Why I do what I do and why I want to do more.

It occurred to me a few days ago, while reading the opening paragraph of yet another book about motivation/self-help, that I still haven’t done anything that would contribute to my life being better. I’ve spent time and money on pursuing the ideas of highly motivated people, only to continue doing the same thing I do every other day. It doesn’t matter how much of this information you absorb, none of it will actually help you if you don’t take action. If you don’t do anything different, you’ll just end up being someone who knows a lot about what successful people do, and how satisfied they are but you’ll just be the same as you always were. In fact, ironically, you’ll actually be less happy than you were, because you’ll beat yourself up about not changing. I think that I have finally reached the point where the beating myself up has got to stop and I need to actually do something. So here I am, writing this.

One of the hardest things in life is finding the motivation to do anything above the ‘comfort’ level. Most of us are tuned to live life at a certain steady intensity. The old prison mantra of ‘do your time’ could apply to a large proportion of un-incarcerated people as well. We seek comfort and security, we get paid, we have kids, we die. Very few of us go beyond that by trying to find something truly satisfying. Make no mistake, the comfortable life has it’s perks, that’s why we choose it. But I’m sure many of us have wondered if there is a higher level of satisfaction that can be attained.

For me this higher level of satisfaction is to be involved in the intellectual pursuit of truth and meaning in this world. Doing what I’m doing right now, is making me feel more alive than anything else has today. Simply putting my thoughts down on a page, somehow makes them seem more real. As though, they are in this moment being etched into history. Of course, I realise this probably isn’t true, I doubt these words will go ‘viral’. However, they may cause someone to think, and that is the first process in the intellectual process of finding truth and meaning.

I often wonder why I seem to have this apparent desire to have my voice heard, while simultaneously being frightened of letting anyone hear me. I have this remarkable ability to not be noticed, it’s as though I have access to Harry’s invisibility cloak whenever I want. Is anyone else so conflicted?

Do I want to be agreed with, or argued against? I have a history of only engaging with someone on social media when I disagree with them. It’s as though I can’t bear the thought of them not hearing the opposing view. So I tell myself that I just want to see ideas collide. The collision of ideas is a must for civil society. Free speech ought to be considered the bedrock of a free society. Everything we hold dear builds from free speech. No ‘progress’ can be made without it and the truth is elusive if all voices aren’t heard and avenues traversed.

Every time you silence someone, you deprive the person the right to express an idea and you deprive yourself the right to hear it. Why you ask, would you want to hear an idea you disagree with? The first and most important reason is that the other person may be right and you may be wrong. The position of being entirely sure that you are correct and that the other person is incorrect is like trying to play god. Certainty, to the point of ignorance of opposition, is as intellectually repulsive thing imaginable. And yes, I reserve the right to be entirely wrong with everything I’ve ever said.

Second and less obviously is that you are given an opportunity to consider your own position once more. ‘Why do you believe X to be true?’ This enables you to either have your belief challenged or clarified. Both are good results if the pursuit of truth is paramount to you.

Third you are given the opportunity to try and change the other persons mind. By allowing your opponent to voice his opinion unencumbered, you may be able to locate the flaw in his reasoning or at the very least, ask yourself the question:

“Why does this person think what they do?”

If you can do this, you may see the point in his reasoning where the two of you hit crossroads. This allows you try and convince him of his error. And maybe you can get him to:

“Change his mind!”

After all, isn’t this the goal in the first place? If you are so sure that you are right then shouldn’t you want everyone to think the same way? Or do you simply want to be able to silence people and give them labels? If it is the latter then you probably shouldn’t be in the intellectual game at all. However, if it is the former, then all of us ought to be learning how to express ideas, and to encourage others to do the same.

But why should we bother? So many of us, me included, are so easily seduced into silence. We are lulled into a sense of security and apathy by the cultures and societies we are lucky enough to live in. Our nations have enormous wealth and comfort as a result of the struggle of our forebears. They fought and strived so that we may have any number of freedoms. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors would have heroic stories of survival to tell us. However nowadays things have never been so easy in all of human history. If you find yourself reading this, you are likely situated in an advanced western nation. You probably have social security, a steady income, food, shelter, instant access to any number of services over the internet. Yet when asked

“Are you happy?”

You may reply, ‘meh’, I get by. My typical response when asked ‘How’s it going?” is “Yeah, not bad”. Shouldn’t we be happier than that? What do we really have to be sad about, our lives are easy compared with all other human existences in history, yet depression rates are on the rise. Through my recent motivation/self-help reading I have come to believe that our lives lack drive and ambition. Our ancestors had to be ambitious (because life was hard) or they would have died and not been our ancestors. This ambition is still within us, it’s left over from our evolutionary past. And with most of us, it’s left unfulfilled. We have stable, steady lives, filled with conform and contentment. What I believe we lack is something to strive for. Something to get out of bed for every morning and be looking forward to. We have become lazy because we don’t have to do anything special to survive in todays world, particularly in advanced nations. We can sit on the couch watching Netflix all day (guilty) and even have someone deliver food to us. Our ambitions are sacrificed for comfort in the moment. We seek immediate gratification safety and security, which I suggest leaves us deeply unsatisfied in the long run.

It is for this reason that I think we need ambition. We need to strive for something. For some this might be fame, fortune and everything in between. But for me, there is no higher calling than the pursuit of truth and meaning in this world. I want to be involved in the collision of ideas. I want this, not so I can win arguments or be right. But rather to satisfy the ambition that lurks within. Be ambitious comrades.

The Mystery of Consciousness

Introduction

How does the inanimate matter inside of our heads produce an experience? We all have this sensation of ‘being there’, the ‘lights are on’ in a way that we tend not to ascribe to other kinds of things. If we think about chairs for instance, very few of us suppose that chairs are having an experience, even though science tells us that chairs are made of the same basic components as humans. Chairs are merely combinations of atoms, albeit different combinations to ours, but still just atoms. There isn’t any unique feature of the individual atoms that comprise our bodies, no vital spirit giving life or consciousness. The relevant difference between us and a chair is that our atoms are arranged in a sufficiently complex manner so as to allow for the flow of information. Does this information flow and information processing account for consciousness? If so, are other information processors having conscious experiences? Most of us attribute consciousness to animals which are sufficiently similar to ourselves, however are hesitant to extend it to other information processors. Insects and plants engage in information processing of a kind, but we rarely consider them to be more sentient than the chair mentioned before. How about the great information processors that we created? Computers are capable of remarkable feats of information processing, that baffle us, however once again, very few of us grant them any subjective experiences. If it isn’t information processing that gives rise to consciousness, then what does? And can an explanation be found by using our traditional methods? A scientific explanation of phenomenal consciousness would be a remarkable achievement in human intellect, perhaps an achievement which will remain unattained.

 

What is consciousness?

In order to give a valid explanation of consciousness, we need to attempt to define it. The word consciousness has a number of meanings, some more mainstream than others. When a person is asleep, they are often considered to be conscious in a limited sense through dreaming. A person may be labelled as unconscious if they are unresponsive following the excessive consumption of drugs or a blow to the head. While sitting an exam, it is advisable to be conscious of time. Here, the word conscious could seamlessly be swapped with the word aware. Then there is a deeper level at which people talk about consciousness. The combination of sensory inputs, the ability to process information, thoughts, memories, emotions, beliefs and sensations are often considered to be the contents of consciousness. Interesting though these concepts may be, they aren’t what we are talking about here. We want to explain a more fundamental feature that is present in all of these concepts, and by extension all possible concepts. It seems that this is a point of division in the field. Many thinkers (Dennett, Churchlands, etc) believe that the combined explanations of these concepts would be an explanation of consciousness. However a number of philosophers find this unsatisfactory and believe there to be another problem which is being skirted by explanations of this kind. It seems that while these concepts would need to be accounted for to fully explain consciousness, they aren’t sufficient to explain it. There is something more about consciousness that needs explaining, the mysterious subjective nature of experience. Why should there be a subjective experience to any of these contents? The mere presence of these contents is insufficient to explain how and why they are experienced subjectively. The contents seem to be delivered to the cognitive subject in a way that the subject has an experience of them. There is such thing as a thought about a tomato and this thought has a corresponding neuronal activation pattern (brain activity) that can be studied scientifically, but there is also ‘something it is like’ for a cognitive agent to be having a thought about a tomato. It is the ‘something it is like’ that we are concerned with here (Nagel, 1974).

 

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

The philosopher David Chalmers came up with the term ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’ to draw a theoretical line in the sand between it and the so called ‘easy’ problems of consciousness. This wasn’t to downplay the difficulty of solving the ‘easy’ problems, which are sufficiently hard in their own right, it was to highlight the difficulty of the hard problem. He framed it as the mystery of how physical processes in the brain seem to give rise to a subjective experience (Chalmers, 1995). The concepts mentioned in the previous paragraph fall under the category of the ‘easy’ problems as they are objectively observable. The brain can be studied and the relevant concepts can be mapped onto specific activity in the brain. The ‘hard’ problem however concerns itself with why this activity should deliver an experience to the cognitive subject whose brain is engaging in the activity. This can lead us down another path, the path of trying to explain where these experiences are delivered to the self and by extension how do we locate the feeling of the self. The self is the feeling of being a distinct, separate entity, with a private mental world. Is the self just an illusion? Contemplatives throughout the ages have claimed that through extensive meditative practice it is possible to have experiences of selflessness, whereby they are able to merely observe the contents of consciousness. From such a position, all that remains is the subjective feeling of consciousness. This sensation of consciousness could be present even in the absence of all of the contents that we typically feel tied to. This is one way to visualise the difference between the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems of consciousness and could possibly cause some philosophers to reconsider their dismissal of the ‘hard’ problem. The ‘easy’ problems are concerned with explaining the contents, while the ‘hard’ problem is concerned with explaining the raw feeling of subjective consciousness that lingers on in the absence of the feeling of the self (Harris, 2014). Regardless of whether this form of introspection is useful or not, the ‘hard’ problem remains. There is nothing about the physical structure of the brain, even in full swing, that would suggest an intricate world exists within. Even if we were able to ascribe every physical event in the brain to the relevant mental content, we wouldn’t have anything to say about why the event delivers a subjective experience. Why should neuronal firing pattern α, which delivers the mental content α, cause a subjective experience? Where in this hive of activity does subjectivity arise? What is it about this special combination of matter that causes an experience of the information being carried by it? This is the hard problem of consciousness and any valid theory of consciousness must be able to solve it.

 

Can Subjectivity be Objectively explained?

Scientific inquiry relies upon objectively measurable quantities. The science of the ‘easy’ problems of consciousness is quite well advanced. Many of the sensory inputs have been accounted for in terms of the relationship between the physical processes in the world and the subsequent representation of these processes in the relevant sensory systems. Sound is received by the eardrum as vibrations in the air, caused by some physical vibration of an object, these vibrations subsequently cause the eardrum to vibrate at a relative frequency. This vibration is coded into neuronal firings. This is the ‘easy’ part of the sound problem, then the magic happens, a cognitive agent has a subjective experience that he calls sound. The ‘easy’ problems of consciousness are scientifically observable phenomena. They are simply things that are happening in the world, objectively available to anyone with the sufficient technology to view them. The subjective nature of conscious experience however is not objectively observable. It doesn’t matter how advanced the technology, or how comprehensive the neuroscience/cognitive science is, we can’t observe anyone else’s subjective experience. To do this would require more than a mind reading device but a mind experiencing device. It could be argued that a completed theory of neuroscience/cognitive science combined with a perfect brain scanner would be a mind reading device. This device may produce output that directly matches the exact mental events happening in the subjects mind. However this still would not be an observation of the subjective nature of this person’s mind. The person isn’t experiencing a series of outputs, or even a string of thoughts, they are experiencing the totality of their conscious experience, moment to moment.

This problem goes to the heart of epistemology. What can be known about the nature of consciousness and how can it be known? It seems that no method of inquiry that relies upon objective observation can locate the subjective nature of consciousness. Is it more broadly true, that the objective can never explain the subjective? Possibly the only way that subjective experience can be explained is with reference to subjective experience and that furthermore one can’t have subjectivity or consciousness explained to them if they themselves lack the phenomenon. The only method we have for truly knowing whether a system is conscious is by being that system. We can’t rely on it’s responsiveness to stimuli, as many things that are likely to be lacking consciousness can react to the world around them. We can’t even really rely upon self report of consciousnesses. Most of us assume that everyone else has conscious experiences, but strictly speaking we have no way to be sure. More specifically, I have no way to be sure that anyone else is having conscious experiences in the way that I do. This can be illustrated by simply imagining a sufficiently well developed robot, that could pass the Turing test and hold a conversation and behave appropriately around people. This robot may be capable of speaking incisively about consciousness, without actually having consciousness itself. Perhaps it is relying upon a comprehensive database which includes all of the appropriate things to say about consciousness. If we can’t tell whether the robot is conscious, then strictly speaking none of us can be sure whether any other people are conscious. This would also require explaining why it is that you are different to everyone else and possess consciousness in the first place. The chances are that this is nonsense, but it is a useful example to illustrate the difficulty of locating subjectivity from an objective viewpoint.

 

Science and Consciousness

At this stage it would seem appropriate to survey the predominate scientific attempts to explain consciousness and see if they stack up against our requirement of solving the hard problem. “Consciousness thus appears unique and, to many minds, beyond scientific explanation. Or anyway, beyond purely physical explanation. Consciousness, it has been argued is essentially a subjective phenomenon, accessible only to the creature that has it, while anything that is truly physical – one’s brain activity for example is doomed to be objective in nature, that is, to be accessible to many people from many points of view” (Churchland, 1995). Churchland acknowledges the difficulty of explaining a subjective process in terms of objective phenomenon, however holds high hopes that science can overcome these difficulties. It is true that science has answered questions that once seemed beyond the scope of human observation, the location of the Earth in relation to the stars was declared by Ptolemy as inaccessible from our perspective. More recently, many people believed there to be some vital spirit giving life to creatures such as ourselves. With the aid of a thought experiment this was a well subscribed to belief. Suppose we were shrunk down to the size of an atom and placed inside the human body, it seems that we could travel around the various compartments of the body without coming across anything that would resemble life. There would be no reason to associate the strange structures you encountered and the activities they were engaged in, with the living being that you were internally exploring. The claim then goes that with both of these examples, it was merely a lack of imagination that restricted people from grappling with the true location of the Earth or with modern molecular biology. These questions have since been answered, so why shouldn’t a science of the future explain consciousness in the future. Well, the stark difference between these examples and the difficulty of consciousness is clear. The location of the Earth and the intricacies of molecular biology are both objectively observable phenomena, whereas the subjective experiences had by conscious creatures are not.

 

Previous research in neuroscience has suggested that consciousness may arise from certain oscillations in the cerebral cortex, which become synchronized as neurons fire 40 times per second (Crick and Koch, 1990). This may be useful for explaining how different inputs of a single object (its colour and shape, for example), are unified into a coherent whole. In this theory, two pieces of information become bound together precisely when they are represented by synchronized neural firings. Fascinating as this theory may be it still only refers to the easy problems and says nothing about why this synchronization of neuronal firing should deliver a subjective experience. Would the researchers suppose that a perfect replication of this would produce consciousness?

 

Similar complaints can be made about the work of Dennett, who puts forth a model of consciousness involving multiple layers. These layers are the result of inputs to the brain which have arrived at different times, which gives rise to a successive narrative prone to change as each input takes forefront. Thus it is analogous to ‘multiple drafts’ of a story. Both Chalmers and the philosopher John Searle take issue with Dennett in similar ways. Chalmers believes that Dennett addresses only the ‘easy’ problems of consciousness and has nothing to say about the hard problem of subjectivity. This seems a valid criticism, Dennett’s ‘multiple drafts’ theory may be entirely correct as to how information is integrated and processed by the brain, however it doesn’t explain why well explained integrated information should produce a subjective consciousness. Searle, an old sparring partner of Dennett’s is more abrasive in his response:

“Dennett denies the existence of the data. To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He continues to use the word, but he means something different by it. For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings, because we are all just complex zombies” (Searle, 1995). It seems that Searle’s main criticism is similar to that of Chalmers in that he accuses Dennett of ignoring the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The subjective, ‘what it is likeness’ of conscious experience. Dennett is happy to go along with the concept of the human zombie, a being that is for all intents and purposes identical to a human, in that it is capable of all the same thought processes and behaviours but it lacks any subjective experiences. To swap places with the zombie would be synonymous with the ‘lights going out’.

 

The neuroscientist Sam Harris follows Chalmers down the path of the intractability of the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness by scientific methods. “The idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken” (Harris, 2011). The very idea of unconsciousness being involved in consciousness seems paradoxical. The two concepts seem entirely antithetical to one another. Either an object has consciousness or it doesn’t. The lights are on, or they are off. There is nothing to be gained by postulating a gradual increase in consciousness from primitive to advanced, if we want to actually explain consciousness. The important step is from no consciousness to some consciousness, and it seems that this change would have to occur in one increment.

 

Conclusion

A science of subjectivity, a theory of consciousness, would have to demonstrate in objective terms how something which is unconscious can create something which is subjectively conscious. A feat which science, as it is currently understood, has little hope of achieving. We may be left with the unsatisfactory conclusion that consciousness, like space, time and matter is a fundamental feature of the universe in which we live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Chalmers, D. (1995). The Puzzle of Conscious Experience. Scientific American, 273(6), pp.80-86.

 

Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Churchland, P. (1996). The engine of reason, the seat of the soul. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: London.

 

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown & Company, pp.1-65.

 

Harris, S. (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and The Future of Reason. 1st ed. New York: The Free Press, pp.204-223.

 

Harris, S. (2011). The Mystery of Consciousness. [Blog] Sam Harris. Available at: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-mystery-of-consciousness [Accessed 20 May 2017].

 

Harris, S. (2011). The Mystery of Consciousness II. [Blog] Sam Harris. Available at: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-mystery-of-consciousness-ii [Accessed 20 May 2017].

 

Harris, S. (2014). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 

Searle, J. and Dennett, D. (1995). ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’: An Exchange. [online] The New York Review of Books. Available at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/12/21/the-mystery-of-consciousness-an-exchange/ [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].

 

The Evolution of the Mind

Evolution by natural selection is a biological theory that explains the diversity of all life on Earth. Originally the theory of evolution was thought to have no say on the minds of conscious beings, but rather just an excellent explanation for how these beings came into existence. Scientists happily left it at that point and we relied on the philosophers and psychologists to explain the huge range of emotions, feelings and thoughts that human beings experienced. It was thought that at some point along the line of human evolution we were given some special quality, whether it evolved or was implanted supernaturally, that made us different to the animals. The standard opinion of the social sciences merely suggests that biology has given humans our five senses, hunger, fear and a capacity to learn (Pinker, 1997). So from this, the majority of people deduce that either this special quality, or learning through culture, gave us our intricate and complex minds, our intelligence and our ability to differentiate right from wrong. In recent years however two disciplines have begun to overlap. We now have evolutionary biologists taking an interest in human psychology and conversely psychologists and the social scientists seeking to understand evolution comprehensively. Thus ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ is born. A theory that seeks to rely on fundamental principles of evolution by natural selection to account for the nature of human minds and subsequently human behaviours (minds determine behaviours).

An understanding of evolution by natural selection is critical to understanding this concept. Charles Darwin observed that species tend to remain constant in numbers over time although they have the ability to reproduce exponentially. From this he inferred that there must be competition between organisms for resources and space. Another observation was that organisms tend to be rather well ‘designed’ to be successful in the environment they are present in. To explain this, Darwin postulated that those organisms with traits most well suited to their environment would be more likely to survive and reproduce, thus (given heredity) the offspring of these individuals would also have these traits and as a result these individuals would also have advantageous traits for surviving and reproducing and would pass them on to their offspring. And on and on the chain goes, individuals becoming more and more suited to their environments (Raven and Johnson, 1986).

We, as human beings, are just a part of this process. So why would it be odd to assume that our minds are a result of this process? Surely a sharp mind would have always provided an advantage in evolutionary terms. The basic claim of evolutionary psychology is that our minds are just as much a result of natural processes as our thumbs are. This argument starts with the assumption that it is the genes that are the basic unit of natural selection (Dawkins, 1976). Genes code for various traits of the mind and body. The logical step to make from here is to say that the genes that were most successful, over the evolutionary history, at coding for intelligent and complex brains (among other things) would go on to propagate more readily than those that didn’t code for such things. Thus the human mind became more and more suited to surviving and reproducing in its ancestral past.

It is important to point out that most evolutionary psychologists do not try and claim that every single aspect of human thought and behaviour is directly in line with Darwinian Theory. It may be true that other animals devote every waking moment to simply survival and reproduction, but it is worth noting that humans do many things that would appear to contradict Darwinian Theory. This is explained well by (Pinker, 1997), who states that natural selection has taken place over thousands of generations and most of them (99%) were in an environment vastly different to the one that humans are in today. The majority of time that natural selection has been acting on human minds has occurred in hunter/gatherer type environments. A far more brutal and desperate time when concepts such as love, sharing and trust were in their infancy. It is not surprising that minds designed to thrive in those times do not always make complete sense in these times where many of the pressures of the past are just a shadow of their former selves. One cannot help but think of the countless amount of time squandered trying to beat mental illness and find meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Depression rates are higher than ever before, because our brains have been ‘designed’ to survive and reproduce. Clearly in our ancestral past, the capacity to remember everything bad (that may threaten survival) would have conveyed some survival success. Evolution has created the perfect worrier. However, a typical human in modern times is not anywhere near as worried that his neighbour will break into his house, steal his possessions and attempt to impregnate his wife. The lives of present day humans have other far more manufactured pressures to deal with. These pressures, such as paying bills, maintaining a job and social status have lead to many inventions which are in direct contradiction to Darwinian Theory. These constructions create perfect misery for some and the opportunity to be ‘top dog’ for others. Interestingly, the very notion of sex without the goal of reproducing would surely seem absurd to our ancestors, if they could even comprehend it. Contraceptives reflect the interchange of Darwinian programming and modern day pressures. One can’t simply just go about conceiving limitless numbers of babies without having a great deal of responsibility to care for them. Society has made this sort of behaviour very expensive. Pinker sums it up nicely “Since the modern mind is adapted to the Stone Age, not the computer age, there is no need to strain for the adaptive explanations for everything we do” (Pinker, 1997).

Now we turn our attention to the things that evolutionary psychology can explain. One of the best examples that we can draw from evolutionary psychology is that of phobias. There are many things that human beings are afraid of that seem irrational in the light of the modern world in which we live. For instance one of the most common phobias is snakes and spiders. Now this was once probably quite a rational fear given the likely ways in which humans used to live. There were certainly no fly proof screens attached to all windows and doors of houses, if there even were houses. Snakes and spiders could have been in regular contact with people at certain times in history and given the almost complete lack of proper medical treatment, a bite from them may have been somewhat closer to a death sentence than it is today.  As a result the trait ‘being afraid of snakes and spiders’ would have had some survival benefits. Picture the dim-witted cave man rushing up to a snake and trying to pick it up. The chances are that these genes wouldn’t be passed on. So evolution by natural selection has programmed phobias into human beings, obviously they effect different people in varying degrees.

Another simple example of evolutionary psychology is that of hunger and food cravings. It is generally accepted that in the early days of human history, which maybe anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 years ago, high quality food was in scarce supply. Individuals who had a genetic predisposition to crave these high quality foods would be more likely to go and seek them out. The consumption of these high quality foods would have lead to an increase in health and thus fecundity. Conversely the individuals who lacked that desire to seek out these high quality foods would have been likely to just go for whatever happened to be close by, which would probably have been, on average, lower quality. Our present-day sugar cravings can most likely be attributed to the once rare and valuable status of sugar. Loading up when one could was wise, because there was no guarantee when the next opportunity would arise. However nowadays sugar has been added to almost everything in rather generous proportions, as evidenced by the equally generous proportion of many waistlines. We as a species have become fat and lazy, when compared with our ancestors, who would (in some cases, literally) make a meal of us.

The punishment and justice system can be explained by looking into our evolutionary past. Suppose (in cave man days) I wanted to have the lice removed from my hair, this is a task I would need someone else to do, before the days of shampoo or running water. I offer to return the favour in exchange, now I have to be rather selective about my business partner. Say I was willing to help just anyone, there would of course be some who would not hold up their end of the bargain. I would be greatly benefitted if I could learn to distinguish the honest members of society from the dishonest one’s. I will be likely to strengthen my links with the honest members and begin to trust them. The dishonest one’s will begin to be shunned by others and even ostracized. Notions of right and wrong could have developed from this. Those who refused to do right may have faced some sort of retribution or punishment for their wrongdoings (Singer, 2005).

A particularly fascinating argument in favour of certain innate tendencies is the study of identical twins. Many psychologists have strongly supported the view that human beings are born as relative blank slates with no hard wired tendencies or personality traits. However when studying the psychology of identical twins who were separated from one another and raised in separate families, it becomes quite clear that this is not the case. These twins will more often than not share many traits such as IQ, neuroticism and introversion. Mathematical and language abilities are often similar. Even opinions on philosophical and political opinions can be held in common. They share similar interests in careers, tend toward certain religious beliefs and may be absorbed by the same vices. Behavioural quirks like entering the water backwards, obsessively counting everything and flushing the toilet before and after use have also been found in common (Pinker, 1997). These tendencies just don’t make sense in the light of blank slate theory, there simply must be some pre-programmed code for how to live one’s life.

One of the major challenges of evolutionary psychology is that it is very hard to ever prove that certain mental processes and behaviours are evolved from a specific ancestral selective pressure. It is a process of engineering in reverse which is complex and difficult to explain. The premise of evolutionary psychology seems to be simultaneously unprovable and inescapable. Nothing else would make more sense, yet the difficulty associated with finding empirical evidence to support the claim leaves one questioning it. It seems that the discipline is somewhat more of a philosophical claim than a scientific claim as it rests on the validity of sound and logical argument rather than surviving rigorous scientific testing. This problem certainly should not delegitimize Evolutionary Psychology, but rather force it to look for new approaches to solving the mysteries of human behaviour. The animal kingdom can be looked at, if we can find similarities between the behaviour of chimpanzees and human beings, then we can say with more confidence that our minds are an evolved faculty. Modern chimpanzees are the closest living relatives that we have, in fact we share 99% of the same DNA as them. So it is not unreasonable to assume that modern man once resembled something rather like a chimpanzee. It is well established that humans and chimps have quite a lot in common both mentally and physically: social grouping, affection, communication, ability to walk upright and use of tools. This a brief and simple summary of some of the many similarities.

Now the task for the Evolutionary Psychologist is to set out why these traits have been selected for. What is the functional mechanism behind a mind that does these things? Social grouping and affection are most likely a result of reciprocal altruism. Many of the apparently altruistic actions undertaken by animals can often be traced back to a point where the action although seeming altruistic is actually still ‘selfish’ in the sense that it is benefitting the individual who is doing the act (the genes of the individual) (Dawkins, 1976). This premise, if true, leads quite logically to the creation of social groups whereby multiple individuals help one another to do various tasks. It may seem like these acts are altruistic or for the good of the species/group but this is not the case. These acts are very much for the sole benefit and survival of the genes of each individual. The many forms of society that humans have created today almost certainly owe their origins to this reciprocally altruistic behaviour in the early days of our ancestors existence.

A common argument against is to claim that a Darwinian world is not the type of world that humans live in, nor is it the type of world that any rational human would want to live in. This is a true statement however to use it as an argument against evolutionary psychology, is to misunderstand what evolutionary psychology is saying. It is not claiming that we live in a survival of the fittest kind of world. It is simply stating that our minds have been shaped by ancestral selective pressures. It is quite clear that humanity has manufactured a world in which many of the pressures of our ancestral past have been removed.

The only major criteria for being a good explanation, that Evolutionary Psychology falls short on, is that of falsifiability and it seems that this is the major area of criticism of the theory. Given the reverse nature of the theory it is true that definitive answers are difficult to reach. The recent rapid increases in technology and expanding knowledge of neuropsychology is enabling scientists to accurately map various firings of neurons and the subsequent behaviours and thoughts. This is a step towards achieving empirical evidence and thus enabling the theory to be falsifiable. One of the significant findings in recent times is that decisions are made in the mind before humans are consciously aware of them. This has been done through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), and it found that decisions are made by the brain up to a full 7-10 seconds before the person was consciously aware that they were making the decision (Haynes, 2011). These results, among others, support the claim that free will is an illusion. Meaning that people are not actually in control of every decision that they make, rather the brain makes the decision and then the conscious awareness of the person catches up and goes ahead believing that it is making the decision (Harris, 2010). This has something of the elephant and the rider proposed by Haidt. From this, a logical conclusion to draw is that there is some innate element to the human mind, controlling how we think, feel and behave.

Evolutionary psychology provides the only working explanation for the nature of human minds. At its core, it rests solely on the back of the most powerful and comprehensive scientific theory, that proposed by Darwin. The theory requires no postulating of other entities and thus fares very well with Ockham’s razor.  Other theories such as culture and learning, although convincing at first, simply fall back to an evolutionary basis once examined. Our ability to learn comes from our innate tendencies which have been programmed by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution by natural selection. It is this same process that created the culture that we now live in. It may be true that culture plays a role in shaping minds, but the origins of culture are surely evolutionary processes designed to make things easier for our survival machines to propagate those selfish genes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford University Press, pp.1-48.

Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp.187-229.

Harris, S. (2010). Free Will. New York: Free Press, pp.1-5.

Haynes, J. (2011). Decoding and predicting intentions. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1224(1), pp.9-21.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W W Norton, pp.1-58.

Raven, P. and Johnson, G. (1986). Biology. St. Louis: Times Mirror/Mosby College Publishing, pp.367-374.

Singer, P. (2005). Ethics and Intuitions. J Ethics, 9(3-4), pp.331-352.

“My brain made me do it”: Is moral responsibility compatible with the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive science?

The topic of whether moral responsibility is compatible with the latest cognitive science and neuroscience is in essence a question of free will. Moral responsibility is defined as the status of deserving praise or blame for ones actions. The premise of moral agents being responsible for their actions and thus held accountable in the judicial system, is underpinned by the assumption that we are autonomous beings capable of deciding our next action at every stage of our lives. It is interesting to note that, this is not entirely true, given that an old age person suffering dementia may not be held accountable in the same way as you or I. This also applies to younger people who are suffering various mental afflictions and quite famously just last year in the news. The son of the late Adelaide Football Club coach, Cy Walsh has attempted to plead insanity. His defence has been built around the notion that he was not freely controlling his actions and that it was his brain that made him stab his father in the chest in the early hours of that July morning. Can we really hold this man accountable for his actions if he is mentally insane? If not, then why should we hold anyone accountable for their actions, it may turn out that a mental disorder or brain tumour is just a special case of having ones brain wired incorrectly. We certainly have no responsibility for the wiring of our brains, or for that matter the genes that coded for our brains to be the way that they are or even the set of experiences that have shaped our personalities. This is the basis for the investigation of the whether we have free will. Suppose that it was to be discovered that Walsh, did in fact have mental problems, the wiring in his brain was not that of a normal person. Suppose that we were also to hear of his troubled upbringing. Does this begin to change our view of Walsh’s responsibility for his actions? I would think that for most of us, probably not. However it may subtly change the way we think about responsibility.

Cognitive Science

If the judicial system is to allow murderers such as the one mentioned above, a free pass on the basis that they are not morally responsible for their actions, then surely this will open up the flood gates. More and more convicted felons will claim that it is the unfortunate combination of genetics and experience that lead to their actions. This claim must be dealt with in a rigorous manner, and if it does turn out to be a valid one, where do we go from there?

From the beginning, the notion of free will typically entails that one may freely choose what they want. They can act on their desires and beliefs and are completely free to change their mind on any issue. Not in the completely common sense that a person is free to vote for whichever party they want and not even in the sense that I am free to write this essay on whichever topic I like. No, the traditional arguments in favour of free will go further and suggest firstly that one actively and consciously decides upon every aspect of one’s life, from getting up, to sitting down, to getting a glass of water and so on. Second, the argument would allow for someone to, if given the chance, make a different decision to that which one had already made.

We will address the actively deciding argument first. Now for this to be true, one would need to actively and consciously weigh up options, any competing possibilities before choosing to act. Say I decide to get up, which foot do I put down first ? And in what precise location to I place it ? Who knows, I have no idea why it was my left foot and why it was placed in the way it was, I ‘chose’ to do these things quite subconsciously. The actions were entirely the result of the way in which my brain is and because of my learned experiences. Am I truly responsible for having moved my left foot first and placing it in that exact location ? Of course not, and on any other given day, I may do it quite differently, I am in no position to know why. For a person to actively decide upon such things would require an unconscionable amount of decision weighing, based upon all consequences and previously held beliefs about the way the world is. We just don’t do all that, instead we are far more close to being on autopilot than we realise. If we can’t even justify why we did this particular action? In what way is it our ‘choice’?

The same can be said for our thoughts. Do we actively author our own thoughts? If so, then why do we get stuck on thoughts of misery or anger. We could just choose not to think them. Depression would be cured in an instant if we were able to control our thoughts. Addictions like smoking and alcoholism would be a piece of cake. The smoker could just choose not to crave a cigarette, in fact he could have chosen to never be tempted in the first place. If we wanted to achieve all of our goals, whether they be mental, physical or academic, then we would just achieve them. Nothing could stand in the way. But the reality is that we are trapped within our brains, they deliver our conscious experience of the world to us and instil in us the sensation of I. The sensation that we are the pilot, not merely a passenger along for the ride.

Compatibailists such as Dennett claim that a loss of belief in free will would lead to resignation and apathy, here, he is missing the point. To be resigned and apathetic is in itself a choice made by the brain. So the notion that one should just sit back and do nothing, merely waiting for something to happen is a deluded one. For this is a choice. A loss of free will need not resign people to just do whatever, but to continue along with life as normal. Allowing the brain free pass to think and decide upon things. And surely the best way to allow the internal processes of the brain to reach the best conclusion, is to have an honest understanding of how they work.

Another argument against the acceptance that free will is an illusion is to say that, supposing free will is an illusion, what’s the point of living? If we don’t have free will then isn’t everything determined and utterly predictable? Luckily there is a simple antidote to this, the brain is vastly complex. The possible patterns of neuronal firing is an unfathomably large number and combine this with all of the other brains that you interact with an are influenced by, there really is no predictability at all (Eagleman, 2015).

Intentions cause actions, but where do intentions come from. Do we intend to intend or do we just intend. To say that we have free will is to assert that we intend to intend, but then what makes us intend to intend to intend. This is a nonsense regression which could go on forever, but it is the responsibility of the argument in favour of free will to defend it. The importance of one doing what one intends remains the same; however we need not be under any illusion of where the intentions come from.

“In physical terms, we know that human action is brought about by impersonal events occurring inside the body” (Harris, 2012). We do not consciously control the transcriptions of our genes, neurotransmitters fire of their own volition, muscle fibres contract and an assassin pulls the trigger. If we are to retain our common view of free will, then these actions require us to posit the introduction of some other entity in control of these prior causes. This is what we call “I”, the sensation that we are the author of all of our thoughts and desires.

 

Neuroscience

Benjamin Libet has used EEG to test the activity in the brain prior to an action being performed by a patient. The research found that the motor cortex lights up around 300 milliseconds before an action is performed (Libet, 1985). Here we have clear cut, empirical evidence that the brain decided upon actions prior to them being carried out.

The Compatibilist would step in here and say that this is congruent with free will. The action was caused by events in the motor cortex which is part of the persons brain. They accept this to be true, but will claim that the person authored the actions of their brain. This of course begs the question of what caused the actions in the brain to happen.

However surely the Compatibilist loses out when we look at the extension of this study where it was discovered that the intention to do something arises subconsciously as well. The extension was using fMRI to monitor activity in the brain regarding a decision between two alternative buttons. The researchers found information regarding the decision that participants would make 7-10 seconds before they became consciously aware of the decision. How can this decision truly be made by the participant if they are completely unaware of it. The decision is made by the brain as a result of prior background causes that the participant had no say over. The ‘decision’ then came to the participant 7-10 seconds later and the participant became aware of it (Haynes, 2011). They are under the illusion that they freely authored the thought even thought it was the result of causes that they had no control over. In what way is this free will?

Nahmias refutes the claims by Libet, saying that the actions in the brain detected prior to the patient moving, are simply a desire to move soon. In other words, there may be a mechanism designed to delay the movement from the onset of the activity in the motor cortex (Nahmias, 2012). However this rejection is strained when the later work done with fMRI shows that the decision was made prior to the patient becoming aware of it. And as Harris points out, even if this is the case and the neuron firings in the brain responsible for the decision occur in time with the feeling of making the decision, we still have no answer as to why the neurons fired in the first place. Surely we have no more control of the internal neuronal movements and patterns than we do over the beating of our heart.

“You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” Harris 2012, points out that the issue is an infinite regress. Although it is true that we will in the end do what we decide to do, it is impossible to know where the decision to decide comes from. This does in essence remove the notion of moral responsibility in the sense that we hold people accountable for their actions. This however does not mean we shouldn’t lock up criminals, attempt to rehabilitate them and hope to deter other would be criminals from acting.

 

Is a person free to choose that which did not occur to them? If I asked you to think of a country, you would immediately have names start popping in. Australia, New Zealand, China, etc… But why was it these countries (or whichever one’s you thought of) that came into your mind, perhaps you had recently heard about one, maybe it was in the news. Is this controlled by you? No, these are events completely out of your control. Maybe you were weighing up between two countries and went with the preferred country; here we have the most heightened sensation of having free will. But why did you end up choosing the country that you picked. You are in no position to know this, maybe you can come up with a story, as suggested above from the news. Even this, why did you remember the story, why did it sway you to choose the country? Again, we find the regress. A person can’t choose to choose.

 

‘You are free to do as you please as long as you like what you do’. The Compatibilist rejection of arguments against free will in essence asserts that as long as the person is happy enough with the things that they are doing, then it must be of their own free will. This does not redeem any sense of free will, it rather just skirts around the issue.

Conclusion

“My brain made me do it”, has issues extending far into the law and order system and the ways in which justice is dealt .I propose a level playing field. Accept free will as an illusion and all people can be punished on the merits of their crimes. Either everyone has it, or no one has it. This is the fairest way forward. How can one man be deemed insane enough to not be responsible for his actions, where another man who is slightly less insane be made to face the consequences. Who decides upon such matters, and how do we know that we are getting consistency. The arguments presented here, lead me to think that a man like Cy Walsh has no more (or less) control over his actions than a person with a brain tumour affecting the decision making part of the brain or for that matter any other human being. The difference is that Walsh has the brain and personality of a violent murderer, can we blame him for this? No, and the corollary is that we can’t truly take credit for us not being like him. It turns out that we are in some sense, simply lucky to have been dealt the cards that we have. The combination of genes and experiences that make us good people, could very easily have been sufficiently different to make us psychopaths. Removing the blame from Walsh, allows us to see clearly the path of a just sentence. This man should not be excused of his actions, and neither should any other. All men should be treated equal in the courts and sentenced to the appropriate degree for the crimes which they have committed. Free will is an illusion and the concept of moral responsibility, as it is generally understood, is incompatible with the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive science.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Dennett, D. (1984). Elbow room. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The Brain: The story of you. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.

Harris, S. (2010). Free Will. New York: Free Press, pp.1-5.

Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(04), p.529.

Nahmias, E. (2012). Free will and responsibility. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 3(4), pp.439-449.

Adelaidenow.com.au. (2015). Phil Walsh murder: What next for ‘mentally incompetent’ son?. [online] Available at: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/phil-walsh-murder-case-will-following-longstanding-sa-court-process-on-mental-illness-cases-says-sean-fewster/news-story/a9c416571aebe67202631dc307c1d3f1 [Accessed 17 Jun. 2016].

 

 

Terrorism & Religion: What if they are connected ?

 

Terrorism is and will continue to be morally permitted in our society, so long as it is cloaked by religion. We don’t question religion nearly enough and it is given the same privilege and respect as race. What if religion really is a major contributing factor to terrorism? Our governments and our politically correct society will never reach this conclusion, while religion is given the same level of respect as race, skin colour, gender, ethnicity and sexual preference. The difference between religion and these other things is choice. Religion is a choice. The others are not. It may argued that in a lot of cases, religion isn’t a choice, this is quite true and surely only strengthens my claim that it deserves ridicule. We need an open an honest discussion to be carried out by world leaders on the role that religion plays in justifying terrorism. “There is a direct link between the doctrines of religion and religious terrorism. Acknowledging this link remains especially taboo among political liberals” (Harris, 2005). Until the day that this truly ceases to be taboo, we will be morally permitting terrorism.

 

The word terrorism has proved a difficult word to define, however for our purposes we will simply say that it is the use of violence or fear in the pursuit of enforcing an idea. Terrorism, by that exact definition is carried out on a daily basis by people who aren’t even aware of it. Consider this statement from a mother to her young child, “You have to do the right thing or else God will find out and you will end up in hell away from mummy and daddy”. At first glance it seems innocent enough, perhaps even good, after all she is trying to teach the young child to be good and do the right thing. However the invoking of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent being onto the mind of an innocent child and have the child think that he must obey, is a dreadful thing to do as we shall see in more detail later on. I intend to argue that this seemingly harmless act is in itself a form of terrorism and that sadly it paves the way for the horrendous acts we all think of when we here about terrorism.

 

In theory “Terrorism [is] immoral wherever and whenever it is used” (Coady 1985, p. 58). It is wrong if the US do it and it is wrong if IS do it. It should never be used as a means for gaining anything and it is surely does more harm than good. Even if the driving force or motive for it is generally considered to be good, it still falls short. There simply must be a better way to promote one’s idea. The issue I am raising however is not with the theory of terrorism, but with the practice of it. Our world can and does condemn many things in theory, but in practice it allows them on a daily basis. Smoking is condemned as bad for health by the majority of health professionals, politicians and everyday citizens. However it is perfectly fine to walk down the street puffing away. It can’t be made illegal because the governments of the world make enormous revenue from the taxing of cigarettes. My view is that terrorism is analogous with smoking and respect and tolerance for religion is analogous with the revenue. As it stands today, any government that tried to illegalize religion would become very unpopular and fail. The same could be said if smoking was made illegal. So it can be seen that there is a distinct difference between the theory and practice of something. I am putting forward the idea that by showing religion the unequivocal respect it has, we are morally justifying terrorism in the name of religion.

 

The almost complete lack of proper criticism and questioning of some of the central tenets of all religious faith, is endorsement on any possible connection that they have with terrorism. It is not adequate to simply say that terrorism is unjust, immoral and always wrong, but then on the other hand fail to consider one of the possible causes. By ignoring this possible connection, progressive action on the matter is impossible. Nothing can be done about it, so it is given the moral green light.

 

The task now is to draw the connection between religion and terrorism. I intend to argue that all three Abrahamic religions justify terrorism. An analysis of the Bible and the Koran is the best place to start. These texts are the most recognised sources of religious inspiration in the world.

 

“See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). This is surely a direct command to not cherry pick.

 

“If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)

 

This is obviously not something you would expect to hear on a Sunday morning in church and most would be fast to argue that no Christian or Jew really thinks that. This is the problem, even mentioning a passage like this would be considered bigotry. But hang on, this is in the Bible. If you follow the version of Christianity that suggests that the bible is the literal word of your God (like 50% of the people in the US do), the ever watching, all powerful and all knowing creator of the universe. Then surely there is very good reason to take this seriously, after all it might help you or your family get into heaven. Now it only takes a very small proportion of people to take this message literally and use it to do horrendous and terrible acts. The very basis of the passage above is, the use of fear to turn people away from believing in other gods. This is terrorism. So a devout bible literalist armed with a quote like this and the knowledge that billions of people worship other Gods is surely a recipe for a disaster. The sad reality is that passages like the one above can readily be found in both the Bible and the Koran. They incite terrorism and they are accepted by Religions all over the world. It may be a minority that actually interpret their religion literally to the point of terror, but it is a majority that refuse to acknowledge this fact.

 

The main theme of all religion is the notion of faith. Faith is the complete confidence and trust in something without any evidence or proof. Faith is actually a virtuous quality for one to have if religious.

 

“Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” John 20:29

 

This is a very dangerous theme. Belief in something without reason and in most cases ignorance of reason can surely lead a person to do almost anything in the name of God. “Once a person believes – really believes – that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one” (Harris, 2004).

 

Now throw in the promise of eternal happiness in the afterlife and we have reached a position where it would be strange not to believe in some religion or another. This is most likely one of the main reasons most people do believe. The issue arises, as Harris points out, that when a person believes that the lack of uniformity of beliefs of others compared with his own, is detrimental to his ascension to heaven, he would surely do anything to rectify this lack of uniformity. This is a scary thought without even mentioning the notion of martyrdom.

 

“The believers who stay at home—apart from those that suffer from a grave impediment—are not the equal of those who fight for the cause of God with their goods and their persons. God has given those that fight with their goods and their persons a higher rank than those who stay at home. God has promised all a good reward; but far richer is the recompense of those who fight for Him…. He that leaves his dwelling to fight for God and His apostle and is then overtaken by death, shall be rewarded by God. . . . The unbelievers are your inveterate enemies.” (Koran 4:95-101)

 

Here we have an open invitation to war, terrorism and martyrdom. It even goes so far as to say that those who don’t fight are considered less in the eyes of God. A person reading the Koran as though it were the literal word of God, would surely have no qualms about taking the lives of those who don’t believe in its message or supposed author. Aside from not feeling bad about this, the reader would likely feel as though they were the most loyal follower possible.

 

Why do the vast majority of people on this planet fail to see the connection between religion and terrorism and how many more lives must be lost before their ignorance is lifted? Until this happens terrorism will be permitted in practice and by morality.

 

Why are you focusing on only one part of terrorism, don’t lots of people do bad things without religion? Yes, they do. My reason for focussing on this one is because it is the one that is rarely discussed. Politicians readily point to politics or some extreme ideology as the cause or motive. They often, even go so far as to say that it had nothing to do with religion. They instead point to the terrorism as hijacking the religion. The only hijacking terrorism is usually involved in, generally comes before the term ‘of planes’. Yes, it may be a different interpretation of scripture to what most people follow, but it is an interpretation of scripture nonetheless. These terrorist organisations are religious organisations as well. The members are perhaps even more devout members of their religion than the moderates who have to cherry pick their way through the Bible or the Koran. Say that, just for instance religion does actually play a role in terrorism. One that could possibly be remedied by widespread thought and contemplation and awareness raising and honesty encouragement. Say that were the case, now what would be the chances of a government or society reaching that conclusion if no one is allowed to talk about it for fear of being labelled a bigot.

 

Australia’s own, Peter Singer, weighed in on the need for open and honest discussion with the use of evidence on the connection between religion and terrorism:

 

“To demonstrate that it is wrong to associate Islam with terrorism, the OIC might begin to compile statistics on the religious affiliations of those who engage in terrorism. By contrast, suppressing the freedom of speech of Islam’s critics merely gives rise to the suspicion that evidence and sound argument cannot show their arguments to be mistaken” (Singer, 2009).

 

To label my work as hate speech or bigotry would only support my conclusion more. So long as we live in a society where religion is not open to reasonable and fair criticisms just like all other matters of choice or preference, we will be morally permitting terrorism.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Coady, C. (1985). The Morality of Terrorism. Philosophy, 60, p.58.

Harris, S. (2005). Bombing our Illusions. [online] The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/bombing-our-illusions_b_8615.html?ir=Australia [Accessed 28 Oct. 2015].

Harris, S. (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: Simon & Schuster UK Limited, p .All Pages.

Singer, P. (2009). To defame religion is a human right. The Guardian, [online] p.-. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/apr/15/religion-islam-atheism-defamation [Accessed 11 Nov. 2015].

Various, (Unknown). The Bible. Bible Gateway.

Various, (Unknown). The Koran.

 

Poverty: It’s up to us.

Those who are suffering desperate poverty both overseas and in our own backyard desperately need the help of those of us in considerably better positions.  I intend to argue that we are morally obligated to do as much as we can to help them without reducing ourselves to a similar position. I hope to show that it is clear that whatever you would be willing to sacrifice in the following scenario you should be able and willing to sacrifice at least that much to help those people who really do need our help. The best form of support for this simple claim is to work through the arguments against it and demonstrate that they are either invalid or immoral.  If you would choose to save a child in the scenario that I am about to set up, then I argue that you should give up a comparable amount to help those in desperate poverty.

 

You have prepaid for and booked tickets to see a movie, show, presentation or maybe a talk by your favourite philosopher who is in town just once. It’s a pretty high roller type do and tickets were $700. The last train leaves in 10 minutes and you’ve just set off from your house to the station. It’s too late to arrange other transport and it’s too far to walk. If you aren’t on that train, you aren’t seeing the show. The tickets even clearly state “No late entry permitted.” Two minutes from the station you look over and there it is. It is a young child laying face down in a pond, apparently unconscious. As a reasonable and logical person you can assume that the child will die if they are not helped. No one else is around. Saving this child is up to you and will take at least 10 minutes, by the time you’ve rushed over, picked them up and carried them to dry ground, administered whatever first aid you can, called the emergency services and waited for assistance. Saving this child’s life is surely a good enough thing to do, to warrant foregoing your ticket. So if you accept that you are morally obliged to save this child, then you ought to accept that you should be morally obliged to give a comparable amount to help benefit the many children living in poverty (Singer 1972).

 

The fact of the matter is that not everyone does sacrifice things to help those suffering, in fact many don’t. Now as well as arguing that you should give, I think it is worth while considering why people don’t give and assessing whether these reasons are valid. I’ll start with the most obvious and powerful reason. We are wired to care more about ourselves than others. This is perfectly natural and the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection, in simple terms it can be stated that an individual who cared more or even equally about the wellbeing of others would by definition be less likely to survive and reproduce thus this trait doesn’t get passed on. This is a fair explanation for human greed. The biggest argument against this claim would be that people do actually care about others and they do make sacrifices to help those in need. The best response to this argument that I can think of is a tad controversial, I suggest that helping others both feels good and sometimes leads those that you are caring for to be more caring of you. So the reason for caring for others is to both make ourselves feel better and in the hope that they will return the favour. I think the point about feeling better could be harnessed and I will pose a practical use for it later. Donating money to those in poverty, although it may feel good probably won’t be of any real benefit to the person donating. So if we accept all of this, we get a reasonable explanation for why people don’t give that much away. As I said before this is wired in and possibly can’t be overcome, instead we have to appeal to people’s warm fuzzy fulfilment feelings when they give to others.

 

The principle of beneficence applies here as it does to all good moral ideas. We must promote to some degree the well being of others (Morauta, 2015), this is after all what our world is based upon. The goodness of helping them surely outweighs the badness of making ourselves slightly worse off. If this line of thought was not followed and widely agreed upon, it could be hypothesised that we would be no different to animals and perhaps even less moral than some of them. So this principle must apply to those who are suffering desperately from poverty.

 

This problem not only desperately needs our full attention, it needs it right now. We just don’t have time to be going back and forth with arguments on either side trying to justify our greed. Say you were standing on a train a track and noticed a train come around a bend full steam ahead at you, would you stop to debate whether you are morally required to get out of the way ? I would think not, instead you’d just jump. We need to jump on this and the time is now.

 

I will now provide the objections to the claim, that you should sacrifice an equivalent amount in the pond case and helping those in poverty, and seek to diminish their relevancy and validity. The first objection to this is to say that you are not morally required to help those in poverty because everyone and anyone else could do it but they aren’t so why should I. This is analogous to the bystander effect and is possibly a reason for why we don’t make sacrifices, but it is certainly not a valid argument for why we shouldn’t or even don’t need to. Say we modify the pond case to now include a group of 20 people walking by and seeing the child laying face down in the pond. If each of these 20 people is now not morally obligated to save the child, they might just walk past and let the child die. “One has only to ask this question (is it okay to let the child drown if there are other people around) to see the absurdity of the view that numbers lessen obligation” (Singer 1972). To claim that because others could help therefore I don’t have to, is condemning those in poverty to an almost certain death by famine. If everyone embraced this line of thought, then nothing would ever get done.

 

The next argument against that needs dealing with is the argument of distance. Firstly it is clear that given the technology of today it is just as easy to save the child in the pond case as it to help those on the other side of the world (Singer 1972). People will claim that the pond case is different though, in that the drowning child is right there in front of you, but the poverty is on the other side of the world. The problem isn’t within your immediate reach or screaming out (figuratively) for your attention as much as the drowning child is. This is (possibly) quite a reasonable explanation as to why we don’t generally give as much to those suffering poverty as we would to the effort of saving the child, it is however morally untenable to argue that this absolves us of our duty to help these people. It may be that this isn’t even a great explanation for why we don’t help, given that we regularly walk past homeless people suffering poverty in our cities and ignore people collecting for overseas poverty. It is probably true that we are in a better position to help the child right in front of us, as we can better judge what they need, but even so it is not logical to suggest that the child right in front of us is more worthy of our help. If we accept that all people should be treated equal then it is obvious that those people who are overseas cannot be placed at a disadvantage purely because they are far away from us.

 

It could be argued that the pond case is quite different to those suffering poverty in that the child will surely drown if not helped, but maybe those suffering poverty may not be as tied to the same fate. This argument requires a lack of understanding for the severity of the issue, the truth of the matter is that in many countries the poverty is so severe that it leads to widespread famine and malnutrition. Make no mistake about it; there are many people who without our help will die.

 

It can be pointed out that we are treating the symptom not the cause by putting our efforts into poverty. Perhaps this is a good point and the bigger problem is the lack of population control present in some parts of the world. Even so we can look at stopping poverty as the short term solution and finding a sustainable way to control population is long term solution (Singer, 1972).

 

As mentioned earlier I will now propose a simple but practical way of increasing the sacrifices made to help those in desperate poverty. Say an organisation was to publicly advertise all charitable donations made by the big companies like BP, Wesfarmers, etc. Would it not make these companies look better in the public’s eye, thus enabling them greater selling power and it would not seem like they were blowing their own trumpet as the organisation proposed is neutral and not for profit. They would be incentivised to give away more of their enormous wealth and those in poverty might suffer just a little less.

 

Back to the drowning child scenario, so you’ll forego the philosophy ticket to save the child. Will you forego $700 to help those in desperate poverty ? I suspect that some of you would and know that some of you do, but would you give on more than one occasion ? Would you give every time you were to hear of the plight of those in desperate poverty ? I would now say that most of you probably don’t go to this extent, after all how could you, we need to keep some for our self. So by that logic, you wouldn’t be required to continue saving the drowning child in subsequent cases. If we accept this line of morality we aren’t required to forego our ticket to save the child more than once, which is surely absurd. I submit that you are morally required to continue to save that child, ticket included, until the fat cow comes home singing. If we accept this line of thinking then we not only conclude that you ought to make a morally equivalent sacrifice to help those in desperate poverty, you ought morally do it whenever it presents itself.

 

If we are considered equal then should it not be assumed that we all deserve the same access to basic human rights like food, water, a home, security, information, education and freedom? This point is surely very easy to accept and the resulting conclusion is that it’s up to us to ensure that all people do have access to these things. No one else is going to do it.

 

 

 

References

Singer, P. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Philosophy and Public

Affairs 1 (1972), pp. 229-243.

 

ISIL, Terror, Islamism and Waleed Aly

A letter to Mr. Waleed Aly and his many followers,
I find myself in a minority on two fronts:
1) I did not share your speech on Facebook.
2) I don’t agree with everything in it.

Playing the role of Devil’s Advocate I will raise my objections. First, regardless of whether ISIL are strong or weak and regardless of whether they are directly responsible for the Paris attacks, we still have a problem and it is not Pauline Hanson as you are suggesting. I believe it to be ‘Militant Islamism’ or the proposed spread of a certain brand of Islam. Those who seek to spread this are making things very difficult for the many Australians who are blaming their Muslim fellow nationals. This is a mistake. It is also a mistake to label those who are doing the blaming as the cause. The cause is a dangerous interpretation of the Koran, among other things. It is becoming all too familiar to hear the chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great), as non-conformists are murdered on mass, basically every day.
If when you are asking for no more hate, you are referring to things like “Fuck of Muslims, we don’t want you in Australia”, then I wholeheartedly agree. I am not advocating Reclaim Australia or White Australia or any form of racism. I am advocating the opinions that I hope will one day lead to the coming of fruition of John Lennon’s great words, imagine there’s no heaven, no hell beneath us, all the people living for the day and no religion too. I realise that this is a very long way from happening. However it is on its way and part of the work being done is by Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, among others who are trying to bring about a reform of Islam. This social movement can truly lift Islam completely out of the barbarisms of the Middle East. A world with no ISIL. This would be a great thing for all good Muslims, and yes the majority are good.
However if you are seeking to sensor any opinion contrary to “Islam is a Religion of Peace” and “Islam has no problems and should under no circumstances be questioned or criticised”, then we have a problem. We have a wall put up, which insulates Islam from criticism and renders any reformation impossible. This reformation cannot be achieved by any person of non-Muslim background. It has to come from within Islam. People like Waleed are vital in achieving this truly peaceful and modern Islam. Waleed’s refusal to acknowledge this problem is sadly either ignorant or a lie.
I’ll let Mr Bean summarise for those who refuse to read:bean