Category Archives: Religion

Stoking Hatred, Once Again

The Donald Trump campaign, yesterday:

    “Donald Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. … Mr. Trump stated… ‘Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anyone that the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine.'”

So he is calling for no new Muslim immigrants, students or tourists whatsoever. And a campaign spokeswoman said this would even apply to Muslim-Americans traveling outside the U.S. who then seek to return.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American Relations:

    “Where is there left for him to go? Are we talking internment camps? Are we talking the final solution?”

Former governor Martin O’Malley, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination:

    “@realdonaldtrump removes all doubt: he is running for President as a fascist demagogue.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination:

    “Donald Trump today took xenophobia and religious bigotry to a new level. His comments are hurting the war effort and putting our diplomats and soldiers serving in the Middle East at risk.”

Governor John Kasich, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination:

    “This is just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath and another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States.”

Let’s hope the center holds and repudiates this self-infatuated maniac between now and next November. Daesh must be praying for a Donald Trump victory, because no U.S. politician is more capable of working with them to stoke hatred against ordinary Muslims who are, by the way, the biggest victims around the world of extremist jihadi terrorism.

Caught in the Middle

I believe in God but not in divine intervention. God doesn’t send prophets or holy books (these are the creations of humans trying to understand God). God doesn’t answer prayers — in fact, God may not be paying attention at all. Humans are part of God’s project, but not a particularly essential part. In fact, there are most likely many races far more advanced than us. God didn’t make humans in his image — God made the universe to evolve, and we are one of the things in it. God isn’t focused on us. God stands back like a scientist, watching the universe dispassionately to see what happens.

I believe the best way to know God and God’s intentions is through science, because the physical laws of the universe are the only clues we really have as to God’s will. The only thing we can know for sure is that God willed a universe (assuming there even is a God, which we can’t know for sure) — and this universe has a complexity that favors life. Life exists here because it is possible, which wouldn’t be true in most of the universes we can imagine. And when something is possible, it will eventually happen. My leap of faith is to imagine this universe was set up on purpose for life to happen.

What I’ve discovered is that this viewpoint of mine, which to me seems frankly to be the only reasonable one, tends to annoy both atheists and traditional believers. The believers think I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in their God with his rules about washing your nose and feet before you pray (Muslims) or not switching on electricity one day a week (Jews) or requiring humans who speak in his name not to have sex (Catholics). I am absolutely, 100% sure that God doesn’t give a damn about petty rules like these — and while God is no doubt loving and compassionate as all the religions claim, it is really up to us to organize our societies and daily lives, and work out our laws of morality for ourselves. Nor do I believe there’s an afterlife, a place our selves go after death, where we can meet Grandma again or rap with Jesus in person. Nor will there be some vast showdown in the sky between Good and Evil at the end of the time, since Good and Evil only exist finally in our own minds. All of these things, and my refusal to accept any religious “truths” without questioning them from every angle, make most religious people think I’m a nonbeliever. And it’s true, I don’t believe in their religions the way they do — though I love to read holy books for their creative power.

On the other hand, a lot of atheists start at the other extreme, and assume there’s nothing good in religion at all. So when I try to talk to them about the purpose of the universe, and how it’s evolving toward ever-greater complexity and perfection so as to grow closer to God, they wonder what I’m doing mixing religious mumbo-jumbo with honest science. They think, “What a waste of a fine mind, to be mixed up with all that superstition.” They don’t want to hear about Sufis or Hindu saints and the revelations they had about the essential unity of all being, including us. They certainly don’t see any particular value in updating these ideas for our time, using all the latest theories of the Big Bang or the natural selection of species. It doesn’t add anything in their minds to speculate on the “unseen” because the unseen isn’t there — only what can be measured and proven is worth talking about. All the rest is an irritant and a distraction to them. Human knowledge is moving in one direction only, and the religious ideas of the past (which for them was an age of ignorance) are best left behind in abandoned monesteries, covered in dust.

(To be continued…?)

Links 20 August 2013

During my time in the labyrinth of footloose youth, I’ve barely had time for other Internet reading. However, current affairs did manage to poke through a bit in the past couple of days. The themes of interest for me were the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda while passing through London (Greenwald is the journalist who receieved Edward Snowden’s classified documents about NSA spying); a call for Swedes, men and women, to wear hijabs in solidarity with a pregnant Muslim woman who was assaulted in the street for wearing a hijab; and testimonials from Egyptian revolutionary youth showing how torn, angry, disgusted, and betrayed they are by the horrifying turn toward authoritarianism their country has taken. Here are the links.

The Guardian, “David Miranda’s Detention at Heathrow ‘Extraordinary’ Says Senior MP“:

    “David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8:05 a.m. and informed that he was to be questioned under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He was held for almost nine hours and officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.
    “‘It is an extraordinary twist to a very complicated story,’ [Kenneth] Vaz [chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee] told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. … ‘What needs to happen pretty rapidly is we need to establish the full facts — now you have a complaint from Mr. Greenwald and the Brazilian government. They indeed have said they are concerned at the use of terrorism legislation for something that does not appear to relate to terrorism, so it needs to be clarified, and clarified quickly.’ …
    “Miranda was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under Schedule 7 — over 97% — last less than an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours. …
    “Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of international law and policy, said: ‘It is utterly improbable that David Michael Miranda, a Brazilian national transiting through London, was detained at random, given the role his partner has played in revealing the truth about the unlawful nature of NSA surveillance. David’s detention was unlawful and inexcusable. … There is simply no basis for believing that David Michael Miranda presents any threat whatsoever to the UK government.'”

Washington Post, “U.S. Had Advance Notice of Britain’s Plan to Detain Reporter Glenn Greenwald’s Partner“:

    “White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials had received a ‘heads-up’ that London police would detain David Miranda on Sunday, but he said the U.S. government did not request Miranda’s detention, calling it ‘a law enforcement action’ taken by the British government.
    “‘This was a decision that was made by the British government without the involvement and not at the request of the United States government. It’s as simple as that,’ Earnest said. …
    “Greenwald, in an e-mail on Monday, said his partner had been questioned about a variety of subjects including ‘what stories we were working on at that moment.’
    “‘David was asked mostly about the work Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I were doing on NSA stories…’ Greenwald said. ‘He was also asked about Brazil, the political situation in Brazil, and his friends and family.’ …
    “Greenwald declined to respond to a question about whether Miranda had served as a courier for classified material related to the paper’s NSA coverage.”

BBC News, “David Miranda Detention: MP Asks Police for Explanation“:

    “‘I remained in a room, there were six different agents coming and going, talking to me,’ Mr. Miranda said. ‘They asked questions about my entire life, about everything. They took my computer, video game, mobile phone, my memory cards, everything.’
    “In Germany, Mr. Miranda had been staying with U.S. filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has also been working on the Snowden files with Mr. Greenwald and the Guardian, according to the newspaper.
    “His flights were being paid for by the Guardian. A spokesman said he was not an employee of the newspaper but ‘often assists’ with Mr. Greenwald’s work. …
    “Mr. Greenwald said the British authorities’ actions in holding Mr. Miranda amounted to ‘bullying’ and linked it to his writing about Mr. Snowden’s revelations concerning the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). …
    “He told the BBC police did not ask Mr Miranda ‘a single question’ about terrorism but instead asked about what ‘Guardian journalists were doing on the NSA stories.’
    “Mr. Greenwald said he would respond by writing reports ‘much more aggressively than before.’
    “‘I have lots of documents about the way the secret services operate in England,’ he said. ‘I think they are going to regret what they did.'”

The Guardian, “NSA Files: Why the Guardian in London Destroyed Hard Drives of Leaked Files“:

    “Guardian editors on Tuesday revealed why and how the newspaper destroyed computer hard drives containing copies of some of the secret files leaked by Edward Snowden. The decision was taken after a threat of legal action by the government that could have stopped reporting on the extent of American and British government surveillance revealed by the documents. …
    “The initial UK attempts to stop reporting on the files came two weeks after the publication of the first story based on Snowden’s leaks…. Two senior British officials arrived at the Guardian’s offices to see [Editor-in-Chief Alan] Rusbridger and his deputy, Paul Johnson. They were cordial but made it clear they came on high authority to demand the immediate surrender of all the Snowden files in the Guardian’s possession.
    “They argued that the material was stolen and that a newspaper had no business holding on to it. The Official Secrets Act was mentioned but not threatened. …
    “After three weeks which saw the publication of several more articles on both sides of the Atlantic about GCHQ and NSA internet and phone surveillance, British government officials got back in touch and took a sterner approach. ‘You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back,’ one of them said.”

Al Jazeera, “Swedes Don Hijab to Support Muslim Woman“:

    “Scores of Swedish women from various faiths have posted pictures of themselves wearing hijab, or traditional Muslim headscarves, in solidarity with a woman attacked in a Stockholm suburb, apparently for wearing one.
    “Police spokesman Ulf Hoffman said an unknown assailant had attacked the pregnant woman in the suburb of Farsta on Friday by banging her head against a car.
    “Hoffman said the man shouted slurs which have led police to believe the attack was motivated by the woman’s religion. …
    “Using hashtag #hijabuppropet (hijab outcry) women posted their photos in headscarves on the social networking sites Twitter and Instagram. …
    “In an opinion piece published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet on Sunday, the organisers of ‘hijabuppropet’ urged Justice Minister Beatrice Ask to ‘ensure that Swedish Muslim women are guaranteed the right to personal safety and religious freedom, without being subject to verbal and physical attacks.'”

A few of the hijab photos posted to twitter, from the “Traveler in Time” tumblr account.

More photos from BuzzFeed, “Women in Sweden Wear Headscarves After Muslim Woman Is Assaulted.”

Jack Shenker in Mada, “Beyond the Voice of Battle“:

    “What is happening in Egypt at the moment, and what is being lost? Lives, above all else; hundreds of them….
    “But beyond people, something else is being lost, too — just as those most invested in the old Egypt intended. For me, the most powerful expression of Egypt’s revolution has never been anything tangible, but rather that state of mind when the world seems to tip on its head and bevel with possibility, where the landscape of imagination is recast. I first encountered it on January 25 2011….
    “The deployment of the police across the road in front of us was a signal that…we would come a stop, engage in some minor scuffling, and then be herded into a harmless protest pen so that the capital could get on with its day. But on this occasion, with reports of mass unrest spreading throughout the city, something was different. Nobody among the marchers slowed, nobody broke ranks, and instead they just kept on going, right towards those shields, chanting and glaring mutinously into the eyes of those that held them…. In the end, the troops simply gave way. And as we pushed past them and onto the empty street behind, several protesters broke into a run — or more accurately a skip, a dance, a hodgepodge of hops and jumps — and many began whooping and hollering and even kissing the ground. …
    “That newfound sense of agency, of an ability to shape the world around you in ways you never knew existed — that gave me my definition of revolution…. Nothing can pose a greater threat to elites wishing to preserve their political and economic privileges than that sense of agency, and since Egypt’s revolution began, not a single farm, factory, classroom or college in the land has remained entirely immune from its influence.
    “Which brings us to the scenes on Egypt’s streets today. The relentless imposition of state violence creates binaries as well as bodies: You are either with us or against us, pro-military or pro-Brotherhood, an Egyptian or a terrorist. And binaries from above achieve the opposite of imagination from below. … How Egypt’s defenders of the status quo, forced onto the back foot by a revolution that struggles against authoritarianism and state violence, have longed to [undermine the independent thought of the people]. In their current ‘war on terror,’ as the strapline on state television puts it, they finally have the enemy, the fight and the stage on which to do so. Thus far, their efforts are meeting with spectacular success.”

Yasmin El Rifae in Cairo, again, “Dispatches“:

    “Egypt has given me a life-changing political education in the last two and a half years. … It’s hard, now, not to feel like something has been stolen from me. As I write this, I am deeply aware of how many others have had the much more devastating loss, the theft, of a loved one or a limb.
    “The past days have left me with a feeling of uselessness and alienation. I condemn both the Brotherhood and the security forces in their inter-locking cycle of violence and lies. There is no place for me in the street, or in a national conversation determined to start and end with chauvinistic nationalism. So I stay in and watch the city descend into silence, the streets emptying of life as military curfew approaches.
    “This is not the first time the state has pushed us to the edge…. It’s not the first time, but it might be the bloodiest and the scariest – and the one receiving the loudest applause. I do not know how we will move forward from here, or when we will stop flaunting our cruelty as a source of pride.”

Omar Robert Hamilton in Mada, “Everything Was Possible“:

    “I mourn the dead and I despise those killing them. I mourn the dead and I despise those sending them to their deaths. I mourn the dead and I despise those that excuse their murder. How did it come to this? How did we get here? What is this place?
    “There were moments when we could have broken the army’s grip on the country. We should have stayed in Tahrir after Mubarak was ousted. … But we left. Everyone said they would be back the next day and then, somehow, they weren’t. People wanted to shower and to sleep in their own beds. Then spontaneous cleaning brigades of earnest patriots spread through the city and by midday everything was nice and tidy and gone. …
    “Had all the forces that were supposedly against the military — the revolutionaries, the liberals, the Brotherhood and the Salafis — ever truly united where might we be today? Dead, possibly. But maybe not. Maybe somewhere closer to a civilian state. A real, ideological alliance was never possible. But a tactical, practical one might just have worked. But rather than work together each party repeatedly met with and made deals with the army, consistently placing the generals in the strongest tactical position. Everyone was to blame. …
    “It was transformative: the belief we all shared, for a moment, in each other. In an eternity of disappointment and greed and malice that moment…in which having a community was preferable to being alone with a book, had a value that will never be lost. You cannot underestimate how important these two and half years have been for people, how empowered, how unafraid people were. The existence of the revolution should not be confused with the existence of a political leadership and process. The revolution is dead when we say it’s dead. The revolution is dead when we will no longer die for it. …
    “I cannot stand up to death today. Today I am a coward who can only write. I see the revolution being dragged away to be shot over a shallow grave and I don’t know what to do. But I do know that, before it’s too late, we will grab it, we will fight for it. We have to, or we will never be able to live with ourselves.”

Lee Smith in Tablet, “What’s Wrong with Egypt’s Liberals? For Starters, They’re Not Liberals“:

    “If some observers mistakenly predicted that the Twitter-friendly liberals who thronged Tahrir Square two and a half years ago would become the new face of Egypt, almost no one could have guessed that those same liberals would soon find themselves demonstrating in favor of military rule. Now American journalists, analysts, and Middle East experts all want to know what happened to a political movement whose ostensible goal was to overthrow an authoritarian leader in order to usher in a golden age of Egyptian democracy. …
    “Seen through modern Western eyes, none of this makes sense. Just because the anti-Morsi camp allegedly put millions of people into the streets to demand the elected president’s ouster doesn’t make the army’s action ‘democratic.’ But for some observers in the Middle East, the strange bedfellows that Egyptian liberals seem to prefer are not so shocking: The coup is merely the latest inflection of a longer historical arc that unites authoritarians and liberals in a profound ambivalence about Western values and the West itself. ‘I’m not at all surprised this was the work of what we’ve come to call the liberals,’ said Samuel Tadros, author of the newly published Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity….
    “Tadros…told me in a recent interview that they were never liberals in the first place, or at least not as the term is usually understood in Western political communities. ‘In Egypt, liberalism didn’t start as it did in Europe with the emergence of an independent bourgeoisie that sought to limit the powers of the state and other entrenched institutions like the church and the aristocracy. In Egypt, there was no crisis pitting the individual against the state because liberalism was born with the rise of the civil-servant class in the mid 19th century. Since civil servants are a part of the state, this liberalism is not at all interested in limiting the role of the state.’ …
    “Because the civil-servant class owed its advancement — education, employment, rise in salaries — to the state, it came to see the state as the agent of change, he explains. And not surprisingly the liberals came to worship the institution that embodied state power in its purest form, the ruler. ‘It is the job of the ruler to impose modernity on a reluctant population,’ said Tadros. Arab liberals understand themselves as members of an elite class that shares little in common with the unwashed masses. If the ruler can’t modernize the masses, at least he must protect the advantages that the state lavished on the liberals.”

David Kenner in Foreign Policy, “How 36 Egyptian Prisoners Suffocated to Death in the Back of a Police Van“:

    “Of all the ways to die, this was one of the most horrible. On Monday, the Egyptian government acknowledged that its security forces had killed 36 Islamist prisoners the day before…. Security officials said that the prisoners had rioted while in a prison truck and captured a guard, causing the officers to respond by firing tear gas and the prisoners to die of asphyxiation. If that’s the case, crowd control experts say, the prisoners perished in agony — gasping for air and incapable of resisting their guards. …
    “Lawyer Ossama ElMahdy visited the morgue on Monday…and tweeted extremely graphic pictures of the bodies. He wrote that the dead men’s faces were so blue — almost black — that the families assumed they were burned, but they were not.
    “It is possible to kill 36 people with tear gas, but it is extremely difficult…. ‘It would be an agonizing death as well, with a burning sensation on all the wet areas of the body, a gasping and even gagging sensation, coughing, tightness of the chesta gasping and even gagging sensation, coughing, tightness of the chest,’ said Sid Heal, a former officer in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and expert on crowd control techniques. … Whatever happened in that prison truck, however, did not convince the police officers to let in fresh air and save their prisoners’ lives.”

A Universe Predisposed for Us

In his New Yorker blog post Thomas Nagel: Thoughts Are Real, Richard Brody lays out the arguments of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

    “People of a rational, scientific bent tend to think that…everything is physical. … Nagel affirms that he’s an atheist, but he also asserts that there’s an entirely different realm of non-physical stuff that exists — namely, mental stuff. The vast flow of perceptions, ideas, and emotions that arise in each human mind is something that, in his view, actually exists as something other than merely the electrical firings in the brain that gives rise to them….
    “His argument is that, if the mental things arising from the minds of living things are a distinct realm of existence, then strictly physical theories about the origins of life, such as Darwinian theory, cannot be entirely correct. Life cannot have arisen solely from a primordial chemical reaction, and the process of natural selection cannot account for the creation of the realm of mind. …
    “Since neither physics nor Darwinian biology — the concept of evolution — can account for the emergence of a mental world from a physical one, Nagel contends that the mental side of existence must somehow have been present in creation from the very start. But then he goes further, into strange and visionary territory. … He suggests that any theory of the universe, any comprehensive mesh of physics and biology, will need to succeed in ‘showing how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it.’
    “And this, he argues, would be a theory of teleology — a preprogrammed or built-in tendency in the universe toward the particular goal of fulfilling the possibilities of mentality. In a splendid image, Nagel writes, ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.’

In other words, according to Nagel, the universe is predisposed to favor an outcome in which intelligence like ours exists.

Meanwhile, Scientific American has published an article which touches on similar themes, Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields or Something Else Entirely.

    “Physicists routinely describe the universe as being made of tiny subatomic particles that push and pull on one another by means of force fields. … But this view sweeps a little-known fact under the rug: the particle interpretation of quantum physics, as well as the field interpretation, stretches our conventional notions of ‘particle’ and ‘field’ to such an extent that ever more people think the world might be made of something else entirely. …
    “Many physicists think that particles are not things at all but excitations in a quantum field, the modern successor of classical fields such as the magnetic field. But fields, too, are paradoxical.
    “If neither particles nor fields are fundamental, then what is? Some researchers think that the world, at root, does not consist of material things but of relations or of properties, such as mass, charge and spin.”

Unfortunately, this is just a “teaser” — the article itself is behind a paywall. But it prompted me to do further research. As a former computer programmer, the mention of “properties such as mass, charge and spin” reminded me of the properties assigned to an object in programming. I soon learned that in 1990, John Archibald Wheeler, one of the preeminent physicists of his time, introduced the concept of “it from bit,” in which the building blocks of the universe are neither particles nor fields, but bits of information.

    “It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’ — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions …in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”

The concept of the universe as information is seconded by Anton Zeilinger, a contemporary physicist reknowned for his demonstrations of “quantum teleportation” — the instantaneous transfer of properties through space from one entangled particle to another, which means that the particle (or its information) has traveled faster than the speed of light. The following comments come from a 2006 interview.

    “For me the concept of ‘information’ is at the basis of everything we call ‘nature.’ The moon, the chair, the equation of states, anything and everything, because we can’t talk about anything without de facto speaking about the information we have of these things. In this sense the information is the basic building block of our world. …
    “We’ve learnt in the natural sciences that the key to understanding can often be found if we lift certain dividing lines in our minds. Newton showed that the apple falls to the ground according to the same laws that govern the Moon’s orbit of the Earth. And with this he made the old differentiation between earthly and heavenly phenomena obsolete. Darwin showed that there is no dividing line between man and animal. And Einstein lifted the line dividing space and time. But in our heads, we still draw a dividing line between ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge about reality,’ in other words between reality and information. And you cannot draw this line. There is no recipe, no process for distinguishing between reality and information. All this thinking and talking about reality is about information, which is why one should not make a distinction in the formulation of laws of nature. Quantum theory, correctly interpreted, is information theory.”

This article from 2001, The Mystery of Quantum Mechanics by Hans Christian von Baeyer, has much more to say about Zeilinger’s ideas on information as the building blocks of the universe.

    “Zeilinger thinks that before we can truly understand quantum theory, it must be connected in some way to what we know and feel. The problem, he says, is the lack of a simple underlying principle…. All the other major theories of physics are based on such principles — pithy, comprehensible maxims that anchor the formulae in the everyday world. … Now Zeilinger proposes to rebuild quantum mechanics on a similar basis, to put it in terms that need no debatable philosophy.
    “Perhaps it is no surprise that the terms he uses are those of information. We live in the age of information. We depend increasingly on information technology, our schools teach information processing and information science, and our industry and commerce are information based. But until now, the concept of information has only hovered on the edge of physics.
    “About a decade ago, John Archibald Wheeler urged that information should take centre stage. What we call reality, he thinks, arises from the questions we ask about it and the responses we receive. ‘Tomorrow, we will have learned to understand and express all of physics in the language of information,’ he said.
    “The atom of information is the bit…. If experiments are questions we ask of nature, then the simplest of them have yes or no answers: ‘Did the photon arrive here, or not?’ ‘Did the counter click, or not?’ We can also ask more complex questions, but they can always be built up from simpler yes or no questions like these.
    “Zeilinger’s conceptual leap is to associate bits with the building blocks of the material world. In quantum mechanics, these building blocks are called elementary systems, and the archetypal elementary system is the spin of an electron. The only possible outcomes of measuring an electron’s spin are ‘up’ and ‘down.’ … These outcomes could just as well be labelled ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ or, in the fashion of digital computers, ‘1’ and ‘0.’ …
    “Zeilinger’s single, simple principle leads to these three cornerstones of quantum mechanics: quantisation, uncertainty and entanglement. What, then, of the more formal elements of quantum mechanics such as wave functions and Schrödinger’s equation — the bread and butter of atomic physicists? The road promises to be long and steep, but Zeilinger and his student Caslav Brukner, have now begun the ascent.”

This article from last year, The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet by Amir Aczel, is also definitely worth a look, if you have any interest in what cutting-edge physics is thinking about. In it, Aczel tackles a thought problem, the Boltzmann Brain, which is currently making the rounds in quantum theory.

    “The second law of thermodynamics implies that the entropy — the degree of randomness, or disorder — of any closed system never decreases (and generally increases). … Investing energy can bring back order to the system and thus reduce its entropy. So a high-entropy [disordered] state is ‘normal,’ while creating order is something that requires concentrated, directed energy. This is an important observation. …
    “Boltzmann wondered why our observed universe seems so orderly rather than completely random, as one might expect as the ‘natural’ state of the universe. … And he hypothesized that perhaps our portion of the universe is just a statistical fluke: an aberration within a wider universe in which randomness reigns supreme. So a Boltzmann brain, named after him, is a brain — a conscious observer — that materializes out of the disorderly universe purely by chance (a very, very small chance, I must emphasize) in the same way that, as Boltzmann had suggested, our entire universe may have emerged out of a wider chaotic multiverse purely through a random event. As Andrei Linde of Stanford put it in an interview with the New York Times: ‘It’s cheaper’ to create just a disembodied brain than it is to make a universe.”

So according to the second law of thermodynamics, our universe should not exist, since it is extremely ordered and complex — a high-energy state — whereas the “natural” state would be a universe that is all noise and no signal, a dead universe of chaotic, disordered events. Aczel continues:

    “But if you travel forever in the multiverse, will you encounter a single Boltzmann brain?
    The argument made by Linde…as well as by other proponents of the infinite multiverse and its Boltzmann brains is that the probability of producing — purely by chance, through quantum fluctuations, in infinite space and time — a disembodied brain is higher than the probability of producing an entire universe.
    “But this is not true. A brain requires a body to support it, and a world to feed it and house it and protect it, and — from everything we know so far from science — it needs 13.7 billion years of an expanding universe, galaxy and star formation, including many millions of years of fusion in stars to create and spread around the iron and carbon and oxygen and other essentials needed to start and maintain life on a hospitable planet, and to set evolution in motion, in order to create a conscious, thinking, self-aware brain. …
    “Wait to infinity and these ingredients will all just materialize in the right way through a ‘quantum fluctuation’? I think not. The case of a Boltzmann brain is unmeasurably more complicated, and astronomically more demanding probabilistically, than that of a simple sequence of 150,000 characters to be typed in the right order [“a monkey typing Shakespeare”]. It is, in fact — because of the requirements of something like our world to support a human or a computer brain — an event of probability zero. It cannot happen by itself even ‘at infinity.'”

So to have intelligent life like our own, a universe must first evolve in such a way as to support life. And as Boltzmann pointed out a century ago, there is something highly “unnatural” (according to the second law of thermodynamics) about a universe ordered enough, and complex enough, and durable enough, to do this. The probability of this happening on its own, through a quantum fluctuation, is vanishingly small — and yet here we are.

This brings us back to Nagel, and the notion that our universe must be predisposed in some way to seek complexity and self-awareness. There must be some other principle at work here to counter the drift towards entropy. If the universe is really made of information as Anderson and Zeilinger believe, maybe that predisposition is built into the programming. Maybe we live in a universe which, through random events playing out over time according to natural law, is pre-programmed with a high likelihood of becoming conscious.

So who or what did the programming? Was there a programmer? I have some thoughts on the subject that I’ll share below. The following pieces were written in the last few months of 2012. I was reflecting then on what I knew of current theories in physics, but I’m not a student of physics, and I was really coming at this from another angle. My real interest is the study of the world’s religions, particularly the Eastern traditions, and religious philosophy. What struck me is that if you squint at science and religion in just the right way, scientific and religious views of the universe seem to be returning to harmony.

— • —

Earth is a fine planet. Enjoy your time here.

What is a planet? It’s a place where intelligence comes to settle for a while. It’s a place where, out of all the infinite universes, galaxies, and stars unsuited to life, a harmonious balance of gravity, temperature, and chemicals exists to make life work.

My current theory is that wherever intelligence can be, it will be. It is everywhere, seeking the right receptacle. It will inhabit the receptacle to the extent that the receptacle is able to carry it. At times intelligence will even guide the receptacle to improve its capacities, as when a complex molecule striving to become life makes the leap with some kind of innate intelligence.

We seem to know what we’re going to become before we get there. We have a precognitive intuition that recognizes new discoveries as obvious and says, “I told you so.” It remains in the background but prods us to knowledge wherever new knowledge is possible, and then breaks through to reveal itself as the thing we knew all along.

Why doesn’t it simply tell us all we need to know in advance? Because we ourselves must make the discovery. The complex molecule must go through a billion permutations before it becomes a cell. The tadpole must evolve over millions of years into a bird, an elephant, a dog. The scientist must labor for years over his equations before finally grasping the concept in its simplicity. Intelligence guides us, but we must do the work.

It’s the process that counts — the result is just a side effect. By putting itself to work in the world through physical laws, natural selection, or the workings of the mind, intelligence finds progressively more worthy receptacles and is itself improved. The ultimate project of intelligence is the universe itself, with evolution as its sign.

— • —

I’m arguing that events in the universe are pre-programmed both for randomness — to produce sufficient variety — and for what I’ll call “useful complexity,” meaning a preference for results that achieve a more advanced state. In this way, simply by “running the clock” and allowing randomness to happen, according to rules that prefer more advanced states, evolution will inevitably take place, leading to life bearing planets, intelligent life on those planets, and beyond. While the process is completely random (though constrained by rules), the result is, roughly speaking, foreoredained. The universe was designed to evolve to a higher state.

“Spontaneous programming,” as a friend of mine calls it, is coupled with a “learning curve” so the most successful variations take priority over time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection shows how this learning curve works, not just in the biological world, but in the physical world as well (solar systems, organic compounds) and even on the level of cosmology (universe formation, natural laws). Some natural laws and universes were “discarded” simply because they didn’t work. They didn’t produce a stable equilibrium able to hold itself together and build yet further complexity.

So “spontaneous programming” plus the “learning curve” (which is natural selection, or the tendency to preserve a successful model) equals complexity.

— • —

We should be operating under the premise that God doesn’t “intervene” and our universe has been running under the same rules from the beginning. That those rules produced all this complexity, including us, is built into the programming, or the design, or the original intent of the model in which we are living. Thus, through a principle of guided randomness, which is to say randomness filtered through, constrained by, or selected according to certain parameters which favor complexity, we got from random stardust to where we are now without divine intervention.

— • —

WHAT IS GOD?

This is simple. God is what we call the unknown. Since the first humans knew nothing at all, even about the natural forces that acted on them directly, they called those forces God. The natural world, with its winds and rivers, animals and forests, was seen as sacred, and we walked within that sacred space. Later, when humans began to understand these natural forces rationally and reduce them to patterns, God retreated to the heavens, and became associated with the sun and moon, planets and stars. In a yet further abstraction, the dawn of monotheism invited us to perceive God as the “unmoved mover,” the unseen, unknowable, yet omnipresent force behind the known universe. And today, for those who feel that physical laws explain everything, scientific inquiry has so far pushed back the boundaries of the unknown that there is no longer any room for God.

DOES GOD EXIST?

It seems obvious to me that no matter how much humans eventually come to understand about ourselves and the universe in which we live, there will always be infinitely more that we don’t know. This is partly because our perceptions and mental capacities are limited, no matter how much we abstract them or acquire additional tools — and partly because each time we manage to solve an intellectual problem such as the structure of DNA or the expanding nature of the universe, this only leads to more questions about how these things actually work. So if God is what we call the unknown, as I claim above, then God will be with us forever, one step out of reach.

Let me give two examples. Darwin gave us a working model of evolution and how the various forms of life arose that we see around us today. We can map the DNA of these life forms, and confirm that humans are much closer to monkeys than we are to lizards or birds. Scientists can trace back, in theory, all the current forms of life to a single source, simple one-celled organisms that existed in the earth’s primeval oceans a billion years ago. We understand how the existence of certain elements like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, in certain combinations at certain temperatures, made the formation of complex hydrocarbons possible, which are the building blocks of life. What we don’t know is why it happened, or how these static compounds, however complex, “learned” to move around, acquire energy from their environment in a systematic way, and above all reproduce their complex structure in subsequent generations. Does it make sense that such an exceptional “qualitative leap” could occur entirely by chance, through random combination of molecules over billions of years? Perhaps, but we can easily imagine a trillion planets like ours where the same material conditions existed and the same complex hydrocarbons formed, but where the leap to a self-reproducing new form, which we call life, never occurred. So at least, we must admit that we are very lucky.

My other example involves the universe itself. Less than a century ago, astronomers discovered that our universe is expanding from a single point in time and space, known as the Big Bang. Indeed, time and space are themselves products of the Big Bang, and only have meaning within the confines of our universe, which is vast but not infinite. The expulsion of matter and energy from that single point produced all the forms we now perceive — galaxies and nebulas, planets and stars. For life as we know it to exist in the universe, stars are necessary as a source of heat, and planets like the earth are also necessary, to serve as an “incubator” for life. Fortunately, our universe seems to contain a vast quantity of planets and suns. But what the latest theories now tell us is that if the Big Bang had occurred in a slightly different way, no planets or suns would have arisen. If the physics of the Big Bang were tweaked even slightly, either the universe would have collapsed almost instantly, or it would have expanded too fast and dispersed all its energy, or the separation of matter and energy into discrete masses would never have happened, and we would have an undifferentiated field of plasma, rather than planets and suns. Indeed, the parameters for a “suitable” universe are so exact that the chances of one forming from a random Big Bang are vanishingly small. Now, apparently scientists believe that new universes are being formed all the time — not that we can see them, because their Big Bangs occur beyond the bounds of our own universe — in more than sufficient quantities to produce a universe like our own, once in a while. But while random events may have caused us to be where we are, once again we can say we are extremely lucky.

Therefore, at the very frontiers of modern science — the origin of the universe, and the origin of life on earth — are two “miracles” which, though they can be explained by physical laws and random events, are so unlikely as to raise the question, “Why?” Why did it happen, when obviously it didn’t have to happen, and indeed has not happened far more often — so much so that it boggles the imagination? For one universe like ours with the conditions to support life, ten to the trillionth power universes had to form where the physical laws were a tiny bit off; and for life to arise on earth, who knows how many random combinations had to occur before one molecule arose that proved to be self perpetuating. If God is what we call the unknown, then clearly God played a role here, for the simple reason that we can’t answer the question, “Why?” How we managed to be so lucky is unknown.

Of course, this is all just sophistry, simply a game of defining God in such a way that I can later bring her back into the picture under the guise of clever wordplay. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken as a proof that God exists, simply an example of how much about our existence, even for a rationalist, necessarily remains mysterious and unexplained. Indeed, for a rationalist there is no “miracle” at all, because all the universes that came into being without being able to support life, and all the chemical reactions that came close to generating life on our planet but fell short, are simply irrelevant to the fact that it eventually worked. Had it failed, we wouldn’t be here to gripe about it, so of course we live in a universe able to support life, and on a planet that produced life, however rare that may be. A rationalist may allow herself to wonder at the seemingly infinite blind alleys necessary to produce one random rationalist — but there is nothing miraculous about it, or anything unknown. It’s simply the product of chance, just as you can be sure that enough monkeys, or enough raindrops, at enough keyboards will eventually write Shakespeare.

But Hamlet produced by rain falling on an infinity of keyboards would be just as meaningless as all the garbage words produced on those same keyboards beforehand, because there is no intent. Fundamentally, instinctively, we sense that there is an essential difference between Hamlet written by meaningless raindrops, and Hamlet written by Shakespeare with intent. These events are of an entirely different order. So the real question here is, did life emerge on this planet, in this universe, through intent? Were we helped in some way? Were the rules written so that the series of random events that occurred would make our emergence more probable, even likely? It makes all the difference, and it speaks to our future as well. Raindrops producing Hamlet will go on to produce a nearly infinite series of garbage words before producing Hamlet once again, or Plato’s Republic. But if there is intent, perhaps both our past and our future have meaning. Perhaps we’re headed somewhere, somewhere unknown. And since God is what we call the unknown, maybe God is the future we’re headed to — in a universe that is far from meaningless, because it is governed by intent.

Links 09 July 2013

New York Times, Army Kills 51, Deepening Crisis in Egypt:

    “The mass shooting of Islamist protesters by security forces on Monday at a sit-in for Mohamed Morsi, the ousted president, injected new outrage into the standoff over his removal by Egypt’s top generals….
    “Leaders of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group and best-organized political force, said the generals had now shown their authoritarian colors, using lethal weapons to crush dissent while holding the freely elected president captive. They called for a national ‘uprising’ against the return of a military dictatorship. …
    “Sit-in participants said gunmen had fired on them from atop the military buildings surrounding their camp. Video footage captured by the Islamists showed a soldier firing down from a roof while another calmly filmed the mayhem below.
    “Sandbagged gun turrets were still visible hours later on some rooftops, and the angles of scores of bullet holes in cars, lampposts and the Islamists’ makeshift metal barriers indicated that gunfire hit at an angle from above.
    “Many witnesses said the fighting lasted for hours, with hundreds of heavily armed soldiers chasing mostly unarmed protesters through the streets for blocks while continuing to shoot. Bullet holes, bullet casings and pools of blood dotted the ground hundreds of yards from the presidential guardhouse where the fighting had begun.”

Juan Cole, Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Calls for “Uprising” as Plan for Elections is Announced:

    [Dr. Cole cites an eyewitness account by a man named Omar Ahmed who is “known to Egyptian friends whom I trust.”]
    “He says that the army [used] a microphone to demand that the crowd near the Republican Guards Barracks disperse, and that the Brotherhood used their microphones to announce that martyrdom so near Ramadan would be a great thing. The army fired tear gas.
    “Then Omar heard firing at the troops and screams from the military side. The sniping was coming from al-Mustafa Mosque. The troops were also being hit with molotov cocktails. Then the microphone of the mosque threatened the troops, saying they are baby-killers.
    “Then a Brother began firing wildly with an automatic weapon. The troops returned fire and after that there were just bodies falling and men being taken into custody by the army. At 5 am, an hour into the clashes, reinforcements of more police and military showed up, and the Brotherhood militants withdrew to the Rabia al-Adawiya square or found refuge with local families in their apartments….
    “The dead include at least three military, and some 51 others, most of them likely non-combatants in the wrong place at the wrong time. …
    “On Monday evening, interim president Mansour tried to change the conversation by setting out a timetable for return to elected government. He said that within 15 days, a council of jurists must be appointed that would have two months to revise the 2012 constitution…. Parliamentary elections must be held by the end of the year or very early in Jan. 2014. The date for presidential elections hasn’t been set yet.”

Sarah Carr in Jadaliyya, On Sheep and Infidels:

    “There is a visceral hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi associates amongst some Egyptians. This hatred spans all social classes and predates current events. It is born out of an arguably justified mistrust and fear of the group, who have lied, put their own interests first, excluded other groups, ramrodded through an excuse for a constitution, attempted to give Morsi dictator powers, flirted with the military and dallied in sectarianism politics in a frightening way. It failed to understand that it was running a country, and it missed the point that for public relations purposes if you are an Arab president who desires to quash dissent through an organized group you better make sure that that group is in uniform.
    “Perhaps most importantly, they were feeble as hell at governing Egypt at a time when amateurs really just would not do.
    “When Morsi supporters attempt to put their case forward their arguments bounce back off a wall of hate, but — deep breath — in my opinion these arguments were not without merit — up until 30 June. … Mendacity, poor governance, self-interest, and sidelining of other political powers are pretty much the watch-words of all political groups and are not, in isolation, enough to justify a president’s removal by the military. …
    “So my position on events pre-30 June has not been changed by events since: the Muslim Brotherhood should have been left to fail as they had not (yet) committed an act justifying Morsi’s removal by the military. The price Egypt has paid and will pay for the consequences of this decision are too high. It has created a generation of Islamists who genuinely believe that democracy does not include them. The post-30 June fallout reaffirms this belief, especially with Islamist channels and newspapers closed down as well as leaders detained and held incommunicado…. It is Egyptian society that will pay the price of the grievances this causes, and the fact that, with a silenced media and no coverage from independent outlets they have been left with virtually no channels to get their voice heard. …
    “Nothing has changed. The real revolution will happen when army involvement in politics is a distant relic of history.”

Nikolas K. Gvosdev in The National Interest, U.S. Values and Interests Clash in Egypt:

    “Of course, one of the main problems was that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were classic “illiberal democrats”—prepared to accept the necessity of elections and to have some policies put to the voters for validation but in no way inclined to endorse the full panoply of civil and political rights and ready to impose limits on freedom of speech and assembly. They were, in other words, prepared to accept opposition—but only on their terms. …
    “This creates a new dilemma for Washington. Certainly American interests are served by having the Egyptian military—much more of a known quantity, compared with the Brotherhood, ‘back in the saddle,’ but it also means accepting the armed forces as a clear counterweight to the possible excesses of the popular majority or of political leaders like the Brotherhood—and allowing the army to set ‘red lines’ for politics and to enforce them. … To some extent, what has happened in Egypt resembles the ‘soft coups’ that used to occur in Turkey, where the military would intervene and where such intervention usually coincided with U.S. interests, even if it offended U.S. values.”

Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Judge Government on Respect for People’s Rights (from July 4):

    “Egypt’s new government should break decisively from a pattern of serious abuses that has prevailed since the January 2011 uprising, and make a commitment to respect the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. Authorities should protect and promote the rights of all Egyptians, and halt arbitrary arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. …
    “‘Egyptians suffered enormously under the generals and then under President Morsy’s government, which shoved human rights to the sidelines,’ said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ‘One test of whether Egypt can return to a path of democratic development will rest on whether the Freedom and Justice Party can operate without political reprisals against its members.’ …
    “Egypt’s new interim president and the military leadership should immediately end reprisals against Muslim Brotherhood political leaders, including arrests or travel bans, and should allow the Freedom and Justice Party to fully exercise freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
    “The new government needs to make it clear immediately that it and all state bodies, including the armed forces, will respect all basic rights that apply within Egypt at all times.”

Agence France Presse, Morsy Ouster in Egypt Crushes Hamas Dreams: Analysts.

BBC News Magazine, Hikikomori: Why Are So Many Japanese Men Refusing to Leave Their Rooms?

Afrik.com, Homosexuality: Tariq Ramadan Drops a Bomb in Dakar (in French).

    “In a country with a 95% Muslim population who are radical with regard to any recognition of homosexual status, one must be brave, yes, very brave to dare to integrate gays into the ranks of ‘followers of Islam.’ And that’s what the Swiss citizen of Egyptian origin did in confiding that ‘it isn’t because one is homosexual that one isn’t Muslim.’ A remark that continues to provoke controversy in the country. Tariq Ramadan didn’t stop there. … ‘All scholars are unanimous on the question. Islam forbids homosexuality, as do all the monotheistic religions. But, being homosexual doesn’t mean that one isn’t Muslim. There is no witch hunt,’ noted Tariq Ramadan, who went further. ‘We need to promote a discourse of responsibility and avoid judging.”

“The Strongest Weapon”

President Obama addressed the anti-Mohammed hate video yesterday in his speech to the United Nations. I feel that he got the balance just about right.

    [Over] the last two weeks…a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well — for as the city outside these walls [New York] makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion — we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
    I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with.
    We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

Limits to Free Speech?

When I met last week with two Moroccan friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while, the first thing each of them wanted to talk about (the meetings were separate) was the anti-Mohammed hate film and the controversy it has caused. Both of them were upset, but they are worldly types who know that YouTube is filled with all kinds of trash, so they weren’t thrown into a frenzy by the simple fact that such a film could exist. They know they are haters out there. What they did want to know was how the U.S. government could stand by and do nothing, when the film was clearly designed to insult a whole community of innocent people (Muslim believers), and stir up trouble. Especially once the embassies were attacked and four Americans killed, wasn’t it the government’s obligation to shut the film down — if only to protect their own interests, not to mention prevent further offense? And didn’t their refusal to do so represent some kind of endorsement?

My response was, first of all, to point out that the filmmakers are a bunch of losers, completely unknown before the film went viral and had its stunning “success.” It is beyond the capacities of even the U.S. government to watch every video on YouTube, and estimate the potential for future harm before it happens. My friends were doubtful about this, perhaps because they give too much credit to the power and reach of the U.S. government, and perhaps because they live in a state that keeps a watchful eye on everything its citizens are doing and thinking. But I explained that our government has far more important things to worry about than fringe dwellers on YouTube. They are engaged in wars, overt and covert, in several nations, and are trying to figure out if Iran is preparing a nuclear bomb. They are trying to manage a financial crisis at home, and deal with the consequences of its bastard stepchild in Europe. There is the Chinese leadership transition to think about, and so on. Do they really have the time to notice a video on YouTube which, until the events of last week, only a few thousand people had seen?

My friends accepted this logic, though they still had their doubts. They began to look around for a conspiracy, and insist that there was more to this than met the eye. Surely Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Steve Klein, and the others hadn’t made this film on their own. Someone had put them up to it — perhaps the Syrians, perhaps the Israelis, perhaps even the U.S. government itself. I mentioned Occam’s Razor, the idea that when trying to decide why something happened, the explanation “that makes the fewest assumptions” is often the best. Sometimes, I said, Oswald really is the lone gunner, the planes that flew into the World Trade Center are the cause of its collapse, and a hate film made by a bunch of nobodies is able to provoke rage in twenty countries. To imagine otherwise is to believe not only that the conspirators can forsee the results of their actions with eerie precision, but that they are able to control everything down to the smallest detail to get the intended result. Sometimes, I insisted, stuff happens — things no one saw coming, that create the illusion of a malign genius pulling the strings.

This left one other question on the table. Once the damage done by the film became known, why did the U.S. government continue to defend its right to exist? Why didn’t they just pull it off the internet, and arrest the filmmakers? This may seem like an outrageous question to many Americans, who put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the mobs who resorted to violence. For an American, a verbal assault never justifies violence — they are two different things, and a person who leaps from one to the other is displaying a moral weakness, a dangerous lack of self-control. (We can argue whether this is really true. What about bar fights? But we do tend to blame the person who threw the first punch, not the first slur.) My friends, who come from a different culture, see things from a different angle. For them, social harmony is more important, and freedom of speech is never the right to insult and defame. They see nothing wrong with expecting people to dress modestly, avoid vulgar language, and keep their carousing out of sight. After all, your grandmother might be offended — it’s a simple question of respect. Even more so for a film whose sole purpose is to offend others. Isn’t that like dumping your garbage on someone’s lawn? What right does that have to be protected speech?

I explained what free speech means in America. Different societies have different standards, I said, and the U.S. has perhaps the broadest standard of all. The only red lines I’m aware of are direct calls to violence, or spreading false information (such as slander or fraud) that does material harm. Even then, a crime must be proven, with evidence of intent and according to law. There is simply no way to remove a film proactively from circulation, on the simple assumption that someone’s feelings might be hurt. So there is nothing illegal about the Mohammed film, no matter how disgusting we may find it — and there’s a reason for that. America was settled by people fleeing from religious or political persecution, and they placed a very high value on the freedom to express their beliefs. In fact, this is the core value on which all our other freedoms are based. To protect that right, we must extend it to everyone. This means that no matter how strange or offensive an opinion may be to the rest of us, we protect it in order to protect our own perhaps equally bizarre opinions. And we accept the consequences of this, namely that we can never expect the government to step in and tell someone he’s wrong. If we find an opinion harmful we need to defeat it in argument, not through the force of the state — or just learn to “live and let live.”

Of course, as I think any American understands, this is the ideal, but the reality is far from perfect. These protections weren’t extended to Communists in the 1950s, who were considered to be agents of an enemy power. Another example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were persecuted in the 1940s for refusing military service on religious grounds. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was martyred in 1844, and from the Wobblies to the Civil Rights movement to the Occupy movement today, the U.S. government has a history of spying on opposition movements. Perhaps to a greater extent than we realize, we pick and choose which opinions to tolerate, which to celebrate, and which to suppress or condemn. The idea of freedom of speech as an incontrovertible right plays a fundamential role in our self-image as Americans, but in practice, we do place limits in the name of protecting ourselves against a greater danger. So the question remains — why is the Mohammed film okay, particularly when it has placed our relations with a large part of the world at risk? Is it possible that this is a symptom of something deeper in the American psyche? Is it possible that hate speech against Muslims is something we are prepared to defend, more so than other forms of hate speech?

Keep in mind, this film didn’t appear in a vacuum. Now, this isn’t the same as saying that the film was made by hidden conspirators, or anyone other than the handful of losers whose names we know. But there does exist an international network of anti-Muslim hate groups, from the English Defence League to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to people like Anders Behring Brevik, the Norweigian mass murderer, that has strong roots in the U.S. as well. Bloggers like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller are the “intellectual” leaders of this movement, with Geller currently running ads on buses and subways in American cities that refer to Muslims as “savages.” Politicians like Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, and Peter King have lent their support to this movement as well. Mosques have been burned, referendums have been passed against the nonexistent threat of Sharia law, and an attempt to build a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan drew national controversy before it was finally approved. Our own president is often accused of being a Muslim — as if that were the deepest insult, a fatal sign of his “otherness.” Fortunately none of these are majority views. But it does show a certain tolerance for anti-Muslim hate speech, a double standard that calls into question our claim to universal rights.

In defending the right to make a film insulting Mohammed, are we merely sticking up for our principles? Or are we picking and choosing? If a group of Hezbollah supporters living in the U.S. were to make a film portraying Jews as pederasts, money-grubbers, and depraved lunatics — which is how Mohammed was portrayed — would our first instinct be to champion their right to free speech? Or would outrage and condemnation rain down from all sides, along with calls to investigate their finances, their network of connections, and even kick them out of the country? Perhaps the viewpoint of my Moroccan friends, which places social harmony first and asks people to use their rights responsibly, is worth hearing. Of course, it’s never okay to storm an embassy by scaling the walls, setting fires, sacking and pillaging. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that millions of people who didn’t do these things — engineers, grandmothers, shopkeepers, schoolchildren — were deeply hurt and offended. Is our message to them that we don’t care, because they’re Muslims and somehow deserve it? Or can we show some respect? If they were our neighbors — which in this world of YouTube and Twitter, we all are — would we toss our garbage on their lawn, or would we strive to be neighborly?

It feels silly to appeal to basic decency, because that’s such an unhip value. It feels silly to say, “Muslims are people too,” but they are. Perhaps the rush of claims and counterclaims in the media makes us lose track of that fact. Muslims aren’t some abstract group of “others.” They get up in the morning and have breakfast, kiss the kids and send them to school, get on the bus to go to work, sell shoes or chop meat or fill out paperwork, study hard because they want to pass the test, have illicit affairs, go drinking with their pals, fall asleep in front of the TV. What are we trying to say to these people, when we claim that it is an American value to insult their religion, their cherished beliefs, and the bonds that tie them together? I support the right of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula to make that film — it’s our principle of free speech. But I think there’s a conversation we should be having as Americans, as to whether it’s the right thing to do. After all, we value social harmony as much as Muslims do. We voluntarily place limits on our own freedom. We don’t think it’s okay to walk up to people on the street and start hurling insults — so why do it on YouTube? It may be legal, and it may be protected speech, but a person obesessed with insulting others is not very healthy. Perhaps we should shame them in the same way we shame anti-Black racists, or anti-Semites. If Muslims are the last group in the world whom it’s okay for Americans to insult, that doesn’t reflect very well on us as a culture.

“Beware the False Fury”

Read this now. He gets everything right.

    “The same danger is now looming from Cairo to Benghazi to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world—for militant Salafis or Wahhabis to abuse this ignoramus film to derail a world historic succession of revolutions. … The US has done enough atrocities around the globe to be blamed for just about everything—but this is a different season—this is the season of the Green Movement and the Arab Spring—do not be fooled by these zealotries of the fanatics who are trying to steal the revolution. … President Obama must do absolutely nothing. The true measure of his statesmanship is [to]…let Muslims raise their own voice in condemning both bigotry and violence at one and the time—as indeed we see it happening in both Libya and Egypt…. This is the season of the Arab Spring—binary banalities of fanatics on both sides of the divide cannot derail the course of history anymore.”

Manipulation: A Case Study

Protests over the film trailer insulting Mohammed have spread from Egypt and Libya to several other countries. The Toronto Star:

    “Just as the video itself was an act of manipulation, U.S. officials are on alert to the likelihood that the reaction will involve further manipulation, as Salafist groups seize upon and stoke the fury.”

Here’s an article from the great Max Blumenthal that reveals the identities and motivations of the men who made the film—radical, anti-Islamist Christians, among them Egyptian Copts living in the U.S. He makes the point that there is an ideological link between these individuals and the Islamophobic network led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who are the same people who provided inspiration to Anders Behring Breivik—the Norwegian who murdered 77 people, mostly teenagers, for being “multiculturalists” last year.

It should be noted that virulent hatred of Islam is not the default position of the Coptic community, either inside or outside Egypt. Blumenthal concludes his article by mentioning that one of the collaboratators on the film, Morris Sadek, was recently attacked on the street in Washington by four Coptic women, who were angry with him for endangering the lives of their fellow Copts.

What is troubling to me are the intentions behind this film. Steve Klein, a right-wing Christian activist and militia trainer who was a “consultant” on the film, was quoted as saying, “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.” And Sadek, who was banned from Egypt last year for incitement, said, “The violence that it caused in Egypt is further evidence of how violent the religion and people are.” It seems that the filmmakers intended to stir up violence in the Middle East—and not incidentally, make it harder for the U.S. to find common ground with moderate Islamists there.

Blogger Joseph Cannon takes this point a step further, in a series of posts that question the film’s financing, and the network of kooks who created it. Where did Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the purported director of the film—who was convicted in 2010 of bank fraud and owes $790,000 in restitution—get the money? Cannon’s theory is that he was part of an Israeli “psy op” designed to stir up trouble for President Obama in the Middle East and help Mitt Romney get elected. This is of course highly speculative, but Cannon provides useful details on the backgrounds of Klein, Sadek, Nakoula, and pastor Terry Jones—the Qur’an burner who helped promote the film—that go deeper than those in the Blumenthal article.

If the Israelis did order up this film in an attempt to discredit Obama, it makes a perverse kind of sense. Obama now faces a battle on two fronts—first, to calm things down in the Arab world before the protests spiral out of control and reverse the progress of the Arab Spring; and second, to deal with a virulent Islamophobic network at home that is doing all it can to stir up trouble. At the same time, he must face down blatant efforts by Benjamin Netanyahu to get him to commit to an inopportune, ill-considered war with Iran.

This may be the time to consider that despite all Obama’s faults, we have a decent man in the White House. When Muammar Qaddafi threatened Benghazi with extinction, he decided to step in, despite being almost alone among his top advisers to see the moral necessity. It seems obvious now that it was the right thing to do, but at the time it was a huge risk. A new article by Michael Lewis provides an intimate portrait of Obama, with a focus on his decision to help Libya. It’s long, but well worth reading, and timely in this new crisis.

Tragedy All Around


Source: AFP, via Corriere della Sera

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, is dead today, along with three other Americans who worked at the embassy, following an attack on the consulate in Benghazi by a group calling themselves the Supporters of Sharia, who were angered by a film circulated on YouTube which portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a sexually depraved lunatic.

Earlier in the night, angered by the same film, members of a crowd outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo scaled the outer wall to pull down the American flag, and replace it briefly with a black flag with an Islamic slogan. Fortunately, Egyptian security forces got control of the situation, and no one was hurt.

The events in Libya took a more serious turn. Apparently, an armed group of Islamists “came out of their military garrison” to attack the consulate, firing rockets into the building and setting it on fire. Ambassador Stevens died from smoke inhalation. A career diplomat, he had been ambassador for only four months, though he was in Libya last year to work with anti-Qaddafi rebels. Tragicallly, he was on a brief visit to Benghazi when he was caught up in the incident.

Photos on the website of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, apparently taken by the attackers themselves, show not an image of hardened fighters but a group of youths, arms raised in triumph and exulting at what they had done. This only adds to the tragedy in my mind. Did they know they were responsible for the death of a man who had been working for their own freedom just a year before?

I’ve watched the film, or more precisely its trailer, and I can say that it is a warped, degrading portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. The attackers may have been extremists, but the film is extremist in its own way. If there was ever a film designed to insult Islam, this is it. As the New York Times puts it, Mohammed is shown as “a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” Besides that, the acting is terrible—”an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue,” as the Huffington Post says. The filmmaker, Sam Bacile, who is now in hiding, says he raised $5 million to make this travesty. It has been shown only once in its entirety, in a near-empty theatre.

So why did four people have to die for this project, who very likely knew nothing about it? What were the attackers thinking, when they imagined that the Benghazi consulate, or the Cairo embassy, was a fitting target for their rage? Did they believe it was an official project of Washington or Hollywood, when it was neither? Perhaps they think that our government has the power to ban expression it doesn’t approve of, when it does not. More to the point, who cares what this jerk thinks about your religion? He’s an insignificant nobody who you’ve just given a huge boost of publicity—like Terry Jones, the pastor who burned a Qur’an, and who helped to promote this film. I can understand that after being driven to extremes by a murderous dictator, your dignity is all you have left. That’s what you fought for. But in the big world out there, somebody, somewhere will hold your values in contempt. They want to prove you’re savages, and you’ve given them just what they wanted.

So who is responsible for the deaths of the ambassador and three other Americans? Of course, it is the men who attacked the building, and I hope they are brought to justice. But does Sam Bacile feel any regret? After all, if he hadn’t made a film designed to provoke outrage, four innocent people would be alive today. “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen,” a consultant on the film said. Sam Bacile claims, “I feel sorry for the embassy,” but then he goes on to make an excuse. “I feel the security system is no good. America should do something to change it.” And he remains defiant. “Islam is a cancer, period. This is a political movie. We’re fighting with ideas.”

Now the aftermath will be politicized, and we’ll hear the usual refrain. Obama is weak on Islam. He thought he could deal with these people, and look what happened. He would rather apologize for America’s values than defend them. Already it’s begun. As Alan West, the right-wing congressman from Florida, said: “The Obama Administration touted the Arab Spring as an awakening of freedom, which we now see is a nightmare of Islamism.” We’ll be hearing more of that soon. For now, let’s mourn four people who did their best to help the cause of freedom, and got caught up in a tragic mistake.

UPDATES:

1) U.S. officials suspect that the attack on the Benghazi consulate may have been planned in advance, using the Mohammed film only as a convenient excuse. One reason for this suspicion is that the Americans were attacked not once, but twice, the second time after retreating to a safe house in a different location. Details are here.

2) Apparently the filmmaker Sam Bacile doesn’t exist, but is rather a pseudonym for the real filmmaker. Early reports said Sam Bacile claimed to be an Israeli-American who raised money for the film from 100 Jewish donors. Fortunately I didn’t fall for that angle—it didn’t feel right. The Associated Press believes it has found “Sam Bacile,” an Egyptian Copt living in California named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who was convicted of bank fraud in 2010. Nakoula admits to managing the production, but denies actually directing the film. Meanwhile, it turns out that the actors didn’t even realize they were in a film insulting Mohammed, because all the references to Mohammed and Islam were dubbed later in the studio. An actress from the film says she was deceived: “Now we have people dead because of a movie I was in. It makes me sick.”

3) I predicted that President Obama’s opponents would use this incident to accuse him of being somehow weak and un-American, and that happened far sooner than I could have imagined. In the middle of the night while events were still unfolding, Republican chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.” The next morning, once all the facts were known, Mitt Romney gave a press conference where he accused the Obama administration of “sending mixed signals to the region” and “standing in apology for our values.” Somewhat to my surprise, he was widely criticized, and many in his own party said he’d made a mistake. Molly Ball argues in The Atlantic that this may even be the moment when “the believability of his whole campaign was deflated” and “voters may decide he doesn’t pass the commander-in-chief test.”

All in all, a complex series of events, whose true significance is still evolving on many fronts.