Thursday, June 30, 2011

"It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books -- setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.... A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books."

Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Foreword)

Monday, June 27, 2011

This post showcases some paintings by the Pakistani artist Babar Azeemi, from his exhibition 'Wajood-e-Zan' (Existence of Women) at Ejaz Art Gallery:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

X: He doesn't understand why I insist on my beliefs when they are obviously a joke, obviously fake. As he pointed out, I don't even have a book to follow!
Aati: There is a limit to everyone's own capacity for feeling, I know that very well how it feels like when one's capacity to empathize is exceeded.
Me: Your depression may exceed my capacity for empathy, but it will not exceed my friendship.

Friday, June 24, 2011

"There is a courage that goes beyond even an atheist sacrificing their life and their hope of immortality. It is the courage of a theist who goes against what they believe to be the Will of God, choosing eternal damnation and defying even morality in order to rescue a slave, or speak out against hell, or kill a murderer... You don't get a chance to reveal that virtue without making fundamental mistakes about how the universe works, so it is not something to which a rationalist should aspire. But it warms my heart that humans are capable of it."

Eliezer Yudkowsky, The Moral Void

[h/t: Luke]

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"I think no one in the world knows how unhappy I am, and somehow that helps. There is comfort in solitude."

Isabel Huggan, The Elizabeth Stories

It is interesting to note how the same fact can affect two people in radically opposite ways. The person referred to it in the quote above found comfort in solitude, and yet its complete opposite also remains understandable: "I think no one in the world knows how unhappy I am, and that doesn't help matters at all. There is no comfort in solitude."
"Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained."

Richard Feynman
The Truth Wears Off: Jonah Lehrer writes about the unsettling Decline Effect, revealing the human and fallible side of Science.

'Learn from science that you must doubt the experts.' Richard Feynman

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In order to unravel the ambiguity associated with the question "What is the meaning of life?", I believe that we must distinguish between two separate questions, one broadly of psychology and other broadly of philosophy:

Question 1: What is a meaningful life? How can a person live a life that is meaningful to him? [positive psychology, virtue ethics]

Question 2: What is the nature of life and reality? If there is a God, why did he create us, what does he expect from us and what does he hope to accomplish? [metaphysics, theology, mysticism]
Following are excerpts from the chapter The Meaning of Life from the book The Big Questions by Robert C. Solomon:

"What is the meaning of life? This is the big question -- the hardest to answer, the most urgent and at the same time the most obscure. Careful thinkers often avoid it, aware that the question is vague, that the meaning of the word 'meaning' itself is ambiguous, that the answers are not always literal truths that can be defended by argument and reason. Yet it is reason that makes an answer possible, and it is reason that makes the question necessary.

The Meaning of Meaning

... First we should ask, what is the meaning of "meaning" in this question? Sometimes, the meaning of something (a sign, a word) is what it refers to, something beyond itself.... Thinking of meaning this way, we would say that the meaning of each our lives is what our individual lives refer to. But what would this be? One might say that each of our lives in some sense refer to other people around us... or one might say that each of our lives refers to the larger community, to the nation, or to humanity as a whole. Or one might say that our lives refer to our Creator, so that the meaning of life is God. But the concept of "reference" becomes stretched very thin here, and one might as well object that a life doesn't refer to anything at all. It just is.

... We can say that particular words and signs refer, but they do so only within the context of a language, a community of shared meanings.... Reference is a contextual affair, and so it is in life, too. The meaning of our particular acts can be explained by reference to goals and conventions... But can we similarly explain the meaning of our whole lives? A rare person does dedicate his or her entire existence to a single goal -- winning the revolution or finding a cure for cancer -- but most people are not so singleminded, and their lives don't have a meaning in this easy-to-define sense. But this doesn't mean that their lives lack meaning. In linguistics, we can ask the meaning of the word "pepino," but we cannot intelligibly ask for the meaning of the whole language. The question "What is the meaning of Spanish?" is nonsense. So, too, we might say, asking for the meaning of life as a whole is nonsense.

... It is worth noting that linguists now insist that meaning must be found within the context of language. A word has meaning not just because of its reference, but more importantly, because of its sense in the language. Thus, we might say, by way of analogy, that the meaning of life is to be found in the context of our lives -- the sense they make and the sense we give to them -- rather than in reference to anything outside of life. Devotion to God answers the question of the meaning of life insofar as one actually lives for God.... Ironically, nihilism -- the view that life has no meaning -- can also provide life with a meaning, if one actually dedicates one's life to the proposition that life has no meaning.

... The question of meaning of life is not one of those questions that require or allow for a specific answer. Indeed, it is more of a metaphor that is required, an image, a vision of life in which you see yourself as having a definite role, a set of reasonable expectations, and -- what makes this so important -- your vision in many ways determines the life you will lead."

Friday, June 17, 2011

X: Sometimes I wish you loved me so secretly - the sound of love so inaudible to anyone like the tone of a whisper, deep inside your heart, heard and felt only by yourself - that even I myself would not know.
Creating history, United Nations has passed its first ever resolution defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons as human rights. Here, Here and Here.

It should be shamefully noted that Pakistan (along with other Muslim countries) opposed the resolution, and said that gay rights have "nothing to do with fundamental human rights."

It should also be noted that a similar resolution in favor of gay rights in UN was unable to be passed in 2003 because of opposition from Muslim block.
Faisal Amir: It keeps badgering me that existentialists, etc. set out to find a purpose. Even when they can't, they find one. It's like they were finding an excuse for living. Like if life was something sacred and they were to preserve it. Why not say so then? Why do you not make it your premises?

Me: Existentialists did not set out to find a purpose. They set out to explore the human condition and they found themselves face to face with an utterly indifferent meaningless absurdity. But in this absurdity, they realized their immense freedom, the freedom to define themselves, to live however they choose to, because there is nothing to dictate them. What would be the point of dying? It would be no less absurd. If there is no reason to live, then there is also no reason to die. To live, to die, to rebel, it is your choice now, your individual choice that you have to make on facing this absurdity.

Faisal: I am sorry I shouldn't have included existentialists. They make my point shallow. Consider it as just aimed that finding a purpose in life. It relates to the search of purpose in absence of metaphysical meaning. I know it's very complicated with suicide and meaning etc. But to simplify consider just the process of finding a purpose. Don't you think its circular process with end determined before beginning? I think the best solution is that a person consciously and knowingly commits himself to either finding the purpose or just the process of following the purpose as his "purpose" in life. But he should know this along the way that this is what he's doing.

Me: I think the issue here becomes muddled by language. When a person recognizes that there is no metaphysical meaning, he recognizes that there is no purpose of life. When he says next "I will create my own purpose", he is not referring to the 'purpose of life'. What he means is that he will decide himself how he can make his individual life meaningful to himself. This is a response born out of the pre-existing desire to live meaningfully. If a person has no desire to live meaningfully, he obviously wouldn't strive to live meaningfully. A person who recognizes absurdity has already given up the search for 'meaning of life'.

Faisal: Of course you're right. It was in a sense what I meant. But I guess you missed the point that the problem still is circular even now.

Me: You missed my point that the circularity of this response does not render it invalid.

Faisal: Nice. But this makes it really vulnerable when a person realizes or takes it into head that all purposes, all emotions, all desires are nothing. They're just vanity. Even our thought is. I guess you must be acquainted with likewise thought in Buddhism.

Me: Buddha thought so because he believed human desires and attachments are the root cause of suffering. You think so because you are a rigid materialist and determinist who doesn't believe in free will :)

Faisal: Yes. Different paths, same destination. But I've a feeling that as time goes on more and more people will think like this :)

Me: The trend is changing actually. Even philosophers who believe in determinism now lean towards compatibilist free will.

Faisal: We'll see!!

Me: Yes, we'll see :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Allen: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
Woman: Yes, it is.
Allen: What does it say to you?
Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.
Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allen: What about Friday night?

Woody Allen, Play It Again, Sam

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The first challenge to blind faith comes with the acute realization that blind faith is aimless... you can believe in anything you want, you can take anything on faith, any scripture, any prophet, any ideology. Belief is plastic. If you have to believe, why restrict yourself to what you are being told? Make your own beliefs, be heretics. People don't do so, because they share the beliefs with a community, and there is an unconscious pressure of conformity. However, the realization of the plasticity of pure belief is a potential step towards its dissolution.

Apart from dissolution, there are two ways in which people respond to this. One is that they begin to say that their faith is not blind but rather based on reasoning. The off-side of this for the believer is that bad reasoning can actually be analysed and pointed out. To avoid this, the believer of 'rational faith' usually keeps switching from reasoning to faith during argumentation as and when it suits the purpose, and yet remains in denial about faith being essentially blind.

The second reaction to plasticity is to resist it strongly and become a fundamentalist. You over-react and adhere so intensely to a limited set of beliefs that you begin to see followers of other variants of your own faith as heretics and apostates.

[Edit: After reading F's comment. I realized I had over-looked another possibility, the one of living with faith while at the same time recognizing its plasticity. This position allows for greater tolerance.]

Monday, June 13, 2011

For those interested, I am now available on Twitter:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

This is one of the interesting feedbacks I received on the Understanding Patriarchy and Honour article through email:

dunno y i thnk u r a pathani ladki n dat too a raped one hahaha
well really i wud luv to knw wt made u write dat article n us . u knw strange 4 a person to thnk abt it n write widout any reason so plzzzzzzzz tell me dying to knw
infact i agreeeee wid sum of ur ideas n share d same thnking n ma pathani gal too
w8ng 4 ur rp"

The author of this thinks that I am a raped pathani larki, as if she believes that only a girl can write about feminism in this country, and if the author is vocal, she has to be a pathan to explain the assertiveness, and she is unable to understand why someone would even consider writing such an article unless she has been raped herself. (Ever heard of empathy, sympathy, social intellectual responsibility?) Disappointing.
My article in Us magazine (10th June 2011 issue), an attempt to expose young readers to feminist themes. In the process I may have over-simplified and over-looked matters, and therefore more seasoned feminists are welcome to offer constructive criticism.

Understanding Patriarchy and Honor
Awais Aftab

Ideas of honor are so common to our society that we hardly ever notice them as being something odd. In the March 2011 issue of Us magazine, Guru in Trust Us replied to a confidential letter by G.Z. From the reply it can be surmised that she was in a relationship with a guy X, who got physically involved with her and then dumped her. Guru chastises her that she should not have believed him in the first place and should not have succumbed to his wishes. “At least you would have saved your honour that way”. Later in the reply she writes “Your parents have already suffered a lot because of you. Don’t be a source of embarrassment to them.”

What exactly is this “honor” and how does one lose it? Especially, how do we explain the asymmetry that the same act leaves a woman with her honor lost while apparently does nothing to the man’s honor? Furthermore, how is it that something that an individual does becomes a cause of shame for others?

The concept of sexual honor can only make sense in the background of the feminist idea of a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold the power, and therefore dominate and/or oppress women. An egalitarian society, in contrast, is one which favors equality between the sexes. As we’ll come to see, the tradition of honor is one of the ways in which a patriarchal society controls and regulates the behavior of women. The West has largely moved away from patriarchy towards egalitarianism, and therefore the concept of honor has considerably declined. Indeed, the statement “At least you would have saved your honor that way” would be meaningless to a Western girl, if not offensive. The West has replaced social concepts of honor with individual conscience and a social morality that depends on individual well-being and rights, a development that I feel our own society is in dire need of.

Generally speaking, honor is a respectability of sorts, an indication of your social status, as of how people of your community view you. When it comes to women, the term has more specific connotations. It refers to ‘chastity’ and ‘virginity’, and if a woman is married, it refers to her ‘fidelity’. Therefore, unlike men, a woman’s honor is deeply bound to her sexual status. In such a society, Dilek Cindo─člu observes "The virginity of the women is not a personal matter, but a social phenomenon." The idea is not alien to us, implicitly or explicitly, we see it all around us. We are familiar with the notions of izzat and namus indigenous to our population. For instance, Pashtunwali, the unwritten ethical code of Pushtuns says that a Pashtun must defend the honor of Pashtun women at all costs and must protect them from verbal and physical harm.

We see a bizarre duality in this. On one hand, we see women as fragile creatures whose sexuality is constantly at threat and something which needs to be protected. On the other hand, we see women as inherently sexual creatures whose sexuality must be controlled socially, and by force if necessary. According to the patriarchal mindset, the man is protector and controller of women, and his honor is lost if he fails to protect her sexuality from other males or if he fails to control her sexuality. In an honor-based society, women become the honor of men. If a woman is treated in a dishonorable way, or if the woman herself does something thought to be disgraceful, it brings dishonor to the men and the family. In sexual honor, both these aspects often come into play together. When a woman is seduced, the society’s reaction is two-fold: simultaneously the society views her as having been mistreated by the man and views her as having done something disgraceful. We hear of how girls “defile” a family’s honor by running away or marrying someone of their own choice. This is in an instance in which the men of the family have failed to control her. Then we also hear of a girl being shamed and losing her honor if she is raped. This is an instance in which the men of the family have failed to protect her.
Complementary to this idea of honor is the idea of revenge. When a man is dishonored, he can compensate for this by taking revenge from the man and woman who brought this dishonor to him. Traditionally, this has led to the horrible practices of honor-killing and karo kari. While such practices are still prevalent in our tribal and rural areas, they have reduced somewhat in our urban settings. However, just because we (the readers of Us) do not observe the violent manifestations of honor-killing around us, it doesn’t mean that they underlying mentality no longer exists. It exists, and it exerts its control in subtle ways.

While it is men who create the notions of honor, it is women of the society who maintain and propagate them. The biggest opposition to feminism comes from within the women themselves. In the words of Ilsa Glaser, women act “as instigators and collaborators” with their gossips and accusations and discrimination against members of their own sex who have suffered the alleged ‘dishonor’.

The institution of honor is not just primitive, it is wrong, and as moral beings in a modern society, we must make a conscious effort to suppress notions of patriarchy and honor. The only way to be able to do so is first to become aware of them. Look around yourself:

• Do you find that girls and women are expected to conform to enforced dress-codes such that violation of them is seen as dishonorable conduct?
• Have you seen assaults on girls and women being justified because they weren’t covered up from head to toe?
• When it comes to marriage, have you seen the larkay-walay asking around about the girl “Larki ka character kesa tha, larkon say dosti kitni thee?
• Have you observed that a girl’s falling in love and/or desiring to marry by choice is seen by the family as a matter of dishonor?
• Are single women perceived as being in dire need of male protection?
• Is divorce seen as a dishonor?
• Are the victims of rape seen as having lost their honor?
• Does the society put an insistence on the virginity and chastity of girls, but has little regard for that of men?
• In the case of an affair, the girl is seen as losing her honor, while nothing really happens to the boy’s honor?
• Girls are not allowed move around on their own?

These are all some of the indicators of a patriarchal mindset, things so common that we barely notice them. A society where men are either trying to protect women or take advantage of them is not a very healthy society. A society where sexuality of women is controlled by men is not a moral society, no matter if it claims to be so. There is no honor in such honor.

Let me end this article by a simple exercise. How many words of abuse do you know of that are meant for a woman of indecent character? Try to think as many as you can, in all languages you know. Now, how many words of abuse can you think of that describe a man of indecent character? Why is the former number so much larger than the latter? Think about it.


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Sunday, June 5, 2011

On philosophy bites, John Mikhail speaks with support of empirical evidence in favor of an innate basis to our sense of right and wrong, somewhat analogous to Chomsky's ideas on universal grammar.

I have always leaned towards the idea of an innate universal moral grammar and I think its very likely to be correct. However, the actual problem of normative ethics still remains unsolved, even if this theory is correct. For instance, we all have an intuitive physics, but much of that intuitive physics is wrong. How do we know that the innate morality does indeed provide the best answers to moral questions? If we have a dilemma where an act leads to increased well-being of a large number of people but that act clashes strongly with our conscience (innate moral sense), how do we know that following the conscience is indeed the morally best thing to do?

Another aspect to note is that the universal moral grammar applies to broad elementary questions of morality (such as when is it wrong to harm someone), and cannot really be applied to more sophisticated notions, such as freedom of speech, or more complex moral problems, such as elective abortion, where possibly basic rules conflict with each (harming the fetus vs psycho-social well-being of the mother) confounding the innate sense.

If Universal Moral Grammar theory is correct, and I believe so, then we need to distinguish between two categories of questions in Ethics.

The first question is broadly psychological: What does our innate moral sense tell us about right and wrong?

The second question is philosophical: Do we have good reasons to act in one way rather than another?

Neither of these questions can be ignored, because in practice, much of our everyday moral judgements and actions remain intuitive, and are likely to remain so, regardless of what we may think of morality philosophically. Even a nihilist doesn't stop acting on what he strongly feels to be right; we are limited by our psychology in what we do.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Aati: You know how some people never have lasting relationships because they always have the urge to 'trade up' their partner? That is, once they 'get' a certain person, they want to get a better person. I have realized I do something similar. I trade up my expectations. Once upon a time, I didn't expect to be loved back. I got that. So then I expected to be loved back and accepted along with my values and beliefs. I got that too. So then I expected to be loved back, accepted and loved for those values and beliefs too; not just merely 'tolerated'. I don't get the urge to trade up people, but once I've traded up my expectations, those people fall short of them anyway and an emotional incompatibility is created.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Below is an excerpt from the excellent article by Rafia Zakaria in Dawn, criticizing the proponents of 'post-feminism' in Pakistan and explaining how ideologies derived out of a Western context are being applied within Pakistan to justify various social limitations on women. Very importantly, the article also hints at how limitations can now be rationalized by women, who are educated enough to be independent-minded but not independent enough to forego the inherently anti-feminist prescriptions of society and religion, as free choices. This is not to make a sweeping generalization that no free choice exists at all for women in Pakistan when it comes to these issues; women in Pakistan are a heterogeneous group, from the born-and-bred in Western lifestyle to the conservative and traditional minded living in almost complete segregation. It is this very heterogeneous element that complicates matters, because in the very midst of oppression, tools of oppression cannot be hailed as tools of liberation without significantly undermining the efforts of feminists to counter the misogynistic traditions. Conscious choices of adults regarding their own lives must be respected and defended if necessary, but why on earth do we have to approve, promote and encourage women to make choices to adopt anti-feminist attires and lifestyles?


"In Pakistan, post-feminists belong predominantly to two groups each affording their own indigenous flavour to its prescriptions. The first are the men and women of the religious right. For them, the return of some western women to traditional roles is ample proof that feminism or the quest for equality was misguided in the first place; women and men are different and their inherent abilities require the former to be child-bearers and homemakers and the latter breadwinners.

The post-feminist elevation of `choice` allows them to further insist that even overtly oppressive acts, the wearing of the niqab, the acceptance of polygamy and the wilful avoidance of the public sphere are in fact `choices` and in being so brave acts of liberation deserving of commendation.

New members of this group include elite urban women whose midlife religious awakenings have delivered a newfound infatuation with male dominance, its attendant intricacies presenting a project more substantial than redecorating the living room.

The second category consists of young women who try to digest as choices what they know to be constraints. These include young Pakistani mothers with degrees in medicine and marketing — women who worked until and even after they were married but find it nearly impossible to do so after starting a family.

Sitting with their toddlers inside stuffy apartments, hard-won realms of privacy from meddling in-laws, they are condemned to becoming the mother-in-law-hating, child-development-obsessed women they scoffed at a few years ago.In these dismal times, it helps to imagine that they have `chosen` their situation and could just as easily return to a professional career even if they know that such a plan, which would require reliable childcare, a cooperative husband and understanding employers, is but a fantasy. The arguments of suburban New Jersey cannot so easily be transported to Karachi.

The clash of feminisms occurs thus when post-feminist critiques originating in the West are unthinkingly transported to contexts where empowerment is but a dream, where public spaces do not belong to women and where any few shreds of freedom are largely a function of wealth.

In western countries, the vigilance and political activism of several generations of women has created a social environment where true choices can be made and traditional roles rediscovered.

In Pakistan, where history, politics and society are almost exclusively constructed by men, post-feminism conveniently allows for the perpetuation of restrictions on women`s self-realisation under its intellectual umbrella."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

One aspect that particularly bothers me when it comes to religious attitude vs philosophical attitude is a certain judgement of those who disagree with you. If I disagree with someone philosophically, the most judging I can be is to say that I believe he/she is seriously mistaken and that his/her views would bring great harm. However, if I disagree with someone religiously, as in, the other person is not of my religion, I'll believe, implicitly or explicitly, that the disbeliever is somehow inferior in the eyes of God, that the nonbeliever is not worthy of the fruits of afterlife that are reserved for the believers of my religion, that even though I may respect you in this world, I believe that your very disagreement renders you deserving of an infinite punishment in hell, and that the very fact you cannot see the obvious truth of my religion and cannot take it on faith, you are somewhat of an imbecile. It might make some sense to say that the judgement of afterlife would be based on moral behavior of a person regardless of religious affiliation, but what sense does it make to say that the judgement of afterlife would first be about adherence to the true religion (i.e. my religion) based on faith and only afterwards moral behavior (and that too moral behavior as prescribed by my religion)?

As a philosopher, I recognize that there is almost always room for rational disagreement; perhaps no issue in metaphysics or ethics warrants universal agreement. It would be absurd to judge someone for not taking on faith something that is not rationally binding. How can I judge someone who disagrees with me on an issue on which legitimate rational disagreement exists? I can't, and I won't, and I cannot approve of an attitude which does so.
X: You are the only woman who is so close to me who hasn't been in pain because of me.... I feel like an instrument of destruction. A human Shiv of souls.

Y: You're nothing of the sort! If anything, you're like the sun. You're nurturing and a warm, subtle yet powerfully influential presence in the lives of the people around you. Sometimes we may complain about the heat but without you, our worlds would be much darker and colder, and perhaps our inner selves that you help bring forth would be frozen in slumber. I might never have even begun to really know myself if I hadn't known you.

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