat is not just seen as meat. So herein comes the main question -- how different do we consider animals from humans? Animals can't think as much, lack a lot of human emotion and behavior and many many more characteristics due to the current state of evolution. What then are the principles behind our principles on ethical treatment of animals?

I'm a vegetarian myself, so this puzzle is a good one for me. The reason why I don't eat meat is because I consider animals to have a certain dignity. They are living beings who can feel pain, have the right to live, and who obviously don't want to be killed. With all the vegetables and fruits around, why try to kill an animal? I also like pets, and I think all animals are alike. Why be prejudiced against salmons and chickens when I would treasure a gold fish in the tank and an adorable doggy play mate. But as I write these sentences I'm aware of all the "prejudices" within me, and I know I don't act completely true to all those statements.

If I really considered animals to have a certain dignity, then I shouldn't be using any animal product -- milk, cheese, eggs, leather, fur, silk, certain oils, gelatin etc. Although I do abstain myself from leather, fur, gelatin, animal oils, I can't say the same about the rest. For half the time I don't realize what goes inside packaged foods (which is another issue by itself) and I have NO IDEA about how the cows and chickens were treated to get all the milk and eggs.... they are probably kept in miserable conditions.

I also am aware that I wouldn't mind getting certain animals killed --- rats for one (especially if they try to pay a dear visit to my kitchen), lizards for another, cockroaches (the numerous ones I have swatted through my life...), spiders, bees and others that fit into the subset of pests. If I were cornered by a cobra, and I had a spear in my hand, I wouldn't worry about saving it. And if mice were used for cancer research, I don't complain.

So why these "prejudices"? I would take on a Utilitarian stance on this problem. The law of "greater good". If I were to form an equation of the consequences of each scenario, from two different perspectives (if the animal is spared, and the animal is used) and I weigh the outcomes in terms of the "good" generated by the two, I will be convinced if I picked the one that led to the greater good to the majority. I can therefore argue killing snakes, tigers, bees, spiders and bugs for self-defense, rats and cockroaches to ward off diseases, and using mice in experiments to help save millions from cancer. I can argue that milk and cheese provide necessary nourishment for me, which is otherwise very hard to be substituted with. If one day, chickens became endangered, then eating them will be clearly forbidden to save the ecosystem. But today, killing a cow/chicken that never did any harm to me, and will likely do no harm to me, when I can eat other things, is an unbalanced equation. But I do see loopholes... what is "good"? Can we really quantify suffering and good to balance out such equations? It's not something that can be clearly defined all the time.

Everything said and done, will I substitute humans to be used in such an equation of "greater good"? This borders on issues like euthanasia, capital punishments, wars, abortions etc. So the truth is, we do consider animals to be lesser than us and hence assume rights over them, which we probably shoudn't... but oh well it's the survival of the fittest.

The pig that wants to be eaten, will invariably be consumed by so many other people, if not by Charles; and the same holds for the chicken. So Charles is not obliged to eat the pig to save it's life-long wish. If his principle is centered only on ethical treatment of animals before execution and a painless execution, then he does not violate his principle in any way by eating the animals. But If he associated some amount of dignity to the animals, then eating them for the only "good" of satisfying his temptation and hunger violates his principle.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Byte on the Side

Richard has been happily married for several years. Unfortunately he has reached a stage in his relationship wherein he is "bored" because of the lack of passion. He hardly sleeps with his wife and doesn't seem to find her sexual anymore. But he does love his wife and thinks the world of her and knows that she makes a wonderful mother for his children. He doesn't intend to leave her or hurt her by falling into an affair to satisfy his other "needs". He also realizes that his wife will not agree to an open relationship.

At this point, Richard comes to know of a company that provides a virtual-reality experience of having a passionate time with a simulated agent. It's akin to cyber-sex except that there is no real person on the other side of the internet. This is a virtual environment wherein Richard's mind will be stimulated into thinking he is sleeping with another woman, but in effect there is no third person involved. Should Richard succumb to this?

To be honest, this chapter made me feel low -- I don't know why. Maybe it's because of all the numerous movies and stories and real life incidents I have witnessed. This was one such a case where you can either think with your head or think with your heart. My gut response to this question was to say it's OK for Richard to go ahead and try this new experience, and I don't know if it came through my head or heart...

Monogamy is a concept that is formed out of the premise that human relationships are far too complex to be trifled with. This is what I think. As much intelligence as we are proud to have acquired, we have as much of emotions. We can theorize that a man can have several partners and yet love them equally. Hell, with just one woman, a man has to deal with the possessiveness between his wife, his mother, his sister, sometimes sister-in-law... lol :). Practically speaking, polygamy is very hard to exist, with all partners feeling equally secure and happy in the relationship.

That being said, infidelity is viewed as betrayal. While a man can argue that passion and love can be separated, and that he can have his wife for love and affection, and mistress for others, somewhere in the line of this argument I find the mistress being exploited. Maybe the mistress would claim that she is well aware of what she's in for and she is ok with it, but still after millions of years of evolution, one thing still hasn't changed - it is the need for a female to want off-springs and look for a suitable mate, and for a male to want to procreate as much as possible. Given modern times and our evolved minds, this might not be a primary goal anymore, but it's hard to refute that these instincts are really dead... after all, it's man's caveman-instinct that makes him fantasize for more women, bores him of one woman, and makes him venture down this road, in the first place... So it's natural for the wife to get threatened by introducing another woman into the picture. Infidelity therefore is a break of promise to nurture, love and provide exclusively for the mate and offsprings.

I can think of two ways to fix this problem - 1. Let Richard indulge in this virtual experience, and he ends up being happy and hurts none. Well... this seems more like a band-aid on the wound. Probably Richard having stopped sharing his intimacies with his wife is an initial symptom of problems in their relationship. If this is not directly addressed, would there be more symptoms that would crop up soon, resulting in deeper problems? Although there is no third person involved, Richard's wife might still be upset because he has stopped sharing these experiences with her.

If so, then a long term solution is - 2. Talk and discuss about this with his wife and see how this can be remedied. Honesty is good, it might hurt the wife, but it's a good sign that Richard is trying to work it out with her. Whether a solution can be reached, and how happy both Richard and his wife are at the end of it all, is uncertain. It might make Richard more frustrated, the wife more insecure and could probably result in more problems.

I pick 1... he is not cheating on her or breaking his promise, he is going through a virtual experience to satisfy his curiosity and temptation. My guess is he will tire out of it at some point, or may get old enough to stop it (whichever comes first). Most often, this just a phase, some form of a mid-life crisis, and hopefully this experience will give Richard the much needed anti-boredom tonic and his relationship will be fine.

If I were still 16 years old (sigh) and was still wide-eyed and bambi-like, I would have picked 2. Both lines of reasoning cannot guarantee a solution. They are both crafted in such a way so as to not hurt the wife and that is the focus. If Richard really loves his wife and wants to make the relationship work , then he should address the problems that surface due to pursuing course 1., or try to compromise, if the outcomes from course 2 don't really meet to his satisfaction.

This question makes us ponder on our expectations from a relationship. How exclusive and 1-1 should a relationship be? Are there different boundaries for infidelity?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Indian and Ice

An Indian lady, Lata has lived her whole life in a village in Rajasthan, close to the Thar Desert. Among many things, India is commonly known for it's hot and sultry weather. And if one lives near a desert, you can be certain to have faced nothing but high temperatures and severe water depravity. We assume that this tale happened in the early 1800s, when many countries didn't know of a refrigerator or freezer. Lata had never heard or seen one. Lata's brother Raj was a traveler and he was adventurous to venture out into the world, meet different people and interact with different cultures. Raj returned from one such a long trip to the West and was regaling Lata with all his stories, full of wondrous things and novel experiences.

In his tales, he mentions about this curious thing called "Ice". A fascinated Raj was trying to explain to his sister that in some countries, temperatures went so cold that water turned into solid, called Ice. He was intrigued that there wasn't a drastic change in temperature between the transient states when water turned solid. Lata nodded quietly with a sad thought that her brother had turned into one of those pompous travelers who weave tales and talk of mystical creatures just to gain popularity and superiority among their naive villagers.

Lata did not believe that water could turn into solid. She refused to be gullible to her brother's tales. Was her reasoning right? (Source: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume)

On one hand, Lata's skepticism must be appreciated. She was definitely not as naive as the other women and relied on her judgments and experiences. On the other hand, was she being overly cautious and narrow-minded? I believe that while Lata was truly a strong woman who was shrewd enough to not believe everything that someone as close as her own brother would tell her, her beliefs were probably too rigid to let her open her mind and question the possibility.

I would have appreciated her reasoning, if she had considered the possibility and tried to find reasons as to how it could not hold true, and then tried to refute them... she only used her limited experiences and beliefs to refute that it could not hold true. If a person has not won an argument from both sides, then there is a hole in the reasoning. Having been in a hot place, she must have seen water evaporate - i.e., water changes to another state (steam) when the temperature is increased. Could it then change state when the temperature was decreased? She has surely not tried it.... so can she be sure?

Obviously, she doesn't have the capacity to perform such an experiment. Neither can anyone demonstrate it to her in the middle of a desert. But sometimes we accept certain things without question. When I was young, I didn't question when I was taught that sun rises in the east, we breathe in O2 and exhale CO2 etc. Those were accepted as being true since everybody around me believed so. I didn't have to perform experiments to accept them. I trusted my sources.

Could Lata have trusted some sages who came down from the Himalayas and said they had seen ice and snow? Could she have trusted it if the idol of Shiva showed the snow capped mountains, or if the vedic mantras mentioned them? My guess is yes.

In this particular scenario, Lata could not have accepted this statement as the truth, unless it was proved to her, or it was stated in a context in which she believed in. Lata's reasoning was incomplete - good that she did not readily believe her brother, but she didn't let herself question the possibility of it because of her intractable belief system of her world around her.... and that's not a good sign of reasoning. This is commonly called as the frog-in-the-well syndrome :)

Baggini's question is - how do we draw the line between trusting someone, and being judicious enough to not get fooled? Thoughts?