Monday, February 28, 2011

X: If you could, would you have done differently?
Y: Yes.
X: How?
Y: I would not have accepted this life imposed on me, with its limits and responsibilities.
X: Why don't you do so now?
Y: It's just too much trouble. Would create too much of a mess of my life. It's not worth it. I don't value freedom that much to jeopardize a life of peace. Plus I don't want to hurt the people around me. It's better that way. I'm content, and I know that fighting for my freedom in the circumstances I am in would not make me any happier.

* Is valuing a life of peace morally equivalent to valuing a life of freedom? If Y had instead fought for his freedom, jeopardizing his peace and alienating the people in his life, would it be a pursuit of something (morally) noble and admirable or would it merely be a result of the fact that he values something different?

* If you support Y in what he did, is it because you yourself prefer peace over freedom? If you find fighting for freedom admirable, is it because you yourself value freedom over peace? Is our moral admirability of something based on how we prioritize our own values?

* Everyone has a right to act according to what they value. To believe otherwise would be contrary to individual freedom. But is there any basis to our moral praise or disapproval of what people value?

* Are there values that people ought to value? An "ought" cannot exist, suspended by itself. No, it can't. No categorical imperatives. It has to be hypothetical: If you desire your own well-being, flourishing, you ought to value A.

* Are there more than one ways to flourish for an individual? There is no reason to suppose otherwise. If so, many values can lead to individual flourishing, and prioritization among them would be a matter of individual preference.

* Valuing peace over freedom, or valuing freedom over peace, do they both lead to individual flourishing? [Let's assume they do.]

* If Y values peace over freedom, and peace he can have, then acting accordingly would lead to his individual flourishing.

* If [Y] values freedom over peace, and freedom he is denied, then he is denied his flourishing. You cannot obtain flourishing from what you do not value. To fight for freedom is still his best bet for flourishing, in case he succeeds.

* Y is pursuing his own flourishing, but that is also (incidentally) the easy way out. Such cannot be deserving of our moral praise. The issue of praise or blame would not even arise. ('Moral luck')

* [Y], if he pursues his freedom, he is displaying courage by fighting against the odds for what is his right. This is deserving of moral praise. If [Y] chickens out, if [Y] displays cowardice and picks the easy way out, he is not deserving of moral praise. If this choice is not excused, justified or seen as understandable [depending on state of reactive attitudes], one can judge it to be morally disappointing.

*What if [Y] decides not to pursue his freedom, not out of cowardice, but because he decides to sacrifice his flourishing for the flourishing of people around him, whose flourishing is parasitic on his, would this be deserving of moral praise? Two attitudes are possible here, based on how you view this act of sacrifice. You could praise it as an act of altruism, or you could consider it to be based on good intentions, but ultimately misguided and hence not deserving of moral praise. Which of these is correct, I'm not sure but I lean towards the latter.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some accounts of the famous Wittgenstein vs Popper poker incidence:

"In 1946 Karl Popper addressed the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club on the subject Are There Philosophical Problems?. The subsequent discussion, chaired by Russell, is known to have been lively. At one point Wittgenstein, brandishing a poker, is said to have demanded of Popper that he offer an example of a moral rule: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”, Popper is said to have replied. At which point Wittgenstein, perhaps deciding it was a case of “thereof one must be silent”, stormed out.

It has been suggested that the title and content of Popper’s paper were intended to provoke Wittgenstein who by this time is thought to have become sceptical of the existence of philosophical problems, and to believe that such “problems” were instead reducible to the misuse of language." [Andy Walsh, Wittgenstein, Popper and the Art Of Feud.]

"Popper's account can be found in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, published in 1974. According to this version of events, Popper put forward a series of what he insisted were real philosophical problems. Wittgenstein summarily dismissed them all. Popper recalled that Wittgenstein 'had been nervously playing with the poker', which he used 'like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions', and when a question came up about the status of ethics, Wittgenstein challenged him to give an example of a moral rule. 'I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.'"

"It is only to be expected that each of those present in that crowded room has a slightly different recollection of the night's events. Some had a restricted view. One thing happened on top of another, making the precise sequence uncertain. The flow of debate was so fast that it was difficult to follow. But most share one memory: the poker itself."

"Michael Wolff sees that Wittgenstein has the poker idly in his hand and, as he stares at the fire, is fidgeting with it. Someone says something that visibly annoys Wittgenstein. By this time Russell has become involved. Wittgenstein and Russell are both standing. Wittgenstein says, 'You misunderstand me, Russell. You always misunderstand me.' He emphasizes 'mis', and 'Russell' comes out as 'Hrussell'. Russell says, 'You're mixing things up, Wittgenstein. You always mix things up.' Russell's voice sounds a bit shrill, quite unlike when lecturing."

"Peter Munz watches Wittgenstein suddenly take the poker - red hot - out of the fire and gesticulate with it angrily in front of Popper's face. Then Russell - who so far has not spoken a word - takes the pipe out of his mouth and says firmly, 'Wittgenstein, put down that poker at once!' His voice is high-pitched and somewhat scratchy. Wittgenstein complies, then, after a short wait, gets up and walks out, slamming the door." [Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Also describes other varying eye-witness accounts of the incident.]
The following are excerpts from A History of Islamic Philosophy by Majid Fakhry, 3rd edition (pages 248-257), related to the pantheistic tendencies in Islamic mysticism.

'[T]here is little in the early Sufi ideal of life for which a basis cannot be found in the Koran and the Traditions, and Massignon is probably right in asserting that "from the Koran continually recited, meditated upon and practiced, Islamic mysticism proceeds in its origins and its development." The concepts of religious poverty (faqr), meditation (fikr, dhikr), fortitude (sabr), renunciation (zuhd), and even the love of God and His contemplation can be shown to be a logical development from that other-worldly strain in the Koran to which we have already referred. What might be rightly regarded as a non-Islamic component of Sufism is the tendency in the writings and practices of the earliest Sufis to go beyond the ritual aspect of the religious law (al-Shariah) and to reach out to a reality (Haqiqah) that thoroughly transcends it. It signifies that in this process of reaching out, not only the law, but even Muhammad, as the vehicle of divine revelation, are dispensed with and the believer desires a direct fellowship or communion with God.'

'Despite those inherent tendencies, the early mystics remained generally firm in their adherence to orthodoxy. Even al-Junaid, who had sown the seeds of a unitary mysticism conditioned by Hindu concepts of the self, did not draw all the possible logical consequences that later and bolder spirits were to draw.

Of these bolder men who became so "intoxicated" with divine love that they could not help taking the final step across the pantheistic abyss, the two best known in the ninth century are al-Bistami (al-Bastami) and al-Hallaj.'

'Whatever the constructions that have been put upon them by later scholars, al-Bastami's "extravagances" (shatahat) bear on the general mystical themes of ecstasy or union with God and imply a clear presupposition of self-deification.'

'The Hindu influence on this type of mysticism has been shown by Zaehner to be unmistakable. There is a clear link to Vedantic metaphysics not only in the case of al-Bastami's Indian master, al-Sindi, who taught him some "ultimate truths", but also in the very complexion of his thought and its "nihilistic" implications. Al-Bastami lived at a time in which the revival and systematization of Vedantic thought itself was being actively pursued by Shankara (d. 820) and his school. His ecstatic utterances, such as the already quoted "Glory be to me" (Subhani) or "I am Thou" or "I am I," all purport to assert his total self-identification with the divine and have numerous parallels in the Upanishads and the Vedanta. Perhaps the wildest of all his utterances in the one in which he speaks of his search for God: he could not find God and therefore took His place on the Throne.'

'How a Muslim could make such extravagant claims that placed him almost above God and yet go unscathed in the ninth century is truly surprising. However, a note made by later authors gives us the clue to this problem. When al-Bastami was accused of laxity in the performance of his ritual duties, we are told, he resorted to the expedient which other Sufis also employed: affected madness. This device apparently saved his life as well as the lives of numerous fellow Sufis.

There was one ninth-century Sufi, however, who was not willing to resort to this dodge, and the price he paid for his extravagances was very high. Al-Husain b. Mansur al-Hallaj...'

'[The] condition of personal communion with the I-Thou is what he called the 'essence of union' ('ain al-jam'), in which all actions, thoughts, and aspirations of the mystic are wholly permeated by God. But, according to him, this union did not result, as it had in the case of al-Bastami, in the total destruction or nullification of the self, but rather in its elevation to joyful and intimate communion with the Beloved.'

'[He] was finally convicted on the charge of blasphemy by decree of a canonical jury... and was countersigned by the caliph. ...[A]lthough he had been ordered to be whipped and decapitated by the caliph, in an excess of zeal, the vizier ordered him to be whipped, mutilated, crucified, decapitated, cremated, and his remains scattered to the four winds. Nothing like this had ever happened in the whole history of Muslim piety.'

However, these pantheistic tendencies were soon countered by post-Hallajian mystics, who were too eager to make mysticism compatible with orthodoxy:

'The great figures in the history of post-Hallajian mysticism, such as al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi, addressed themselves primarily to the task of systemization or synthesis.... [al-Ghazali] A man of greater learning and intellectual earnestness than any of his masters, he pledged his full support to orthodoxy and bent his efforts to bringing everything he cherished into harmony with it.... Without divorcing himself explicitly from the extravagant Sufis referred to earlier, and whom he sometimes reproaches for divulging what ought to have remained secret, al-Ghazali like his master al-Junayd artfully skirts the pantheistic abyss without falling into it. His mysticism might then be looked upon as an attempt to give the monotheistic ideal of Islam a greater degree of metaphysical cogency.'


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This post is from an email exchange between me and Freethinker (an ex-blogger, who had gained prominence through his blog 'notes of a freethinker') which took place in April 2009 (hence the reference to Swat flogging), in which he shares his valuable thoughts on sexuality and society:

Me: How do you respond to people who say that sexual liberation would lead to disruption of a society, and create a havoc of problems like teen pregnancies, illegitimate children, abandoned old people, destruction of family etc?

Freethinker: Well, there's a tough one to refute. Because the claim is put in terms that we're not allowed to question. 'Teen pregnancies', 'illegitimate children', 'abandoned old people', 'destruction of family' - they definitely sound like things we should prevent in all speed. And in a similar way, uncontrolled sex is made out to be an obvious cause of all these problems.

We can only examine and refute a claim like this by talking about the categories and assumptions the claim uses, questioning them, thinking about what it leaves out, and whose interests are served - and whose excluded - by a claim like this. And that would require a detailed essay to examine in full.

I think the reason why this is bothering you right now is because of the whole debate over the 'flogging'. There are people saying that the punishment itself isn't barbaric - just that it's applied without due procedure, without sufficient evidence that 'illicit' sexual activity has taken place. But you wanna tell them that the punishment itself is barbaric, period. If that's the case, then your question should be 'is sexuality to be disciplined through harsh universal punishments?' Now this question I have engaged myself with for years now, and over the years I've accumulated various insights over it...

Here's my case against disciplining sexuality through punishments. It is generally accepted that for criminality to be established, the person must be 'accountable'. But such accountability is difficult to establish if you haven't already assumed too much about the individual who has had 'illicit' sex, which would make the punishment rather arbitrary and unfair. Did the individual consent to it? And by consent I mean 'wished to see the sexual encounter through'. Was she/he otherwise manipulated? Was she/he depressed, felt unfulfilled and alienated, low on self-esteem, etc., making them easy targets for manipulation? Did anything else - like recent trauma - happen that clouded the individual's judgment? Maybe the individual was raised up in a sexually permissible environment, or there was something else that messed up his/her socially conditioned 'control' of sexual impulses? Maybe the individual is stuck in an oppressive situation and the sexual act is a desperate attempt to break free. And lastly, sometimes marriage, the supposed 'legal' outlet, isn't available to the person - for example, as is the case in modernity, the 'teenager' who had sex might have gone for marriage if it weren't for the socio-economic arrangements that discourage marriage at such 'young' age.

So in all these situations, a different picture of the sex 'offender' emerges: she/he is not accountable, maybe even innocent. Thus the morality of disciplining of sexuality is fraught with problems, not least because the very morality that gives rise to it is too rigid. If it's 'justice' that you're basing your morality on, then justice makes sure that the 'innocent' (abandoned illegitimate children and such) who haven't done anything don't have to suffer for the doings of others. But we've seen how this way, our sex 'offender' whose accountability cannot be established becomes an 'innocent' herself/himself.

What I said about the issue of determining whether someone is truly guilty of a 'sexual offense' in a conservative society is not an argument for sexual liberation, nor even a critique of Islamic jurisprudence. The point is that we'll have to abandon any notions of 'fairness' if we try to regulate something as complicated as sexuality with criminal law, no matter how much emphasis is placed on 'due process'.

It's also not so easy to talk about 'teenage pregnancies', 'illegitimate children', etc. What's a 'teenager' (the concept did not exist in early Islam - people married early), and what's wrong with a teen pregnancy that works out well for all parties concerned? We can think of a number of ways in which the current social and economic arrangements make pregnancy a pickle for 'teenagers'. Similarly, 'illegitimate children' as well as 'abandoned children' are a problem because the society has no place for even underprivileged children, let alone those born out of wedlock who not only are mostly raised by single women (who, in turn, the society has no place for - no economic security) but also have crippling social stigma (the children and their mothers) to struggle with.

'Abandoned old people' sounds like a bad thing when stated that way. But surely isn't it ridiculous to say that people are not taking care of the elderly because of their one-night stands? How much sex would I have to be having to become negligent in my obligations to my aging parents? Implicit in the claim that loose sexual mores lead to 'abandoned old people' is the support for the traditional family structure in which the elderly were catered to by housewives and children. That traditional family is horribly unfair to women, and in some cases, to children. The claim also takes for granted that putting the responsibility of the care of the elderly in hands of the family, and not, say, the State is a good thing. That can certainly be questioned, since the elderly can sometimes have no family for reasons other than abandonment (childlessness, death of offspring, never having married, etc.)

Another problem is that by bringing criminal law enforcement for disciplining sexuality you are underestimating the Enlightenment project of 'universal education': it not only promotes values of self-control and discipline in the individual, but also creates opportunities for the individual to seek other kinds of fulfillment than 'sexual'. (By the way, I hold that the sexual impulse is not as central to life as discourses of biological determinism make it out to be. Fortunately, those who you'll be arguing this problem with would be religious and be loath to biological determinism themselves.)

But those of a postmodernist persuasion (such as myself) who are not fans of 'the Enlightenment project' can go beyond all this and question why sexuality needs to be 'controlled' anyways. It can be argued that any attempt to regulate sexuality is to be suspected not only because it serves the status quo and all the power relations in it (heteronormativity, male dominance, etc.), but also because repression is unrealistic and only messes us up. They will tend to see the 'destruction of family' as desirable, and will advocate sex education and bodily sovereignty (that is, controlling reproduction rather than sexuality, through contraception and abortion).

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Sarah and Asra know their marriage is unorthodox, and the idea of a gay nikah would be rejected by the majority of Muslim scholars, but Sarah says it is nobody's business.

"It is between me and God..."
"Same-sex nikahs are still a contentious issue, but all I can say is I have done it, and I am completely comfortable and content with my faith..."

This is one of the ways in which Islam can evolve: by allowing individual freedom in interpretation and practice.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'The study of past times and uncivilized races makes it clear beyond question that the customary beliefs of tribes or nations are almost invariably false. It is difficult to divest ourselves completely of the customary beliefs of our own age and nation, but it is not very difficult to achieve a certain degree of doubt in regard to them. The Inquisitor who burnt men at the stake was acting with true humanity if all his beliefs were correct; but if they were in error at any point, he was inflicting a wholly unnecessary cruelty. A good working maxim in such matters is this: Do not trust customary beliefs so far as to perform actions which must be disastrous unless the beliefs in question are wholly true.'

Bertrand Russell, Individual Liberty and Public Control
You are the different one, the odd one out, the one who cannot speak his mind because no one really gets you. You are afraid to show your inner self to others because it horrifies them. But you are still attached to these people; they are your family, friends, love. So you make peace with the silence and hypocrisy. You settle down to pretenses, cause that is the only way you know. You accept it as the price of being different.

And it takes only one person to change all that. You meet one person who accepts who you are, you meet one person who is not horrified by who you are, and it changes everything. You come to know that you don't have to hide, that you don't have to keep secrets, that you can just be yourself, that you are not alone and that you are not a freak.

All that silence and pretense begins to crumble, because now you know that things can be different. You begin to demand that they be different.

Your old life reacts. The world resists.
But you have tasted the fruit; you are no longer satisfied with the fake paradise.
You would rather fall, and create a world of your own.
And you will.
Whether it takes one life or many more.

But it takes that one person. At least one person.

Friday, February 18, 2011

'But there's no way that I could know what you've experienced, right? I couldn't possibly feel that need. Like a thousand hiding voices whispering "This is who you are". And you fight the pressure. The growing need rising like a wave. Prickling and teasing and prodding to be fed. But the whispering gets louder, until they're screaming "Now!" And it's the only voice you hear. The only voice you want to hear. And you belong to it. To this … shadow self. To this … dark passenger.'

Dexter, Episode 2.03

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


"How then is Quranic interpretation different from constitutional interpretation?

To understand how Islamic legal interpretation is different, take the oft-debated issue of the number of wives a man may have under Islamic law. As is well known, the Quran says that a man have up to four wives provide he treats them equally. The Quran then adds a further injunction that no one can treat their wives equally.

The traditional legal interpretation of this point is that a Muslim man may indeed have up to four wives. The Quranic statement that no man can treat all four wives equally is thus taken to mean that absolute equality is impossible and that reasonable equality of treatment is sufficient.

Compared to this, we have the modern day reformist perspective. The reformist argument is that when the Quran states that it is impossible to treat all four wives equally, it should be taken literally and that Islamic law only allows Muslim men to have one wife at a time.

The heated debate over this issue tends to hide the fact that both the reformist and traditional schools of interpretation assume that there can only be one truly Islamic law which is valid for all times. Thus, the traditional scholar argues that a Muslim man could have four wives in 611 A.D. and that he can have four wives in 2011. The reformist argues that a Muslim could actually only have had one wife back in 611 AD and that the same holds true in 2011. What neither school is willing to concede is that Islamic law in back 611 allowed for four wives at a time but that Islamic law in 2011 only allows for one wife. This is because neither traditional scholars nor reformers allow for the possibility of change in Islamic law: both approaches assume that what is true in Islamic law is true for all times – past, present and future. And it is in this sense that Islamic jurisprudence differs from constitutional jurisprudence. Constitutional jurisprudence has no problems stating that what was true yesterday is no longer true today while at the same time conceding that was true yesterday was indeed true yesterday. Islamic jurisprudence does not allow for that: either something is true for both yesterday and today or it is not true at all. There is no temporal variation permitted in Islamic jurisprudence.

To understand why this is so, one has to go back back into Islamic history and the debate over the createdness of the Quran.[...]"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How Hollywood taught us to kiss.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Awais Aftab

Her eyes betray
The bruised affection of yesteryears
We had good times
Yes, we did
Even if it is just a recall bias

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Politics is the battleground where all political philosophies are bloodied and maimed, even if victorious. It is the mangled translation of theory into action amidst the muck of the world.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Since a few days, I have been thinking about what normative ethics I actually employ in my practical life, consciously and unconsciously. How do I decide what to do in this or that situation, and how do I generally approach the question of how we ought to act? This post will be my preliminary attempt to formulate, or rather phrase, that normative ethics. I do not wish to claim for now that it is philosophically valid or that it has any realist status. I am merely observing myself as a moral agent (not that I am a perfect one) and noting down the broad principles that I see.

* One should aim to act out of good intentions and virtuous emotions. Compassion, empathy, courage, honesty, wisdom, justice etc. Not as a matter of dry philosophical abstraction but actually being driven by the particular intention and motivation, because we want to be a particular sort of person. Various persons will have various virtues as more dominant than others, and this will define their character as moral agents. With regard to individual circumstances, it would be a matter of asking how the relevant virtue should be exercised. "What would be the compassionate thing to do in this circumstance?" "What would be the empathetic thing to do?" "What would be the honest thing to do?" "What would be the just thing to do?" Answering these questions will not always be easy and clear, and often we may have to rely on rules of thumb like the Golden Rule or Rawl's 'veil of ignorance' thought experiment to determine that.

* Acting out of self-interest is morally permissible and often necessary, provided you act within your moral rights.

* As a moral and rational agent, it is evident to me (and most other people) that there are certain fundamental and universal rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. These rights can be worked out from basic virtues of justice, equality and individual freedom, and for a rational person who is morally sensitive, these will appear to be almost intuitive. The exact formulation of these rights has grown with moral Zeitgeist, as we have become more and more sensitive to discrimination. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by United Nations is a good articulation for legal purposes.) Religious and cultural virtues that clash with these universal human rights should be rejected as primitive vestiges of our moral development.

* In matters where moral intuitions are unclear and applicability of virtues is unclear, consequentialist principle of increasing well-being can be used to determine the best course of action.
An angry protest from a reader:

"You are always so biased in your judgement. What do you think boys do? Don't they have affairs and then marry the girls their parents want? If you say all this about girls, you should criticize boys too. They themselves can have affairs and then marry only those girls who never had any affair. It's because of this demand of a 'shareef larki' by boys that girls usually don't have affairs or they try to get married to that particular boy who starts eying her suspiciously later."

I don't know how I conveyed this impression so let me just state it to be clear: I am not criticizing girls. I am, in fact, on their side. I criticize the Pakistani society, because women are its victims. Posts like Elopement are not meant as criticisms of what girls do or that there is something morally wrong with elopement, rather the intention is to elaborate the mechanisms by which our society subjugates women. Men are a part of this society and a part of this problem. I have nothing but disapproval for boys who indulge in such hypocritical behavior and I am hostile to all such selective criteria of 'sharafat' by which women are judged.
Dure: Some moral errors are worth it, just because of the humility they teach us.
 

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