The problem with parallel worlds

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don’t know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling’s world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers’ intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, inevitable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god. It was my personal inability to do so that finally pushed me into atheism.

POST SCRIPT

As usual, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gets to the heart of the Judith Miller-New York Times-WMD story.

The secular world of Harry Potter

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word “god” used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called “intelligent design creationism” (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into their curriculum.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the whole wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP – The name of the ‘intelligent designer’ revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called ‘intelligent design creationist’ (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was pretty obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

Reflections on “Mountains Beyond Mountains”

Yesterday (Thursday) was the Share the Vision part of the orientation program for the new Case students. This year’s theme was based on the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world by Tracy Kidder, which the incoming class had read over the summer. This is a truly inspiring book about a man who is driven to bring quality health care to the poorest of the poor, mainly in remote regions of Haiti. Severance Hall was almost full with students and faculty and I was one of the panel of speakers. Below is the text of the talk I gave to the group.
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Harry Potter’s school life and mine (safe to read – no spoilers!)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called ‘day-scholars’ which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate ‘commuters.’
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Harry Potter’s school life (safe to read – no spoilers!)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that ‘Frank Richards’ was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.

The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys’ schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls’ boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don’t, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT

An anonymous commenter to an earlier post gave a very useful link to the various shades of meaning attached to atheism and definitions of atheism and agnosticism.

Creating the conditions for a just society – 3

According to John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice we have to get together once and for all and make the rules of operation without knowing our particular situation. (See here, here, and here for previous postings on this topic.) And once we make the rules, and then lift the veil of ignorance and find out our particular situation (our gender, age, abilities, skills, talents, health, community, position in society, wealth, income, educational qualifications, level of authority and power, etc.), we are not allowed to renegotiate to get more favorable terms for us. This restriction is important since it ensures that careful deliberation goes into making sure that the rules created are perceived as fair by all.

Let’s work through a specific simple case. People who are generally law-abiding would like to see laws and enforcement mechanisms that ensure their own safety and security and protect their property. If I belong to that category, I might want to advocate stern penalties (fines, imprisonment, harsh prison conditions, torture, even death) for law-breakers. But there is no guarantee that once the veil of ignorance is lifted, that I (for example) will be in the category of law-abiding people. It may turn out that I am actually a crook or have criminal intentions. Normally we would try and exclude crooks from the decision-making process because we have decided that they do not deserve the same rights as law-abiding people. But the veil of ignorance means that we cannot exclude people we disagree with in the rule-making process. I have to consider such possibilities as well when we agree to the rules.

So it is in my interest to make sure that the penalties for law-breaking are not too severe, since there is a chance that I may have to suffer them. Does this mean that crooks will prefer to opt for no penalties at all? No, because even crooks can function effectively only if they are the exception, if there is a general level of law-abiding behavior. After all, the executives who looted Enron and Tyco and caused thousands of people to lose all their savings could only do this because almost everyone else was behaving fairly honestly. This is why crooks can stash their stolen money in off-shore bank accounts and retrieve it later. If the officials in the off-shore banks were also crooks, the stolen money would not be ‘safe.’ Also if the other employees in your own company were not honest, the company would not make the amount of money that makes it worthwhile for you to steal it.

Even petty thieves could not function if everyone around them was also stealing from everyone else with no restriction. And since there is no guarantee that I will be the toughest crook around to fend off the other thieves, allowing for a totally lawless society could result in a terrible situation for me personally if it turns out (once the veil is lifted) that I am not very bright or strong or am clumsy with weapons. After all, there is no guarantee that I will be a skillful crook. An incompetent crook in a lawless society would fare much worse than one in a law-abiding society.

So it is in the interests of even crooks to create rules that encourage and reward honest behavior while ensuring reasonable treatment for law-breakers, just in case they get caught. So the two extremes (law abiding and honest people on the one hand, and crooks on the other) both have an interest in creating rules that balance the interests of both, since no one knows where they personally will end up.

What of the situation that triggered this series of posts, that of gay rights coming into conflict with certain interpretations of religions? Since the rules do not allow you to specify particulars, you cannot say (for example) that the Bible must be the basis for policy decisions. You would have to allow for the possibility for any religious text or that no religious text can form the basis. In other words, if the rules are to allow primacy for religion-based laws, you have to allow for the possibility that once the veil is lifted, you might end up as a Buddhist in a Judaism-based state or a Christian in a Hinduism-based state or you might be a gay person in an Islam-based state. If that should turn out to be the case, would you be content with the result?

Allowing for religious views to be the basis of regulating the private lives of individuals in a society also means allowing for the possibility that we might end up in a society run by groups like the now-defunct Shaker Christian sect, which advocated strict celibacy among its members. Of course, such a society would not likely last very long for obvious reasons (and the Shakers did, in fact, eventually disappear), but would we be willing to allow for this possibility?

Clearly the fact we could end up in any of these situations and have to live with it should cause us to think very carefully about what exactly are the rules of societal regulation that are important to us. I don’t know what specific resolution will be arrived at using the veil of ignorance to address the problem of gay rights and religious opposition to homosexuality. But what I am suggesting is that that is the way we have to address problems such as these if we are to not to just continue to talk through each other, simply asserting our preferences based on our situation and repeating the same arguments.

In some ways, what Rawls is suggesting is that we need to get in the habit of seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of others who may be quite different from us, and ask ourselves whether we would still see the world to as fair from that vantage point. It also requires us to think in terms of universal principles as opposed to principles based on the beliefs and practices of specific groups.

Thinking in this way is hard to do but needs to be done if we are to have any hope of overcoming the differences in policy preferences created by the huge diversity that exists amongst us.

Now clearly those who believe that their vision of God is the right one, and/or their particular religious or secular text is the only source of authority, are going to find it hard to deal with Rawls’ insistence that no identifiable and named groups can be used in formulating the rules. If you believe (for example) that Islam is the one true religion and that the Qu’ran (or Koran) has to be the basis of civil law, I cannot see how you can accept the ‘veil of ignorance’ principle (unless I am missing something). But rejecting this principle also means rejecting the idea of ‘justice as fairness,’ and dooms us to never-ending conflict because people who feel they are being unfairly treated will eventually rise up against their oppressors.

POST SCRIPT

There is an interesting article by Steven Pinker titled Sniffing out the Gay Gene that is well worth reading. I came across it in the excellent blog run by The Center for Genetics Research Ethics and Law.

Creating the conditions for a just society – 2

In the previous posting we saw how people tend to advocate policies based on their own particular background, situation, or preferences, and this necessarily results in perceptions of unfairness over the decisions made.

The key to understanding Rawls’ idea of ‘justice as fairness’ is that people perceive fairness in terms of the process by which results are achieved, not in terms of the actual outcomes of the process. When children play a game and at the end, one child complains that it was not fair, it usually means that the child feels that the rules of operation were either violated or exploited unethically, not that the child should not have lost (unless we are talking about a really spoiled child who feels entitled to always win).

So what Rawls is saying in his A Theory of Justice is that we need to collectively determine the rules by which decisions affecting all of society are arrived at, so that whatever results from that decision making process, everyone will accept that it is fair, although we may not agree with any given decision.

Rawls argues that the essential ingredient to achieving this fairness in process is the ‘veil of ignorance’ under which everyone who is involved in creating the rules (known as the ‘persons in the original position’) operates. What he means by this is:

First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism. More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its particular economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve. The persons in the original position have no information as to which generation they belong. (p. 118)

The veil of ignorance only excludes particular knowledge about the state of individuals or societies. It allows for the kind of general information needed to make meaningful decisions.

It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice. (p. 119)

The rules which are arrived at cannot involve identifiable persons or groups or create special exemptions for such groups. For example, if one is making rules about religion, one cannot create rules that apply to a named religious group. You cannot say, for example, that a particular rule will be applied only if the majority of the population (once the veil of ignorance is lifted) turns out to be Christian (or Hindu or whatever.) You cannot also make rules dependent on what the particular situation of a named individual turns out to be. So you cannot say, for example, that the rule of free health care being available to all only kicks in if person X turns out to be sickly.

How would this work in practice? I will see in the next posting by applying it to special cases, including that involving the rights of gays.

Creating the conditions for a just society

The previous post that dealt with Dominionist’s negative views towards gays generated an interesting set of comments that frame nicely the kinds of problems we face when we try to arrive at rules for society that we can all live by and perceive as fair. (I will defer the planned posts on the religious opposition to Darwin to address this question first.)

In those comments, Joe’s understanding of Christianity leads him to think of homosexual behavior as sinful although he is not hostile to gays as people, drawing a parallel between the way that we can view alcoholism as bad while not thinking of alcoholics as evil people. Katie’s interpretation of Christianity, on the other hand, leads her to being a passionate supporter of gay rights. Aaron is an atheist, and Christianity-based arguments don’t have much sway with him. And, of course, there is a huge range of beliefs that span these three particular viewpoints. So how does one arrive at public policies that can be accepted as fair by everyone, not just with regard to gay rights, but in all aspects of public life?
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A Theory of Justice

I have to confess that this blog has been guilty of false advertising. On the masthead, of all the items listed, the one thing I have not talked about is books and it is time to make amends.

But first some background. Last week, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening having an informal conversation with about 20 students in the lobby of Alumni Hall (many thanks to Carolyn, Resident Assistant of Howe for organizing it). The conversation ranged over many topics and inevitably came around to politics. I had expressed my opposition to the attack on Iraq, and Laura (one of my former students) raised the perfectly legitimate question about what we should do about national leaders like Saddam Hussein. Should we just let them be? My response was to say that people and countries need to have some principles on which to act and apply them uniformly so that everyone (without exception) would be governed by the same principles. The justifications given by the Bush administration for the attack on Iraq did not meet those conditions.

But my response did not have a solid theoretical foundation and I am glad to report that a book that I have started reading seems to provide just that.

The book is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, in which the author tries to outline what it would take to create a system that would meet the criteria of justice as fairness. The book was first published in 1971 but I was not aware until very recently of its existence. I now find that it is known by practically everyone and is considered a classic, but as I said elsewhere earlier, my own education was extraordinarily narrow, so it is not surprising that I was unaware of it until now.

Rawls says that everyone has an intuitive sense of justice and fairness and that the problem lies on how to translate that desire into a practical reality. Rawls’ book gets off to a great start in laying out the basis for how to create a just society.

“Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, not does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” (my emphasis)

In other words, we have to decide what is fair before we know where we will fit into society. We have to create rules bearing in mind that we might be born to any of the possible situations that the ensuing structure might create. Right now what we have is ‘victor’s justice’, where the people who have all the power and privilege get to decide how society should be run, and their own role in it, and it should not surprise us that they see a just society as one that gives them a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Rawls argues that if people were to decide how to structure society based on this ‘veil of ignorance’ premise, they would choose two principles around which to organize things. “[T]he first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate.”

Rawl’s argument has features similar to that young children use when sharing something, say a pizza or a cookie. The problem is that the person who gets to choose first has an unfair advantage. This problem is overcome by deciding in advance that one person divides the object into two portions while the other person gets first pick, thus ensuring that both people should feel that the ensuing distribution is fair.

(Here is an interesting problem: How can you divide a pizza in three ways so that everyone has the sense that it was a fair distribution? Remember, this should be done without precision measurements. The point is to demonstrate the need to set up structures so that people will feel a sense of fairness, irrespective of their position in the selection order.)

All this great stuff is just in the first chapter. Rawls will presumably flesh out the ideas in the subsequent chapters and I cannot wait to see how it comes out.

I will comment about the ideas in this book in later postings as I read more, because I think the ‘veil of ignorance’ gives a good framework for understanding how to make judgments about public policy.