Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-1

(I have been thinking a lot about the violence that is engulfing the Middle East and the horrific loss of life and homes and other property that is taking place. What follows is a long essay that reflects my thoughts and feelings on it. I have serialized it into four parts and will post one part each day for the rest of this week.)

As the ghastly events in the Middle East keep unfolding, it becomes imperative that we need to radically change the way we view ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of saving the world from an endless cycle of death and brutality.

Robert Burns’ poem To a Louse contains a much-quoted passage that is a good starting point for such a transformative approach.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion

(My feeble attempt at a translation into modern English that loses the charm, appeal and rhythm of the Scottish dialect of the original is:

O for a gift that God would give us
To see ourselves as others see us
It would from many a blunder save us
and foolish thoughts.

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Driving etiquette

Now that the summer driving season is upon us, and I am going to be on the highway today, here are some musings on driving.

Driving means never being able to say you’re sorry

We need a non-verbal sign for drivers to say “I’m sorry.” There have been times when I have inadvertently done something stupid or discourteous while driving, such as changing lanes without giving enough room and thus cutting someone off or accidentally blowing the horn or not stopping early enough at a stop sign or light and thus creating some doubt in the minds of other drivers as to whether I intended to stop. At such times, I have wanted to tell the other driver that I was sorry for unsettling them, but there is no universally recognized gesture to do so.
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Precision in language

Some time ago, a commenter to this blog sent me a private email expressing this view:

Have you ever noticed people say “Do you believe in evolution?” just as you would ask “Do you believe in God?” as if both schools of thought have equal footing? I respect others’ religious beliefs as I realize I cannot disprove God just as anyone cannot prove His existence, but given the amount of evidence for evolution, shouldn’t we insist on asking “Do you accept evolution?”

It may just be semantics, but I feel that the latter wording carries an implied affirmation just as “Do you accept that 2+2=4?” carries a different meaning than “Do you believe 2+2=4?”

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that by stating something as a belief, it opens the debate to the possibility that something is untrue. While this may fine for discussions of religion, shouldn’t the scientific community be more insistent that a theory well supported by physical evidence, such as evolution, is not up for debate?

It’s a good point. To be fair, scientists themselves are partly responsible for this confusion because we also say that we “believe” in this or that scientific theory, and one cannot blame the general public from picking up on that terminology. What is important to realize, though, is that the word ‘believe’ is being used by scientists in a different sense from the way it is used in religion.

The late and deeply lamented Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a “radical atheist” puts it nicely (thanks to onegoodmove):

First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance. . .

There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining…

Well, in history, even though the understanding of events, of cause and effect, is a matter of interpretation, and even though interpretation is in many ways a matter of opinion, nevertheless those opinions and interpretations are honed to within an inch of their lives in the withering crossfire of argument and counterargument, and those that are still standing are then subjected to a whole new round of challenges of fact and logic from the next generation of historians – and so on. All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.

When someone says that they believe in god, they mean that they believe something in the absence of, or even counter to, the evidence, and even to reason and logic. When scientists say they believe a particular theory, they mean that they believe that theory because of the evidence and reason and logic, and the more evidence there is, and the better the reasoning behind it, the more strongly they believe it. Scientists use the word ‘belief’ the way Adams says, as a kind of synonym for ‘convinced,’ because we know that no scientific theory can be proven with 100% certainty and so we have to accept things even in the face of this remaining doubt. But the word ‘believe’ definitely does not carry the same meaning in the two contexts.

This can lead to the generation of confusion as warned by the commenter but what can we do about it? One option is, as was suggested, to use different words, with scientists avoiding use of the word ‘believe.’ I would have agreed with this some years ago but I am becoming increasingly doubtful that we can control the way that words are used.

For example, there was a time when I used to be on a crusade against the erroneous use of the word ‘unique’. The Oxford English Dictionary is pretty clear about what this word means:

  • Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary.
  • That is or forms the only one of its kind; having no like or equal; standing alone in comparison with others, freq. by reason of superior excellence; unequalled, unparalleled, unrivalled.
  • Formed or consisting of one or a single thing
  • A thing of which there is only one example, copy, or specimen; esp., in early use, a coin or medal of this class.
  • A thing, fact, or circumstance which by reason of exceptional or special qualities stands alone and is without equal or parallel in its kind.

It means, in short, one of a kind, so something is either unique or it is not. There are no in-betweens. And yet, you often find people saying things like “quite unique” or “very unique” or “almost unique.” I used to try and correct this but have given up. Clearly, people in general think that unique means something like “rare” and I don’t know that we can ever change this even if we all become annoying pedants, correcting people all the time, avoided at parties because of our pursuit of linguistic purity.

Some battles, such as with the word unique are, I believe, lost for good and I expect the OED to add the new meaning of ‘rare’ some time in the near future. It is a pity because then we would then be left with no word with the unique meaning of ‘unique’, but there we are. We would have to say something like ‘absolutely unique’ to convey the meaning once reserved for just ‘unique.’

In science too we often use words with precise operational meanings while the same words are used in everyday language with much looser meanings. For example, in physics the word ‘velocity’ is defined operationally by the situation when you have an object moving along a ruler and, at two points along its motion, you take ruler readings and clock readings, where the clocks are located at the points where the ruler readings are taken, and have been previously synchronized. Then the velocity of the moving object is the number you get when you take the difference between the two ruler readings and divide by the difference between the two clock readings.

Most people (especially sports commentators) have no idea of this precise meaning when they use the word velocity in everyday language, and often use the word synonymously with speed or, even worse, acceleration, although those concepts have different operational meanings. Even students who have taken physics courses find it hard to use the word in its strict operational sense.

Take, for another example, the word ‘theory’. By now, as a result of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) controversy, everyone should be aware that the way this word is used by scientists is quite different from its everyday use. In science, a theory is a powerful explanatory construct. Science depends crucially on its theories because they are the things that give it is predictive power. “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” as Kurt Lewin famously said. But in everyday language, the word theory is used as meaning ‘not factual,’ something that can be false or ignored.

I don’t think that we can solve this problem by putting constraints on how words can be used. English is a wonderful language precisely because it grows and evolves and trying to fix the meanings of words too rigidly would perhaps be stultifying. I now think that we need to change our tactics.

I think that once the meanings of words enter mainstream consciousness we will not be successful in trying to restrict their meanings beyond their generally accepted usage. What we can do is to make people aware that all words have varying meanings depending on the context, and that scientific and other academic contexts tend to require very precise meanings in order to minimize ambiguity.

Heidi Cool has a nice entry where she talks about the importance of being aware of when you are using specialized vocabulary, and the need to know your audience when speaking or writing, so that some of the pitfalls arising from the imprecise use of words can be avoided.

We have to realize though that despite our best efforts, we can never be sure that the meaning that we intend to convey by our words is the same as the meaning constructed in the minds of the reader or listener. Words always contain an inherent ambiguity that allows the ideas expressed by them to be interpreted differently.

I used to be surprised when people read the stuff I wrote and got a different meaning than I had intended. No longer. I now realize that there is always some residual ambiguity in words that cannot be overcome. While we can and should strive for maximum precision, we can never be totally unambiguous.

I agree with philosopher Karl Popper when he said, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” The best we can hope for is to have some sort or negotiated consensus on the meanings of ideas.

Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase “valuing the culture of life” seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by ‘our side.’ To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a “culture of life.”

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being ‘effectively dead’, that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism (“We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.”) was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument “I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?” is acceptable?

Singer’s point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a “culture of life,” human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still ‘alive’, and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.

POST SCRIPT: Juggling

Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on “Watch Chris Bliss.”

Changing notions of death-2: Persistent vegetative state

The next stage in the evolution of when death occurs (see part 1 on this topic) came with the tragic case of Nancy Cruzan.

In 1983, 25-year old Nancy Cruzan careened off the road, flipped over and was thrown from her car into a ditch. Nancy hadn’t breathed for at least 15 minutes before paramedics found and revived her – a triumph of modern medicine launching her family’s seven-year crusade to free Nancy from a persistent vegetative state.

Nancy Cruzan’s sad fate launched a fresh examination of death, centering around whether a person in a particular kind of coma, known as a persistent vegetative state, could be considered to be ‘effectively dead’ even if they did not meet the legal conditions of being heart dead or brain dead.
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Changing notions of death-1: Brain death

There is nothing more bracing than starting a new week with the cheery topic of death. I have been thinking about it since listening to noted ethicist Peter Singer’s excellent talk on The ethics of life and death on March 21. He pointed out that the answer to the question “When is someone dead?” is not simple.

Most of us know, by listening to the abortion debate in the US, how hard it is to get agreement on when life begins. Singer’s talk highlighted the other problem, one that does not get nearly as much attention, and that is the question of how we decide that someone is dead.

(Caveat: I could only stay for the first 45 minutes of his talk and did not take notes, so my use of the ideas in his talk is based on my memory. Peter Singer is not to be blamed for any views that I may inadvertently ascribe to him. But his ideas were so provocative that I had to share and build on them. I can see why he is regarded as one of the premier ethical thinkers.)

It used to be that the definition of death was when the heart stopped beating and blood stopped flowing. But that definition was changed so that people whose hearts were still beating but whose brains had no activity were also deemed to be dead.

This change was implemented in 1980 by the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which was supported by the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This act asserts that: “An individual, who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

Why did this change come about? Singer says that the background to this change raises some serious ethical questions. Thinking about changes in the definition of death was triggered by the first heart transplant operation done in 1967 by Dr. Christian Barnard in South Africa. Suddenly, the possibility of harvesting human hearts and other organs of dead people for use by others became much more realistic and feasible. But if you waited for the heart to stop beating to determine death, then that left you very little time to get a useful organ (because organs decay rapidly once blood stops flowing), whereas if people were merely ‘brain dead’ than you could get organs while they were still fresh and warm, since the circulatory system was still functioning at the time of removal.

Thus the first heart transplant in 1967 was the main impetus for the formation in 1968 of an ad hoc committee on brain death at Harvard Medical School, which laid the foundation for the shift in the definition of death that occurred in 1980 which provided criteria that described determination of a condition known as “irreversible coma,” “cerebral death,” or brain death.

Note that the change in the definition of death was not due to purely better scientific knowledge of when people died. All that science could say was that from past experience, a person who was ‘brain dead’ had never ever come back to a functioning state. It seems like the decision to change the definition of death was (at least partly) inspired by somewhat more practical considerations involving the need of organs for transplants.

But while the circumstances behind the change in the definition of death raises serious ethical questions, the idea that someone who was ‘brain dead’ was truly dead was a defensible proposition, whatever the reasons for its adoption.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Quick! Get back in the closet!

Some time ago, I expressed surprise that some atheists felt uneasy about ‘coming out of the closet.’ But a new University of Minnesota study suggests that there may be good reason for their hesitancy.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry
. . .
Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

These results are quite amazing. Of course, such negative stereotypes usually arise from ignorance so maybe if people encountered more atheists and saw how ordinary they are, this view could be dispelled. But it is interesting how so many people feel that god is so integral to their “vision of American society.” America seems to be a theocracy, in fact, if not legally.

Opinion polls and statistics

In the previous post and in many aspects of life these days, we get quoted the results of opinion polls. Many of our public policies are strongly influenced by these polls, with politicians paying close attention to them before speaking out.

But while people are inundated with opinion polls, there is still considerable misunderstanding about how they work. Especially during elections, when there are polls practically every day, one often hears people expressing skepticism about polls, saying that they feel the polls are not representative because they, personally, and all the people they know, have never been asked their opinion. Surely, they reason, if so many polls are done, every person should get a shot at answering these surveys? That fact that no pollster has contacted them or their friends and families seem to make the poll results suspect in their eyes, as if the pollsters are using some highly selective group of people to ask and leaving out ‘ordinary’ people.
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Harry Belafonte

I went to the Harry Belafonte talk last night at Strosacker and he lived up to his reputation as a plain speaker who does not shy away from telling it like it is. He again called Bush a terrorist and added “traitor” as well. He also confirmed that the reason he did not speak at Coretta Scott King’s funeral was that he had been disinvited when Bush said that he was attending, and confirmed the story that I wrote about on Monday about the splits in the King family about how to move forward.
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The Harry Belafonte-Coretta Scott King funeral mystery

Harry Belafonte’s talk at Case has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 28 at 7:00pm at Strosacker. The event is free and open to the public but tickets are required. The tickets issued for the earlier date will be honored at this event.

The original talk was postponed because Belafonte said he had to give a eulogy at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. It is common knowledge that Belafonte’s relationship with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King was strong and his involvement with them and the civil rights movement has been for more than half a century. (See here for my previous postings on Harry Belafonte.)
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Hot buttons and the people who push them-2

Continuing yesterday’s posting, what I find most difficult to sympathize with are the other newspapers that later reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that have inflamed some Muslim sensitivities. Far from being free speech champions, they seemed to simply want to provoke anger in the Muslim world. They were not defending free speech rights because, as far as I can tell, those were not in any danger. It is true that some who opposed the publication of the cartoons were asking the government of Denmark to take action against Jyllands-Posten but there was no indication that this was a serious request or that there was any chance of the Danish government was doing so. And even if it made moves towards doing that, there are other ways to defend the rights of that paper.
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