Islamophobia vs. Homophobia

Maybe you’ve seen this Fox News interview with Reza Aslan that’s getting hype in the media. I’m pretty sure you can’t honestly call this “journalism” or a “debate”, but it was fairly enlightening. The issue is supposed to be Aslan’s new book Zealot, a biography of Jesus Christ. But Fox’s Lauren Green carefully avoids the content of the book to focus on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.

If I were the host of a news program and I was getting prepared for a live discussion about a book, I would consider reading the book. That sort of prep isn’t for Green. Strangely, though she obviously hasn’t read the book, she seems to have read pages and pages of negative criticism about Zealot, all of which focus on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.

Aslan seems shocked and rightfully incredulous, and keeps coming back to the fact that he is a professional, a professor of religions with a PhD who has spent his last twenty years fascinated by Jesus, studying historical and scholarly accounts to form an opinion. If Aslan comes off as wide-eyed and self-righteous in this video, I understand why. Being faced with divisive interviewers should be shocking, even if it is Fox.

Lauren Green seems to feel his faith should bear more weight in this “debate” than the content of his work (which I have not read). It’s as though she unconsciously assumes (or was told to assume) that since Aslan is a Muslim, he must be promoting a ‘Muslim’ agenda and sporting a ‘Muslim’ opinion on Jesus.

The beautiful irony is that Green’s obsession with his faith betrays her own religious agenda. She is attacking him not as a “fair and balanced” news person, but as an “anti-Muslim”. Frankly, she comes off like a religious bully, stomping her feet and saying “stay in your own yard”.

It might seem fair and balanced to call her actions “Islamophobic”, since she fails to articulate any rational arguments against Islam while denouncing Aslan’s authority because of his faith. But as is often the case with Fox News, I sense that Green is just doing her job, doing what she was told to do with this particular guest.

Islamophobia is a real phenomenon, no doubt. In North America after the turn of the millennium, we were flash flooded with talk of jihad while news organizations juxtaposed the image of Osama bin Laden with the fall of the World Trade Center. The images ran for weeks and still pop up today. Naturally this implanted a sense of dread through all of TV-watching, white, Christian America about anyone with a beard and turban. Unfortunately there are actual Islamic fanatics out there who aren’t helping the problem.

Since most Muslims do not kill innocent people, it’s easy to see why social persecution can lead to claims of Islamophobia. Usually the group called “Islamophobes” are outraged at the label. The word has nasty connotations, implying intolerance and racism. Hopefully when a heavy claim like that is laid, it’s done consciously.

When Richard Dawkins criticizes Islam and poses legitimate rational questions about the fundaments of the religion, it’s clear that he doesn’t like the religion, but that doesn’t make him Islamophobic. He uses reason to look at the religion and posit why some of these beliefs seem harmful and negative, so we should not be using Islamophobia to describe him. It is one thing to have arachnophobia and run screaming from a harmless daddy long legs. It is another thing altogether to know the risks of poisonous spider bites and take steps to protect yourself when you’re camping in the Amazon.

A phobia is by definition an irrational fear of something. A good test for a phobia is to ask “What real-world effects am I afraid will result from this thing I fear?” and “Can I justify this fear with reason?”

Some Islamic fundamentalists do kill “infidels”. That’s a real problem that should be analyzed on a rational level without throwing the term “Islamophobia” around. But the term has been widely used to shut down conversations and to smear those who question Islam. In this respect, “antisemite” has been used in a similar way.

Because lives are lost to fanatical adherence to certain Islamic doctrines, it’s easy to see where fear of Islam comes from. The lines get somewhat fuzzier when we deal with “homophobia”. What exactly is at risk by giving gay people the same rights as straight people?

The “defense of marriage” argument is a sham built on a huge pile of ancient Christian doctrines. Fervent defense of ideals without much real-world consequence are a waste of energy. If there were truly a separation of church and state, gay marriage would not be a legal question. The sacrosanctity of marriage needn’t have anything to do with faith. And besides, Christian marriages can be terrible end in divorce just like marriages of all other belief-systems.

Health risks and sexually transmitted diseases are a weak argument against homosexuality. If health risks are a good enough reason to argue against homosexuality, certainly tobacco use should illicit a much bigger reaction. The same goes for the use of cars or prescription drugs, yet I rarely see moral arguments against those behaviors.

Mormon science fiction author Orson Scott Card, an open advocate of anti-GLBT views, recently made a statement asking moviegoers to be tolerant of his homophobic views and refuse to boycott his movie Ender’s Game. While his views don’t appear as a factor in Ender’s Game (the book, at least), he, or more likely his studio, are afraid people will be prejudice against the movie based simply on Card’s prejudices. This is another great irony, and you can read this funny but sober piece on it here in The Onion.

What about homosexuality is really worthy of fear?

Perhaps one could argue that children with both male and female parents have more balanced childhoods and so gay people should not have kids. But such a statement should be supportable by sociological, psychological or psychiatric facts. Obviously I haven’t done this research because I don’t care to defend that opinion. It is ludicrous, of course, as many straight people make bad parents but we cannot make that illegal. The balancing act of a child’s development has to do with many more factors than the genders and preferences of the parents.

One might argue that gay people inhabit a different moral landscape. Living in a neighborhood of gay people for years, I can admit to observing a general level of hedonism on the weekends, a shade above what I see in straight society. And while there may be marginally riskier behaviors in gay society, that doesn’t justify hatred or fear. But more importantly, the true party animals up at all hours in The Village are generally not the ones trying to raise kids.

Because there are no obvious grave threats to life and well being on account of homosexuality, to what do I attribute people’s disdain for it? It makes sense to me that disdain and intolerance of homosexuality is produced by a deep, irrational fear of people different from “normal”.

While I find all phobias distasteful, I do like accurate, clear language. For this reason, I have the very awkward duty to declare homosexuality the winner in this Battle Of Unrelated Things. Homophobia accurately describes those behaviors it speaks about, while too often I see Islamophobia misused in an attempt to stop conversations about real problems.

Here, watch this to celebrate!

 

Murderlaws

George Zimmerman helped a family in an overturned SUV today. It’s nice timing; he has been in hiding since his recent acquittal of the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin. It is a lucky piece of PR for Zimmerman, as tensions have been high. Some might even call it fishy. Zimmerman claims the killing was in self defense, and has been hiding because he is perceived as a vigilante. But “Stand-Your-Ground” precedents in Florida (and elsewhere) say that if you feel threatened, you can legally kill someone.

I heard the story as it broke on NPR in 2012. Amy Goodman played a call Zimmerman made right before the altercation. Someone suspicious had gotten into a gated community and Zimmerman, an off-duty neighborhood watch member, followed him. At one point there is a scuffling noise and someone begins yelling, “Help!”  Shortly after that, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, bled to death on the street.

The police gathered up Martin’s body and treated Zimmerman for minor injuries, questioned him for five hours, and let him go. Naturally, claims of racism abounded. At the time, before I knew anything about the case, all the focus on race kind of annoyed me. In my mind, whether Martin was black, white, or camouflage, Zimmerman had shot him to death and would surely go to jail.

So when he was acquitted and released, the public response was justifiable outrage. There appears no doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin. But the jurors—all female, five white and one black—were shackled by the same laws as the judge. Because of this cowboy logic in the state of Florida, Zimmerman is guilty of no crime.

So, protests broke out across the country. Obama spoke about Martin as though it could have been him thirty-five years ago. Now the media speculates that federal charges could be laid. People seem to wonder how laws can exist that let a killer free.

Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law says that a person can use reasonable means, up to and including lethal force, to protect oneself. The law also concedes that there is no obligation to attempt to avoid danger. It seems I can be out on the street in a bad neighborhood and walk right into danger, and if I feel threatened I can pull a gun on someone and shoot that person to death without trying to avoid doing so (of course, it has to be plausible that I am in real danger).

Neighborhood watch programs are part of the reason the stand-your-ground laws exist outside of the home. The strange thing about this arrangement is that a neighborhood watch in this case has no obligation to protect the neighborhood peaceably and avoid situations like these. Theoretically, a neighborhood watch program could easily become a vigilante group.

Unfortunately, racial profiling has become a tolerable practice in our society, employed by border patrols, airport security, and street cops, and there seems to be no getting away from it. The sad part is that profiling anyone is a simple generalization, requiring no reasonable evidence of culpability before so-called defensive actions can be taken. This concoction of rights seems so precarious, and if the stakes weren’t so high these days (i.e. nuclear terrorism), few people in their right mind would stand for it.

According to State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, Zimmerman is not a criminal. But thanks to an over-indulgence in news coverage, I know what George Zimmerman looks like and where he lives. If I were a citizen of Florida, I would truly feel threatened if I saw Zimmerman on the street. This is not because of profiling, but because of facts (specifically, the fact that he recently killed someone and got away with it).

Hasn’t this slippery, highly-publicized case shown how easy it might be to manufacture a scenario where a recently acquitted killer is shot “in self-defense”? I emphatically hope this doesn’t happen, but if people fail to look at the underlying stand-your-ground laws the way they fail to look at ridiculous gun laws, it is conceivable we could see a string of legal killings in retaliation. The whole point of these laws is to protect such actions.

Laws like this protect a cowboy ideology where “heroes” can shoot first and ask questions later. Of course, after the U.S.A.’s heroic, preemptive war on terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction”, should anyone be surprised that these laws apply to individuals as well?

[P.S. I’m not saying I’m completely and utterly against these laws. The issues are not that cut and dry, unfortunately, and I would much rather sit back and complain that actually try to craft the laws that protect everyone equally.]

Free Will: A Devil’s Advocacy

Here are some thoughts on Sam Harris’ Free Will that weren’t in my review. I hope you get a kick out of them.

Much of the strength of Harris’ argument rests on the weak shoulders of the concept of free will, which is vague, flimsy, and usually inadequate. The popular concept of free will, in this sense, is similar to the popular concept of God, which is often argued over but rarely defined. His point, briefly, is that we all inherit accidental conditions when we’re born and throughout our lives that define the range of our experience and reactions. We have no control over these conditions and therefore our will can never be truly “free”.

What Harris does best is to present an argument to the popular, “common sense” assumptions about free will (much like he does with God in this “debate” with a confused Deepak Chopra). Harris’ argument constantly pleads for a causal look at physical phenomena and evidence-based conclusions. He shows over and over again that there is no real evidence to support free will.

Some of the semantic elements of his presentation did not sit right with me, however, so I’ll outline a few of these issues as I see them. I welcome comments and opinions, as I am nothing like an authority on any of these issues. If it’s a bit fragmented, that’s because I agreed with most of what he said, and only took issue here and there.

“Free will is an illusion.”

Rather than open with a working definition of free will—which would put people on the same page immediately, even if it were a weak definition—Harris says that free will IS an illusion. This is his thesis statement. But the “Is”, in this case, as in all subject-predicate propositions, over-extends its authority. When we say what something is, what exactly do we mean?

I can predicate all I want, but my statements will never cover all the facts of reality. I can talk about some fundamental, permanent property in an object, and I can make a definitive judgment about objects—say, “the grass is green”—but my judgment doesn’t close the issue altogether and won’t necessarily be true under all conditions (green grass viewed under a red light appears black).

How do I know what something is? I look, or in the case of a priori phenomena, I intuit and reason. I can sense features of the object of inquiry, but I can never know everything about it. Better I should declare my judgment in terms of my frame of reference. The subject-predicate “is” misleads because it unconsciously assumes ultimate, objective authority and falls prey to misguided is/is-not dual logic.

If I translate his “is” claim with this in mind, it becomes “free will appears as an illusion to me.” This simple and honest change of wording strips his argument of its tone of authority. The “to me” implies his epistemology (i.e. free will appears as an illusion according to principles 1, 2, 3, etc.). We shouldn’t speak authoritatively about facts as though they exist alone in a vacuum. I prefer arguments that avoid claiming what something “is” and instead describe the world as it actually works, through verbs expressing process-transactions with an observer.

“There are no self-sustained facts, floating in nonentity.” – Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

The other issue I have with his claim is this: labeling a persistent fact “an illusion” doesn’t make the illusion go away. Even if we wholeheartedly buy Harris’ argument, we still feel free to make the choices presented to us. Calling free will an illusion doesn’t diminish the fact that I make conscious decisions that affect my future. The term “illusion” is not so firm a concept that Average Joe can’t easily misapply it. People will continue to live just as they did before, even if they adjust their assumptions about how much freedom is actually involved.

Hindus believe that the phenomenological world is an illusion, that our senses obscure true divine reality. But Hindus still live with the phenomenological world of sense every day. We can reason away sensations as merely neurological events, but this does little to take us out of the experience of that illusion. I find this thought echoing in my head when Harris writes, “[e]ither our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them” because a similar line of reasoning likely led the Hindus to develop their metaphysics of karma.

Epistemology

On this issue I am confused, and I would be happy if someone would clear things up for me. If I accept that physics can explain everything that exists, then material facts must be responsible for false beliefs. If I believe trolls control reality through magic, this belief is explained as an outcome of weird biology or neurochemical activity (psychosis, bad drugs, etc.). So the physical facts of my brain are responsible for my subjective misreading of the world around me. This underlines the importance of communicating my judgments in terms of my own frames of reference (i.e. “I am going under the Great Bridge when I die, according to my beliefs, because I paid the toll and the trolls have chosen me.”).

Science is a semantic activity first and foremost; although it aims at objectivity, empirical testing should always refer to the observer applying tests to the facts at hand (i.e. “Under these conditions, I noticed X.”). The more observers corroborate a fact, the higher the probability that the next observer will see the same thing and further corroborate the observation. By this, the scientific method, we approach facts and laws. But the point here is that experience is the only measure of reality. We can say nothing meaningful about an unobserved world, and if we do we are confusing inference for fact. Free Will takes advantage of this tactic, frequently using absolute, objective language when it is not possible to have absolute, objective knowledge. His use of absolute language is obviously a linguistic dilemma. It doesn’t mean that I disagree with the spirit of his argument.

I will quote him as an example: “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” Remove superlatives from this sentence. “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of some of the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need some control over those factors.” Well, we are aware of some of the factors, and we do have some control, so the statement simply begs the definition of “free”. In this case, “free” doesn’t mean “completely free”, but there is wiggle room for free will if we admit that we have some freedom in our conscious actions.

I’d like to return to my question: are thoughts and semantics purely material? Can the various levels of abstraction, the nuance and individuality of human brains and nervous systems be completely accounted for with only empirical evidence? I don’t think so. If you take strict material determinism as your view, you do not have the empirical evidence to claim that all of human experience can be explained by physics, even if it really, really seems that way.

There seems to be some missing explanation, some mystery that translates these so-called simple neuronal firings into complex visible, audible, tactile experiences that we can actually think about in infinite (indefinite) degrees of abstraction. It’s easy to say, “Thought A is caused by the firing of neuron X,” but a thought has a subjective, omni-valent presentation to it and a neuronal firing does not. How consciousness translates neuronal firings into experience seems mostly mysterious to me.

We can measure the brain activity of someone who is meditating or sleeping or doing a puzzle or looking at a red Chevy Nova. We can get reams of data, collated and colour-coded, and that makes us think we have the facts. But try going the other way here. Try looking at brain activity on the page and tell me exactly what it is like to live in that brain, complete with all itinerant facts, all the memories of each element of the event, the fantasies the person calls up consciously and unconsciously because of personal, historical correspondences, etc. It’s impossible. Numbers and data are not experience itself. Math and science are only models of experience. They are usually more correct models than primitive superstitions, sure, but still only models.

If beliefs have a material basis, the materialist says his nervous system and brain is more correct than a faith-based person’s nervous system. But both generate models for consideration. New and different models help guide us toward understanding reality as long as we eventually eliminate the false models. There will always be new models of reality because models reflect our collective subjectivity, which evolves and reacts to environmental conditions. To ossify any one model into dogma is to insist on an end to our development in understanding reality.

The Neuroscience of Consciousness

Harris refers several times to the fact that brain scans reveal activity significantly sooner than a person feels he has made a decision. “These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions.” But is it possible that the complexity of the brain and nervous system, with our conscious and unconscious abstractions on multiple levels, simply takes longer to register cogently in consciousness than it does to register on an EEG? We don’t know of a more complex machine than the brain/CNS. Since all signals travel at finite speeds, might the time delay be explained by the abstract processing and reprocessing, the neuronal and physiological feedback loops we perform unconsciously to fit events into our worldviews?

He notes that seemingly random neuronal firing originating in the brain has been observed. But how do we know something is random? We call a signal random if it doesn’t follow our idea of patterned stimulus (in this case, it doesn’t fit our ideas of material determinism). Of course, what appears random may in fact be purposeful and not random at all. Pi, for instance, looks like a completely random string of numbers (3.141592654…), but we know it isn’t random. It signifies a concrete relation.

If I were to argue for the existence of a soul, I might argue this so-called random firing is not random at all, but direct material evidence of the soul’s activity. The neural action rises from unknown causes in a manner that material determinism can’t explain. Of course if I were to make this argument, I would be stepping outside of the materialist paradigm. Naturally, using a complete unknown as “proof” for anything is totally backwards…but weirder arguments have been made (by Deepak Chopra).

Since it would be impossible to trace all the contributing factors in any decision, many human activities must seem on paper to be randomly generated (from a window of possibilities, tendencies, etc.). If there was an immaterial soul and free will, it would be immeasurable and we could only detect its impulses after the impulse worked through the nervous system and was processed on different levels of abstraction, so the conscious mind might be the last to know of the soul’s impetus.

Freedom

While Harris can safely kill the concept of “freedom” in any argument for free will, he concedes that we do have will and we do make conscious decisions that affect our futures. Our apparent “freedom” falls within a bracket of possibilities. But with intellectual and/or spiritual growth, we continually understand more of our unconscious tendencies and open the window of possible outcomes, thereby increasing our freedom.

“Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less).”

Even arguing against free will, Harris believes willpower exists and is effective. Rather than thinking about humanity as a purely clockwork organism, he grants that our wills are unique to us and we do have a measure of control over our own lives.

     “A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically form one’s life.               Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can—paradoxically—allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bit of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”

So Harris’ argument hasn’t damaged our humanity, it has just given us an honest look at what we mean when we say we are free. We definitely are not completely free, and there is no conceivable behavior we can adopt to prove we are free from background causes.

He is a neuroscientist, and his arguments imply material determinism, as when he says, “if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently…” So although he seems to write as though agnostic about the existence of a soul, Free Will is in fact an argument against the soul. This hidden message shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he is the founder of Project Reason, and their modus operandi is to spread science and secular values to the world.

Free Will is a fine piece of work and I recommend it. It does away with a shabby, ill-defined concept in favor of evidence-based conclusions. It might seem a colder way to look at the world, but feeling cold or feeling warm and fuzzy doesn’t change the facts of reality. Nor does his work strip us of spirituality. I am eager to read Harris’ upcoming book, Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, Spirituality, due in 2014.

Free Will by Sam Harris

A little while ago I wrote a review of Free Will by Sam Harris. The review, in which I speak very highly of the book, was aimed at the casual reader, someone who might pick it up out of sheer curiosity, so I avoided some of the semantic and epistemic issues that rubbed me the wrong way. Here is the review, as written. Next week I will post some of the problems I had with the book. These problems didn’t make it into the review because I doubt they will bother the average reader and reflect my own distinct brand of nitpicking.

Article first published as Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris on Blogcritics.

Free Will by Sam Harris

By now we’ve all noticed the campaign of scientific materialists to discredit religion in the hope that a saner, more scientific society will prevail. This future society, it is hoped, will base decisions on empirically verifiable facts and not superstition. Among those leading the campaign for atheism are Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and the co-founder of Project Reason, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Harris’ position is very clear: he believes that physics explains all phenomena and therefore our so-called free will is actually an illusion. Because the decisions we make arise out of our current conditions, and those conditions are the result of innumerable physical influences (brain structure, weather, etc.), our decisions are simply the outcome of a specific organism (us) going through a specific physical history (everything that formed us).

Looking back at any action, it is easy to feel as though we could have done things differently. But we cannot prove this. To say we could have acted differently is to suppose that at least some condition at the time of our decision would have been different. If not for the particular conditions influencing us, why did we decide as we did?

Free Will acknowledges the psychological fact that we all feel we are in control of our decisions. This is, in reality, one of the very few arguments for free will. So Harris asks us to look into the causes of our future decisions. We can tell a story about what influences us and how we will likely act, but this story covers very few of the innumerable factors that actually move us to one action over another. When we finally make a decision and exercise our will, we cannot say the impetus lies solely with our conscious “I.”

The conscious “I,” Harris argues, is a simply a function of human organisms. Consciousness is necessary to sort priorities and make decisions, but no supernatural agency is needed to justify this; it is simply an adaptive biological function. Willpower, he claims, is one factor of our consciousness, and we can never truly know why we choose to do one thing over another.

With Harris’ position, there is no need to invent supernatural explanations for any of the facts. God and the soul are comforting fictions but cannot maintain in a society that bases its decisions on empirical data.

This book should be fairly convincing to anyone with an open mind. I empathize with the frustration that theists must feel at the disrespect with which many writers and celebrities criticize religion. But Harris is not belligerent at all. His writing is clear, cogent, and makes no unnecessary detours to put down any creed. He instead prefers a straightforward approach, written in firm language.

Far from abstract verbalism, Free Will discusses the practical issues of morality, politics, and justice without yanking the rug out from under them. From Harris’ position justice must still be served, but our inclinations to hate criminals must be reassessed as we realize these criminals aren’t in complete control, but are the unlucky outcomes of bad genes, bad environments, or other maladaptive conditions. The elimination of free will in no way leads to the decay of morality.

What really impresses me about Free Will is the logical, masterful way in which he unfolds his thesis. Many times I finished one chapter with specific questions, only to find those exact questions tackled in the next chapter. Whether the reader is convinced or not, the execution of this little book is far superior to most on the subject.