23 December 2009

On Voting Tests

What I advocate, here, is this: Whereas (for obvious reasons) people are required to demonstrate competence in driving before being permitted to drive automobiles on public roads, therefore (similarly) before people are permitted to become engaged in democratic governance, they should be required to pass relevant competency tests. Stated negatively, just as incompetents aren’t permitted to drive on public roads, they shouldn’t be permitted to participate in public referendums or elections.

Almost 2400 years ago, Aristotle saw a root problem with democracies:
In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.
An additional root problem with democracy is, as Churchill said:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Henry Mencken added what seems to be an especially poignant description of the American form of democracy:
Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.
In fact, sometime I think that the U.S. is hell-bent on attempting to validate Aristotle’s prediction:
Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.

But setting aside such negative assessments and predictions, consider Churchill’s famous statement:
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
Consider, also, George Bernard Shaw’s assessment:
Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
What I would ask the reader to consider is the possibility of maintaining democracies (i.e., “people rule”) but remedying the problem of “election by the incompetent many” by specifying which of the people are permitted to participate in governing their nation.

Perhaps readers will agree that a superficial reason why “democracy is the worst form of government” is because of the Tragedy of the Commons. That is, people (either individually or in groups) as well as corporations conclude that it’s to their immediate advantage to take what they can, while they can, from “the commons” (resulting, e.g., in resource depletion, pollution, climate change, and of course, both individual and corporate welfare, e.g., in the form of tax benefits).

The cause of the Tragedy of the Commons is, of course, that advantages of robbing the commons are focused (on individuals or on corporations that exploit the commons) while disadvantages are diffuse. For example, although an individual fisherman may realize that fishery stocks are being irreversibly depleted, yet he has economic incentives to focus on catching what fish he can, to try to earn enough money to get through the year. Similarly, corporations will seek exemptions from specific labor and environmental restrictions, so they can be successful against domestic and foreign competitors.

Equally obvious is that the solution to the Tragedy of Commons is to establish relevant laws (restricting use of specific commons). As James Bovard said:
Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
Legislators have learned, however, that if they want to be re-elected, promulgating such laws in a representative democracy requires approval by the electorate – who in turn must be convinced that protecting specific commons is to their advantage. I therefore suggest that it’s “superficial” to claim that the Tragedy of the Commons is the reason why “democracy is the worst form of government”. Instead, I suggest that the real reason (and the real tragedy) is that, in so many instances, the electorate (“the incompetent many”) is either uniformed or misinformed.

Thomas Jefferson saw the problem and proposed his famous solution:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
It’s easy to agree with Jefferson’s solution in principle, but in practice, huge difficulties have arisen and continue to arise.

Some of the difficulties in applying Jefferson’s solution can be traced to Aristotle’s assessment:
All men by nature desire knowledge.
Support for Aristotle's assessment might now be put this way: as a general rule, knowledge increases our chance of survival; therefore, our desire for knowledge is now part of our nature, “programmed into our genes”.

It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that the knowledge (which we’ve been “programmed” to seek) need be correct. In the long run, genetic advantages usually accrue if the knowledge is correct, but for short durations, individuals apparently are satisfied more with possessing almost any knowledge (even if it’s incorrect!) than with confirmation that their “knowledge” is valid. Stated differently, it seems that, more than they desire accurate information, many and perhaps most people desire certainty. As a result, many people (perhaps the majority) are prone to adopting any of a huge number of “conspiracy theories” (especially if such theories are promoted with certainty) as well as similar, wild (and usually simplistic) speculations.

Practical difficulties with Jefferson’s proposal are then apparent. Thus, when Jefferson suggests that “we inform [the people’s] discretion”, two immediate questions are: 1) Who will do the informing? and 2) Are the people sufficiently intelligent and educated to discern which “information” is valid and which is bogus? For example, although scientists are currently trying to inform people (for their benefits) that the current rate of consumption of the Earth’s resources is unsustainable, that greenhouse gases will cause global warming, and that no gods exist or have ever existed (the latter to try to convince people to base their opinions on evidence rather than data-less speculations, thereby to try to convince people to tackle our problems more intelligently); yet at the same time (and for their own benefits), corporations promote more consumption of their goods and services, fossil-fuel industries promote the idea that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax, and organized religions promote the wild speculations that their gods exist.

Of course, Jefferson also saw that the root problem was a poorly informed (or misinformed) public:
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Throughout his life, therefore, he worked to improve public education:
I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people… Preach… a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know… that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.
But although Jefferson was prepared to wrestle with securing legislative approval for universal education, he encountered another problem for which he was apparently unprepared, namely, the unwillingness of some parents to have their children educated. About this problem, Jefferson wrote:
In the constitution of Spain… there was a principle entirely new to me… that no person born after that day should ever acquire the rights of citizenship until he could read and write. It is impossible sufficiently to estimate the wisdom of this provision. Of all those which have been thought of for securing fidelity in the administration of the government, constant reliance to the principles of the constitution, and progressive amendments with the progressive advances of the human mind or changes in human affairs, it is the most effectual…

Is it a right or a duty in society to take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent? How far does this right and duty extend? – to guard the life of the infant, his property, his instruction, his morals? The Roman father was supreme in all these: we draw a line, but where? – public sentiment does not seem to have traced it precisely… It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible… education of the infant against the will of the father…

What is proposed… is to remove the objection of expense, by offering education gratis, and to strengthen parental excitement by the disfranchisement of his child while uneducated. Society has certainly a right to disavow him whom they offer, and are permitted to qualify for the duties of a citizen. If we do not force instruction, let us at least strengthen the motives to receive it when offered.
As far as I know, such a proposal for “disfranchisement… while uneducated” was never enacted (at least, not in the U.S.). Yet, given what is currently occurring in many of the world’s democracies (perhaps especially in the U.S.), with too many youngsters not diligently pursuing their education and with so many “special interests” skillfully using the mass media and modern marketing-techniques to promote their own interests (and their lies!), and given that the only bulwark against such propaganda is informed and critical thoughts of the people, I therefore think that, to revitalize democracies, it’s time to resurrect Jefferson’s proposal, “trace it precisely”, and gain voter approval to implement it.

Specifically, I recommend initiatives that culminate in national laws requiring that, before becoming engaged in politics at any level of government (and either as a voter or as a candidate for office), all youngsters be first required to pass a nation-wide, standard examination, demonstrating general knowledge as well as critical- (or evaluative-) thinking capabilities.

And I’ll add that gaining support for such initiatives in many western nations (possibly requiring constitutional amendments) may be easier than might first be thought, since so many current voters seem discouraged both with the high-rate of school dropouts and with the poor quality of the education at so many public schools, maybe especially in the U.S. and the U.K. In other nations, different root problems must be overcome. In Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, for example, the cause of the “incompetent many” seems to be the criminal failure of leaders to invest in quality, public education. In addition, essentially all of us in other nations could learn from what seems to be occurring in Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan, where followers of traditions established by Confucius and the Buddha have already adopted Aristotle’s wise prescription:
Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life; those, the art of living well.

26 November 2009

Catholic Pedophiles

Ah, there it is.

With the latest report of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and its cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy, now I understand why the Catholic Church is so opposed to abortion: sanctity of human life be damned; what they want is more fodder for their pedophiles.

Damn them all to the Hell they concocted.

10 October 2009

Shut up and grow up, or throw up and get off

It would be humorous if the consequences weren’t so horrendous: grownups living their lives as if they were characters in some comic book.

Oh sure, probably most of us did similar when we were kids. I remember the many times that I’d head to the beach with my towel tied on like a cape, pretending to be Superman, able to leap over tall buildings (or at least, over the trunks of fallen trees) in a single bound.

Other times, when we went riding after catching the “wild” horses (actually, they were tame horses that had been set free), I was the Lone Ranger. Sometimes, though, my big brother chose to be the Lone Ranger; then, I had to be Tonto: “Me, kemo sahbee.” Come to think about it, I don’t think I ever knew that “kemo sahbee” meant “faithful scout”. But I digress.

I imagine that girls played out their fantasy roles, too, but in the “good old days”, I wasn’t interested in mere girls. My but how we grow beyond our childish ideas. Well, at least some of us do. For contrast, consider religious people.

Can you imagine it? More than half the people in the world are living their lives like we did when we were kids. They “think” that the characters in their “holy books” are real, as real as we imagined were Superman, the Lone Ranger, Batman and Robin… The religious assume roles as kemo sahbees for Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Ezra, Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and all their other “super heros”. But think, too, about this: their “holy books” aren’t comic books, they’re horror books.

What’s worse, believe it or not, it’s not just pretend for them: it’s their version of reality! Thus, extremist Jews occupy Israel with the fervor of Joshua, fundamentalist Christians watch the daily news with bated breath for signs of the Second Coming, most Mormons really are convinced that Utah is the new Zion, and crazy Muslims tie explosives around their waists, drive explosive-laden trucks into barricades and markets, or fly airplanes into buildings, eagerly dying for their Jihad, convinced in their craziness that they’ll get instant access to paradise. They’re all bonkers.

It reminds me of something else. When we were kids, a traveling circus would come to town every year, with its wild ride called Round the World. It spun the “carriages” so fast that they’d swing out horizontally; so, sitting in them, forced into your seat by the centrifugal force, you’d be sitting with your face toward the ground – viewing the former contents of a lot of upset stomachs!

Some kids would scream so much, scared out of their wits (afraid of dying, I guess), that the operator would stop the contraption to let them off. We who still possessed the contents of our stomachs would taunt the sissies: “Shut up and grow up, or throw up and get off!” A similar taunt seems appropriate for all religious people in the world:

“Shut up and grow up, or throw up and get off.”


25 September 2009

Even Ahmadinejad gets something right…

I’m pleased to report that, in his 23 September 2009 speech to the UN’s General Assembly, President Ahmadinejad of Iran made at least one sensible statement:

It seems that the roots of problems [in the world] lie in the way one views and perceives the world and humankind…

But even with that statement, he demonstrates his shallow thinking: if he would dig deeper, he’d find that the root problem is failure of the majority of people to answer correctly the fundamental, epistemological question: “How can knowledge of the world be obtained?”

As far as humans have been able to determine, the best answer to that question is to use the scientific method (which is as old as humanity): “guess, test, and reassess”. Instead and in horrible contrast, Ahmadinejad (similar to all theists) “thinks” that knowledge of reality can be obtained simply by wishful thinking. Thereby, they fall for the “proof-by-pleasure logical fallacy”: if it feels good, it’s true.

As a result, Ahmadinejad advocates some bizarre, feel-good “truths”, which he shared with the world in his UN speech as follows:

“God Almighty purposefully created the world.” [Really? What evidence supports such a notion? How can the idea be tested? And even before that: is it logical? For example, how could an omnipotent being have a “purpose”? Are you sure that your god would take kindly to your suggestion that He has an unfulfilled desire?!]

“All existence including power, knowledge, and wealth come from Him.” [Really? What data support such a claim? How can it be experimentally verified? And even if it were so (although, of course, it’s not!), then why do you keep vilifying the Jews – since it follows that their considerable knowledge, wealth, and even power was given to them by Him?! So, should you continue to defy your omnipotent god’s will?!]

“God created the world for humans and humans for Himself.” [Oh, do tell. Yet, in contrast to your claim, all evidence points to the conclusion that humans created gods for themselves!]

“God has created man for eternity…” [Really? Or is it, perchance, that primitive people (similar to you) were (and still are) afraid of death; so, they concocted myths about the illogical, oxymoronic idea of “life after death”?]

“God has obligated humans to live divinely and socially…” [Really? If so, then why do so many people (such as yourself) ignore the obligation of their omnipotent creator god?]

“True freedom and obedience to God are in balance…” [Yah, just like a slave is free – provided he does exactly as his master demands. As Mikhail Bakunin wrote in God and the State in 1874:

A jealous lover of human liberty, deeming it the absolute condition of all that we admire and respect in humanity, I reverse the phrase of Voltaire and say, “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”

“Obeisance to God means the acceptance of absolute truth, the absolute light, and the absolute beauty.” [Ain’t that cute? Never mind that “absolute truth” is restricted to closed systems (whereas reality is an open system), never mind that the phrase “absolute light” is meaningless (unless, of course, you can produce some non-absolute light), and never mind that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If Ahmadinejad says it’s so, then by God, himself, it must be so!]

“God is omniscient and knows all that is revealed or kept secret…” [Not that there’s any evidence to support such a claim, but first, pray tell: is the second clause really necessary? What do you think ‘omniscient’ means? And second: how could anything be both omnipotent and omniscient? Being omniscient, He would know everything that is, ever has been, or ever could be; but then, He would be powerless to have new thoughts; therefore, He wouldn’t be omnipotent!]

“He is kind and merciful.” [Except, of course, toward those of us who think that He’s a concoction of primitive people, promoted by parasitic clerics and prolonged by power mongers (such as yourself), since they claim that, right up there with killing us, He gets his kicks out of torturing us for eternity in Hell.]

“All creatures are humble before Him and resign to His will.” [So it follows (so it seems) that we who consider him the figment of primitive people’s imaginations, the sting of con-artist, clerical parasites, and the tool of power mongers (such as yourself) aren’t ‘creatures’. Okay, I’ll buy that one: we’re better described as scientific humanists; but then, that makes all theists “creatures”. Hmmm. If you want some friendly advice, Ahmadinejad, I’m not sure that your fellow unscientific antihumans will appreciate your depiction of them as “creatures”. But if you insist…]

“God is alive and is the Creator of the universe and all life.” [Damn! And there I was thinking that the universe was formed by a symmetry-breaking quantum fluctuation in the original total void. Silly me.]

“Humans need to know God in order to realize a prosperous society in this world as well as to strive for a beautiful eternal life…” [And where did you say you put the evidence that supports such crazy ideas? Oh, never mind. A more important question is: how soon will you be willing check out the quality of your “eternal life”?]

And then, just great: Ahmadinejad tells us the “the Promised One” is coming and we’ll all live “under the rule of the righteous and perfect human being”, no doubt in an Iranian-style theocracy. But tell us, Ahmadinejad, what makes you think we want to be ruled by other than ourselves? Have you ever heard of the idea of a “democracy”, in which people rule themselves? No? I didn’t think so. It seems that you’re more into stuffing ballot boxes with “Yes-votes” for yourself.

In sum, Ahmadinejad, ideas about gods are as crazy as the idea of letting a madman like you possess a nuclear bomb. Still, I congratulate you on your sensible statement:

… the roots of problems [in the world] lie in the way one views and perceives the world and humankind…

I also agree with your

A global community filled with justice, friendship, brotherhood and welfare is at hand…

and your

Great developments in favor of humankind as well as its true and real rights are on the way. A golden and brilliant future is awaiting mankind.

A major inhibition, however, constraining humanity from realizing such possibilities, is the nonsensical and damnable “god idea”. Yet, progress is being made debunking wild speculations about gods, which are used as tools to manipulate the masses by parasitic clerics of the world and by power-mongers such as you.


20 August 2009

God Doesn't Have a Purpose!

Re. the possibility that an omnipotent God could have a purpose, perhaps the following would be of some interest. The quotations are from an exchange I had, first in response to “jd” and then to “hackenslash”, at the Richard Dawkins Forum.

jd: It would still be perfectly within the abilities of an omnipotent creator to cover up his tracks.

zoro: No it wouldn't, would it? To do so, he'd need to have a purpose, but an omnipotent anything couldn't have a purpose, since that would mean he had an unfulfilled desire, i.e., that he wasn't omnipotent.

hackenslash: Zoro: This is gold. Excellent argument, excellently explained.

zoro: Well, thank you, but of course it's not mine; it's a very old argument; I don't know who deserves credit for it. Sorry.

hackenslash: Who cares? It's a good argument. What's the point of omnipotence if everything is the way you want it, and if it isn't, how can you be omnipotent? Solid stuff.

zoro: Come to think of it, it probably can be traced back to Aristotle. It's why he concluded that God would necessarily spend eternity just contemplating his navel – or in his words [Metaphysics (viz., "Beyond Physics" = "Beyond Nature" = "Supernatural"), Part 9]:

"The nature of the divine thought involves certain problems; for while thought is held to be the most divine of things observed by us, the question how it must be situated in order to have that character involves difficulties. For if it [God] thinks of nothing, what is there here of dignity? It is just like one who sleeps. And if it [God] thinks, but this depends on something else, then (since that which is its substance is not the act of thinking, but a potency) it cannot be the best substance; for it is through thinking that its value belongs to it. Further, whether its substance is the faculty of thought or the act of thinking, what does it [God] think of? Either of itself or of something else; and if of something else, either of the same thing always or of something different. Does it matter, then, or not, whether it [God] thinks of the good or of any chance thing? Are there not some things about which it is incredible that it [God] should think? Evidently, then, it [God] thinks of that which is most divine and precious, and it [God] does not change; for change would be change for the worse, and this would be already a movement. First, then, if 'thought' is not the act of thinking but a potency, it would be reasonable to suppose that the continuity of its thinking is wearisome to it. Secondly, there would evidently be something else more precious than thought, viz. that which is thought of. For both thinking and the act of thought will belong even to one who thinks of the worst thing in the world, so that if this ought to be avoided (and it ought, for there are even some things which it is better not to see than to see), the act of thinking cannot be the best of things. Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking."

For obvious reasons, Jewish, Christian Muslim, Mormon… clerics didn't and don't like Aristotle's god: they accepted his idea that God was "the prime mover" (I guess that none of them had ever experienced a soap bubble bursting!), but they couldn't accept his idea that God would necessarily spend eternity contemplating his own navel. It's hard to run a con game with that tag line! And so now, as one of a terrible number of atrocious examples, we have the con artist Rick Warren fleecing people out of more than $100 million (and Obama had him deliver his woo at the Inauguration!), peddling the proposition: The omnipotent God has a purpose for your life. Duh. Would that Muslim maniacs would give it a thought.


01 July 2009

Means to the Ends of Gods

I recently posted the following in a thread at the Richard Dawkins Forum. Perhaps the ideas would be of interest to others.

Philosopher Jagger,

Thank you. Yes, I think we're close, and I'm about ready to call it quits on this thread, but I think that the following is sufficiently important to solving practical problems associated with eliminating the God meme and establishing an objective, rational moral code to warrant my adding it as a postscript. For it, I'll accept risks of oversimplification in exchange for simplicity. I provide more details and admit some of the complications in three chapters starting here. Upon trying to reduce those chapters (and more) to their essence, I'd exaggerate as follows.

If you went to America's Bible Belt, to any Muslim country, or to any similar, backward area of the world and told them that God was a delusion, you'd quite likely be putting your life in jeopardy.

If, as an alternative, you went to them and told them that you could provide them with an objective, rational moral code, you'd likely be rejected (possibly bodily and forcefully).

If, instead, you tried to convince them of the virtues of critical thinking, for its usefulness in studying literature, history, politics, etc. and its essential role in science, you'd probably be considered to be a radical, revisionist, revolutionist, and similar, and be rebuffed.

If, as a final foolish alternative, you proposed that the only sound epistemology is the scientific method, then you'd probably be judged to be another, ignorable, babbling philosopher.

If, however, you pointed out to them that the world is in the midst of a knowledge revolution, that the future will belong to those who are at the forefront of science, that from science flows security and economic strength (including jobs), etc., then almost certainly you'd be more than welcome, invited to help in the design and implementation of science curricula in their schools, etc.

Then, in time, as their youngsters learn science, they'll necessarily learn about the scientific method, begin to determine what it means "to know", slowly become proficient in critical thinking, eventually establish an objective, rational moral code, and finally dump all silly idea of gods in the trash can of human mistakes. QED.

22 June 2009

Modifying Ends

Of course I agree with the old adage: “the ends don’t justify the means.” Pity that the rulers in Iran – and for that matter, all Islamic clerics – and for that matter, all clerics – didn’t appreciate that wisdom.

The wisdom, obviously, is that the means are ends in themselves. It’s therefore necessary to evaluate which is more important: the end that would be pursued by the chosen means or the means, themselves.

But I didn’t see how the ends could be competently manipulated.

A great example was recently given in a posting of an old, 1987 article in The Boston Globe written by Alfie Kohn and entitled “Creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if [a] task is done for gain”:
There is an old joke that nicely illustrates the principle. An elderly man, harassed by the taunts of neighborhood children, finally devises a scheme. He offered to pay each child a dollar if they would all return Tuesday and yell their insults again. They did so eagerly and received the money, but he told them he could only pay 25 cents on Wednesday. When they returned, insulted him again and collected their quarters, he informed them that Thursday’s rate would be just a penny. “Forget it,” they said — and never taunted him again.
Now, if only all the mullahs in Iran (and Saudi Arabia and…) could be made to realize that ruling people isn’t all that it was cracked up to be.


30 April 2009

A Brave Muslim Intellectual vs. Cowardly Islamic Clerics

Read the first report copied below (from ArabNews.com) and weep in despair for Muslim children because of cowardly Islamic clerics; read the second (from the Middle East Media Research Institute) to regain some hope, courtesty brave Muslim intellectuals such as Ibrahim Al-Buleihi.

1. Scholars hotly debate treatment of apostates
Badea Abu Al-Naja
Arab News; April 30, 2009

SHARJAH: In a session here on religious freedom, Muslim scholars from around the world yesterday debated how apostates should be treated according to Islamic law.

More than 200 delegates representing 60 countries are discussing diverse issues in the light of Shariah at the ongoing International Islamic Fiqh Conference hosted by Sharjah ruler Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi.

The event at the Zahra Hall Auditorium at the University of Sharjah has been organized by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA), an offshoot of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference.

While several scholars demanded a review of the punishment for apostates in the light of the changing modern values, others refuted their argument saying the original Islamic texts call for harsh punishments.

“Religious freedom is a right that should be guaranteed to every human being. We have come here to present and discuss different viewpoints and we should do it in order to reach the right solution,” said Mahmoud Zaqzouq, Egypt’s minister of endowments.

Some participants doubted the validity of texts quoted in support of the beheading of apostates. On the other hand, several others were adamant in their refusal to the demand for a lighter approach toward apostates in the name of freedom of religion.

“The view that Islamic scholars of the past had different views on how to punish apostates is incorrect. They only disagreed on how soon apostates should be executed; should it be done in three days, one week or few months. The waiting time is left to the discretion of the ruler,” said Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, a professor at the Higher Institute of Law in Riyadh.

Referring to criticisms from international human rights organizations, he said: “These groups will never stop attacking Islam even if we were to agree to all their demands. Their lack of sincerity is clear from their attitude to the atrocities committed by the Israeli government in occupied Palestinian territories. We will never allow others to dictate our religion to us.”

Abdul Salam Al-Ebadi, secretary-general of the IIFA, said the topic of religious freedom was given priority in yesterday’s deliberations because several countries, particularly the ministries of Islamic Affairs and Foreign Affairs in OIC member countries, demanded a clarification on the correct stand toward apostates. He said a six-member committee of scholars has been entrusted with the task of studying the issue and submitting recommendations. OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and IIFA Chairman Saleh Bin-Humaid, who is also chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Judicial Council, are participating in the forum.

2. Saudi Intellectual: Western Civilization Has Liberated Mankind
The Middle East Media Research Insititue (MEMRI)
April 29, 2009; No. 2332

In an interview published April 23, 2009 in the Saudi Daily 'Okaz, reformist thinker Ibrahim Al-Buleihi expressed his admiration for Western civilization. The interview was posted on the same day on the Elaph website. Al-Buleihi calls on the Arabs to acknowledge the greatness of Western civilization, and to admit the deficiencies of their own culture. He states that such self-criticism is a precondition to any change for the better. Ibrahim Al-Buleihi is a member of the Saudi Shura Council. [Note: the notes in brackets in what follows were added by the translator.]

Following are excerpts from the interview:

'Okaz {Interviewer}: "I begin with the crucial issue which distinguishes your thought and which your opponents always raise against you - namely, your being completely dazzled by the West, while you completely belittle Arabic thought. Truly, this is the most outstanding feature of your writings. There is also extreme self-flagellation which many see [in your writings]. What is the cause of this?"

Buleihi: "My attitude towards Western civilization is an attitude based on obvious facts and great accomplishments; here is a reality full of wonderful and amazing things. [Recognizing] this doesn't mean that I am blindly fascinated. This is the very opposite of the attitude of those who deny and ignore the bright lights of Western civilization. Just look around… and you will notice that everything beautiful in our life has been produced by Western civilization: even the pen that you are holding in your hand, the recording instrument in front of you, the light in this room, and the journal in which you work, and many innumerable amenities, which are like miracles for the ancient civilizations.… If it were not for the accomplishments of the West, our lives would have been barren. I only look objectively and value justly what I see and express it honestly. Whoever does not admire great beauty is a person who lacks sensitivity, taste, and observation. Western civilization has reached the summit of science and technology. It has achieved knowledge, skills, and new discoveries, as no previous civilization before it. The accomplishments of Western civilization cover all areas of life: methods of organization, politics, ethics, economics, and human rights. It is our obligation to acknowledge its amazing excellence. Indeed, this is a civilization that deserves admiration. … The horrible backwardness in which some nations live is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept this [abundance of Western ideas and visions] while taking refuge in denial and arrogance."

'Okaz: "Sir, you can admire this civilization as much as you want, but not at the expense of others, especially our own civilization."

Buleihi: "My admiration for the West is not at the expense of others; rather, it is an invitation to those others to acknowledge their illusions and go beyond their inferiority and liberate themselves from backwardness. [Those others] should admit their shortcomings, and make an effort to overcome them; they should stop denying the truth and closing their eyes to the multitude of wonderful achievements. They should be fair towards those nations that achieved prosperity for themselves but did not monopolize it for themselves and instead allowed the whole world to share the results of this progress, so that other nations of the whole world now enjoy these achievements. Furthermore, Western civilization has given to the world knowledge and skills which made it possible for them, the non-Western nations, to compete with it in production and share markets with it. Criticizing one's own deficiencies is a precondition to inducing oneself to change for the better. Conversely, to glorify one's backward apathetic self is to establish and fortify backwardness, to strengthen the shackles of apathy, and to eradicate the capabilities of excellence. Backwardness is a shameful reality, which we should resent and from which we must liberate ourselves."

'Okaz: "This may be so, and I'm with you in this demand but, sir, would you summarize for us the reason for your admiration of Western culture, so that we can have a basis for discussion?"

Buleihi: "There is no one reason, there are a thousand reasons, which all induce me to admire the West and emphasize its absolute excellence in all matters of life. Western civilization is the only civilization that liberated man from his illusions and shackles; it recognized his individuality and provided him with capabilities and opportunities to cultivate himself and realize his aspirations. [Western civilization] humanized political authority and established mechanisms to guarantee relative equality and relative justice and to prevent injustice and to alleviate aggression. This does not mean that this is a flawless civilization; indeed, it is full of deficiencies. Yet it is the greatest which man has achieved throughout history. [Before the advent of Western civilization,] humanity was in the shackles of tyranny, impotence, poverty, injustice, disease, and wretchedness.

"It is an extraordinary civilization, and it is not an extension of any ancient civilization, with the exception of Greek civilization, which is the source of contemporary civilization. I have completed a book on this great extraordinary civilizational leap, titled The Qualitative Changes in Human Civilization. Western civilization is its own product and it is not indebted to any previous civilization except for the Greek one … It has revived the Greek achievements in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, politics, society, human dignity, and veneration of reason, while recognizing its shortcomings and illusions and stressing its continuous need for criticism, review and correction."

'Okaz: "In your words here, you completely wipe out all the endeavors and creativity of previous civilizations such as the Islamic one, by stating that the West not indebted to it."

Buleihi: "Indeed, it is not, nor is it indebted to any other previous civilization. Western civilization has its foundation in Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC; then it stopped in the Middle Ages, but resumed its progress in modern times, when its benefits have come to include all nations. It is really extraordinary in every meaning of the word - excellence, uniqueness, and novelty… It has components and qualities which distinguish it from all previous and subsequent civilizations. It is the product of philosophical thinking invented by the Greeks. The Europeans have based themselves on this kind of thinking, especially on its critical aspect, which developed the capability of producing objective knowledge that is always open to review, correction and progress…"

'Okaz: "Some Western thinkers wrote that Western civilization is an extension of previous civilizations. How can you, a Muslim Arab, deny this?"

Buleihi: "When we review the names of Muslim philosophers and scholars whose contribution to the West is pointed out by Western writers, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haitham, Ibn Sina, Al-Farbi, Al-Razi, Al-Khwarizmi, and their likes, we find that all of them were disciples of the Greek culture and they were individuals who were outside the [Islamic] mainstream. They were and continue to be unrecognized in our culture. We even burned their books, harassed them, [and] warned against them, and we continue to look at them with suspicion and aversion. How can we then take pride in people from whom we kept our distance and whose thought we rejected?...

"As for the question of cultural development, there are two approaches. According to one approach, civilization is the product of a cumulative process. However, this approach is contradicted by the facts of history. According to the other approach, a quantitative change does not become a qualitative one, except through an extraordinary leap. This is the correct compelling approach, which I adopt. Quantity cannot possibly turn into quality spontaneously. …

"The only civilization which possesses the ingredients of perpetual progress is Western civilization, with its Greek foundation and its amazing contemporary formation. … Western civilization believes that it is impossible to possess absolute truth and that human perfection is impossible, so man must strive to achieve it while recognizing that it is impossible to reach. Thus it is the only civilization which is constantly growing and constantly reviewing and correcting itself and achieving continuous discoveries. …"

'Okaz: "Let me ask you about your complete fascination with Western civilization."

Buleihi: "The light of this civilization is very bright and only a blind person can be oblivious to its brightness. Anyone who is capable of sight and insight is inevitably fascinated by it… We should give credit where credit is due. Has any previous civilization dreamt of the astounding revelations and exact silences and complex technologies [achieved by Western civilization]? Have previous generations imagined the possibility of opening the human chest or head and conducting intricate surgeries on the heart and brain? Could they imagine the deep understanding of the living cell and the way it is formed…. Did they imagine airplanes, cars, telephones, and innumerable accomplishments of this civilization? Would you want us to go back to writing on parchment and papyrus and using wooden sticks for pens, and riding donkeys? …

'Okaz: "Sorry, no one has asked you to return to the era of donkeys, but it is necessary to pass historical judgment in a fair and balanced way. You are saying that you want 'to give credit where credit is due,' but, in fact, you deny any credit to whatever existed before Western civilization, and while everybody recognizes that human achievements are cumulative in nature, you negate that axiomatic rule when you speak about Western accomplishments."

Buleihi: "Humanity lived thousands of years ruminating on the same ideas and living in the same conditions, using the same tools and instruments. It could have continued forever in this way if it were not for the emergence of philosophical thinking in Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Civilizational progress at its current level cannot be achieved by accumulation; rather, it is the outcome of great revolutions in the fields of thought, science, politics, society, and labor. …

"What pushes man out of his routine is the struggle of ideas, the freedom of choice, and equal opportunity. The best proof of this is that many peoples today live in the depth of backwardness, despite the availability of science, technology, and ideas. They witness the examples of prosperity, and despite this, these backwards peoples are unable to abandon their trenches and free themselves from their shackles. In other words, they are unable to emulate those who are prosperous and they are completely unable to invent and initiate."

'Okaz: "There is a crucial question in our debate: do you understand by civilization only its material aspect?"

Buleihi: "The most important achievement of Western civilization is the humanization of political authority, dividing it into separate powers, and establishing and keeping a balance between the separate powers. Western civilization has given priority to the individual and subordinated its institutions, laws, and procedures to this principle, whereas in the old civilizations the individual was a cog in a machine."

'Okaz: "A cog in a machine? Do you believe that this is true also of Islamic civilization?"

Buleihi: "We sharply distinguish between Islam in itself and what people do in its name. The great principles of Islam and its sublime doctrines that emphasize and uphold human value and dignity have not had a chance throughout history to establish themselves. Ever since the end of the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs, man's individuality was eradicated in Arab history and his value has been linked to his political, religious, regional, or tribal affiliation… The only civilization which acknowledges and respects man as an individual is Western civilization… Behavior in any field is not the outcome of teachings, as such, but rather of practice and actual experience...."

'Okaz: "Has this been the case throughout all of Arab history, in your opinion?"

Buleihi: "Yes, all of Arab history can be characterized in this gloomy way, except for the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs and discrete periods such as the reign of Omar ibn 'Abd Al-'Aziz. One should not confuse the sublime principles and doctrines of Islam with its history, which is full of mistakes, transgression, and tragedies. When the Abbasids overcame the Umayyads, they covered the bodies of the dead with rugs and held a feast over the bodies in a display of vengeance. When [Caliph] Al-Ma'mun defeated his brother Al-Amin, he flayed him like a lamb. This scene recurs throughout our history. Political power is the pivotal value in Arab culture. In our age, there have been recurrent military coups in the Arab world, in a struggle for power, but not in an attempt to bring about a change for the better. Each successive regime is worse than its predecessor."

'Okaz: "Mr. Buleihi, haven't you read in the history of your people about hundreds of scholars who had significance and impact and whose lives are studied to this day, even though they possessed no power, tribe, or religious affiliation, and who are valued for their scholarship?"

Buleihi: "This is a general statement which is not backed by fact. Arab history, with the exception of the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs, was dominated by politics. When the Fatimids took over Egypt and North Africa, these areas became Shiite, and when Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi [i.e. Saladin] put an end to the Fatimids, he drove out everything that had any relation to Shiism. The same happened when the Safavids converted Iran to Shiism, which then led the Ottomans to act the same way [in imposing Sunnism]. Thus Arab history, or Islamic history, in the wider sense, is the outcome of political ups and downs…."

'Okaz: "Let me pause here for a moment. You are reducing Islamic history just to political history. Even Islamic political history for all its tragedies, is not as bad as you described it. You also overlook the scientific and cultural aspects of Islamic history, which created a great civilization even while Europe suffered under the rule of feudalism, the Church, ignorance, and backwardness."

Buleihi: "We have inherited certain clich├ęs about our history and the history of other nations without reading our history critically and without reading the history of others fairly and objectively. The luminous Greek civilization emerged in the sixth century BC and reached the peak of its flourishing in the fifth century BC. In other words, Greek civilization emerged many generations before the Islamic one, and Greek philosophy was the source from which Muslim philosophers derived their philosophy. Those individuals in whom we sometimes take pride, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Al-Haytham, Al-Razi, Al-Qindi, Al-Khawarizmi, and Al-Farabi were all pupils of Greek thought. As for our civilization, it is a religious one, concerned with religious law, totally absorbed in the details of what Muslims should do and shouldn't do in his relations with Allah and in his relations with others. This is a huge task worthy of admiration, because religion is the pivot of life. We must however recognize that our achievements are all confined to this great area. Let us not claim then that the West has borrowed from us its secular lights. Our culture has been and continues to be absorbed with questions of the forbidden and the permitted and belief and disbelief, because it is a religious civilization…”

'Okaz: "They [the Muslims] learned from the Greek civilization and this is not a fault, this is the way young civilizations are, they learn from previous civilizations and build upon them. Is it expected that they should have abolished the achievements of the Greeks and started from zero?"

Buleihi: "I am not against learning [from others]. What I wanted to clarify is that these [achievements] are not of our own making, and those exceptional individuals were not the product of Arab culture, but rather Greek culture. They are outside our cultural mainstream and we treated them as though they were foreign elements. Therefore we don't deserve to take pride in them, since we rejected them and fought their ideas. Conversely, when Europe learned from them it benefited from a body of knowledge which was originally its own because they were an extension of Greek culture, which is the source of the whole of Western civilization."


18 March 2009

On Hopes and Fears

Elsewhere I explored a method for quantitatively evaluating hopes. Below, I’ll briefly review the method, next suggest that a similar method is available to evaluate fears, and then, demonstrate how hopes and fears can be linked.

Starting with hopes, the principal meaning for ‘hope’ given in Webster’s New World Dictionary is: “a feeling that what is wanted will happen; desire accompanied by expectation.” Equivalently, therefore, ‘hope’ is what mathematicians call “expected value”, philosophers and economists call “utility”, engineers call “risk”, and gamblers call “payback”. Thereby, ‘hope’ can be estimated quantitatively: if some value (e.g., a monetary value) can be placed on what’s desired, then ‘hope’ is the assigned value multiplied by the probability that what’s desired can be achieved.

It might be useful to illustrate the method with a couple of examples.

For the first example, suppose you assign the value of “having a good day” to be $100. Further, suppose you estimate that the probability that you’ll have a good day, today, to be quite large, namely, 90%. Then a quantitative evaluation of your hope that today will be a good day is the expected value = (value) x (probability of its being achieved) = $100 x 90% = $90; i.e., you have quite a large hope that today will be a good day.

As another example, suppose that you assign the value of your life to be $1 billion, that you have cancer, and that the best information available suggests that there’s only 1 chance in a million that the therapy will be successful. Then the hope that you’ll assign to your recovery has a value of only $10^9 x 10^(-6) = $1,000.

Now, consider fears. Webster’s prime definition of ‘fear’ is
a feeling of anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil, pain, etc; timidity; dread; terror; fright; apprehension…
The Oxford-American Dictionary gives for ‘fear’:
  • an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat…
  • (archaic) a mixed feeling of dread and reverence
  • (fear for) a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety and well-being of someone
  • the likelihood of something unwelcome happening…
A definition of ‘fear’ that I think improves those definitions and that reveals the symmetry (or anti-symmetry) of hope and fear is the following:
fear is a feeling that what isn’t wanted (i.e., what's dreaded) will happen; dread accompanied by expectation.
If that proposed definition of ‘fear’ is accepted and if values and probabilities can be estimated, then as in the case of hope, fear can be evaluated quantitatively.

To illustrate, consider examples similar to those used above.

For the first example, suppose you continue to assign the value of “having a good day” to be $100. Further, suppose you estimate that there’s a 10% probability that, today, you’ll have a bad day. Then a quantitative evaluation of your fear that today will be a bad day is the expected value = (value of a good day) x (probability of not having a good day) = $100 x 10% = $10; i.e., you’ll have only a relatively small fear that you’ll have a bad day today.

As a second example, consider again the case that you have life-threatening cancer. Suppose that you continue to assign the value of your life to be $1 billion and that there’s only 1 chance in a million that the therapy will be successful, i.e., that the probability of your dying is 0.999999 . Then the fear that you’ll die can be quantitatively evaluated as (value of life) x (probability of dying) = $10^9 x (0.999999) = $999,999,000, i.e., your fear of dying is very large.

If the above, proposed definition of ‘fear’ is accepted, then at least in simple cases and for a single event (or possession or similar), a link becomes apparent between fear and hope and with the assigned value of the event. Mathematically, the relationship can be seen starting from the following steps:

(i) Hope = Value x (probability of realizing that value), and

(ii) Fear = Value x (probability of failing to realize that value).

Now and for what follows, consider those relatively simple events (or possessions or similar) for which the value either materializes or doesn’t materialize, i.e., ignore “partial realizations”. In such cases, from the definition of ‘probability’:

(iii) Probability of realization = [ 1 – (probability of failure of realization)].

So, substituting the definition (iii) into either (i) or (ii), e.g., into (i):

(iv) Hope = Value x (probability of realizing that value)

= Value [ 1 – (probability of failing to realize that value)]

= Value – Value x (probability of failing to realize the value)

= Value – Fear, or

(v) Hope + Fear = Value .

In words, the result is that, for a rational person, the sum of the magnitudes of one’s ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ associated with a single event (or possession or similar) must be the total value placed on the event. Therefore, in that sense and for such cases, hope and fear are complementary. The result is a quantitative restatement of Spinoza's qualitative assessment:
There can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope.
As an illustration, consider again the hope that you’ll have a good day. Above, I estimated this hope to be (value = $100) x (probability of having a good day = 90%) = $90. Elsewhere above, I also evaluated the magnitude of the fear that you would have a bad day to be (value of good day = $100) x [probability of having a bad day = (1 – probability of having a good day) = 10%] = $10. Thus, consistent with result given by Equation (v), above, your hope of having a good day (= $90) plus the magnitude of your fear of not having a good day (=$10) sum to the value you placed on having a good day (i.e., $100).

More complicated illustrations deal with the fear of Hell, the hope of not going to Hell, the hope of Heaven, and the fear of not going to Heaven. As a first step, consider fear of Hell. For this case, suppose that the value I place on my not going to Hell was the huge sum $10^(100) and suppose I put the probability of my going to Hell (based on the likelihood of such a clerical concoction actually existing) to be 10^(-500). Then the magnitude of my fear of going to hell would be $10^(100) x 10^(-500) = $10^(-400) =  0.000000 (continue on for a total of about 400 zeros)…1 ¢; i.e., not worth a second thought. The other fears and hopes associated with Heaven and Hell are similarly not worth a second (or a second’s) thought.

Thus in practice, obviously the key steps in realistically evaluating hopes and fears are to define realistic values for what is desired or dreaded, respectively, and to obtain realistic estimates for the probabilities that what’s wanted (hoped) and what’s dreaded (feared) will be realized. In contrast, those people who chase the will-o’-the-wisp of Heaven or tremor at the thought of Hell are like children of the age of “the terrible twos”: adamant about knowing what they like and dislike but incapable of realistic evaluations of associated probabilities; they’re driven by emotion untempered by reason.

Undoubtedly, much of the blame belongs to the clerics of the world. Either they’re too ignorant to evaluate relevant probabilities or, similar to all con-artists, for their own profit they purposefully ignore relevant probabilities and promote resulting, unrealistic hopes and fears. In the end, though, adults who are taken-in by such snake-oil salesmen must accept responsibilities for their own lives: as all con-artists know, you can’t cheat an honest man. Yet, pity the poor children of the world (especially in Muslim countries): before they’re able to realistically evaluate probabilities on their own, they’re indoctrinated with an absurd hope of Heaven and a horrible fear of Hell.

Surely to any loving god (if only there were one!) a special place in Hell is reserved for clerics who concocted and promote the hideous idea of Hell. As Robert Ingersoll said:
All the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable, grew, blossomed and bore fruit in this one word, Hell.
Before 2000 BCE Ptah-Hotep admonished against it: “Let no man inspire men with fear…” Four thousand years later Ingersoll added:
Fear paralyzes the brain. Progress is born of courage. Fear believes – courage doubts. Fear falls upon the earth and prays – courage stands erect and thinks. Fear retreats – courage advances. Fear is barbarism – courage is civilization. Fear believes in witchcraft, in devils and in ghosts. Fear is religion – courage is science.
As science continues to progress, I expect that (within a century or so) humanity will be able to purge itself of essentially all ideas about any supernatural Heaven and Hell. More quantitatively, since I place the value of purging humanity of such ludicrous ideas to be very large, say $10^(15), then even if the probability of it occurring within a century is only one in a million, then the value of my associated hope for humanity is $10^15 x 10^(-6) = $10^9 = one billion dollars – which, for me, reflects quite a bit of hope! And I admit to being an optimist, i.e., to focus on the hope that humanity will succeed in ridding itself of all organized religions rather than on the fear that it won’t.


18 January 2009

On Making Morality Mundane

Recently, for my other blog, I wanted a more-concise description of morality than the multi-chapter description in my on-line book. The result is given below, along with suggestions about how progress might be made toward the goal of wider agreement on what’s moral and what isn’t. I start with some definitions.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the morality of any act is “the extent to which an action is right or wrong.” In turn, that definition obviously requires definitions for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – topics that I’ll get to, shortly. Here, though, I don’t want to participate in (or contribute to) arguments about distinctions among the words ‘morality’, ‘ethics’, ‘customs’, and ‘laws’. Instead, I’ll simply explain my planned use of those words, in which my emphasis is on distinguishing who decides what’s “right or wrong”.

Thus, by ‘morality’ I’ll generally mean that individuals decide what’s “right or wrong”. By ‘ethics’ I’ll generally mean that some limited group (e.g., a professional society) makes the decision (e.g., on an “ethical code” for lawyers). By ‘customs’ I’ll mean that the majority of some community has made the decision about “right or wrong” (e.g., about what clothing or what sexual activity is appropriate). And by ‘laws’ I’ll mean that some government authority has decided what’s “right or wrong” – and has the power to enforce its decision. Of these four concepts (morals, ethics, customs, and laws), I consider morality to be fundamental, because once a “sufficient number” of individuals agree on “the extent to which an action is right or wrong”, then ethics, customs, and laws usually follow – albeit, sometimes slowly.

Distinguishing who decides what’s right vs. wrong can eliminate some confusion. For example, the act of kicking a boulder would probably be judged as immoral (i.e., dumb) by the person with the resulting sore toe, but as far as I know, such an act isn’t unethical or illegal and isn’t customary (except, perhaps, for little boys). Driving a truck on the wrong side of the road is, however, immoral (dumb), unethical (I expect that any professional trucker’s association would agree), uncustomary, and illegal.

But more significant (than distinguishing among the words ‘moral’, ‘ethics’, ‘customs’, and ‘laws’) is the judgment about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of any act. If desired, such judgments can be assigned a numerical value on a scale running from, say, –10 to +10, with the value –10 assigned to an act judged to be “horrible” or “evil” or even “satanic” and with the value +10 for an act judged to be “perfect” or even “godly”. In reality, however, such values have nothing to do with any devils or gods – which is rather convenient, given that such “supernatural beings” don’t exist (claims by all clerics to the contrary notwithstanding). Instead, the source of all judgments about such values is experience.

Thus, experience has shown that it’s important for humans (and animals!) to have the ability to judge what’s right vs. wrong (and all shades in between). Unfortunately, though, such judgments are often contentious. In turn, such contentions arise in proportion to disagreements about goals or purposes. That is, moral values (as with any values) can be judged only with respect to some objective or purpose – and similarly for ethical values, customs, and laws. Consequently, to judge “the extent to which an action is right or wrong”, we must first judge the extent to which the PURPOSE of the action is right or wrong.

That result can seem to be a “show stopper”: what criteria are to be used to judge the extent to which a purpose is right or wrong? It is, however, not so much a show stopper as a “divider”, since different people, groups, and societies not only choose different purposes but also, of course, claim that their purposes are “right”. For example, many scientific humanists claim that the prime purpose of humans should be to help solve our problems more intelligently (or words to that effect), while “unscientific antihumans” (i.e., theists) claim that the prime goal is serve their god. As another example, Zionists maintain that their prime goal is to ensure that Israel continues to exist, while Islamic jihadis maintain that one of their prime goals is to “eliminate the Zionist enemy”. With such different purposes, different morals, ethics, customs, and laws usually follow.

To illustrate further, consider another extreme. Thus, if the prime goal of a Muslim extremist is to spread Islam throughout the world, so that everyone will parrot “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”, then slitting the throat of another “unbeliever” will score very high (maybe a +8) on such an idiot’s “morality scale”. Further, and as unbelievable as it may seem to enlightened humans, killing apostates is customary, ethical (e.g., for the police), and lawful in many Islamic countries.

In contrast, for those of us whose prime goal is to understand and who have concluded that beliefs should be held only as strongly as relevant evidence warrants, then on our “morality scale”, the act of highest moral value (scoring a +10) is to use our brains as best we can, which includes evaluating all relevant and reliable data. Therefore, upon finding no data that support the contention that any god exists (let alone Allah, i.e., “the god”) and finding suggestions (e.g., in the Koran) that Muhammad was “mad” (as judged by some who knew him), we scientific humanists judge the acts of Islamic terrorists to be the epitome of evil (i.e., scoring a –10). For the same reasons, we abhor the custom of killing apostates, we seek to make the act illegal worldwide, and we consider any policeman who enforces such a law or any lawyer who defends it to be unethical.

To reduce such contentions, it would appear to be useful to attempt to identify common purposes that all humans pursue. Stated differently, to reach agreements about morality (“the extent to which an act is right or wrong”), it would appear to be necessary to agree, first, on what purposes or goals are right or wrong, or more generally, to agree on priorities for human goals. At the outset, however, the possibility for such an agreement (on priorities for human goals) seems remote. No agreement seems possible, for example, between religious extremists and “unbelievers” (in their fairy tales), whom religious fanatics want to kill. Similarly, no agreement seems possible between Israel and Iran (whose president seeks Israel’s destruction). Nonetheless, there are reasons to have some hope for humanity.

To participate in such hope, consider first the obvious fact that all humans pursue a huge variety of goals, and we adjust our goals as conditions warrant. Yet, simultaneously, Nature has “programmed” all humans (and, in fact, all life) with the same prime goal (i.e., that goal for which all other goals would be sacrificed), namely, for life to continue. Those species not so programmed are now extinct. Unfortunately, however, Nature’s method for achieving the prime goal (of having life continue) contains features that individuals find either confusing or undesirable – and even more unfortunately, some unscrupulous people (namely, clerics) have found ways to capitalize on both the confusion and the undesirability.

Specifically, Nature found (by experience) that, faced with changing physical and biological environments, the most efficacious way for life to continue was to provide life (i.e., self replicating, information-laden molecules) only with temporary hosts (individuals with finite lifetimes) and to rely on random mutations (e.g., occurring during sexual reproduction) to provide new hosts more fit for survival in modified environments. Most individuals are apparently quite satisfied with the sexual aspects of Nature’s method (although Catholic priests may be exceptions), but simultaneously and understandably, most individuals are dissatisfied with Nature’s method of discarding used hosts (especially, their own deaths).

Thereby, Nature obviously squeezes individuals in a powerful mental vice. On one side of the vice, Nature requires individuals to avoid death, to strive to survive, to thrive, to reproduce, and to help their offspring do similar. But meanwhile, on the other side of the vice, individuals feel the impenetrable crush of their inevitable death. Being placed in such a vice, many individuals understandably seek escape – and not just temporary escape (e.g., via medical assistance) but also permanent escape (e.g., via mental aberrations available in most organized religions). Thus, primitive people imagined that they could live forever – and to this day, primitive people still cling to such a delusion (available and foundational in, e.g., Hinduism, some sects of Judaism, all Christians sects including Mormonism, and all Islamic sects).

If participation in the “life-after-death” delusion were the only aberration of religion, then possibly it wouldn’t cause much harm. Most unfortunately, however, clerics throughout the world have caused (and continue to cause) enormous harm – not only by parasitically peddling the delusion that people can avoid death (an activity comparable to selling snake-oil medicine or other illegal drugs) but also by simultaneously maintaining that the delusional goal of eternal life is the basis of morality.

Granted, the clerics’ logic may appear to be sound: if morality (“the extent to which an action is right or wrong”) can be judged only with respect to some objective and if the prime objective is to attain eternal life, then morality should be evaluated with respect to the goal of attaining eternal life. But though the logic appears sound (sufficiently sound to convince the majority of humans alive today!), yet the conclusion is totally unreliable, since it’s based on the purely speculative premiss that life can continue past death – a premiss not only supported by zero evidence but also patently absurd (“life after death” being an oxymoron).

Throughout history, the tragic mistake of linking morality to such supernatural silliness has had enormous and enormously horrible consequences, from breaking families apart (as Jesus advocated) to the Christian Inquisition, and from religious wars to Islam’s current Dark Ages. As Arthur C. Clarke summarized:
The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.
To recover from this tragedy some obvious options are available. One option, described by Freud in his 1932 book Moses and Monotheism, is (essentially) to wait for humanity to “grow up” and discard its religious delusions. He wrote:
While the different religions wrangle with one another as to which of them is in possession of the truth, in our view the truth of religion may be altogether disregarded. Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end. Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Its consolations deserve no trust.

Experience teaches us that the world is not a nursery. The ethical commands, to which religion seeks to lend its weight, require some other foundations instead, for human society cannot do without them, and it is dangerous to link up obedience to them with religious belief. If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
One of Freud’s friends, Einstein, made a more progressive suggestion:
The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action… A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
Subsequently, and extremely fortunately for humanity, the internet has been developed, and with its worldwide use, potentials have vastly improved for enlightening all people, stimulating them to reject the supernatural silliness of all organized religions as the basis for morality and to adopt the solid foundation that has always been (and continues to be) readily available.

To see this “solid foundation for morality” more clearly, consider again the obvious fact that, as with any value, moral value (“the extent to which an action is right or wrong”) can be judged only with respect to some objective. In addition, consider again the obvious fact that the prime objective of all life is to continue living. Therefore, the obvious sound basis for morality for any life form is, was, and always will be the extent to which any act promotes its survival.

All life knows that the basis of its morality is for it to continue living – although it stretches the meaning of the word ‘know’ to say that vegetation “knows” what it’s doing; instead, its behavior is genetically “programmed”. Similarly, from programming in their DNA, all animals instinctively know that “the good” is to survive. For social animals, experience has given survival advantages to genes that programmed behavior that most humans describe as “moral”. Thus, as Michael Shermer wrote in his 2004 book The Science of Good and Evil (pp. 31–32):
The following characteristics appear to be shared by humans and other mammals, including and especially the apes, monkeys, dolphins, and whales: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peace making, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group…
For humans, however, with our greater mental awareness (especially of the future and of possible consequences of our actions), many of our moral choices require more thought than just relying on our genetic programming (i.e., relying solely on our instincts). Thereby, in particular circumstances, humans can find it difficult to identify and choose the most moral act. Consequently, many humans (apparently the majority of humans), finding it difficult to decide for themselves, seek “moral absolutes”, applicable for all circumstances, commonly hawked by their local clerics.

Yet, all the gibberish promoted by clerics notwithstanding, only one “moral absolute” appears to be available for all circumstances. It’s simply this: to ascertain “the extent to which an action is right or wrong”, we should always use our brains as best we can – which of course includes evaluating all relevant and reliable data, seeking advice from contemporaries and wisdom from the past, and attempting to foresee possible consequences of our actions.

That the desire to continue living is the basis of morality is, admittedly, a mundane result (using the word ‘mundane’ both in the sense of being ‘obvious’ and in the sense of being “earthly, rather than spiritual”). It also seems mundane to conclude that the only known moral absolute for humans is for us always to use our brains as best we can. Nonetheless, those mundane results are extremely important.

They lead, for example, to the obvious conclusion that wrestling the specification of morality from the clerics of the world, returning it to the people, explaining to them that the prime goal against which morality is to be judged is simply the goal of trying to solve human problems more intelligently (or words to that effect), and thereby making morality mundane, worldwide, would be highly moral. On my moral scale, I put it at a +9.