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.


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.

Intelligent Design. What Does It Mean?

Some time ago, I made a post “Created or Evolved?” arguing that technology which is thought to be created, in fact, does not have a specific creator and rather evolves.

In my previous post, “Intelligence is in the Eye of the Beholder“, I pointed out that the term intelligence refers to the level of complexity.  The term intelligent is usually reserved for systems complex enough that we don’t quite understand their behavior.  Once we fully understand the system behavior, the illusion of intelligence disappears.  This is why, although we have very complex devices today doing very sophisticated things, it is still believed that “artificial intelligence” (AI, for short) is still in the future.  I think, it will always be.

Another necessary feature of intelligence is a perceived purpose.  If we don’t see a purpose in system’s behavior, we don’t call the system intelligent.

Now, let’s put the pieces together and answer the question, was the world intelligently designed by a creator or has it evolved?  Since even things created by humans do not have a single creator and rely on fusion of ideas to evolve from simple to complex, the world has, certainly, evolved.  However, when a system appears to have a purpose and we do not fully understand how it works, we tend to consider it intelligent or designed by an intelligent agent. And the world does seem to fit this description.

Intelligence is in the Eye of the Beholder

SelfAwarePatterns has recently made a post titled “Let artificial intelligence evolve? Probably fruitless, possibly dangerous” arguing that if we want to create intelligent machines, we must let them survive in the real world and let them evolve.  I made a comment that may be worth turning into a post.

I said

Intelligence is in the eye of the beholder. “Intelligence”, perhaps, refers to the level of complexity. When a machine is complex enough that we do not understand how it makes decisions to do certain things, we call it “intelligent”. But when we understand how machine’s actions are triggered, the impression of “intelligence” disappears.

For instance, my smartphone may suddenly tell me: “Hey, if you want to be in time for that meeting, you’d better start now and, by the way, avoid that highway – there is an accident near exit 69.” That’s intelligent, right? How did it come up with such a timely and useful message? But, of course, the smartphone “knows” about the time and place of my next meeting from my Google Calendar. It also knows my current location from GPS and can calculate how long it takes to get to the meeting using Google Maps. It also knows about the traffic based on the information from thousands of smartphones on the road aggregated at the Google server. The smartphone does not just “decide” that this message would be useful to me. The smartphone knows nothing of being useful. It is programmed to do things that the designers of Google Now considered useful. So, if we don’t know all these things, the message appears intelligent. But if we do understand how things work, the impression of “intelligence” disappears.

However complex the machine, if it exists, humans (at least, some) must understand how it works. Perhaps, nobody individually, but collectively, there will be a group of experts whose knowledge covers all aspects of the machine. So, perhaps, existing machines will be never considered “intelligent” and the term “intelligent” will always be reserved for some mysterious “next generation”. Of course, nobody has an idea what the next generation of machines will do. So, it’s quite appropriate. On the other hand, we might as well consider that the AI already exists because what I described in my example would certainly blow my mind 20 years ago.

Another thought. “Intelligence” implies purpose. There are very complex natural systems with very complex behavior. But unless they do something that appears useful or purposeful to humans, they are never called “intelligent”. The term “intelligence” seems to be closely related to goal setting and decision making and, therefore, to the question of free will. Before we answer whether machines can be intelligent, we need to answer whether humans are intelligent themselves or are mere automatons. And there is no answer to this question. It’s a matter of philosophical worldview.


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.


Homosexuality is Unnatural

“Homosexuality is unnatural” is the first line of defense of gay marriage opponents.  I used to think so too, just because I’m straight. But what does “unnatural” mean?  “Unnatural” is the opposite of “natural”.  Depending on the context, “natural” can mean a number of things.

“Natural” can refer to something occurring in nature, without human participation.  “Unnatural” in this context means something man-made, something that can be seen only when humans are involved, something that would never develop without human participation.  If homosexuality is unnatural in this context, one would not observe it in wild animals.  A simple search on Wikipedia on “homosexual behavior in animals” reveals this.  Oh, My God!  Just a short list of “homosexual offenders” in the animal world:

Not the bed bugs! I was particularly impressed by the documented case of homosexual necrophilia in mallards.  Here is the link to the original paper PDF.  The author, Kees Moeliker, also made a TED talk about this interesting case with a few additional details, such as an example of a frog engaging in an oral sex with a live goldfish.  This paper and this video come to my mind each time someone uses the word “unnatural”.

Bed bugs, dragonflies, and lizards having homosexual affairs also destroy the myth that homosexual behavior is a choice unless we want to claim that dragonflies have consciousness and can choose what they do.  If God created dragonflies, he must have created homosexuality too.  Can dragonflies sin?

This video in Russian called “Homo sapiens – homosexuality in humans and animals” (you can turn on English subtitles) mentions that homosexual behavior is observed in over 1500 species!  It also shows many interesting examples of the contexts and reasons of it showing that the function of sex is not only reproduction, even in the animal world.

So, it’s not just a “fluke” of nature.  A random event with a negligible probability of observing.  Homosexuality in nature is very common. So, one cannot use “not observed in nature” definition to claim that homosexuality is unnatural.

But there are other meanings of “natural” and “unnatural”.  For example, people may say that “it is natural for the sun to rise in the morning and set in the evening”.  This simply means something commonly observed.   It’s a synonym of “normal”.  So, something not commonly observed or regularly done is identified as “unnatural” or “abnormal”.  “It is unnatural for me to wake up at 3 am” simply means that I normally do not do it. Perhaps, this is what most straight people mean when they say that homosexuality is unnatural.  First of all, other people can regularly do things that I would never do and it would be natural for them.  What is commonly observed in one area or culture can be very uncommon in another.  Even the sun does not rise and set every day in summer or in winter in areas close to the poles.  “Water boils at 100C” is only true at the sea level and on Earth.  On Mars, water does not normally boil at all.  It’s too cold.  This means, we only call homosexuality “unnatural” or “abnormal” because we don’t observe it too often.  But is it a good reason to oppose homosexual marriages?  We don’t see redheads too often as well.  Shall we call red hair a “genetic abnormality” and ban them from marriage also?  Claiming that homosexuality is “abnormal”, that it’s a “genetic deviation”, a “disease” of some sort, seems bogus.  When “unnatural” is used in the sense of an uncommon behavior, opposition to gay marriage is based in mere tradition.  “It has always been this way” (followed by the quotes from Genesis).

Sometimes, “unnatural” means “immoral”.  E.g. “It is unnatural to steal and kill.”  But declaring homosexuality unnatural because it is immoral and immoral because it is unnatural does not make a lot of sense.  One of the two has to be defined using different terms to avoid circular reasoning.

Sometimes, “unnatural” means “disgusting” or “repulsive”.  In this sense, “unnatural” means something a person would not normally do (see notes about “normal” – “abnormal” above).

Bottom line.  Some definitions of “unnatural” do not hold water with respect to homosexuality.  Others lead to circular reasoning.  Those that cannot be refuted, are reduced to 1) physical disgust or 2) tradition, often based in religion.

What other meanings of “natural” and “unnatural” have you seen?  My advice: avoid using words “natural” and “unnatural” in any debates.  In my experience, the most common source of misunderstanding in discussions comes from using different, unclear, or too broad contexts for common words.  Some people claim all we see around us is nature, therefore everything is natural.  Some people believe in supernatural.  If the supernatural is not natural, i.e. unnatural, then God is unnatural too.  “Careful the things you say, children will listen.

Two Main Arguments against Gay Marriage

The recent U. S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage caused fierce discussion all over the world.  Some celebrate it as an advance of human rights, others condemn it as an assault on morality and traditional family values.  I never hated homosexuals, but 10 years ago I would oppose the idea of gay marriage. Over the time, I changed my views.  Today I think any seemingly rational argument against gay marriage can be ultimately reduced to the two core arguments:

  1. Physical disgust towards homosexuality
  2. Religion (God says so) declaring homosexuality immoral with no explanation whatsoever

In my experience, these are the only two unrefutable arguments against same-sex marriage.  They are unrefutable because they are irrational. I challenge you to find a rational argument that don’t have one of these two at the root.  I’ll deal with the most common “rational” arguments later, but first, a few words about these two.

Disgust is a natural reaction allowing us to avoid dangers such as disease or parasites.  It’s similar to fear — a completely irrational subconscious emotion.  People can be disgusted by anything.  For instance, people can be disgusted by mice, cute little creatures.  Nevertheless, mice can transmit disease, so disgust towards mice is understandable.  Just today I have read in an anti-gay comment that “a picture of two men kissing is disgusting, but a picture of a man and a woman kissing is natural and beautiful”.  What?  Sticking my tongue into another person’s mouth full of germs and tasting her saliva and whatever remains from her breakfast on her teeth?  Eew!

I was in the first grade when I saw a pornographic heterosexual picture brought to school by one of my classmates for the first time in my life.  I was shocked!  “Why in the world,” I thought, “would a man ever put his peepee inside her… hey! what hole is that, by the way?  Isn’t that where the poop comes out?  No?  Whatever!  Still close.  Eew!  That’s gross!  How would it cross anyone’s mind to do that?!”  Apparently, my attitude towards the orifices of the opposite sex has changed over time.  You may be surprised, but now I find them enjoyable.  I can totally understand that two men or two women can please each other physically and, perhaps, even better than the opposite sex simply because a same-sex partner’s body is more familiar.  It’s not my cup of tea, but nobody makes me drink it.  So, why would I force anyone to do what I enjoy?

Getting familiar with the source of disgust or fear is the way to overcome them both. People often fear or stay away from the unknown just to be on the safe side. These unjustified fears follow people like ghosts and are passed from generation to generation until nobody remembers how they started.  With this in mind, getting into the face of the anti-gay folks with pride parades makes sense.  It’s painful and unpleasant for the people undergoing this therapy, but there seems no other way to overcome those phobias.  One can’t argue against disgust with reason.  Sometimes, humans can overcome their instincts with intellect.  But, as Eeyore said, “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”

Mark 11:14

Religion.    People quote many passages in the Bible to argue against homosexuality.  In Genesis 1, God created a man and a woman to enjoy each other.  But Genesis 1 contains no prohibition of homosexuality.  Show me one if I missed it.  Apparently, it was not needed back then because it was hard to find a same-sex partner.

It is very common to hear that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality.  The word sodomy originated from this passage.  But let’s read the story in Genesis 19 carefully.  What we see there is, actually, an attempt to gang-rape Lot’s two male guests by a mob of male citizens.  This is a case of blatant sexual violence having nothing to do with consensual sex between two adult same-sex individuals.  Ezekiel 16:49 confirms that the sin of Sodom was not sodomy (thanks, archaeopteryx1, for pointing this out).

The next prohibition is in Leviticus 18:22:

 Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

Good old disgust, no other reasons are given.  The long list of sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18, however, seems to be aimed at maximizing fertility, avoiding incest and family feud over sexual partners.  Many of them make sense in this context.  Perhaps, increasing the population was a priority in the biblical time, but today overpopulation seems to be a bigger concern. Not a word about lesbians in Leviticus, by the way.

Leviticus 20:13 suggests to put homosexuals to death along with other categories of citizens.  Do civilized people follow those to the letter?  When was the last time even the Orthodox Jews stoned a sabbath breaker?  And hasn’t Jesus override “eye for an eye” with “love your neighbor“?  Stoning your neighbor for a same-sex relationship “so that he doesn’t burn in hell forever” — how’s that for love is patient, love is kind“?

Speaking of Jesus.  What does the Gospel say about homosexuality?  Here is a quote:

Nothing.  Show me a single direct quote of Jesus’s own words on homosexuality.  Jesus quotes Genesis 1 in Mark 10:6-9  on joining the man and the woman to become “one flesh” but where does this passage prohibit homosexuality?  The context of Mark 10:6-9 is divorce — a totally different topic.  It’s a stretch to apply this quote to homosexual marriage.

Most of the “anti-gay” quotes in the NT are found in the Epistles.  In 1 Corinthians 6:9-13 Paul says that homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God along with idolaters, adulterers, fornicators, and other folks.  Why?  Just because.  There is no logic.  It’s by definition.  I can understand why idolatry is bad.  I can understand how adultery hurts feelings.  I can understand why random sexual contacts can be harmful.  I don’t understand why a woman loving another woman is a sinner and a worse person than a woman loving a man.  Shall I blindly follow everything the Bible prescribes?  I’m afraid, I will be  walking down the street with a machine gun every Saturday killing people who bent down to tie their shoes or doing anything remotely resembling work.  By the way, is stoning sabbath breakers considered work?  Well, perhaps I will have to wait until Monday to do that.  Bummer…

So, if I use logic to follow the Bible, I will violate many Biblical commands and miss out on the Kingdom of God.  But If I don’t think and just blindly do what the Bible says, I will end up in an ER with my hands chopped off and my eyes plucked or worse.  I’m screwed either way.  Tough choice.

To sum up, from my experience, all “rational” arguments against same-sex marriage are based on two irrational ones: 1) physical disgust with homosexuality and 2) religion simply declaring homosexuality immoral with no other reason than, again, physical disgust or a mere definition. If you have an argument that does not stem from these two, I’d be very interested to hear.  Feel free to leave a comment.

When is Easter Anyway?

Easter date worksheet

In January, I have posted my investigation of the difference between the dates of Christmas celebration in western and eastern Christianity.  If you think, that was confusing, hold on.

The short answer to the question “when is Easter?” is straightforward.

Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after vernal equinox. — www.timeanddate.com

This has to do with the Jewish Passover holiday which is based on the Hebrew moon calendar.

Let’s use this definition.  The equinox is on March 20th.  It’s an astronomical event with a fixed (or almost fixed) date.  The next full moon after March 20th in 2015 is on Saturday, April 4th.  Therefore, in 2015, the Easter Sunday is on April 5th.  Easy.  Right?  Why then Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 12th in 2015?

It was an interesting quest for me to figure this out.  As I mentioned in my post about Christmas dates, Eastern Orthodox Church uses Julian calendar for its celebrations.  Gregorian calendar is 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar (at least, until 2099).   My first thought was that Julian equinox is 13 days after the Gregorian equinox, on April 2.  But that’s not true.  In Julian calendar, the date of equinox is set to March 25th which is April 7th in Gregorian calendar.  Then I thought, to get the Orthodox Easter date, I need to find the full moon date after April 7th which is May 3rd, 2015.  Apparently, that doesn’t work because Orthodox Easter is on April 12th in 2015.  What’s wrong?

It turns out that the Orthodox Church uses ecclesiastical full moon to calculate the Easter date, not the astronomical full moon.  Ecclesiastical full moon used to determine the Easter date is called paschal full moon.  The paschal full moon is calculated based on golden number:

Golden Number = (year mod 19)+1 — www.webexhibits.org

The number 19 has to do with Metonic cycle: the dates of Lunar phases repeat every 19 years.  The Julian date for the paschal moon is simply tabulated.  It turns out, the equinox date is not used for this calculation at all (or, rather, the equinox date is accounted for in the table).

Golden number Full moon Golden number Full moon Golden number Full moon
1 5-Apr 8 18-Apr 15 1-Apr
2 25-Mar 9 7-Apr 16 21-Mar
3 13-Apr 10 27-Mar 17 9-Apr
4 2-Apr 11 15-Apr 18 29-Mar
5 22-Mar 12 4-Apr 19 17-Apr
6 10-Apr 13 24-Mar
7 30-Mar 14 12-Apr


Let’s try this for 2015.  2015 modulo 19 = 1.  In 2015, golden number is 2.  Julian paschal moon date is March 25th, which is April 7th in Gregorian calendar, and the first Sunday after April 7th is April 12th.  As you see, the paschal moon date April 7th calculated using the golden number table is 3 days after the astronomical full moon on April 4th.

For 2016: Golden number is 3, Julian paschal moon date is April 13th, which is April 26th in Gregorian calendar, and the first Sunday after April 26th 2016 is May 1st 2016 which is correct.

In 2016, Orthodox Easter is more than a month after the western Easter which is on March 27, 2016.  Let’s check this, by the way. Full moon after March 20, 2016 is Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016, so, first Sunday after that is March 27, 2016.  Good.

In 2014, Orthodox and western Easter dates both fall on April 20th.  Let’s check again.

Orthodox: golden number is 2014  modulo 19 = 0.  Golden number is 1.  Julian paschal moon date is April 5th, 2014 which is Friday, April 18th, 2014 in Gregorian calendar.  The Sunday after that is April 20th.  Western: full moon after March 20, 2014 is Tuesday, April 15th, 2014, and the first Sunday after that is, again, April 20th.

Finally, it seems that I got it right.  I think, it’s easier than the tax return, after all.

For the geeks, here is the “full monty”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computus

“I don’t like the ending…”

Doobster has posted another masterpiece called “I seen it all”.  The story has a great beginning, but then suddenly ends causing the readers to beg for more, if you read the comments.

This is a great story.  I think, it reveals a great deal about ourselves.  We get irritated when things do not go according to expectations: when unexpected things come up and mess up our plans, when other people behave irrationally (i.e. in a way that wee cannot explain or expect). Getting irritated about those things often leads to anger, fear, worry, and anxiety. I train myself to accept reality as it is, good or bad, expected or not. It’s just my way to be content.

Doobster’s story is great for practicing this philosophy. One would think that the story does not have an “ending”. Well, it ends, doesn’t it? The problem is that we don’t like the ending. We expect something more. But that’s not a problem with the story. It’s a problem with ourselves.  Just deal with it, folks.  And, to add some seasoning to the recipe, Doobster, who is an excellent writer, calls the story “I seen it all” and sprinkles this grammatical error, like a good chef, throughout the story to tickle the taste buds of the “grammar Nazis”.

This reminded me of my favorite TED talk by philosopher Dan Dennett.  In the beginning, he promises to explain consciousness, but warns that his explanation may disappoint many people because it’s like explaining a magic trick: when it is explained, the “magic” disappears — it’s not “magic” any more. Then Dennett uses a few examples of optical illusions to show how our mind creates “reality” that does not really exist — how we see people on a picture where, in reality, there are just few color spots on a canvas that don’t look like people at all;  or how we fail to notice that an airplane is missing an engine simply because we presume that it’s there.  The basic message behind this video is that we see what we expect to see, whereas consciousness and reality are not what we expect them to be — they are what they are.

The comments to the talk are most amusing.  People are disappointed by Dennett’s explanation of consciousness because…  it is not what they expected…  although Dennett warned everyone that they will be disappointed and although that’s the point of the talk — that consciousness is not what we expect.  In other words, Dennett has masterfully delivered on his promise to disappoint.  Brilliant.

Freedom of Silence

Today, the front pages of the newspapers are covered with the news about the yesterday’s terrorist attack in Paris.  Two thugs associating themselves with Islam have entered the office of a French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and killed 11 people in the building.  Apparently, this was an act of “revenge” for a series of “blasphemous” cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad and Islamic leaders.  The attackers later killed a policeman a few blocks away who wasn’t even confronting them, stole a car, and robbed a gas station.  I’m not sure how those acts are upholding the values of Islam.

Response in society worldwide was immediate.  This act is considered to be an attack on the freedom of speech — the “holy cow” of democratic society.  In western democracies, one can criticize anything, except the freedom of speech itself.  I do believe that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a civilized society and needs to be protected as a basic human right.  People cannot be killed for expressing their opinions and beliefs.  But does it mean that we are free to say anything?

Rights come with responsibilities.  They are two ends of the same stick — you cannot have one without the other.  Words are powerful.  They can cause emotional reactions in other people and cause them to act.  The effect of public words is multiplied million times.  I think, in this age of Internet, freedom of speech is the right that is abused in the most irresponsible way.

After 19 years of marriage, I have learned that people may react to my words in most irrational ways.  However irrational, these reactions are often very predictable.  Certain words and certain images trigger very predictable responses.  Advertisers use this predictability.  Mass media and propaganda use this predictability.  Religions not only use this power, but also teach others, willing to learn, how to use it.

The book of James, my favorite book of the New Testament, says in chapter 3:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

This is a mere statement of the power of the word.  This implies that the words, like any other power — weapons or fire — must be used with great care and responsibility.  Otherwise, they may cause great evil.  The passage also points out how difficult it is to “tame one’s tongue”.

Christianity was liberal by the 1st century standards.  In 1 Corinthians 10, Apostle Paul reflects on the liberties that Christians can take:

23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.“I have the right to do anything”— but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

This is the case with all “freedoms”.  “Freedom” to do anything is not freedom from consequences of our actions.  When someone mocks Prophet Mohammad in a cartoon or a video, it causes an outrage in some part of the world.  This reaction is so very predictable.  If you step on a viper, it is very likely to bite you.  If you disturb a bear with a cub, it is very likely to attack you.  So, why step on a viper or disturb a bear?  When a viper bites me, it’s silly to scream “I have the right to step wherever I want!”  And, speaking of consequences.  How does mocking of Islam free the world from Islamic terrorism? How is it even supposed to free the world from Islamic terrorism?

On the same note, how is a terrorist attack supposed to protect Islam?  Isn’t it, again, predictable that immediate reaction in society will be an outcry and, likely, violence against Islam?  Somebody has bombed a mosque in Paris already and there has been a surge of those cartoons on the Internet.  Why do people do something that is guaranteed to produce results exactly opposite to intentions?  Well, that’s a silly question.  Why do people ask silly questions? I don’t know, but they predictably do.

Later in the same chapter, Paul continues:

31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

“Do not cause anyone to stumble.”  Do not drink wine in the presence of an alcoholic.  Do not show drugs to a drug addict.  Do not give a gun to a maniac in depression.  Do not publish cartoons mocking Islam.  Is it, really, such a great limitation of freedom?  Should we have censorship and legislation limiting such acts?  Definitely, not!  Who will judge what’s offensive to whom?