Saturday, April 30, 2011

"My upbringing was conservative, I was always told, you must not go out, you must not make yourself look so attractive, you mustn’t have male friends. I have always abided by what men say. As a result I developed an extreme desire for freedom. I feel like Che Guevara. I have to do everything I want, otherwise I feel like I may as well be dead.... For years I subordinated myself to various societal constraints and did what others thought was right for me. The Playboy photo shoot was a total act of liberation." says Sila Sahin, the first Turkish-German woman to appear on the cover of Playboy.

An act of liberation. Haven't we heard this very recently? Oh, yes, we heard it in the Burqa debate! So, this is what we have, women covered up from head-to-toe claiming to feel liberated, and we have women naked from head-to-toe claiming to feel liberated. Interesting contrasts. Did Sila Sahin actually feel liberated? I bet she did. Do women in West wearing burqa as a conscious choice feel liberated? I bet they do. But the real question is not whether individual X or Y feels liberated; the real question is about the practice, the institution:

Does posing naked on Playboy mean that women are liberated?
No, it doesn't. They are still playing in the hands of patriarchy.

Does wearing a burqa mean that women are liberated?
No, it doesn't. They are still playing in the hands of patriarchy.

The reason why they feel liberated is based on individual psychology and the sense of rebellion. If you come from a segment of society where you are expected to cover up obsessively, and you go and shed your clothes for a magazine, this is a symbolic radical act of showing your non-conformity to that tradition. If you come from a segment of society where you are expected to show your skin, and you go and cover yourself up from head to toe, this is a symbolic radical act of showing your non-conformity to that tradition. No wonder both of these feel liberating.

Another interesting bit. A kebab shop owner, asked on German TV what he would do if Sila were his daughter, replied: "I would kill her. I really mean that. That doesn't fit with my culture."

That doesn't fit with my culture. We heard this somewhere, didn't we? Ah, yes, this is what the French said when they banned the Burqa!
While much of popular debate on God is fixated on a very particular (and problematic) notion of God, theology under the influence of philosophy moved on quite a long time ago. The example I have in my mind right now is that of Process Theology, developed by Charles Hartshorne using the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (the co-author of Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell.) Currently, I am not making any attempt at a philosophical proof and defence of this particular conception of God; I do however wish to introduce it to the readers of this blog (many of whom, I believe, would be unfamiliar with this) so that those unsatisfied with traditional theism can explore this sort of possibility as a viable alternative.

Key features of God as seen in process theology are:

* Panentheism: God contains the universe, but is not identical with it. The universe is in God, but God transcends the universe. All is in God. (Contrast with Pantheism: Universe is God, God is Universe.)

* God is both immanent and transcendent. God interpenetrates the whole of nature, and extends beyond as well.

* Universe is not static. It is in a constant process of change, brought about by agents of free will, including but not limited to human beings. God is not the ultimate source of all decisions. Agents with free will can make decisions independently, which can be influenced -- but not controlled -- by God. God influences the decisions of free beings by offering or limiting possibilities. God, therefore, cannot totally control any individual. The divine has a power of persuasion rather than coercion.

* God interacts with the Universe, therefore God can change the Universe and Universe can change God.

* God knows what is happening and what has happened (present and past) but God cannot know the future. The future is as yet undetermined because we -- and other free beings -- co-create it with God.

* God is not the creator and Universe is not the created. There is no creation ex nihilo. “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God” (Whitehead).

* The universe is not fixed, but open-ended and growing by creativity, with God as "the poet of the world" (Whitehead)

* In a universe with freedom and creativity, there is an inevitable opportunity of genuine good as well as the risk of genuine evil. A world without good and evil would be a world without freedom and creativity. However, the suffering in the world is as real for God as it is for us. "God is the fellow sufferer who understands." (Whitehead)

Friday, April 29, 2011

My cover story in Us magazine.





Saturday, April 23, 2011

Something philosophers need to be acutely aware of: a completely dispassionate psychologically unmotivated reasoning is perhaps not possible. Our reasoning will almost always be influenced in subtle ways by our emotions.

From the article The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science by Chris Mooney

"The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We're not driven only by emotions, of course — we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about....

In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial....

The upshot: All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself?

Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Islam's problem is less its being anti-modern than that its process of modernization has hardly begun. Muslims can modernize their religion, but that requires major changes: Out go waging jihad to impose Muslim rule, second-class citizenship for non-Muslims, and death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy. In come individual freedoms, civil rights, political participation, popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and representative elections." writes Daniel Pipes in A Democratic Islam?

But how? How can such a move be carried out in a theologically legitimate way? Is Koran not the literal word of God, and therefore static and eternal, and applicable for all time and places without modification?

Centuries of Koranic interpretations would have us believe so, but Daniel Pipes believes that a potential for re-interpretation is there. In fact, he believes that prototypes of such a model have already been present for quite some time. An example he is very fond of quoting is that of the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha. Taha was aware of Islam's incompatibility with modern morality with its emphasis on universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy. The solution he came up with was to maintain a distinction between the Meccan verses and the Medinan verses of Koran. The Meccan verses deal with the metaphysical and mystical aspects of faith, while Medinan verses are much more political and legal in nature; it is the latter on which much of Sharia is based. Taha believes that Meccan verses reveal to us the ideal and true essence of Islam, while Medinan verses merely refer to the historical applicability of that essence to the society as it existed in Prophet's time and place. Therefore, it is only the general principles elaborated in the Meccan verses that are to be followed, while the rest have to be reconstructed according to the needs of the time. Through one master stroke of revisionist interpretation, Taha divorces Sharia from Islam.

Daniel Pipes explains it briefly in an article:
"Taha built his interpretation on the conventional division of the Koran into two. The initial verses came down when Muhammad was a powerless prophet living in Mecca, and tend to be cosmological. Later verses came down when Muhammad was the ruler of Medina, and include many specific rulings. These commands eventually served as the basis for the Shari'a, or Islamic law.

Taha argued that specific Koranic rulings applied only to Medina, not to other times and places. He hoped modern-day Muslims would set these aside and live by the general principles delivered at Mecca. Were Taha's ideas accepted, most of the Shari'a would disappear, including outdated provisions concerning warfare, theft, and women. Muslims could then more readily modernize."

However, unfortunately, as can be expected, Taha did not fare very well by espousing such radical views. He was executed in 1985 by President Jaafar al-Nimeiri of Sudan on the charge of apostasy.

The only way this, or a similar solution, can work is if Muslims are willing to do so. As Pipes astutely remarks "Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to make of it." The possibility of a modernist reform is there; templates and prototypes exist. The only question for Muslims is: Are you up for it?

[h/t: Umair Waheed Qazi]

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Ismat Chughtai's short story Lingering Fragrance (translated by Syeda Hameed, from the book A Chughtai Collection) one encounters a Nawab's household in which it is customary for the men of the family to enjoy the 'company' of the maids, something that is properly organized and over-seen by the head Begum to ensure a just division of flesh. Not only is it seen as a usual practice, it is something that is expected of men. And so one night when a maid is sent to the eighteen year old Chhamman Mian, and he sends her away without a touch, everyone is shocked. The immediate concerns of the Begum are regarding her son's potency, and a Hakim Saheb is called to reassure her that there is nothing to worry about, the boy merely is young and inexperienced. Given this background, I present to you an excerpt from the short story:

This news created the kind of stir that even a Third World War may not have. Rumours began to hiss and crawl in every corner of the mahal like a clutch of snakes from an open pit. Whoever learnt of it, (and how fast it moved from mouth to ear) pounded his breast.

"God, O God! Poor Chhamman Mian." When he got the news, Afzal Mian headed straight for Chhamman's room, flapping his pajamas and chewing his tobacco.

"How was I to know? So this is your inclination, is it? Had I known why would I have put your Bhabhi's noose around my neck? Never mind, darling, I am still yours." A few years ago he had fallen head over heels in love with Chhamman. But when Nawab Saheb loaded his pistol, he sobered up. Chhamman Miam hated him.

"Shut up. I have no such taste or inclination. It's just that I don't like such things. Not permitted before marriage."

"But, Sarkar, a maid is permissible before marriage."

"Wrong. Not admissible."

"That means that all our ancestors were fornicators? Only you are the true adherent of faith?"

"It is my belief..."

"Your belief, shit! Have you ever studied the rules of Din?"

"No. But this defies all reason."

"To hell with your reason. No solid facts. All airy nonsense."

"It is a crime in the eyes of law."

"Who cares for the law of the kafirs? We only accept the word of God. We treat our slaves like our own children. Nayaab rules the household, her son lacks nothing. Look at the maids - fed with the best grains, they are bursting with health. And if you were handed starved and shrivelled goods... my boy, take Sarvari. She's been fattened perfectly."

"Hush!"

"What the hell is going on?"

"Nothing. Please stop gnawing at my brain."

"Fine by me. If you like being the butt of everyone's jokes, who can stop you. And by the way, Sarkar, in case you didn't know, your fiancée..."

"I have no fiancée."

"Well, fiancée-to-be then! Hurma Khanum is becoming too friendly with that bastard, Mansur."

"So... What am I to do?"

"Shall I tell you? I am going towards Sadar -- I will send the bangle-vendor. Make sure to wear glass bangles right upto your elbows. What else?" With his mouth full of betel juice, he let out a roar of laughter.

"Illiteracy... damned illiteracy!"

"Our venerable ancestors were illiterate, were they?"

"Must have been. How do I know?"

"Nonsense from a convoluted brain. The elders must have thought about this matter carefully before establishing the tradition. To this day we respect their guidance and adhere to it. This is the best way of preventing young men from falling into worse habits. They become responsible, remain healthy..."

"Ways of legitimizing fornication."

"Yours words are reeking of kufr. Insulting the faith."

"Don't talk about faith. This is its only tenet etched on your heart."

"You are insolent and stupid. To hell with you!"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

If you take a dog, lock it in a cage whose floor is electrified, and you give repeated electric shocks to the poor thing, the dog will agitatedly try and find a way to escape, and will find none. Ultimately, the dog will just give up trying and will passively bear the electric shocks as they come and go. Now, if you partially lower down one of the sides of the cage, such that the dog can easily escape by jumping over it, the dog would not even try! It will stay as it is, passive and whining, taking the shocks while freedom is but a leap away. It has learnt that resistance is futile; it has learnt that there is no escape, so why even bother. It has learnt to be helpless.

You'd think that humans might do better, being rational creatures and all that, but they don't. In fact, they might even do worse! It is because humans have a much more enhanced ability to learn helplessness even by observation alone. The electrified cages for us humans are the systems we live in, our families, our cultures, our societies. Our bars are varied and numerous: judgements, criticisms, shame, reputation, guilt, duty, social isolation, and sometimes even physical punishment. And it works as long as you see yourself as the system sees you. If the system believes you have lost your honour, then you have lost your honour. If the system believes you have brought shame upon yourself, then you have brought shame upon yourself. You allow yourself to be judged, you allow yourself to be branded, you allow yourself to be afraid of the system, because since childhood you have learnt that resistance is futile.

Is there an escape? Can we de-learn this learnt helplessness? It is possible, yes, but unlike our dog, it is not just a leap away. It is a much more difficult task, requiring a life-long effort and will. You may have to uproot and replant your life in a whole new way.

Ken McLeod offers some good piece of advice:

'Can learned helplessness be undone? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? The answer is "Yes." The cost, however, is high. We can only undo learned helplessness by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it.

Our motivation must be clear and strong. We must really want to hear and respond to our own questions about life. We must really want to live our own life and not one prescribed by our family, society, culture, profession or tradition. Metaphorically, we must be willing to go north, the direction that takes us out of society. We must be willing to endure pain, know from direct experience, act on what we see and receive what happens. We must yearn to experience what is without relying on anything to confirm our existence....

[A] formulation from Buddhism is:

Recognize the problem;
Develop a practice;
Continue until the problem is gone.

The first step is to recognize that there is a problem. Then we develop a practice that brings attention to the problem and, particularly, to the patterns that underlie it. Finally, we continue that practice regardless of what arises until the problem is gone.

These are difficult instructions. When we follow them, we come up against the power of the system as it has been internalized in us.... When the internal identification dies, we feel as if a part of us has died, and it has. When we violate the dictums of the system, we will feel that we are being violent, and we are. When the system dies in us, we will feel that we have killed something, and we have. We step outside consensus reality. We cease to look to the world to confirm our existence.

We come, instead, to rely on our direct experience of what arises and we act according to our observation of the needs of the moment. We may even choose to work in an institution, follow a tradition, or pursue a profession. But our choice is conscious and we knowingly accept the responsibilities and obligations that come with our chosen path.'

[For more information on the cruel and crucial dog experiments, which, unlike our hypothetical experiment, were actually performed by Martin Seligman, see here.]
He has turned me into one of his stories
A lunch time anecdote
In which I join myself
For a hearty laugh
In his affection and humour
He makes it his own
My vulnerable, bare moment
Dished out in a plate
Because he just didn't see

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Let me begin this post by making it very clear that I do not support the ban on burqa by France. The way people choose to dress in public can be for a number of reasons, ranging from personal comfort to moral and religious ideas. Whether I approve of them or not, whether I understand them or not, if it is a conscious and willing choice of people in question, then banning it makes no sense for a liberal society. You want to cover yourself up from head to toe? Fine, go ahead. You want to dress skimpily? Fine, go ahead. I am not going to stop you in either case. In my opinion, the only valid reason for banning Burqa can be if women and girls are being coerced to wear it. That may have been the situation in West in the past, but that does not seem to be the situation currently.

At the same time as I express my condemnation of the burqa ban by France, I must strongly condemn the mandatory imposition of Islamic dress codes in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and other countries. All Muslims who are condemning France must also make sure to condemn the Muslim countries where freedom of dress is being violated. If you are someone who is comfortable with the compulsory imposition of Islamic code in Islamic countries, then you simply have no right to complain against the burqa ban by France.

I do not support the ban of burqa, however, I do not approve of the burqa either. I oppose it for a number of reasons. Your right to wear a burqa does not imply a ban on the analysis and criticism of burqa, for which I believe there is a great need in public discourse in the West.

This is what I have to say:

1) I do not believe that wearing a veil has any moral value. I do not believe that those who chose to wear the veil are doing something that is morally admirable; it is morally neutral at best. I do not believe that wearing a veil associates you with a good moral character. Wearing a burqa is an exercise in moral futility.

2) There are many Muslim women who wear burqa because they believe that Allah commands it. Now, I will maintain my distance from Islamic theology, and will refrain from discussing the validity of this belief as being Islamic (there are plenty of Muslim scholars who think otherwise), because the honest fact is, I don't care what religion says. It is something for Muslims to decide, and for Muslims who do believe that Islam doesn't command or recommend burqa, they must question that why is burqa being used as a symbol of Islam.

3) There is much talk now of the 'liberation' that burqa brings, that wearing a burqa by choice is a liberating experience. But liberation from what exactlty? The answer can be found in the writings of Naomi Wolf: 'Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to – and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.”'

I find something deeply odd and disturbing about the idea that women need to cover up extensively to feel an individual and not as an object. Needless to say, I do not believe it is correct. It springs from some excessive, obsessive and unhealthy idea of modesty. Furthermore, by implication, this idea states that women who are not covering up are allowing themselves to be objectified and morally compromised. This implication is something that I am deeply hostile to, but more on this later.

Does this solution by Muslim women work? Does wearing a burqa allow them liberation from a patriarchal society? On an individual level they may feel liberation, but over-all, it is a self-defeating manoeuvre.

Ali Rizvi writes in the Huffington Post:

"The tradition of the burqa/headscarf is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by placing the responsibility of curbing male lust primarily upon women.

Similarly, the modern stripper is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by catering to that lust.

Both are designed to sustain the dynamics of a male-dominated society. Both presume and maintain the status of women as sexual objects -- whether it's by having them covered from head to toe, or exposed from head to toe -- depending on whether the men in the immediate environment want to curtail their seemingly uncontrollable sexual urges or exercise them.

In effect, the burqa fosters the objectification of women just the same -- but in reverse.

Both can be seen as insulting not only to women, but to men, perpetuating the stereotypical notion that men have virtually no self-control over their testicular physiology, and no discretionary sense."

Burqa is just one of the adaptation measures in a male-dominated society. It does nothing to upset that male-dominance; it merely strengthens it. If you are dependent on your burqa to feel free, then I am afraid you are not really free.

4) Throughout history, burqa has been one of the instruments of suppression and subjugation of women. There are still parts of the world where a woman can receive terrible punishment for failing to observe the burqa. Burqa may be liberating for some women, but for large number of people in the world, it is entirely the opposite. Hailing burqa as a symbol of liberation messes and confuses things up, and is unfair to all the women who had to struggle to free themselves of this bondage. You cannot take a symbol of oppression and turn it into a symbol of liberation, while much of the world still suffers from that oppression.

5) Burqa acts as a means of reinforcing gender segregations and gender roles. I do not have a definite feminist position, but I am sympathetic to the people who oppose the existence of gender roles, and therefore, unsympathetic to the practice of burqa.

6) There are other reasons for wearing a veil, ones that are rooted in conceptions of marriage and public life.

Mary C. Ali writes: "... many women converts talk about the adoption of the Islamic dress code as a liberation. They see it not as a denial of sex and sexuality but rather as an acknowledgement that these are treasures to be shared with a loved one and them alone. They are not hidden but rather freed from objectification."

Noami Wolf says: "I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home."

You do not have to cover yourself up from head to toe obsessively to express the fact that you wish to preserve your sexuality for your husband. On the surface while these are seemingly noble ideals, these are ideals I do not share (at least, not to this neurotic extent), nor these are ideals that I would like to promote in the world.

7) The widespread practice of wearing burqa within a community leads to discrimination against the non-veiling women.

Claire Berlinski writes about it:

"In the beginning, I was sympathetic to the argument that Turkey’s ban on headscarves in universities and public institutions was grossly discriminatory.... But that was when I could still visit the neighborhood of Balat without being called a whore."

"There is no nation on the planet where the veil is the cultural norm and where women enjoy equal rights. Not one. Nor is there such a thing as a neighborhood where the veil is the cultural norm and yet no judgment is passed upon women who do not wear it."

8) Wearing a burqa in the West, you are making a strong identity statement.

Mary C Ali writes: "A Muslim woman who covers her head and wear loose clothing, is making a statement about her identity. Anyone who sees her will know that she is a Muslim and has a good moral character... As a chaste, modest, pure woman, she does not want her sexuality to enter into interactions with men in the smallest degree."

Regarding the moral aspect, I already wrote before that I do not believe that wearing a veil or scarf bestows on you any good moral character. Whatever a good moral character is, it is entirely independent of whether you cover or not. Regarding the identity, flaunting your religious identity so aggressively in the West does nothing to promote and help a pluralistic society. If anything, it contributes to religious segregation in public life.

If you wish to wear a burqa, by all means, do so, I am against a ban, but it does not grant the practice of burqa immunity from analysis and criticism. Burqa is not just a piece of clothing; it has become a symbol of many things. There are implications of this practice, and as a person with liberal and humanist concerns, I am threatened by these implications, and therefore I feel it my duty to highlight them.


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: But the veil has got such implications. It's saying a woman's hair or face or body, if I look at them, are dangerous for her modesty. It's such an insult to men: what does it say about them? And it says that you are preserving yourself for a man. Only unpacking yourself for him. These implications are serious for feminists. It's not just me saying, "I don't like it." It's saying, as a feminist, that I can't stand the implications of "Woman as Evil".

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Krishna speaks to Arjuna

59. If thou wilt not fight thy battle of life because in selfishness thou art afraid of the battle, thy resolution is in vain; nature will compel thee.

60. Because thou art in the bondage of Karma, of the forces of thine own past life; and that which thou, in thy delusion, with a good will dost not want to do, unwillingly thou shalt have to do.

61. God dwells in the heart of all beings, Arjuna: thy God dwells in thy heart. And his power of wonder moves all things—puppets in a play of shadows—whirling them onwards on the stream of time.

62. Go to him for thy salvation with all thy soul, victorious man. By his grace thou shalt obtain the peace supreme, thy home of Eternity.

Bhagavad Gita, 18: 59-62 (Juan Mascaro translation)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Imagine a person blind since birth, who can distinguish a metal cube from a sphere by means of his sense of touch. If this person was suddenly able to see, and he was shown the cube and the sphere, but not allowed to touch them, would he be able to tell the cube from the sphere just by looking at them? Would he be able to identify by vision what he already knew by touch?

This philosophical problem known as Molyneux's problem was phrased by William Molyneux, a friend of John Locke, and has been debated ever since. Those of Empiricist camp, such as Locke, Molyneux and Berkeley, believed the answer to be No, while those of more Rationalist persuasion, such as Synge, Lee and Leibniz answered it in Yes.

And now, scientists are claiming to have finally solved this problem by means of actual experiment. This thought-experiment was transformed into an actual experiment on five totally blind patients, aged eight to seventeen, who by means of surgery were given full capacity of sight.

Based on the results, the answer to Molyneux's question is in negative. Ex-blinds cannot identify by vision alone what they previously knew by touch alone.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


This is one image from a photoexhibit Iran Before the Chador at R&R Gallery, comprised of photos of an Iranian family in the era before the Islamic revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini.

What is it about this photograph that fascinates me? First, there is the photo itself, a lovely girl in a bathing suit, leaning against a car whose model dates the picture as being decades old. The Persian numbers of the plate strike out for a moment, then the incongruity of it dissolves into the rest of the picture, beginning to make sense. You can immediately perceive the carefree manner of the girl, the freedom, the blithe and breezy ambience, the radiant abandon free of any inane moralizations. But more importantly, there is the history of this photograph, the fact that this lifestyle, this liberal culture has been eradicated in that particular region, that it is a glimpse into a world that is long dead; it is beautifully sad. As Judy Burman aptly describes, it feels "so rare, valuable, and ultimately bittersweet."

[Hat-tip: Raza]
"It's like if Dad is a violent drunk and beats his kids, you don't blame the kid because he set Dad off. You blame Dad because he's a violent drunk."

Bill Maher, on the oh-so-sensitive religion.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand what he said. Why do I say such a thing?... To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life. It's what we do and who we are that gives meaning to our words. I can't understand the lion's language, because I don't know what his world is like. How can I know the world a lion inhabits? Do I fail to understand him because I can't peer into his mind?" says Wittgenstein in Derek Jarman's movie Wittgenstein. (at which a student jokes: If we could understand him, I shouldn't think we'd have too much trouble with a lion!)

It makes me wonder that maybe the reason Wittgenstein's contemporaries struggled and failed to understand him was because they couldn't peer into his mind. How could they know the world which Wittgenstein inhabited? How could they know the life he lived, his phenomenology? I cannot help but feel that Wittgenstein's psychological perception of the human life was very different from an average person's perception. In the movie, W writes to Russell about his Tractatus "It combines logical symbolism with religious mysticism." But there is nothing in Tractatus about religious mysticism! In a letter he writes to Ludwig von Ficker "... my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one." [In the movie he confesses at a point "The most important part of my philosophy hasn’t been written. I can’t write it. It can never be written."] And the reason he gives is that his Tractatus draws a limit to the expression of thoughts, a limit to what can be said. Therefore, things like religion, mysticism, ethics, aesthetics cannot be discussed, not because they are nonsensical themselves, but because any statement expressing them would be. Later on in his life, when Wittgenstein developed the idea of language games, he began to see religion in the same fashion: a self-contained language-game, with its own self-referential concepts and discourse. However, I suggest, the real reason behind Wittgenstein's silence may be that he was simply unable to articulate the way he perceived the world. In the movie he says "Philosophers in the tradition of Descartes start from the lonely self, brooding over its private sensations. I want to overturn this centuries-old model. I want to start from our culture, our shared practical life together, and look at what we think and feel, and say it in these public terms." Perhaps Wittgenstein's real dilemma is that there are no public terms for his private sensations.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Me: It's hard to live with someone who gets uncontrollable spells of depression. Generally, what advice would you give to a person in such a situation?

Aati: I'd say don't get too involved. That's the only way to survive it, otherwise you'll both drown. Just stay supportive, but stay far enough to extend a helping hand, not close enough for them to drag you down to the depths too. You'll be helping them doubly, because they need you but the guilt of making your life miserable would be far too great to handle on top of everything else. I know because I've been on both sides of this.

Me: When you say 'don't get too involved', you mean involved in that depressive state of mind?

Aati: Yes, you can probably sense what I am referring to. Becoming something for them to take out their frustration on, feeling like it's your responsibility to help them out, feeling guilty that you might be making it worse or feeling like you're not doing enough to help, and so on. Depression is one of the worst disorders to live with because it tends to reflect onto those around us. Very contagious, very pervasive.

Me: I feel I am comfortable with depression as a psychiatrist, fascinated even. But break down the distance, the doctorly-detachment, and I am as helpless in dealing with it on a personal level as any other human.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

In the wake of the on-going strike by doctors in Pakistan, the morality of the issue has been raised and questioned. There are mixed reactions from the public, and both Doctors and Government are being held as responsible for the harm to the public. This article intends to explore the circumstances in which a strike by doctors can be justified and in what way it ought to be carried out.

The Responsibility of Health Care

Whose responsibility is it to provide health-care to the people? The traditional and usual answer to this is that it is the responsibility of the doctors, that doctors are responsible for treating those who are in need of treatment. However, this answer is utterly simplistic and ignorant of the ways in which the medical profession works in the modern world. In our current society, it is the Government, as a representative body of the people, that takes up the fundamental responsibility of ensuring availability of medical care to the public. The Government fulfils this responsibility by shifting it into the hands of people who have the necessary expertise to provide this treatment, and the Government does so by means of a Government-Doctor moral contract: Government will provide adequate facilities and working conditions for the doctors and doctors will in return provide health-care to the people on the Government’s behalf. It is only via this third party – the Government – that doctors enter into any sort of moral contract with the society in our modern world.

It is further thought that the doctors are bound by the principle of primacy of patient welfare, i.e. a doctor should always give priority to the welfare of the patient above his own personal gain. It is said that doctors take up this special obligation by their own willingness and are therefore bound to follow it. This notion too is overly-simplistic. A person who chooses to become a doctor does not avow to forge his self-interest for the rest of his life, nor does he declare that he will offer all his life to medical service without getting anything in return. What a doctor is bound to, yes, is to provide the best possible treatment for a patient he has already accepted to provide treatment for. A doctor cannot be expected to work all his life as a doctor; he doesn’t have an obligation to patients who would have become his patients in future had he continued to work.

A Justified Strike

With this sorted out, let us see when a strike by doctors can be justified. A doctor enters into a contract with the society only by virtue of his contract with the Government, therefore, if the Government refuses to honor its obligation of providing adequate facilities and working conditions for the doctors, then the doctors’ obligation to work for the Government is nullified. This includes the issue of pay, because doctors are humans, and have to support themselves and their families. If the amount of work they are expected to perform deviates significantly from the pay they are receiving, Government is violating its obligations. This can be augmented by a utilitarian justification. If the short-term harm brought about by the strike is balanced by a long-term benefit to the society in the form of an improvement in health-care, virtue of the fact that doctors can work more efficiently in better working conditions, then a strike is justified. In fact, a utilitarian might even say that the strike in such circumstances is not just justified, but it is the moral thing to do! By going on a strike, the doctors are not holding the patients as ransom, but are reminding the Government that if the Government does not fulfil its obligation to the doctors, the doctors have no obligation to the people.

Now that we have shown the moral justification of a strike by doctors, let us see what can be the moral way to go about this strike. A strike on the part of doctors can be said to be carried out in a morally justified manner, if

* the demands of the doctors are reasonable
* the doctors made their demands clear to the Government and the public, and gave them adequate time to reflect upon it
* they are flexible and are willing to negotiate in a rational manner
* they are not actively harming patients

The Current Strike

It should be clear to any observer who is aware of the conditions under which junior doctors work in Pakistan that what they are demanding is reasonable, especially when you compare it to the conditions in other countries. The current pay of House Officer is Rs 18,000 (Pakistani rupees, monthly) and that of Postgraduate Trainee is Rs 22,000. The demands are Rs 35,000 for H.O. and Rs 75,000 for P.G. Despite this, doctors were happy when the Government announced that HO pay will be raised by Rs 12,000, and PG/MO/SR pay between 20,000-30,000, to be applicable from 1st July. The Doctors, however, wanted a guarantee and written certainty from the Government that this raise will happen. The Government refused to offer any guarantee and kept offering its hollow promises, promises it has been known to break in the past, and it was in response to this that the doctors announced to carry on with the strike, also with-drawing themselves from work in the emergency.

I believe that all the conditions mentioned above for moral justification of a strike are being fulfilled by the current on-going strike of doctors in Pakistan, and therefore I judge that the strike is not only morally justified but is also being carried out in a morally justified manner. Instead of blaming the doctors, the public should understand the complexity of the issue. Any harm that has come to the public as a result of this, it is a consequence of the strike by the doctors, but it should be realized that the real blame and responsibility for this strike lies on the Government.

[For a more detailed analysis of the issue, see this article from a New Zealand medical journal.]

Saturday, April 2, 2011

This is a gem that I chanced upon, a song based on a poem by Sylvia Plath. A very beautiful rendition.

The following is built up completely by excerpts from the article "Does the Universe Need God?" by Sean Carroll. However, the text has been cut and pasted in an arrangement that is not found in the original article, with the intention of producing a continuous prose relevant to the topic. In this post, I am restricting myself only to the issue of whether the postulation of multiple 'universes' (Multiverse) is un-parsimonious or not. [Parsimony is preference for the least complex explanation for an observation, and it is used as rule of thumb in science for judging hypothesis.]

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Multiverse in physics means that in different regions of the universe the physical parameters take on different values. These different regions are traditionally called "universes" even if they spatially connected. It simply posits regions of spacetime outside our observable horizon, in which conditions are very different – including, in principle and often in practice, the parameters specifying the laws of physics, such as the mass of the neutron or the vacuum energy.

This has garnered a great deal of attention in recent years, in part because it seems to be a natural outcome of two powerful ideas that were originally pursued for other reasons: inflationary cosmology, and superstring theory. The multiverse comes to life by combining inflation with string theory. Once inflation starts, it produces a limitless supply of different "pocket universes," each in one of the possible phases in the landscape of vacuum states of string theory. Given the number of potential universes, it wouldn't be surprising that one (or an infinite number) were compatible with the existence of intelligent life. Once this background is in place, the "anthropic principle" is simply the statement that our observable universe has no reason to be representative of the larger whole: we will inevitably find ourselves in a region that allows for us to exist. The multiverse is not a theory; it is a prediction of a theory, namely the combination of inflationary cosmology and a landscape of vacuum states. Both of these ideas came about for other reasons, having nothing to do with the multiverse. If they are right, they predict the existence of a multiverse in a wide variety of circumstances. It's our job to take the predictions of our theories seriously, not to discount them because we end up with an uncomfortably large number of universes.

One popular objection to the multiverse is that it is highly non-parsimonious; is it really worth invoking an enormous number of universes just to account for a few physical parameters? As Swinburne says:

'To postulate a trillion trillion other universes, rather than one God in order to explain the orderliness of our universe, seems the height of irrationality.'

That might be true, even with the hyperbole, if what one was postulating were simply "a trillion trillion other universes." But that is a mischaracterization of what is involved. What one postulates are not universes, but laws of physics. Given inflation and the string theory landscape (or other equivalent dynamical mechanisms), a multiverse happens, whether you like it or not.

This is an important point that bears emphasizing. All else being equal, a simpler scientific theory is preferred over a more complicated one. But how do we judge simplicity? It certainly doesn't mean "the sets involved in the mathematical description of the theory contain the smallest possible number of elements." A scientific theory consists of some formal (typically mathematical) structure, as well as an "interpretation" that matches that structure onto the world we observe. The structure is a statement about patterns that are exhibited among the various objects in the theory. The simplicity of a theory is a statement about how compactly we can describe the formal structure (the Kolmogorov complexity), not how many elements it contains.

A multiverse that arises due to the natural dynamical consequences of a relatively simple set of physical laws should not be discounted because there are a lot of universes out there. Multiverse theories certainly pose formidable problems, especially when it comes to making predictions and comparing them with data; for that reason, most scientists would doubtless prefer a theory that directly predicted the parameters we observe in nature over a multiverse ensemble in which our local environment was explained anthropically. But most scientists (for similar reasons) would prefer a theory that was completely free of appeals to supernatural agents.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ah, so we do have a word for it!

Islamonormativity, n. 1. The collective perception commonly found in Islamic societies that all people a) are Muslim; and b) if they are not Muslim, they ought to *be* Muslim.

 

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