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Unsophisticated visitors May 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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The soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum will include a short video called “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” which “refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad.” I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that some people are unhappy about that.

“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”

… “The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” [Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington] said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

… The museum did remove the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website earlier this month, after another activist, Todd Fine, collected about 100 signatures of academics and scholars supporting its deletion.

In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”

But for Mr. Elazabawy, and many other Muslims, the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda, and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.

“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview. “We are all of us against that.”

The museum still intends to keep the film; and yet,

“What helps me sleep at night is I believe that the average visitor who comes through this museum will in no way leave this museum with the belief that the religion of Islam is responsible for what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Daniels, the president of the museum foundation. “We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.”

Truly, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of denial and self-delusion. According to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, these are the goals indoctrinated into al-Qaeda trainees:

  1. Establishing the rule of God on Earth.
  2. Attaining martyrdom in the cause of God.
  3. Purification of the ranks of Islam from the elements of depravity.

Al-Qaeda’s motives are explicitly Islamist: that’s all they ever talk about. Even if most Muslims disagree with some parts of al-Qaeda’s theology, it is by no means an implausible interpretation of Islam. (It’s not as if al-Qaeda is our only example of Islam-inspired violence.) And that means that Islam is part of the problem.

Consider, by analogy, the Inquisition — which I’m pretty sure had something to do with Christianity. Why do we no longer see Christians torturing and killing heretics and blasphemers? Is it because the scripture and doctrine of Christianity provide no support for such actions, and those inquisitors were all lunatics? No: it’s because most Christians no longer believe that (those parts of) their scripture should be followed literally. On the other hand, most Muslims still believe that the Koran, which is relentless in its vilification of unbelievers, is the perfect, unquestionable, literal word of God. Anyone who lends legitimacy to that belief system, even if opposed to violence himself, helps provide a basis upon which violent groups can thrive and attract followers.

It matters what people believe. If we want to avoid future atrocities, we need to be honest about what people have done, and continue to do, in the name of faith; and we must be uncompromising in criticizing irrational beliefs. If that offends anyone — sophisticated or not — too bad.

9-11-memorial

Three philosophers March 22, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Philosophy, Puzzles.
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Three philosophers are sitting on a bench.

  1. The homophobic philosopher is a deontologist.
  2. The free will libertarian subscribes to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  3. The consequentialist is addicted to heroin.
  4. The philosopher sitting next to the antisemite is a virtue ethicist.
  5. The hard determinist is sitting next to the cocaine addict.
  6. The philosopher sitting in the middle subscribes to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  7. The sexist philosopher is a free will compatibilist.
  8. The philosopher subscribing to Bohm’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is not the methamphetamine addict.
  9. The antisemitic philosopher is not sexist, the sexist philosopher is not homophobic, and the homophobic philosopher is not antisemitic.
  10. No philosopher is addicted to more than one substance.

What is the antisemitic philosopher’s position on free will?

In return for our chains March 8, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom.
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In 1890, when American women had no right to vote (the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t passed till 1920), and marital rape wasn’t considered a crime (which remained the case in some states until 1993), Voltairine de Cleyre gave a lecture entitled “Sex Slavery”.

Let Woman ask herself, “Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labor in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn?” Let every woman ask…

From the birth of the Church, out of the womb of Fear and the fatherhood of Ignorance, it has taught the inferiority of woman. In one form or another through the various mythical legends of the various mythical creeds, runs the undercurrent of the belief in the fall of man through the persuasion of woman, her subjective condition as punishment, her natural vileness, total depravity, etc.; and from the days of Adam until now the Christian Church, with which we have specially to deal, has made Woman the excuse, the scapegoat for the evil deeds of man…

At Macon, in the sixth century, says August Bebel, the fathers of the Church met and proposed the decision of the question, “has Woman a soul?” Having ascertained that the permission to own a nonentity wasn’t going to injure any of their parsnips, a small majority vote decided the momentous question in our favor. Now, holy fathers, it was a tolerably good scheme on your part to offer the reward of your pitiable “salvation or damnation” (odds in favor of the latter) as a bait for the hook of earthly submission; it wasn’t a bad sop in those days of faith and ignorance. But fortunately fourteen hundred years have made it stale. You, tyrant radicals, have no heaven to offer, — you have no delightful chimeras in the form of “merit cards;” you have (save the mark) the respect, the good offices, the smiles — of a slave-holder! This in return for our chains! Thanks!

Voltairine

Waiku February 17, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language.
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A waiku is created as follows:

  1. Start from a random Wikipedia page.
  2. Find the first hyperlink on the page that completes a five-syllable sequence of words. (For example, “the body of myths”, or “biographical”.) That is the first line of your waiku.
  3. Follow the hyperlink.
  4. On the page you arrive at, find the first hyperlink that completes a seven-syllable sequence of words. (For example, “in the Pacific Ocean”.) That is the second line of your waiku.
  5. Follow the hyperlink.
  6. On the page you arrive at, find the first hyperlink that completes a five-syllable sequence of words. That is the third and final line of your waiku.

* * *

Zeta1 Scorpii

hypergiant star
luminous sphere of plasma
gas may ionize

* * *

Agent

in economics
how economic agents
in economics

* * *

The Secret Guide to Computers

to their history
they are now, calculators
of arithmetic

* * *

Spottswood William Robinson III

an educator
sense is a form of learning
existing knowledge

* * *

Violence

suicidal thoughts
detailed planning, role playing
to assume a role

* * *

Knowledge

which can include facts
whether it can be proven
proof is sufficient

How to evaluate an argument February 15, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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  1. If the argument’s bottom line agrees with what you already believe, go to 8.
  2. Else, begin reviewing the argument in detail.
  3. If you find anything that is just too offensive or counter-intuitive to entertain, go to 8.
  4. Else, if you find anything that could be given a label known to be bad (such as “socialism” or “scientism” or “reductionism”), go to 8.
  5. Else, if you’re able to rebut a simplistic, caricatured version of the argument, go to 8.
  6. Else, conclude there must be something wrong with the argument that escapes you at the moment. (If you’re curious, google “why X is wrong”.) Go to 8.
  7. Turns out you were wrong — change your mind! Go to 9.
  8. Turns out you were right! There’s no need to change your mind.
  9. Congratulate yourself for being rational.

Ulysses and Mo February 4, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom.
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In 1921, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice issued obscenity allegations against Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of a literary magazine that had been serializing James Joyce’s Ulysses.

During the trial, the assistant district attorney announced that he would read the offending passage aloud to the court, a proposition to which one judge objected. The judge believed such indecent material “should not be read in the presence of a young woman such as Anderson”… When it was pointed out to the judge that Anderson was the publisher, he declared that he was sure “she didn’t know the significance of what she was publishing”.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfViceThe passage was eventually read in court; but the editors were ultimately found guilty, and the publication of Ulysses was banned in the United States for the next twelve years.

The law may have changed, but there are still those who seek to force their narrow-minded sensibilities on everyone else — and those who would preemptively censor any potential source of “offense”.

[British] Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden.

More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

This is what Nawaz posted:

maajidtweetViewers learning about the story from Channel 4 News, however, would not have seen that image; they were shown this instead:

channel4censorship

In response to complaints, Channel 4 News defended its decision:

As we are sure you can appreciate, this is a very sensitive subject for many viewers. Channel 4 News editorial staff gave great consideration to the issues involved and believe that they reached a fair and balanced judgement, weighing up the potential for offence to some viewers by showing the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and the necessity of showing the cartoon in full.

The senior editorial team decided that the showing of the entire illustration, whilst likely to cause offence, was not integral to the story, and therefore took the decision to pixelate. Whilst we acknowledge your views, we believe that on balance this was the correct decision and as a rule, where we consider the likelihood of significant offence to our audience, we will attempt to mitigate against that. As to not pixelating the image of Jesus, it was not felt that the same level of offence was likely to be provoked as the image is commonly depicted in cartoon form.

You know what else some people are offended by? The sight of a woman’s uncovered hair. Or uncovered face. Will Channel 4 News also be blacking out all female faces on its programs?

And can you believe they claimed that showing the relevant cartoon in a segment entitled ‘Cartoon controversy’ was “not integral to the story”!?

Journalists should be the first to defend freedom of expression against its enemies. When we censor ourselves so as not to offend the bullies, the bullies win; and we are all less free. In their cowardly attempt to not choose a side, Channel 4 News placed themselves squarely on the wrong one. Respecting unreasonable demands doesn’t make you “fair and balanced” — it makes you part of the problem.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

We were true believers January 25, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics.
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From Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984):

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

… whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?

… Isn’t his “I didn’t know! I was a believer!” at the very root of his irreparable guilt?

Saving your queen January 20, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Politics, Reason.
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Photo by Andreas KontokanisIn chess, it’s generally a good idea to sacrifice a knight in order to capture an opposing rook, or to sacrifice a rook in order to capture the opponent’s queen. The pieces’ standard valuations (a queen is worth more than a rook, a rook is worth more than a knight, etc.) are useful for guiding basic strategic decisions — but there are exceptions. Sometimes, sacrificing your queen for a lesser piece is actually your best option, and will save you from defeat or even lead you to victory. In such a case, it wouldn’t make any sense for a player to insist on adhering to the principle that the queen shouldn’t be exchanged for lesser pieces, as if that were an end in itself. The relative valuation of the pieces is just a heuristic — a “rule of thumb” — providing a useful simplification that often leads to good results. But in the end, all that matters is winning the game. A smart player knows to disregard a heuristic in situations where it would not actually further the ultimate goal.

In our ongoing attempts to build and maintain a civil society, we have discovered and refined many wise principles. It’s important to remember, however, that these rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Principles like freedom of speech, for example, or the right to a fair trial, lead so reliably to increased individual well-being and societal health, that we’ve determined they should be protected by law, not to be abridged without a very compelling reason. They can be abridged, though — in situations where doing otherwise would, on balance, cause greater harm. For instance, we would deny freedom of speech from someone inciting murder; and we would deny the right to a trial from a terrorist if killing him is the only way to save an innocent life.

Other cases seem more prone to confusion. For instance, some people think the principle of “religious freedom” means they have the right to do anything their religion tells them, including denying lifesaving medical treatment from children and blocking other people’s access to contraception. But religious freedom is valuable only insomuch as it promotes a free and equal society, where people may live their lives as they see fit without interference — provided they do not interfere with the freedoms of others. Religious freedom is no more absolute than freedom of speech or the right to a fair trial, and it must give way the moment it causes more harm than good. (The fact that religious people in the instances above believe they aren’t causing harm is irrelevant, since there’s no rational basis for that belief.)

Another example is the idea that private-sector, free-market solutions are preferable to government regulation. As a general rule, this principle has been shown to promote societal flourishing (on balance). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain domains, like health care, where free-market solutions don’t work, and government regulation is necessary to prevent a greater harm. Yet some people seem to have an almost mystical faith that laissez-faire capitalism can do no wrong.

Admittedly, in complex situations, it’s not always obvious which among conflicting principles should take precedence, or which alternative will cause the least harm. It’s legitimate and healthy to debate the pros and cons of different options, falling back to first principles if necessary. But we must be wary of turning useful heuristics into infallible dogmas to be followed blindly, as if they were valuable for their own sake, regardless of the actual consequences for human well-being. We must not let the pursuit of proxies overshadow what really matters. For what will it profit a man if he saves his queen, but loses the game?

We’re going after them January 11, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Law, Politics.
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In 1971, President Nixon launched “a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” In 1982, though the battle had not yet been won, President Reagan was optimistic:

The mood toward drugs is changing in this country, and the momentum is with us. We’re making no excuses for drugs—hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.

So, did we win yet? Let’s see…

Source: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/secured/wdr/Cocaine_Heroin_Prices.pdf

Source: unodc.org

Source: http://www.justice.gov/dea/about/history/staffing.shtml

Source: justice.gov

Well, I guess we must not yet have captured or killed enough of the enemy. I’m sure victory is near, though, and it will all have been worth it! No excuses — no surrender!

The abounding of impiety and profanity January 8, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Law, Religion.
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Thomas Aikenhead, a medical student, was indicted for blasphemy in Edinburgh, 1696:

the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, in profane allusion to Esop’s Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.

Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on January 8th, 1697. He was twenty years old.

Though Aikenhead was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy, the United Kingdom abolished the last of its blasphemy laws in England and Wales only in 2008. (And of course, some people are working hard to make “insulting religion” an international crime.)

Aikenhead had petitioned the Privy Council to repeal his sentence, but

the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

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