Why Sam Harris is wrong, again.


I am left scratching my head after listening to the latest interview of Sam Harris by Ben Shapiro. Why doesn’t Ben Shapiro and his IDW friends rebut Sam on some of his claims regarding morality? As I have detailed in my previous post Sam’s philosophy has some serious holes which no one seems to notice. I would encourage you to read that if you haven’t done so already. I genuinely welcome any criticisms of my argument since I want to get to the bottom of the morality problem. Like Jordan Peterson says, I want to know if I am wrong.

Today I want to come at some of this from another angle. According to Sam morality is about creating the best possible world for the maximum number of people with the aid of rationality and science. The only reason we have trouble with deciding what is good and bad is either because we are not being adequately rational or we do not yet have the required information to reach the rational decision regarding a particular question. Hence his argument that even if we built rational robots in the future the morality that he is developing will be applicable to them also.

Let us consider some thought experiments to make things clearer. Imagine if our video games become so sophisticated that the characters can somehow become conscious with a sense of self. So our ‘Prince of Persia’  feels that he himself is running the show and fighting the battles. He experiences life as one great adventure after another and believes that the survival of civilization itself is dependent upon what he does. One can only imagine all the intense emotional experiences, both positive and negative, that he goes through on his journey. For him what he is doing is the most important thing in the universe.  But reality is that irrespective of what he feels it is the person playing the game who is actually controlling his actions and emotions. If the player decides to kill off his protagonist because he wants to take a bathroom break, the poor Prince will have to experience all the emotional and physical pain of being killed.  If you ask the ‘Prince’ he is in a battle of his life time. But reality is that it is worth nothing at all. Even worse, he is being made to suffer all this because someone wants to have a good time. Or we can imagine the opposite scenario also. The Prince is getting married to the love of his life and leading a happy contended life with all the sophisticated pleasures that earthly life can provide including learning and culture. He would probably consider himself truly blessed. But again reality is that his whole experience is an illusion foisted on him by a 13 year old who has successfully completed his mission.

According to Sam’s philosophy this is exactly our position in reality. We are the products of a mindless materialistic universe which has given rise to all sorts of sophisticated illusions so that our genes will get us to propagate further. Our consciousness, sense of self and freewill and the experiential feeling that we control our lives are products of millennia of evolution which somehow enables our genes to propagate themselves.  The genes in the unicellular algae and the most intelligent human being have the same goal. To get us to make more copies of itself. All our sense of morality and love and wonder and beauty and truth and hundred other beautiful things are just tools in their work kit to get us to keep surviving and reproducing.

Now imagine if the Prince becomes aware of what is actually happening to his life. That all his successes and failures are the result of button pushes by some hormone charged young adult. What will his response be?  Will he continue to be happy when he successfully finishes his adventure and marries his sweetheart? Will he be really sad when the world is destroyed when he fails? He has seen through the con. Its all a game anyway. Why should he continue to be a pawn in this endless pointless process? If he has any real self consciousness the only logical thing to do would be to kill himself to escape from this meaningless roller coaster.

But according to Sam the Prince should continue to struggle and persist in his attempt to be happy. And not only that he should convince himself and others that this attempt is itself moral and meaningful. He should not be bothered by the fact that there is no real meaning to his life. He should be happy even if all his adventures are ultimately pointless because he gets to experience momentary happiness since it is programmed into the game. He should delude himself into thinking that he is creating his own meaning while all his emotions are driven by prewritten code.

Now try a different thought experiment in which we humans are really in Princes’ place. Imagine that we realize one day that we are characters in a video game played by the ‘gods’. The earth and the universe is actually an illusion built as part of this game. Human consciousness, sense of self and free will are similar illusions which we as characters in the game experience.  All the ups and downs of our lives are actually controlled by the Gods for their pleasure. This is just one such world and there are a multiverse of such worlds out there. We are their idea of a weekend of fun. If we somehow become aware of that what will be Sam’s response? Will he still be talking about man made meaning and morality? Whatever we experience has been programmed into us for their entertainment. Our only real conscious realisation is regarding the truth of our state. All the rest is a grand illusion.

My argument is that there is not much difference between this scenario and the materialist universe. We are not independent rational actors in the universe. We are pawns in the multi million year evolutionary game. Everything that we experience, both good and the bad, has been programmed into us so that we will continue the game. The only difference is that there are no other conscious actors who are programming the game like in the above scenarios. It is the mindless process of evolution which has done all the programming to make us think that there is some actual point to our lives. In reality, there is no real morality or meaning. Its all part of the con to keep us engaged in the eternal struggle for dominance between our genes. Our only real conscious act is that we have realised what is going on.  If that is true I have no idea why we should continue with this grand illusion.

Moving on to a further problem, I feel that there is something wrong with all the three scenarios I have described above including the materialist one. Namely, the proposition that we can become aware of our true state if we are programmed entities. It is easy to understand this in the gaming scenarios above. If the ‘Prince’ has been programmed to feel conscious and to experience from a first person point of view all that is happening in his life even if none of them are really true I fail to see how he can become truly conscious of his actual situation. How can a programme go beyond what its code allows? Unless that also is written into the programme? If that is also prewritten is that real consciousness?  His awareness of his condition is not really due to his understanding about what is going on. But just like all the other illusions it is due to some prewritten code which determines how he feels.Only difference is that in this case it depicts reality accurately.


What does this mean in the human materialist context? If we truly are evolutionary creatures with the sole aim of propagation of our genes how can we become aware of our predicament unless that is also written into our genes? The very basis of consciousness and reasoning seems to demand a degree of freedom not available in a determined materialistic universe. I often hear intellectuals like Bret Weinstein arguing that since we have understood that the purpose of human lives according to our genes is only their survival and reproduction we should strive to go beyond the limits set by these genes if we really want to create human flourishing. But if evolution and genetic mechanisms are the only game in town how can we even presuppose that we can do something which our genes does not dictate us to do? From where does this freedom to flout our masters wishes come from?

Why is Sam Harris making the argument for the truth of atheism? Is it because it is decided by his genes and his sociocultural upbringing? Or did he make a rational decision to be a materialist based on logical arguments? How does rationality interact with the determinism of the atomic world? The very concept of rationality seems to demand a non deterministic kind of reality. A reality in which arguments and logic and reason have an independent legitimacy apart from the determinism of atoms and neurons. If my decisions are ultimately decided by the firing of neurons what role does rationality play in my decisions ? If Sam’s atheism is a result of his genes and upbringing how do we know atheism is true? Will he become a theist if he gets a heavy enough knock on his head? If so where does that leave our rationality? If not does this mean that our decision making process is somehow prior to the firing of neurons? This I think is the crux of the matter.. what comes first? the firing of the neurons or the thoughts and reasoning? If the firing of the neurons come first then reasoning and free will is an illusion. We dont believe something because it is reasonable and logical. We believe it because our neurons tell us to believe it. Along the way the neurons also create an illusion making us think that we believe something because it is rational.  So at the end of the day we are machines without freewill who in addition to having no freewill, has to suffer the humiliation of thinking that we have free will.  We are truly a pathetic lot.

So to make things clear Sam and Ben doesn’t disagree with each other regarding the existence of God( or anything else)because of lack of logic and reasoning on either side. It is because the deterministic process which began at the Big bang has lead, over eons of time,  to the arrangement of neurons in their heads in a particular manner that make both of them believe what they believe. Their beliefs that they hold their respective positions based on reason and logic is an illusion which is in turn due to firing of some other neurons as part of the overall deterministic process. If this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands. Deterministic evolutionary processes have made sure that both of them believe what they believe since their genes somehow feel that it is beneficial for evolutionary survival. If so how do we know which of their view is actually true and not just evolutionary posturing to further survival? Based on this view truth seems unknowable, with our rationality and logic being slaves of our genetic survival mechanisms.  Reason and logic are yet another evolutionary tool which helps us survive. That does not mean that it has anything to do with the truth. Their master is the genome and not truth, as we are fooled into believing.

All this seems very convinving to me except for a crucial problem. How do I know that what I have described above is true? I have used reasoning to conclude that reasoning is not reliable and that it does not lead to truth. That is definitely some sort of logical contradiction . I am not free to make elaborate arguments using reason to finally conclude that reason itself is not reliable as a pathway to the truth. If my argument is correct I can no longer use reason for truth seeking and hence has invalidated my argument. So I cannot conclude on rational grounds that human reason and logic is dependent on deterministic processes like firing neurons. I think this is some version of the ‘argument from reason’ for the existence of God. I am not sure how this argument leads to a proof of God. But it sure seems to indicate that reason and freewill are fundamental parts of human experience and cannot be undermined by materialism and determinism. Consciousness and freewill and rationality seems to have a legitimacy apart from these deterministic processes. We do not seem to have adequate language or understanding to express these realities. Our modern scientific worldviews are caught up in materialism which has no way out of determinism and hence has cursed us with inability to understand the most human of all our experiences.. our own consciousness, sense of self, freewill, logic and rationality. In comparison to these, all the vast realms of knowledge humans have attained are mere trivialities.




The questions Jordan Peterson should actually ask Sam Harris

No one is raising the core problems with Harris’ philosophy

For anyone following the Sam Harris/ Jordan Peterson debate it is truly exhilarating that there is this kind of mass appeal for serious intellectual debates regarding the most important topics of our lives. I want to add my bit to the discussion by raising two interrelated issues which I feel are crucial to this debate but are not being seriously pursued by either of them.

First is the regarding the legitimacy of suicide in a materialistic universe. Second is the relevance of the truth about life after death to the discussion on morality. I will be mixing up the two in the following discussion as they are interrelated.

In Sam Harris’ materialist account of things, conciousness, however fundamental it is when one is alive, ceases completely at the point of death. According to him, during our conscious life our morality should be dictated by a kind of utilitarian logic which pursues the maximum happiness of the people. He makes all the relevant qualifications for such a claim. Whatever that makes a maximum possible number of people truly happy should be pursued, taking into consideration all the limitations that exist in the real world. His is not some idealistic dream but one which recognises the nuances of reality. At the bedrock of his philosophy is a claim that life is better than death. And that a happier life is better than a sad or painful one. All the rest is built in these foundational claims. He accepts these are axiomatic and cannot be really defended further. His argument is that ‘ life is better than death’ is clearly superior to it’s converse. He makes some exceptions to this in case of people undergoing intractable suffering and pain where he argues death may be the lesser evil when compared to constant irremediable suffering. I think this kind of common sense view is held by a lot of people in the modern world.

But I am not sure this is correct. People holding these views think that the death of a person leading a full happy life is a sad thing since they are being deprived of all that goodness. A common reason for killing being morally wrong also goes along similar lines. Since a person has a lifetime of goals and desires and happiness yet to be actualized, it is a sad and morally wrong thing to cut off a life. But in my opinion this argument works for them because they are unconsciously bringing in some material from the supernatural universe which is unjustified given their materialism.

In their view happiness and sadness seems to be graded on something like a scale from 10 to -10, 10 being the most happy situation and -10 being the extreme opposite. Consciously or unconsciously, they seem to place death at 0, a kind of neutral position. So a person whose life is at 10 is supposed to lose a lot if he dies since his position moves to zero. Conversely a person who is really suffering may actually be better off by killing themselves. But this seems quite untrue to me. If death is loss of consciousness then death is not zero, death is actually not on the scale. How do u compare two situations where one is out side the scale itself? People think that death is zero or neutral because the pull of the after life is so strong on human consciousness that even people who have completely rejected supernatural explanations are still left with unconscious beliefs which presuppose a continuing sense of self.   It is difficult to get ones head around it.. but in a materialist world it is NOT a bad thing to die even if you are happy. It will be bad only if you survive death and remain aware of your loss. The concept of losing something makes sense only if there is a consciousness feeling the loss.  It is bad only from the perspective of the people left behind not for the person who actually dies. Similarly for the person who kills oneselves due to pain they don’t stop their pain. That kind of language presupposes that the dead person is aware of the relief. They are not because they don’t exist any longer. So from this isn’t it clear that if consciousness stops at death, life is not better than death. Nor is death worse than life. The are two different states which cannot be compared with each other.

Alternatively we can say that this betrays a foundational belief that consciousness is a primary non contingent foundational aspect of reality even though that is strictly prohibited in a materialist universe. Death is bad thing only in such a universe. Not one in which consciousness  is derived from the firing of some inanimate neurons.

If what i argue above is valid this leaves all of those who buy into Harris’ philosophy in trouble. Given that life and death are not really superior to each other what excuse is their for constantly selecting life against death throughout our lives? Why doesn’t we just commit suicide? There is no difference between the person who has lived the fullest most happiest life and the one who has suffered their entire life once they are dead. There is no difference between dying now or twenty years later once you are dead. Then what is the rationale for not selecting death now? Most of these thought experiments go wrong because we think from the perspective of the living person. But the conclusion we derive from them completely changes once we think from the perspective of the dead(figuratively speaking)

From an evolutionary point of view morality has evolved to help us survive. That is yet another adaptation which helps us struggle against fierce nature by enabling human cooperation. In this regard it is just like any other adaptation like the opposable thumb. But the crucial question that no one seems to ask is ‘WHY SURVIVE’? As argued above nothing bad will happen if we kill ourselves. Another important pushback is regarding the illusory nature of most of the things that human beings value in a materialist world. Why should humans, having understood our origins and the rationale for the moral emotions and intuitions that we feel, keep obeying those rules? Our genes want us to survive so that they keep propagating. But again, why should the self aware humans continue to be playthings of our genes? Morality and wonder and happiness and love and all the other hundred things that human beings value are just part of the great evolutionary con to get us to propagate. Being moral or loving or experiencing wonder are not ‘good’ in any real sense. In a materialist universe it is quite possible that another life form which has become conscious but is made up of some other stuff will evolve to have completely different ideas of morality and beauty and the rest of it according to what is beneficial for their survival. So whatever deep and profound emotion that we feel in these situations have all the legitimacy of the first crush of a teenager. Evolution has tricked us into thinking that these things really exist and are valuable while they exist only in our head and that too only because it serves the purposes of our true masters. There is no real Good or Bad in this universe. If that is true why continue this illusion? Why shouldn’t we finish of the world in a nuclear catastrophe ? Or atleast kill ourselves? This shouldn’t be taken as a moral response to our unenviable position in the universe. It is just another option among the myriad options in life. No option is better than the other. Because better is a meaningless word in a materialist universe. What interests me is why all humans keep opting for life against death if there is truly no good and bad.
As Dr Peterson says, realising that all options are equally valid or invalid is a terrifying proposition. Why do anything if everything is the same? We should try to be happy is not a rational answer. Why should we be happy? Because that’s the near default option of all people to survive better? But then we are back where we started .. Why SURVIVE?

The need for a real after life to make sense of morality in the present world is another topic curiously not discussed by either JP or Sam. And I have read numerous serious philosophers rubbishing the idea that morality requires an after life. That may be actually true from a technical point of view even in a theistic universe. God can be the fundamental reality of existence who forms the foundation of morality and yet it’s quite possible to imagine that humans are mortal with no after life. But this makes it very difficult for ordinary human beings to act ethically once they have understood this. If all your good and bad, your self, your memory, your relationships and memories just vanish the moment you die there is no real motivation for further action. Replying that its enough to see your legacy flourish is not really a valid answer. Those people whom you bring into the world or love will also just pass on when their time comes. Its all a transient illusory dance. Couple this with the realization that all your emotions are the handiwork of eons of evolutionary forces which are pulling you here and there to do their bidding, life loses all its value. Value becomes a meaningless word. But even if you are a materialist, as long as you don’t understand the significance of what you believe, you can continue on with your usual life, illegitimately borrowing all the relevant moral foundations from the religious world view. That is what I suspect is going on with a lot of the new atheists. I personally find many of the objections to the usual kind of religious faith valid. But I can never be an atheist and continue to live a normal life. If I am ever convinced of atheism I will either kill myself or live a completely disenchanted sad life( I don’t think my personality type has the courage to go ahead with suicide) Fortunately human epstemiology is weak enough to grant me some vague rays of hope that a foundational reality exists behind all that we see and experience. That’s enough for now.

But what I find completely baffling is the inability of the vast number of atheists to give credence to the charge that they are wrong in their claim that they can be really happy and have a real foundation for morality without God. I find it quite frustrating that a lot of people can’t even seem to understand that there is a difference between individuals acting morally and having a fundamental basis for their morality. Natural selection is a great explanation why all people have moral sentiments. But it does not have an iota of legitimacy as a basis for morality.  This is the much more obvious question to which Sam Harris has no reliable answer. I find his tackling of the is/ ought problem to be unsatisfying.

The feeling of oughtness is a fundamental part of our moral intuitions. This requires that there is an actual moral law outside of our likes and dislikes. A moral law that is not contingent upon human existence or consciousness. It has to be transcendental in its very nature to have any legitimate claim over us. We feel that morality is not some optional thing but something which we should obey irrespective of whether it is convenient or not. We may be wrong about what is the correct thing to do. But we definitely think that there is a correct way to act which is not up to us to decide. That intuition is left completely unsatisfied by Sam’s morality. Where does the power of ‘ought’ come from in his morality? All he can say is that if you want to be truly happy this is the best way forward. That’s not morality, that is self help.

Free speech: Absolute or relative good? part 2

Having dealt with the question of the limits of free speech in part 1 I want to go into some of the sub topics that this thought process eventually lead to. Should we expect free speech to be a universal phenomenon? Should it be equally applicable in the developed and developing nations? And more importantly, what about the lack of free speech in the past? Is that a moral failing of the past? How should we compare societies, at different places and at different times? Having thought about this for a while I am still not able to reach a well thought out answer to these questions. I want to introduce my way of thinking now and come back to this topic later after further reading and thinking.

While free speech is at the topic at hand, I think this question can be generalised to cover the entire moral spectrum. Are we more moral than the people of the past? Are the modern liberal society with values of equality, toleration, free speech and individualism better than the largely illiberal societies of the past? By liberalism I mean the political philosophy developed in the west largely as a result of the enlightenment, one of the core values of which is that people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their lives without government or societal interference as long as they don’t physically harm another person. My approach is informed mainly by Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of political order and my own experiences in India, where I get to see both sides of the social and economic divide. I want to put forward few broad points regarding both.

In his grant sweep of political history Fukuyama traces the roots of the origins of the current political system in the developed world from the prehistoric days including our chimpanzee ancestors. He describes a tale of gradual development, that progresses by fits and starts, from bands of nomadic hunter gatherers, to tribes of settled farmers and then to states. While the shift from nomads to tribes were largely simultaneous across the world, the formation of states were a highly staggered process varying widely across the globe. The state by his definition is a monopoly of legitimate force over defined territory that is able to define and enforce rules. By this definition, the Chinese were the earliest state builders by the 3rd century B.C. while the Europeans had to wait another 1800 years to reach the same level. And Africa remained largely in the tribal form until the 19th century. What is relevant to our discussion on morality is that two of the many factors which played an important role in the change from band to tribe and tribe to state were violence and religion. For eg- One of the factors that provoked the change from band to tribal form was the immense advantage in power and violence that the latter enjoyed over the former. No band could stand up against a tribal army. Hence there was a rapid consolidation into tribal groups. Also, the bedrock of all tribal societies around the world was the practice of ancestor worship, one of the most ancient form of religion. This is what gave these societies their internal cohesion and power to withstand the outgroups. This had nothing to do with the truth value of these religions. All that mattered was that all of the tribal members bought into these beliefs and more importantly, the ritual practices without questioning. Coming to the state level, Chinese state formation was the result of an intense period of violence which finally resulted in the consolidation of power in the hands of a single player. In contrast, State formation in the middle east was a direct result of the founding of Islam.

These states had to undergo a long process of refining which took around 2000 years before even the ideas of institutional liberalism and individualism could arise. This took place for the first time in the west and have held sway in the developed countries for the past few centuries. Even here this has been a long drawn out ongoing process with multiple detours and roadblocks.

Admittedly this is a far too simplified take on Fukuyama’s complex argument, but I think it is true enough for making my point. The social institutions that we take for granted like the national government, legal system, army, police and the political values that we hold dear like free speech, liberalism and individual rights are the result of millennia long cultural evolutionary process. All these things stand on the shoulders of highly illiberal, violent and religious social processes which have gone on for centuries. There is no freedom without the history of bondage. I want to stress the point that it is not as if once we have reached the current position, we can ignore our past. That past lives on in ourselves and our institutions. For eg—if we were to have a massive world war which destroys human civilisation and knowledge, we will be back to the same tribal level social organisation and the all the violence and illiberalism that comes as part of that. We actually don’t have to imagine all this. This is exactly what has happened in Afghanistan where we had a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan society during the sixties. The current sectarian and tribal divisions are a return to premodern times and not the way it always was.

So what happens to a free speech or anti war or feminist activist in a tribal society? If a tribal society was practically anti-war and not just in theory, they would get wiped out in no time. Regarding free speech, there is no way tribal society is going to be accommodative to some people spouting their own controversial take on society or religion. Their very existence depended upon the social cohesion that common beliefs provided, which bound the society together. Again living in that world required constant vigilance against out group forces that were on the prowl to destroy them. So variety of opinions about matters that affected ‘life or death’ issues were not going to be accepted. For eg- In a community where trust is everything, an atheist who differs from them in the most important of questions(according to them), cannot be trusted. In these societies, the family or the community has to deal on its own with problems of violence, justice and order. The fundamental difference in our societies is that we have outsourced these jobs to the state- policing, keeping the borders safe, legal decision making and enforcement etc. The reason we have the illusion of freedom is because in today’s liberal society, we ultimately are not responsible for all these foundational societal duties. In fact we look down upon people who take justice into our own hands. But centuries ago, the only person defending your wife and children will be you and your extended family. In such a precarious world, you are not going to brook any dissent in the name of free speech.  We have these freedoms today  because the stability of our society is not threatened due to people having different opinions. Our stability depends on implicit trust in the effectiveness of higher authorities like government, courts and the army. And all these institutions have arose only because the people of the past lived through all those illiberal violent times trying to shape the best way to live.

Another example in this lot is that of feminism. What would have happened to humanity if we had feminism and the contraceptive pill in the tribal society? In the millennia where infant mortality rate was at astronomical rates, the only reason humanity survived is because of the sheer number of children that we produced. If women had demanded equality and had the pill to help them out, we as a species would have rapidly died out. But then, for the kind of work men were doing in those days, women would have been happy having children at home. Even today when feminism is raging, few women want to be truck drivers, soldiers, construction workers and other physically demanding jobs, which are disproportionately filled by men. The feminists prefer the positions of power, prestige and money.

The discussion above should be nested in a broader question regarding the need for boundaries in the world. This is a question regarding which I have struggled a lot. What is the exact role of boundaries in human life, be it economic, social or national boundaries? Can’t we all just get along without the need for all these nations and states? Shouldn’t we all be singing ‘Imagine’ with John Lennon? The partial answer I have come to is well explained by Kevin Simler at Melting Asphalt. Briefly put, agency or the willingness and ability to get things done is required for any kind of meaningful action. Agency can be individual or group based. We are all familiar with both and the difference between them. An educated healthy individual is capable of generating a lot of products or ideas which are of great value to the people around him. But there is clearly limits on what an individual can do alone. Group agency is all around us in the form of institutions like companies, organisations, professional groups, military, judiciary, police, nation states etc. Group agents require protection of their boundaries to develop and to continue being effective.

For example medical doctors have enormous group agency due the knowledge base developed over many years. How is this knowledge base maintained and improved ? By admitting in only people with required intellectual abilities and then again certifying that they have attained enough knowledge to start practising. If hospitals start hiring indiscriminately irrespective of qualification, hospitals will lose their ability to treat patients effectively. Without proper certification people will find it difficult to identify real doctors from quacks. Over time, the agency of the doctor community as a whole will be lost.  Similarly a family with property rights can be taken as an example for group agency. If anyone is allowed to walk into my house and take whatever they want without any social costs like arrests and punishments, no body can collect things of value like money . If valuables cannot be gathered families cannot use these to support and educate their children. If this ability is lost most of complex human activities of the modern world which require education becomes impossible. I think it is clear that boundaries are essential for any group activity to be effective. These boundaries can change over time according to the social and technological changes with time. This is exactly what happened in the case of band, tribal and state boundaries.  As time progressed people generated more power which could consolidate and control larger territories of land. Within these borders people developed a group agency which aided them in creating valuable goods. The protection of these boundaries are required from external threats if the already developed group agency is to be maintained and improved. Terrorists or illegal migrants can weaken or destroy this ability. This does not mean that current boundaries remain frozen in time. Just like previous times, as balance of power shifts due to historical factors,, boundaries will keep changing. But at any given point of time the people within the boundaries will always be trying to protect their group agency by making their boundaries strong.

Now shifting gears, I want to look at the present society in its different forms. Before I do that I want to introduce the work of Charles Murray in the field of human flourishing. He lists four factors which are crucial to long term human satisfaction- family, faith, community and vocation. While family and faith do not need clarification, I want to explain what he means by community and vocation. Community is the bonds that we develop with our neighbours which comes largely as a result of being forced to live next to each other and also to depend on each other for mutual needs. It is largely a geographic area where people know each other in varying degrees of intimacy and are willing to invest their time and energy for each other’s benefit. There is an inherent lack of choice in this matter in that these are bonds formed over long periods of time and often many generations. As regarding vocation, the idea is that your job is more than just a money spinner. Vocation is somewhat like a calling in which you feel that you are contributing to a whole, however small be your role. In this view, the CEO and janitor both should have this approach to their jobs and in fact it is the janitor who benefits more since he does not earn much monetarily.

I live in India and I am a medical doctor. These two things allow me to be exposed both to the developed, liberal and educated and to the underdeveloped, partially educated and mostly illiberal segments of society.  But to the surprise of many of us in the medical community most of us who have interacted with both these groups professionally find the underdeveloped segments to be much warmer and welcoming than the educated group. The value of relationships with the former group of people goes much beyond just the give and take of medical treatment. It more like the trust in a family member. This is partly due to the obvious discrepancy in power and knowledge at play here with the poor utterly dependent upon the goodwill of the physicians for their well being. But more we interact with them, the more we realise that there is a difference in their basic approach to life. There life is much more laid back, with enough time to devote to relationships. People are not in a hurry to get anywhere. Husband and wives, however unequal their social roles, actually love each other and are involved in a life long process of becoming ‘one’. The houses have plenty of children and are filled with constant banter. Elderly are taken care of by their children with love and respect. Food is always warm and freshly cooked. Neighbours know each other intimately and play active roles in each others lives. Guests at their home are always welcome. These societies fulfil most of Charles Murray’s criteria for human flourishing. In the west, there are many documentations of this discrepancy between the illiberal values some communities hold and the surprisingly warm and close human relationships these same people enjoy. Take a look at Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James M. Ault Jr and In the land of believer’s by Gina Welsh1.

I can fill many more paragraphs with the happy stuff of life which goes on these communities. There is a degree of satisfaction and peacefulness which is not attainable in rush hour traffic in Mumbai or the high rise apartments of Banglore. But unfortunately, that is just one side of the coin. If all is well, these are the best places for human beings to flourish. But their great weakness is the powerlessness of the people involved if things go wrong. The wife abused by her husband and mother in law has no recourse but to endure her suffering. The children preyed upon sexually by their close relatives is forced to remain silent. In these families, the father’s word is often the final decision on any matter, be it personal or otherwise.   In a dysfunctional extended family, feuds can last across generations without allowing the people involved to escape. Liberalism and individualism are a safeguard against these types of abuses. But in the very process of securing our individuality, we lose many of the opportunities for lasting happiness that humans have. I suspect there is more to be said on these matters, especially the role of capitalism in disrupting the traditional ways of life. I hope to come back to all of these questions later after more readings in history, anthropology and philosophy. But more than reading I need to be part of these communities myself to really understand these from the inside. Maybe there is a middle ground to be found somewhere but that is a goal we as a species have not reached yet.


1- I am not aware of any Indian literature on this subject matter. If anyone knows of any works, please share. Jonathan Haidt in his books talks about doing research work in Orissa, India and undergoing a similar dynamic. Initially, he was appalled by the attitudes and practises he saw but gradually as he got to know them and live among them he was won over by their warmth and care.

Free speech: absolute or relative good? Part 1


I am a fan of Dave Rubin’s Rubin report  for the opportunity it provides to be exposed to a variety(relatively speaking!!) of positions regarding all sorts of things. He has people from the right, left and centre talking about politics, media and related stuff. Even if he claims to talk with people from all points view, you will realise quickly that there is a relative centre right and libertarian(stressing on free speech, limited government, liberty etc) predominance in terms of points of view represented. And at least from the You tube comments, the followers also seem to belong to that category. Maybe that is just the most vocal group. But compared to other shows like TYT there is atleast an attempt to be open to correction and to new ideas. He makes a big deal of changing his viewpoint over institutional racism when challenged by Larry elder on the show. I think that ability is a great asset, irrespective of the truth of that particular issue.

I am a big fan of his attempt to bring multiple points of view to the discussion table. He is ‘free speech absolutist’ in that he is willing to let other people say anything including things which most people will consider hurtful as long as people don’t call for physical violence. I also support free speech especially given the current political climate around the globe.  God knows we want more of ability to openly criticise viewpoints we consider to be false without fearing government backlash or vigilante violence. But from a theoretical basis, I am sceptical of the absolute position he takes.

My readings in history and social psychology have convinced me that humans are primarily social and emotional animals and only secondarily individual and rational. Regarding social versus individual, humans are not ‘born free’ in any real sense. Any species which need years of parenting and who literally die without touch  are not individualistic at root. Any individualism we have is layered above this fundamental social reality. And once we think about it, that is exactly what we want. The good aspect of individualism is not about all humans living completely independent of each other with each having their own set of moral values.  Thats why things like family, friendship, love etc create a positive vibe in us while loneliness and selfishness have a negative reaction. ‘Leaving someone alone’ cannot be an ultimate policy. It has to be nested inside a larger social togetherness to make any sense. The scientific literature on this I think is conclusive. Human beings function well only if they are in good relationships and loss of their social bonds are destructive. As a side note, irrespective of its truth claims that is one of the key benefits of religion which an honest sceptic should consider. That may help to calm down the angry atheists a little bit. If religion is a product of evolution, may be just accept its social benefits along with the problems it creates instead of calling it a mind virus.

Similarly, regarding emotional versus rational, I think the evidence that social psychology(or a little bit of honest introspection!!) provides is conclusive.  Reading Jonathan Haidt’s book,The Righteous mind, and taking a Coursera class by Dan Ariely have made me realise the limitations of human rationality and also appreciate the wisdom of older cultures which have figured out these questions over millenia. So if rationality, however useful, is limited in its ability to help us sort out our deepest differences we should cautious before declaring free speech an absolute good irrespective of circumstances. Dave and his allies in this fight like Jordan Peterson may be mistaken in their belief that if we just bring out all people with different viewpoints and let them discuss it, there will be a rational conclusion which everybody will accept. This exercise is ultimately beneficial only if people are willing to change their minds based on reason and evidence. But that is very unlikely on a large scale going by the evidence we have. It may definitely work in the case of individual people and even then we have to be sceptical whether the change in mind is because we have some other motivations like peer group pressure, money, how much we admire the person giving the argument etc. For example in Dave’s change of heart about institutional racism, the fact that a black man is arguing against the existence of racism and that the changed belief nicely dovetails with the viewpoint of many of his new friends on the right makes it a bit suspect.

The question I am raising is that given what we know about decision making and how opinions change, is it warranted for us to believe that rational discussion about facts is going to reduce our differences?  On the other hand, getting people to talk to each other may actually change opinions. Not because we reached some rational conclusion but because interacting with each other in a friendly manner humanises the other side and leads to a change of heart which may end up in a change of mind. But in such a case it is not ‘free speech’ which works but the contact between people who come to see the other side as more or less similar to them. Moreover, the change of mind that this leads to may not be actually lead to a rational conclusion. Religious conversions are classic examples of this at work. Religious change of mind is only rarely the result of a rational thought process but instead is often an intensely emotional process which has the power to completely change the outlook and behaviour of the people involved. Religion gives a litany of examples of highly dysfunctional people who have lead exemplary lives after conversion. Similarly normal people have been convinced to do horrible things in the name of religion. This has almost nothing to do with ‘reason’ in the sense rationalists use it.

Given this discrepancy, I think we should be concerned about turning a blind eye to highly divisive language used by both the right and left in the name of free speech. Nazi memes, Milo’s provocations and calling others ‘deplorables’ is not going to convince the other group. Many on the right rightly pointed out the language of racism and sexism used by the Clinton campaign is not going to attract anybody to their side. These same people happily ignore, even though they don’t encourage, the divisiveness from the right. I am interested in Ben Shapiro‘s arguments but when he says that we shouldn’t have friends on the left, I seriously don’t know whether to keep listening. ( I am not sure he is serious, but I never heard him clarify)

My theory is that these aggressive language displays are not really to convince the other group. Whenever I am exposed to a line of thought that is deeply inmical to my beliefs I am comforted by somebody who is willing to use hostile language against the opposing group. While a part of me is worried about the name calling, another part is thinking that if somebody has enough confidence to defend my position aggressively in public, may be they know their stuff. There seems to be a pre rational willingness to follow that aggressive leader and also a nearly cathartic internal experience in feeling your doubts washed away in the ocean of certainty provided by the leader. This has almost nothing to do with the content of their beliefs. I have witnessed religious people, atheists, right wing, left wing or people discussing any other contentious topics undergoing this dynamic. Above all, I have experienced these emotions in myself. Interestingly, I myself am tempted to be hostile exactly when I do not have clear and rational arguments in favour of my position. Also, the other side using unnecessarily hostile language has always turned me off to whatever rational content in their message. On the other hand, people who present their position with rational arguments in a non combative and friendly manner often force me to stop and think about the problem while trying to overcome my prejudice. I want to stress the point that, at least in my case, the hostile reaction(usually I try to keep it inside my head) is the natural and automatic one. It is very easy and comforting to think that your opponent is evil and hence you are justified in feeling that rage. To give the opposing opinion a fair hearing is the unnatural thing to do.

So my lesson from all this is that hateful language in an argument is not really intended to convert the opposite side. It is fundamentally a reaction of the poorly informed whose natural response is to lash out trying to hide their insecurity. But more importantly, it is a type of preaching to the choir where people of a similar opinion try to reinforce their beliefs by insulting others. The only way to create a strong in group identity is to have clear boundaries of belief which are defended by name calling trolls. Nuance and self doubt are not something particularly conducive to creation of cultural warriors. But I do not want to imply that all the hate is result of some top down planning and execution by nefarious forces. As Jordan Peterson says these are forces which live inside each of us. This kind of cultural mob frenzy is only a reflection of our own capabilities of evil which become manifest in history when social forces align with each other. That’s just part of the human experience. Everything from the holocaust, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, ISIS, alt right and the regressive left are all varying manifestation of the same thing. I do not intend to say that holocaust is same as the alt right. Just that these are all manifestations of the same dynamic. Given the right cultural, historical and social forces alt right can become the Nazi regime and regressive left can become the next cultural revolution.

Like in my own case, I sense in these collective partisan forces a ready willingness to believe the worst about the opposite side. If there is one thing people get out of this article, I think it should be this. The movies are wrong!!! It is so easy in the movies where the good and bad sides are nearly always clearly demarcated. More challenging than this is the self acceptance displayed by the villains about their evil nature. Joker and Voldemort doesn’t believe that they are the good guys. They have themselves accepted the role of the villain with gusto. This cannot be further from the truth as far as real life is concerned. The group on each side of a culture war believes strongly in the moral purity of their vision and in the obvious evil nature of their opposition. This is a recipe for disaster. The day we realise that ISIS fighters are equally convinced about the moral rightness of their actions as its most strident new atheist/American right wing critic, we would be a little bit closer to realising what really is going on.  Similarly for the SJW and their mortal enemies. We are all sure we are on the right  side. This is exactly the reason why name calling and trolling will only make it worse. We have an automatic presumption of guilt for the opposite side and on top of that we see them behaving uncivilly. I take it as an interesting fact about human morality that we automatically take unkindness and incivility as markers of immoral behaviour. That is a bridge too far for almost all of us to cross. To realise the kernel of truth in the opposing point of view through all of the bias and rhetoric is nearly impossible.

The ability of these cultural forces to morph into much more aggressive forms of itself over time is a point not given enough credence by the people who are free speech absolutists. By the time the call for violence comes, the forces set in motion are so out of control that nobody can keep them in check. I see exactly that happening in the USA with the two sides at each other’s throat figuratively at present but I am afraid of what is coming next if the good people do not stand up.

Having raised this issue I think it is incumbent upon me to give an answer to where I will draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ free speech. But sadly I really don’t have anything new to add. In the right environment free speech is obviously a exceedingly good thing which brings out the best ideas and let them fight in the public sphere to decide the ultimate winner. But when does that cross over to being unhelpful and downright dangerous in the long run? If we do not raise our voices against  falsehoods and hate in the name of free speech and this leads to a either a right or left wing extremist movement which destroys civilisation as we know it, I am not sure what good our free speech will be. I am afraid Voltaire’s dictum ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’ works only in the world of pure rationality.

As regards the question of who decides what is hate speech the answer is murky.  Describing problems using historical and sociological lenses is much easier than prescribing answers. I would generally be happy with  strong social institutions of disapproval which indicate the immorality of gratuous violence, be it verbal,emotional  or social. It is important that the critique should come from within the group in question and not the opposing outgroup. But then, governments in Europe have enforced laws against holocaust denial for decades. Their historical experiences probably justify their positions. I want to raise a helpful idea raised by Dr Jordan Peterson regarding the harmoniousness of life lived at the edge between chaos and order. There is an inherent risk at this location of slipping into either too much chaos(too much free speech) or too much order(too much restrictions). But Dr Peterson’s point is that it is our only option. To continually strive to get that balance right in our personal, familial and social lives is the only worthwhile way to live. The illusion that there is some utopia where there is no need for any restrictions or where there is a perfect moral code which beeps when we have crossed the line is just that, a utopia.  To live is to struggle. The only way out is continuous vigilance against that which is out to destroy our souls, be it within us or without.

N.B.1  I am not sure I have made complete sense in the above discussion but hope my overall point comes through. There is an important subtopic to be discussed. What about the state of the underlying society in which this free speech doctrine is to be implemented? Does it work the same in India, Middle east, Russia and the USA given the markedly different cultural status of these societies? What about across time? Are we fair in decrying the lack of free speech in older societies? Hoping to address these in part 2.

N.B.2   As I am trying to think through these issues I remain stumped by the issue of the role of rational discourse in our search for truth. If humans have evolved to cooperate based on emotions rather than reason, is rational truth ultimately knowable by our advanced chimpanzee minds?

N.B.3  As you read through the article I think one notices a dwindling of the references in the second half of the article. That is because most of these are my random thoughts which, while I must have read somewhere, I am not able to come up with supporting literature now. So I welcome any critique of my ideas and also if more knowledgeable people can provide some links to relevant articles or books regarding these topics, that would be great.


Why anguished ?

The subtitle of my blog is ‘Anguished thoughts on religion, philosophy and history’. ‘Anguished’ was not part of the first draft. But somehow I felt that ‘Thoughts on religion, philosophy and history’ did not really reflect the mental struggle i go through when dealing with these topics. More than a decade of debating and arguing with myself could not be so easily represented by just ‘thought’. But it gets much worse if I have to argue my position with some body else. I still remember the wave of despair that ran over me going through internet atheist sites for the first time. Considering all these i think ‘anguished’ is an appropriate adjective.

But I have a feeling I am not alone in feeling this despair when one’s deeply held belief’s are challenged. All I have to do is go to the comment box of any you tube video on topics relating to religion or politics. The vitriolic comments there are a direct indicator of how divisive and upsetting these topics are . It has always fascinated me why certain topics create such violent reactions in otherwise normal people. What is it about a political/religious discussion that upsets people and so easily brings out the worst in them?  I have sensed these violent reactions in myself and have to actively reign it in . It is so easy to feel that the other side is wrong, stupid and evil at the same time

But it is just not politics or religion that riles people up. Since I work in  an academic setting, the fights between people holding differing views on scientific matters show similar touchiness. Racial and ethnic divisions are of course obvious examples. Nowadays, gender is also an acrimonious point of debate. We also notice that different people are upset by different things and to a different degree. Some people are more composed and can carry on a debate without too much emotion or incivility.

In general I think we get upset regarding subjects that form part of our identity.  The closer we identify ourselves with the position under attack, more we feel upset. I have been fascinated by the concept of identity for quite some time. Who am I and how do I form my identity? my profession, my state, my nation, my religion, my political affiliation, my favorite movie/actor/sportsperson, my laptop brand .. all these and more form a core of who I experience myself to be. They form my identity. When ever these are under attack by someone outside my group, it is as if I am being attacked. Then i get upset and angry, especially if I don’t have ready made answers to my opponent.  

I think most of our arguments can be much better tackled if we first identify why the particular opposing position is upsetting me so much ? if we think through the problem we can identify which parts of my identity is being attacked by the opposition. Very often we are upset by things which we make part of our identity unknowingly. The classic example is our blind worship of sportsmen. Usually when we are young we follow their lives and career. We get disproportionately upset when they lose, replaying those matches in our minds.. if only he had taken that catch…, if only he had taken that shot at goal…  It is as if we are actually playing the game. Their win is our win, their loss is our loss. But then we grow up(at least some of us!) and realize that it is only a sport and that it does not make any logical sense to be so emotionally involved in game played by people we don’t actually know all that well. There is no need to make them part of my identity. Their win is not my win and their loss is not my loss. Being a fan and being a fanatic is different.( this analysis is applicable to sports in which the patriotic factor does not come in.. if nationalism is part of the rivalry, then it is more complicated)

The issue of identity can be used to get to the roots of our differences regarding race,religion,politics and history. Are our identities real or is it imagined as in the case of sports? Why do liberals and conservatives fight ? What about religious conflict?

I want to further dissect some of these topics in the future



This is the beginning of my attempt at blogging about stuff I am deeply interested in. I am not too sure how regular I can be at this but it has been my burning desire for some time to put my half baked thoughts about religion, philosophy,history and ethics into words. I have been thinking and reading about these matters for more than a decade and feel the need to contribute to the ongoing discussion. Unfortunately what I have at this point of time is more of a clarification of the questions and issues involved rather than any answers to these age old questions.
Hoping to continue my online thoughts soon.