Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why don’t Ex-Muslims go public?

_Why don’t Ex-Muslims go public?_

There are many reasons Ex-Muslims have for not going public. For some, they fear retaliation because Islam instructs Muslims to kill apostates. For others, they are concerned that Muslims in their communities will gossip about them. And for some it’s about wanting to teach their kids morals while believing that religion is the only way to teach morality. I’ll explain why these last two ideas are wrong, and how they are both caused by a more general problem that applies to all people, not just Ex-Muslims.

Caring what others think

The first idea is about caring what other people think of you. It’s something people learn during childhood. It’s ironic because as parents we tell our kids not to care what other kids think of them, and we do this to persuade them to say ‘no’ to peer pressure.

So clearly we know this principle that it’s wrong to make decisions based on what others think. So why do these same parents still care what others think of them? With respect to Ex-Muslims, they care about what Muslims in the community are going to say about them. Why is there this inconsistency in their thinking?

The answer lies in the fact that, like everybody else, they have conflicting ideas about lots of things in their lives. But surely a lot of people notice the inconsistencies in their thinking so why don’t they fix them? Well, it’s because it’s not so straightforward because we aren't aware of many of our ideas, i.e. we know them subconsciously. How could this be? To know this we have to know how people learn ideas.

How people learn ideas

We learn ideas mostly from society (which includes our parents). We also learn ideas on our own using our own creativity. As for the ideas learned from society, a lot of these ideas are learned subconsciously, and are also taught subconsciously. To illustrate this, consider that a lot of people dress up nice when they go out for dinner; it’s a social norm. Their kids see this and what do they learn? That it’s important to look a certain way so that other people think about you in a certain way. Now some parents will deny this stating that they want to look good for themselves not for others. But what they explicitly say doesn’t matter. What matters is that kids learn ideas using their own creativity and the details of the situation they are presented with. So let's say for example that mom asks dad how she looks in her dress. She is expressing that she cares what others think of how she looks. And say dad says that the women are going to be envious of her, and that all the guys jaws are going to drop. He is expressing what he thinks those other people are going to be thinking. So that’s what most kids learn, to be concerned with what others will think of them.

So the parent teaches an idea while not being aware that he’s teaching it -- i.e. subconsciously -- and the kid learned that idea while not being aware that he learned it -- i.e. subconsciously. And these ideas exist subconsciously in the kid’s mind and they pervade a lot of his thinking without him being aware of it. And then he does the same with his kids, and the cycle continues. This is a serious problem so how can this be stopped?

The answer lies in the difference between people that care what others think and those that don’t. What’s the difference between them? Well, society has an answer. They label the latter group as “asocial”. This label carries with it a negative connotation, that there is something ‘wrong’ with them, and kids pick up on this. What is the implication? It’s that if you don’t follow society, then you are living immorally.

Asocial behavior is living immorally?

Notice that this idea presupposes that society is always right. But it’s common knowledge that there are many things wrong in society, in society’s social norms, for example Islam. In Islamic communities, the social norm is to believe in Islam. So this raises the question: Is it wrong to ‘break away from societies’ norms when you think society is wrong about a specific idea’? Of course not! So this contradicts the previous idea that ‘breaking away from society is living immorally’. And since these two ideas contradict each other, only one of them could be true. So which one is it? Well, one of them hinges on a falsehood while the other doesn’t, which is that society is always right. Now you decide. You judge for yourself, which idea is the right one?

So why is it that some kids do what they think is right even if it goes against society? It boils down to how people judge ideas. Most people do it by popularity. But this is the wrong way to approach ideas. A good example is this in history is of the ancient view that the Earth was flat. When the first guy started saying that the Earth was round, should people have judged his idea to be false because it wasn’t the popular view? Of course not! So judging ideas by popularity is false logic. That means you should never, under any circumstances, judge ideas by popularity. Truth cannot be determined by popularity contests.

How should a person judge ideas?

So how should a person judge ideas?  Should he judge by authority – like his parents, or teachers, or religious or political leaders? Well they are often mistaken like society is often mistaken. So judging ideas by authority is wrong too. But what about judging ideas by science? Doesn’t science have the answers? Even science is mistaken sometimes, actually often. For example, Einstein’s theory of gravity showed that Newton’s theory of gravity was false. Newton’s theory *approximately* (i.e. contains some error) works in some situations and it is completely wrong in other situations (where objects are moving near to the speed of light).

And there are many other instances in history where science was found to be wrong. This is why science uses the term ‘theory’ instead of ‘fact’. We don’t say Einstein’s Fact of Gravity. Why? Because we know that there is the possibility that in the future someone will show that it’s false. Einstein was wrong about Quantum Mechanics. And the early Quantum Mechanics theorists were found to be wrong by Everett about the implications of Quantum Mechanics on reality, which is that the Universe is actually a Multiverse.

The right way to judge ideas is the focus of epistemology, which is the study of how knowledge is created.

Ever since Aristotle created his epistemology, which is now known as Justified True Belief (JTB), philosophers and society in general have been using it to judge ideas as true or false. This theory claims that it is possible to know absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, that an idea is true. And if it’s not known to be true, then it’s not knowledge. Sound promising? Well in the mid-20th century, Karl Popper showed that this theory is false.

Justified True Belief theory is false

Justified True Belief theory says that for an idea to be true, it must be justified by an underlying truth. So what about that underlying truth? How do we know that that underlying idea is true. Well we have to use the same logic, that the underlying idea must be justified by a truth. So how do we know that that underlying idea is true? Well we have to use the same logic again, that the underlying idea is justified by a truth. But where does this end? Well it doesn’t end because it can’t end. It runs infinitely. This is known as an (infinite) regress problem. And so this refutes the JTB theory. So Popper showed us that an idea cannot be labeled as the truth by justification. So we should not, under any circumstances, judge ideas by justification.

Interestingly, the vast majority of society uses Aristotle’s epistemology. You can see it in their reasoning when they have disagreements. They respond with statements like:

-        “Why should I believe you… what are your credentials that prove that you know what you’re talking about?”  Here the person is judging an idea by asking for justification by the authority of the other person’s credentials.

-        “My Daddy said so, so you’re wrong.”  Here the person judges an idea by justifying it by the authority of his father.

-        “I saw it with my own two eyes, so I know it’s true.”  Here the person judges his idea by justifying it by the authority of his senses.

-        “I know she wouldn’t cheat on me because she loves me and I love her.”  Here the person judges an idea by justifying it by the authority of his emotions.

-        “I know your idea is false because it contradicts my entire life’s worth of experiences and the experiences of everyone I know and everything I’ve ever known.” Here the person judges an idea by justifying it by the authority of his experience.

-        “I know it because I remember it so vividly.” Here the person judges an idea by justifying it by the authority of his memory and of his perceptions of his senses.

-        “I know Allah exists because the Quran proves it, because the Quran is absolutely perfect, and no other holy book has this quality of perfection.”  Here the person judges an idea by justifying it by the authority of Muslim scholars who claim that the Quran is perfect.

-        “I know Islam is right. How could a billion people be wrong?” Here the person judges an idea by justifying it by the authority of popularity.

All of these ideas use this false JTB logic about how to judge which ideas are true.

So how should we judge ideas? I already gave you the answer. I said to judge ideas for yourself, using your own reasoning. This is the only way that works, because it’s the only way that can correct errors. All the other ways of judging ideas causes you to adopt other people’s mistaken ideas with no possibility for correcting them. Will you be wrong sometimes? Of course! You’ll be wrong a lot. We are fallible beings. We can be mistaken about any one of our ideas. And from any one person’s perspective, everybody else can be mistaken about any of their ideas. So no one should judge an idea to be true just because other people believe it. Your parents could be mistaken. Your religion could be mistaken. Your doctor could be mistaken. Your perception of your senses, your emotions, your gut feelings, and your memory can be mistaken.

So each person should judge ideas using his own best judgment. How does this work? When he notices a problem in one or more of his ideas, then he can use his best judgment to try to correct it. A problem is a conflict between two ideas. It’s a problem because one of them must be mistaken. Actually, both of them could be mistaken but this doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can work towards solving the problem by judging that one or both of those ideas is false, again using your own best judgment.

How knowledge is created

So how does this work in practice? Popper explained that knowledge is created by guessing and criticizing. You guess an idea, and then anybody criticizes it, and then anybody criticizes those criticisms. And the guesses left uncriticized are considered the “truth”, for now. In the future, someone may come along with a new criticism of that “truth”, and the cycle continues. So, a “truth” is only an “idea” that I currently don’t have any criticisms of.

It’s important to note what I mean by “truth”. I mean ‘conjectural’ truth, which is distinct from objective truth. Conjectural truth comes from our guessing and criticizing. Objective truth exists independently of us humans. Our goal is to evolve our conjectural knowledge towards the objective knowledge. Step-by-step, as a society, and each one of us as individuals, are evolving our conjectural knowledge towards the objective knowledge.

So how do we know when we’ve reached it? How do we know when one of our conjectural truths has reached the status of objective truth? We don’t. We can’t. We cannot know which of our ideas is not mistaken. Any one of our ideas can be mistaken. So any one of our conjectural truths can be an objective truth, but we don’t know which ones. So, for example, it’s possible that our current moral theories about parenting are perfect, but we don’t know whether someone will come along in the future and find an error in it and correct the theory, or refute the whole theory altogether, similar to how the JTB theory was refuted altogether.

What are the implications of this? It means that all truths are on the table. All truths are open for criticism. That means we are open-minded about every one of our ideas. All of them are open for debate. No idea is protected from criticism.

Does this feel pessimistic – that we can’t know anything for sure? The reality is that we always have mistaken ideas. And these mistaken ideas cause us to make mistakes in our lives. These mistakes are life problems, which are the sources of our suffering. And by living a thoughtful and consistent life, by judging ideas for ourselves, we are able to correct mistaken ideas and reduce the total number of mistaken ideas over time. And what comes with that is making fewer mistakes in life, which means less suffering. So, with each correction of a mistaken idea, one becomes a better person. This is very optimistic!

Monopoly on morality?

This brings me to the other reason Ex-Muslims don’t go public. They believe that religion has a monopoly on morality. They think that there is no other way to teach morality to their kids. But that's just not true. Morality is just a set of moral ideas, ideas about good ways of living. And so, these ideas too have to be created and evolved in the same way we create any other ideas, by guesses and criticism – not by justification by the authority of God.

As an example, consider the Golden Rule. It’s a moral idea that Western society believes to be true, but that Islam hasn’t adopted. It says that we should do to others what we want them to do to us. But this idea is flawed because it presupposes that all people have the same preferences, and it’s common knowledge that people have different preferences. So, if you follow the Golden Rule, you could do something to someone that they didn’t want done to them, which causes suffering. This critical idea explains the flaw in the Golden Rule, which means there is a problem, a conflict of ideas. So what’s the solution?

We can create a new moral idea that uses part of the original idea and we can change the part that is problematic such that it is consistent with the new critical idea. So, the new moral idea is: Act towards others using common preferences, and be willing to find common preferences by rational discussion. With this idea, everyone gets what they want, so no one suffers. And suffering is what the Golden Rule is trying to address.

Now this does not mean that this new moral idea, called Common Preference Finding (CPF), was created by correcting a flaw in the Golden Rule. Ideas can be independently created by many different people from many different angles. For example, David Deutsch arrived at the idea of CPF by first understanding Popper’s theory of the growth of knowledge in science and in society. Then he realized that there is a deep underlying epistemological theory there (and he wasn’t the only one to realize this). He realized that this has implications for how the mind works, and hence for education. Then he applied the epistemology to a knowledge-creating entity consisting of two or more people, such as a family.

Today’s moral knowledge is far more advanced than religious morality. Our current best explanations about people, how they learn, how people should approach conflicts, and how people should live good lives in general, is only a few years old as it evolves continually. But Islamic morality is frozen in time, which was engraved in gold 1,400 years ago in the Qur'an, and stopped evolving since. Interestingly, Muslims say that one of the reasons we should believe it to be true is that it hasn’t ever changed, while other religions, like Christianity and Judaism, have changed over time. So, in the words of Muslims, Christian morality has been evolving with time while Islam never evolves. That is a minus on Islam, not a plus. How ironic!

So among the reasons Ex-Muslims use for not going public, there is only one that makes sense. If you believe that your life would be in danger, let’s say because you live in Saudi Arabia, then lying about your Ex-Muslim status is the preferred option. But if danger is not a problem for you, then what reasons do you have for preferring to lie about your religious beliefs?

Some of you do it because you are concerned about what others will say about you in the community. But does that actually hurt you? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Do you believe in this principle? If you do, and if you continue to lie that you are a Muslim, then you are teaching your children to be Muslims, to care what others think of them, and to live their lives with known inconsistencies. And no matter what you explicitly say to them, they are learning these ideas from you subconsciously.

And some of you don’t even tell your kids that you don’t believe in Islam because you want to teach them Islamic morals. But as I’ve explained, our best explanations of morality are far more advanced than any religious morality, especially Islamic morality.

You are your child’s role model. What moral ideas are they learning from you?

Why Ex-Muslims should go public

On a final note, there is an important reason that Ex-Muslims should go public. We know that Islamic thinking hurts people – themselves, their families, and others. We know that Islam teaches anti-liberal views  -- it’s forbidden for people to have dissenting ideas. This is why Islam instructs Muslims to physically force people to convert to Islam and to kill apostates. We know that this kind of thinking promotes hate and that Islamic ideas directly promote terrorism. And by lying about being Muslims, we are promoting the replication of Islamic ideas to the next generation of young minds. Do you want your children to live in a world where people continue to turn to terrorism?


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"For some, they fear retaliation because Islam instructs Muslims to kill apostates. For others, they are concerned that Muslims in their communities will gossip about them. And for some it’s about wanting to teach their kids morals while believing that religion is the only way to teach morality. "

I don't think you have hit the more common reasons, which I believe to be not hurting one's family or parents, and avoiding ostracism or punishment from those same people.

But when I said "their communities", I meant *including family members*. But you're right that that doesn't explain the possibility of being punished by one's Muslim father for exposing that you're ex-muslim now, while you're still living in his house. I guess I missed this because I don't think much about being punished or getting punished since I'm 35 years old and I believe punishment is evil/immoral (which means I don't punish my kids).

If I was an ex-muslim while still living under my dads rules, and if my dad was a punisher, then ya i'd keep it hidden too. But not for long. I'd get out as fast as I could.
I also do not think that two ex-Muslim parents would actually think that religion is the only way to teach morals. Didn't they reject religion? Why would you assume this? I have not encountered that belief on this forum.

Some people think punishment is necessary to teach morals, so the idea of a fake punishment in hell for doing bad things is (in their eyes) a useful means of "teaching morals" while not actually doing any punishment.

It's similar to the idea of karma. Karma is like punishment, except that the universe is the one that is supposed to deliver the punishment. So a person that believes in karma is someone who believes that punishment/revenge is good/necessary, but he thinks it's wrong for him to be the one to choose and/or deliver that punishment.


I'm increasingly my public awareness of my disbelief. 
However, I think there will always be a limit to it. My wife is still Muslim, and I don't want to cause her any trouble with her family.
I definitely let them know I have different beliefs (I stand up for homosexuals, don't pray, take differing views in politics...)

My own family, I have dealt with and they know I'm not a Muslim.

If it was just me, I think I'd be more open. But I do have my wife to think about. So I go about it slowly.

And yes, passing a lot of the insecurities and lies about Islam to my kids is a huge concern for me.
But life sadly is not so simple when you have another half.
I've made it clear they won't be a part of the community and everything about Islam has to come from her and she can't talk about hell or anything like that.

Not exactly pure, but workable.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Is God real?

_Is God real?_

[Before reading this essay, I suggest reading this one: _Why atheists fail to persuade theists_: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheGodDebate/permalink/10151782071930474/]

Is God real? Well there is no physical evidence, but billions of people are convinced that God exists. So if not by physical evidence, then why are they convinced? There are many reasons that people use to justify their religious beliefs, similar to the way they justify any beliefs.

The question is: Is God real? But the better question is: What problem does the God idea solve? The reason that this approach is better is that *all* ideas should be approached this way. Every thought and every behavior happens in the context of solving problems. To illustrate this, I’ll explain a few examples using this problem/solution concept.

All life is problem solving

At birth, our problems are few. We are hungry and cold. These situations are problematic because we don’t want to be in these situations. And how do we solve these problems? We cry to alert our parents -– it’s inborn. And it’s our parents’ responsibility to help us solve our problems by presenting us with milk or formula and wrapping us with blankets. And as soon as our problems are solved, we stop crying.

In adulthood, our problems are many. We want shelter, food, transportation, electronics, entertainment, and many other things. And how do we solve these problems? We get jobs to earn money to trade for these things and we do research to find the things that fit our preferences.

Some people are lonely, so they want companionship. And they solve that problem by establishing romantic relationships. Some people also want lifelong commitment, and some of them solve that problem by getting married.

Some people want to attract people sexually, so they solve that problem by going to the gym to get in shape and dressing up sexy.

Some people want to know about how the world works, so they solve that problem by reading books and/or going to school to learn physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, history, and so on.

Now this brings us to the God idea. Some people want to know *why* some things are the way they are. Their problems are that they have important unanswered questions. And their solution to these problems is to accept a religion and its answers to those important questions. But before we jump to the conclusion that the God idea solves these problems, let’s identify the problems.

What problems are people trying to solve with the God idea?

One big reason people accept religion is to accept its moral values. And some people don’t even believe in their religion but they teach it to their kids anyway because they believe that morality can only be taught through religion. So their problem is that they don’t understand morality outside the context of a religion's behavior-punishment moral system. And consequently they don't know how to teach morality otherwise. So their solution is to accept a religion and its moral system of behavior and punishment. The right solution is to consider the moral traditions that already exist in our society and to judge for ourselves which are good/beneficial and which are bad/hurtful.

Another reason people accept religion is to feel like their life has meaning. So their problem is that they feel like their life has no meaning. And their solution is to adopt a religion that tells them the meaning of their lives. They effectively dwarf themselves by accepting that “God is the greatest.” The right solution starts with the idea that we are all individuals, and thus we all have different interests, and so we should all create meaning in our own lives.

Another reason people like religion is because their friends and neighbors expect them to, they can socialize at Churches, and they want to fit in and be good at their social role as a normal member of society. So their problem is that they want to fit in with society and be liked by other members of society. And their solution is to do just that, to “get with the program.”

Then there are reasons people have that they aren’t even aware of. Their lives are full of suffering and they feel stuck. That’s their problem. Actually its many problems that they don’t know how to solve. And they don’t even try. Instead of trying to solve their problems they bury their problems hoping that they will go away on their own. Sometimes they do this by denying that those things are even problematic. They say things like, “well everyone suffers like this so it’s just a part of life” or "it's not even a problem because other people have it much worse than I do."

Another way they bury their problems is by shifting responsibility to other people and to things. The most common way to shift responsibility is to adopt a religion that tells them that they are not responsible for their lives. It helps them feel better about not “being able” to change their situations. It helps them feel better that someone else (God) is responsible for their problems -– he is responsible for giving them the problems and he is responsible for solving them -– and people are responsible for asking him to give them the patience to cope with the problems and asking him to solve their problems. This helps them feel better because in their eyes they are not at fault. So they confuse this relatively positive emotion with reality -– they feel spiritual. The right solution is to take responsibility for everything in your life -- to change one's situation and stop shifting responsibility to other people and nonexistent things like an all-knowing super power.

I think this last reason is the most common problem people have. It’s something that most people deal with, not just theists. Most people live irresponsible lives by denying that they have problems and by shifting responsibility of the problems that they do admit having. It helps them feel better because that way they don’t feel guilty. Some people shift responsibility to their parents, “It’s my dad’s fault that I don’t know how to fix a car or do handy-work because he never taught me.” Some people shift responsibility to their brains, “Please excuse my ADD.” Some shift responsibility to their hormones, “It’s not my fault because I had PMS.”

The world relentlessly throws problems at us, but none of those problems are insoluble. Philosophical thinking is the only reliable way that solves problems. Your life is full of suffering because you have lots of problems that you haven’t solved yet. And you cannot solve your problems if you expect God to solve them for you. Nor can you solve your problems if you think that God gave you your problems.

There is no destiny! We have free will!


Check out my articles on _Why Most Terrorists are Muslims_: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheGodDebate/permalink/10151789122880474/

And _Why Ex-Muslims Don't Go Public_:

Why Most Terrorists Are Muslims

_Why Most Terrorists are Muslims_

You might have noticed that most terrorists are also Muslims. That means that, per capita, the group that produces the most terrorists is Muslims. Why is this the case? It boils down to differences in tradition. The cultures where Islam is dominant have traditions that promote terrorism where other cultures have different traditions that don’t do that. I’ll discuss these traditions in detail.

Traditions are ideas that are commonly known among the vast majority of a culture. People learn these traditions generation after generation. In some cultures the traditions change quickly – we call these dynamic societies – while in other cultures, their traditions don't change quickly – we call these static societies. This raises the question: what is the thing that makes a society dynamic instead of static?

Static vs Dynamic Societies

Consider all the dynamic societies you know – what do they have in common? And the static societies? In dynamic societies there exists a tradition of criticism – it is seen as something good – while in static society’s there exists the opposite tradition – that criticism is bad and thus frowned upon.

So why do the static societies have this bad tradition? Well, human societies started out with this bad tradition. In the beginning, when people had disagreements, they used physical force to resolve their disputes. So the default state of a society is this bad tradition that sees criticism as something bad.

Let's look back at history. The tradition of criticism that we have today dates back to the beginning of the Enlightenment and more specifically, the Scientific Revolution. Actually even before that, there was one society in history that had a tradition of criticism but lost it. It was the ancient Greeks. Interestingly, it was the ancient Greeks that created the Scientific Method -- which is a method of negative hypothesis elimination where the elimination happens by criticism.

In ancient Greek society, even children were encouraged to question the ideas of their teachers. Criticism was a good thing because it was seen as something that helps people learn to think critically. It helps correct mistakes from teachers.

Then the Greeks lost this dynamic feature when they became an empire and fell to the Romans. After the Greeks, the next dynamic society was the Italians in the 16th century and that resulted in the phenomenon we now know as the Enlightenment. What happened was that society regained the tradition of criticism by studying the ancient Greek texts.

The West today is still a dynamic society because it has sustained the tradition of criticism since the Enlightenment that started over 500 years ago. And many other cultures in our modern world have acquired this dynamic feature by adopting this tradition of criticism. How did this happen?

The Tradition of Criticism

The tradition of criticism became widely adopted because it is part of the process known as the Scientific Method. In this method, people hypothesize testable theories about physical reality and then they, and others, create experiments designed to falsify those theories. With each new hypothesis, a scientist is guessing a new theory. And with each successful experiment, a theory is refuted. Then scientists create new guesses for theories and again they design experiments to try to refute the new theories. Note that the experiments are criticism – criticism that uses physical evidence.

In the 20th century, Karl Popper examined the history of science and discovered that all scientific knowledge is created by guesses and criticism. And he realized that all knowledge is created this way, not just scientific knowledge. He realized that all knowledge evolves – step-by-step, one guess at a time, one criticism at a time.

Now imagine a society that doesn’t have this tradition of criticism. The people in authority don’t like it when other people criticize their ideas. Religious leaders tell people not to think for themselves and to just believe what the scholars say. Parents and teachers tell kids to do what they say without question. And when people do question these authorities, the authorities get offended and often this leads to anger and sometimes it’s followed by physical retaliation, like spanking and raising a city.

So in these static societies people learn that questioning authority leads to anger and retaliation. They learn to shy away from criticism because they see it as confrontational – because that's the way the authorities see it. This affects kids the most because they can’t yet defend themselves from their parents. So kids develop a method of thinking that is void of criticism and void of creativity. They learn to judge ideas by justifying them by the authorities instead of criticizing those ideas themselves using their own reasoning. And these kids grow up to be adults that do the same – they don’t think for themselves.

What does it mean to judge ideas without criticism? Note that everybody has mistaken ideas – no one is perfect. So by adopting ideas from the authorities without your own criticism, then you are adopting all their mistaken ideas too – i.e. without any possibility of correcting those mistakes. A society that does this cannot correct its own mistaken ideas. So its mistaken ideas go on indefinitely without any mode of error correction; hence it is a static society, it doesn't change for the better.

Now imagine a society that does have a tradition of criticism. People are encouraged to criticize the authorities. Children are encouraged to ask their parents critical questions. Children sometimes correct their parents' mistaken ideas. So when they have their own children, they don’t make all the same mistakes that their own parents made. Similarly, scientists are encouraged to criticize each others' theories in an effort to discover mistakes and correct them thus getting ever closer to the truth. In this way, criticism is seen as a good thing.

With a tradition of criticism comes the freedom of dissent. People know that it’s ok for everyone to have their own opinions. Sometimes people might get offended by other peoples' opinions, but resorting to physical retaliation is not part of the tradition. Instead, people learn to debate – to hash out their differences with peaceful discussion. And with each discussion, both parties go into the discussion realizing that each of them will learn something new. Their mistakes are being exposed and so they have the opportunity to correct those mistakes, and they regularly do. This is how knowledge evolves – within each one of us and as a society as a whole.

So dynamic societies have this tradition of criticism that promotes error correction while static societies don’t. Our knowledge is not perfect. And it’s the imperfections that cause human suffering. In order to lesson our suffering, we must improve our knowledge. And the only way to improve our knowledge is to discover our mistaken ideas (using criticism) and to correct those mistakes (using creativity and more criticism).

Islamic Societies are Static Societies

Now getting back to Muslims and terrorism, Islamic societies are static societies. These societies have not yet adopted the tradition of criticism. They see criticism as something bad and so criticism is frowned upon. Questioning your parents is bad. Questioning Allah is bad. This is what causes their knowledge to be static – it halts the evolution of knowledge.

Ironically, the Quran explicitly states that it will not be changed. That Allah is protecting it from man-made changes. So it doesn’t evolve. And Muslims claim this as their proof that Islam is right and all other religions are wrong. But knowledge evolution is good, because it corrects mistakes. So, other religions like Christianity have evolved, which means that their knowledge has improved, namely their morality.

What is Terrorism?

What does all this have to do with terrorism? Well what is terrorism? It’s an act of fear mongering – of trying to instill fear in other people. And what is the goal of fear mongering? It’s to try to prevent people from doing a certain behavior. Consider how some parents use physical punishment with their kids, like spanking. What is the purpose of that? To teach their kids that if they do a certain behavior, they’ll receive physical pain. And their purpose is to instill fear in their kids – fear of what would follow, punishment and the associated physical pain.

And why is it that parents respond with punishment? In other words, what can the child do for the parent to choose to punish him? The child must have disagreed with the parent. He must have criticized his parent’s idea. He must have questioned his authority. So the parent reacts with punishment. This is analogous to terrorism. Muslim terrorists respond to the criticism coming from non-Muslims, like videos mocking their prophet, by physically punishing them. Clearly terrorists see criticism as something that is bad and they believe that the moral way to react to criticism is with physical force. And this is a tradition that pervades all Islamic societies today.

How Do We Stop Terrorism?

This raises the question, how will terrorism stop? Well we need an agent of change, one that will change Islamic cultures everywhere. That agent of change will play a role in their societies adopting a tradition of criticism. I don’t know how this will happen. I don’t know what things must fall into place for this to happen. What I do know is that by adopting a tradition of criticism, a society will enter a golden age, its own Enlightenment. And if it can sustain its tradition of criticism, then it will continue to be a dynamic society indefinitely.

In this sort of society, people would not turn to terrorism when their values are criticized. They would not see criticism as a bad thing. They would know that criticism is a necessary part of evolving our knowledge and so criticism is good! When people criticize our mistakes, they are providing explanations of flaws that they see in our ideas. This means that each one of us has multiple sources of criticism in which to discover our mistakes, not just ourselves. So exposing one’s mistakes is seen as a good thing because doing so means that we have more opportunities to correct our mistakes. So when our mistakes are exposed through criticism, we get ecstatic! We are happy to find our mistakes and to correct them because we know that that means we are improving!

It’s important to note that terrorism is not just a weird phenomenon born out of having a tradition of shunning criticism. The act of terrorism is directly encouraged in the Quran. So how could Islamic societies adopt a tradition of criticism while their holy book explicitly states that terrorism is encouraged? The answer may lie in the other societies who have done similar things. Consider that there are some bad morals in the religion of Christianity too, and Western societies have evolved their moral knowledge – they've corrected some of the Christian moral knowledge. The same sort of thing could happen with Islam.

Then there is the idea that the Quran cannot change. It’s questionable whether Muslims will accept the idea of changing the Quran such that its moral knowledge can be improved upon. Again the answer may lie in other societies who have done similar things. The Bible has changed, but some of its bad morals are still in there. And still, Western societies have evolved their moral knowledge and no longer believe in all the bad morals that still exist in the Bible. The same sort of thing could happen with Islam. Muslims of the future might see the Quran the same way that Christians see their Bible today, a book about God and morals and some other weird symbolic stories that only the people of previous centuries thought to be real.


Check out my article on _Why atheists fail to persuade theists_: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheGodDebate/permalink/10151782071930474/

Monday, September 10, 2012

Psychology or Psycho-epistemology?

The field of psychology is about thinking errors and the resulting psychological problems, at least that’s the view from a philosophical perspective. Within the field of psychology, these problems are known as cognitive biases and there is something they call cognitive dissonance. Among laypeople, the psychological problems they notice are negative emotions.

Oil painting by Ragod Rustom
In order to solve one’s psychological problems, he must correct his thinking errors. And how are thinking errors corrected? In epistemology (the relevant field of philosophy), it’s about reflecting on one's thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and learning about oneself, about one's mind. And like all knowledge creation, its guessing and criticism.

Make guesses about what the thinking error might be and criticize the guesses, and criticize the criticisms. The guesses left uncriticized are considered the truth, for now, until you come up with another criticism, and the cycle continues. 

To illustrate how people can correct their thinking errors, I'll explain two psychological problems.

The first example is a situation where someone gets offended by a racial remark. But the racial remark is not about himself. It’s about someone that they care about. So they are offended *for* someone else. The situation involves a stranger making a racial remark about a guy’s friend. The guy gets offended. He’s mad. He thinks, “how could that person say such a thing? What an asshole!” Well the simple answer is that that person *thinks* that way. So the guy goes to his friend and tells him the story expecting him to get offended. But, to his surprise, he's not offended at all. The friend notices his surprise and decided to provide an explanation as to why it doesn't make sense to get offended -- his goal was to help his friend solve his psychological problem. Note that I’m not talking about whether or not the guy has the *right* to get offended. Of course he has the right to have his emotions and think the way he wants to. The point is whether or not he *should* get offended.

Friend: How many strangers out there are racists?

Guy: I don’t know, half?

Friend: Ok so that means that 1 out of 2 strangers you meet are thinking racist thoughts, but almost none of them say those thoughts to you.

Guy: Right.

Friend: Now getting back to the original situation, were you offended that he said the racist remark, or that he thought it?

Guy: That he said it. Why aren’t you offended?

Friend: Well the very first time someone made a racist remark towards me, I was offended. But since then I learned that most people are that way and why they are that way, so I’m not emotional about it anymore. […] So back to what we were saying… Why aren't you offended that he was *thinking* it? Whats the difference? If you're going to get offended that he said it, you should be offended that he thought it.

Guy: Well ya.

Friend: And so if you're offended that people think this way, then are you going to go around to every person and say, "HEY, ARE YOU A RACIST? CAUSE IF YOU ARE, THATS OFFENSIVE TO MY FRIEND… Oh you’re not a racist? Oh never mind then I’m not offended.”

Guy: LOL!

Friend: And he could be lying to you. So he could be a racist, but you’re not offended because he lied and said he isn’t a racist.

Guy: Ya..

Friend: Now consider this. Why is that person racist? How did he learn it?

Guy: From his parents.

Friend: From society as a whole, which includes his parents. And he hasn't yet figured out that he's wrong. So he made a mistake and he hasn't corrected it. And he may die a racist.

Guy: Right.

Friend: But don't we all make mistakes?

Guy: Ya.

Friend: Do you think people should get mad at us for making mistakes?

Guy: Well depends on the kind of mistake.

Friend: Why should it depend on that?

Guy: Well what if it’s a really bad mistake?

Friend: Bad how?

Guy: Like say if someone kills another person.

Friend: You're talking about a crime. Thinking or saying a racist remark is not a crime. Can you give an example that isn't a crime?

Guy: What if someone called me stupid?

Friend: So. Why does that upset you?

Guy: Don't you get upset by that?

Friend: No. I've been called stupid many times. Sometimes people say it when they disagree with me, meaning that they think my idea is wrong, because it conflicts with their worldview. And they don't have a criticism of my idea, so they attack the source of the idea because they don't know a better way. So he made a thinking mistake, which is to criticize the source of an idea rather than the content of the idea. I expect that he learned it from his parents, and from society. Should I be mad that he has this mistaken idea about how to think?

Guy: I guess not. It’s not his fault.

Friend: No. It is his fault, *his* mistake. He should take responsibility for correcting his mistakes. But in this case, he doesn’t even know he’s mistaken. But that doesn't change whether or not I should be offended. The point is this, what problem does getting offended solve?

Guy: What?

Friend: What are you getting out of getting offended?

Guy: Uh.. nothing but he shouldn’t… (stops to think)

Friend: Sure there are a lot of things that he could do wrong, and a lot of people do those things. Are you saying you want to correct him… help him think better?

Guy: Ok let’s say I did.

Friend: Do you think getting offended will help you do that? Your mind will be clouded so it’ll be harder for you to come up with good explanations. And your emotional reaction might antagonize him so he might respond with emotion too. So getting emotional won’t solve your problem of helping him correct his thinking. Its counter-productive.

Guy: Ya that’s true.

It’s important to consider how this new understanding will help this person going forward. Psychological problems can be solved. Actually whole classes of psychological problems can be solved. So consider that one class of psychological problems is that someone *gets offended by racist remarks*. He could learn all the thinking errors that cause this and then never get offended by racist remarks again, thus solving that problem and never again being affected by it.

Now consider a broader class of psychological problems, which is *getting emotional about people making mistakes*. Someone can learn all the thinking errors that cause this and then never again get emotional about someone making a mistake, including himself.

The second example is a major psychological problem, major in that it causes other problems in one’s life.  Two guys were in a car and a song came on the radio. One guy had a reaction to the song, or least his friend guessed that the song was the cause:

Friend: What are you thinking about?

Guy: Nothing.

Friend: The song reminded you of something.

Guy: Uh.. Ya my friend, he killed himself.

Friend: How long ago?

Guy: When I was 15. (he’s in his late 30’s at this point)

Friend: Something bad must have happened.

Guy: Well ya he killed himself.

Friend: Sure but being affected by that for 20 years means there is more to it -- you are conflicted about something.

Guy: Well it’s not really a problem. The anxiety doesn’t last long. I’m pretty good at forgetting about it now.

Friend: So you’re burying your problem... slipping it under the rug. But that doesn’t solve your problem. It will resurface.

Guy: (while laughing) Ya that’s been happening for 20 years now.

Friend: So when it first happened, I bet it took days for you to recover each time you had anxiety about it.

Guy: Ya.

Friend: And now it takes a lot less time to recover. How long?

Guy: A few minutes, sometimes faster.

Friend: So you’ve created a habit of burying the problem, and you get faster at burying it each time.

Guy: Ya!

Friend: If you figure out what the problem is, then you can solve it and prevent the anxiety altogether.

Guy: What do you mean? I already know what caused it.

Friend: Well when you experienced the trauma, it’s not his suicide that was the trauma. It’s your interpretation of that event that was the trauma. You had a thought that causes the anxiety. And each time you get anxiety you are rethinking that thought. What is that thought?

Guy: Well what happened was that my friend called me and left a voicemail asking to call him back. But I didn’t reply quickly enough. Then I found out that he committed suicide the next day.

Friend: You said “quickly enough”. So you blame yourself for not calling him back?

Guy: Yes.

Friend: And if you had called him back, would that have prevented him from committing suicide?

Guy: Maybe.

Friend: Maybe means also maybe not. Right?

Guy: Ya.

Friend: Could you have known in advance that he would commit suicide?

Guy: No.

Friend: So you’re blaming yourself for something that you couldn’t have known in advance. Isn’t that just like saying “hind-sight 20-20… yadda yadda yadda”?

Guy: You’re right, it’s not my fault for not knowing.

Friend: And even if you did know, and even if you called him, he may still have committed suicide. I expect that he had major psychological problems. He could have been hopped up on psychiatric medicine that made things worse instead of better. Since you don't know about what he's taking, how could you help him with something like that?

Guy: You're right. There’s no way I could have prevented his suicide.

Friend: And even if you were his brother and spoke to him everyday, you could make a mistake and not realize that he was in the condition he was in because well you've never dealt with that stuff. You don't know what to look for. You aren't in his mind to know what he’s thinking.

Guy: Ya.

Friend: Everyone makes mistakes. Should we all blame ourselves for all our mistakes?

Guy: Well no, but when something bad happens…

Friend: But you can't know in advance if something bad is going to happen so how can you blame yourself? We all make mistakes. And sure some of those mistakes cause major bad shit. But so what? That’s life. You can't prevent all mistakes. It’s impossible to prevent all mistakes, so why blame yourself for something that is impossible to do?

Guy: You’re right.

(a few months went by)

Guy: I've been meaning to talk to you. I don’t have anxiety anymore about my friend that committed suicide. I can listen to that song again and nothing happens. You know that song was one that all my friends and I listened to and when I’d be in a car with them, the song would come on and my anxiety would start. It was rough because my friends would put that song on a lot and I couldn't enjoy it with them. And now I can enjoy it again.

So here the psychological problem was about blaming himself for something he couldn’t possibly be responsible for. In psychology they give this a fancy name, “personalization”; it’s one of the so-called cognitive biases. Anyway, he solved that problem. Note that this thinking error can have more reach like in the first example. If he solves all the thinking errors related to incorrectly assigning responsibility, then he’ll have solved this whole class of psychological problems (“personalization”). Now I’m not suggesting that this is easy. The idea of responsibility is not so straight forward. It requires a lot of knowledge to understand it well.

Getting back to the field of psychology, there is new research being done about what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The theory explains that when people are presented with a conflict of ideas between a new idea and their worldview, they experience a bad feeling, and so they (subconsciously) attempt to relieve that bad feeling by rejecting the new idea, thus resolving the conflict. Sometimes that rejection comes in the form of rationalizing (which means writing off an idea uncritically).

The implication is that *all* people experience this bad feeling, meaning that it is part of human nature. But that is false. It’s a parochial mistake to generalize to the entire human population. Not all people have this bad feeling when they have a conflict of ideas. So this raises the question: What is the difference between people that do and people that don’t feel bad when they experience a conflict of ideas between a new idea and their worldview?

To answer that question, consider that cognitive dissonance is fundamentally no different than any other psychological problem. It’s about thinking errors. And how are they solved?  In the case of cognitive dissonance, the error is related to how one thinks about mistakes and exposing one’s mistakes. The people that experience cognitive dissonance think that mistakes are bad and shameful -- and the people that don’t experience it don’t think that way.

The reality is that exposing one’s mistakes is good. These are opportunities to correct one’s mistaken ideas. And by correcting one’s mistaken ideas, he gets smarter, becomes a better person, a better worker, a better parent. A person who knows this feels great about finding his mistakes, whether he found it or someone else did. So he doesn't subconsciously try to reject new ideas that conflict with his worldview.


Other topics related to psychology:

- Love at first sight

- Why the gender gap on physics assessments?


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