25 August 2009

Muutama täky kunnianarvoisalle syyttäjäkunnalle

Jussi Halla-ahon tämänpäiväisen oikeudenkäynnin kunniaksi blogi palaa pieneksi hetkeksi eloon. Kirjoitan tähän lyhyesti kaksi arvelua, joita kumpaakaan en esitä faktana.

1. Muslimien, juutalaisten ja kristittyjen jumala on mullikuhnuri, ektoplasma, sianrasvassa käristettävä herkkukurkku sekä sadistinen pedofiili, narkomaani ja taparikollinen.

2. Amerikkalaisten kansallisia, kenties jopa geneettisiä erityispiirteitä ovat ylensyöminen, kerskakulutus ja köyhien maiden pommittaminen.

Näissä merkeissä toivotan Mika Illmanille ja hänen hengenheimolaisilleen hyvää päivän jatkoa.

Lauri Wahlstedt
Vantaalla 25.8

10 July 2007

Panpsychism and the challenge of unconsciousness

Most philosophies of mind agree on the division between conscious and non-conscious. Dualism postulates consciousness as soul-stuff separate from the blind matter, while various monists inspired by scientific materialism consider it to be an emergent epiphenomenon of matter/energy which is real, but once again fundamentally non-conscious. Both of these are equally unscientific views in that they have to use magic to explain the inherent paradoxes in their views. Dualism, to answer how the mind, which isn't material and cannot be detected by any material means, can yet interact with the material world. Epiphenomenalists, to explain how the non-conscious matter causes this utterly different conscious experience to emerge from it. Both of these questions may have answers, but nothing in the whole human knowledge allows us to even start formulating one. It just happens "somehow".

Functionalist views equating conscious experiences with information processing in material systems fare better in this regard, wholly avoiding the interaction problems of dualism. Note, by the way, that epiphenomenalism, no matter its monist pretensions, is still fundamentally dualist. Unlike traditional versions, it proclaims mind "unreal" and instead of two-way interaction, only matter is supposed to affect the mind. None of this changes the fact that such views divide reality into two utterly different substances. In any case, despite avoiding such problems, functionalism has some of its own. If information/matter is intrinsically conscious, how come everything isn't conscious then? Either we assume that there is some fundamental distinction between different kinds of informational processes, even if the material substrate is entirely similar and nothing that's understood about the relatively small differences offers even a slightest hint of solution to the problem. So it's the "just somehow" solution again. Or, we can go all the way to panpsychism, but not only does blathering about "how everything is conscious" sound like fluffy New Age mysticism, it also seems self-evidently absurd. If someone hits you in the head hard enough, you lose your consciousness, but it's not like all brain activity in your head stops. Besides, vast majority of that activity is always subconscious. We're aware of only a small fraction of what happens in our heads. But is this truly so, or is the idea of unconsciousness another one of those useful, yet ultimately mistaken illusions that abound in intuitive view of human mind?

I once read about an unfortunate person with considerable brain damage. He suffered from anterograde amnesia, that is, inability to form any new long-term memories. Since his working memory was intact, he could perform fairly complex tasks, have conversations and act deceptively normally, but the moment he let something go from his mind, it was gone forever. Effectively, the man was trapped in an eternal present. Occasionally he became aware that he didn't have any recollection of what had happened before, and felt that he had awakened from a long sleep, just become conscious for the first time. Once he wrote this down on a piece of paper. Moment later, he of course forgot all about it, and when he read what he had wrote, he was very puzzled. It was obvious to him that actually, it was now he was conscious for the first time, and somehow he had written about being conscious when he actually wasn't. So, he drew a line over that, and below it, wrote "NOW I am conscious for the first time!". Then he forgot it again, and was just as puzzled when he found the paper. He wound up repeating the cycle many times, and a paper filled with exclamations about finally having become conscious.

Others can safely say that the man was conscious all the time, of course. Likewise, we don't think we've been unconscious for most of our life, even if our memories cover only a small fraction of it. Others have memories of us having behaved in clearly self-aware manner during the gaps, there may be other proof our actions, and even if there isn't, we can safely assume that we were conscious years ago when awake and active, since we're conscious when we're awake now. Still, it is easy to imagine a hypothetical situation where there would be no such reasons to assume consciousness even if it actually was present. If the brain-damaged patient had been completely paralyzed as well, he would have just laid there (see this article about locked-in syndrome). If this additional damage had then been somehow repaired, the man would have risen up and said "Whoa! I just became conscious!" And this time an observer unaware of the memory impairment would have absolutely no way of telling this wasn't at all true.

I think we can safely assume that a knock-out hit disturbs brain enough to shut down memory formation and motoric functions. Therefore, if we had some conscious experiences during the time we spent crumpled on the floor, we'd have no way of communicating about them to external observers, nor any memories of those. Upon waking up, the period would simply seem an empty gap to us. Others, having perceived no indication of conscious activity, and knowing that they too had no recollections from such periods, would assume unconsciousness. None of this proves that we're actually conscious in some unstructured, primitive way during the time we seem not be. Simply that there's no way to tell.

Something similar may be happening in the case of subconscious mentation, as with the informational processes in our body outside the central nervous system (ie. the fairly complex analytic processes of human immune system). CNS isn't an unitary system; rather a network of interacting subsystems with no centre. Very little information processed by lower-order systems is relevant to the cluster of higher-order mental processes we call everyday consciousness. These deal with carefully filtered, highly abstracted information. Cortical networks directing hand to select a correct object with which to further some purpose need not be informed of status of every nerve ending any more than generals of Army High Command moving divisions need to know that Pvt Rock of 101th is homesick. If brain's subsystems are functionally differentiated, would not their associated conscious experiences be differentiated as well? Then, if explicit memory images we usually mean when referring to "memories" could in most cases only be formed by select few systems, we'd also be uncapable of recalling the other levels of conscious experience.

It's likewise with the human being and the outside world. Materially speaking, all is one. Your body and the surrounding air are composed of the same particles and quanta, occupying the same spacetime. Both are essentially empty, the face a bit less so. Still, they're also divided by a series of semipermeable boundaries. Skin, orifices, sensory organs... All designed to isolate the inside of body from the outside, while allowing in only selected kinds of matter and energy. Again, one could draw a vague parallel to the world of mind. If it is the same as the world of matter, if these two apparently dissimilar substances are actually aspects of a greater whole, then we'd expect the conscious universe to be both one and many. Brahman/Atman.

Surely, that last bit took this beyond the realms of sensibility? Hinduism is a religion, a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo, while philosophy and science are solidly rational endeavours. I'd expect such a reaction from many, but it betrays a feeble grasp about scientific approach to understanding the world as opposed to dogmatic following of scientific materialism. That is a metaphysical dogma that postulates that only matter and energy are real, reality consists of tiny parts and can therefore be understood by studying those parts, that mathematical laws underlie the operation of universe and so on. Now, it is a fairly sensible metaphysics as far as those go, but nonetheless, it is a philosophical dogma that requires faith should it be taken as truth. Science, on the other hand, is simply a method for formulating shared, provisional truths. It is using sense information and logic to build hypotheses about reality and then test them. It upholds no particular metaphysics, nor does reason. That most scientists are scientific materialists, that many confuse the method and dogma with each other, doesn't alter this fact at all.

Philosophy is less fortunate in the sense that it's incapable of testing its ideas. I cannot offer any experimental proof of conscious universe, even though that's where logic seems to take me. Of course, the path is dependent on disqualifying competing metaphysics for having to invoke obscure forces they cannot even begin to explain, but in the future they may find their explanations. One could say I have used Occam's Chainsaw rather than his Razor. For the moment, however, panpsychism appears to remain the simplest, clearest way of relating matter and consciousness to each other. Its sublime beauty and certain comfort I derive of it are ultimately irrelevant, of course, but a good thing nonetheless. If I have ended concurring with some ancient mystics, so be it. Perhaps they were onto something in some other ways, as well. This is not a justification for blind adoration or accepting their ideas on faith, obviously, but an exhortation for careful logical analysis freed from the confines of scientific materialism which, although often a superb tool, can also be a prison when taken as a sole truth.

14 June 2007

Inhumanity of humanitarian immigration

It's long been a source of amusement and frustration to me that those most concerned about the welfare of Earth's wretched demand, even implement, policies that ultimately harm the poor. Amongst those people, there is enormous amount of wishful thinking and warm feelings, but little analytical thinking on what would actually give best results. Obviously, outside their circles there's even more ignorance and uncaring about all that suffering and extreme poverty; there are even people who take active delight in the heart-breaking plight of many, for it fills them with pride in themselves and their prosperous, peaceful societies. All this I see as betrayal of our common humanity and the global responsibilities of rich, powerful First World nations. Noblesse does oblige. However, at least uncaring has the virtue of not pretending to be a virtue, and it tend to maintain the status quo. That, although unsatisfactory at the very least, is easily preferable over the wreckage that failed utopian projects always leave behind.

In this age, one common way of showing off your ethicalness and caring heart is to favor so-called humane immigration policy. This means essentially that everyone in need of aid shall receive it. Every refugee that comes knocking at our gates, requesting a sanctuary from war, oppression or torture, must be given one. To turn him away, send him back to certain death, would be inhuman. Obviously, once he's here, he must be reunited with his family, if that didn't originally come in with him. Even if it's not in any danger, it's cruel to keep people apart from their loved ones. No solid proof of danger to their lives can be demanded, not even identity papers showing they come from a war-torn or brutally autocratic nation. It's absurd to assume that victims of torture, desperately fleeing into the dark of night, are in position to gather any kind of documentary proof.

This is by no means despicable or stupid way of thinking. Try to put yourself in the skin of some anonymous African. Your government or a brutal, capricious warlord (assuming there's even a difference) got mad at you for some ridiculous reason and sent a bunch of brutal, sadistic goons to seize you. You were mercilessly beaten, tortured and thought you're surely going to die. Somehow, however, you managed to escape (maybe a relative spent all his money to bribe some official to look another way), but knew that if you stayed in country, you would soon die agonizingly. So you ran, having heard that West sometimes gives people like you a refuge and clinging desperately to that hope, for it's all you had left. After a long, dangerous journey you arrived in Europe and requested sanctuary. However, you ran into a bureaucratic nightmare you couldn't figure out and officials on your case regarded you with little but suspicion, for you had little but your story and few scars to show for your pains. After years of nagging uncertainty, after several denied requests that every time shattered your hopes, the deportment order comes. Your story wasn't believed, your homeland had been deemed safe and you were going to be returned there. Think about the sheer desperation of that moment. It's impossible not to sympathize, impossible not to feel angry at the fact that this is precisely what happens all the time. For many empathetic people, the emotions can be very strong, and consequently, any disagreements with their ideas on refugee policies cause just as inevitable emotional counterreaction. Christ, what kind of cold-blooded monster dooms people to death and torture when he could help them? Surely, anybody who understands the situation and has any capacity for empathy at all will favor helping those who need help, humanely letting refugees into Europe. There can be no legitimate reasons to disagree, only stupidity, racism and cruelty. Thought stops.

This is tragic, for once again, road to Hell is paved with good intentions. While helping refugees is a good thing, in practice this policy would mean that any Third Worlder could receive vastly improved standard of living (for which he need not even work), far better prospects for future and greater political freedoms simply by telling a heart-breaking story. Might it just be imaginable that some might consider inventing one to be a small price for escape from poverty? Every year up to half a million illegal immigrants enter Europe, often risking their lives in the hands of brutal human traffickers or dangerous boat journeys, all without any certainty of what happens when they arrive. If not expulsed, they usually end up working without rights in degrading, awful jobs, even as virtual slaves on Spanish plantations. Many of them were deluded by overt hopes when they decided to move, of course. Yet it still tells something of the pressures that overpopulation and poverty exert on many countries. How many times as much would come if we made it much easier and raised the payoff at the same time?

There is nothing inherently wrong in seeking to better one's lot, of course. I know I propably would try to immigrate to Europe had I born in Africa, and if exploiting refugee system would get me in, so be it. Many Westerners have also left their homelands during the centuries. Yet it is sadly true that which is admirable on individual level can be very harmful on the level of groups. It was not White Man's racism, greed or exceptional cruelty that fueled the vast, brutal ethnic cleansing of North America. It was European settler/immigrant, who had left his homelands seeking usually very modest goals, such as a small farm on which he could raise a family and live in peace without stupid warring kings, intolerant priests and nosy officials making his life a misery. There is nothing bad with that, obviously, but unfortunately all those small strips of land really built up when they started to come in their millions. After the fractious, a bit naive Indians had allowed Europeans to entrench on their coasts, their destruction was only a matter of time.

Different times, very different situations, of course. Yet even if we're not about to be herded into reservations, allowing the masses of Third World to migrate in freely would still be a very bad idea. Bringing them in as refugees only makes it worse. Many of them lack capacity to contribute meaningfully to a modern economy, nor do most show much inclination to either work or seek training. Finland has a labour deficit in construction, docks and cleaning services, all areas dominated by unskilled and vocational school educated workers. Despite this, unemployment rate of many 3rd World nation citizens residing here is around 50-65%. Likewise, they are significantly more likely to commit crimes, especially robbery and rape. Other European countries have their own problem minorities, some of them much worse than ours. The explanations for all this are too complex to go in here, and always debatable, just like what conclusions can be ultimately be drawn. Right now I will simply state that reasons are one thing, and the fact that many immigrant groups are prone to deep, hostile alienation is another. This fact alone, no matter what exactly causes it and who's to blame, is enough to burden social security and increase crime. To some extent this is already a reality in Europe of 2007, and there's absolutely no logical reason to assume that massive expansion of these minorities would somehow make it all better.

Most people do not much like or respect freeloaders, criminals, or for that matter fake refugees. Allowing massive abuses of sanctuary system would only spread cynicism about all refugees. Contempt would then begin turning into hostility when people connected the dots between newcomers and increasing taxes, constant cuts in public services and the fear they feel when walking alone in the night. As always, there would be several reasons for that, but when much of the blame can justly be placed on outsiders, many are all too happy to pin it all on them. There would be lurid tales of shocking individual crimes, and dramatic, exaggerated accounts of immigrant contribution to pressing social problems. Some of them would be spread by people desperate to turn around the policy they see as disastrous, others maybe by those driven by more personal hatreds and prejudices. All would harden the public attitudes equally much. Far right ultra-nationalists would gain lots of essentially factual arguments and the kind of legitimacy they haven't enjoyed since World War 2. Eventually, what remained of modern Left would come to fondly remember the days when racism meant coarse jokes and fascism restricting further immigration.

There's no way out of this dilemma. Either the country allows vast abuses of refugee system, or upholds a inhuman policy which operates on cynicism, sends people back to their deaths and provides a perfect environment for spiteful little bureaucrats who get a kick of humiliating desperate people. The system can easily be a mix of both (it is, actually), but it cannot be neither. This is a result of situation where many have very strong motivations to lie about their situation as convincingly as possible, while our methods of checking out their stories are very weak. The element of uncertainty is rarely absent from the case of any refugee; often it is simply impossible to decide. All that remains is to decide is the default answer, whether you dislike false acceptances or false denials less. It's not some flaw fixable by some refinement of interrogation methods or smart policies, but a fundamental aspect of humanitarian immigration's character.

It's possible that one day neuroscientists develop a reliable lie detector, which would make current system plausible, but no timetable can be given for that apart from "not in near future". Apart from such technological solution, there's little left but go beyond tweaks and rewrite the rules of game entirely. As it stands, there's even more problems with humanitarian immigration, and they give us a hint about one possible answer. First, most refugees never end up requesting sanctuary from modern world, but for the sake of dependants or lack of resources, go no further than refugee camps at nearby countries. Second, living expenses in modern world are considerably greater than in developing countries. Therefore, our current system is an inefficient way of helping a fairly small fraction of refugees.

On the contrary, help directed at people in Third World refugee camps reaches a greater portion of people in need, is much more cost-effective and avoids the complicated dilemmas of humanitarian immigration. Certainly the conditions in many of them are rather terrible and some, such as Darfurian refugees' camps in Chad, have even been plagued by the same enemies from whom refugees originally fled. What would help them most? Taking a tiny part of them into Europe, or building schools, hospitals and dormitories on those camps, while sending some Rapid Reaction Forces to grind janjaweeds trespassing on Chad's territory into mincemeat? There is a problem of cheaters here too, though, for Chad's citizens are dirt poor, and might pose as Darfurian refugees to gain the same benefits. This could be countered by organizing refugees on tribal and family lines, while holding the whole group responsible for any miscreants in their ranks. Then again, I think it would be even better to simply open those schools and hospitals to all people in the region. Education and healthcare are important aspects of development aid in any case.

I'm not advocating a complete end to sanctuary system. I recall it was originally developed for dissidents from Eastern Bloc, and there are still people in corresponding situations. To make refugee camps a viable option, there must be mass movement of people. For a handful of political refugees they make little sense. They may not be safe in neighbouring countries, either. Of course the secret polices of some vindictive totalitarian regimes have assassinated refugees living in West as well, but at least it's a much bigger bother that way. Also, such refugees usually have more solid proof of their plight, and since they don't come in vast masses, any problems they might cause are very limited in scale (with the exception of Islamist agitators, who should be shipped back in pretty gift wrapping). Another exception could be made in the case of useful people. If some person works hard, follows the laws and respects the customs of host country, what does it matter on what grounds he originally came in? There have been propositions to found centers in Africa to hire labour for European job market; in my opinion these upgraded refugee camps could be good places for them. If organized properly, people can be tested there for suitability, they have plenty of time to study European languages and everything else they'll need here, and gratitude for aid they and their families have received could further their will to do their best once in Europe. Also, children who do well in school should be offered the option to continue their studies in Europe. All this would be a lasting boon for refugees once they return to their homes.

Humanitarian immigration may be an inferior alternative, but only from the viewpoint of refugees. They do not benefit, but there are other people who do:

1) European left-wing parties and more specifically their xenomanic members. Refugees who gain citizenship tend to vote for them, since they are so heavily in favor of generous social security, job quotas for certain minorities, hate speech legislation and "tolerance". In some European countries this is becoming an important factor in elections. In Belgium, immigration and ease of gaining citizenship is even an important part of government's battle against anti-immigration, separationist Vlaams Belang.
2) All kinds of minority affairs bureaucrats, multiculture coordinators, diversity drama therapists and anti-racism educators funded out of public purse. These people need minorities and ethnic tensions, for they have built their entire careers around them. The minorities must never be well integrated and content. A Turk or Chinaman running a restaurant is useful to economy, but utterly useless to careerists.
3) Intellectuals and activist youth with burning need to feel more ethical and intelligent than the stupid masses. Problematic minorities irritate most people and create racism, with quotation marks and without, which can then be venomously condemned. This proves their moral superiority and intellectual as well, since as we all know, racists are stupid and ignorant. Also it is great fun to shrug off the chains of proper respectful manners, which the racist subhumans are not worthy of.
4) Rich capitalists salivating at the thought of vast reserve of cheap labour, ignorant of its rights and more focused on ethnic than class conflicts. With the current welfare, most neither need nor wish to work, but once the system becomes overburdened, it obviously has to be drastically cut. This should make those uppity native European workers pretty pliable as well. Best of all, leftists do all your work for you.

It's perhaps not surprising that the advocates of humane refugee policy and open borders in general tend to come from these groups. In the course of my more cynical hours, I've felt that it's all nothing but a sham, disgusting exploitation of desperate people for some unbelievably petty, selfish goals. I don't know, though. The understanding of what's good for them may of course subconsciously direct their actions, but even if your own interest is what it's all fundamentally about, why not tell yourself you do it because you're so ethical and enlightened? You can both eat your cake and have it. Besides, many people with such opinions really seem to wish to do the right thing, more so than most. Problem is that their notions of right and wrong are determined mainly by emotions and peer pressure; that is, they are very much like everyone else, even if they like to think they are better (in this they are also so very mundane). Yet does it matter why people do what they do, if the results are so poor?

Some would say it does. European Union has been developing so-called regional protection programmes, which are supposed to enable the neighbouring countries of crisis zone, or the transition countries, to help refugees. This is a step in right direction, and I certainly do welcome it. Amnesty International, all in favor of "humane" policy, doesn't. In 3/2007 issue of Finnish department's newspaper, the programmes are criticized amongst other reasons for: "The motives of programmes have been questioned. Generous donations to build up border security have been interpreted as EU's wish to stop disliked population groups from entering its territory." Now, this is undoubtedly somewhat correct. I certainly prefer to keep out such groups that strain economy, add to insecurity and are a boon to racist far right. But let's assume that the motives aren't practical, but racist. I'll bet my neck that there are plenty of people who have latched into ideas like these described in this essay as a politically correct way of saying "no niggers wanted!". What of it? If racism can be channeled into supporting Third World refugees in a less problematic, more cost-effective way than what we have today, isn't it only a good thing? Better than to have it directed into hating the unwashed masses here, right?

It comes down to one of these age-old philosophical dilemmas: Is an act good or bad depending on what it caused, or why it was done? It's a multi-faceted, complex question, but in this context it ultimately comes down to a very much simpler one. How many people are helped? We are talking about real human beings, with all the fears, dreams and that vast capacity for suffering. As such, it is irresponsible and rather repulsive to focus like a laser beam on whether someone wants to help them in their plight because he irrationally detests them, let alone oppose it because of such motivation. The refugee himself certainly doesn't care if he receives medicine and dry bed because of racism, or never gets them because of someone's warmth and empathy. Even if we still wish to reserve the right to detest racists, we shouldn't either.

03 June 2007

Some philosophical quagmires

I have noticed that many philosophical problems and odd conclusions of some theories hold a common basis. They are actually illusions, born of not taking the principles in question far enough, but rather using other, more familiar principles together with them. I'll draw my examples from utilitarianism and nihilism, two schools of thought that please my mental aesthetics.

Nobody can avoid hearing or thinking sometimes that "nothing really matters". If all values are inside our heads, mere subjective preferences, doesn't it indeed logically follow that there are no objective values and therefore everything is ultimately pointless? Well, if nothing matters, then the fact that nothing matters doesn't matter either... But there's a logical error in play as well, which can be revealed through simple rephrasing: If there are no objective values, then objective value of everything = 0. In fact, the lack of anything valuable outside human heads means that there is no point in speaking of "ultimately" anythings. Only subjective preferences exist, and those can vary wildly. If something matters to you, then it matters to you. That's all there is to it.

Rather similar mistake is made by cultural relativists who claim that all cultures are equally good and worthy, because there is no objective method for arranging them into any hierarchy. All well and good, but without such method it is just as impossible to state they all are as good as each other. For any subjective observer cultures are self-evidently unequal, since they express different facets of humanity in very variable ways. This holds true for the cultural relativists just as much for others -- just witness how a typical specimen reacts to homophobic or misogynist attitudes barely a fraction of those held by many Middle Easterners, for example. Honest cultural relativist might think that his values are not universal, and others may have perfectly legitimate reasons for preferring something he detests, but it doesn't follow that he has to like or even tolerate such things.

In both cases, thinking is being built around the subjectivity of values, but the ghost of objective values is still flitting around. Instead of being banished, as it logically should be, every subjective set of preferences is simply given the same objective value. It is a easy mistake to make. When young, we intuitively conflate together both value types, and understanding of subjectivity develops step by step, not all at once. It is easy to forget the last one.

Utilitarianism encounters similar problems, most clearly expressed in some popular criticisms against it. One is the scenario where a person causes something good by doing something very nasty, for example a drunk driver speeding into some pedestrians and ending up killing an uncaught serial killer. Was this act good or evil? Utilitarianism would say it was good, since the consequences were good, yet drawing this conclusion feels uncomfortable. This, I think, is due to the intuition that good acts ought to be rewarded, and only bad to be punished. Yet this is deontological approach. Utilitarianism, if taken to its logical conclusion and not switched to another view in the middle of example, requires acts to be met with that which gives greatest benefit. So it was great that the killer died and cannot murder any more. Nonetheless it is seen as beneficial to society to punish people severely for drunk driving and manslaughter. Therefore, that's what should be done.

Another critique of utilitarianism states that it is often impossible to precisely calculate the consequences of actions. Even when possible, it might be long, hard work, pointlessly so in most cases. These are valid criticisms, but they aren't arguments against the principle of consequentalism itself, merely the idea that our deeds should be chosen by applying some form of ethical calculus. In fact utilitarianism applies to the ways of determining the preferred actions just as much as everything else. Since determining their consequences exactly is so hard, and time used to determining proper actions is a resource as well, utilitarianism actually invalidates itself in its naive form. More useful is to apply heuristics, or rules of thumb associated with preferred outcomes. In practice this is very close to old-fashioned ethical systems with their do's and don't's, which is hardly a coincidence. We have had such systems because they are fairly simple, fast and work adequately. The difference is not seeing those as inflexible mandates, and recognizing that while they do usually work, they are by no means perfect means of attaining the best consequences. If the case is important enough that one can spend quite a while thinking about it, and following ethical rules would seem to lead to some rather unpreferable outcome, then careful weighing of pros and cons has its place.

Just like nihilism, utilitarianism is an unintuitive way of thinking that develops gradually. It is easy for residues of rule-based morality to stay in the brain. Another problem is seeing these two approaches as somehow mutually exclusive, when in fact rules are so fundamentally important part of any realistically applicable utilitarianism. When consequential thinking is taken to its logical conclusion, this does indeed become apparent, but once again, such is usually easier said than done.

26 May 2007

Terror's rotten roots

Many people are fond of explaining Islamist terrorism by blowback theory; that is, they attack West in retaliation for our crimes against Islamic world. This can be seen as an explanation, and also as a justification. The same individuals with some sympathy for the latter option often include socioeconomic factors in their explanation. In addition for being a strike of the powerless against the injustices of world, terrorism also springs of frustration and despair of poverty. This is also our fault, because as we all know, exploitation is the sole determinant of wealth differences. Rich individuals and nations prosper because they rip off the poor. Viva la Marx.

As a partial explanation, blowback is a real no-brainer. To deny that the plight of Palestinians, support of Arab dictators and Iraq War cause resentment towards US and West would take massive, willful blindness. Including poverty has some merit, as well, though it fits better as one explanation for the spread of Islamism, and the domestic terrorism in Middle East and North Africa. A society full of young men with no prospects for future is an explosive one, and a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of extremism. However, no matter how fanatically some Pakistani goat herder or slum youth in Cairo might hate West, he doesn't make a good terrorist. That requires language skills and a capacity to blend in modern society, neither of which he has. Contemporary Islamist terrorists have come from the upper strata of Arab societies, or from the middle classes of European Muslims, who really aren't economically deprived in any meaningful sense. Of course, to act as a jihadi in Afghanistan or Iraq is a different matter... but I digress.

So, these explanations certainly aren't entirely worthless, but are they sufficient? If they were, what implications would that have? Consider South and Central America. These regions have rampant poverty, both in the absolute and relative sense. Slum dwellers and many rural Indians are poor in the extreme, yet the upper classes live in great luxury. Income differences in the region are some of the greatest in the whole world. Also, it is here that United States has acted in nakedly imperalistic way for a long time. They have supported dictators and terrorists, engineered coups, militarily intervened and even outright invaded couple times (Grenada '83 and Panama '89). The economic relationships have been characterized by exploitation of South by US corporate giants. Really, compared to all this America has been a charity to Muslims. If anti-imperialist backlash and economic deprivation would suffice to explain terrorism, US would have been a target of merciless and extensive Latino-Caribbean terrorism for over a century.

Perhaps the International Patriarchal-Imperialist Conspiracy is hiding the evidence, but as far as I know, those groups haven't made a single terrorist attack. How come? Perhaps they do hate our freedoms after all?

In my opinion that is yet another partial truth. Certainly, there are elements in Western culture that Islamists view with utmost loathing. West self-consciously elevates man-made laws above God's law and its own explanations of universe above divine revelations. White whores cavort in the streets semi-naked inciting innocent Muslims to rape, actually daring to think they are somehow equal to men. Homosexuals and other filthy perverts aren't punished for their moral sickness, but allowed to spread their degeneracy. Sayyid Qutb, one of the founding intellectuals of modern jihadism, came to see Americans as "a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money" during the time he spent in USA -- and this was almost 60 years ago, long before the sexual revolution of Sixties and the general liberalisation of lifestyle. What do you suppose he would have thought about this?

So the Western culture is decadent and worthless, the antithesis of Islam. In itself this might not matter. Unfortunately, according to every measure, West is stronger and more prosperous by far than Muslim world. It is intolerable that these disgusting little creatures, not even proper infidels anymore for they have no faith at all, stand above the favored of God. It makes complete mockery of the Salafist idea that Muslims became weak when they ceased to follow the good, original ways. If society's strength is tied to the favor of Allah, what could possibly explain the power of West? It gets worse, for by no means do all Muslims share their poisonous contempt. Rather, a complex mixture of ambivalent emotions seems to dominate, admiration mixing with unease about our debaucheries and bitterness of their own relative weakness. When there is hate, it has political roots, not cultural. Western ways have already metastasized into Islamic cultures, and there's an everpresent danger of further spread as long as West stays superior and Muslims do not firmly reject them. This hardly seems a threat to Islam right now, but Christianity didn't seem to be under any more threat when it started compromising with modernity, and just look at it now.

That the soulless beasts meddle in Muslim affairs, militarily humiliate them and occupy their lands is of course yet another reason for hatred, but it's not just that. The exploitative practices of West give a suitable excuse for their power and Muslim weakness, neatly tying in with Marxist worldview so popular in West itself. They disgrace Western sympathizers and liberal reformers, giving credibility to the idea that West is indeed enemy of Islam. They become an important tool for propaganda and recruitment, perhaps the most important one, for few Muslims are really all that eager to return to 7th century, especially when contemporary Islamist states such as Sudan or Taliban's Afghanistan have been everything but utopian. If they weren't the sentinel of Islam, the only ones fighting against its most deadly enemy, they would have far less to build on, and no excuses whatsoever for the failure of their ideology to build a strong societies wherever they've had power.

Therefore, while the Islamists do hate us for what we are, it is Western policies that help them gain converts and sympathy. As such, they desperately need us to be their enemy, and can be expected to work towards that end. One of the most imporant tricks of any guerrilla or terrorist organization worth anything is to trick its more powerful enemy into indiscriminate reprisals that cause havoc amongst innocents and translate into support for organization largely responsible for them. Perhaps 9/11 was neither defence against imperialism, or some insane, pointless blow against a hated culture, but a calculated provocation. If so, it was certainly a smashing success. With Iraq War, Uncle Sam became Osama bin Laden's recruiting sergeant, and by opening a battlefront on Arab lands, it gave opportunity of fighting for those Islamists with no capacity for international terrorism.

Could we then pull a rug from under their feet by adopting some "ethical" foreign policy, that is, one every Muslim can be happy about? Perhaps in a long term it would have such an effect, but it would be of no immediate help against this ideology's adherents. They would still need us to be their enemy, still have the same reasons to provoke us. Excuses can always be found (from the situation of Europe's Muslims for example, which will never be satisfactory for them), and even if they would seem flimsy to many, once the provocation succeeded, such details would be soon forgotten. How much anger about 9/11 there has been on Arab Street since Iraq War? The realignment of Western foreign policy would be represented as their victory, product of great fear that they struck in the withered hearts of enemy. It might give them the boost they need to seize control of many Muslim states, especially since we'd have to abandon support for friendly autocrats currently keeping them in check. Certainly European Islamists and the criminal scum of Muslim ghettoes would become even more aggressive and arrogant. The inevitable backlash against this would then of course provide ample justification for terrorist attacks. Of course all this is rather academic, for USA will not force Israel to fold to Arab demands and West cannot risk Middle Eastern oil falling in hands of hostile regimes.

Action can be taken against terrorist networks. Their leaders can be seized or assassinated, their communications and finances disrupted. Military force can be used against countries that have very clearly thrown in their lot with extremists. Bombing of Libya and invasion of Afghanistan caused relatively little furour, propably in large part because West had casus belli in both cases, unlike with Iraq. Western intellectuals could stop aiding Islamist propagandists by depicting us as uniquely aggressive, imperialist force, and claiming the sorry state of Third World is primarily result of our actions. It is questionable whether such methods would win the war on jihadi terrorism, but at least they wouldn't make things worse. In a sense that would be enough to "win", for as long as terrorism stays at current low levels, it is ultimately of no consequence. Even if jihadists managed to ramp up their campaign considerably and kill WTC's worth of civilians every year, it'd still be absolutely nothing compared to such killers as tobacco or traffic accidents, both of which have demonstrably failed to destroy the free society. The effect of terrorism is the terror it causes in people ignorant of its irrelevancy; its danger to us the ways in which we overreact to that terror. Every time we lash out blindly in anger rather than in cold-blooded, surgical manner, build up ridiculously expensive surveillance systems of questionable worth, or compromise our liberties for marginal improvements in security, terrorists win.

17 May 2007

What kind of racist are you?

Racial differences in intelligence is a subject in which you just can't win. As everyone knows, to be ethical, intelligent human being, you must believe that every human population is just as intelligent on average, and there are no hereditary differences between them. Problem is, these two unquestionable truths are mutually exclusive.

The effects of extreme poverty on people are multifaceted and harsh. As our standard of living has risen here in West, average height of people has risen, as have the IQ scores (phenomenon known as Flynn Effect). The validity of IQ as measure of intelligence can always be debated, as can the relative importance of different factors. Clearly, however, there are several important environmental ones. A child in some poor nation starts his life in a womb of malnourished mother with at least couple parasitic infections. As he grows up, he will suffer from the same woes, his diet being unsatisfactory in both quantity and quality. He'll fall ill often, and has to share his nutrition with some uninvited little guests in his body. His body will never have quite enough nutrients it needs to build itself up, and brain will suffer along with the other parts. Drained of energy to some extent, the child won't be as active and curious as he could otherwise be, and thus his brain will not receive some of the stimulation it needs to develop. His environment makes this even worse. Overworked, exhausted and relatively dull mother of seven has little time or energy for individual attention or discussions not related to practical matters at hand. The child will most likely live in some rural village where every day is like other, where nothing much ever happens apart from the same deadening routine. He won't get many years of school. His culture will be more or less superstitious and conservative, unfamiliar with abstract, logical thought and unfriendly to intellectual curiosity.

Compare this to modern West. The diet of child born here is adequate even at its worst. Epidemic diseases are mostly under control, parasitic infections (with few mild exceptions such as Toxoplasma gondii) have been crushed and healthcare system has the whole arsenal of modern medicine to treat those who fall ill. By global standards, almost all parents are highly educated, some extremely so, and they have relatively few offspring. Children are usually educated for over ten years, and their environment is rich in information. Even the TV zombies receive lots of diverse stimulation compared to their kin in Third World, and for those with even a touch of inquisitiveness, sky's the limit. The culture, for the most part, respects intelligence and knowledge, tolerates divergent ideas and encourages the solution of conflicts through non-violent means. We could be doing much better still, but even now, our children live in environment far more conductive to development of intelligence than most others on this world.

The worst environment is without doubt sub-Saharan Africa, where every factor mentioned exists in extreme form. Therefore, if we assume that there are no hereditary differences in intelligence between populations, Europeans are on average more intelligent than Africans (immigrants and refugees living in Europe included). To believe in this is to be a filthy racist. On the other hand, if we assume that every group is just as intelligent, Africans would have to start from a higher level. There would be a racial hierarchy of cognitive capacities, and since we in West value intelligence so highly, some races would simply be better than others in our eyes. That's at least as racist, even if it would make us the subhumans.

So which one is it for you? A warm-hearted humanist would go with the latter option, I think, for it'd mean that the poorer, more ignorant and oppressed some people is, the better it really is. While not discounting the possibility of slight hereditary variations in some sub-components of intelligence, I personally choose the former. However, I don't think that intelligence is the only, or even primary determinant of human worth, even if I do value it highly. I also do not think that the proper response to recognizing these environmental differences is arrogance and contempt. In my opinion we should respect our achievements, continue building on them, and do what we can to help others follow our footsteps. We shouldn't assume that Third World immigrants would, as a group, perform just as well as natives in modern information economy, even if all other things were equal. All this is undisputably racism according to its many newer definitions. Take it as you will.

14 May 2007

Empathy and third-person perception of qualia

There is mind and there is matter. Between them, a fundamental divide exists. One can be observed, the other not, apart from experiencing it through being. This strict dichotomy between first- and third-person views feels intuitively correct, and seems usually to be taken for granted even by those who deny the concept of universe divided into two fundamentally distinct substances. Such denial, of course, becomes somewhat shaky if consciousness is indeed intrinsically unobservable. There would be a very basic level divide in existence then, mandating some degree of dualism, if not full-blown one.

In this essay I will argue that there is no such divide. Qualia of others aren't any more unobservable in principle than any physical characteristic. The fallacy of unobservability shall be shown by two examples of perceiving consciousness: One real though limited, other theoretical but clear.

Consider empathy. Most humans are capable, to a varying degree, of observing the whole rich repertoire of conscious and unconscious communication of others. With this information, they can construct an inner model of mental states that caused those communicative acts, and respond to them in appropiate manner. This construct usually has affective as well as cognitive component. In other words, empathetic human being feels what others feel. Qualia of emotion perceived.

Foul play and sophistry? Empathy is, after all, based on perceiving the external correlates of consciousness, and those are very much physical. It might seem that consciousness itself is again safe from observation, the divide intact. However, defining observation as perceiving the thing-in-itself has the unfortunate side effect of making all physical objects impossible to observe as well. You aren't seeing these letters themselves, nor your monitor. What you see is an inner model constructed by your brain out of information from your eyes, that based on stream of photons from whatever you're looking at. What kind of stream arrives does correlate with its physical characteristics, which permits a construction of model very useful to your interaction with the world - but a construct it stays, nonetheless. In fact the nature of this observation-construct might differ from the observed thing more in the case of physical objects. In empathy brain is modeling brain, in other cases things very different from itself. This leads to striking differences, such as the entirely arbitrary distinctions existing in the models of actually continuous phenomena. The wavelength of visible light is not really divided into parts, nor are there two qualitatively different states of temperature.

Empathy is, of course, defective instrument. Communicative acts aren't perfect indicators of mental states. Humans lie, they fake emotions, they conceal them. Even without all this, the amount of information conveyed is small relative to that contained by some brainstate, and as such, any picture based on it is bound to be rather crude. Constructing a thought-experiment involving neither of these restrictions proves illustrative. Imagine a futuristic descendant of today's FMRI machines, with spatial and temporal resolutions fine enough to read the activity of even individual neurons. This instrument is connected to a device capable of stimulating or inhibiting the brain activity, again at any level wished for. The system reads the brainstates of persons A and B. It selects some part of person A's state, for example that correlating with his verbalized thoughts. Then it constructs a functionally identical replica of that pattern, and uses the brain manipulator to write it into B's head. As a result, B thinks A's thoughts. The principle could be applied to emotions, sensory experiences, essentially every conscious thing that's happening in the brain. Of course it is unlikely that the resulting experience would be identical to original, with differing brain structures and inevitable entanglement of the replica with other patterns in B's brain. Still, as noted, no realistic concept of perception can demand this.

All in all, the apparent unreachability of qualia rests on inaccurate intuitions on the nature of perception, as well as our inadequate natural capacity of observing the brains of others. Medieval scholar, if he had somehow became aware of ultraviolet light, might very well have considered it qualitatively different from visible light, since it is invisible and impossible for him to observe. In a certain sense he would have been correct, but today we know that no such difference exists in the world - solely in the minds of those incapable of perceiving UV wavelengths. His mistake would have been perfectly understandable, but no less a mistake for that.