A Charter for Compassion

Karen Armstrong is a wonderful writer and an original thinker on the subject of religion in the modern world. I’ve already commented on some her writings and find that I have great respect for her work.

In this talk she talks about The Golden Rule, how it is a fundamental tenant of all the Abrahamic faiths ( Judaism, Christianity and Islam ), as well as many others. She touches on how she feels, and quite rightly, that these religions have diverted from the moral purpose they share to foster compassion. She talks about how what the golden rule truly embodies is the notion of compassion, and how it is our compassion that will ultimately change the world for better. It’s an inspired talk and one that left me feeling hopeful.

One of the most profound things she says during her talk, one that I was immediately drawn to because it echoes a sentiment that I have long struggled to articulate, which is that:

If religion is not about believing things then what is it about?
What I found across the board is that religion is about behaving
differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God
first you do something, you behave in a committed way and then
you begin to understand the truths of religion.

Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action, you only
understand them when you put them into practice.

In many ways The Golden Rule is a summons to action, for those who don’t know what Golden Rule is, it is a simple ethical edict that states (as Confucius first propounded):

"do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you."

As Karen points out in her talk though the key to this ideal is that you treat all people with the same consideration, not just members of your own faith or social/political/ethnic group. As I mentioned the origins of this rule can be traced back the core traditions of each of the major faiths, and in fact can be traced much further back to older traditions. I fundamentally agree with Karen when she says:

Compassion, the ability to feel with the other ... 
is not only the test of any true religiousity it is 
also what will bring us into the presence of what 
Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the Divine. 
It is compassion says the Buddha which brings 
you to Nirvana.

There’s a profound conviction in her words, and one that should touch us all regardless of what faith or tradition we choose to follow. Compassion, to my mind, transcends the world traditions, it’s what each of those traditions should be reaching for, and yet, for whatever reason, we often find that those traditions have diverted from it. Karen’s idea of a Charter of Compassion seeks to restore the Golden Rule as a the central global doctrine … and as a Muslim I applaud her for that. After all, didnt the Prophet Muhammed, in his final sermon, say that:

  "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you"

And also in the hadith:

  "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for 
      his brother what he wishes for himself"

During her talk I also think that Karen was quite right to dismiss the notion that Religion is the cause of all war and suffering:

The cause of our present woes are political. But make 
no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line and 
when a conflict gets ingrained in a region then religion 
can get sucked in a become part of the problem. Our
modernity has been exceedingly violent.

I think fundamentally Karen has a point, I think that religion can be a force for harmony but only when each of us embraces the idea of compassion, as embodied in The Golden Rule. Could that ever be a reality? I don’t know, the cynic in me says probably not, but the romantic in me says that we should never loose sight of that ideal.

Book: The Battle for God

The Battle for God, by Karen Amstrong

A friend of mine lent me this book recently, after I lent him Sam Harris The End of Faith, which I’ve talked about before on this blog. Both books deal with analysing the phenomenon of fundamentalism but the two authors deal with the subject in very different ways. Harris’ book is full of vitriol and lacks any real compassion, whilst some of his arguments are interesting this gets lost in his rabidly anti religious stance, his intolerance of faith is as damaging as the very fundamentalism he discusses. Armstrong on the other hand tries to rationalise and understand monotheistic fundamentalism,by examining in detail Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism. She examines each of them in turn with dignity and depth and amazing richness of detail particularly from a historical point of view

Unlike Harris'(who is so rabidly anti-islam that he’s become the poster child for Islamophobes ), Armstrong’s analysis is very objective, surprisingly so in fact, and I’m very glad I read the book, it taught me a great deal. She tries to understand why fundamentalists believe as they do and behave as they do, but she certainly isn’t afraid of articulating her own feelings about these people.

One of the most interesting arguments (if that’s the right word) she makes is that as scientific rationalism began to “explain away” God, fundamentalism rose up as its “implacable” enemy. It’s fascinating how she explains that before this conflict between scientific theories and literal readings of holy texts everyone embraced the “Independence relationship” between science and religion – a theory ascribed to Ian Barbour. In which he describes science and religion as separate domains of equal value in life since they focus on dealing with separate parts of our existence.

Armstrong tries to de-demonise fundamentalism and I think offers some hope in favouring discussion, dialogue and integration as a way out of the ever increasing conflict between fundamentalists and humanists.

It’s a very well written book and offers a valuable insight into the genesis of the fundamentalist movement and what keeps these movements growing. It’s an insightful read and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interesting the debate around fundamentalism.

Creativity: the mind, machines and mathematics

Having one of those nice quiet weekends where I get to catch up on some reading and a few webcasts! Came across this really interesting debate entitled the mind, machines and mathematics. The event was held last November on the 70th Anniversary of Alan Turing’s1 seminal paper “On Computable Numbers“. The purpose of the debate was to discuss the question: “Can we build super intelligent machines or are we limited to building super intelligent zombies?“.

Photo: Donna Coveney. From left Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks and David Gelertner

The participants in the debate are David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale, and Ray Kurzweil, a prodigious inventor and author of “The age of intelligent machines”. The debate is moderated by Rodney Brooks, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Kurzweil takes the position that machines will achieve a level of human intelligence, whilst Gelernter takes the opposite anti-cognitivist stand point. I guess it’s not surprising that the key point of contention was defining consciousness, or actually whether it could be defined.

For example, Kurzweil makes the point that: “there is no consciousness detector that we can imagine creating … that doesn’t have some philosophical assumptions built into it.” to which Gelertner insists, perhaps rightly, that “you can’t possibly understand the human mind if you dont understand consciousness“. Listening to them argue about consciousness I chuckled as I was reminded immediately of a passage from the beginning of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, which I plucked off my bookshelf and have transcribed parts of it here ( taken from the opening couple of pages of Chapter two: Explaining Consciousness):

Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery …There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of time, space and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance, but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have the final answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory but we do know how to think about them. The mysteries haven’t vanished, but they have been tamed … we know how to tell the misbegotten questions from the right questions, and even if we turn out to be dead wrong about some of the currently accepted answers, we know how to go about looking for better answers.

With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist – and hope – that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.

Dennett’s book is a wonderful read but its one of those texts that you have to persevere with since it can be fairly inaccessible, lets face it he combines psychology, philosophy, neuroscience along with many other areas of research so its small wonder some readers struggle with it. In fact I vividly recall one of the undergraduates on my AI course, years ago, who grew rather frustrated with it describing it as a head fuck. Which may not be entirely unfair …. anyway I digress … 🙂

During the debate Gelernter goes on to argue that building a conscious mind “out of software seems to be virtually impossible“, since software by definition can be taken from one computer to another, “peeled off“, can be ported from one platform to another and run in a “logically identical way on any computing platform“, but “the mind cannot be ported to any other platform or even to an instance of the same platform“, and whilst consciousness is an emergent property running hugely complex programs with billions or trillions of processes but there is no reason to believe that consciousness would or even could emerge.

Kurzweil, rather optimistically perhaps, went to point out that “that’s because were thinking of software as it is today“, since information technology is expanding exponentially and continuing research into the human brain is revealing more about brain chemistry and neural functions. I guess the point he wanted to make was that a biological brain shifting chemicals around isn’t really that dissimilar to a computer that shifts symbols? Which is a pretty valid point since Gelernter also stated that “we don’t have the right to dismiss our of hand the role the chemical makeup of the brain plays in creating the emergent property of consciousness“.

Invariably any discussion on consciousness leads to the question of spirituality, which Gelernter defined as a “thirst for the living God” and he asks, and answers, the equally inevitable question, “can we build a robot with a physical need for a non -physical thing? maybe but don’t count on it. And forget software.

I did laugh out loud when Gelernter offers an answer to the question whether super intelligent conscious machines are desireable?

I think it’s desirable to learn about every part of a human being. But assembling a complete artificial human being is a different project. We might easily reach a state someday where we prefer the company of a robot from walmarts to our next door neighbours … but its sad that in a world where we tend to view such a large proportion of our fellow human beings as useless we are so hot to build new ones! In a western world that no longer cares to have children at the replacement rate we cant wait to make artificial humans – believe it or not but if we want more complete fully functional people we can have them right now, all natural ones, consult me afterwards and I’ll let you know how its done

I could provide a blow by blow account of the entire debate, but I won’t 😉 I think you should watch it,enjoy it for yourselves, and form your own opinions. What I will say though is that It’s a wonderful little debate and the speakers are both engaging and seem to endeavour to inject a fair amount of humour into it which makes this a really entertaining and informative discussion to watch.

  1. AlanTuring.net, http://www.alanturing.net[back]

We listen but will we ever understand?

The ink of the scholars is worth more than the blood of the martyrs

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)

I wonder if the prophet would have imagined a time when Islamic scholars would, themselves, put an end to scholarly exploration, investigation, innovation, or even criticism? Have elements both within the Islamic faith and outside of it succeeded, so completely, in polarising opinions and distorting our faith to the extent where we no longer recognise who we are or what we are becoming … as we, all of us muslim and non muslim, are forced to march inexorably to our doom.

Google Tech Talk: Faith, Evolution and Programming Languages

Faith and evolution provide complementary–and sometimes conflicting–models of the world, and they also can model the adoption of programming languages. Adherents of competing paradigms, such as functional and object-oriented programming, often appear motivated by faith. Families of related languages, such as C, C++, Java, and C#, may arise from pressures of evolution. As designers of languages, adoption rates provide us with scientific data, but the belief that elegant designs are better is a matter of faith…

This is a wondeful talk by Phillip Wadler from the University of Edinburgh, he’s one of the individuals responsible for getting Generics into Java 5, and has worked on Haskell and very heavily on the development of functional programming languages throughout his career.

It’s suprising how well the evolution vs faith analogy applies to the way in which we, as developers, often adopt programming languages. For some reason the talk made me remember the old Java vs .NET arguments which were less about rationale differences in the semantics and philosophy of the programming language and more about which camp you belonged to and your unswerving faith and loyalty to it. In fact thats a poignant example of when multiculturalism went out of the window and fundementalism was very much in fashion.

The talk also provides a fair amount of history around some of the issues that polorised language designers, static vs dynamic typing, for example. I found this provided some wonderful background that I was never aware of.

If your interested in Programming Languages, their adoption and their evolution over time then this is a fascinating, and unique, talk that you should really watch.

Google Tech Talk: Change your mind, change your brain – The inner conditions for authentic happiness

This is one of the most original and engaging talks I’ve seen over at Google. The talk is given by Matthieu Ricard a gifted scientist turned buddhist monk. The talk focuses on the question “if happiness is an inner state, influenced by external conditions but not dependent on them, how can we achieve it?”.

"…you dumbass…" … dreams within dreams … and Descartes

Had a terrible evening last night all started when I got on the wrong train at New Street and ended up in the middle of no-where. took me four hours to get home in the pouring rain. It was cold, windy and wet! I must admit I was a tad pissed off had all sorts of thoughts going through my head … stupid rain, stupid trains, stupid universe, … god must hate me well I’ll hate him back see how he likes that! blah blah blah.

Anyway as I neared my place I was actually pretty wound up and shivering, then suddenly this cat jumps out in front of me (makes me jump out of my skin!) and runs under this parked car to shelter from the rain I guess. Anyway I remember standing there momentarily looking up at the sky and laughing and saying out loud “oh well it, at least I’m not naked!” … ridiculous I know but it made me laugh, it’s a good job no-one was around I’d have sounded like a nutter!

Anyway I must have got home around 9:15, and figured I was way too tired to cook, and I was too tired to order anything in so I chucked a load of fruit, ice and milk into my really cool blender, 60 seconds later instant smoothie! Had that, thought about watching TV but decided I was too tired for that too so I trundled off to be around 9:45.

Anyway I had the strangest night. I had one of those really weird dreams where your actually having a dream within a dream within a dream. Not sure how or why that happens but its a bit bizarre. I don’t actually remember too much about the dreams, in terms of the details but its just the weird idea that I woke up from a dream to realise I was still in another dream, and then when I woke up in that dream I was still in another one! Finally when I did wake up I just lay there wondering whether I was going to wake up again … is it me or is that just freaky?

Curiously it got me thinking about something Descartes wrote in his Meditations on First Philosophy( which I still think is heavily influenced by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I know many who disagree with me on that but I think theres definitely strong parallels ). Descartes attempts to find a way undermine all of his own beliefs. He does this by considering whether he is mad, dreaming or being influenced by a powerful demon, the idea being that if any of these scenarios were the case then many of his beliefs would be false. Descartes writings are often fairly inaccessible probably because of the way his works have been translated .. however in modern philosophy Descartes little experiment is the basis for the brain in a vat thought experiment, which most people find far easier to relate to.

Image source:Wikipedia

The brain in the vat experiment, in simple terms, asks us to consider the questions a) how do we know that what we are experiencing is actually real. b) if what we believe is a result of what we experience, and we cant be sure if what we experience is real, then can our beliefs be true? The experiment asks us to imagine the scenario that a brain in a vat is connected to a computer that provides all the identical electrical impulses the brain normally receives. The computer would then be simulating a kind of virtual reality but the disembodied brain would never realise this. One of the better dramatisations of this relatively recently was the Matrix movie which I’g guessing most people have seen.

Anyway I think its interesting food for thought.

Oh yeah … as for the dumbass bit … well on the way to work this morning, as with most mornings, I tend to get on the same bus with one of my colleagues, Amanda. She asked me if I’d had a good evening and I told her about my 4.5 hour trip home last night to which she replied … “oh Nad … your such a dumbass” …gee thanks Mandy! I’ll remember that!