Solving social problems the Confucian way

In writing my thoughts about Confucianism (here and here), one thing that struck me was the strong influence that its “Doctrine of the Mean” has, even down to this day. This is reflected in the “Chinese preference for negotiation, mediation, and the “middle man” as against resorting to rigid, impersonal statutes. Until recently, legal action has been regarded as something of a disgrace, a confession of human failure in the ability to work things out by compromises that typically involve family and associates. Figures are not available for China, but in the mid-1980s Japan in ratio to its population had one lawyer for every twenty-four in the United States.” (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p.191)

In reading that passage, I immediately recalled a day in September 1983 where this was played out in practice. It was the day before my family and I were to leave Sri Lanka to come to the US. I had a huge number of things to take care of before our departure and was driving in the heart of the business district of the capital city Colombo. While I was stopped in traffic, a car backed out of a parking spot in the main street, made a wide arc, and headed straight for me. Clearly the reversing driver had not seen me but I had no place to move and could only watch helplessly as the other car hit mine broadside creating a huge dent in the door.

I got out of my car as did the other driver, who turned out to be a very young woman, probably still in high school, and clearly not a very experienced driver. She was obviously shaken by the experience, although the accident happened at such low speed that neither of us was really in any physical danger.

But the fact remained that my car was damaged and although she acknowledged that she was completely at fault, I immediately realized what a problem this created for me. I simply did not have the time to make police reports, get multiple repair estimates, file claims with insurance agencies, and do all the other dreary things that become necessary in situations like this. It was also too much to ask friends or relatives to be saddled with all this legal and bureaucratic work for me in my absence.

The simplest solution would have been for both of us to have agreed that I would simply get the car repaired and send her the bill for payment. But even if she agreed to this, I had no guarantee that she would pay up later and, since I would be far away by then, I had no means of enforcing payment. Similarly, she could not agree to such an informal arrangement since she had no guarantee that I would not take advantage of her by inflating the repair bill by getting non-accident-related extra work done on the car or similar dishonest acts. This is always the problem in such situations. The people involved usually do not know and trust each other and thus we resort to the cumbersome legal system to step in as a neutral arbiter. Both of us wanted to avoid this.

We were at an impasse and stood there for awhile wondering what to do.

Then I had a brainwave, triggered by the fact that the woman was ethnic Chinese, a very small minority in Sri Lanka. I remembered that down the street from where the accident happened was a sporting goods store owned by Mr. Chang who was the father of a good friend of mine from my undergraduate days and whose home I had visited several times. I asked whether she knew him and she said yes so I suggested that we both go to his store and place our dilemma before him. So we both walked over and he greeted us and listened to us explain the problem. When we were done, he simply stood up and told her that he knew me and would vouch for my integrity that I would not cheat her with the repair bill. And then he told me that he knew her and her family and would vouch for the fact that they would pay the bill when it was sent to them.

And that was it. It was over in a few minutes over cups of tea and everything subsequently worked out just as had been decided, Confucian style. For its success, it depended on every one of us having a sense of honor that was important to maintain. The woman and I both sought to retain the respect of Mr. Chang, whom we viewed as a respected elder, and did not want to let him down by not carrying out the promises he had made on our behalf. He was putting on the line his own honor as an elder whose moral authority was sufficiently powerful that it obliged us to fulfill our promises to him.

I really like the Confucian idea that the best way to establish a just and humane society is by cultivating a sense of honor and propriety among the people, to establish standards for behavior for the various relationships that exist in society, negotiating solutions to problems by consensus rather than in an adversarial and antagonistic way, and establishing all these values as strong traditions that people feel honor-bound to respect, rather than as laws that force people to do so under pain of punishment.

The Confucian way says that we all function better when we take the collective good into account. It seems compatible with the vision of John Rawls of using people’s intuitive sense of justice to create a social structure whereby the powerful cannot obtain runaway dominance over the powerless.

This emphasis on the collective good will be a hard sell in a highly litigious society like the US is now. It goes against the individualistic ethos where the idea is that I should concern myself only with the well-being of myself and my family and others have to fend for themselves, and that by each individual striving for self-betterment, the collective good somehow emerges.

POST SCRIPT: Bush in Albania and the Vatican

The Daily Show reports on Bush’s recent travels.

Taoism

The final religion that rounds out the major eastern religions is Taoism. Like Confucianism, it too is a rough contemporary of Buddhism. Its founder is named as Lao Tzu who is said to have been born around 604 BCE, which makes him the earliest of the three founders, but it is not clear if there ever really was such a person, or whether he was a later recreation to provide a single author for the book Tao Te Ching which translates as The Way and its Power and lays out the basic philosophy of Taoism. Huston Smith in his book The World’s Religions says that scholars do not think that the book was written by a single person although the coherence of the book suggests at least a strong single influence in shaping it. It is believed that the book took its final form around 250 BCE.

Taoism is far more mystical and enigmatic than Confucianism or Buddhism. The word Tao (pronounced ‘dow’) means ‘way’ or ‘path’ and refers to the way of ultimate reality. Taoism states flatly that this is too vast for human rationality to fathom and that words are not adequate to describe it.

Three forms of Taoism have evolved, Philosophical Taoism, Religious Taoism, and a cluster of beliefs that Smith calls Vitalizing Taoism. All of them deal with increasing and harnessing the power (te) of energy (ch’i) to maximize its effectiveness in an individual. This is attempted via diet and exercise and meditation and yoga.

Taoism seeks complete self-knowledge that, if achieved, leads to extraordinary power over people and things. This power is not overt but subtle. It manifests itself in the ability to get things done without seeming to actually do anything, especially avoiding recourse to violence, coercion, or pressure. Its mode of operation can summed up in the following verse:

A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”

Taoists do not see opposites (such as good/evil, light/dark, active/passive) as in conflict or contradictory with each other but as somehow one.

In its rejection of the ability of words to capture its deep ideas and its embrace of contradictions, Taoism is somewhat Zen-like. It is opposed to violence to the point of pacifism. Confucianism elevated the status of the scholar in society and Taoism placed the soldier at the bottom. Whereas Confucianism is deeply concerned with the role of the individual in society and how to make society function better, Taoism is more Buddhist-like in turning away from the material world and seeking to understand oneself.

As Huston Smith says:

Taoism and Confucianism represent the two indigenous poles of the Chinese character. Confucius represents the classical, Lao Tzu the romantic. Confucius stresses social responsibility, Lao Tzu praises spontaneity and naturalness. Confucius’s focus is on the human, Lao Tzu’s on what transcends the human. As the Chinese themselves say, Confucius roams within society, Lao Tzu wanders beyond. (Smith, p. 218)

Taoism, while focusing on the transcendental, does not seem to have the concept of a personal god. It recognizes, however, the existence of otherworldly entities like ghosts and spirits, and it has a pantheon of deities which include the founders of the philosophy. Taoists resort to soothsaying, faith healing and the like, and has rituals that are claimed to have magical effects if done correctly. Taoists also created a church and a sort of ‘papal succession’ that still exists. So unlike Buddhism and Confucianism, there is plenty of stuff in Taoism that would be beyond the pale of science.

Of the three Eastern religions that I have recently profiled, Confucianism, with its emphasis on creating a sense of propriety that is designed to create a social system without coercion, is the one that appeals to me most. Its only supernatural elements lie in the idea of our ancestors watching over us and sending coded messages which can be divined using various techniques, and us sending messages to them via sacrifices. But this feature seems incidental and almost superfluous, and can probably be eliminated without any loss to the philosophy. (In a future posting, I will look at arguments made by some that suggest that this ubiquitous belief in the continuing life of dead people has probably evolved in our brains due to the pressure of natural selection and has thus become ubiquitous. Confucius may have had little choice but to include it as part of his philosophy because the idea seems so ‘natural’ and practices based on this belief were widespread in his time.)

Taoism is the one I like least. It has too many vague mystical elements, with ‘life forces’ and the like that course around and supposedly can be guided.

At the great risk of oversimplifying these highly sophisticated religious systems, it seems to me that both Buddhism and Taoism are inward looking, seeking enlightenment and self-improvement as the ultimate goal, with correct interactions with others serving as a means to achieving this self-fulfillment.

But Confucianism is the opposite. It is outward looking, with the goal being to create a society of peace and justice, with self-improvement of individuals being the means to achieving that end. I like that.

POST SCRIPT: Bob Woolmer ‘murder’ shocker

You may recall my writing about the death of the Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer during the Cricket World Cup.

After first saying he died of natural causes, it was later alleged by the authorities that he was murdered, with specific details such as that he had been strangled after first being drugged to make him immobilized.

In a stunning second about-face, the official conclusion is that his death was due to natural causes after all, and the case has been closed.

The essence of Confucianism

In the previous post, I briefly described the political and social crisis that China faced in Confucius’ time due to the gradual breakdown in social order due to the erosion of a sense of tradition and custom and sense of propriety. Confucius was dissatisfied with the two opposite responses that were being suggested to deal with the problem. The Realists approach was to use force to create order, exploiting the ability of the ruler to deal out rewards and punishments. The Mohists said that you had to teach people to love all equally. Confucius felt that to ignore the special affection that one felt for one’s own family was unrealistic. In this he was prescient in that modern evolutionary theory argues that natural selection does indeed result in one having special feelings to those to whom one is related, with the feelings getting stronger the closer the people are related.

The different approaches can be seen in response to the question: “Should one love one’s enemy, those who do us harm?” The Mohists might simply respond: “Yes.” The Realists might answer that you should punish severely those who harm you and put in place laws that severely deter such actions. Confucius’s response was: “By no means. Answer hatred with justice, and love with benevolence. Otherwise, you would waste your benevolence.”

Confucius’s key idea was to bring back the power of tradition to govern human behavior, where the impetus for good behavior was not on laws and force (the Realist’s approach) or depend on the good intentions of people (the Mohists’ approach). He recognized that most of our behavior is determined by traditions. This is still true to a large extent. The way we dress for work, for example, is not governed by law but by the power of traditions and expectations. Anyone who went to their corporate offices in shorts or sweatpants would be looked at askance by their co-workers and that is sufficient to deter such behavior. In fact, such traditions have stronger force than laws.

Confucius recognized that the old traditions, which had been created unconsciously, had crumbled in China under the pressure of modernity and what he tried to do was to consciously create a new set of traditions that was more suitable to his day. But in order to do so, a society “must first decide what values are important to their collective well-being; this is why among the Confucians the study of the correct attitudes was a matter of prime importance.” (The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, p. 170). Once these attitudes were decided, they were articulated by Confucius into a coherent philosophy around five key principles: Jen, that dealt with the importance of good human-human relations; Chun tzu, that emphasizes the importance of developing the qualities of a mature person; Li, the proper way things should be done; Te, which deals with the proper use of state power and emphasizes that no state, however powerful and coercive, can exist for long without the consent and approval of the governed, for “if the people have no confidence in their government, it cannot stand.”; and Wen, that deals with the arts of peace, such as music, poetry, art, and culture.

The basic philosophy was then formulated as a set of easily digestible aphorisms and sayings and were propagated by every possible means on every possible occasion, both formal and informal, until they became internalized and became second nature. For example, the first sentence a child learned to read was not of the “See Dick run” type that we are familiar with nowadays but “Human beings are by nature good.”

As far as I can tell, Confucianism is atheist in that there is no personal god, but it is not entirely devoid of supernatural elements. There is a concept of heaven that is occupied by all of one’s ancestors ruled by a single supreme ancestor. (One can see how that idea of a ruler of heaven can get easily extrapolated to the idea of god.) Life was seen as a continuum and death was merely a point at which one was ‘promoted’ to the higher state. Since all the ancestors were together, they knew the entire past history and thus were good at calculating the future. Since they had good feelings towards their descendants still on Earth, they desired to communicate this knowledge to them. But since they had no vocal cords, they were believed to send signs through those events that seemed out of the control of humans, such as weather or the actions of animals or even involuntary acts like sneezing. Hence the art of divination, or reading signs, was important.

Similarly, the people on Earth communicated to the ancestors by offering sacrifices, as a means of sharing their goods with them.

An interesting feature of Confucianism is its non-exclusivity. You could be a Confucian while at the same time being a Taoist or Buddhist or anything else.

In 130 BCE the Confucian texts became the basic training manual for government officials, and thus was the de facto state religion of China and remained so until 1905 AD. Since knowledge of Confucian philosophy was the stepping stone to administrative and political advancement, it elevated the scholar to the highest status in government, a highly unusual situation. So successful was Confucius in having his nation adopt this philosophy that it survived for nearly 2,000 years and, though formally displaced by the Chinese communist revolution of 1949, it still remains a powerful informal force.

Confucianism was imported into Japan, Korea and much of south East Asia and became the basis for their social structures and ethical behavior. If we multiply the number of people who followed this religion by the number of years that they did so, the Chinese Empire built on Confucianism was the most durable social institution ever created, dwarfing the much-heralded empires of Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon. (The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, p. 188).

POST SCRIPT: Creationist entertainment

If you are not inclined to go to Kentucky to spend $20 to visit the creation museum but are curious about what it is like, here is a CNN report, a brief overview, and another review.

And if the creationist museum isn’t enough to satisfy your religious needs, now there’s a ‘Bible Park’ proposed to be built in Murfreesboro, Tennessee:

The park, described in promotional material as “edutainment,” would cost $150 million to $200 million. With a Galilean village as its centerpiece, one side of the park would present Old Testament stories like the Exodus; the other side would have New Testament stories like Jesus’ birth and crucifixion. The only displays in writing would be excerpts from Scripture, and parts of the park would be reserved for Bible study.

Here are Jackie and Dunlap at Red State Update discussing all the pleasures that await the true believers.

The fun just never ends.

Confucianism

Confucianism is an interesting religion that is little known or understood outside the countries where it is practiced. It is often portrayed merely as a bunch of fortune cookie type sayings, leading to jokes of the form “Confucius say. . .”

Although Confucius did say many things that can be quoted as aphorisms, the real religion is far more deep and interesting. (The source for my information is primarily the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith (p. 154-195). This is an excellent book for anyone seeking to understand the essences of religions. The author takes a non-judgmental, non-comparative approach to each one, trying to simply summarize its basic principles and practices.)

Confucius was born around 551 BCE and lived to the age of seventy three, making him a contemporary of the Buddha. Like the Buddha, he too did not claim to be anyone special or have special powers, and just saw himself as a teacher. The Buddha’s teachings were not primarily social but instead focused inwards, on internal reflection and on what it takes for an individual to shed himself or herself from worldly entanglements and achieve enlightenment. Confucius’s teachings, on the other hand, were explicitly social and this-worldly, trying to teach people how to live in order to create a better society.

Whereas the Buddha turned away from worldly things and adopted the life of a monk and a mendicant, teaching his disciples his philosophy, Confucius earned his living as a tutor almost all his life, teaching his students “history, poetry, government, propriety, mathematics, music, divination, and sports.” Like Socrates, he was a kind of one-man university and taught in the Socratic style, with probing questions and dialogue rather than lecture, and he seemed to have been very modest, never claiming to be better than his students, although his reputation as a great teacher was huge.

To understand what Confucius was trying to achieve, we need to understand his times. Up to the eighth century BCE, China under the Chou Dynasty had been a more or less orderly society with a strong sense of custom and tradition and propriety that together kept the society cohesive and functioning. But this began to disintegrate, with self-interest beginning to predominate over group-interest and by the time Confucius came along, lawlessness had become rampant.

One response to this state of affairs was the Realist school which argued that what ‘people understand best is force.’ They believed that the ruler must maintain an “effective militia that stands ready to bat people back when they transgress. There must be laws that state clearly what is and is not permitted and penalties for violation must be such that no one will dare incur them. In short, the Realists’ answer to the problem of social order was laws with teeth in them. . Those who did what the state commanded were to be rewarded; those who did not were to be punished. . .[T]he laws had to be long and detailed. . .every contingency must be provided for in detail. . .Not only must the requirements of law be spelled out; penalties for infractions should likewise be clearly specified. And they should be heavy.” (p. 164)

The Realists, in short, were the Bush/Cheneys of that time. And like with the Bush-Cheney doctrine, they initially achieved some success in controlling society but created a mess thereafter. The Ch’in dynasty (221-206 BCE) fashioned its policy on Realist lines and succeeded in uniting China for the first time (and giving it its current name) but it collapsed in less that one generation.

Directly opposed to this was the philosophy developed by Mo Tzu, known as Mohism, which argued that the solution to China’s social problems was not force but universal love, where one should (he said) “feel toward all people under heaven exactly as one feels towards one’s own people, and regard other states exactly as one regards one’s own state.”

Confucius rejected both these extremes as unlikely to succeed in achieving the desired goal of social cohesion. He rejected the Realists use of force as clumsy and external. Smith summarizes Confucius’ critique of the Realists: “Force regulated by law can set limits to peoples’ dealings, but it is too crude to inspire their day-to-day, face-to-face exchanges. With regard to the family, for example, it can stipulate conditions of marriage and divorce, but it cannot generate love and companionship. This holds generally. Governments need what they cannot themselves provide; meaning and motivation.” (p. 167)

As for the Mohist philosophy, Confucius rejected it as utopian and unrealistic. He acknowledged that love has an important, even essential role to play in maintaining harmonious social relations but it is effective only if it is supported by the appropriate social structures and a collective ethos.

Confucius thus thought that the Realists were mistaken in their belief “that governments could establish peace and harmony through the law and force that are their domain” and that the Mohists were also mistaken because they “went to the opposite extreme; they assumed that personal commitment could do the job.”

Next: How Confucius set about creating a middle path.

POST SCRIPT: The Politics of Stem Cell Research

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUS for the link.)

Buddhism and atheism

Of all the major religions, Buddhism (as originally formulated) probably comes closest to atheism and being scientific. If someone, for whatever reason, cannot believe in god but feels uncomfortable with calling themselves an atheist and feels the need to be part of some well-established religious tradition, Buddhism probably meets that need best.

In is book The World’s Religions (p. 82-153) Huston Smith outlines the basic elements of Buddhist philosophy, as articulated by its founder Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the region now known as Nepal around 563 BCE and lived for about eighty years. It is important to realize that the name Buddha is technically not that of a specific person but given to anyone who achieves enlightenment, and Siddhartha Gautama did not even claim to be the first one to do so. But over time ‘the Buddha’ has become known as the name of this particular Buddha, similar to the way ‘Jesus the Christ’ has now become simply Jesus Christ, the name of Jesus.

If we stick to Buddhist philosophy as originally expounded by Siddhartha Gautama, it has the following features:

1. It is a religion devoid of authority. He was rebelling against the Hindu caste system and the hereditary authority of the Brahmins and in doing so he expressed a bracing openness to the spirit of scientific inquiry, saying: “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your beliefs, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves.”

2. He preached a religion devoid of ritual, arguing that belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies was a hindrance to the growth of the human spirit.

3. He did not try to manufacture a cosmology to explain the universe, despite the entreaties of those around him to explain the cosmic mysteries, thus causing one of his disciples to complain: “Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death – these things the Lord does not explain to me.” This reluctance to speculate on questions of scientific fact means that Buddhists are largely spared the embarrassment of having to choose between science and tedious religion-based alternative realities like the Christian creationists have to do with their 6,000 year-old Earth.

4. He rejected the authority of tradition, saying: “Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings.”

5. He preached improvement by self-effort, and to not depend on gods to achieve ones desired ends.

6. It is interesting that the Buddha rejected the supernatural and “condemned all forms of divination, soothsaying, and forecasting as low arts.” He did however think that the human mind was capable of what we now call ‘paranormal’ powers but condemned those who tried to use them to work miracles.

7. The Buddha favored an empirical and scientific attitude to knowledge. The ‘faith’ that is so admired in Christianity and is needed to sustain it (i.e., believing in things for which there is no evidence) is discouraged. He said that everyone must discover the truth by lived direct experience and not depend solely on even reasoning or arguments, because those too could mislead. He also believed strongly that every effect must have a cause.

8. Remarkable for its time, Buddhism was egalitarian when it came to women and also rejected the powerful hereditary caste system then in existence.

Perhaps the feature that most distinguishes Buddhist philosophy from that of other major religions is the denial of the existence of a ‘soul’, if by that we mean a spiritual substance that occupies and animates the body and retains its identity forever.

It is safe to say that the Buddha was an atheist, as far as believing in a personal god was concerned. But he also advocated some things that pose problems for the rational person. He was not, as might be expected from his other views, unequivocally opposed to the notion that nothing about a person survives bodily death. He retained a belief in the existing Hindu idea in reincarnation but thought that this was like the passing of a flame from candle to candle in that something continues even though we cannot speak of a perpetual and unique flame being handed on. His belief in causality was used to infer in favor of karma, that all effects must have causes, and that this meant that one’s life now must have been caused (in some sense) by past actions that could be traced back earlier than one’s birth. The idea of a free will idea was however retained.

These things are hard to fit into scientific and rational worldview and cause consistency problems.

Like other religions, as time went on Buddhism has splintered into three major factions (Mahayana, Hinayana/Theravada, Zen) each of which dominates particular countries. Sri Lanka, for instance, practices the Theravada form.

The irony is that like other religions, over time much of the Buddha’s teachings have become corrupted with influences from theistic religions so that he would find the present forms of religion unrecognizable. The Buddha himself is now widely worshipped as a god, legends of miracles surrounding his life and work and death have now sprouted, and the Buddhist philosophy he preached has been buried in a thicket of rites and traditions and priestly hierarchies. Rather than following his preaching of rejecting worldly entanglements, Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka, for example, eagerly seek political power and resources and government patronage. Gautama would be appalled by what is now being done in his name.

In other words, all the original distinguishing features of Buddhism that would have appealed to a rational person have now been overwhelmed by run-of-the-mill theistic ideas, which make it hard to distinguish from other religions. Such is the power of the desire of people to believe in a supernatural deity.

POST SCRIPT: The ‘disappeared’ phenomenon comes to the US

Six human rights groups have charged that the US government is responsible for 39 people ‘disappearing.’ These people are alleged to have, at least at one time, been held in secret custody. When coupled with the allegations of torture, we are witnessing the replication by this US government of some of the worst abuses of Latin American dictators.

Highway merging and the theory of evolution

Some time ago, I wrote about the best way for traffic to merge on a highway, say when a lane is closed up ahead. There are those drivers who begin to merge as soon as the signs warning of impending closure appear, thus making their lanes clear. Others take advantage of this lane opening up to drive fast right up to the merge point and then try to squeeze into the other lane.

I said that although people who followed the latter strategy were looked upon disapprovingly as queue jumpers, it seemed to me like the most efficient thing to do to optimize traffic flow was to follow the lead of the seemingly anti-social people and stay in the closed lane until the last moment since that had the effect of minimizing the length of the restricted road. To merge earlier meant that one had effectively made the restricted portion longer.

Some commenters (Gregory Szorc, another Greg, and Jeremy Smith) disagreed with me, saying that what is important is not the length of the restricted road section but the ability of traffic to maintain speed. After all, a single lane of cars can travel quite smoothly at 60 mph for quite a distance, even if there is a lot of traffic. They said that the best thing to do is to merge into the other lane whenever you can do so without significantly losing speed. Clearly this means merging as soon as possible, when traffic is still light, rather than following my suggestion of waiting until the latest moment when traffic is heavier and merging has to be done at a low speed.

The last month I have been doing a lot of highway driving and have been observing this again and realize that I was wrong and the commenters right. When traffic is light, people can merge at any point and not back up traffic because the speed at which they merge is close to the normal speed. So it seems that the key feature is the ability to maintain speed and to merge when you can do so, which means when the traffic flow is light, which usually is well before the actual lane closing. In fact, I think that highway workers should post signs many, many miles ahead of the restriction and recommend that people merge as soon as possible.

But highway signs alone are not going to be enough to have the desired effect. What is needed is widespread public awareness of the benefits of merging well before you actually have to.

Of course, there will always be people who ‘cheat’ and try to go as far as possible along the closed lane and thus end up slowing traffic at the merge point and destroying the benefits for all. What can be done about this?

Interestingly, this phenomenon parallels the problem of explaining altruistic behavior using evolution by natural selection. It is easy to argue that a group benefits if all its members practice some particular trait, say by sharing food equally all the time so that everyone survives in both good times and bad. But the catch is that evolution by natural selection works on the basis of what is good for a single organism, not for groups, because it is an organism that has genes and propagates it. And that means that a cheater (i.e., someone who, when he has plenty, hides some of his food without being caught) benefits more than the others and is more likely to survive. If this tendency to cheat is an inherited trait, then over time cheaters will come to dominate in the population. Evolutionary biologists have developed theories on how to explain the evolution of altruistic behavior in the face of this seeming advantage for cheating.

In the case of highway merging, if everyone, without exception, follows the early highway merging rule, then long bottlenecks could be a thing of the past, unless traffic is so heavy that merging at normal speed is just impossible. But the occasional cheater will get a short-term benefit of getting a long stretch of open road, while the people behind him get the negative effects of having him slow down traffic at the merge point. So he gets the benefit of others merging early while others bear the cost of his cheating, making cheating an advantageous option to that single organism.

Of course, I am not suggesting that selfish and inconsiderate highway driving habits are inherited traits that will spread in the population by being passed down to the inconsiderate driver’s children via his or her genes. But they could be like a ‘meme’, a mental virus that, like a gene, is a replicator that seeks to propagate and increase its incidence in the population, which in this case consists of the minds of people. This meme would encourage people to benefit themselves in the short-term at the expense of others, even though in the long term they too lose when someone else practicing the same behavior slows down traffic ahead of them.

The consequences of atheism

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like “god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell” or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is ‘not natural’ (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a ‘soul’ as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore on Oprah

The video of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Michael Moore on her show about his new film Sicko seems to suggest that she is going to take up the cause of a a single-payer universal health care system. (See the Post Script to this post for a preview and a clip from the film.)

If she does so, this could be a big step towards establishing such a system because the platform she has gives her a formidable ability to mobilize public opinion.

Taking offense (revisited)

There has been an interesting and (as usual) thoughtful set of responses to my earlier post on taking offense to critiques of religion. Instead of responding to each commenter separately as I usually do, in this case I thought I would respond to all collectively, not because they are all saying the same thing, but to make my response more coherent and less fragmented. I would urge readers to read those earlier comments in order to get a better sense of the context of this posting.

When it comes to critiques of religion, I think that the two issues of plausibility and worthiness tend to get conflated. When atheists put religions like Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Hinduism into the same basket as fairies and the Easter bunny, they are raising the issue of plausibility, making the point that all these beliefs suffer from the same lack of evidence for the existence of god and thus are equally implausible. That argument should be responded to on the basis of evidence.

But that is typically not what happens. The issue of relative plausibility is rarely addressed head-on. Instead religious believers tend to shift the focus to one of worthiness, and argue that mainstream religious beliefs have resulted in great things (like highly altruistic self-sacrificial behavior and contributions to culture) while beliefs in the Easter bunny and fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster have not, and thus religious ideas are worthy of greater ‘respect’ and should not be lumped with the others. (There is also an indirect implication that if religious ideas are more worthy, they should also be more plausible, but that argument is logically unsound. It should really be backwards, that more plausible ideas are more worthy (in a scientific and not moral sense) of belief.)

But even if we go along with the shift to worthiness, the issue is a wash. No one can deny that religions have inspired great music and poetry and art. But no one can deny that they have also resulted in unspeakable cruelty and murder and destruction. Even if we avoid a crude estimate of relative numbers for each side, religious people tend want to only consider the positive benefits and disown the negative results by saying that the people who did the latter things were really acting from other, baser, motives and were somehow deluded into thinking that they were following god’s will when they were actually working against it.

But if that is the case, then we can say the same thing about the motives of those who do positive things as well, that although they think and say they do it because of god, they are really doing it out of love of music and poetry and humanity and so on. If you accept people’s stated reasons for doing good things at face value, how can you reject their stated reasons for doing bad things?
As for the idea that comparing beliefs in god to Easter bunnies is offensive because it makes religious people look like simpletons, the whole point of my earlier post was to argue that this was not true, that in fact many very smart people over the centuries have believed in religion because they are able to find complex and sophisticated reasons for doing so. Michael Shermer’s words, which I used in that post, are worth quoting again: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

Recall Pascal Boyer’s incredulity at the Christian theologian’s contempt for Fang beliefs about witches. The Cambridge University theologian had probably put in a lot of effort into creating reasons for believing his own religion and no effort into justifying the Fang beliefs. But there is no reason to think that the Fang people (or those who believe in voodoo or shamanistic or animistic religions) are any dumber or smarter than the Christian theologian or Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus in general. The Fang and others have probably striven over centuries into developing reasons why their own beliefs are worthy and the beliefs of others are not.

Recall Jacob Weisberg, who was refreshingly candid as to why he disdained Mormonism while valuing the more traditional religions: “Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.” (my emphasis)

The key factor at play here is not the intelligence of the believer but the level of desire to believe. If people really need to or want to believe something, they will find reasons to do so. The smarter people are, the more sophisticated and complex their reasons will be. And if they were to shift their considerable talents to other beliefs such as fairies and the Easter bunny and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, over time they will be equally successful.

POST SCRIPT: Preview of Sicko

Check out the preview of the new Michael Moore film Sicko on the scandal that is the US health industry:

You can also see a scene from the film, where Moore visits an English hospital:

The film is being released on June 29, 2007. I am definitely going to see it as soon as it comes out.

Is there an atheist philosophy?

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a ‘force’ or ‘principle’ or ‘consciousness’ or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

POST SCRIPT: Video on evolution

Here is a nice video explanation of the evidence for evolution and the common ancestors of humans and other animals.

Taking offense

I have written before (See here, here, here, and here.) that one of the odd characteristics about the discussions about the new atheism is the frequently made charge that the new atheists are ‘rude’ and saying ‘offensive’ things about religion.

I myself have said things that may warrant this charge. I have frequently compared belief in god to belief in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the tooth fairy. Religious people may have got offended by this, thinking that I am trivializing their deeply held beliefs. But this reaction itself suggests what a privileged position religion has long held in public discourse, trying to force critics into muting their statements. It is not as if I am making ad hominem attacks on believers or calling them names.

When I compare belief in god to things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am making the point that they all have the same level of empirical evidence in support of them and that the same kinds of arguments are used in their favor. Atheists are merely taking these arguments of religious believers to their logical conclusions as a means of showing their weaknesses, which is a perfectly valid and time-honored form of reasoning. Yet people take one belief (their own particular variant of god) seriously and dismiss the others, making this an interesting study of what kind of thinking enables them to do so.

In a discussion on British radio Richard Dawkins (author of the book The God Delusion) picks up on a point made by another scientist Lord Robert Winston who suggests that Dawkins is insulting religion by calling belief in god a delusion. Dawkins responds:

There is a double standard here, that if we were just having an argument about some scientific matter we could argue quite vigorously and you wouldn’t feel insulted, you wouldn’t feel offended. But there’s something about religion that feels entitled to take offense if you just say something that would be comparatively mild in another context. I can’t help feeling that offense is something that people take when they’ve run out of arguments.

Dawkins makes a good point. In politics or science or other debates, you do not usually say you are offended if someone criticizes your position. It is usually done only when you have no adequate response. For example, in 2005 Amnesty International leveled a serious charge against the US: “We have documented that the U.S. government is a leading purveyor and practitioner of the odious human rights violation. . . As evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment mounts, it is more urgent than ever that the U.S. government bring the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and any other facilities it is operating outside the USA into full compliance with international law and standards. The only alternative is to close them down.”

When questioned about this Dick Cheney said he was “offended” by the comment. But why should we care if he is offended? His feelings are not the issue here. But what he was trying to do was make the issue off-limits to questioning, because he had no real arguments with which to respond.

When Kirk Cameron tried to ridicule evolutionary theory by suggesting that it should predict the existence of animals like ‘croc-o-ducks’, with the body of a duck and the head of a crocodile, I did not get offended and say “How dare you, sir!” in the fine manner of Victorian melodramas. I was simply amused and countered by pointing out how his statement shows his ignorance of the theory.

This tendency to give religious views shelter from criticism is the reason that one finds periodic eruptions of religious anger and even riots over perceived slights. The angry response by some Christians over the ‘chocolate Jesus’, the ‘elephant dung Mary’, and the ‘crucifix in urine’, the rioting by some Muslims over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and the anger of some Hindus in India because of the depiction of naked Hindu deities by an acclaimed Indian painter M. F. Hussain are all signs that religious sensibilities have been accorded far too much deference. The more deference one gives to someone or some ideas, the more prickly sensitivity such people exhibit, resulting in them demanding even greater deference. It is a very harmful feedback loop.

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said: “One of the most frightening things in the Western world, and in this country in particular, is the number of people who believe in things that are scientifically false. If someone tells me that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, in my opinion he should see a psychiatrist.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)

Should creationists get offended by the suggestion that they need professional help? Note that even Crick did not explicitly say that he would actually tell the person that he should see a psychiatrist. To gratuitously tell people that they are borderline psychotic, when they merely hold a particular set of views and seem to pose no danger to themselves or to others, would be offensive. But there is nothing wrong with publicly saying that certain beliefs are irrational.

If anyone we knew said that they heard voices telling them what to do and that they believed in invisible things like magic unicorns, we would be more concerned and may try and get them some help. But if they say identical things about god, we give them a pass. The fact that we do not usually tell people that they should see a psychiatrist when they say that they think the world is less than 10,000 years old shows that religious beliefs already receive considerable deference and leeway.

The proper response to this demand for excessive deference to religious beliefs is not to go out of one’s way to gratuitously insult people. That usually does not achieve anything worthwhile. But at the same time, people should not be allowed to say “I’m offended!” and expect that to be taken as a serious argument.

So when atheists suggest that the beliefs of Christianity have the same intellectual and scientific stature as belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the response should not be to get in a huff but to show why the two beliefs deserve to be treated differently. To merely say one is offended is, as Dawkins points out, to tacitly concede that one has run out of arguments.