On torture-2: When sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I invented a hypothetical example of two American journalists tortured by North Korea to argue that the reaction in the US is quite different when torture is done by other counties, in order to illustrate the hypocrisy of condemning those actions by others that we excuse in ourselves. It now turns out that this kind of scenario actually happened. Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who is closely related to the ruling family of that country, was caught on videotape torturing people.

Particularly damaging was the apparent involvement of a policeman in the torture and the impunity with which Sheikh Issa could act, even after the tape emerged. He is a senior prince related to powerful members of the ruling family in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is now under investigation in the United Arab Emirates after the shocking tape showed him beating a man with a nailed plank, setting him on fire, attacking him with a cattle prod and running him over.

The UAE at first said that the matter had been privately settled between Sheikh Issa and his victim. They also added that UAE police had followed all their rules and regulations properly.

The fresh revelations about Issa’s actions will add further doubt to a pending nuclear energy deal between the UAE and the US. The deal, signed in the final days of George W Bush, is seen as vital for the UAE. It will see the US share nuclear energy expertise, fuel and technology in return for a promise to abide by non-proliferation agreements. But the deal needs to be recertified by the Obama administration and there is growing outrage in America over the tapes. Congressman James McGovern, a senior Democrat, has demanded that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, investigate the matter and find out why US officials initially appeared to play down its significance. (my italics)

Unlike the CIA, which earlier this year revealed as a result of a lawsuit that it had destroyed 92 videotapes of its so-called “enhanced interrogations”, the prince was not savvy enough to do the same and it appears that there are over two hours of tape showing him torturing over 25 people. Now there are calls for investigations and prosecutions because of fears that otherwise his actions will create public relations problems in the US.

I don’t know why the UAE is worried. If there is any country that should understand and sympathize with the prince and seek to excuse his actions and need to torture, it is the US. Aren’t we the country that detains people indefinitely without trial, without access to lawyers, courts, and family, and subjects them to all manner of treatments that violate all norms of acceptable behavior and has led to death, permanent injury, and insanity?

As Glenn Greenwald, who has been one of the strongest voices for the investigation and prosecution of torture wherever it occurs says sarcastically:

But anyway, enough about all that divisive partisan unpleasantness — back to this brutal, criminal UAE prince: let’s watch more of those videotapes, express our outrage on behalf of international human rights standards, and threaten the UAE that their relationship with us will suffer severely unless there is a real investigation — not the whitewash they tried to get away with — along with real accountability. We simply cannot, in good conscience, maintain productive relations with a country that fails to take “torture” seriously. We are, after all, the United States.

A recent obituary in the New York Times of a US soldier who had been captured by the Chinese during the Korean war casually labels his treatment by the Chinese as torture. The obituary reads:

Col. Harold E. Fischer Jr., an American fighter pilot who was routinely tortured in a Chinese prison during and after the Korean War… From April 1953 through May 1955, Colonel Fischer — then an Air Force captain — was held at a prison outside Mukden, Manchuria. For most of that time, he was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air.

But when it comes to what the US has done to the prisoners it controls, the same paper gets all coy about using that harsh word and resorts to euphemisms. As Andrew Sullivan comments:

The NYT’s incoherence and double standards, equally, are self-evident. But I would like to know if [NYT editor] Bill Keller will remove the t-word from this obit and replace it with “harsh interrogations” as he does when referring to the US government’s use of identical techniques. If not, why not? Remember: these people won’t even use the word torture to describe a technique displayed in the Cambodian museum of torture to commemmorate [sic] the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge – as long as Americans do the torturing.

Some apologists for US torture try to trivialize it by characterizing what was done as little more than the kinds of hi-jinks done by fraternities. Glenn Greenwald applies that same logic to what was done to Fischer:

So that’s torture now? To use the prevailing American mindset: a room that doesn’t meet the standards of a Hilton and some whistling in the background is torture? My neighbor whistles all the time; does that mean he’s torturing me? It’s not as though Fischer had his eyes poked out by hot irons or was placed in a coffin-like box with bugs or was handcuffed to the ceiling.

The new Obama administration seems to have joined the chorus of people are anxious to put all this ‘nasty’ business of our own torture behind us, to ignore all the acts of torture that have been committed and to “look forward and not behind” so that we can then lecture other countries on the evils of torture.

The hypocrisy on this issue is so widespread and reaches all levels that people seem to be blinded by it, as this Tom Tomorrow cartoon indicates.

Next: What exactly did the US do to its detainees?

POST SCRIPT: Please don’t tell us about the bad stuff we do

The Daily Show says that what seems to really upset some people is not the fact that the US government tortures people but that the torture practices were revealed.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
We Don’t Torture
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

On torture-1: Torture is just flat-out wrong

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Some of you might have heard of the case of two American journalists who are to stand trial in North Korea for having entered the country illegally on March 17, 2009. They are accused of committing acts that were hostile to that country.

It was revealed that the two had confessed to being spies for the US and had entered North Korea in order to gain information to aid a military attack on that country. The confessions came after the two journalists had been subjected to solitary confinement, waterboarded repeatedly, kept in sleep-deprived and stress positions for days on end, confined naked in a small box with insects allowed to crawl all over them, and repeatedly slammed against walls, a process known as ‘walling’.

When the US protested against this treatment of its citizens, arguing that such acts constituted torture and were a gross violation of international laws and treaties and that the confessions thus obtained were inadmissible as evidence, the North Korean government stated that President Kim Jong Il had personally authorized the actions and their Justice Department has said that all these methods had been deemed to be legal, especially in light of the imminent threat to the nation’s security because of the hostile attitude of the US towards North Korea.

This urgency required them to act quickly to get information from the captives to find out US plans and defend themselves against an attack. They said that the captured people were not uniformed soldiers and hence were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva conventions, and that they had been declared to be ‘enemy combatants’, not prisoners of war or civilians. The North Korean government claimed that everyone who participated in what they referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was justified in these actions and so no action would be taken against them and they would oppose any international tribunal as well. They claimed that not only were these methods proper and legal because they had been authorized by the president and his legal advisors, but that they had also been successful, as evidenced by the fact that no attack had occurred so far.

As I hope most readers realize, only the first of the above four paragraphs is based on fact. I concocted the other three so as to make a point, because it is time once again to revisit the question of torture. I hate to do it because it is a disgusting topic and the very fact that we have to even debate whether it should be allowed shows how low we have sunk. I would have thought that it should be clear to any civilized person who claims to adhere to accepted principles of morality and ethics and law that torture is wrong and should not be allowed or condoned.

Almost everyone would be appalled at the treatment described above if it had actually being done to the American journalists now under captivity in North Korea, and would unhesitatingly reject these kinds of justifications for torture as the kinds of blatantly self-serving excuses that are routinely offered up by brutal regimes to justify the appalling treatment of prisoners in those countries. Yet these are the very same arguments given used to justify the actions taken by the US government in its torturing of detainees.

But thanks to the collusion of our media and some sections of the opinion-making classes in academia and the media and politics, what is a clear ethical issue has been made to seem difficult and complex, with those who seek to excuse torture when done by the US trying to occupy the moral high ground.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they — Americans — are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness. Freedom is on the March.

[T]hose who view American Torture as a fascinating moral dilemma over which Serious People publicly agonize — as Drezner put it: “if you’re a national security person, you don’t care about the legal niceties . . . it is a complicated question; it’s not cut and dried” — have actually convinced themselves that their refusal to make clear, definitive judgments is a hallmark not only of their moral superiority, but of their intellectual superiority as well. Only shrill ideologues and simpletons on either side believe that the torture question is “cut and dried.” They actually believe that their indecisive open-mindedness on such clear moral questions is a sign of their rich and deep complexity, even though it’s nothing more than an adolescent inability to assess the world through any prism other than their own immediate reflexive desires and self-interest.

Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It’s one of those few absolute taboos, and it’s almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on ASU

Arizona State University must have expected some backlash from its statement that Barack Obama was not worthy of receiving an honorary degree when he delivered the commencement speech yesterday. But they may have not bargained on receiving the full Jason Jones treatment.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Arizona State Snubs Obama
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Skyhooks and cranes-9: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I am going to conclude this series by arguing that it was more-or-less a coincidence that led to the deep-seated animosity towards evolutionary theory in America.

The early 20th century was the time when religious people in America became alarmed that they had perhaps gone too far in separating church and state in the public schools and decided to try and reverse the trend, and this movement coincided in time with the rise in acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism evolution. This theory, with its explicit rejection of a special divine plan for the human race, became seen as a potent symbol of an anti-religious way of thinking that had to be combated. Hence it was natural to use opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution as a vanguard action that would lead to the restoration of religious instruction in schools.
[Read more…]

Skyhooks and cranes-8: Alternatives to natural selection

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In the half century after Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, the idea of evolution gained considerable ground but the theory of natural selection was just one of several mechanisms that drove the process, and hence the anti-religious implications of the theory were somewhat muted.

Some of these alternative theories were modified forms of Lamarckism, the idea that characteristics that an organism acquired during its lifetime that enabled it to survive better were somehow transmitted to the entities in the body that carried inherited traits to their progeny, so that children inherited that acquired trait. These changes could either come about because of animals needing or desiring a change (the famous Lamarckian example of giraffes getting longer and longer necks as a result of having to strain to reach high leaves) or the ‘use-disuse’ theory, that body features that people used a lot would grow and become more common while those that they did not need or use would atrophy and disappear (the example here being the building of certain muscles in the body or the disappearance of fish-like features once they became land animals).

The difference between use-disuse theory and natural selection is subtle but important. In use-disuse theory, if an organism does not use some property, that property gets diminished in its offspring. So a parent who does not exercise is more likely to have children who are not athletic, because the parent did not exercise. In natural selection, on the other hand, it is the variations in genes that result in variations in the properties of organisms and those organisms that have features that provide a selection advantage are more likely to survive to adulthood and to parent offspring. Hence those genes tend to increase in the population. So whether a child has good eyesight or not depends (at least to some extent) on the parents’ genes and not on the parents’ lifestyle, except insofar as the parents’ lifestyle influences the child’s lifestyle.

Another alternative to natural selection was the theory of orthogenesis, that suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. This made it possible to think that the laws of evolution contained within them forces that guaranteed the eventual emergence of the human species.

The alternative theories such as use-disuse and orthogenesis had the reassuring feature that there was some sort of deliberate and directed progression in evolution, enabling their believers to still think of human beings as special and as the pre-ordained end point of the process. The idea that human beings were special in the eyes of god could thus be retained, giving religious believers the comfort that their lives had the external meaning that they sought.

The theory of evolution by natural selection offered no such assurances. But in the second half of the 19th century, even after the publication of Darwin’s famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859, this disturbing idea was in the background. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, the theory of natural selection (though not evolution as a whole) seemed to be in full retreat.

The year 1900 saw the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s 1865 work on genetics. We now realize that this discovery removed one of the major objections to the acceptance of the theory of natural selection, which was the idea that children were thought to have the average properties of their two parents, so that even if one organism developed a favorable feature, that feature would become diluted in the next generation because that organism would most likely mate with another organism that did not have the favorable feature. There did not seem to be a good way for a positive feature to steadily increase from generation to generation in small incremental steps, the way that natural selection postulated. Mendel’s theory allowed changes to remain in the population without getting diluted by mating.

But the implications of Mendel’s work were initially misunderstood and theory was thought to work against Darwinian natural selection, further hastening its decline in importance. As a result of all these factors, the idea of natural selection as the fundamental mechanism for the evolutionary process went into an even greater period of decline that continued into the early years of the 20th century, even as the fact of evolution was increasingly accepted. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983)

But beginning around 1910, the emergence of the new field of population genetics that correctly coupled Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics, created what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. The mathematical analyses of scientists such as J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and R. A. Fisher put natural selection on a solid theoretical footing and led to the resurgence of that idea as the prime mechanism for evolution. By around 1920, the reversal was complete. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was ascendant and has remained so ever since, growing even stronger with time. (William B. Provine, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, 2001).

But one consequence of this dominance was that the idea that human beings were somehow designed by god, and that the process of evolution was somehow guided to eventually produce them, was seen as incompatible with science. The idea that humans had a special purpose was no longer seen as credible.

Meanwhile, we saw that up through the end of the 19th century, there had been a consensus that it was good to keep religion and the state separate, and the use of religious teaching and prayers and the Bible in public schools had been steadily declining. But around the turn of the century, there were increased rumblings that perhaps this had been carried too far and efforts were made to restore the balance. And the start of the 20th century saw the beginnings of a push to bring back the Bible and religion into public schools.

This renewed interest in putting religion back in schools happened to coincide with the resurgence of natural selection and is, I believe, the reason that the US has had this seemingly unique obsession with, and hostility towards, the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Next: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion.


Some time ago, I expressed my sense of frustration with the literary output of writers like James Joyce and William Faulkner for seemingly going out of their way to make their works difficult. The comic strip Pearls Before Swine seems to take a similarly dim view.

Skyhooks and cranes-7: Early American reactions to evolution

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The original question that started this series was why there is such deep-seated and long-standing hostility to Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially in America. It is one that I am often asked and is not a question that can be answered briefly.

As I have suggested, part of the reason could be that the fact that even the human mind and consciousness may not be anything special but are the products of the working of the mindless natural selection algorithm and following the same natural laws is disturbing to some. Evolution, properly understood, rules out any non-material cause for the properties of living things, and this can be disturbing to religious and non-religious people alike who want to cling on to the romantic idea that humans are somehow special or that there is something transcendent that cannot be explained in terms of natural laws.

But what really begs for an explanation is why the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction from the religious community to Darwin’s theory. After all, other theories of science such as the Copernican heliocentric model of the Solar system and the Big Bang theory of the universe also directly contradict the Bible and yet there is not the same level of antipathy towards them. Furthermore, all of science, not just the theory of evolution, has a materialist basis and demands methodological naturalism, so if one is opposed to evolution because one rejects those preconditions, then why not oppose all of science as well? Why is it that it is the theory of evolution that gets religious people’s goat?

The answer has both general philosophical features that transcend nations and religions and cultures, and specific historical, political, and legal features that apply just to the US.

One general reason is that Darwin’s theory deals with life and people think that life is especially close to god. Thus any theory like Darwin’s theory of natural selection that makes god redundant in life’s creation hits closer to home than one that makes god redundant in (say) the creation of stars and galaxies. Religious people seem to find it easier to think of the non-living world as obeying natural laws than to think of living things doing the same.

Another reason is that the other laws of science that suggested that we live in a law-driven mechanical universe in which we are not central arose much earlier, with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, and religious people and institutions have had time to overcome their initial abhorrence and come to terms with it. Maybe with the passage of another hundred years or so, people will similarly accept Darwin’s theory.

Those religious reasons for opposition of the theory are general and apply across the globe. But there is no doubt that the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction to the theory of evolution and this has puzzled many people. It is tempting to put this down to features that are peculiar to the US, that it has perhaps a greater number of vocal religious fundamentalists or that people here think that the US is somehow closer to god than other nations and thus special in his sight, and thus the implications of the theory of evolution are more disturbing.

As I argue in my forthcoming book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, I don’t think there is anything particularly different in the American psyche that is the cause. I think that the reason for the excess hostility is due to a confluence of historical factors. The most important one is the recognition by the founders of the US constitution of the dangers of too much religious influence in the affairs of the state. They had seen only too well in the countries of Europe that they had left behind the religious persecutions that can arise when any one religion gains dominance in government. This led them to incorporate the Establishment Clause in the US constitution and to encourage the creation of a “wall of separation” (in Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase) between church and state.

Even though the early American colonists were religious and shared a largely unified Protestant doctrine, there were other groups (Jew, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists) who belonged to religious traditions that differed significantly, and the need to prevent dominance by any one led even religious people to see the benefits of keeping religion out of public affairs, especially the schools. The steady elimination of religious practices (such as Bible readings and prayer) in public schools had started in America long before Darwin’s theory had gained notoriety.

Furthermore, is important to realize that the idea of evolution itself, that species can change, was not a fundamental threat to the idea of god. They could live in harmony by introducing various auxiliary hypotheses, such as the idea that god was guiding the process of evolution with the goal of eventually producing humans and all the other species. It was the mechanism of natural selection, with its crane-like unguided nature, that completely ruled out any skyhook-like role for god. This important element of Darwin’s theory is the one that is particularly upsetting to religious believers and was not easily accepted even by the scientific community of his time.

But in the early days of Darwin’s theory, the deeply anti-religious implications of natural selection were not fully appreciated. Many scientists (in addition to lay people) did not accept this lack of direction or purpose and proposed alternative mechanisms for evolution that retained them. Even Darwin initially thought that other mechanisms were also at play in evolution and as a result, although evolutionary ideas were gaining greater acceptance, natural selection did not rise to dominance along with them.

Next: Alternative mechanisms for evolution

POST SCRIPT: Did you remember to pray last Thursday?

Stephen Colbert is outraged at Obama for not publicly and ostentatiously celebrating the National Day of Prayer, so he puts on a much grander show.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Clasp Your Hands Say Yahweh
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Gay Marriage

Skyhooks and cranes-6: Why some atheist scientists support the morality skyhook

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

One can understand why the Pope and religious scientists want to promote the unsustainable idea that the world of morality and ethics lies in a separate domain outside the reach of scientific investigation and accessible only by religion. But what is puzzling is why so many nonbelievers, including scientists, also seem willing to give credence to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics

Stephen Jay Gould, who was not religious, was a strong advocate of this notion of separate domains for the physical and moral worlds and even gave this ridiculous idea the pompous title of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) and wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages (1999) to promote it.

Biologist Lewis Wolpert in his book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief (2006) says quite emphatically at the beginning (twice on the same page) that he is a reductionist materialist atheist (p. x). And yet, towards the very end of the book, after saying (rightly) that however much science advances there will always be unanswered questions and that we “must have the intellectual courage to live with such unanswered questions rather than invent answers that have no basis other than in mystical experience”, he proceeds in the very next sentence to make the extraordinary assertion that “we must also accept that science can tell us nothing about ethics or morality.” (p. 215, my italics).

Even the august National Academy of Sciences weighs in with support for this dubious proposition. In a 2008 publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism in response to the question “Does science disprove religion?” it says:

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings. (my italics)

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator…. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith. (p. 54)

The NAS is flat-out wrong. The study of science does (or at least should) lessen and compromise faith because the two are fundamentally incompatible. What exactly are the ‘entities or ideas’ that are presumed to be outside the domain of science? One can only assume that the phrase was thrown in as a sop to soothe the delicate feelings of religious people, who desperately want to find a role for skyhooks.

The reason for this effort comes down again to the goals and ends political issue. Those scientists who seek to advance some secular goal for which they think they need the support of religious people need to find something to offer them in return, since there seems to be the feeling that the public will turn away from science and may oppose the teaching of evolution (or, even worse, stop funding science) if they feel that it is basically an atheistic enterprise.

So scientists may have seized upon the morals/ethics realm as the crumb to give religion, since that area is currently the farthest away from direct scientific investigation. This also allows them to keep in the fold those scientists who are still religious. In a way, the moral issue plays the role of Miss Congeniality in beauty contests, the consolation prize that is meant to pacify religious people and make them allies, by making them think that religion is not totally useless. Since scientists want to keep religion out of their research areas, they may think that giving them the vaguely defined moral sphere to ponder will keep them occupied.

I think this is short-sighted. Far from having nothing to say about morality and ethics and altruism, this is a very interesting area of research. The pioneering work on kinship altruism by W. D Hamilton and reciprocal altruism by Robert Trivers laid the foundations for understanding why natural selection can result in people evolving to have cooperative instincts even though a simplistic understanding of natural selection might suggest that we should always be looking out for ourselves.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57), and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27,1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a readable summary of the research on how evolution explains the origins or altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

In fact, what is becoming increasingly clear is that far from being born as blank slates on which god imprints moral laws on our minds, much of what we call human nature has evolutionary origins. It would not be wrong to suggest that understanding the biological basis of human nature, how evolution has shaped the things we believe and value, will be one of the frontier areas of research, bringing psychology within the ambit of biology.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on bogus issues

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Sh#t That’s Never Gonna Happen – Global Currency
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Skyhooks and cranes-5: Darwin and morality

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The final skyhook that is invoked is the one of morality. It is argued by some religious apologists that we cannot explain the universality of some ideas of right or wrong or the existence of altruism, without invoking something transcendent, some cosmic conscience. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health and author of the book The Language of God, elevates this idea to something he calls the Law of Human Nature and is a strong exponent of this skyhook. To do so, he has to make the self-serving and unsubstantiated assumption that human nature is not only unexplained, it is fundamentally mysterious and inexplicable, thus requiring a skyhook and thereby foreshadowing his conclusion.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?” (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)

I have discussed earlier the flaw in Lewis’s (and Collins’s) reasoning.

Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.

Note carefully his argument. He says that god is “outside the universe” and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him “as one of the facts inside the universe.” Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find “inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.” Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.

The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things.

In invoking the existence of a moral sense as a sign of god’s existence, people like Collins are merely reintroducing in a different guise the idea that the mind is more than the working of the brain. The means for doing this is to promote the curious and logically contradictory idea that we can split the world into two non-overlapping parts, where science deals with the physical sphere while religion deals with the moral and ethical sphere.

Collins, being an evangelical Christian scientist, of course supports this:

In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.

Pope Benedict XVI chimes in with his support for it in a Reuters report on Monday, January 28, 2008:

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by “research into anthropology, philosophy and theology” to give insight into “man’s own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going”, the Pope said.

The Pope’s statement that “no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going” is one of those sweeping statements favored by religious people that have no empirical content whatsoever, with each of the three components in it being purely metaphysical. After all, if interpreted empirically, science has no difficulty at all in saying who man is (he is a biological system), where he comes from (he has evolved from other organisms in a fairly well-understood pathway), and where he is going (he will continue to evolve though we cannot predict what the changes will be since natural selection has an element of contingency).

While this appeal to the existence of morality and altruism as indicators of the need for skyhooks strikes me as hopeless grasping at straws, what gives this argument some durability is the curious fact that many people seem willing, even eager, to concede to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics, even though there is no reason to do so.

One can understand why religious people, scientists and non-scientists alike, find this argument appealing, despite all its logical flaws. It is an attempt to find a niche for religion that cannot be encroached upon by science. What is curious is why so many non-religious people, even scientists, also support it, though they must know that it makes no sense.

This will be examined in the next post in the series.

POST SCRIPT: Harman hypocrisy

Congresswoman Jane Harman is absolutely outraged that she was wiretapped, even though there was a warrant for it. She was the person who enthusiastically supported wiretaps when it was done without warrants to ordinary people, and even tried to prevent newspapers from breaking that story.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Your Government Not at Work – Jane Harman Scandal
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis First 100 Days

Spam comments dilemma

My policy with comments to the blog is to leave them unmoderated. So anyone can post any comment any time without getting prior approval from me. My feeling is that people have a right to express their opinion. So even though there seem to be some people who scan the web to find anything even remotely related to their pet topic and then post very long screeds about their pet theory that has only marginal relevance to my post, I have let those comments stand, not wanting to be in the position of censor.

But one problem with such an open-door policy is that it allows for spam comments to fill up the comments section. One of the curses of the internet is the amount of spam that goes around. Every day my mailbox contains a large amount of it that I have to delete but with the blog has come a new form of spam, in the form of comments that are generated by so-called spambots, automated devices that crawl around the web being a nuisance. The purposes of these are to either advertise a product (often sex-related) or to post hyperlinks that will boost the search engine ranking of a particular site.

Most of these comments are obviously spam, some consisting of random phrases or gibberish or even the alphabets of other languages, others fulsomely praising my entries with repetitive phrases, such as “Cool site”, “I love this site!”, “This site is cool/crazy”, “I just discovered this terrific site and will bookmark it”, “Nice design”, and “I’m happy. Very good site.”

Some reassure me that things are going well for them, saying things like “I’m fine” while others try to keep me up with popular trends by saying “Punk not dead.”

Since the point of the blog is to generate meaningful conversation, I have to take steps to prevent the comments section from being filled with spam and discouraging genuine posts. The server that hosts my blog has some features built in that detects and prevents spambots from posting most of their comments. But some still sneak through and I have to go through all the comments a couple of times every day to eliminate those. If a comment looks robotic and has no relevance to the post, I delete it. I also use the opportunity to rescue and publish some genuine comments that the filter has wrongly eliminated

But spambots are getting cleverer. Sometimes I find comments that seem as though they are written by a real human because they are sort of relevant to the post, but yet seem vaguely familiar or slightly off. On closer investigation, I find that it is because the spambot has taken part of the text of a genuine comment by a real user, or even my own words in the post, and inserted them as its own comment, in order to get past the filter. I delete those comments too.

More recently, though I have encountered an even more difficult situation. This is where there is a brief comment that seems to be written by a genuine person, but which seems to be advertising a product. The comment feature has a space where people can insert their url and I have no problem with genuine commenters using that to link to their own website, even if that website is a commercial one.

But what is happening is that companies are apparently paying real people to visit blogs that have vaguely relevant posts and post comments that are mainly meant as advertisements. One of my posts has been especially hit by this phenomenon, generating 35 comments, most of which appeared to me to be of doubtful origin. Take a look.

This is apparently part of a trend called viral marketing where companies are using real people to create fake grass roots buzz about something, because it turns out that studies suggest that people trust word of mouth information, even from people they don’t know, more than they do official sources and vastly more so than commercial advertising. So you may find ‘friendly’ people you meet in a bar or a coffee shop (they are called ‘leaners’ in the trade) talking about how great some product is, and you do not realize that they have been paid to go around doing this.

Andy Sernowitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing, talks to On the Media host Bob Garfield about how this phenomenon is now being used on the internet.

ANDY SERNOVITZ: There’s two big ways that people try to sneak past you: either they lie about who they are, so you think you’re reading an honest comment on a blog and it’s actually a marketer in disguise with 20 different logins, or they’re paying other people to recommend something on their blogs or email or Facebook and not telling you that those people have been paid.

You usually see it most from either sort of low-end, sleazy, like, health remedies and get-rich-quick schemes and that end, or you see it from entertainment companies, from folks who are out there to hype a song or a movie.

BOB GARFIELD: Some of this is called pay-per-post, right – bloggers getting X number of cents for every time they post a favorable appraisal of a new song or something?

ANDY SERNOVITZ: Yeah, you see a couple of big operations. One company’s actually called PayPerPost, and it pays you to write blog posts about stuff. There’s a new one called Magpie that pays you to send stuff out over your Twitter account under your name.

And where it gets more interesting is the way things get repeated in social media. And this is what concerns me more, is that a company might pay through this pay-per-post service to get 200 people to blog something about them. And it says this was a paid placement in the blog post, so technically that’s okay. They did say it was paid for.

But then those blog posts get repeated on their Facebook page and then on Twitter, and then someone else copies it, and suddenly 10 times more posts have the exact same paid review. Well, we’ve lost the disclosure that made it honest. I mean, really, the big idea here is this word “disclosure.” And what it says is, it’s okay to pay for coverage. That’s called advertising. But you have to say, and now a word from our sponsors.

So what should I do when I suspect that a comment is being posted by a real person but for commercial reasons rather than for having a genuine conversation with other readers or with me? Should I delete them or give them the benefit of the doubt?

I am leaning towards this policy: If I suspect that a comment is either spam or being posted purely for the sake of advertising something, I will delete it unless the comment contains some redeeming features, such as advancing the discussion or providing relevant information.

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT: Corruption in medicine

The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is published by Elsevier, an outfit that publishes many leading journals. It is sent to many doctors. But the magazine The Scientist just revealed that this “journal” is not a real, peer-reviewed journal publishing original articles. Instead it is funded purely by the drug company Merck and contains reprinted or summarized articles favorable to Merck products.

George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. “I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors,” Jelinek said at the trial. “This is straightforward marketing.”

If there is one area of science where fraud and corruption will threaten to discredit the whole enterprise, it is medicine, because of the money and influence of the drug industry.

Skyhooks and cranes-4: Understanding the mind

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Currently people seem to be pinning their hopes for a skyhook on the workings of the human mind. This is not because the case here is stronger. In fact, there is no reason whatsoever to think that science cannot explain how the mind works because, unlike with origins of the universe, there are no extraordinary circumstances involved. There is every reason to think that the laws of science that apply outside the brain, and which we can study carefully under controlled conditions, also apply within the brain. There is no reason to suspect that there is anything more to the mind than brain activity.

The reason that skyhooks have a foothold here is because advocates can draw upon a strong human prejudice to want to think of the human mind as something mysterious and ineffable. We humans tend to be impressed by our ability to think and reason and be self-aware, and assume that there must be something very deep and mysterious going on.

But there is no reason to think that the normal laws of science do not apply to the mind although the sheer complexity of the system being studied and the restrictions on this type of research makes progress hard. But again, I think that with the new non-invasive techniques that are being developed for studying the brain, we have shifted the problem of consciousness from a mystery to a puzzle, and that is the first major step towards solving it.

But not everyone is happy with that development. People seem to want to avoid the conclusion that the mind is just the product of the physical brain, which in turn is purely the product of the evolutionary process. They seem to desperately want there to be something transcendent about the mind that cannot be reduced to material causes.

This desire for skyhooks for the mind is quite powerful and one sees even distinguished scientists falling victim to its siren song. Biologist Francis Collins, physicist Roger Penrose in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky, and cognitive scientist John Searle, are among those who are skeptical that evolution can do all the work to create the mind by itself, and either implicitly or explicitly have looked to find some form of skyhook, even if it is not a religious one.

So if you are determined to believe that the mind could not have come about by the plodding mechanism of natural selection, how would you insert a skyhook to create the mind? In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett suggests some possibilities.

One way would be to espouse outright Cartesian dualism: the mind can’t just be the brain, but, rather, some other place, in which great and mysterious alchemical processes occur, transforming the raw materials they are fed – the cultural items we are calling memes – into new items that transcend their sources in ways that are simply beyond the ken of science.

A slightly less radical way of supporting the same defensive view is to concede that the mind is, after all, just the brain, which is a physical entity bound by all the laws of physics and chemistry, but insist that it nevertheless does its chores in ways that defy scientific analysis. This view has often been suggested by the linguist Noam Chomsky and enthusiastically defended by his former colleague the philosopher/psychologist Jerry Fodor, and more recently by another philosopher Colin McGinn. We can see that this is a saltational view of the mind, positing great leaps in Design Space that get “explained” as acts of sheer genius or intrinsic creativity or something else science-defying. It insists that somehow the brain itself is a skyhook, and refuses to settle for what the wily Darwinian offers: the brain, thanks to all the cranes that have formed it in the first place, and all the cranes that have entered it in the second place, is itself a prodigious, but not mysterious, lifter in design space. (Dennett, p. 368)

This reluctance to accept the idea that there is nothing essentially mysterious or not understandable about the mind and soul is deep seated. As this article by Rich Barlow in the October 18, 2008 issue of the Boston Globe says:

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who researches why people are religious…has written that humans are “natural dualists,” seeing our physical bodies as separate from our supposedly nonphysical minds and souls. It’s a legacy in part of the great French philosopher René Descartes, a religious man who believed our thoughts survived the death of our brains, says Bloom.

The problem, Bloom believes, is that this dualism is inaccurate. Brain science increasingly shows that “the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls” – memory, self-control, decision-making – “are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

“I don’t believe dualism is true, because there’s a scientific consensus that hard-core dualism, which says that people can think without using their brain or that memories will survive the death of your body, is just flat mistaken. Your mental life is a product of your brain.”

I too used to think that the mind was somehow special and distinct from the brain but that was because I had not really thought about it and simply accepted the conventional wisdom. I still recall the moment when, after thinking about it for a while, I came to the sudden conclusion that, of course, the mind had to be simply the product of the workings of the brain and nothing more. How could it possibly be otherwise? Anything else would require belief in an extraordinary mind-brain dualism, a non-material entity that we call the mind mysteriously existing separate from the material brain inside our skull and yet able to interact with it. That was patently absurd.

It was one of those realizations where the conclusion, once you have arrived at it, is so obvious that you wonder how you could ever have believed anything else. But accepting this has huge repercussions, which is why we tend to not want to go there, to resist pushing our reasoning to its logical conclusion.

A major consequence of accepting this conclusion is that all beliefs in god and the afterlife have to be also jettisoned and this is what happened to me. If there is no transcendent mind, if the material brain is all there is, then there is no god. Period.

Initially there was something disconcerting about this realization. I too shared the view that humans were somehow special and was reluctant to let go of that grand conceit. But now it seems the most natural thing in the world that we are just one branch in the grand evolutionary tree of life. While all species differ in many ways and in some ways are unique, there is nothing magical or especially mysterious about the human mind anymore than there is about the elephant’s trunk.

POST SCRIPT: Daniel Everett’s challenge to universal grammar

Daniel Everett is an interesting character. Working with his family as a missionary to the small Piraha tribe in the Amazon, he claimed that their language defied Noam Chomsky’s widely accepted theory of universal grammar based on recursion. He also became an unbeliever and estranged from his still-religious family. Patrick Barkham profiles him in The Guardian of Monday 10 November 2008.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)