From generation to generation January 24, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion.
The Amalekites, so the story goes, launched an unprovoked attack against the people of Israel as they wandered through the desert. The Israelites eventually prevailed, but Yahweh declared an eternal vendetta against the aggressor tribe:
the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.
The people of Israel were later commanded explicitly:
thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.
A few centuries later, Yahweh sent the prophet Samuel to inform Saul, king of Israel, that it was payback time:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
Saul did as he was told — well, almost: he decided to spare Agag, king of the Amalekites, and some of the livestock. The Lord was not pleased: because Saul failed to follow his command to the bloody letter, God took Saul’s kingdom away from him. (In case you were wondering, “Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD.”) The moral of the story: no matter if you’re the king, whomever God tells you to kill — you kill.
Why do I bring up this gem of ancient “history?” Several months ago, dozens of Israeli rabbis signed a letter urging Jews not to rent or sell apartments to non-Jews. Other rabbis publicly denounced the letter, and have since been harshly criticized in the pages of “Ma’ayanei Hayeshua” — a popular weekly leaflet circulated in Orthodox synagogues:
“Ma’ayanei Hayeshua” issued an unsigned editorial titled “Have men of faith gone astray?” about four weeks ago. The editorial attacked rabbis who, it said, are no more than “functionaries who don’t want to make waves.” These “career rabbis,” it charged, do not want to take part in the “culture wars,” insisting instead that controversial religious rulings reflect “only one side” of the religious debate and that “many other rabbis don’t think like that.”
The editorial then continued: “It would be interesting to see whether they [these rabbis] will leave concentrating the Amalekites into death camps to others or perhaps decide that wiping out Amalek is no longer relevant. Time will tell.”
Did you get that? Within living memory of the Holocaust, we have Jews criticizing other Jews for their reluctance to round up people of a specified ancestry into death camps. The fact that there are no Amalekites around anymore is no cause for comfort — various “enemies of the Jews” have been labeled “Amalek” over the years, and in any case, there are plenty of other people whose death is commanded by the Biblical God: homosexuals, blasphemers, adulterers, heretics, women who are not virgins on their wedding night… we’re going to need lots of camps.
This phenomenon cannot be dismissed as merely representing a few misguided extremists. First of all, tens of thousands of copies of this leaflet are distributed weekly by a mainstream religious organization, partially supported by public funding. More importantly, though, those who endorse the murder of Amalekites are not distorting or misinterpreting the “True Judaism” — destroying Amalek is indisputably one of the 613 mitzvot.
Reasonable people should not respond to this situation by offering a creative “reinterpretation” of the texts purporting to show that God doesn’t really want us to kill anyone (anymore) — we must confront the root of the problem. Religious bigotry and violence will remain with us for as long as the core foundations of religion are respected: valuing faith over evidence and reason, and valuing obedience to authority over critical, independent thinking. We must stop respecting the ridiculous claim that one of our books was dictated by the creator of the universe; we must stop teaching children that following commandments blindly is a virtue. We must reach the point where everyone understands what Saul really did wrong: even if God himself asks you to kill an Amalekite, the correct answer is no.
How the British atone for their sins January 22, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Humor.
Tags: Douglas Adams
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This is one of my favorite bits by Douglas Adams, from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish:
There is, for some reason, something especially grim about pubs near stations, a very particular kind of grubbiness, a special kind of pallor to the pork pies.
Worse than the pork pies, though, are the sandwiches.
There is a feeling which persists in England that making a sandwich interesting, attractive, or in any way pleasant to eat is something sinful that only foreigners do.
“Make ’em dry” is the instruction buried somewhere in the collective national consciousness, “make ’em rubbery. If you have to keep the buggers fresh, do it by washing ’em once a week.”
It is by eating sandwiches in pubs at Saturday lunchtime that the British seek to atone for whatever their national sins have been. They’re not altogether clear what those sins are, and don’t want to know either. Sins are not the sort of things one wants to know about. But whatever sins there are are amply atoned for by the sandwiches they make themselves eat.
If there’s anything worse than the sandwiches, it is the sausages which sit next to them. Joyless tubes, full of gristle, floating in a sea of something hot and sad, stuck with a plastic pin in the shape of a chef’s hat: a memorial, one feels, for some chef who hated the world, and died, forgotten and alone among his cats on a back stair in Stepney.
The sausages are for the ones who know what their sins are and wish to atone for something specific.
I’m disappointed in Clint Eastwood January 17, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Science, Superstition.
Tags: Clint Eastwood
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In Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, George has the ability to speak with the dead loved ones of people he touches. At least, that’s what he thinks he’s doing; it’s technically possible that he’s “merely” telepathic, since he never tells his subjects anything they didn’t already know. You guessed it: the departed spirits only ever want to say they’re sorry, and they want those they left behind to get on with their lives and be happy. George, however, is not happy, and is trying to get out of the medium business — “it’s not a gift, it’s a curse!”
Marie, meanwhile, has had a near-death experience, where she saw (can you guess?) a bright light and some silhouettes. This so unnerves her that she travels to Switzerland to meet a doctor who used to be skeptical about the afterlife (and an atheist — what’s that got to do with anything?), until “the evidence” convinced her otherwise. What evidence? She gives Marie boxes and boxes of it, but the only thing mentioned to us is that lots of people have been telling the same kind of stories after near-death experiences. (Alien abductions, anyone?) Apparently, there is a “conspiracy of silence” upheld by the scientific (and religious?) establishment, keeping the truth from being known.
Why am I being such a stick-in-the-mud? It’s just entertainment, after all. My problem is that it’s dumbed-down entertainment, reinforcing superstition and wishful thinking and pseudoscience. I like science fiction as much as anyone, but good science fiction shows an appreciation of good science: it should be original, nuanced, thought-provoking, minimally plausible. While there’s still much we don’t understand about consciousness, we know enough to rule out the naive notion of immaterial souls that float off the body at death while retaining the ability to speak English and recognize grandpa. Our minds are quite clearly dependent on our brains: all the mental capacities that make us who we are — memory, language, personality, etc. — can be impaired or obliterated in living people by damage to the relevant parts of the brain.
It’s no mystery why the idea of an afterlife is so attractive to us. But that is ever more reason to be suspicious of those who claim to know what happens after death, and we should demand much stronger evidence than anecdotes about bright lights and platitude-spouting spirits. This is not a harmless delusion: believing in an afterlife can have disastrous consequences in this life — suicide bombers, environmental neglect, and so on. Even though Hereafter acknowledges that psychics are generally frauds, it still legitimizes the self-deception and general lack of critical thinking that are the hallmarks of its subject matter. I think we should expect more, even from entertainment.
If you want to see a good Clint Eastwood movie, I recommend Gran Torino.
What is wrong with psychopaths? January 15, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Ethics, Science.
Tags: Sam Harris
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It is estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population are psychopaths — distinguished by their extraordinary egocentricity and their total lack of concern for the suffering of others. What exactly is wrong with them? The answer to this question may help us understand more about how moral intuitions develop in us. In The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist Sam Harris notes that while psychopaths do understand the concept of right and wrong (thus meeting the legal definition of sanity), they
generally fail to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions. When asked, “Would it be okay to eat at your desk if the teacher gave you permission?” vs. “Would it be okay to hit another student in the face if the teacher gave you permission?” normal children age thirty-nine months and above tend to see these questions as fundamentally distinct and consider the latter transgression intrinsically wrong. In this, they appear to be guided by an awareness of potential human suffering. Children at risk for psychopathy tend to view these questions as morally indistinguishable.
And indeed, studies show (Blair et al., 2005) that psychopaths are often unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others, suggesting that the negative emotions of others, rather than parental punishment, may be what goad us to normal socialization:
Blair […] observes that if punishment were the primary source of moral instruction, children would be unable to observe the difference between conventional transgressions […] and moral ones […], as breaches of either sort tend to illicit punishment. And yet healthy children can readily distinguish between these forms of misbehavior. Thus, it would seem that they receive their correction directly from the distress that others exhibit when true moral boundaries have been crossed. Other mammals also find the suffering of their conspecifics highly aversive. We know this from work in monkeys (Masserman, Wechkin, & Terris, 1964) and rats (Church, 1959) that would seem scarcely ethical to perform today. For instance, the conclusion of the former study reads: “A majority of rhesus monkeys will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific.”
Psychopaths, on the other hand, are born with mental defects that make it impossible for them to value the right things. Like those who are congenitally deaf or blind, they don’t know what they’re missing.
The education of John Stuart Mill January 12, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
Tags: John Stuart Mill
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John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806. In his autobiography, Mill describes his rigorous home-schooling by his father, who began teaching him Greek when he was three years old. By the time he was eight he had already read the first six dialogues of Plato (among many other classics), and began learning Latin. His father deliberately shielded him from association with other children his age — apart from his younger siblings, whom he was responsible for tutoring. By the age of fourteen he had a broad knowledge of history, mathematics, logic, poetry, and more — but his severe upbringing would take an emotional toll later in life: Mill suffered a nervous breakdown when he was twenty. Looking back later, while critical of certain aspects of his father’s methods, Mill saw much value in them as well:
There was one cardinal point in this training … which, more than anything else, was the cause of whatever good it effected. Most boys or youths who have had much knowledge drilled into them, have their mental capacities not strengthened, but over-laid by it. They are crammed with mere facts, and with the opinions or phrases of other people, and these are accepted as a substitute for the power to form opinions of their own: and thus the sons of eminent fathers, who have spared no pains in their education, so often grow up mere parroters of what they have learnt, incapable of using their minds except in the furrows traced for them. Mine, however, was not an education of cram. My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory. He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching, but, if possible, precede it. Anything which could be found out by thinking I never was told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself. As far as I can trust my remembrance, I acquitted myself very lamely in this department; my recollection of such matters is almost wholly of failures, hardly ever of success. It is true the failures were often in things in which success in so early a stage of my progress, was almost impossible.
A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.
Despite Mill’s precociousness, his father never allowed him to become arrogant:
in my fourteenth year, on the eve of leaving my father’s house for a long absence, he told me that I should find, as I got acquainted with new people, that I had been taught many things which youths of my age did not commonly know; and that many persons would be disposed to talk to me of this, and to compliment me upon it. What other things he said on this topic I remember very imperfectly; but he wound up by saying, that whatever I knew more than others, could not be ascribed to any merit in me, but to the very unusual advantage which had fallen to my lot, of having a father who was able to teach me, and willing to give the necessary trouble and time; that it was no matter of praise to me, if I knew more than those who had not had a similar advantage, but the deepest disgrace to me if I did not.
Mill was raised in a secular household — his father rejected religion for moral reasons: “He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.” Furthermore,
he regarded [religion] with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies, — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind, — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.
Still, Mill’s father thought it imprudent to make his disbelief public. Mill himself disagreed:
On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come, when it is the duty of all who being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, to make their dissent known; at least, if they are among those whose station or reputation, gives their opinion a chance of being attended to. Such an avowal would put an end, at once and for ever, to the vulgar prejudice, that what is called, very improperly, unbelief, is connected with any bad qualities either of mind or heart. The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments — of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue — are complete sceptics in religion; many of them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations, than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion a most mistaken apprehension, lest by speaking out what would tend to weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence (as they suppose) existing restraints, they should do harm instead of good.
At the end of the day, while there is no doubt about his father’s critical contribution to Mill’s accomplishments, Mill did fault him for a lack of tenderness — preventing them from being as close as they could have been. Nonetheless, Mill thought that some measure of severity is necessary for a good education:
I do not believe that boys can be induced to apply themselves with vigour, and what is so much more difficult, perseverance, to dry and irksome studies, by the sole force of persuasion and soft words. Much must be done, and much must be learnt, by children, for which rigid discipline, and known liability to punishment, are indispensable as means. It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the young are required to learn, easy and interesting to them. But when this principle is pushed to the length of not requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed. I rejoice in the decline of the old brutal and tyrannical system of teaching, which, however, did succeed in enforcing habits of application; but the new, as it seems to me, is training up a race of men who will be incapable of doing anything which is disagreeable to them. I do not, then, believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with; but I am sure that it ought not to be the main element; and when it predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence on the part of the child to those who should be the unreservedly trusted advisers of after years, and perhaps to seal up the fountains of frank and spontaneous communicativeness in the child’s nature, it is an evil for which a large abatement must be made from the benefits, moral and intellectual, which may flow from any other part of the education.
Are there any moderate Muslims? January 11, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Politics, Religion.
Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the so-called Ground Zero mosque, tells Newsweek what he’s learned from the events of the summer:
the real battlefront is not between the West and the Muslim world. It’s between the moderates of all faith traditions and the extremists or radicals — and I include in that the agnostic and atheist community. The radicals are unwitting partners. They fuel each other.
Rauf says that unless we amplify the voice of moderates (like him),
We will go down the route of bin Laden and the pastor [in Florida who threatened to burn the Quran] and insulting cartoons. And we just can’t do that — we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to put a stop to this insanity.
Insanity, you say? The real insanity is equating people who behead journalists and fly planes into buildings with people who merely voice their criticism, or draw cartoons, or destroy their own books.
Here’s what a moderate Muslim should sound like: “Anyone is free to criticize or ridicule Islam, the Quran, and the Prophet Muhammad, and no one should ever be harmed or threatened for doing so.”
I’m all ears.
Some people are not worth listening to January 10, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy, Science.
Tags: Sam Harris
In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes the case that questions of morality are actually questions about the well-being of conscious creatures; therefore, there are right and wrong answers to moral questions — and they can be determined (in principle) by science. A common objection to this thesis is that the notion of “well-being” is only loosely defined and continually open to modification — and in any case, there will always be people who insist that their moral values and goals have nothing to do with well-being:
I might claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a wide range of psychological virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be free to say that morality depends upon worshiping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-being, if it matters at all, entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s basement, waiting to be sacrificed.
But there is a double standard at work here, treating morality differently than we treat any other realm of knowledge. Harris suggests we consider an analogy with physical health. Like well-being,
[health] must be defined with reference to specific goals — not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc. — and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of “health” may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can’t study health scientifically?
I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy as you are?” And yet these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously. . . .
Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.
And what happens if someone doesn’t accept our definition of science, or its goals and methods? Well, nothing happens.
It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. . . .
It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?
The same is true regarding morality. Ever since David Hume, it has been widely accepted that there is an unbridgeable gap between facts and values: that no description of how the world is could tell us how it ought to be. According to Harris, this is an illusion.
Asking why we “ought” to value well-being makes even less sense than asking why we “ought” to be rational or scientific. And while it is possible to say that one can’t move from “is” to “ought,” we should be honest about how we get to “is” in the first place. Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down. When I say, “Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen,” I have uttered a quintessential statement of scientific fact. But what if someone doubts this statement? I can appeal to data from chemistry, describing the outcome of simple experiments. But in doing so, I implicitly appeal to the values of empiricism and logic. What if my interlocutor doesn’t share these values? What can I say then? As it turns out, this is the wrong question. The right question is, why should we care what such a person thinks about chemistry?
So it is with the linkage between morality and well-being: To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. . . . No framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying.
This type of skepticism is no more a problem for an objective morality than it is for any other branch of science. Consensus is not a prerequisite for truth; in any domain of knowledge, some opinions must be excluded from the discussion.
I don’t think we can intelligibly ask questions like, “What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good?” … We can also pose questions like “What if the most perfect circle is really a square?” or “What if all true statements are actually false?” But if someone persists in speaking this way, I see no obligation to take his views seriously. . . .
On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.
You mean it’s possible for lots of people to be wrong!? January 6, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Science, Superstition.
I just discovered that Wikipedia has a list of common misconceptions. Surely none of them apply to me? Yeah, right. Here are a few of the places where our education system, and popular culture, have let me down:
- The American Declaration of Independence was not signed on the 4th of July.
- There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets.
- Napoleon Bonaparte was not especially short — he was 1.68 meters tall.
- There is no evidence that reading in dim light or sitting close to a television causes vision to deteriorate.
- Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children.
- Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand.
At least I did know that seasonal variation is not due to differing distance from the sun, that all tastes can be detected on all parts of the tongue, and that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted.
Easy answers to difficult questions January 4, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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The Globe and Mail talked to some young, secular-born Canadian Jews who decided to become Orthodox. What about it attracted them?
“One thing that really struck me was the amount of passion these people had,” Mr. Krybus said. “And they were doing all kinds of things that I didn’t know what they were doing, or why they were doing them. But they had such a passion that had such a truth behind it.”
There are also plenty of passionate Muslims, Mormons and Scientologists. (And they have some weird customs, too.) Believe it or not, even infidels like me have things we’re passionate about. But I would never offer my passion as evidence for the truth of my claims. Those who have good justification for their beliefs should be able to present that justification dispassionately, appealing to your reason. Those who have no such justification, on the other hand, will often attempt to distract you from that fact with displays of passion, appealing to your emotion. If you care about the truth, then passion is not enough — you need to demand evidence.
But wait, there’s more:
beyond providing answers to life’s great questions, those who become Orthodox say that an important draw are the answers it provides to more mundane questions, like how to spend a Saturday afternoon…
“It says this is how you have to live, this is how you have to schedule your day and your week, and this is how you have to dress and this is how you have to eat,” [Sarah Bunin Benor, an American sociologist] said. “And for people who feel kind of lost, I think that is a real useful change. And not just people who feel lost but people who like structure.”
Let’s see… Where religion’s answers to “life’s great questions” haven’t turned out to be demonstrably false (e.g., regarding the structure of the cosmos and the origin of species) or flagrantly immoral (e.g., regarding slavery and the status of women), they are simplistic, naive, and utterly unsubstantiated. And of course, the answers provided by different religions are mutually incompatible (though espoused with equal certainty). We live in a complex world, and life is often difficult and uncertain, but relying on wishful thinking and letting some authority dictate your beliefs and decisions is not respectable or praiseworthy — it’s lazy and puerile. Difficult as it may be, we expect adults to be rational and to think for themselves.
Things turn from childish to dangerous, however, when personal preferences become religious doctrine. The Globe and Mail piece focuses entirely on Orthodox practices that some people find useful, without saying one word about the belief system that underlies them. You know, all that stuff about God creating the world, choosing the Jewish people, giving them the Torah, punishing them for disobeying his commandments, etc. Religious people take such beliefs very seriously — even though there is no good reason to think they’re actually true. That is a problem.
Some traditional practices (like family meals) may indeed be beneficial, but in that case we don’t need to believe they were commanded by God in order to adopt them. The utility of other practices is questionable, but if you find that not using electricity on Saturdays and separating meat from milk makes you a better person and helps you achieve inner peace, then by all means keep it up. However, different people may have different goals and find their happiness in different places. The problem is that if you think the rules you follow are mandated by the creator of the universe, it becomes natural to want to force them on others and to treat those with different priorities and beliefs rather badly.
Furthermore, once you stop thinking critically and let religion dictate how you live, you have no way of filtering the bad ideas and customs from the good ones — and there is still plenty of bad stuff in our religious traditions: homophobia, “bastard” children, neonatal circumcision, agunot, and so on.
Finally: if you allow yourself to be satisfied with bad answers to life’s great questions, you’ll never look for better ones. While religious dogmas become more anachronistic and irrelevant every day, human rationality and honest investigation continuously reveal amazing new truths in all areas of knowledge, improving our understanding of our world and of ourselves, and allowing us to change our circumstances for the better. There is no doubt that many incredible facts and explanations are still waiting to be discovered — but to find them, you must admit that you don’t already have all the answers, and face reality with an open mind.