Ed Husain on "Speaking of Faith"

Essential listening: last week’s Speaking of Faith®, in which Krista Tippett interviews Ed Husain:

British activist Ed Husain was seduced, at the age of 16, by revolutionary Islamist ideals that flourished at the heart of educated British culture. Yet he later shrank back from radicalism after coming close to a murder and watching people he loved become suicide bombers. He dug deeper into Islamic spirituality, and now offers a fresh and daring perspective on the way forward.

The brain causes the mind. What's so hard about that?

Steven Novella dispatches dualism – whether it be the religious “woo” of Chopra and Egnor, or the philosophical zombie-inspired speculations of Chalmers:

The “easy problem” and “hard problem” of consciousness are more meaningfully described as the scientific questions and philosophical questions of consciousness. The context of my prior article was the scientific question – what causes consciousness. The materialist hypothesis – that the brain causes consciousness – has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated. Every single question that can be answered scientifically – with observation and evidence – that takes the form: “If the brain causes the mind then…” has been resolved in favor of that hypothesis.
For example, if the brain causes the mind then: there will be no documented mental function in the absence of brain function; altering the brain biologically will alter the mind functionally; mental development will correlate with brain development; and mental activity will correlate with brain activity (this holds up no matter what method we use to look at brain activity – EEG to look at electrical activity, PET scanning to look at metabolic activity, SPECT scanning to look at blood flow, and functional MRI to look at metabolic and neuronal activity).

The whole subjectivity and qualia stuff just annoys me. How do you build a brain? The easiest way (though it’s a bit time-consuming) is to evolve one. Start with simple sensor-effector nets. Add in some feedback loops to allow for memory, comparison, simulation, and learning. Why does pain “feel” the way it does? Because of the way sensory nerves are wired up to the pattern recognizers in the brain. Why does redness “feel” the way it does? Because of the way the various processing feedback loops are wired to pattern recognizers in the brain. Could it be different? Perhaps – but there’s definitely some efficiency associated with making these systems stable and predictable, so some of the low level stuff is likely to get hard-wired. And that’s about it. No qualia. It has to “feel” like something, because of the way it’s wired up, and the way it feels is simply the result of the way it’s wired, and the way we interpret the resulting pattern. No “what is it like to be an X?”it is what it is, the result of brute contingency. Nothing ineffable. There are no philosophical zombies. We have no need of that hypothesis.
The fall-out from this is significant, of course. No souls. No life after death. (What could survive?) Ergo no ultimate reward or punishment, so no system of morality based on cosmic threats and promises. Ultimately, no philosophy of mind. (Sorry, Dan.) No transubstantiation, demonic possession, or metempsychosis. No reincarnation. No out-of-body experiences. And as Pinker and others have noted, a bunch of folk-psychology notions bite the dust.
But we get to grow up.

"Tolerance laced with arsenic"

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in The Independent on Rowan Williams monumental gaffe:

What Rowan Williams wishes upon us is an abomination and I write here as a modern Muslim woman. He lectures the nation on the benefits of sharia law – made by bearded men, for men – and wants the alternative legal system to be accommodated within our democracy in the spirit of inclusion and cohesion.
Pray tell me sir, how do separate and impenetrable courts and schools and extreme female segregation promote commonalities and deep bonds between citizens of these small isles?
What he did on Thursday was to convince other Britons, white, black and brown, that Muslims want not equality but exceptionalism and their own domains. Enlightened British Muslims quail. Friends like this churchman do us more harm than our many enemies. He passes round what he believes to be the benign libation of tolerance. It is laced with arsenic.

Also in the Independent was this elaborate exegesis by Deborah Orr, which concludes with the words:

I have to confess that it lifts my heart to imagine a legally and religiously recognised board of religious Muslim people, widely supported, and committed to taking a lead in plotting a modern yet Islamic attitude to the rights of women in Britain and around the world. It could be rather wonderful, and is quite a different proposition from the one we have been led to believe that Williams made.

But this is putting the cart so far before the horse that the poor beast can’t even see it. By all means, work to change Islam and evolve Sharia into something which incorporates “a modern yet Islamic attitude to the rights of women”, if such a thing is possible. If you succeed, then come back and talk about whether it has a role to play in supplementing the institutions of the secular state. But don’t presume success. As Yasmin Alhibai-Brown points out, today’s reality is grotesquely different from the naive utopianism of Williams and Orr:

Yet, family disputes, says Dr Williams, would be easier, within sharia. For whom exactly? The polygamous men who live in this country, yes, certainly. Not for their wives who will be told that God intends them to lower their eyes and accept unjust verdicts.
Many will be sent back to bastard husbands or flinty-eyed mullahs will take their children away. In Bradford and Halifax, they may be forbidden to drive or work where men are employed. Adultery will be punished. I don’t think we will have public stonings but violence of some sort will be meted out (it already is) with lawmakers’ backing.

Where in Williams’ dry, academic language was any compassion for these women?

The naiveté of Cantuar

According to the BBC

The Archbishop of Canterbury is said to be overwhelmed by the “hostility of the response” after his call for parts of Sharia law to be recognised in the UK.
Friends of Dr Rowan Williams say he is in a state of shock and dismayed by the criticism from his own Church.

All of which simply proves that the guy is too naive, too unimaginative to hold the post that he does. He may or may not be right; personally I think he’s out of his gourd, but several people that I respect assure me that what he intended to convey is definitely worth consideration. However, any reasonably clueful person would have been able to predict the reaction to William’s speech; the fact that he is in shock simply confirms that he is incompetent to hold the position of responsibility that he does. Predictably, blog entries are appearing with titles like “Who will rid us of this troublesome priest?”, although in this case we’re dealing with stupidity rather than punctiliousness. For context, I recommend Ruth Gledhill.
Why does all this matter? It shouldn’t, really: Muslims make up less than 3% of the population of England, and a minority of those actually want Sharia. ((Of the majority, it’s hard to separate those who genuinely don’t want Sharia from those who would like it, but recognize that such a move would provoke a backlash. Let’s assume that most are sincere.)) It’s hard to resist the suspicion that Williams is getting involved in this issue because he sees it as a way to bolster the obsolete notion that religious representatives should be involved in politics. Or perhaps he’s pandering to Akinola and the Southern Cone….

"The Android's Dream" and Scientology

Nice coincidence: I’m 80% of the way through John Scalzi’s delightful romp “The Android’s Dream”, which includes a religion invented by a hack sci-fi writer. The parallels are obvious, aren’t they? Well, why don’t I let Scalzi explain it himself, as he does in his blog today:

[I]n that book I create The Church of The Evolved Lamb, a religion founded by hacktastic science fiction writer as a scam to separate the credulous from their money, which is a description I know many would apply to Scientology. But in the course of the book, the folks in the Church are shown to be the good guys, with a solid grip on reality (such as it is in the course of the book). So if I’m satirizing Scientology… I’m doing a pretty bad job of it…. I definitely take advantage of the (presumed) reader familiarity of L.Ron Hubbard and Scientology to set up the ELC, but after that it’s pretty much its own thing.

And what about Scientology itself?

[W]ell, I’m not down with Xenu using DC-8s to transport billions of people to volcanoes for the purpose of nuking them into malevolent ghosthood, but then I’m not down with Yahweh blinking the universe into existence in six days and then kicking Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden because they decided to make a fruit plate, either. They’re both just different flavors of nonsense. I’m not sure why anyone wants to believe either, but if people want to believe either, it’s fine with me, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t bug me about it.

Works for me. Or it would do. Unfortunately members of both groups have this annoying tendency to believe their own propaganda, and stick it where it isn’t wanted. (Science teaching in the US, and drug education in the UK, for instance.)
As for the book, it’s a lot of fun. There are nice touches of Douglas Adams ((The alien Takk would have got on well with Marvin.)) , although Douglas himself would never have described the blow-by-blow of a fight in quite the obsessive way that John does. But that’s OK. I know that John is identified with the “milSF” sub-genre, but I hope he doesn’t limit himself; he’s a much better writer than that. Plus he writes about my favourite area of software futurology, intelligent agents – but with a twist.

"The right not to have my mind changed"

Good piece by Mark Rowlands over at Secular Philosophy. ((This site looks like it’s going to be a must-read; I hope they fix the RSS feed issues soon.)) Let’s tee up the problem:

The efforts of a young philosophy instructor – let us call him ‘Wayne’ – to acquaint his students with the wonders of philosophy of religion are stymied when one of his students complains to Wayne’s Dean on the grounds that his religious beliefs are being violated. ‘I have a right to my beliefs’, the student says. What the student seems to mean by this is other people have a duty to not criticize his beliefs. The right to believe is the right to be exempt from criticism.

All reasonable people would agree that this is absurd: as Mark put it, how can one person have the right to say “P” while everybody else is forbidden from saying “not-P”? But let’s take it a bit further: does one have the right not to have one’s belief changed? Mark invokes “Wilfred Sellars’ distinction between the space of causes and the space of reasons” to argue that forcible methods (“causes”) such as lobotomy and brain-washing are illegitimate while arguments (“reasons”) are acceptable. I think that’s right, but I’d suggest that human psychology is such that these two categories are not as neat as we might think. In what category does a blatantly false argument fall? As a practical matter, all beliefs are based on partial information, unless we are dealing with closed systems such as mathematics. A false formulation of “not-P” (based on an incorrect premise or invalid reasoning) may cause the believer to lose their belief “P”, even if the falsehood were discovered. (The idea might be “tainted”, or the form of “not-P” might lead them to suspect that other versions of the same argument might be true.)
So does a false argument fall into the “space of causes” or the “space of reasons”? Does intent matter?

"Honour killings conspiracy"

If this is true, things are even worse than I’d imagined:

Whole communities are involved in assisting and covering up “honour violence” in Britain, a new study says.
Informal networks of taxi drivers, councillors and sometimes even police officers track down and return women who try to escape, researchers claim.

When I first came to the USA, I was amused by the fact that I had to sign a document agreeing not to overthrow the government. Obviously no terrorist or anarchist would hesitate to sign such a document, would they? And since overthrowing the government is illegal, the document was surely redundant; by entering the USA, I was implicitly accepting that I was subject to US law.
Well, I think I’ve changed my mind about such “amusing”, “redundant” documents. How would it be if every immigrant to the UK was required to read and swear ((Ideally, read aloud, confirm understanding, and make a religious or secular affirmation.)) to a document which stated, quite explicitly, that “honour killings”, forced marriages, domestic violence, and various other forms of coercion against young women ((And men too.)) were absolutely forbidden, and that even to condone or conceal them would be a criminal offence. Come up with a catchy name that would make it easy to refer to in educational, law enforcement, and mass media contexts. (And ideally make it an EU-wide standard.) Encourage the moderate majority that (we are assured) exists in the South Asian community to promote the idea.
Would it help? Reportedly there’s an “honour killing” in England every month. (Perhaps many more.) It couldn’t really make things worse.
(See the International Campaign Against Honour Killings for more.)

"How lucky do you feel?"

My cousin Clive just forwarded this YouTube video to me. I think the author’s name is Greg Craven ((Here’s another video by him.)); the subject is the question of global warming and rational responses to it:

Now this kind of payoff matrix will be familiar to many, and in fact it’s the basis of the notorious argument for belief in God that we know as Pascal’s Wager. And many people (including me) regard Pascal’s Wager as a bullshit argument. So why isn’t this climate change argument equally bullshit?
The problem with Pascal’s Wager is not the structure of the argument; it’s the epistemic status of the propositions that are used. The payoff matrix is a perfectly reasonable and respectable way of organizing one’s thinking about actions and consequences. Ideally, you want to be able to assign probabilities to the various cells, but even if you can’t do that, it’s still useful. ((It might, for example, help you to decide which areas should be researched in order to develop the data needed to refine your probabilities. Row thinking or column thinking, as the video put it.)) For global warming, all of the contingencies, actions, and consequences represent concrete, real-world phenomena. Temperature goes up X, Y million hectares are inundated, Z million people are displaced. We can argue about the values for X, Y, and Z, but there is no serious debate about whether water, land, and people actually exist, nor about the basic physics of how melting polar ice translates into sea level. Pascal’s Wager, on the other hand, is all about belief in an unsupported fiction, one of many competing and mutually incompatible fictions.
Back to the video. The argument that it makes is sound, and modest; there are plenty of other arguments that could have been factored in. Many of the actions that we should take to address global warming are also needed to cope with the actual or impending shortages in oil, potable water, and other resources. One case which he does not consider – but should – is the “catastrophist” view that global warming is real, it’s inevitable, and no human action can mitigate its effects. If this is true, it would be rationally self-interested to consider a different payoff matrix, comparing the costs of futile response to global warming with the costs of small-group survival in the face of catastrophic collapse. Of course this is no longer a public policy debate…