Friday, July 27, 2012

Stephen M. Barr beautifully explains how Quantum Mechanics poses a threat to Materialism. Do read the whole post, I am just posting his conclusion.

"The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.

If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.  It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?"

Excellent post by Maverick Philosopher on the continental and analytic approaches to the philosophical notion of 'existence': Nausea at Existence: A Continental Thick Theory

"[T]he idea that disgust plays a deeper role in people's everyday behaviour emerged only recently. It began when researchers decided to investigate the interplay between disgust and morality. One of the first was psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who in 2001 published a landmark paper proposing that instinctive gut feelings, rather than logical reasoning, govern our judgements of right and wrong.

Haidt and colleagues went on to demonstrate that a subliminal sense of disgust - induced by hypnosis - increased the severity of people's moral judgements about shoplifting or political bribery, for example. Since then, a number of studies have illustrated the unexpected ways in which disgust can influence our notions of right and wrong."

'One of Robert Bellah's central ideas is that "nothing is ever lost". We are built like the cities of Troy on our previous selves. Every night we sleep uneasily on their rubble.'

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There is a famous riddle about the dynamics of power in George R. R. Martin's novel A Clash of Kings. Let me post it for the benefit of those who are unaware of it:

“May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?” Bowing deeply, the eunuch hurried from the common room on soft slippered feet.


"Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?"

"It has crossed my mind a time or two," Tyrion admitted. "The king, the priest, the rich man - who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It's a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword."
"And yet he is no one," Varys said. "He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel."
"That piece of steel is the power of life and death."
"Just so ... yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like our own Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?"
"Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords."
"Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey?" Varys smiled. "Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law.


Tyrion cocked his head sideways. "Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?"
Varys smiled. "Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less."
"So power is a mummer's trick?"
"A shadow on the wall," Varys murmured, "yet shadows can kill. And oft times a very small man can cast a very large shadow."


The conclusion is startling, despite being so very obvious: Power resides where men believe it resides. This applies not just to political power, but power dynamics of other sorts as well. The one which is in my mind at the moment is that of religion: The power of who gets to decide what God ordains.

Imagine a Muslim man in anguish; he has uttered the three baneful words 'Talaq, Talaq, Talaq' (I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you) to his wife in a burst of anger. He is now full of regret and seeks council. Before him are three scholars. The first one tells him 'Your marriage is null and void. Leave your wife instantly.' The second one tells him 'Your marriage is intact. You said the words three times together but they will still count as one.' The third one tells him 'Your words are inconsequential. Your marriage was a written pact. It can only be broken in writing.'

Which of these three speaks the law of God? Who decides whether his marriage is valid or not? Just like in the riddle of power, it all depends on the man. Power resides where men believe it resides. The man will decide on whom to confer religious authority... and yet he is just a man, without knowledge of law or revelation.

This becomes acutely relevant when we ponder over the question of reform in religion. Liberal versions of theology are not terribly difficult to come up with in theory. If we consider Islam, there are numerous scholars who have worked out a number of different approaches. Yet, all that work remains academic, with little acceptance and following at large. Religious authority resides where men believe it resides. No attempt at reformation will succeed in practice unless and until men believe it to be true. In this fact lies the practical success or failure of religious reform.

And what controls what men choose to believe?

You must always seek to be free of bias, but never delude yourself that you are free of it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Z: Some very interesting (and amusing) experiments although you can't convince me that they constitute "morality".

Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals

Me: ‎"Morality" comes with abstract thought, which obviously these animals have in a limited capacity. But moral behavior exists in these animals, indicating that moral instincts precede the development of abstract moral thought, and that certainly "morality" didn't emerge in humans out of nowhere; it appeared amidst a rich biological background of moral behavior and moral instincts which constitute the precursors of morality.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet

Image taken from Tate ©

Michael Glover: "The fact that the classical statue – a note tells us that it is Aphrodite, she who once emerged from the froth of the ocean – is set in conjunction with a bunch of bananas transforms this section of the painting into a kind of still life. (Yes, we have often seen, and especially in the Renaissance, paintings of brimming bowls of fruit and flowers beside statues of the pagan gods.) And yet the whole point of a still life, surely, is that the elements are perfectly still, whereas we are not entirely sure that this particular statue is quite still enough. In spite of the fact that it has lost its head, it looks altogether too fleshy, and too much in twisty motion, for us to be entirely convinced that it is made of stone. If we pricked that buttock, would it bleed?"

'According to Sartre, the lover wants his or her facticity to be necessary not contingent: we are thrown into a meaningless existence by chance and there is much about us that we did not choose, yet there is a widespread desire to be more than an absurd empty consciousness that we fill through our commitments. For Sartre the lover wants to take on the role of God according to the Ontological Argument (the argument for the existence of God that makes God's existence necessary - by definition): for the one who loves us, each of us wants the contingent aspects of what we are to seem as if they had to be so - no other individual could take our place. Described in this way, this is a hopeless wish - given that, at least according to Sartre, our existence is in no way necessary.'

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The character flaw or error of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall.

See more of these beautiful Unusual Words Rendered in Bold Graphics at Brain Pickings.

'Ordinary people, only through lack of experience in reflection, are without the means to judge such situations as these [the death of the teacher]. They therefore tend to accept mere imitators who step into the shoes of a teacher and reject those who are indeed carrying on his work.

When a teacher leaves a community, by dying or otherwise, it may be intended for his activity to be continued -- or it may not. Such is the greed of ordinary people that they always assume that this continuity is desirable. Such is their relative stupidity that they cannot see the continuity if it takes a form other than the crudest possible one.'

Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi

'I am giving people what they want. I am reciting poetry because people desire it as an entertainment. 

In my own country, people do not like poetry. I have long searched for people who want action, but all they want is words. I am ready to show you action; but none will patronize this action. So I present you with - words.'

Jalaludin Rumi
(quoted in The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah)

Monday, July 2, 2012

During the strike of doctors last year in Pakistan, I wrote a post as an effort to make sense of the issue of whether a strike by doctors can ever be morally justified. I am reposting it with relevant changes and refinements given that the current circumstances have made it all the more pertinent again.

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 post 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 Public 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. [I am excluding the private medical sector.]

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 under all circumstances. 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.

[Consider the hypothetical scenario to illustrate what sort of moral expectations we have from doctors: There is a small town in which there is only one doctor responsible for providing emergency care. The town is totally dependent on the doctor for his services, and in his absence there is no one else they can go to. If that doctor wishes to move to city from the town permanently to offer his family a better life, is he morally justified in doing so, given that in his absence people will die? Or is he trapped in that town forever, bound by the chains of moral obligation? Would it be reasonable to expect him to be a saint when he is in fact human, all too human?]

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 becomes questionable. This includes the issue of pay and service structure. If the amount of work and the circumstances in which they are expected to perform deviate significantly from the pay and facilities 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. But this utilitarian argument can only be an augmentation, not the crux, because we all know that human lives cannot be added and subtracted.

The moral problems associated with the strike can be minimized effectively if the emergency services continue to be offered, as that would ensure that all critically ill patients are being taken care of. Closing of emergency services is an extreme measure, as it will invariably result in loss of lives, and the responsibility of consequences will have to be borne by both doctors and Government.

Now that we have discussed the possibility of 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 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

Applying the above discussion to the current scenario is not as clear cut. Are the demands of the doctors reasonable enough to justify a strike? Did the Government make a genuine effort for a negotiation? Was closing of emergencies necessary? I cannot answer these questions objectively. But there is one observation I would like to make. The doctors had commendably restricted their strike to outpatient departments, while ensuring that patients were getting inpatient and emergency treatment. To my mind, this is a reasonable manner of protest, which any Government ought to have taken seriously. The Government however resorted to media defamation and later police arrests and brutality, effectively forcing the doctors to withdraw their services from emergency. The result is the unfortunate scenario that is in front of us.

It would be apt to end this post with this quote:

"It can be said that there is an antitrust challenge to medicine, as to other professions. But self-sacrifice is not necessarily the best method of increasing trust. It only creates unrealistic expectations, making dissatisfaction more likely. Trustworthiness will suffer if doctors make unreasonable demands, strike work without adequate notice, seem inflexible or actively undermine patient-care. But, being seen as human cannot be too detrimental! And, if physicians have special obligations, they can demand special benefits. In stressing that professionals need to look at their own interests in addition to the interests of their clients, a strike provides a good dose of realism. It shatters a somewhat antiquated myth of sainthood." [Sachdev, Doctors' Strike - An Ethical Justification]


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