Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Can Blasphemy Laws Be Rationally Justified ?

The purpose of this post is to evaluate whether Islamic blasphemy laws can be defended rationally without appealing to faith-based arguments. The conclusion reached at the end of this post is that such laws cannot be rationally defended.

'Rational' justification Vs. 'faith-based' justification

By 'Rational justification' I mean justifications that appeal to general human reason i.e such justifications refers to secular arguments that take a neutral point of view without assuming the truth of religious beliefs. By 'Faith-based justifications' I mean justifications which appeal to the personal religious beliefs of the arguer. For example consider two arguments for the Existence of God :
  1. God exists because it is written in my scriptures that he does and I believe that my scripture is true.
  2. God exists because every complex thing needs a intelligent designer and universe is a complex thing.
First argument is an example of a faith-based justification which would only be accepted by the one who holds on to that faith in the specific scripture. Whereas second is an example of a rational justification which could be accepted by anyone irrespective of their faiths .

The reason this matters is because if something is defended only via faith then one can’t make a case for it against those who reject the truth of that faith. If only way to defend blasphemy law is to appeal to faith then non-believers are simply under no moral obligation to obey such a law. For example Hindus are under no obligation to avoid idol-worship merely because the Qur'an declares it be wrong. To force them otherwise would be unjust because the wrongness of idol worshiping merely due to it being condemned in the Qur'an is a faith-based argument not a rational one.

A Rational Case for blasphemy Laws ?

With the above terminologies in mind we move on to construct and evaluate the strongest possible rational case for Islamic blasphemy laws. Defenders of such a position will usually present an argument of the following sort, which in my opinion is indeed the only plausible rational argument worth considering:
1) It is morally wrong to insult any belief system without exception
2) X is an insult to a Belief system
3) Therefore X is morally wrong
Where X = actions like drawing offensive cartoons, burning the scriptures etc, basically anything which you subjectively finds as insulting.

Usually Sura Al-Anam Verse 6:108 is mentioned to religiously corroborate the above argument which says “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah , lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge….

It will be assumed for the sake of argument that premise 2 is correct. It will be argued that premise 1 is false because there are many instances from Islamic literature which – when viewed from a neutral perspective - would be construed as insulting towards other religions. Please note that taking the neutral perspective is compulsory if we are going to present a rational justification for premise 1. Therefore It would not be a good objection to say "well we believe all these statements were ordered by God therefore it is okay to say them". that would be a concession that a rational case cannot be made for blasphemy laws.

Insulting content within Islamic Sources


What follows below is a discussion of a sample of materials within Islamic sources which may be deemed as insulting towards other religions when viewed from the neutral perspective, thereby undermining the first premise.

(1) Destruction of Idols by Prophet Ibrahim


In this famous narrative the Prophet Ibrahim destroys the religious artifacts (idols) of another religion :
Surat Al-Anbya Verse 21:57-60 And [I swear] by Allah , I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away." So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it [and question]. They said, "Who has done this to our gods? Indeed, he is of the wrongdoers." They said, "We heard a young man mention them who is called Abraham."
For the idol worshipers their idols were as much sacred to them as Quran is to the muslims therefore this act would be akin to the act of a person entering a mosque and trying to damage the Quran. Hence viewing this from a neutral perspective this is a clear cut example of insult aimed at another religion. Clearly no Muslim would ever allow a non-muslim to enter a mosque and vandalize the books or any other artifacts that are present there.

(2) Destruction of Idols at kaaba on Conquest of Mecca


When the Prophet conquered Mecca the following events took place:
Sahih al-Bukhari (Tafseer of the Prophet (pbuh)
Narrated `Abdullah bin Masud: Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) entered Mecca (in the year of the Conquest) and there were three-hundred and sixty idols around the Ka`ba. He then started hitting them with a stick in his hand and say: 'Truth (i.e. Islam) has come and falsehood (disbelief) vanished. Truly falsehood (disbelief) is ever bound to vanish.' (17.81) 'Truth has come and falsehood (Iblis) can not create anything.' (34.49)
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 244
Arabic reference : Book 65, Hadith 4720 
Subsequently it was ordered that they be destroyed:
"...When the apostle prayed the noon prayer on the day of the conquest he ordered that all the idols which were round the Ka'ba should be collected and burned with fire and broken up .."  Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham’s Sirat-ul-Rasoolullah (Translated into English by A.Guillaume) Page 552  (Source)

Yet again this action would be equivalent to the General officer of the US army in Iraq entering a mosque and first hitting the scriptures with a stick and then ordering them to be destroyed. From a neutral perspective, this would be a clear cut example of insult directed at another religion

Possible Objection and responses
(a) It could be objected that "The prophet was no mere human, he was ordered directly by god to perform such acts". but such an objection is pretty much a concession that the argument for blasphemy cannot be defended via reason but only via appeals to faith. this would give no reason to the nonbelievers to accept the requirement of the blasphemy law

(b) It may be objected that "The Kaaba originally had no idols when it was made by prophet Ibrahim so it was merely being restored to its original form."

Problem is not just that the idols were evicted but rather they were destroyed. After all they could have easily been relocated to a different place so that people could carry on with their religious practices. Thus even if this objection were to be conceded the subsequent destruction would still be an act of insult.

Secondly, the idea that Kaaba was originally formed by Prophet Ibrahim is itself a part of the Islamic mythology which tries to argue that all prior prophets came from God but people corrupted the message. This mythology is not accepted by people of other religions nor by secular historians. Therefore appeals to mythology is pretty much an attempt to defend the argument by appealing to faith rather than reason.

(c) It could be objected that "the Mecca pagans were attacking the prophet and his followers all the time and oppressing their belief so it was okay to destroy their religion in response."

This objection assumes that persecution justifies insult which is not a very strong position but lets accept this principle for a moment and apply it to Islamic societies: Within Muslim societies the apostates are the most oppressed group as their mere existence is punishable by death. Similarly in current times Christians in countries like Pakistan have become a deeply persecuted minority due to the abuse of blasphemy laws. So should It now be okay for these groups to start insulting Islam ? Clearly when the Christian pastor burned the Qur'an no Muslim said that such a burning was justified given the oppression that his fellow christian are facing in Pakistan.

(2) Destroying of the temple of Idol-worshipers

In the following hadith an army is dispatched by the Prophet to destroy the temple and religious artifacts of another religion.
Sahih al-Bukhari » Book of Military Expeditions led by the Prophet (pbuh) (Al-Maghaazi)
Narrated Qais: Jarir said "Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said to me, "Won't you relieve me from Dhul-Khalasa?" I replied, "Yes, (I will relieve you)." So I proceeded along with one-hundred and fifty cavalry from Ahmas tribe who were skillful in riding horses. I used not to sit firm over horses, so I informed the Prophet (ﷺ) of that, and he stroke my chest with his hand till I saw the marks of his hand over my chest and he said, O Allah! Make him firm and one who guides others and is guided (on the right path).' Since then I have never fallen from a horse. Dhul-l-Khulasa was a house in Yemen belonging to the tribe of Khatham and Bajaila, and in it there were idols which were worshipped, and it was called Al-Ka`ba." Jarir went there, burnt it with fire and dismantled it. When Jarir reached Yemen, there was a man who used to foretell and give good omens by casting arrows of divination. Someone said to him. "The messenger of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) is present here and if he should get hold of you, he would chop off your neck." One day while he was using them (i.e. arrows of divination), Jarir stopped there and said to him, "Break them (i.e. the arrows) and testify that None has the right to be worshipped except Allah, or else I will chop off your neck." So the man broke those arrows and testified that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah. Then Jarir sent a man called Abu Artata from the tribe of Ahmas to the Prophet to convey the good news (of destroying Dhu-l-Khalasa). So when the messenger reached the Prophet, he said, "O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! By Him Who sent you with the Truth, I did not leave it till it was like a scabby camel." Then the Prophet (ﷺ) blessed the horses of Ahmas and their men five times.
Sahih al-Bukhari 4357
In-book reference : Book 64, Hadith 383
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Vol. 5, Book 59, Hadith 643
From a neutral perspective destroying the temple as well as the idols is clearly an act of insult against another religion.

Possible Objections and Responses:
(some objections raised in previous section is also applicable here)

(a) It might be said that "It was done during wartime and so it was justified."

Firstly, this objection would be applicable only to this instance and not to any of the previous instances therefore those are still valid even if this objection was correct.

Secondly, this objection is not correct. how does the act of being engaged in war justify committing insult against another religion? If war can be conducted without killing women and children then surely war can be conducted without insulting religion and destroying worship places. This is especially true in old times when there were no bombs, tanks etc and thus religious places of worship need not be harmed during battles. If mecca could be subdued without destroying the kaaba surely the same could have been attainable in Yemen
Thirdly, this argument actually supports the position instead of refuting it:   the west is indeed at war with Islam in the sense that either west is invading Muslim territories (which from their perspective is justified) Or the west itself is under attack by Muslim terrorist groups.

Verses promoting hate against disbelievers

There are numerous verses which - when viewed without the assumption of faith can be construed directly as insults aimed towards unbelievers .

As per Qur'an the Unbelievers are:  

(a) worst of creatures (while Believers are best of creatures) 
 Surat Al-Bayyinah 98:6-7 Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures (sharru l-bariyati). Indeed, they who have believed and done righteous deeds - those are the best of creatures.
The Classical Quranic muffassir Ibn Khatir agrees that the verse is general in sense applicable to all ahle-kitab disbelievers: “Allah informs of what will happen to the wicked disbelievers among the People of the Scripture and the idolators who oppose the Allah's divinely revealed Books and the Prophets whom He sent…. meaning, they are the worst creation that Allah has fashioned and created..” (Source)  
(b) Deaf, dumb & blind
Al Baqara 2:17-18  Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness [so] they could not see. Deaf, dumb and blind - so they will not return [to the right path].
Al Baqara 2:171 The example of those who disbelieve is like that of one who shouts at what hears nothing but calls and cries cattle or sheep - deaf, dumb and blind, so they do not understand.
(c) have Diseased hearts
Al Baqara 2:10  In their hearts is disease, so Allah has increased their disease; and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie.
(d) Unclean
Surat At-Tawbah 9:28 O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean (najasun), so let them not approach al-Masjid al-Haram after this, their [final] year. And if you fear privation, Allah will enrich you from His bounty if He wills. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Wise.

Ibn khatir notes that the "najasun" was due to their beliefs: “who are filthy in the religious sense, from Al-Masjid Al-Haram.”(Source). Tafsir Al-jalalyn concurs : “[they are] filth, on account of their inner vileness” .(Source) so does Maulana Maududi in Tahfim al Quran: “They are unclean in their creeds, in their morals, in their deeds, and in their ways of `ignorance', and not in their physical bodies by themselves”(Source).So this is not a mere statement of fact about personal hygience rather it is an insult directed at people of another religion because of their beliefs.
(e) Worse than cattle
Surah al-Araf 7:179 And surely, We have created many of the jinns and mankind for Hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, they have eyes wherewith they see not, and they have ears wherewith they hear not (the truth). They are like cattle(kal-anʿāmi), nay even more astray; those! They are the heedless ones..
(f) Compared to donkeys:
Surat Al-Jumu`ah 62:5 The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah . And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people. Ibn Khatir agrees they are aimed at the Jews: "Allah the Exalted admonishes the Jews who were entrusted with the Tawrah and were ordered to abide by it. However, they did not abide by it, and this is why Allah resembled them to the donkey that carries volumes of books"(Source)
(g) Allah curses them because of their beliefs:
Surat An-Nisā' 4:51-52 Have you not seen those who were given a portion of the Scripture, who believe in superstition and false objects of worship and say about the disbelievers, "These are better guided than the believers as to the way"? Those are the ones whom Allah has cursed; and he whom Allah curses - never will you find for him a helper.

Surat At-Tawbah(9:30) And the Jews say: 'Uzair (Ezra) is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: Messiah is the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouths. They imitate the saying of the disbelievers of old. Allah's Curse be on them, how they are deluded away from the truth!·

Surat Al-'Anfāl 8:55-56 Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are those who have disbelieved, and they will not [ever] believe – The ones with whom you made a treaty but then they break their pledge every time, and they do not fear Allah
The above should only be considered as a sample of such verses. For a more detailed collection the following article is recommended. (Please note that this author doesnot endorse everything in the external articles that is linked to.)


A very simple way of determining if these verses are insulting is to use these terms in sentences that are referring to Muslims for example if someone were to say :

Indeed Muslims are the worst creation of God, they are vile creatures who break their oaths, nothing but deaf dumb and blind, even worse than cattle . Muslims are unclean and their hearts are diseased. Their behavior is like donkeys. Indeed the curse of our god is upon them.” Such a statement would immediately be called out as Islamophobic and hate speech. But it gets worse. Many of these statements are general in meaning applying to all disbelievers. Meaning that it also applies to many of the religious prophets that Islam donot recognize e.g. Bahaullah. They also apply to the great philosophers e.g. Bertrand Russel, David Hume etc which are held with great respect and authority by secularists. Imagine if someone were to use these terms for the personalities of Islam, what would happen to him ?  he would immediately be subjected to blasphemy laws. A classic example of hypocrisy.  yet the Qur'an openly performs this insult towards founders of other great religion and Philosophies. 

(4) Other Hadith containing insulting contents

(a) Jews turned into rats
Sahih Muslim » The Book of Zuhd and Softening of Hearts
Abu Huraira reported that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said: A group of Bani Isra'il was lost. I do not know what happened to it, but I think (that it 'underwent a process of metamorphosis) and assumed the shape of rats. Don't you see when the milk of the camel is placed before them, these do not drink and when the milk of goat is placed before them, these do drink. Abu Huraira said: I narrated this very hadith to Ka'b and he said: Did you hear this from Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)? I (Abu Huraira) said: Yes. He said this again and again, and I said: Have I read Torah? This hadith has been transmitted on the authority of Ishaq with a slight variation of wording.
Reference : Sahih Muslim 2997 a
In-book reference : Book 55, Hadith 79
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 42, Hadith 7135
(b) Jews are greedy
Sahih al-Bukhari » Book of Sales and Trade
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "May Allah curse the Jews, because Allah made fat illegal for them but they sold it and ate its price. "
Reference:Sahih al-Bukhari 2224
In-book reference : Book 34, Hadith 171
USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 3, Book 34, Hadith 427
(c) Cursing the Jews because of their religious belief regarding worshiping graves
Sahih Muslim » The Book of Mosques and Places of Prayer
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Let there be curse of Allah upon the Jews and the Christians for they have taken the graves of their apostles as places of worship.
Reference: Sahih Muslim 530 b
In-book reference : Book 5, Hadith 26
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 4, Hadith 1081

Many of the above statements are clearly antisemitic in their content and would constitute as hate speech. 

(5) Insulting Post-Islamic Prophets


Orthodox Muslims donot recognize any prophets after Islam as genuine. But then this leads to the problem of explaining the existence of those who indeed claimed to be such prophets (or otherwise created new religions after Islam). e.g. people like Bahaullah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. If these were not authentic prophets then why were they claiming the things that they did ? only 2 plausible answers can be given by a Muslims :

"They were liars who intentionally deceived others for personal gain"
"They were madmen and therefore mistakenly convinced of their views"

But note that both of these statements are clearly insulting to the followers of that religion. This can be proven by considering  what response would be received if such statements were uttered about any of the prophets which are deemed as authentic by Islam . Clearly such a person would be accused of committing blasphemy.

Yet this statement cannot be avoided either because:  if a Muslim has to reject these false prophets then he must hold at least one of the above options. But if he holds anyone of the above options he is directing insult against that religion thereby refuting the argument that all beliefs must be respected. In this case the only way to avoid insult would be to never utter ones belief about such prophets: a position which no Muslim scholar would agree with. They would instead argue that it should be their right to attack such "fake" prophets people to expose their "false" religion.


As I have shown by the discussion of the 5 cases above, if we were to accept premise 1 then we must conclude that all of the above things are also insulting and therefore morally wrong. Yet no Muslim would ever hold such a blasphemous position as that would make him an unbeliever himself. Notice that it would not be enough to say that these examples only permit insults at specific beliefs (e.g. worshiping) because someone could equally respond by saying “I believe that only some religions should be insulted e.g. Islam and others should not be”. This sort of selective insulting would make our case worse not better.

Since blasphemy laws cannot be defended rationally therefore the only way to resolve the above problem is to appeal to faith In the following way: “all the cases mentioned above were related to the prophets or otherwise uttered by God. Since we know that Islam is the true religion therefore the criteria of rightness and wrongness is only determined by looking at the actions of the prophets and the statements of God. And since that criteria tells us that the selective examples of insult was justified therefore they are indeed justified while vice versa (insulting Islam) is not”.

Such a response would make perfect sense form the faith based point of view, but if that is the argument then one cannot ask for unbelievers to follow this. Afterall they Do not accept Islam. To force them to obey the blasphemy law would be similar to forcing them not to worship idols (e.g. as required by Hinduism) or not to call jesus God (e.g. Christianity): it is equivalent to applying sharia law on the threat of violence.

Finally the author does think that we should not insult each other. it makes for a more hostile world. Insulting others is a vice, but it is a vice in the same way as burping at the dinner table is a vice. Those actions would not lead to any one being jailed. Rather we should learn to develop patience and tolerate because if we are to call for a universal blasphemy law then parts of Qur'an and Sunnah would end up being the first victims of such a law.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Half inheritance is unfair

Muslim apologists argue that it is just for a woman to get half the inheritance that a man gets because as per Islamic law the man hold all financial obligation (i.e responsibility to pay for the finances of their family members). For example Maulana Maududi in his commentary on Quran 4.11 writes:
"The first guiding principle about the division of inheritance is that the share of the male shall be double that of the female, and this is very sound and just. As the Muslim law lays the major burden of the economic responsibility of the family on the male and keeps the female almost free from it, justice demands that her share of inheritance should be less than that of the male."
I have the following three objections to this line of reasoning:

[1] Many women will prefer to take financial responsibility

The idea of ‘freedom from financial responsibility’ is sophistic. It actually means that Sharia law takes away the financial autonomy and freedom of the woman. For all her life she is forced to be made into a kind of beggar. First begging her parents for money, then husband, then son. The notion of women empowerment demands that women can attain financial independence if they desire. Now ofcourse there would be many women (and men) who donot want financial autonomy. Such persons would feel satisfied with the Quranic law in question. However there will be many women (just as there are men) who donot want economic Dependence on their relatives. And it is for these women for whom this law will hit the most. The division would be unfair for them because it will penalize them inspite their desire to willingly take financial responsibility. Ideally in a perfect law, the ratios of inheritance should be customizable and determined by the parties involved with 1:1 being the default set. Instead not only does the Quran sets the default at 1:2 it also prohibits any changes to it incase the parties decide differently. The ratio given in the Quran is not optional. It must be applied if we are to follow sharia law in matters of inheritance.

A woman might prefer financial autonomy and willing take financial responsibility for any of the following reasons :
  1. as an end in itself (i.e by her very nature she wants to be independent).
  2. Other might prefer it because they like being equal to their husbands i.e they donot want their husbands to be a kind of boss who just pays them for sex and housework and disciplines them like children (e.g. husband will know that if he beats her wife , she will leave him as she is independent and not financially tied down to him).
  3. She might pity her husband who have to suffer all the financial burden by working so hard thus willingly take on a part of the responsibility for the sake of helping him out.
  4. She may fear that in case of divorce the custody of child may not pass to her since she doesnot earns but is only dependent on the husband purely.
  5. although she may not be legally.morally obliged as per Islamic law to support her family but realistically a working woman will always contribute her wealth to her husband, children and household matters for the sake of a happy / harmonious family (What kind of a selfish wife will hoard all her wealth to herself? Perhaps some will but not all) thus such women would have effectively participated in the financial obligations even when they are not required.
[2] Housewife is indirectly supporting the family too

A housewife also works and supports the family financially in an indirect manner. If she refused to clean the house, cook, take care of children then the husband would be forced to hire servants (cooks, maids, childcare, Gardner) which will cost excessively. In this way she is indirectly generating income to the family by the saving of such expenses. It is true that in a sense she is "paid” for her services by the husband when he shares his income with her. but that does not eliminates the fact that had she refused to perform such task the husband would have been forced to pay for the such services in addition to sharing his income with her. Thereby reducing the total family income.
Additionally: share of salary that her husband gives to her may not be enough to payoff for such household services of hers . More generally: When the husband is poor and wife’s parents are rich then the wife is disadvantaged by a 2:1 split as husband will not even be able to pay off for all the “housewife services” that she is offering . on the other hand the brother of the wife will get far more then he would ever need to support his family. (This would be reversed in case of a rich husband and poor wife in which case she would be in advantage). This demonstrates that making a single fixed inheritance law without considering the respective status and conditions of the parties is unfair. in Reality the best way to resolve this is to make the inheritance customization as per the negotiations of the parties involved.

[3] Unnecessary

Having men burden a greater financial responsibility will not hurt men EVEN if the inheritance is done equally
  • when the amount of inheritance is small as compared to what husband earns. The contribution from inheritance would be negligible for the purpose of supporting the family.
  • When the inheritance is large as compared to what husband earns. even a reduced share (i.e equal share) to the man would be enough to deal with the necessary financial obligations of his family.
Conclusion: Based on these reasons I conclude that the Quranic suggestion for half inheritance is unfair to women.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Two Babies In The Womb: A Short Dialogue On Belief and Skepticism

I extend the afore-mentioned meme into a short fictional dialogue :

Skeptic Baby
: hey brother do you think mom was born from another mom which was born from another mom and so on ?

Believer Baby: No brother,  this would lead to the impossibility of an infinte regress , therefore the most rational thing to believe is that if mom exist then she is is eternal and uncreated. She is the ultimate reality beyond which nothing exists.

Skeptic Baby: but surely if mom can be conceived as uncreated why not this womb ?  what if there is no mom at all and only this uncreated womb ? how do we decide between these two possibilities ?

Believer Baby: In order to decide between these two alternatives we need to search for more evidence and see if the evidence is explained better by your "uncreated womb" hypothesis or by my "uncreated mom" hypothesis. So for example consider what is this voice we are hearing from outside the womb. By comparison with our voices we could infer via analogy that that this voice is that of person similar to ours. So there is atleast a third female person that is similar to ours existing outside the womb. That person is whom I identify with mom.

Skeptic Baby: Even if we concede that there is atleast a third person which exists outside the womb why should we be so certain that it is that person who is the cause of our existence ? perhaps all 3 of us are being caused by a 4th thing . or all three of us are uncreated ? moreover how can we be so certain that the voice is being generated from outside the womb ? Perhaps the inner walls of the womb are generating this voice ? after-all we don't have enough experience regarding voices and wombs to create a safe analogy that leads from us to the inference that mom exist.

Believer Baby:  well we have reached the limit of our knowledge. Given our epistemic situation the only thing we can do now do is to wait and hope that as our situation changes and more evidence emerges such that we will be in a better position to decide the truth. Until then we must stay open to all possibilities including that of a mom.

Skeptic baby: But merely to be open to a possibility is not the same as to believe in it. rather to be open is to be open to its rejection too i.e to be open to a proposition is to be neutral to the truth value of the proposition, neither affirming nor rejecting it . which means that we cannot just assert that uncreated mom hypothesis is true just because we like it. Similarly we cannot reject the uncreated womb hypothesis just because we find it counter-intuitive or depressing. Agnosticism seems to be the only rational position in this matter.

Believer Baby: Perhaps experience and observation alone cannot settle this matter however prudence might be able to do the task. Suppose mom in fact exists and we donot believe in her, in such a case mom might hate and punish us because we disbelieved in her. but if we do believe in her we will be rewarded by her love. On the other hand if mom infact doesn't exist and then it doesn't matter who was right for neither would receive any benefit nor punishment. By assessing these alternatives we can clearly see that the risk of rejecting the existence of mom is too high hence if a person is rational and care about his well-being then it is more prudent to believe in her than to not believe in her. of course this doesn't proves that she exist but it does show that whether she exist or not, it is nevertheless rational to believe in her existence.

Skeptic baby: assuming that we do have the freewill to change our beliefs as and when we want, we must ask in what sense should mom be considered as loving if something as trivial as a baby rejecting her existance is enough to justify her punishing and tormenting her own children ? Not only that but we are also assuming that we can know what criteria mom would use for punishment and reward. Perhaps mom rewards people for following the methodology of reason instead of the conclusion . so one who bases his belief on evidence would be rewarded instead of the the one who selfishly uses belief in mom as a means to an end to get reward. In such a case it would be least risky to become a skeptic rather than a believer. The only time pruidential arguments can work is when we can clearly identify all the possibilities but here the amount of possibilites are so high that it is impossible to determine which action would lead to reward and which to punishment. Given that neither prudence nor evidence is enough to justify this therefore it follows that for a rational person the most reaonable thing to do is to stay agnostic about it .

Believer baby: It seems to me that if we were to use your method of skepticism it would lead to not only the rejection of the mother but also of the womb and ourselves. so for instance why could it not be that this womb and our bodies are merely a hallucination created by an evil demon ? in reality nothing exist except our minds and the demon (Decartes skepticism). Infact lets forget the demon. lets just say that all that exist is my mind and all this the womb, the bodies, this conversation is merely a figment of my imagination (Soliphism) . what evidence can we use to rule out such possibilities? the simple answer is that we cannot. But does that mean we should be merely agnostic about these things? Certainly you would not claim that  its irrational to believe that our bodies exist and that the womb exist? it seems that at one point or another we must assume that at least some of our beliefs are true by default until we get a defeater for those believes. Since u give me no reason to think that mom  cannot existence therefore I can consider this belief as true by default.

Skeptic baby: The point you have raised is interesting. Their are certainly some similarity between radical skepticism of the kind u have mentioned and the skepticism about mom's existence. Nevertheless I must note that if this line of reasoning were to be used generally then we could justify any belief at all no matter how silly. For example we could believe that the cause of our existence was not mom but a machine and that such a belief must be taken true as default until proven false. we would destroy our only means of differentiating true from false beliefs. Given your epistemology how do we determine which belief is silly and which is to be given the status of "true-by-default" ? the simple answer is that we cannot do that. I admit the difficulty of ever refuting radical skepticism of the sort u mentioned.  The only answer I can give against your skeptical scenarios is that why should we not also be skeptical about our bodies and about the womb too? its true that my position allows very little beliefs to be justified but it is equally true that your position opens the gate fully: it allow too much beliefs to be justified.

Believer baby: It seems that both of us are on the extremes. One allowing too much. other allowing too little. we need a point of moderation. at which only the "right" beliefs would be allowed to be true-by-default and the "wrong" ones would be rejected.  but what would that point be is something we cannot settle. You would want to exclude mom from that moderation point whereas i would want to include it.

Skeptic baby: I would not want to admit it but it scares me to think what if the "point of moderation" is purely subjective , depending on the preferences of the person. which would mean that both of our positions are equally rational and irrational at the same time.

Believer Baby : well let us simply agree to disagree. that is the only thing we can conclude with this futile discussion. 

PS: this dialogue is written in response to the above mentioned meme . the original meme was intended to demonstrate the irrationality of atheism / agnosticism . One problem with the meme (among many others) is that it ignores the fact that we (the reader) have a preferential position of being outside the womb whereby we can confirm via experience whether moms exist or not. Therefore as an analogy to the theism vs atheism debate the meme fails utterly as we humans do not have such a preferential position when it comes to the question of God's existence. We are indeed like those babies in the womb and so for those babies the question would not be as straightforward as the meme makes it out to be. The key point here is to note that different beliefs can be considered justified in different epistemic situations. As i show in my dialogue  for babies in a womb a different set of beliefs would be rational than there are for us.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Objective and Subjective Meanings of Life

This post is aimed at exploring the Ultimate Question: Purpose of life. Let me begin by classifying the kind of possible purposes of life  into two broad categories : Objective and Subjective.

By Objective purpose I mean the kind purpose which are assigned to us externally i.e. "from the outside". This sort of purpose would be the one assigned by a creator to its creation e.g. god to man . Or a programmer to a robot  or to chickens by the farmer  (i.e their very purpose of life is that they can be eaten  infact the particular variety of Broilers chicken would not have existed had there been no humans with desires to eat them) .

By Subjective purpose I mean the kind of personal purpose which an individual assigns to himself  as the goal of his life. Such a purpose could be anything and could even be extremely trivial. what are various examples of such purposes ? It could be things like experiencing  a good loving family life, traveling the world to experience world culture , helping others via philanthropy and social works, seeking knowledge and truth , excelling in ones career and job, pursuing creative works such as art, obtaining power , wealth etc etc  or a combination of all of these. It could be anything.  Each one of us will decide for themselves what is it going to be our calling.

Given the aforementioned descriptions it seems obvious to me that if God doesnot exist their would no reason think that human life has any kind of objective purpose. On atheism, humans beings are just contingent unintended by-products of naturalistic processes that causes complex systems to arise . Should we rewind and replay the course of the universe,  we would have a very different sort of reality. There is no objective purpose of life if God doesn't exist.  Having conceded this point , I would argue that the atheist can still have a purpose of life. There is absolutely nothing which stops such a person from going ahead and adopting a  personal subjective meaning to what he wishes to accomplish in this life. There can still be subjective purposes to life if God doesn't exist. i.e a person can still find meaning in activities such as the knowledge and intellectual pursuits , reading books.,self-development, the company of friends, in travel, food, movies, games,  in enjoying a loving relationship, spending time with a loving family, pursuing hobby projects. Basically anything that ones find worthwhile doing.

Whats the point ? 

At this stage one might be tempted to object to subjective purposes with something like this : "what's the point?, its all useless and meaningless anyway on the grand scale , why bother seeking knowledge, helping others etc when its not going to matter on the cosmic level . the universe will exactly be the same whether one tried or not . so why even bother? " .

But i find this objection a bit puzzling . Why must a purpose count only if it effects the cosmos on some grand scale ?  Isn't the fact that the person pursing his subjective purpose is ultimately fulfilling his desires itself a reward  for that person?  what other reward could we ask for apart from desire fulfilment? even in case of objective purposes we are also ultimately working towards desire fulfillment , if not our own atleast that of the creator.  Clearly all purpose is ultimately linked to desire fulfilment whether it is subjective or objective.

Interesting thing to note  is that  even the theist use many subjective purposes as a guide to there lives in addition to there objective one. If they didn't you would think they would embrace some sort of religious monasticism becoming a astetic who wanders the roads in search of God and yet a theist would pursue wealth, power, worldly happiness, worldly knowledge, family life  as much as s/he would pursue spiritual ones. That alone demonstrates that subjective purposes aren't as useless as one might be tempted to think on first glance . Even without god we can live purposeful ,  fulfilling and satisfying lives which are free (or substantially free)  from nihilistic worries.

Isnt Objective always better than Subjective ?

No. The purpose which is assigned to us externally (i.e an objective purpose ) is not automatically and by default always preferable to any personal purpose of life which one might assign to himself and herself (i.e subjective purpose) . Ultimately it depends on the actual content of the purpose instead of whether it falls in the objective category or subjective category .

Here is a hypothetical thought experiment to demonstrate that it is possible for  subjective purposes to be  far more  preferable to objective ones :

Imagine a farm with a lot of chickens on it being born only and only for a singular purpose: to be eaten by human beings as food. Now imagine somehow one such chicken obtains self-awareness and self-reflection to the same extent as humans do. Such a chicken ponders on its purpose of life and realizes its very reason for existence is so that it could be killed by another superior species for food. The chicken escapes the farm and decides to reject this purpose which was objectively forced onto it from the outsides by its "creators" and instead decides to find its own meaning of life which might consist of activism for chicken rights, traveling the world seeking knowledge etc etc. whatever it selects as its personal purpose it seems clear that in such a scenario any subjective purpose which that chicken chooses would be million times more superior to the kind of objective purpose it was assigned by its creators

Similar situations arose in the movie The Island where clones discovered that there very purpose of existence was to be killed for organ harvesting in case their original needed the organ. They decide to reject the purpose , escape from the detention facility and ultimately choose to lead there own lives with there own purposes of life. Although the movie doesn't depicts their future but its safe to extrapolate that whatever purpose of life  they would have assigned to themselves  it would probably  have been superior to the one they were created for.

But lets get back to reality : Is it not possible for at-least some human beings to be in a similar position when it comes to objective purpose assigned to us by God ? The purpose of life in religion is somewhat close to something like obey and worship god,  or even "Enjoy" God etc. In this case , whether a person finds this objective purpose preferable over subjective ones or not  ultimately depends on the personal views and tastes of person. For example, I personally don't find much love towards the idea that  I exist  purely so that I could worship/obey the creator first on earth and then for an eternity in heaven. Given the choice I would rather pursue my own desires (and that of my loved ones) rather than some invisible deity.

I have nothing against  worshiping and obeying a  morally worthy diety but I would personally prefer the pursuit of knowledge, reflecting on various philosophical puzzle, the pleasure of the company of friends and family and even the pursuit of wealth and power over the objective purpose of mindless worshiping rituals  anyday. Perhaps it  might be that I would come to respect God and worship him on my own (thereby "enjoying" him) but I can only see that at best as just one of the underlying purposes of life. Defiantly not the most preferable one.

Therefore it seems to me that even without god a person can live a fully "purpose-driven life" which might actually be far more interesting and meaningful given the fact that we are free to choose whatever path we want to take.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Naturalistic explanations as an alternative to Design-based (teleological) explanations

The design arguments has captured the imagination of thinkers since the ancient times. The arguments attempts to conclude the existence of  a intelligent mind as the cause of the complexity and order of the universe or some aspect of the Universe (e.g life)

It is generally remarked that the progress of science has had a fatal effect on the strength of classical Design arguments. Why is that so? I believe the reason is this: when we look at the history design argument its strength has always arose from the fact that we know of only one alternative to Design :random chance. So if something is not the result of intelligent planning by a mind it must be the result of sheer coincidence. For example Epicurus an atheistic Greek poet proposed that atoms are always in motion and sometimes they collide and clump together and those chunks can accidentally take the shape of complex systems e.g. human beings. (he relied on the possibility of an infinite regress to increase his probabilistic resources). However the complexity of the world and the way things are interconnected with each other (E.g. human beings suited to their environment) is simply too much to be explained as a sheer coincidence (moreover infinite regress idea itself has some puzzling implications). Our intuitions strongly seduce us towards an intelligent planner. and I tend to agree. Infact had I lived in such a time I would have considered the design argument to be an extremely powerful demonstration of a mind.

The sentiment is understandable for when ancient humans pondered on the world they were aware of only one model of how organisation and complex systems arose and that was the model of intelligent agents making things (the Design model). Design is how humans crafted material and we were familiar with that so it was natural to extrapolate that to the natural world and assume that natural object must have also arose via design.

But with the progress of science we have discovered the concept of laws of nature. Every scientific explanation appeals to these laws (along with chance ofcourse) in order to explain natural phenomenon. What do we mean by law of nature ? We observe that mindless matter has certain attributes that gives it certain abilities e.g. the ability to attract other matter, ability to carry charges, ability to release energy and break apart etc. It is these powers , abilities and liabilities of matter that we are referring to as laws of nature. So when I throw a ball in the year its not just a coincidence that it falls down. Had it been a coincidence it could have continued moving upwards or went sideways or diagonally but rather it falls down as the natural law called gravity dictates that matter must behave such and such way.The project of science is to attempt to explain every natural phenomenon in terms of interaction of these powers and abilities of mindless matter.  Any explanation that appeals to these laws of nature as an explanation of the world is termed as a 'naturalistic explanation'.

For example given Newtonian mechanics and gravitation its very easy to explain how space dust can come together to form star.-planet systems. No intelligent designer is needed in this respect. Similarly Consider biological evolution , which is excellent example of how natural law interacts with chance to give an naturalistic explanation of a complex phenomenon. In evolution the natural selection represents a non-random (guided) selection of organisms based on their ability to survive in the environment. This guidedness arises due the organisms own attempt to survive against environments , predators, sexual selection. Natural selection work on the variation generated via random mutations which itself is a purely chance event. Hence evolution is a non-random selection (law of nature) of random mutations (chance).

Similarly Consider how how geographical features such mountains and seas and rivers arise due to the movement of tectonic plates. Look at how snow crystals are formed thru very simple laws of of geometry, symmetry and crystal formations. Look at how fractal-based natural patterns emerges via the action of very simple rules being repeated over and over. Why is intelligence needed to explain this when the powers of mindless matter are themselves enough to account for the incredible complexity of the world? 

Laws of nature can generate a sense of guidedness and an illusion of teleology(purpose) in nature even when their is no minds or intentions behind things.  Every succesful scientific theory is an empirical evidence of the power of natural laws to generate complexity and organization in the world.

But what bout the Origins of the laws themselves ? The fact that science has not yet been able to explain the existence of these laws has motivated theologians to construct a design argument asking for the very existence of these laws rather than the effects these laws can create. This is often remarked as the Finetunning argument.  The idea being that the laws of nature (or the physical constants) must be in a certain way in order for them to cause the complexity of the natural world. I plan to dedicate a separate post for discussion of finetunning but for now i will note the following 3 things:

firstly, it should be kept in mind that the laws themselves explain the other natural phenomenon e.g. planets, life etc so here we have literally less to explain. Our burden of explanation is now only limited to explaining the laws themselves. its not that we have two tasks left e.g. explain laws and also explaining the resulting complexity of the world.

Secodly,  the question of "why these attributes and not others" can be asked in respect of anything that we would invoke to explain the laws of nature. so we can ask why if god had slightly different intentions , powers , knowledge , motivations then universe as we know it would not have existed.  so its as if someone fine-tuned the attributes of god.

Thirdly, It seems hard to deny that God himself is not a form of order . Perhaps he is not a physical order but certainly a mind capable of producing 'complex' ideas and transforming them into complex 'realities' is a form of order. and so the question of "where does order and complexity comes from" is still unanswered. at one point or another we must concede that some order and complexity might just be a brute fact of nature.

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Ad Hominem Fallacy

The Ad hominem fallacy occurs when the arguer presents an argument and the opponent instead of attacking the argument attacks the arguer. Hence it is a fallacy of irrelevance because the opponent's response is irrelevant to deciding if the argument is good or bad.

Giving an openly insult towards the  arguer ("your stupid so your argument is false")is the most common but not the only form of ad hominem . Another form is veiled insults such "your not knowledgeable on this matter" , "not mature enough" , " not old enough" . All these responses EVEN if they were true would not undermine the argument ON THERE OWN.

Another very important form of ad hominem is called "ad hominem circumstantial", where the opponent asserts that since the arguer has a stake in the conclusion therefore his argument is false. for example suppose a filthy rich person presents an argument for why the tax rates should be reduced. In response the opponent says "well of course he wants taxes to be lowered thats because he want  to save his enormous wealth from excessive taxation hence his argument is false" . this response EVEN if true would be fallacious on its own.

In my view the most ideal discussion would be one where there are no persons at all only beliefs and the respective arguments and evidence interacting with each other. but since beliefs , arguments etc are ideas and ideas can exist only inside persons therefore the presence of a person in the discussion is a necessary evil . but thats the only role the person plays : to anchor the ideas . nothing more.

Notice the contrast where in ordinary discussion or those we see on the television we almost always start with an attack on the opponent ("your biased/liar/brainwashed"...) i myself have engaged in this fallacy so many times. it comes so naturally to us and for that reason one needs to be EXTRA careful.

PS : case for testimonial evidence is different.  ad hominems can be justified sometimes in that matter.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Freewill and Pascal's Wager

Most people would generally accept that we have freewill to act. i.e. we can raise our arms as and when we will. However is the same true for our beliefs? Do we have freewill to change our beliefs in the same manner we can raise our arms? i.e. merely by thinking about it ? Lets consider a thought experiment:

Suppose you and your loved ones are kidnapped by an evil psychopath (say "Jigsaw" from the "Saw" series). Jigsaw then asks you to change your beliefs about the colour of the sky i.e. to convince yourself that sky is not blue but rather yellow (like the colour of a taxi). You have a set amount of time. If you fail to do so then you along with your loved ones would meet a horrible death . On the other hand if you do succeed , you and your loved ones will be set free and in addition you will be rewarded a Billion US$ for your troubles. Lets also assume that Jigsaw can read your mind to determine if your new convictions about the colour of the sky are genuine are if your just merely  pretending to believe.

Given such a situation - where the penalty to disbelief is so fatal and reward to beleive so great - would you be able to change your beliefs merely by will ? Would you be able to convince yourself that when we look upwards towards the sky the colour we see is Yellow not Blue ? we can easily make many other examples like these e.g. convincing yourself that earth is flat,  or that  you are Hitler.

When I think of these thought experiments it seems to be very strongly that at-least in case of some beliefs we have no freewill. We cant merely will ourselves to start believing something else by our whims .Instead beliefs can only be changed either through (a) systematic brainwashing or, (b) by intellectual force : e.g. requiring the person to face up to evidence and arguments for and against his/her position. The position that we have freewill over our beliefs is referred to as Doxastic Voluntarism.

Pascals Wager

If voluntarism is false (which seems to be the case given the above thought experiments) then what implications are there for pascals wager ? Roughly speaking ,Pascal invites us to ignore the whole debate concerning arguments and evidences for God and instead calculate which position minimizes our risk and maximizes the reward. (the risk and rewards being hell and heaven etc). He then concludes that atheism is the most risky position and thus a prudent person would "bet" on  theism.

However this so-called bet requires an atheist to merely will himself to believe that God exist . But as we have seen , given the falsity of Voluntarism, such a feat  does not seems to be possible for ordinary human beings. An atheist cant choose to just believe in god no more than a theist can just choose to believe that god does not exist (assuming that he is not already in doubt on that particular question). Hence the argument is completely irrelevant from the point of view of the Atheist.

One point worth mentioning is that  Pascal himself attempts to address  this kind of objection. But it seems to me that he takes the brainwashing route: he requires the atheist to stop thinking and reading anything against theism , participate in theistic rituals and so on  and with time he expects that the atheist would come to believe genuinely. I find this unpersuasive. Firstly I still suspect whether such a brainwashing would indeed work given how important the question of God and atheism is to our lives. Secondly it raises a question: Is that really what a morally perfect God wants? that we should reject reason entirely and that we use psychological conditioning tricks to force ourselves to believe in him ? how is this kind of belief even moral let alone rational ? It seems to me that a faith that arise Through self-brainwashing is not a faith worth having.

Therefore to the list of  many other weaknesses of Pascals wager, we can add yet another entry as to why   we must reject the wager  : Because it relies on the dubious notion of Doxastic Voluntarism.