Language as a window into human nature – Steven Pinker

August 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

This is an amazing insight into the uses of language, the way we say things, and swearing. It reveals more about our nature as humans than we give it credit for. It’s quite lengthy, but to be fair to the topic, I think it deserves this amount of time. So grab a coffee/tea/beer and sit back and enjoy.

WARNING: There is some very crass language in this talk.

From the YouTube page:

“For Steven Pinker, the brilliance of the mind lies in the way it uses just two processes to turn the finite building blocks of our language into infinite meanings. The first is metaphor: we take a concrete idea and use it as a stand-in for abstract thoughts. The second is combination: we combine ideas according to rules, like the syntactic rules of language, to create new thoughts out of old ones”


Sheryl WuDunn: Our century’s greatest injustice

August 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

This is a topic about which I feel very passionate, but upon seeing this TED talk, I thought I would just share it, as it stands.

From the TED Page:

“As a journalist reporting on China, Sheryl WuDunn saw the everyday oppression of women around the world. She and Nick Kristof wrote “Half the Sky,” chronicling women’s stories of horror and, especially, hope.”

“Only when women in developing countries have equal access to education and economic opportunity will we be using all our human resources.”

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Morals and Atheism

July 25, 2010 § 34 Comments

Believers in god often ask “Where do morals come from?” They expect the answer to be “from God”, mostly because they can’t imagine that something so much at the heart of human interaction can have risen naturally.

Well the answer is reasonably simple, but long. So let me see if I can be as brief as possible with this.

As I understand it, morals and empathy all come from the same place, as survival mechanisms. Bear with me a moment and I’ll explain.

Survival mechanisms exist within every plant and animal in the world. In humans, it is highly evolved, from the simple sensation such as feeling pain to conserve the body, on to external mechanisms such as ones that conserve the family unit or the tribe. Our survival mechanisms, as in many other animal species, aim to preserve the species, starting with the individual, then to the family, then the community.

Because we are intelligent enough to recognise pain and suffering within ourselves, and we do not want it, we are also able to suppose those same feelings onto others. And we also have, through our evolution, the ability to imagine things, such as the pain and suffering of others in Sudan or Ethiopia.

So as you can see, what once started out as mechanistic responses to stimuli with the purpose of preserving the individual have, over millions of years, developed into what we now call empathy.

Morals are just the application of these feelings and natural responses to the environment around us. People tend to think of morals as universal, but unfortunately they are not, the are objectively linked to the cultural, societal and religious impositions of individual situations. What is universal is our abilities to impose our feelings onto others, and have a sense of the suffering of others.

Makes sense right? And when looked at from this perspective, it’s not a great leap from empathetic understanding to personal morality.

“Ah” you say, “but the problem with evolution is that all plants & animals are packed with INFORMATION – the complicated instructions that co-ordinate the many processes enabling the body & brain to function. How does information get into a human psyche to manifest as truth what morals are? Or what sympathy is or empathy or intelligence? Its arrival ? Its knowing & recognising that it is what it is? You pack software into a computer, it recognises the information in it and acts accordingly.”

This comment actually came from a Facebook thread, where a person was claiming God as the reason for our Morals.

To this string of questions I say this.

There is a disconnect for many people between the idea of evolution and the state of things now, and this is because humans cannot possibly contemplate billions of years, let alone anything past a few generations of human life spans. If you were to somehow get past this inability, it all becomes much clearer.

All processes in the brain are the result of evolution over billions of years. Billions of years, not thousands. Most plants and animals and bacteria are born with small imperfection in them, or mutations. The ones with large mutations perish, and the ones with small unnoticeable ones continue to flourish. The “software” we have in our brains is a combination of evolved mechanisms, such as self-preservation, and social and cultural impositions, such as being taught not to park in a “no-standing” zone. Morality, as a construct will not arise in isolation, we impose it upon each other via social interaction and by education. Everything evolves from something, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

So using evolutionary theory, all your questions are answered, as long as we keep in mind that every feeling and thought we have as highly complex and intelligent animals would once upon a time have been a slightly simpler, or even a very basic thought/impulse/reaction.

Just because something like empathy is complex, and it forms the basis of our societies, doesn’t mean that historically, somewhere along the line, there was an animal, one of our own ancestors, who had slightly less of this feeling of empathy. “The Golden Rule” was not invented in the bible, but is a basic tendency we must adhere to if we are to survive. People recognised this long before any of the “God books” were written, and we carry this with us to this day, because a combination of our genes and our education dictates that this is the right way to go. There is nothing “otherworldly” or miraculous about it.

Unfortunately, I cannot account for other people’s inability to understand theories of evolution and sociology. All I can do is try to explain it.

Further Reading
The Moral Naturalists

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Our future

July 21, 2010 § 7 Comments

Many may ask “Why have you got a problem with other people’s religions? It doesn’t affect you, so why don’t you just leave them alone?”

Well the fact is it does affect me. In fact it affects everyone.

While religious fervour is not as bad in Australia as it is in many countries around the world, the trappings of religions are present in our everyday lives. Some of these are more insidious than others, and some simply represent a disconnect between the real world, and that of an imagined better world.

Religions themselves say not to question belief, to suspend belief as it were, and not to ask questions. Both the Qur’an and the Bible say imply that disbelief and questioning of these two book is a sin within itself, and yet the only evidence that these are in fact holy books and “The Word of God” is written in their own pages. The Bible and the Qur’an are just as likely to be the word of god as is any other book written by men. In that way, The Book of Mormon written by Joseph Smith, and Dianetics written by L Ron Hubbard are just as likely (or unlikely), but we all find it a lot easier to discount these text simply because these cults have not been around long enough to gather as many Chinese whispers as the earlier holy books.

While belief is strong in many, when you point out to a Christian that Muslims pray to Allah 5 times a day, and that their belief is just as strong, if not stronger than their Christian beliefs, they will shake their heads and say “Well, the Muslims have chosen the wrong god,” and dismiss Islam as “wrong”. The same can be said in reverse when speaking to a person of Islamic faith, except that The Qur’an states many times that the unbeliever should be put to death. And while there are fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity, most of the hostility comes down to the semantic differences between the people, and the interpretations that their religions make of their holy books. And these books are fallible, and even their origins are even in question. Watch this video with Bart D. Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Isaac Asimov is actually attributed to have once said “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” The same could be said for any religious text if read properly.

One of the worst side-effects of religious differences is a kind of xenophobia, or a fear of these “heathens”. In what many call Christian societies, like Melbourne for instance, some are very fearful of anyone who outwardly displays the trappings of their religions, specifically Islam. The blame for this can be partially blamed on the apprehension people feel about the outwardly apparent differences in culture as displayed in their clothing and socialising, in hookah bars etc. But the deeper blame,  lies in the media and political manipulation and magnification of the differences between these “others” and the “decent western folk”. In Australia the political spotlight is particularly glaring and harsh right now, we have an election looming and both parties are using xenophobia as a key election point, using words like “illegal immigrants” instead of “refugees” or “asylum seekers”. It’s very easy to exacerbate and already sore point by using infectious language. And of course there are the cases of Belgium and France, banning the burqa and the votes against the minarets in Switzerland.In the USA the word Muslim conjures fear, and some people still maintain the President Obama is a Muslim, which they use as a slur against his name.

The xenophobia against Muslims is rife, and the religion itself is not the main reason for this. It’s because of the association of the very visibly large actions that have been done in the name of Islam, from the almost constant news of suicide bombings in the middle-east and Pakistan, to September 11 attacks in New York. These acts of violence have had an effect on the perception of Muslims in Australia and around the world. And it’s simply not true that all Muslims have suicide bombing tendencies, no more than it’s true that all Christians will protest carrying signs saying “God Hates Fags”. Of course, only the extremists are going to do these things, but those who do so do it in the name of their god. Of course it’s going to tarnish our visions of the whole group, even though people consistently say that you can’t judge a group by its worst members. We still will, and we still do, when members of a group commit these atrocities. Of course on the flip-side, some Muslims see the war in Afghanistan as a holy war, with Christian infidels trying to take away their religion and land and freedoms. They carry the same xenophobia of someone like me, and wrap it up in the blanket called religion.

And of course, this fear is only amplified when we throw into the mix the idea that religions are the basis for our political systems. For one, politics rhetoric in the USA is heavily weighted with religious words and phrases, and it gives rise to people tending to make decisions based on their own understanding of what it means to be Christian. The money is religious (“In God We Trust”), and the pledge that children in the USA make every morning to their nation is religious. This is ingrained in children at a young age. And aside from causing harm to the thinking processes of these kids (where they are told to trust in the unprovable and unknowable), it makes the USA very insular and inward looking. When the USA looks half-way across the world to Iran, their first thoughts tend to be “Muslim country”, followed by all the things it means to be in a non-Christian society. And the same can be said for Iran’s politicising of Islam, looking across the world at the USA thinking “dirty infidels”. These are of course gross generalisations to merely illustrate my point, but the politicising of the main religions of these countries feeds a very destructive notion of “Us vs Them”. Do we blame the political tensions between the USA and the Middle east on religion, or do we blame religious tension on politics? Either way, it’s a bad mix, and a very strong argument for the division of church and state.

Isn’t it ironic that, at their historic roots, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all come from the same set of stories? Many people are not aware of this.

But not everything is so dramatic.

Currently there is a fight in some groups to teach Bible studies in all schools. In Australia, Tony Abbott, who is running for Prime Minister in the upcoming elections in August said this in December last year:

“I think everyone should have some familiarity with the great texts that are at the core of our civilisation,” Mr Abbott told the Herald Sun.

“That includes, most importantly, the Bible. I think it would be impossible to have a good general education without at least some serious familiarity with the Bible and with the teachings of Christianity. That doesn’t mean that people have to be believers.”

This is the guy who, in a few weeks time, could become the most powerful man in the whole country, claiming that one can’t have a good general education without the teachings of the Bible. This quite alarming. His claim brings forth the old argument that the Bible is the reason for our progress and our success as a civilisation. I would argue quite the opposite, that our civilisation is successful in spite of the Bible (and the Qur’an and Torah for that matter), and that many of the great breakthroughs in science, technology and society have gone against the teachings and mandates of religious organisations. Many who made these breakthroughs were called heretics, some were even killed for their heresy.

It also makes the suggestion that humans can’t have morality without God. Again, I would argue against this vehemently. Some of the world’s best thinkers and social commentators have been godless, and I think that is for this reason; being able to make assessments of the world and the social climate is much easier without the veil of religion, which instead of giving people a definite sense of morality, actually adds bias and the idea that other cultures are wrong.

This brings up the argument “Can someone be good without God?’ I know that many have argued for and against this topic, but I’d like to bring it down to this; one can be good through empathy for one-another, through sympathy and understanding of the planet and its people, and through unbiased and fair treatment of others and the world. God doesn’t even factor into that equation, as these are all active choices of the human psyche. We have free will and we have the ability to treat others fairly, and we should use that. I am without god, does that make me a bad person? No, it doesn’t.

So if people can be good without God/gods, then it would seem to me then we should be striving as a society to be free from the bindings of religious thought and bias. Imagine what we could achieve if holy wars were to end. Imagine what we could achieve if we could look upon another human being and not see someone of another religion or club or caste, but to see them as another individual, who shares and the same fears and needs, the same biology, the same heredity. I’m not talking about socialism here, I’m talking about equality.

I am well aware that people are scared of change. We all wrap ourselves up in our little world, and seek comfort from the familiar. Rightly so, if we are comfortable, why risk discomfort for the sake of change? Well I put it to you that we are in for change, whether we like it or not, and our ability to adapt to the changes the world throws at us is going to decide what happens to us as a species. I really think that the only way that we can reach a good outcome for as many people as possible is for us to throw away as many of the veils of preconceived bias as possible, to remove what we have to power to remove, and to embrace the future as though we actually want it.

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Crimes Against Women and Children in the Name of Islam

June 12, 2010 § 9 Comments

Mohammed, the prophet of the Islamic world, married his last bride Aisha when she was just six years old, and the consummated the marriage with her when she was just nine years old. In Islamic states, partly because of this precedent, this practice still happens in fundamentalist countries like Afghanistan.  Muslims will say that a child of six or seven is almost certain to be a virgin. Mohammed was at least 50 when he married Aisha.

The practice of forced marriages (as opposed to arranged marriages) in some Muslim states such as Afghanistan is very common. Some reports claim that somewhere between 60-80 percent of marriages in Afghanistan are forced upon the girls involved or without the consent of the girls. These marriages are seen as a way to resolve conflicts between families, or as a way to absolve someone of a wrongdoing. The girls are treated as they would treat cattle, and are given to these men as offerings.

Some reports also estimate that 57 percent of Afghani girls are married before the age of 16, and it is unusual to find an unmarried girl older than 18 years of age. The practice is justified twofold; that the girls are helping to keep the peace between families, and that the Islamic prophet Mohammed had set this precedent.

In Afghanistan the legal age to be married is 16, but many people ignore this law or claim they were unaware of it. The children in this situation are robbed of childhood, and as you will see, many are robbed of their life. This practice is abhorrent, and any civilised culture will see it as such.

In Nigeria, a 49-year-old Muslim Senator has reportedly married a 13-year-old girl, and has allegedly previously married a 15-year-old in 2006, citing that he paid a dowry of $100,000 to the parents for her. Although looked down upon by other ministers in Nigeria it is still happening.

Women in Islam have no rights, especially if they are non-Muslim, and these men get away with their evils because people are too afraid to stand up against the barbarity of the culture which the religion they follow has instilled in them. Threats of death are imposed upon those who would stand up against this. In Lahore, a man and his entourage of Muslim lawyers has threatened to “burn alive” anyone who will come to the defence of a 12-year-old servant of his, whom he raped and murdered.

Many girls will find themselves in a marriage with a man much older than they are, and will be given the sole duties of looking after the household and giving offspring to the man. Some men have multiple wives, and the women become a harem for that man. The men are often abusive to these girls, sometimes to the point where the girl should be hospitalised, but often is not. The beating of wives is seen as the “honourable thing to do”, for the wife must be kept in line with the wishings of the man and of Allah.

Often these girls will find themselves in these abusive relationships, and will seek a way out.  But the way out is a problem in itself; if the girl were to leave she would bring shame upon her own family and her husband’s, and would be hunted down and possibly stoned to death or just beaten withing an inch of her life; if she stays, she may be beaten thus anyhow. Sometimes out of pure desperation, a girl seeking to be free from the bonds of this abusive relationship will choose self-harm rather than bringing shame upon her people.

In Afghanistan, it is believe that more than 10 women and girls choose self-immolation (warning very graphic content) as the escape from their bondage. Around the web there are numerous stories of women who, feeling there was no better way, have chosen to set themselves on fire rather than continue living in such conditions. Some girls die from their injuries. Some do not but are so badly scarred so as to lose their legs, or are severely disfigured by these burns. Those that live may wind up on the streets, homeless.

The culture in Afghanistan is such that women are treated as slaves, and in some cases, worse than dogs. Not only do they wear the burqa in public at all times, they are not allowed to leave the home alone, not allowed to speak to anyone they don’t know, and not allowed to make their identity known nor engage with any of their husband’s friends they may meet in the street. They are not treated as second-class citizens, rather as livestock that can produce more sons for the family.

People blame Islam for these practices. And yet, there are many more Islamic people who don’t practice this than do. Islam itself is not to blame wholly for these atrocities, rather the culture that bases itself upon Islam, then justifies these stone-aged practices based on the words of the Koran or the Hadeeth, saying it is God’s will that this be done. When a culture is poor and has little or no access to education, these kinds of barbaric practices continue to happen.

The culture in Afghanistan is sick. The barbarism and sheer disrespect for human rights that occurs there is all so often backed up by the perverse and outmoded words of their holy books. This illness in the Afghan culture continues, even after the ousting of the Taliban, who were ultra conservative and would set upon women with batons for showing ANY skin, but it is not much better now.

While this culture is deeply ingrained in their societies, these practices in the name of Islam  shows it toi be, in its extreme, nothing more than an ultra-conservative ultra-violent “boy’s club” where it members all look after each other. And as sickening as all this is, nothing seems to be getting better.

These girls stories are the same story I have heard again and again of extreme desperation, of girls who see their only escape from forced marriage as being self harm. It is gut-wrenchingly sad to see such lives destroyed by the greed and stupidity of men. Here is an example of one girl’s account of the horrors she has faced at the brutal hands of an extreme Islamic patriarchy.

Peter Singer – The Genius of Darwin – Dawkins interview

June 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

I was fortunate enough to see BOTH Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins speak at the Rise Of Atheism conference here in Melbourne in March of this year. While Dawkins’ talk was eye-opening, Peter Singer’s talk resonated with me far more powerfully.

Peter Singer is a Bio-Ethicist, animal rights activist and advocate of vegetarianism. Here in an interview with Richard Dawkins from his program “The Genius of Darwin”, Singer speaks of the ethical tradeoff we make as humans who eat meat, and whether it is ethical at all to kill and animal when there are alternatives to eating meat which don’t involve killing. I enjoyed this talk immensely.

While I sympathise with the ideals of vegetarians, I am not a vegetarian at all. The ideals of living a vegetarian lifestyle are sound, and sustainable if managed properly. But so too can be the practices of being an omnivore if we only eat meat occasionally. See Polyface Farms as an example of good and sustainable farming practices (as outlined in the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan).

I am not a vegetarian activist, nor do I pertain to being an ethics expert, however I am an advocate for sustainable (and humane) farming practices, and those that have a lessened impact on the lives of animals. Make of this what you will.

It’s OK, it’s part of my religion

May 29, 2010 § 46 Comments

As you know, my universe has no room for the possibility of a god. And in general I don’t care what other people think and believe as long as their suppositions and practices don’t affect me in any way. You can believe in fairies and unicorns and believe you have to bay at the moon 2 times a night to stop from imploding, and I wouldn’t care less. I’d probably call you a nutbag, but it wouldn’t affect me in any way.

But unfortunately, religions don’t work like that. In particular the religions of Islam and Christianity are guilty of believing that their religion is the ONLY way, and are more than willing to kill and die for it. People of faith not only believe that their religion is the only true way, but they also believe that they have a moral right and obligation to try to make others believe them too. Somehow, the fact that they are “saved” from a fiery fate in the afterlife gives them a duty to tell others about it, and in some cases, kill them if they don’t believe. This affects me, but not directly, as I don’t live in a heavily religious country, I am reasonably well off, and am not threatened by others for not believing their stories.

What got me thinking about this in particular was a report from the ABC that stated that Australian doctors were considering allowing a “ritual nick” to placate those who wished to have their female children “circumcised”. This later turned out to be a false story, but it got me thinking about the way religious people foist their ideals upon not only society, but their own family members. Some of these practices are particularly barbaric, and really deserve to be called out for the brutality it is. And more often than not these atrocities are enacted against women.

Both Christianity and Islam reveal themselves to be anti-women if either of the religions are studied and deeper than the surface edicts of “killing is wrong, stealing is wrong”. Women are not only treated as second-class citizens in both religions, but are treated with unequaled disdain in Islam. The burqa is an example where men choose to force the women of their society to cover themselves up so as to be out of the gaze of other men. They say that it will protect the women from the lecherous eyes of the men around them, citing the fact that men can’t be trusted, but in reality it is the women who are untrusted. They claim this is to give the women some sort of security, but really this is an example of men jealously guarding their “possessions”. Women in this situation have often been quoted as saying that this type of behaviour is not only their wish, but the wish of their God. I can understand that if this is all that a woman had known her whole life, and had never been told otherwise that they may really believe this lie.

In the Christian faith, it is the “original sin” which keeps women down. The fact that the bible, which was written by a man, states that ALL the evils in the world stem from the act of “eating an apple from the garden of Eden” is testament to this fact (this piece of prose is also the root of societal ideas about sex being wrong, bodily functions such as menstruation as a punishment for mankind etc.) Women were also “created” not from mud or dust, but from the rib of a man. A very convenient concept, meaning that women are lesser than men in the first count. Idiocy like this trickles down through all Christian cultures, and is one of the main reasons that women have been kept down. This kind of stone age storytelling came from someone’s imagination, not from God.

If my partner or wife decided to disobey me, would it be just to beat her, stone her to death or set her alight? It’s OK if it’s part of my religion! What about pedophilia? Is it OK to sleep with a 12-year-old? Muhammad had a 12-year-old bride, do you think he waited til she was 16 before he had sex with her? And what does this say for the members of the numerous societies who truly believe that not only are his words the true word of God, but that all his actions are infallible?

Men wrote these “holy books”, not God. Men, who were making decisions based on their own views of the world many, many years ago wrote these texts based on what they would like to see in the world. Women had no say. And who is allowed to make official interpretations of these texts? Men only.

And the main problem here is that the world has changed, and our understanding of the universe has grown exponentially. These ideas came from people who believed that the world was flat, that the sun was carried across the sky in tha back of God’s chariot, that every species of animals on earth fit on a single boat. These ideas are fanciful, antiquated, barbaric, unjust and male-centric. We have grown up a lot as a species. We have increased our knowledge beyond just how to herd goats. We now KNOW so much more, and yet people still depend on these ancient and misogynistic texts to guide their lives.

The idea that we can justify something on any level of barbarity based on the fact that it is either part of a religion, or that someone’s interpretation of a religious text says it is true, is no longer acceptable. The fight for freedom from religion is the fight for freedom for women from oppression at the hands of men. We all need to take a stance in this, and to point out to the wrongdoers that we do not accept that kind of behaviour, nor will we tolerate barbaric “religious” practices and longer, just because we fear to tread on the toes of a few religious extremists.

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