Kijk goed naar de situatie waar je de term 'etnisch profileren' op toepast.

Recentelijk stond er op de voorpagina van de Volkskrant een foto van een moslimman die werd aangehouden op Schiphol. Over deze foto is nogal wat ophef ontstaan want het zou moslims in een negatief daglicht zetten. Deze discussie sluit in dit geval toevallig nauw aan bij een andere discussie die ook al langer woedt in Nederland, namelijk de discussie omtrent etnisch profileren. Er zijn aanwijzingen dat bij de recente controles op Schiphol ook etnisch geprofileerd wordt, ondanks eerdere berichtgeving in de kranten waarin beweerd wordt dat de controles slechts steekproefsgewijs gebeuren.

Helaas is de discussie omtrent etnisch profileren nodig toe aan wat meer helderheid want er worden verschillende dingen door elkaar gehaald. De term 'etnisch profileren' wordt te pas en te onpas gebruikt om te referen aan elke aanhouding van een niet-wit persoon door een autoriteit. Zo wordt zij ook gebruikt om te verwijzen naar het aanhouden van mensen met een 'moslim-achtig uiterlijk' op Schiphol, maar we kunnen ons serieus afvragen of de situatie hier niet anders ligt.

Één soort controle waar de term 'etnisch-profileren' op van toepassing is (en geheel terecht) is die waarbij de politie de straat op gaat en mensen van niet-witte etniciteiten controleert zonder verdere reden. Bijvoorbeeld: een groepje Marokkaans-Nederlandse jongeren gezellig rondhangend op een bankje in het park. Dit is een vorm van etnisch profileren die we enigzins terecht schadelijk achten: de verdachtmaking, nog voordat de jongeren daadwerkelijk iets hebben misdaan, is namelijk enkel en alleen gebaseerd op de etniciteiten van de aangehouden jongeren.

Het is echter een ander verhaal wanneer de politie de straat op gaat met een helder en gerechtvaardigd daderprofiel op zoek naar de dader van een misdrijf. Stel je voor: dochter 'Lizzy' is op straat mishandeld. Van de mishandeling zijn camera beelden en er is geen twijfel over mogelijk dat de misdadiger een zwarte man betreft. In dit geval zullen de meesten van ons het wel degelijk gerechtvaardigd achten wanneer de politie, in hun zoektocht naar de dader, op de dader gelijkende zwarte mensen controleert. Wanneer de politie ook blanke mensen controleert in hun zoektocht naar de mishandelaar van Lizzy dan zien we dat als een nutteloze besteding van kostbare tijd. We kunnen ons zelfs serieus afvragen of we überhaupt van mening zijn dat de term 'etnisch-profileren' hier wel op van toepassing is. Sommigen zullen zeggen van niet, maar toch zien we dat men in de maatschappelijke discussie omtrent etnisch profileren de term op dit soort gevallen toepast. En er zijn goede redenen om te geloven dat de recente controles op Schiphol ook een soortgelijke situatie vormen.

In 2004 vond de politie-inval in het Laakkwartier in Den Haag plaats waarbij twee leden van de Hofstadgroep werden gearresteerd. De inval vond plaats omdat de AIVD enigzins goede redenen had te geloven dat er terroristische activiteiten beraamd werden. Hun vermoedens waren namelijk gebaseerd op opnames van de vooraf in het huis geïnstalleerde afluisterapparatuur. Dit soort vermoedens, op basis van opnames, zijn dus niet onbekend voor onze inlichtingendiensten. Dus wanneer de gemeente Haarlemmermeer, in gesprek met NCTV, op basis van een 'signaal' besluit controles op de wegen naar Schiphol uit te laten voeren, dan is het mogelijk dat dat 'signaal' van een soortgelijke aard is geweest als bij de Hofstadgroep: het soort signaal dat voortkomt uit concrete observaties van gedrag uit heel concrete groepen. Dat wil dus zeggen dat het heel goed mogelijk is dat, net als in het geval van de hofstadgroep of die van dochter Lizzy, men heel goed weet naar welke mensen ze op zoek zijn.

Net als met het denkbeeldige voorbeeld met dochter Lizzy zouden we het absurd vinden wanneer de autoriteiten tijd zouden besteden witte mensen te controleren als zij met zekerheid weten dat de dreiging komt van mensen met een niet-witte etniciteit. Sterker nog, mensen met een niet-witte etniciteit zullen, neem ik aan, enigzins dankbaar zijn wanneer ook hun leven gered zou zijn door dit soort controles. En handen omhoog, overigens, voor wie zich dochter 'Lizzy' voorstelde als een wit kind met witte ouders.

Hollywood Syndrome

My first blog was named ‘Hollywood Syndrome’. I coined that term to describe a psychological phenomenon that I, at one point, found myself bothered by. Namely the idea that ones life is the enactment of a story of which you are the main character. The problem with this idea, to me, is that a story usually has a number of features which actually make it very unlike life in certain respects. One of these features, for instance, is the idea of 'plot armor'. 'Plot armor’ is the idea that you already know beforehand whether the protagonist of a story will survive his difficulties because of some other features of the story. For instance, if one is reading a story that has only a limited amount of characters then one can already infer from that fact that it is very unlikely the main character will die. Because if the main character dies, then there will be no other characters left for the storyline to follow. This is one example of plot armor, and I think it is a sign of the quality of the story if it is capable of fooling the audience into believing there is no plot armor, thereby maintaining the suspense. One show that has made a habit of playing with this concept to the extreme is, ofcourse, 'Game of Thrones’. In this show a number of characters that you come to care about will be mercilessly killed, to the point where you begin to fear that soon there will be no one left to tell a story about.

The concept of plot armor is a problem insofar as a story tries to be an accurate portrayal of events, or of life in general. Because if a story is meant to imitate life, then by virtue of the features that inevitably come with a story, such as plot armor, it has already failed. For life, as most level-headed people know, doesn’t actually have plot armor. At any moment you may in fact die, regardles of whether one feels this to be impossible because it doesn’t fit the narrative of his or her personal story. It could happen to anybody, as they say.

I’m sure there are other features of a story that usually make it an inaccurate tool for accurately portraying life. A story usually cuts anything that is unnecessary for the advancement of the plot, for instance. As a result stories actually neglect the majority of life which is spent doing the mundane things we all do. 

Such aspects, that seem to come necessarily with stories, are also why I find the idea that ones life is the enactment of a personal story so bothering. Thinking ones life is a story, seems, to me, like consciously deluding yourself. Your life is a lot more mundane, and the events within it are a lot less dramatic, than you’re telling yourself when you think your life is a story. And furthermore, thinking your life is a story is strangely narcissistic in a way, as if the unfolding events in the universe are about your life. You also don’t have plot armor.

One thing that might also come with this ‘hollywood syndrome’ is a preoccupation with moments. Growing up in a rich western country I had the privilege of watching an endless amount of hollywood movies. Movies will emphasize certain events in overly dramatic ways and they copy the ways other movies have depicted them. Thus in romantic movies, for instance, one might find the music changing and the camera zooming in when the protagonists share their first kiss. While it might give a fun experience during the movies, the result for humans growing up with them, which are primarily animals that learn by copying behaviour, is that one might start to act as if one is constantly experiencing certain key events that have to be experienced in the overly dramatic fashion depicted in the movies and where one behaves accordingly. This way life literally becomes the enactment of a play, thus leading to a fundamentally inauthentic experience.

Let me be clear though: I coined the term ‘hollywood syndrome’ to describe how I once felt I myself, as an overly dramatic teenager, was behaving. And after trying to rid myself of it I sometimes feel I find traces of the same ordeal in others. Although, admittedly, that might also be some form of projection. I do think, however, that it is something rather natural, particularly for teenagers, to experience. And there are interesting and closely related phenomena aswell, such as the 'imaginary audience’ and 'personal fable’ phenomena. I think ridding yourself of these things is part of growing up. Although I am sceptical of anyone ever growing out of such things completely. Still, I think it is healthy to try and rid yourself of them because I think it leads to living a more authentic and realistic life.

The Qur'an as a contributor to Islamic terrorism

“[…] the moment there’s a book which is being interpreted in a strange way by a group of people, then you shouldn’t adjust the book, you should adjust the people that misinterpreted the book. You should have them acquire knowledge. That’s the solution, the book isn’t the problem.” - Abdulmohaimen Amer1

In the debate surrounding Islam and Islamic terrorism some apologists of Islam, both muslim and non-muslim, hold the view that the text of the Qur’an can’t be among the causes of terrorist acts committed by Islamic extremists (let’s call this the ‘innocent Qur’an’ view). The quotation above is, I believe, an example of this view. The aim of this essay is to refute the innocent Qur’an view and establish that the text of the Qur’an can in fact be among the causes of Islamic terrorism.

1. Arguments for the innocent Qur’an view

Adherents to the innocent Qur’an view usually believe in one of the two following propositions. They either believe proposition (A1):

“There is no such thing as ‘the correct interpretation of the Qur’an’”2.

Or they believe proposition (B):

“The correct interpretation of the Qur’an is one that promotes non-violence, tolerance, etc.”

Proposition (A1) is often held to because the adherent also believes that (A2) “The Qur’an itself has no essence”. Given (A2), proposition (A1) makes sense. For if the Qur’an has no essence, then there is also no essence for an interpretation to grasp, and in that sense there is no correct interpretation of the Qur’an. Furthermore, if the Qur’an indeed has no essence, then violent interpretations of the Qur’an can’t originate from the Qur’an but must originate from already violent interpreters themselves.

Proposition (B) is used in almost the same way. While it doesn’t deny that the Qur’an has an essence, it just supposes that the essence which the Qur’an has is a non-violent, tolerant one. And if the essence of the Qur’an is indeed non-violent and tolerant, then here too the violent interpretations must originate elsewhere.

2. The argument against the innocent Qur’an view

We have seen two ways in which the innocence of the Qur’an can be upheld. Both ways suggest that any violent or intolerant interpretation must originate from somewhere else than the Qur'an. The counter-argument to this idea functions, not so much by denying propositions A1, 2 & B, but by suggesting another way in which the Qur'an might contribute to violent and intolerant interpretations. It relies upon a distinction I would like to make between different kinds of interpretations.

In the domain of interpretations two distinctions are already well established. These are the distinction between correct and incorrect interpretations and the distinction between plausible and implausible interpretations. Of these two, the distinction I would like to make seems most similar to the latter.

I’d like to distinguish easy interpretations from hard interpretations. By distinguishing ‘easy’ from ‘hard’ I am referring to the difficulty, to a layman, to acquire one interpretation or another. One interpretation can be more plausible than another while at the same time being harder to acquire for the layman. Consider, for instance, a contract which is made to seem as if it says something different from what it actually says. Some contracts are deliberately misleading by making use of convoluted jargon, fine print, or other means. In such a case a well-trained lawyer might not be fooled: he would be able to distill the correct meaning and he’d be able to put up a plausible argument that the contract is not what it seems. But the layman, on the other hand, is easily fooled: his interpretation is neither correct or plausible, it was simply the first thing that came to his uneducated mind upon reading the contract. The laymans interpretation was, in that sense, the easiest interpretation. It required no formal education, no hard thinking, no reasoning about alternative possibilities, merely an elementary understanding of the english language was necessary for the layman to come to his conclusion.

So, in the sense just described, some interpretations of texts are easy while others are hard. In a sense, therefore, what we have established is that interpretations can have a certain degree of difficulty. And from here it won’t be too hard to accept that the degree of difficulty contributes to a person actually adhering to one interpretation or another. Meaning: the easier the interpretation, the more likely someone is to actually interpret a text that way, as is obvious from the example with the layman and the contract.

Now that we have established all this about texts in general, what does it have to do with the Qur'an? Well, the crux is ofcourse that if we could agree that a violent and intolerant interpretation of the Qur'an is the easiest interpretation to acquire, then it follows that the Qur'an itself contributes to the likelihood of a person actually interpreting it in a violent and intolerant way. And if the Qur'an itself contributes to that likelihood, then it bears at least some responsibility for the violent and intolerant interpretations that stem from it and we can no longer maintain that the Qur'an is absolutely innocent.

3. The easy interpretation

Now that the counter argument is firmly set in place we are left with establishing, finally, the proposition that the easiest interpretation of the Qur'an is an intolerant and violent one. However, it is important to keep in mind how 'easiest' was defined here. I distinguished it from 'correct' interpretations and from 'plausible' interpretations. So the claim is not that a violent and intolerant intepretation is the correct one, or the most plausible one3, just that it is the one most easily acquired by a layman. A person without guidance, without any prior knowledge, not putting too much effort into it, stands a non-negligible chance of interpreting the Qur'an as violent and intolerant.

Unfortunately the road to agreement on this issue is rough, for I will necessarily have to rely on the honesty and common sense of individual readers. My first argument therefore, if we can even call it that, is merely to ask readers of the Qur'an to judge for themselves what they feel would be the easiest interpretation. Do you really feel that a book in which nearly every one of its 114 chapters states that eternal punishment awaits unbelievers is somehow easiest interpreted as saying one must be tolerant of those outside Islam? Can you not muster some suspicion that such phrases might contribute to intolerant interpretations?

Still, even after a seemingly honest reading there will be those who deny the premiss. My second effort at convincing those who remain will be to point out inconsistencies in their words and those who stand with them. At the beginning of this essay, for instance, I put a quote by a guy named 'Abdulmohaimen Amer'. He was one out of a group of three muslim youngsters who was invited to talk on a Dutch television show 'Jinek' about the problem of radicalism. While first espousing the view that the Qur'an itself is not part of the problem, elsewhere in the show he says this: "They are going to fall back on religion without any form of guidance, causing them to fall back on the literal interpretation". And when it comes to studying the Qur'an Abdulmohaimen had this to say: "[...] it's not a study that comes easy, it's a study that takes guidance". So it seems like something strange is going on here. Just like we have seen with the example of the contract Abdul seems to imply here that to a layman the Qur'an might seem violent and intolerant, even though it really isn't. In that sense Abdul seems to acknowledge that a violent and intolerant interpretation is easiest, for it takes guidance before one realises the correct interpretation.

If, after all this, critics still maintain their position I would like to turn the tables and ask them: 'how would you argue that a non-violent and tolerant interpretation is the easiest one to acquire?'. If the answer is one that refers to the context in the text or history, or if it refers to some obscure scholar of Islam, then by virtue of that answer itself one has proven which interpretation would be easiest to acquire. Because surely an interpretation that requires one to read up on the history of a text or to seek out a certain scholar is harder to acquire than one that merely requires a basic understanding of the english language.

4. Closing remarks

In ending this essay I'd like to reiterate one final moment what this argument says and especially what it does not say. First of all, this argument merely makes a claim about the possibility and the actuality of the Qur'an being a causal factor in muslim extremism. It does not, however, make a point about the extent to which the Qur'an contributes to muslim extremism: it merely makes the point that it can contribute and most likely does contribute. The extent of its contribution is left for others to judge.

Secondly, comparisons with other religions are also outside the scope of the argument. The argument merely focuses on the question whether the Qur'an might be a causal factor in terrorist acts perpetrated by muslim extremists. Whether the argument applies equally to, for instance, the Bible, is left for others to judge. The same goes for the question of whether the Qur'an might contribute more to muslim extremism than say, the Bible does to Christian extremism. Take note, however, that the answers to these two questions have hardly any bearing on the validity of the argument laid out in this essay.

Thirdly I'd like to emphasize my personally deeply held belief in Hume's guillotine: no is can ever simply justify an ought. Meaning: whatever this essay has said about the relationship between the Qur'an and muslim extremism, it has said nothing about prescriptive measures to take.

Finally, one can wonder why I have insisted upon using my own third distinction between easy and hard interpretations. Wouldn't the argument have succeeded, for instance, using the already more established distinction between plausible and implausible interpretations? Perhaps that could be the case. But, firstly, it would be a lot harder for me to convincingly argue the strong claim that the most plausible interpretation of the Qur'an is really a violent and intolerant one. For that would require me to go up against well educated scholars of Islam, which I am not, and to go in depth on the Qur'an itself. For that reason it is simply easier to make the weaker claim, not that the Qur'an is most plausibly interpreted in some way, but that the Qur'an is easily misinterpreted. More importantly however, I have argued for the latter because I want to build a bridge in the discussion between the apologists and the critics of Islam. Right now it seems to me that there is, on the one side, a very vocal group denying that the Qur'an has anything to do with muslim extremism, and a very vocal group on the other side claiming it has everything to do with muslim extremism. With this argument I hope the two sides can find an acceptable common middle ground without each group conceding too much to the other. Using this argument, for instance, apologists can remain safely convinced that the Qur'an is, in reality, a wonderfully peaceful book while at the same time empathising with the concerns of its critics by acknowledging that the Qur'an might bear some responsibility for being easily misinterpreted.

Notes
  1. Amer, A. (2015, Januari 13). Jinek: Hoe emancipeer je de islam van binnenuit? (Dutch television show). Translated from Dutch by me. Page source: http://www.npo.nl/jinek/13-01-2015/KN_1666171
  2. Former radical, now critic of Islamism, 'Maajid Nawaz espouses a view much like proposition (A1). In his recent book with Sam Harris 'Islam and the Future of Tolerance' (which I very much recommend) he has said "I don't accept that there's a correct reading of scripture in essence". Interestingly, though, Nawaz' views on the supposed innocence of the Qur'an are not entirely clear to me and I'd be interested to hear them. If I had to venture a guess I would say Nawaz is very open to the idea that the Qur'an might be easily misinterpreted.
  3. I believe mentioning Islam critic 'Sam Harris' in this context is in order. Harris, to me, is one of the few critics that has shown himself well versed in the crucial distinctions made here. I think it is warranted to say that Harris, for instance, has argued in favor of the strong claim that a violent interpretation of the Qur'an is plausible, all the while being very careful not to claim it is correct. His 2014 interview with Fareed Zakaria attests to this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4nIfLGqd9s). I suspect Harris might even be open to embrace the distinction I've made here, if he hasn't already done so.

The Argument from Personal Experience

I have often been confronted with a certain argument for God’s existence which I find particularly harmful. I will call it ‘the argument from personal experience’. In its simplest form the argument from personal experience goes like this:

P: I feel that God exists.
C: God exists.

This simple argument is complemented by an often implicit premiss about the cause of the feeling in question, namely: the feeling that God exists is itself caused by God. So we are left with the following argument:

P1: I feel that God exists.
P2: God causes (P1).
C: God exists.

From here the conclusion seems obvious: if I have a feeling that God exists and if I also believe that God causes this feeling within me then it follows that God must exist.

With this article I hope to discourage people from using the argument from personal experience. I will do so by first arguing, in section 1, that human beings are often wrong about what their feelings tell them and about the cause of their feelings (thereby attacking premiss P1 & P2). Secondly, in section 2, I will present an alternative cause for the feeling that God exists (this concerns premiss P2). In section 3 I will show that the argument from personal experience is out of reach for rational discourse. And finally, in sections 4.1 and 4.2 I will present the reasons why I think the argument from personal experience is a risky and harmful argument.

It might be seen as a strange manoeuver to attack an argument based on its consequences instead of showing why it is false, but I think (for reasons that should become abundantly clear) that there really is no other way to deal with it.

1. Feelings

My first point is simply this: human beings can be wrong about what their feelings tell them and about the cause of their feelings. You could say that the fields of psychotherapy in general and psychoanalysis in particular are partially based on this supposition. But one need not necessarily look at the research to see that this is true. The supposition that we sometimes don’t understand our own feelings is ingrained in the way we speak. For example; phrases like “I have to sort out my feelings” or “I don’t know how I feel about this” are not uncommon. And in regards to the cause of our feelings it is not uncommon for people to feel sad sometimes without knowing why.

It follows that it may very well be that theists are wrong about their feeling that God exists. For instance, perhaps the feeling that God exists is actually the feeling of wishing that God exists. And, of course, it may be that theists are also wrong about the cause of their feeling.

2. Causes

Hopefully I have convincingly shown that we can be wrong about what our feelings tell us and about their causes. Now I would like to present theists with a possible alternative cause for their feeling that God exists (thereby attacking premiss P2: God causes (P1)). Instead of the feeling being caused by God himself, I ask you to imagine the possibility that the feeling is actually caused by a complex socio-cultural process. Now, even though it will be hard for some (or most) theists to imagine their own feeling being the consequence of a socio-cultural process, my guess is that most will agree that feelings in general can be a consequence of such processes. How else would we explain, for instance, the feeling that escaped North Koreans claim to have that their leader Kim Jong-Un can read their minds? It is not hard to imagine that such a feeling can come about by living in a social and cultural environment that promotes these kinds of ideas about the nature of its leader.

3. Rationality

I have shown that we can be wrong about feelings and their causes, and I have presented you with an alternative cause for the feeling that God exists. Now I would like to point out that the argument from personal experience is out of reach for rational discourse. With this claim I mean: there is nothing I can say or present a theist which will convince them that their feeling that God exists isn’t actually caused by God himself.

Suppose that someone pulled a prank on me and told me that Donald Trump is the current President of the US. And further suppose that this prank was pulled by someone I usually trust in such matters and because of this I now actually believe that Donald Trump is the current President of the US. In this case there are numerous easy ways for anyone to show me that my belief is mistaken. For example, you could simply show me a newspaper stating who is actually the current President. I think it unlikely a newspaper would be mistaken about the presidency so therefore it is able to convince me.

As we can see from this example, there are things in the world which, if they are the case (for example: a newspaper stating who the actual current president is), are capable of changing my mind. You could say that my belief, that Donald Trump is the president of the US, is dependent on things outside of myself located in a shared world and thereby it is falsifiable for others. Now contrast this with belief in God based on the argument from personal experience. Unlike the presidency example there is actually nothing in the world which I can present to theists that can convince them that premiss P2 (God causes (P1)), is wrong. This is because premiss P2 is dependent on mechanisms internal to the theist, i.e.: its verification (or falsification) relies upon careful and honest introspection that only the theist him-or herself can perform.

And this, I will try to show next, is a considerable problem.

4.1 Problem 1: Personal

I am sure theists will agree to the following: people can, and often do, fool themselves about anything (possibly without even knowing it). I think this must be uncontested because I presume this is what theists believe about me, an atheist. I believe theists must think that I am somehow fooling myself into believing there is no God. So theists will agree with me that people in general can fool themselves but, of course, theists will deny that they are the ones doing this in the case of God.

Now, I don’t wish to ‘prove’ here that theists are in fact the ones fooling themselves (in fact this article in general should not be taken as an attempt to prove or disprove anything about God, I am merely questioning the legitimacy of a single specific argument). I simply want to draw your attention to a peculiar difference between theists who use the argument from personal experience and anyone that doesn't use any argument of the sort. The difference is this: if it is indeed the case that atheists are the ones fooling themselves then the way is still open for anyone to convince atheists that they are in fact wrong by presenting the matters that prove it. While if, on the other hand, theists are the ones fooling themselves then there is no way for others to convince them of this (as we have seen). So, unlike atheists, theists who base their belief on the argument from personal experience have, possibly, locked themselves up in their own self-delusion: if they are wrong they have now made it impossible for anyone to convince them that they are.

I hope theists can agree with me that this possibility is real and that it is not a good thing. Despite this I am sure, however, that numerous theists will consider it a risk they are willing to take.

4.2 Problem 2: Social

The second reason why the argument from personal experience is especially problematic is a social one. Your beliefs affect other people through the behavior they engender. Now, one might say that simply believing God exists is a harmless belief. And I am inclined to agree. If the belief that God exists was the only belief people have that is based on the argument from personal experience, I think it would indeed not be a problem. However, a belief rarely comes alone and the belief that God exists in particular has a way of bringing related beliefs with it. For instance, with the belief that God exists usually come beliefs about the existence of an afterlife, beliefs about punishment and reward for bad and good behavior and beliefs about what constitutes good and bad behavior. If the belief in God is the thing that ultimately supports conclusions about these things, then these things are also ultimately out of reach for reason.

And not only are such conclusions often supported by the belief in God, oftentimes the argument from personal experience is used directly to support conclusions about things other than the existence of God. For instance, I recently had a discussion with a Christian about porn. I asked him whether he could point out to me the passages in the Bible that prohibited porn. The conversation was in Dutch but roughly translated his comment comes down to this: “[…] even though I could cleverly argue that the Bible does not prohibit pornography, I still know and clearly feel in my heart that God did not intend it that way. This is a very clear guideline for me. I don’t think I know any Christian who can honestly say pornography is fine. And that, I think, is eventually not only a consequence of understanding the Bible but it is especially through God’s spirit that it becomes clear”.

It is clear that the argument from personal experience can and is being used to support any conclusion. And so we are left with a number of beliefs held by people that are not amenable to reason and which, at least in democratic societies, inevitably influence public policy. To see why this is a problem one need only imagine oneself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine Muslims in western societies enforcing mandatory hijabs for women in public areas and imagine this was based on nothing more than the argument from personal experience (“hijabs should be mandatory because we feel God commands this”). Imagine, on the other hand, being a Muslim and being forced to recite Christian prayers before lunchtime at school. Undoubtedly these examples are rather ridiculous, perhaps they are even hard to imagine ever being the case, but that does not matter. What matters is this: when you do imagine these things you must also feel the frustration and injustice that come with the knowledge that you are faced with beliefs (and policy) that are not at all subject to reason and can therefore not be changed through rational means.

And I really want to drive this point home as well: if you use the argument from personal experience to support any conclusion one can hardly forbid others from doing the same thing. And thus, by using the argument from personal experience, you open yourself up to possible injustice and irrationality from other people, because they might not use the argument to support the same conclusions as you.

A Speculative Essay on the Beginning of Reality

Take the problem of the concept of nothing. The problem I am referring to is the one where if one tries to talk about nothing one inescapably talks about it as if it was a something while the whole point of nothing is that it is (or it should be) precisely the opposite of a something. We can’t seem to talk about nothing without talking about it as if it was something. My solution to this problem is to say that this is a problem of the limits of our language, but that this limit in no way allows us to draw conclusions about the actual nature of nothingness; from the fact that we can't conceptualise it we can’t conclude, for instance, that nothingness can't exist.

Nonetheless I will maintain that the existence of nothing is, in an important sense, impossible, but (predictably) for different reasons. The impossibility of nothingness is the first of three things I claim in this essay. My other two claims are (2) that time does not exist, and (3) that reality did not have a beginning (which will be my conclusion).

The view that reality does not have a beginning was already deemed absurd by Aristotle (and therefore, presumably, ‘false’) and I presume most people today still share this sentiment. My strategy will therefore be to try to ‘tweak' your intuitions (through methods I am sure most will deem acceptable) to the point where a reality without a beginning becomes not only imaginable but also plausible. But in order for me to do that I will first have to persuade the reader to accept the two claims that (1) nothingness is impossible and that (2) time does not exist.

Let us start with the concept of time. What is time? Suppose we compare a clock to a thermometer, what would be the most important difference between the two? My guess is this: the thermometer measures and presents a quality outside of itself that is verifiably present, while the clock only presents a quality as consequence of its internal mechanisms. A clock does not measure anything outside of itself. This simple fact alone should already considerably influence our intuitions regarding the nature of time.

Now let us look more closely to the clock. If it doesn’t measure anything outside of itself, what does it measure? We can see that the clock mostly consists of gears in various sizes which move the hands of the clock. It seems to me that the only thing a clock measures and presents is changes in place. Even if it is the case that a certain clock does not measure anything internal to itself, as is the case with sundials, what is measured and presented is still simply a change of place (sundials, for instance, present the position of the sun relative to the earth).

Thus, I tink this is what time really is; just objects changing place. Furthermore, I think we have been thinking about time as if it was some kind of quality like ‘heat’ or ‘weight’. But I can already hear you think: “Aha! but you are using the word ‘change’! Change must imply the presence of a separate dimension next to space!”. This is where my earlier comments about language and nothingness come in. The concept of time is faced, I think, with the same kind of predicament the concept of nothingness faces: we seem to be unable to think of change without thereby immediately invoking a certain concept of time. And as with the problem of nothingness my suspicion is that the problem of time is due to the limits of our language (or perhaps even our thought in general). And as we have seen the limits of language in no way allow us to draw a conclusion about the nature of a reality separate of language.

Allow me to further try to tweak your intuitions with a thought experiment. The experiment is meant to persuade you to believe the positing of the ‘dimension’ of time is unnecessary. So, imagine, if you will, that by some kind of freakish magic accident every object in reality suddenly came to a halt. Imagine every atom, every electron, and I mean everything, was suddenly hanging still. People, animals, imagine every object just froze. But also suppose that this separate dimension of ‘time’ (that everyone seems to cling to) is the only ‘thing’ that didn’t freeze and suppose that while everything is frozen millions of ‘years’ pass. Now ask yourself, if then suddenly everything starts up again, would anyone know that millions of years had passed? Would there be a way to know? My answer to both these questions is, as you probably thought, ‘no’. No one would know and there wouldn’t be a way to know because time is not something separate from the changing of place of objects. With this claim I am also obviously contesting the famous view that time is that which keeps everything from happening at once. In my view it is not ‘time’ which keeps everything from happening at once, instead, everything doesn’t happen at once simply because in a literal sense there is stuff in the way.

Hopefully this is enough to convince anyone that time is not something separate from the changing of place of objects. And I also hope this already considerably motivates a change in intuitions regarding time and the possibility of a reality which had no beginning (and thus stretches back infinitely). However there is still a tough nut left to crack. This is the problem that in some way it still seems to make sense to ask ‘what happened before the big bang?’. And this is, unfortunately, where my essay turns considerably speculative (if it wasn’t already). 

I will state first of all that I take the question seriously. I do not mean to claim that the question makes no sense as Stephen Hawking does when he likens this question to the question ‘what is north of the north pole?’.

Now when we think about what happened before the Big Bang we are usually confronted with the concept of nothingness, because we seem to wonder wether reality could have truly come from nothing. My answer to this (as you have certainly come to expect from me) is ‘no’. Reality as we know it, I think, did not come from nothing. But the answer Hawking gave was, I think, nonetheless close to the truth. The problem is that Hawking thought of time (as a separate thing) beginning with the Big Bang, while he should have been thinking about causality beginning with the Big Bang.

My final point is, arguably, the most speculative part of my essay. It is so speculative in fact I dare not even postulate it. Therefore I will phrase it in the form of a question. It seems that if something is in fact a ‘thing', it must first exist. I mean: existence seems to be a necessary part of ‘things’. However, I suspect that we have all quietly accepted something else as a necessary part of things as well: causality. My question then is this: could it be possible that there is some ‘thing’ that is not subject to causality?

I suspect there is. I suspect there must be some kind of ‘matter’ which does exist but, other than everything else that exists, is not subject to causality. If such a substance indeed exists it would, to me, provide a satisfying final answer to the question of what happened (or what was ‘there’) before the Big Bang, because such a substance wouldn’t itself need a cause and ‘time’, which is tied to causality, does not apply to this substance. Therefore we can imagine this substance to have been eternally present and uncaused.

Why atheism is a belief

The subject matter of this post, whether atheism is a belief, is one of the things I have changed my mind about (as an atheist myself) these past few years. I partially credit this change to my friend and former roommate Hama Yun with whom I have lots of heated discussions.

My original position regarding this issue was one held by a lot of atheists: I defined atheism as ‘the absence of belief in god’ rather than the ‘belief that god does not exist’. In this article I will show why this position is mistaken, how and why the wrong view arises in the first place, and finally I will show why this is actually a harmless point to concede to the theists.

Contesting views

The following two sentences describe the two contesting views in this discussion:

Which of these two sentences accurately describes the atheist mind? (Also note that P1 implies P2 but not the other way around).

Usually the theist will maintain that the atheist mind is most accurately described by (P1). The atheist on the other hand will claim (erroneously) that (P2) and not (P1) accurately describes the atheist mind.

To see why the atheist position is wrong let us first ask how another closely related position is to be defined: agnosticism. To the question of gods existence the agnostic famously replies he does not know whether he exists or not. An agnostic clearly lacks belief in god, therefore (P2): S does not believe that P: ‘God exists’. But the agnostic also refrains from making the claim that not-P: ‘God does not exist’, therefore not-P1. However, as we can see there is now nothing which separates the atheist position from the agnostic: both claim (P2) and not-P1.

For this reason I find it, at the very least, unwise for atheists to define themselves in this way (P2 and not-P1). If the atheist position deserves a label other than ‘agnosticism’ then it seems to me the atheist position should be meaningfully distinguishable from the agnostic position. And if you’re an atheist but you prefer to define your position in the ‘P2 but not-P1’-sense, then perhaps you should seriously consider a change of name.

Seeing the world for what it is

Funny enough I think that the thing which got atheists into this awkward position is actually the same thing atheists usually blame theists: wishful thinking. By choosing to define their own position in such an awkward way atheists are actually confusing what they want their position to be with what it actually is.

But what is it that makes atheists so eager to deny the claim that atheism is a belief? I think it is because atheists believe that conceding this point would leave their position open to the charge that their position takes just as much faith as theism. But this is also a claim which I think is mistaken because while it might be impossible for me to definitively prove that god does not exist, I do think it’s possible to show he doesn’t exist beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately however, I will not dwell on it at this moment because this is itself an issue that warrants another post entirely.

Regarding state legitimacy

The following is an essay I wrote in 2011 at the start of my college education. There are some aspects of the essay which, in retrospect, could've been done better. However I'm still posting it here for two reasons. 1: For anyone who is somewhat interested in politics the question of the legitimacy of the state is one of the most fundamental questions one can ask and it is a real shame it is often overlooked. 2: The theory set forth in this essay has influenced my own political beliefs to a great extent.

Introduction

One of the central debates in political philosophy is the question of state legitimacy. For we seem to think, if a person or a group of people wishes to rule over others, they had better have good reasons for doing so. This then seems to be one of the main arguments in favor of anarchism. As Noam Chomsky notes "Anarchism (...) is based on the assumption that any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself, they have a burden of proof to bear and if they can't bear that burden, which they usually can't, they're illegitimate and should be dismantled" (2007). Now we can see that in the absence of a good theory of state legitimacy, the anarchism debate is still very much open. This then is the issue which this essay concerns itself with. I shall try presenting a new theory of state legitimacy and so, close the debate on anarchism.

In the present day, opinions seem to have settled upon social contract theory as a theory of state legitimacy. This is more because of the absence of a viable alternative, because as we shall see, social contract theory is full of flaws.

The Social Contract

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes presented his 'social contract theory' in his book 'Leviathan'. Hobbes believed human beings were rationally self-interested individuals, and from this premisse he drew his conclusion on what society would look like without a state, the so called 'state of nature'. In the state of nature, society would consist of individuals chasing after the object of their own desires and, inevitably, come into conflict with eachother resulting in a "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). Therefore Hobbes characterizes life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.". To prevent this from happening people must enter into a social contract with one another to gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an absolute ruler.

There are several problems with this theory. First there is a historical problem. For there has never been a moment in time (that we know of) that people got together to enter into a social contract. This theory should therefore not be regarded as an accurate portrayal of historical events, but more as an intellectual tool.

The second flaw is more fundamental. Francis Fukuyama calls this "The Hobbesean Fallacy" (2011, p. 29): "The idea that human beings were primordially inidividualistic and that they entered into society at a later stage in their development only as a result of a rational calculation that social cooperation was the best way for them to achieve their individual ends". However, we now know through years of anthropological and evolutionary research that human beings have always been group animals. In the earliest stages of human history, humans lived in small-scale hunter-gatherer societies. Furthermore, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, primates, also live in groups.

Thus, a fundamental premisse for Hobbes' social contract, seems to be mistaken. State legitimacy does not rest upon it's ability to reduce violence among individuals, because contrary to Hobbes opinion, individuals would not be responsible for most of the violence in the state of nature. In fact 'individuals' would naturally form relatively peacefull small-scale groups. Whatever the main reason for our state is, it is not to reduce violence among individuals.

State legitimacy: A historically correct alternative

Even though Hobbes theory was wrong, it wasnt far from the truth either. Because while individuals get along relatively well, groups of people do a lot worse.

From the first moments of their existence, human groups have engaged in violent acts against other groups. Not only do we find this natural propensity for violence in human groups, but we can also find it in our closest relatives: chimpanzees. Archaeologist Steven LeBlanc notes "Much of noncomplex society human warfare is similar to chimpanzee attacks. Massacres among humans at that social level are, in fact, rare occurences, and victory by attrition is a viable strategy, as are buffer zones, surprise raids, taking captive females into the group, and mutilation of victims. The chimp and human behaviours are almost completely parallel". Finding this behaviour in our primate cousins further confirms violence as a natural propensity for human groups.

When we trace back the historical origins of the state, we find that the development of states has always involved inter-tribal (a tribe is a settled agrarian community contrary to a hunter-gatherer 'band'-type community) violence. This seems to be the main driver of state formation. The first states were formed, either to protect ones own group, or to be able to dominate another: "Hierarchy and the state could have emerged when one tribal segment conquered another one and took control of it's territory. The requirements of maintaining political control over the conquered tribe led the conquerors to establish centralized repressive institutions, which evolved into an administrative bureaucracy of a primitive state. Especially if the tribal groups differ linguistically or ethnically, it is likely that the victor would establish a relationship of dominance over the vanquished, and that class stratification would become entrenched. Even the threat of this kind of conquest by a foreign tribe would encourage tribal groups to establish more permanent, centralized forms of command and control, as happened with the Cheyenne and Pueblo Indians." (F. Fukuyama, 2011, p. 85)

Even today in places where the state has fallen, we do not see a Hobbesean 'war of all against all', instead we see different groups (even tribal groups in places like Libya and Afghanistan) fighting for power.

Thus, state legitimacy can be explained as follows: The state is the natural outcome of inter-tribal (group) violence. Should the state fall, inter-tribal (or group) violence would recommence until a new state is formed. From this we can then conclude what the state's job should be. For if the state is the natural solution to group conflict, the state should first and foremost be concerned with staying in power.

References

Fukuyama, Y. F. (2011). The Origins of Political Order. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Daarom heet het ook 'geloof'

De titel van dit artikel is een opmerking die ik vaak hoor in discussies met gelovigen. Het wordt meestal gezegd op het moment dat blijkt dat het individuele geloof in het bestaan van god niet op een rationele manier gegrond is. Dit lijkt de opvatting te impliceren dat het woord 'geloof' iets betekent als: zonder bewijs de waarheid van een propositie onderkennen. Maar dat is een eigenaardige opvatting over wat het woord 'geloof' betekent. Het is zeker niet hoe wij dat woord in ons dagelijkse leven gebruiken. Neem bijvoorbeeld de zin: "Ik geloof dat ik nu een artikel aan het lezen ben", of neem de zin: "Ik geloof dat mensen op de maan zijn geweest", dit zijn beide opmerkingen over de dingen die we geloven waar we wel degelijk bewijs voor hebben en ze zijn beide correct en begrijpelijk nederlands. Het lijkt dus dat de opmerking 'daarom heet het ook geloof' impliciet aan het woord 'geloof' een andere betekenis toekent dan gebruikelijk is, en ik denk dat ik weet hoe dit komt.

Het blijkt dat er al een woord bestaat voor het 'zonder bewijs de waarheid van een propositie onderkennen': vertrouwen. Wanneer je ergens geen bewijs voor hebt is het normaal nederlands om te zeggen dat je er 'vertrouwen' in hebt dat het waar is. Dit is wat gelovigen bedoelen wanneer blijkt dat hun overtuiging dat god bestaat niet rationeel gegrond is: ze kunnen er misschien geen bewijs voor leveren maar ze hebben er vertrouwen in dat het zo is.

Maar hoe komt het dan toch dat het woord 'geloof' gebruikt wordt terwijl er al een uitstekend alternatief nederlands woord bestaat voor die specifieke bedoeling? De oorzaak moeten we, vermoed ik, zoeken in de engelse taal. In het engels zeggen gelovigen namelijk vaak iets soortgelijks als gelovigen in Nederland: "that's why it's called 'faith'". De crux zit hem in het woord 'faith'. 'Faith' vertaalt namelijk zowel naar 'geloof' als naar 'vertrouwen' (Google Translate). In het engels draagt het woord 'faith' beide betekenissen in zich, maar voor het nederlandse woord 'geloof' geldt niet hetzelde. Mijn vermoeden is dus dit: de opmerking 'daarom heet het ook geloof' is een geimporteerd en verkeerd vertaalde opmerking want er bestaat een ongelijkheid in de connotatie van het woord 'faith' en zijn vermoedelijke tegenhanger 'geloof'.

Dit brengt ons tot een interessante observatie, namelijk: in het nederlands heeft de opmerking 'daarom heet het ook geloof' niet dezelfde kracht als in het engels. Ik zou zelfs zeggen dat in het nederlands de hele opmerking onzinnig is geworden.

Life's Manual

What would it be like if one were to have a manual for life? Something, a book or a document, wherein one could take a quick peek to find answers to your current problems. Or maybe just to learn, and gain knowledge, so you could eliminate problems before they even arise. Some say life already comes with a manual and they suggest something like the bible or another ‘holy’ book. But, alas, I am highly sceptical of the truth and overall value of these so called ‘manuals’ and prefer to find, or make, my own manual. Thus, we seem to have the beginnings of a project.

There are, in fact, multiple things which lead me toward a project like this. First of all, there is the issue of progress. It would seem very sad to me to grow old and die without being able to say I somehow ended better than I once began. I suppose when you are born you start out as a ‘tabula rasa’, you begin somewhat as an empty container and then you start to learn, gather knowledge, about the world around you. Well, if there is one thing I can accumulate throughout my whole life, which is valuable and non-superficial, I would like to accumulate knowledge. Then, at the end, I can at least claim I ended a little smarter than how I started out.

This isn’t all there is to my little project though. There are two more issues driving me. First of all there is the issue of repeating mistakes. We often like to talk about certain ‘phases’ in our lives. We all went through different phases and we think, somehow, we’re better now than we were before. However, this can only be true if we have learned something true during our so called ‘phase’. The thing we have learned is often also the very same thing which eventually brought us out of this ‘phase’ thing. Now, even though we like to think we have learned something, we still often repeat the same mistakes. This is very sad indeed; to repeat mistakes, even mistakes we have learned not to make a long time ago! Therefore, it would be nice to be able to ‘save’ one’s knowledge, because, as we have seen, oftentimes our memories prove to be incapable of accurately saving this knowledge or even to retrieve it at the right time.

Finally, there is the issue of lost value. We also have a tendency to think the elderly are somehow more knowledgeable than we are, what a shame then that the vast majority of that knowledge will be lost when they pass away! Therefore it would be best to externalise that knowledge, to ensure its safety.

Now, after explaining the reasons that could lead one towards a project of this kind, there remains something to be said about the structure of the project. I have already alluded to ‘holy’ books as manuals for life, these are however, not only unfit because of their presumed truth-value, but also because of their very structure. The same goes for encyclopedias (regarding the ‘structure’ bit). Holy books contain verses, stories, abstract and metaphorical matter. What it all means is very much open for interpretation. I deem such a structure to be unfit for a project like mine. Above all a manual needs clarity!

An encyclopedia however, does not lack this clarity. It would therefore seem to be a much better candidate for the ‘manual’ label. But I imagine, even encyclopedias subtly lack the kind of structure a true manual would have. Encyclopedias contain detailed information about a single object or matter of fact. The kind of structure I have in mind is that of organised lists of knowledge. This knowledge comes in the form of (preferably) short propositions (or one might call them ‘hypotheses’). If such a project is started, one would end up with an ever growing, structured, database of one’s own beliefs (and if true: knowledge).

Ambitious? Grandiose? Perhaps.. however, definitely not impossible. A project like this is even already being pursued commercially by the ‘Belief Genome’ people on Kickstarter. In another blog I’ll talk a little more about the uses of this project. For now, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there” – Richard Feynman