The Shackles of Freedom


I was recently reading Richard Stallman’s Personal Site.  Richard Stallman is a legendary software activist who promotes the idea of Free Software.  He is most famous for his GNU project, Emacs text editor, Free Software Foundation, and GNU General Public License (GPL).  His ideas are interesting and highly influential.  GPL, for example, grants people freedom to run, distribute, and modify software under the condition that the modified and distributed software is shared under the same license.  Ability to change implies Open Source Software (OSS).  The word “free” does not mean “free of charge”.  It means freedom to do anything with the code and fully examine and understand what the code does and how.

Richard Stallman tries to live according to his own principles.  He refuses to use any non-free software.  Thus, Windows, Apple, and Google with its Android, Gmail, Maps, Google Drive, and a host of other useful things are off-limits for him.  He believes these companies are unethical and exploit their users in a most outrageous way.  He also does not use Amazon, Facebook, Skype, and Spotify because these companies snoop on their customers.  Any website (such as this one) running complicated JavaScript code is an abomination and a stench in Richard Stallman’s nostrils. He abhors  ebooks as ebook distributors dictate the users what they may and may not do with their book copies.

Richard Stallman is very careful (I’d say, paranoid) about things requiring his identification:

I am careful in how I use the Internet.

I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I usually fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see git://git.gnu.org/womb/hacks.git) that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly. I usually try lynx first, then a graphical browser if the page needs it (using konqueror, which won’t fetch from other sites in such a situation).

I occasionally also browse unrelated sites using IceCat via Tor. Except for rare cases, I do not identify myself to them. I think that is enough to prevent my browsing from being connected with me.

I never pay for anything on the Web. Anything on the net that requires payment, I don’t do. (I made an exception for the fees for the stallman.org domain, since that is connected with me anyway.) I also avoid paying with credit cards.

I would not mind paying for a copy of an e-book or music recording on the Internet if I could do so anonymously, and it were ethical in other ways (no DRM or EULA). But that option almost never exists. I keep looking for ways to make it exist.

How I do my computing

Stallman avoids any services requiring his personal identification: Uber (perhaps, for good reason – Uber does seem unethical), Amtrak, Netflix, Airbnb.  Apparently, he flies airplanes occasionally as he visited China, Greece, and Israel among other countries.  It’s hard to travel overseas anonymously. I wonder why he does not object being identified and searched in the airports.  I personally consider it humiliating to take off my shoes to go through stupid gates and being searched by TSA officers. He does not seem to be against filing income tax returns as he has scorned the “shared economy” companies (Uber, Airbnb) for using offshore tax havens.  This is another inconsistency as many people believe income tax is unconstitutional and a great infringement on multiple constitutional freedoms.  (Disclaimer: the author of those writings, Irwin Schiff, has died in prison in 2015 where he was put by the federal government, technically, for not paying taxes).  It would be interesting to find out how Richard Stallman reconciles flying airplanes and filing income tax returns with his principles.

I read all this and thought “Wow!  Is there a limitation that one would not be willing to impose on himself for the sake of freedom?”

“Doublethink” is the Test of a First-Rate Intelligence


Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
George Orwell, “1984”

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

ergo

Doublethink is the test of a first-rate intelligence.

Q.E.D.

Justice vs. Forgiveness and Mercy


Much of religion revolves around justice.  Christians believe in the final judgment day when the evildoers will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.  At the same time, forgiveness and mercy are also at the very foundation of the Christian faith.  Justice and forgiveness seem to be incompatible with each other.  Atheists exploit this conflict to make a point that Christianity is immoral.

I think, the contradiction is in the reciprocity of these concepts.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

This expression attributed to Gandhi, but, perhaps existing long before Gandhi, shows the flaw in the biblical concept of justice. “An eye for an eye” approach creates a vicious cycle of violence that can only be broken by forgiveness.  Forgiveness and mercy, on the other hand, are supposed to create forgiveness and mercy in return.  But sometimes they don’t.

Reciprocal relations have to start small and build on themselves.  When I don’t know if I can trust a stranger, I trust him with something small. Then I build my trust on my experience.  Trust builds on trust, but it starts unconditionally.  It justifies itself, like faith. Or, rather, it’s justified by the experience of practicing it. In the same way, we can find out if forgiveness is worthwhile.

Dialogues with Atheists I


One of my old dialogues with an atheist on an atheist forum. I was asked what I actually believe, which was unusual. I shared some thoughts I find worth repeating here.


Chuck,

I appreciate your interest. I’ve seen a lot of condemnation and criticism in atheist forums, I have not seen much interest to understand.

I believe, there is a force that “makes things happen” – in the physical world, but, most importantly, in our minds. There is “something” that drives us towards a better life – justice, love, etc. I think, it’s a simple human belief, and many atheists may believe the same thing. For me, it is hard to imagine the possibility of any social progress without such belief. I believe that we should seek to understand this force and submit to it. Christians may call it “the Holy Spirit”, atheists may say, it’s “genetic code”, but those are just words, placeholders for the concept. We are talking about the same thing, whether we want it or not.

We only understand what we can visualize. Some people visualize God as an old man with a beard in the sky. Some visualize the Holy Spirit as a dove, light, or water. I don’t think, any of those are correct visualizations. I may agree that “God” of the OT who writes with a finger on stone tablets and walls and speaks from a cloud or Jesus of the NT are fictional characters – attempts to visualize the concepts. You know wisdom when you see it. It may come from Tom Sawyer, Daffy Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Cat in the Hat, or Jesus. God is wisdom, not Daffy Duck. As for Jesus, even Christians believe, he was a man. If I think of Jesus in a sense that I described, it does not matter to me if he is fictional. I view the virgin birth and physical resurrection as symbols. The Bible is full of such symbols and metaphors. Such views do not contradict the idea that Jesus can save us (where “Jesus” is a visualization of the “force” driving us towards good).

You said,

“I see the Pope and many other religious leaders as scriptwriters and ventriloquists who push people around by saying “You had better obey because it is the word of God.”

I agree. I do not like this tone either. In a church where I go, there were several sermons on this very issue with the main thought “do not put your own words in God’s mouth, put God’s words into your mouth”. In NT, this was frequently an issue between Jesus and the Pharisees. They were trying to push their agenda on him using the letter of the law. So, your attitude is not “anti-Christian”. In fact, I find it Christian. We don’t need a performance of a ventriloquist. Frequently, it’s enough to step into a church to see such performance.

“Do you believe in a self-conscious God?”

I don’t think, I can make a coherent speech on this subject. Just to show the nonsense of this question, I will try. He is supposed to be conscious of everything. That includes himself, doesn’t it? Also, without self-consciousness, how can one feel compassion? Or how can one feel compassion without the ability to be hurt or harmed or feel pain? On the other hand, I’m not sure if being conscious of everything is different than being conscious of nothing. Both concepts are nonsense. It only makes sense to be conscious of something in particular. Once we say “I’m conscious of X”, we must be conscious of our consciousness. Being conscious of my consciousness makes as much sense as knowledge of knowledge, beliefs about beliefs, and reasoning about the reason. This does not make much sense, does it? As I said above, such questions are only useful to show the limits of our reasoning abilities. They simply short-circuit our logic machine. We have to step outside this logic machine to comprehend the issue.

“Does God have thoughts and desires? Is he a jealous and angry God?”

Can a force have thoughts and desires or be jealous and angry or be conscious of itself? We give these attributes to the forces with our metaphoric language (furious storm, calm weather). And we have to understand these forces to survive.

“Does he create things and destroy things?”

You can say, “things appear and disappear”, or “being created and destroyed”. It’s linguistics which reflects how we think about things. These two phrases say the same thing.

“Am I risking one of God’s lightning bolts by typing these insolent questions?”

We all are risking to die the next minute. We’d better do something good while we can.

Toilet Laws Belong in the Toilet


…figuratively, not literally.

These pictures are taken at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon.  Yes, in a Church.

Just stumbled across this post  calling to Sign the Boycott Target Pledge.  There seems to be an unraveling brouhaha in online media (thanks, Just Merveilleux) around the issue of who goes to which bathroom.

The AFA petition claims

Target’s policy is exactly how sexual predators get access to their victims. And with Target publicly boasting that men can enter women’s bathrooms, where do you think predators are going to go?

Oh, yes! All male sexual predators are going to dress as women and rush to Target bathrooms, overtake them, and stampede our unsuspecting innocent wives and daughters who have a legitimate need to pee in a place designated for this purpose by God almighty. Why? Because that’s exactly how they get access to their victims! They catch the victims when they are most vulnerable – with their pants down, sitting on the toilet in a Target bathroom! And (OMG) it is now legal!

I have a few questions to the proponents of legislation to ban people from using public restrooms based on how they look:

  1. Why can’t a male sexual predator dress like a man and go to a men’s public restroom to harass our unsuspecting innocent husbands and sons?  To follow the AFA logic, we must prohibit men from entering men’s restrooms for the fear that they might commit heinous sexual crimes there.
  2. What is the connection between a person’s appearance and the likelihood that this person is a sexual predator?  Who could imagine that Catholic priests (yes, priests) could molest children?  Should we ban everyone who looks like a priest from entering men’s restrooms?
  3. How are these laws going to be enforced?  Shall Target have a security officer checking patron’s genitalia at the bathroom entrance?
  4. What if a person’s gender is misjudged?  Who will pay compensation to the victims of unwarranted humiliating bathroom police raids subjected to strip searches simply because someone imagined that they may have a different kind of genitalia than one might think?
  5. How would you like being dragged out of a public restroom by a security guard with your pants down because someone thought that you don’t look like a person they thought you look like?
  6. And, finally, why are you so preoccupied with other people’s genitalia?

The proponents of the bathroom laws claim that they “never said that all transgender people are sexual predators”.  However, they clearly imply that anyone who dresses to look like the opposite sex and goes to a public restroom does so for no other purpose than committing sexual offenses.

Just recently, I happened to translate the subtitles for this TED video into Ukrainian.  I agree with the speaker on multiple points.  Instead of banning people from going to public restrooms, the legislators should mandate unisex single-stall restrooms in all public places, just like they mandate wheelchair ramps, accessible parking, and other amenities for people who don’t fit the narrow brackets of “normality”.  I can totally see these facilities used by parents who need to take their children of the opposite sex to a bathroom, for example.

 

I Disagree!


old-historic-photos-291__605

Dissent is glorified. “Herd mentality”, “following the crowd” are derogatory terms, and “thinking out of the box” is often praised and admired.  People who confront authority and stand for justice are often considered to be heroes.

In the Bible, dissent is commended, unless it is dissent against God or his faithful servants. Moses confronted the Pharaoh in Exodus and saved the Israelites from slavery. Mordecai saved his tribe disobeying the king and refusing to kneel before Haman in the book of Esther. Numerous prophets spat the truth into the eyes of corrupt kings. Finally, Jesus himself turned over merchant’s tables in the temple, broke oppressive rules, and said “woe to you, hypocrites” to the religious authorities of the time. The meme that religion espouses blind obedience to authority and condones slavery is debatable.

Perseverance is considered a virtue. Dissidents have to endure pressure, threats, and persecution to succeed. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the book of Daniel were thrown into a blazing oven for refusing to bow to an idol. Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den for praying to God in spite of the ban. We all know what happened to Jesus.

“I won’t back down!” — sings Tom Petty. “Do not bend under the ever changing world! Let the world bend under us!” — sings a famous Russian songwriter Andrei Makarevich who is known as a dissident since Soviet times. Makarevich is still a dissident in Russia. He opposes Putin’s war in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But he is no longer admired by the majority as the majority in Russia now admires Vladimir Putin. Makarevich is scorned and called a “national traitor”. But that quite fits his image of a persecuted dissident.

But consider the character of Vladimir Putin himself. Majority of Russians admire Putin for standing up to “corrupt and hypocritical” America who “tries to lord over the whole world”. He is also admired for “perseverance” — continuing his policies despite economic sanctions imposed by most developed countries on Russia for aggression in Ukraine. Putin is also “persecuted” through sanctions and sharp criticism from the West. So, Putin himself, in a sense, fits the definition of a dissident. Moreover, both Makarevich and Putin, are sure that their position is right, that they both stand for justice, and perseverance is worthwhile.

This raises a question, are dissent and perseverance always good? Stubborn persistence in one’s error is not the type of perseverance praised in motivational posters. But there seems to be no reliable way to tell perseverance from stubbornness.

The founding document of the United States, Declaration of Independence, openly declares the right of the people to fight an oppressive government.  It was considered right in 1776 to fight the rule of the British king. People who did that are heroes in the U.S. But when in 1861 southern states considered the rule of the Union to be oppressive, they were not allowed to secede. Today, perhaps, it would be a very bad idea to use the Second Amendment right to fight the “unjust government” in the U.S. Armed confrontation with government forces is no longer a heroism in this country. But the U.S. often supports such activities in other countries.

Some folks believe that removing creationism from secular school curricula is an offense on their rights and they must “persevere”. Some are determined to “persevere” “the war on Christmas” raging in their heads.

It seems to me that dissent and perseverance are not always desirable. “Conformity” can be also called “adaptation” — ability to correct one’s views, beliefs, and opinoins.  When everyone drives in the wrong direction, chances are that you are driving on the wrong side.  Dissent and perseverance must be treated and interpreted with extreme caution.

Created or Evolved?


Yet another post on the jaded topic of creation vs. evolution.  This time, however, I will not question whether humans evolved.  I’d like to consider what we mean when we say that things such as TV sets, computers, cars, pencils, and anything else created by humans have a creator.  And I would like to defend the following thesis:

Technogy does not have a creator. Technology evolved.

This thought occured to me when I watched the Matt Ridley’s TED talk “When Ideas Have Sex” where he draws an analogy between evolution of living beings and evolution of ideas.   What do we mean when we say that a TV set was “created”?  Perhaps, it was built by workers in a Chinese factory.  Have the workers created the TV set?  Perhaps, they have no idea how and why it works.  The workers, definitely, do not understand analog or digital signal processing, video codecs, or physics of radio transmission.  But people who understand those things, have no understanding of PCB assembly or plastics manufacturing.  Neither workers nor the TV designers understand the semiconductor device physics or the chemistry  involved in semiconductor processing.  So, who can be called a creator of a TV? Or, more specifically, a creator of your particular TV set?

This can be said not only about high technologies, but about anything “created” by human beings.  Matt Ridley uses a low-tech pencil as an example:

I am of course quoting from a famous essay by Leonard Read, the economist in the 1950s, called “I, Pencil” in which he wrote about how a pencil came to be made, and how nobody knows even how to make a pencil, because the people who assemble it don’t know how to mine graphite, and they don’t know how to fell trees and that kind of thing. And what we’ve done in human society, through exchange and specialization, is we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand. It’s not the same with language. With language we have to transfer ideas that we understand with each other. But with technology, we can actually do things that are beyond our capabilities.

This thought occured to me at work.  My task was to test reliability of a new integrated circuit designed by the company I work for.  I myself have a very vague understanding of how these tests are done.  We hire a subcontractor company to run these reliability tests.  But I need to tell the subcontractor how to turn on the chip.  I came to the designer for instructions.  The designer explained to me, which capacitors need to be attached to the device under test.  He also said that to turn on the analog portion of the chip, I need to send a command to the on-chip processor.  What command?  How to send it?  He had no idea.  He used a computer program to do that, and the program was written by software engineers.  What I carried out from this experience is that there is not a single person in the company who can tell me how the product works.  The chip does not have a creator.  But it does work!

It appears to me that when people talk about evolution and creation, they talk about the same damn thing, from a little different perspectives.

Any thoughts?

P.S.  Another thought occured to me.  In creation vs. evolution debates, evolutionists frequently say that evolution is supported by paleontology which proves that organisms historically appeared in a certain order.  They say that if creationism were true, we could, potentially, find fossils of dinosaurs predating any known fossils of mollusks.  But isn’t the same true of technology which is, undoubtedly, considered a human creation?  Technological advances happen in certain order.  E.g. a car cannot be invented before people discover a combustion engine, learn technology to process metals, obtain gasoline from oil, build roads, etc.

Moreover, when conditions are ripe for a certain technology to emerge, similar discoveries are often independently made by several people, often in different parts of the world.  This means that if one scientist does not make the discovery, another will.  And this seems inevitable.  So, the will or the talent of individual scientists are irrelevant.  Which also seem to support the idea that technological progress evolves independently from human will.

Saving Others


I think, Christianity is a great idea.  All people are inadequate in one sense or another.  All have imperfections.  All make mistakes.  All make bad decisions once in a while.  All are “sinners”, not in a sense “evil-doers”, but in a sense of lacking perfection in their thoughts, words, and deeds.  All need “salvation” from this inadequacy and imperfection.  I think, it’s important to realize this about myself. If I don’t realize and acknowledge my own mistakes, errors, and imperfections, I will persist in these errors with arrogance and pride.

Naturally, when we realize our own mistakes and errors, moved by love, we would also want to “save” our neighbor from repeating these mistakes…  And this is where the whole idea gets upside down.  Our neighbor is merrily going about his own business, enjoying life, and here I come as a “loving Christian”, bringing “the good news” that the wide road he is following is the high way to hell and that he needs to pick his cross and follow the narrow path.

But I am not my neighbor.  How do I know that the things that I consider “bad” for myself are “bad” for my neighbor?  Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in a pot nine days old.  If my grand-grand-grandfather died after eating a bad shellfish, and, forever since then, my tribal rule book says “shellfish is detestable”, should I really take this message to the other tribe that has been happily living on shellfish for generations?

All Christians want to “be like Jesus” who is perfect.  The problem with this aspiration is that, at some point, people start to believe that they have achieved some state of moral perfection and superiority and are in a position to go around and teach others, righteously turning over tables in other people’s temples and saying “woe to you, hypocrites!”, not seeing the plank in their own eye.

The situaion becomes even worse when this desire to “save” others is made into a state policy.  This is where the whole doctrine of “salvation” creates hell.  When one nation takes on a mission of “saving” other nations – “liberating” them from whatever is considered “oppression”, “sin”, “immorality” – this doctrine leads to rivers of blood.

These words are prompted by the current events in Ukraine, my home country.  Some Russian leaders somewhere got an idea that Russia represents a unique culture, “civilization”, if you will, somehow “distinct” from the rest of the world and has a “special” mission – to save other “brother” nations from corruption, immorality, and oppression of the West.  On the other side of the ocean, U.S.A. poses as a world policeman and believes that all countries should have “the right” form of government to be “happy” and “free”.  As a result, there is an unprecedented surge of hatred between people in Ukraine fueled by media.  People are kidnapped, tortured and killed, civilians die from bullets and shells.  Each side accuses the other in “state-sponsored terrorism”, “fascism”, “genocide”, and what not.  The same scenario is played in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria.

So, is it right to “save” my neighbor or is it right to watch my neighbor suffer what I consider to be oppression, depravity, pain, or sin? Should I not “do unto others as I would have others do unto me?”    Should I not fulfill what I consider to be my moral and, often, patriotic duty? But how do others know how I want to be treated and how do I know how they want to be treated? I may consider my suffering real.  But is my neighbor’s suffering real or is it only in my head?  These are not easy questions, are they?

Here is an interesting picture regarding “saving Muslim women”.

In this picture, both women think that the other needs to be “saved”. Do Muslim or Western women really need to be “saved”? Perhaps, Sam Harris can devise a clever science experiment and save me from facing this choice.  But, on the other hand, shall we tolerate beating, torturing and killing women in other countries for not complying with some tribal rule books and sexual discrimination in our own?

There are words of wisdom in the Bible:

“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. — Romans 14:14”

Shakespeare adds:

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Go figure who thinks what.

To save or not to save? That is the question. This dilemma seems to be at the very heart of Christianity.  But I can see how this post may outrage some Christians as “unchristian”.  I can be accused of advocating moral relativism.  I will be pointed to the numerous commands in the NT to “go and spread the word”, to the quotes about “the lamp on a lamp stand”, etc.

It’s interesting that becoming an atheist and rejecting the whole idea of “salvation” will not rid me of this dilemma.  I see a lot of atheists going out of their way trying to save others from what they perceive to be opression of religion.

Is there a way of this “spiritual darkness” and blindness?

 

Hypocrisy of Tolerance


I was in search of a good illustration for my point when I found this As usual, Gandhi cuts it to the core.  I have a problem with the concept of tolerance because tolerance implies hate.  Without hate, tolerance is simply meaningless, there is nothing to “tolerate”.  Perhaps, instead of striving to be tolerant, we […]