Saturday, May 10, 2014

Science, Morality and Sam Harris

I have always felt irritated by people who are unwilling to consider that they are wrong. We dish out other people's opinions quickly, without even giving a thought about its merit. Thoughtcrime -- a term popularized by George Orwell's brilliant, ever-relevant and epic novel, 1984 -- is the occurrence of a socially unacceptable thought. But thought is never a crime. "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it", said Aristotle. At a time when human rights are of foremost concern in a lot of minds, and science is fast disproving almost everything about the Universe we had had faith in, I keep noticing a lot of liberal atheists who are vehement against any claims of God's existence, and resort to Science and logic to justify themselves. Their vehemence is understandable, for science has been subjugated by religion for decades with more earnestness and even violence. On one hand, we have scientists like Stephen Hawking who are willing to concede that science may be completely wrong, but we need to keep pursuing it for that is the best we can do. And on the other, there are scientists like Richard Dawkins, who are so sure of themselves and their theories. Dawkins is known for his outbursts against any one who is skeptical towards Science, or partial towards faith. How can you trust a senator who believes in flying fairies, he once asked on his Twitter feed. Just because someone chooses to believe a certain "unscientific" idea, do we start disregarding everything about them? As long as these ideas are not imposed on others, there is nothing wrong at all in entertaining a fantasy. I believe it is completely necessary to entertain all thoughts; regardless of their logical consistency, or lack of it. Even if a thought is disgusting, let us entertain it for a while, brood over it, debate on it without resorting to abuses, and delay our conclusions for as long as possible.  A popular advice for playing swing bowling in cricket is to spot the ball early, and play it late. Let us apply it to life too. Popular myth about life being short is wrong. Life is long and boring, and there is no hurry to conclude our debates. Now, place this idea in that part of the mind through which you form opinions whenever you visit my blog, and filter your judgments about me through this idea. To put it in a  nutshell, do not judge me by an extraordinarily disgusting idea that I might choose to hold occasionally for a while.

Which brings us to the disgusting idea I am presently entertaining. Women are objects. Let me repeat. Women are objects. So are Men. After all, Science says so. Politics says so, for all Utilitarian Governments (and to my knowledge, all Governments are Utilitarian) assign a value for human life and base their decisions on it. All organizations assign a value to human life, and employees are referred to as "resources". We are all chemicals, no different from other matter surrounding us. Man is a complicated machine, and his emotions are just a product of the movement of dopamines through his neurons. Of course, my knowledge of the latest advancements in Science is limited at most, but there are a fair number of people who believe in this theory. So, where is the question of human rights? Why should we demand special rights over other objects? Now, let's say I have this precious jewel with me. If a jewel were to have emotions, it might desire to be flaunted around and receive admirable glances. But I don't do that everyday. On most days, I keep it in my house, lock the door and take the key with me when I go out. I don't even give consideration to the feelings of this piece of jewel by leaving my house door open and letting in some air. For firstly, I know the jewel does not have any real feelings; and secondly, the blame would completely rest on me if the jewel gets stolen. It is a pity, for I am neither legally bound nor morally bound to lock my door, and if someone does steal it, it is solely his own crime. I could probably protest that thieves need to be educated not to steal objects, instead of me being expected to lock the door. But I lock my doors. Every single time. Now, assume I am a woman in a male-dominated locality (in other words, any locality) in India. I could either dress conservatively and reduce the chance that I will be abused (unfortunately, dressing conservatively is not even half as fool-proof as locking your house doors, which itself is not fool-proof), or I could give in to my own feelings and need for freedom and dress as I wish. I am of course bound neither legally nor morally to dress a certain way, and anyone who abuses me is the one who needs to be educated. But, err, you get my point, don't you? Do not judge me, or abuse me.

I have brooded over this thought long enough, and my contemplation usually leads me to my next, and last, idea. I happened to watch this TedX Video recently. A gentleman called Sam Harris reasons that Science can answer moral questions. The first time I saw this video, I was appalled due to a couple of reasons. At one point, he implies -- in an attempt at humour, perhaps -- that the motivation for suicide bombers is that they get "72 virgins" in an afterlife. A little googling told me that 72 virgin is a muslim concept, and Mr.Harris is subtly implying that all suicide bombers are Muslims. He then goes on to remark, and I quote
Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. (Laughter) How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being? (Applause)
This is what I meant when I started out. Just because someone is (probably) wrong about certain things, they are not wrong every single time. In fact, the whole statement, its premise and its conclusion is beyond me. I would have immediately dismissed this video as humbug. But I usually take time to look at the comments, with a view that people commenting on certain websites have a better grasp on logic than me. I realized that most people were appreciative of the speech, and decided to try again. To his credit, he explains that a human being is different from a rock. His reasoning is that human beings display scientifically proven feelings of happiness and suffering, unlike rocks. I don't agree with him though. After all, it is science that tells us that our feelings are merely chemical interactions. In what way are these chemical interactions any different from zillions of other chemical reactions around us? And if these chemical interactions are same, it leads me to conclude the way I have done above - Women (and Men) are objects.

Which is why, I do not trust science to be able to answer moral questions on my behalf, for my own (warped?) logic leads me to uncomfortable conclusions. I often see online forums where pure logic is used to tear apart speculations, and Science is used to smother down imagination. A lot of people believe that Philosophy, which is more about the debate than the conclusion, should give way to Science. I may be old school, but I still think philosophy is quite relevant even today, especially in helping us solve moral and political questions. The Animatrix is a series of short animated movies that are based on the World of The Matrix Trilogy. In one such short movie called Beyond, a group of children discover an abandoned house where, due to programming bugs, the rules of The Matrix (which are manifested throughout Earth as the rules of science) do not apply. You can watch the very short movie here, and it does not require you to have watched the Matrix movies. I sometimes wish I could escape to such a place, where there are no rules, and we are limited only by our imagination.


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