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We don’t need no thought control August 28, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Freedom, Religion.
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In the short documentary “Faith School Menace?” Richard Dawkins takes a close look at “faith schools” in Britain — one third of British state-funded schools are officially affiliated with a religion. Segregating schoolchildren by the religion of their parents is considered natural in our society, although it should be quite obvious how divisive such segregation is: how it fosters an “us versus them” mentality, how it reinforces sectarian differences and conflicts, and inculcates them into the next generation. In Israel, for example, most children from Jewish families probably don’t know by name a single child from a Muslim family, although Muslims constitute a significant percentage of the population.

Why in the world shouldn’t our children spend their formative years in an environment where they will meet (and even befriend) children from all segments of the society they live in? Wouldn’t that be a tremendous aid in combating xenophobia and prejudice, and in promoting tolerance and coexistence? Ah, but such a scheme might interfere with parents’ intentions of bringing up their children into a particular worldview with no outside influence, and, as Dawkins is told again and again, parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. But is this right absolute? Dawkins says:

The problem with rights is that there are conflicts between opposing rights. . . . In the case of education, children have rights as well as parents. Children have the right not to be indoctrinated, not to have their parents’ beliefs forced down their throat, but to make up their own mind after a proper, balanced education.

Parents do not have the right to keep their child blindfolded or locked up in his room; that would violate the child’s rights. When the rights of parents and children collide, the presumption is naturally in favor of the children, who are the weaker, more vulnerable party: they cannot stand up for themselves, so the state must stand up for them. There is no excuse for taking advantage of the power parents have over their children in order to instill in them an unquestioning faith in their parents’ worldview, while excluding all others. (This becomes quite obvious when you replace religion with some secular ideology, like Marxism, as in my parable.) The purpose of schools is not merely to infuse children with the beliefs of the previous generation; the point of education is to teach children how to think critically and draw conclusions on their own, based on good evidence and argument. Teaching one religion as the gospel truth while ignoring the existence of any others is antithetical to that goal.

Sadly, I don’t see “faith schools” going away any time soon. In the meantime, however, philosopher Daniel Dennett has presented a practical proposal which could be implemented almost immediately:

What do we teach [people] until they are informed enough and mature enough to decide for themselves? We teach them about all the world’s religions, in a matter-of-fact, historically and biologically informed way, the same way we teach them about geography and history and arithmetic.

This mandatory religious education would include no value judgments, only non-controversial facts: creeds and customs, prohibitions and rituals, texts and music and history. As long as you teach them this, Dennett says, you may teach your children whatever religious doctrines you like. Ironically, some people have accused Dennett’s proposal of being “fascistic” or “totalitarian,” when in fact it is practically libertarian:

How much more freedom could one want? The freedom to lie to your children? The freedom to keep them ignorant? You don’t own your children, like slaves, and you have no right to disable them with ignorance. You do have an obligation to let them have the mutual knowledge that is available to every other child, as a normal part of growing up in a free society.

Dennett argues that merely exposing children to the things that other people believe will inoculate them against the more toxic strains of religion. The best protection against destructive ideology is open discussion and the free flow of ideas. As a public health measure, it’s important that

the devout of all faiths should face the challenge of making sure their creed is worthy enough, attractive and plausible and meaningful enough, to withstand the temptations of its competitors. If you have to hoodwink — or blindfold — your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.

It’s true that under Dennett’s system, parents may have to deal with questions they would rather not have to answer (“Why don’t we believe in Vishnu, Mommy?”), but that is actually a good thing. Too many harmful dogmas persist through the ages because no one is ever required to present a reasonable argument in their defense. Parents have no right to constrain the minds of their children in order to accommodate their own intellectual laziness. Occasionally, a child’s question might even cause her parents to rethink their own beliefs — and what could be more wonderful than that?

Facing the clash of civilizations August 23, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom, Politics, Religion.
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Many people misuse the term “freedom of religion.” Here is Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, writing about the recent French bill forbidding the covering of one’s face in public:

And now, to fight Islamism in France, the power of the state, the frightened state, is being used to forbid the free practice of religion. It is of course shocking to encounter a person in a burqa, as it is to encounter a person tattooed from head to toe: It is a mutilation of personhood. But by what right does the state intervene? If some Muslim women are forced into their hideous sartorial prison, the state will not relieve them, and the Muslim men who are solicitous of their humanity, of the need to dissent and to rebel — of the rupture of modernization, which can only occur within, as it did in Christianity and Judaism; and if many Muslim women cover themselves consensually, the state should leave them be. Intolerance is a poor security policy.

Got that? It’s Westerners who are being intolerant by trying to protect women from oppression! Does Wieseltier really not see the difference between a person who freely chooses to tattoo his body, and a woman who will very likely be confined to her home, beaten, or worse, if she chooses not to walk around in a cloth bag? We should not be expected to tolerate intolerance.

But let’s consider for a moment the issue of religious freedom. Muslims cite religious reasons for wearing the burqa, but does that automatically place it beyond the state’s authority? Clearly, freedom of religion doesn’t mean we must allow any behavior that is religiously motivated (human sacrifice, anyone?). Likewise, religious people cannot demand to be exempt from laws that everyone else is bound by merely because of their religion — that would be discriminating against the nonreligious. Freedom of religion means that no one will be treated differently by the law because of their religious beliefs. For instance, if we specifically outlawed Muslim veils while allowing other kinds of face coverings, that would be a violation of religious freedom. But if we decide that there are good reasons for outlawing or mandating certain behavior in our society generally, the fact that it conflicts with someone’s religious beliefs is irrelevant. We do not allow Muslims to genitally mutilate their girls, nor do we allow Christian Scientists to withhold medication from their children.

A good case can be made in favor of requiring people to show their faces when interacting with others in public. We naturally assume that someone covering their face has something to hide, since we cannot see their expression or even identify whom we are dealing with. It seems plausible that covered faces foster distrust and dishonesty, and are an impediment to a harmonious society based on trust and accountability. It appears especially reasonable to forbid people from covering their faces in areas where security is an issue, like banks and airports. Now, it can be debated whether these concerns justify an outright ban on covering one’s face in all public spaces — but religious objections (“That’s what we believe, full stop”) do not deserve any special weight in the discussion.

It’s true that the French bill is intended as a specific response to the spread of the Muslim burqa, but it may be an appropriate response. It’s a sad but inescapable fact that the oppression of women remains endemic in many Muslim societies today. Forcing women to cover themselves is part of a general obsession with controlling female sexuality, the same mentality that leads to genital mutilation, child brides, and honor killings. Before we assume that all those Muslim women must be smothering themselves by choice, maybe we should listen to someone who actually knows what it’s like to live as a woman in an Islamic society:

The Muslim veil, the different sorts of masks and beaks and burkas, are all gradations of mental slavery. You must ask permission to leave the house, and when you do go out you must always hide yourself behind thick drapery. Ashamed of your body, suppressing your desires — what small space in your life can you call your own?

The veil deliberately marks women as private and restricted property, nonpersons. The veil sets women apart from men and apart from the world; it restrains them, confines them, grooms them for docility. A mind can be cramped just as a body may be, and a Muslim veil blinkers both your vision and your destiny. It is the mark of a kind of apartheid, not the domination of a race but of a sex.

That is from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book, Nomad, subtitled From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. It is not a coincidence that so many people from Islamic countries seek to immigrate to the West and not vice versa; there is a reason why Western states are usually rich and safe and functional while so many Muslim theocracies are poor and dangerous and corrupt. It’s a result of different values. On the one hand, we have societies ruled by a tribal mentality, where norms are derived from immutable scripture rather than science and reason, where independent thought and expression are repressed, where women are treated as property, where family honor is paramount and violence is considered a legitimate means of defending it. On the other hand, we have the values of the Enlightenment: free inquiry, universal education, individual freedom, the outlawing of private violence.

Muslim immigrants in the West must understand that by changing their nationality, by accepting the hospitality and protection of their new homes, they will have to leave behind their anachronistic values and ways of life. This can be very difficult, and the rest of us should do all we can to help ease the transition to modernity (Hirsi Ali offers several practical suggestions). We must not leave minorities to their ghettos and hope they will eventually integrate on their own, while we continuously proclaim how much we respect their culture, bend over backwards not to offend or criticize their beliefs, and insist on never imposing our values or way of life on them. Promoting “multiculturalism” in this context is as perverse as it is condescending — Hirsi Ali puts it this way:

In the real world, equal respect for all cultures doesn’t translate into a rich mosaic of colorful and proud peoples interacting peacefully while maintaining a delightful diversity of food and craftwork. It translates into closed pockets of oppression, ignorance, and abuse.

Much of this applies to Israeli Haredim as well. Many of them are happy to receive the benefits of living in a liberal democracy (health care, welfare, etc.), but without contributing their fair share to the system and without a commitment to the values that make it all work. If the Haredim suddenly found themselves alone in a state of their own, they wouldn’t last a week — no matter how hard they prayed for their God to sustain them. We should do everything we can (within the law) to encourage them to adopt democratic values and integrate into free society, and to discourage practices which hinder that goal (like denying children a modern scientific education).

We are indeed facing a clash of civilizations. We must vigorously advocate and defend our own values, the values of the Enlightenment, or we may find ourselves heading toward another Dark Age.

I’m not a bigot, it’s nature! August 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Evolution.
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In Haaretz, Yair Sheleg rejects the approach that seeks to confer on same-sex couples the same “moral and social status” that straight couples have,

first and foremost because nature itself has done just that. That only heterosexual love is capable of bringing progeny into the world reflects the fact that creation, whether in its divine or its evolutionary form, has determined this to be the normative type of sexuality. Even in an era that seeks to divorce sexuality from procreation, the ability to produce children does retain its value, just as the concept of a “normative family” remains valid.

This reasoning is so bad it’s embarrassing. First of all, the fact that something is natural doesn’t automatically make it morally good. As far as evolution is concerned, all means justify the end of maximizing progeny, but evolution is a mindless process with no foresight or intention. We, as conscious, thinking beings, are in no way obligated to value something just because it’s a product of natural selection. Rape, for example, may be a good evolutionary strategy for getting more of your genes into the next generation, and coercive sex is a well-documented phenomenon in many species (dolphins, for instance). Does that mean we should treat rape as normative behavior? Conversely, there is nothing more unnatural than birth control — does Sheleg consider contraceptive use to be immoral?

In any case, the “moral and social status” of couples in our society has nothing to do with their ability to produce offspring. We do not label as “non-normative” straight couples who cannot have children, or those who choose not to. In the current state of our over-populated planet, not having kids is certainly a respectable decision, especially since there’s no shortage of children in need of adoption (which gay couples can do just as well as straight couples).

Since there aren’t actually any good reasons for treating same-sex couples differently from heterosexual couples, where did Sheleg’s prejudice come from? Notice the not-so-subtle (and nonsensical) reference to “creation, whether in its divine or its evolutionary form.” You see, it’s not only nature that’s against homosexuality — it’s God himself! If Sheleg is taking his moral instruction directly from the collected ramblings of superstitious Iron Age men, he should at least come out and be explicit about it.

(via Religion and State in Israel)

36 (bad) arguments for the existence of God August 12, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Religion.

In the appendix to her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein patiently rebuts all three dozen of them — from The Cosmological Argument to The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments. The fun part is identifying the various logical fallacies underlying the arguments — without a doubt, the best place to find logical fallacies is on the topic of God.

The most common fallacy is that of Using One Mystery to Explain Another (featured in The Cosmological Argument, The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness, The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Free Will, and The Argument from Mathematical Reality). Unfortunately, merely proclaiming that “God did it!” when faced with a mysterious phenomenon does not dispel the mystery, and adds nothing to our understanding of the universe. Putting a label on something does not mean you have explained it. Such a non-explanation is actually worse than no explanation at all, because it causes people to think they know something that they really don’t (How does consciousness arise? God did it!) — so there’s no motivation for doing the hard work required to actually expand our knowledge.

A related fallacy is that of Arguing from Ignorance: reasoning that since we currently have no explanation for some puzzling phenomenon, it must be attributed to God. The classic example is The Argument from Design — before Darwin, no one could think of a way for complex creatures (such as ourselves) to have come about without a creator. God is still invoked as the default solution to some of today’s mysteries, as in The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness and The Argument from Prodigious Genius. But just as the puzzle of biological complexity has been given a naturalistic solution, there is every reason to expect that we will one day have a much better understanding of many phenomena that now baffle us. In any case, the fact that we do not currently have a natural explanation for something doesn’t mean that there must be a supernatural one.

A slightly more subtle fallacy is that of Wishful Thinking. It’s amazing how many people think that since they wouldn’t want to live in a universe where their existence wasn’t part of some master plan (The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance), or where evil deeds go forever unpunished (The Argument from Perfect Justice), or where innocent people suffer for no purpose (The Argument from Suffering) — it somehow follows that the universe cannot be that way. The appropriate response: Grow up.

By the way, it’s important to notice that the vast majority of arguments for the existence of God do not deal with the specific God of any particular religion, and even those few that do (like The Argument from Miracles and The Argument from Holy Books) can be used to support many contradictory religions. So even if one of the arguments did work, religious people would still have all their work ahead of them if they wish to justify the belief that God wrote some particular book, or that he cares what we eat or whom we sleep with. Furthermore, even if the universe was created by a God who continues to take an interest in our affairs, it would not follow that we ought to worship him and obey his every command (e.g., executing homosexuals). For explaining how things are, God is superfluous, and for determining how things ought to be, God is irrelevant: no miracle or magic book can absolve us from the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. As Goldstein writes in response to The Argument from the Upward Curve of History (crediting God for the spread of democracy, freedom and human rights despite natural selection’s favoring “survival of the fittest”):

Though our species has inherited traits of selfishness and aggression, we have inherited capacities for empathy, reasoning, and learning from experience as well. We have also developed language, and with it a means to pass on the lessons we have learned from history. And so humankind has slowly reasoned its way toward a broader and more sophisticated understanding of morality, and more effective institutions for keeping peace. We make moral progress as we do scientific progress, through reasoning, experimentation, and the rejection of failed alternatives.

Primary among those failed alternatives are magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition — which encourage people to accept bad arguments.

Rebecca Newberger GoldsteinRebecca Newberger Goldstein

Is predicting human behavior inherently paradoxical? August 7, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Game theory, Puzzles.
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Suppose that someone has a method for predicting how people will behave in certain controlled situations. We need not assume perfect clairvoyance; let’s say that past performance has shown the method to be 90% accurate. The predictor invites you into a room where you are presented with two closed boxes, marked A and B. The rules are as follows: you may either take both boxes, or take box B only. Box A definitely contains $1000; the contents of box B, however, depend on the prediction that was made (in advance) by the predictor. If he predicted that you would take both boxes, box B was left empty. If, however, he predicted that you would take only box B, $1 million were placed inside it.

This is called Newcomb’s paradox, created by the theoretical physicist William Newcomb in 1960. Why is it a paradox? At first glance, it seems obvious that you should take both boxes. Regardless of the contents of box B, taking both boxes always gives you an extra $1000! This is the principle of dominance in game theory, and it is difficult to dispute. However, an equally well-founded principle is that of expected utility: when you know the probabilities of the various outcomes, you should attempt to maximize your expected winnings. If you take both boxes, there is a 90% chance you will end up with $1000 (the predictor was right and so box B is empty), and a 10% chance of ending up with $1,001,000 (the predictor was wrong). So the expected utility when taking both boxes is $101,000. On the other hand, if you take box B only, there is a 90% chance of getting $1 million, and a 10% chance of getting nothing, so the expected utility is $900,000! It seems you should take only box B, then. But isn’t it irrational to leave behind the guaranteed $1000 in box A? And round and round we go…

As is often the case, the root of the paradox is self-reference. (Is the sentence “this sentence is false” true or false?) In Newcomb’s paradox, the subject knows his actions have been predicted, and this knowledge influences his decision. Therefore, the predictor must take his own prediction into account when making his prediction. In other words, if the predictor wishes to create a computer model which will simulate the subject’s decision-making process, the model must include a model of the computer itself — it must predict its own prediction, implying an infinite regress which cannot be achieved by any finite computer. This inherent limitation is reminiscent of Rice’s theorem in computability theory: it is impossible to write a computer program that can determine whether any given computer program has some nontrivial property (such as the well-known undecidable “halting problem”).

It is tempting to dismiss Newcomb’s paradox as logically impossible, under the assumption that we can never predict with any accuracy the behavior of a person who knows that his actions have been predicted. (Asimov’s Foundation introduces “psychohistory” as a branch of mathematics which can predict the large-scale actions of human conglomerates, but only under the assumption that “the human conglomerate be itself unaware of psychohistorical analysis.”) Nevertheless, William Poundstone (in Labyrinths of Reason) describes a way of conducting Newcomb’s experiment that doesn’t require a computer model to model itself. It does, however, require a matter scanner. We would use the scanner to create an exact copy of the entire setting, atom by atom — two rooms, two sets of boxes, two subjects. (Neither subject knows whether he is the “real” subject or the clone.) We would then use the actual decision made by the first subject as our prediction for the behavior of the second subject.

So what would you choose? Box B, or both boxes?

The age of rocks vs. the rock of ages August 2, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Science.
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A friend of mine works as an Israel Nature and Parks Authority guide in the Avshalom Stalactites Cave. One of the more amazing facts about stalactites one would hear on the cave tour is how long they take to form: some of the stalactites in this cave have been dated as 300,000 years old. Not all visitors learn this information, however: my friend says that the de facto policy is not to mention the age of the stalactites to Haredi groups — so as not to offend their religious beliefs about the age of the universe. (Apparently, one of the tour guides even refused to answer a question about the age of the stalactites from a nonreligious group.)

This is a shameful and cowardly instance of self-censorship by a public agency. A professional guide is expected to enlighten her audience and expand their horizons, not avoid saying anything that might contradict someone’s preconceived ideas. And let’s be honest: it is only religious beliefs that are tiptoed around in this way. Would a tour guide at a rock ‘n’ roll museum avoid talking about Elvis’s death so as not to upset those who believe he is still alive? Would a tour guide at Auschwitz omit to mention the number of people murdered there so as not to offend the beliefs of Holocaust deniers? Religious views, on the other hand, are consistently given automatic respect and shielded from criticism, even by the nonreligious. This is extremely unhealthy for our society, because it allows superstition and dogma to thrive. Not knowing the true age of the Earth is just a symptom of a deeper affliction: valuing blind faith over the scientific method and embracing dogma in place of critical thinking. Many people like to pretend there is no conflict between science and religion, but it is a serious problem when a large (and growing) segment of our population is ignorant and deluded about the nature of the universe. Ignoring the problem (by striving to avoid confrontation) makes it worse.

By the way, if Haredi visitors to the cave did protest when presented with the known age of the stalactites, I hope the guide would not merely tell them to take her word for it, but rather would explain the dating techniques used to ascertain the age of geological specimens. Education, like science, is about intellectual honesty and reasoned argument, and these are the only tools that will allow us to escape the dire circumstances we are in.

Some might argue that if we insist on telling the whole truth to visitors, then Haredi groups won’t come to the cave at all. (Touring the cave without a guide is not permitted.) But giving in to irrational demands merely encourages more of the same. Should we remove immodest paintings from our museums and blasphemous books from our public libraries? No one is forcing anybody to come to the cave or to agree with whatever the tour guide says; people are free to shut their eyes and ears and avoid reality as best they are able. (Though forcing such constraints on children is inexcusable.) But the rest of us are under no obligation to play along and make it easier for people to hold on to their delusions. The more people admire the emperor’s new clothes, the louder we must proclaim his nakedness.