Nothing

“Nothing is popularly held to be better than a dry martini, but worse than sand in the bed sheets. A poor man has it, a rich man needs it, and if you eat it for a long time, it’ll kill you. On occasion, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is not clear how much further. It can be both black and white all over at the same time. Nothing is impossible for God, yet it is a cinch for the rankest incompetent. No matter what pair of contradictory properties you choose, nothing seems capable of embodying them. From this it might be concluded that nothing is mysterious. But that would only mean that everything is obvious—including, presumably, nothing.”

Will You be any Different? On Humanity and how it’s Probably Doomed

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The Stanford prison experiment always fascinated me. It is a notorious experiment that took place over 40 years ago, in which a Stanford psychologist  Philip Zimbardo turned the university’s department into a fake prison and divided the volunteers into prisoners and guards. While the experiment was supposed to run for 2 weeks, it had to be abruptly stopped due to the disturbing nature it had developed into. At one point, the prisoners staged a riot, and the guards went ballistic. They tortured the prisoners, forced them to sleep naked on the floor and to clean bathrooms with their bare hands. At no point did it occur for the subjects of the experiment -who were simply volunteers- to quit the experiment. Finally, 6 days later, Zimbardo ended the experiment.

This was not the only experiment with a disturbing insight into human nature. The Milgram Experiments involved subjects who were told to give memory tests to a person in a different room and were told to press a button that delivers an electric shock to the subject whenever they gave an incorrect answer. The subjects were in fact actors and the button did not deliver any shock, but this was unknown to the “testers”. They were even told that the voltage of the shock would increase with each wrong answer given. Result? Between 61 and 66 percent continued with the experiment until they reached maximum voltage of a supposed 450 Volts, despite the screaming and begging of the subjects (who were visible to them, by the way). At certain points, they did feel uncomfortable, but continued with the experiment when a guy in a lab coat encouraged them to carry on.

“Rhythm 0″ was an artistic piece that attempted to explore human nature with similarly shocking results. In her piece, the artist Marina Abramović  told the public that she would not move for 6 hours regardless of what they do to her. There were many objects in the rooms arranged around her, ranging from flowers to a loaded gun.

Initially, Abramović said, viewers were peaceful and timid, but it escalated to violence quickly. “The experience I learned was that … if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed… I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.”

Think of the tragedies that occurred along the centuries. Wars involving torture, the holocaust, Abu Ghraib, the crimes committed against the Palestinians. We often think, how could people commit such atrocities? But are they really that difficult to commit?

In all of the above experiments, the subjects didn’t even have a motive to harm the others in the experiment. This makes imagining the development of gruesome situations in real life a lot easier.

After much criticism to the Stanford prison experiment Professor Zimbardo defended his experiment.  “It tells us that human nature is not totally under the control of what we like to think of as free will, but that the majority of us can be seduced into behaving in ways totally atypical of what we believe we are,” he said.

Will you be any different?

Probably not.

Man. A Machine?

“We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present in its eyes.”

The above quote is by Pierre-Simon Laplace (yes, the very same Laplace who screwed us with his differential equations) and represents a view known as mechanistic materialism which is to say that the world and everything in it acts as a machine.

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Materialism is one of the view used to solve the mind-body problem, which addresses the relationship between the physical world and the intelligible one; or put more simply, the relationship between the brain and the mind. What gives humans the ability to think, imagine and reason? What makes this blob of goo inside our skulls capable of mental activities? Materialism argues that matter is the ultimate reality of all things.

The full impact of mechanism reveals itself as one thinks more about it. It is not only that things act according to immutable laws of physics. Everybody believes that. It is to say that everything is caused in such a way that it could not have been otherwise. That everything is completely predetermined by infinitely long and converging chains of blind irrational antecedent causes. That somehow if you could find a machine that can comprehend all the forces in the universe and account for them, then you would be able to predict every detail in the universe at any point in the past or the future.

In a book written by La Mettrie, titled “Man a Machine”, he argues that man, with his thoughts, sensations and emotions is the sum of his organs, nerves, impulses, reflexes, pumping heart and the like; simply the physical counterparts of springs, cogs, wheels, wire and so on, all reducible to physics and chemistry. He compares the brain secreting thought in the same way that the liver secretes bile and that what we refer to as the soul is nothing but an empty word used to describe the part of us that thinks; an advanced machine.

I have always been inclined to believe in only what can be scientifically tested and proven, so maybe man is but a machine. Yet the idea of reducing everything in the world to a series of infinite reactions highly disturbs me. It simply removes free will. Then everything; my writing this post right now, you reading this very sentence, is predetermined by a blind irrational chain of events. I guess for some it is easier to believe that things are above us, that when something doesn’t work out, it is because something or someone didn’t want it to. But that ultimately makes everything pointless. Then all we are is puppets in the hands of their master.

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Source used for writing the post: “Questions That Matter” b Ed L. Miller

On Philosophy & the Allegory of the Cave

Recently I have become really interested in philosophy. My knowledge of the subject is still very modest, but I like how it makes you question everything and most importantly how it can help you categorize your thoughts and views on life which makes things easier, I believe. For example, if you believe reason to be the source of knowledge then you are a rationalist and if you believe experience to be the source, then you are an empiricist. What I like in philosophy in comparison with religion, is that although both concern themselves with the unnatural world and with what cannot be proved, philosophy gives you the freedom of choice. Many philosophers with many contradicting views, and you are free to choose which one you conform with. 

But I digress. One of my favorite philosophical metaphors or stories is the one provided by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The following is the description of the allegory: 

Inside the cave

In Plato’s fictional dialogue, Socrates begins by describing a scenario in which what people take to be real would in fact be an illusion. He asks Glaucon to imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their legs (but not arms) held in place, but their necks are also fixed, so they are compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads “including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials”. The prisoners cannot see the raised walkway or the people walking, but they watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.

Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to berealthings and the echoes to be real sounds created by the shadows, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever, whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.

 

Release from the cave

Socrates then supposes that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.

“Suppose further,” Socrates says, “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn’t the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be distressed and unable to see “even one of the things now said to be true” because he was blinded by the light?

After some time on the surface, however, the freed prisoner would acclimate. He would see more and more things around him, until he could look upon the Sun. He would understand that the Sun is the “source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing”.

 

Return to the cave

Socrates next asks Glaucon to consider the condition of this man. “Wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn’t he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the ones who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?” The prisoners, ignorant of the world behind them, would see the freed man with his corrupted eyes and be afraid of anything but what they already know. Philosophers analyzing the allegory argue that the prisoners would ironically find the freed man stupid due to the current state of his eyes and temporarily not being able to see the shadows which are the world to the prisoners.

 

All of us believe that we are in possession of the truth. That their reality is what’s real. Otherwise, we wouldn’t believe it. Conservatives think they’re right, liberals think they’re right, Christians think they’re right, Muslims think they’re right, atheists think they’re right, and so on and so fourth. So who’s right? What is reality? Is there such a thing?

On Freedom of Religion in Jordan – A Look at Recent Events in Fuheis

Jordan is a country which boasts of its freedom of religion quite openly. Christians have a quota in the parliament and there are churches quietly nestled in many corners around Amman and the country. As a Christian (I wouldn’t describe myself as such, but seeing as this country gives you the choice of being either Muslim or Christian,  I suppose I fall in the latter), I personally never faced any ordeal simply because I am. Sure you come across the occasional ‘smashed car because there was a cross hanging on the mirror’ story and are confronted with inconsideration every once in a while, like having exams set around Christmas,  but nonetheless, I was always more or less convinced of Jordan’s ‘freedom of religion’.

The recent events in Fuheis, however, made me rethink just how ‘religiously free’ we as a society really are. For those who haven’t heard, a week ago some hundred protesters from Fuheis, a predominantly Christian town, closed up the major roundabout with blazing tires in protest to a young Christian woman eloping with a Muslim man. Of course there are many, many versions of the story, and trying to get the actual story is damn near impossible. Some say the girl was raped and forced to marry the guy and others say she got pregnant and ran off with him. The latest story I heard even involved him being in jail due to drug-related issues. Whatever the true story is, it sure hit a nerve.

The whole Christian-girl-marries-Muslim-boy issue already is quite a sensitive topic with Christian families, particularly lately. Not that it has anything to do with religion itself, nobody really cares if the man is devout or not,  just as long as he has a Christian family name, he’s good to go. I don’t know if it’s due to the diminishing numbers of Christians in Jordan or if it’s simply a cultural taboo. I know of many women who have been shunned by their families because of their decision to marry a Muslim, and I know of many other Shakespearean couples who were forced to break up or elope outside of Jordan as the man was Christian and the woman is not, and therefore they cannot marry here. I will avoid to speak here of the hypocrisy of such a law, alas, this is the case.

Of course with the recent turn of events, such a topic cannot be avoided at family reunions, and the statements I hear truly make me wonder at this religious freedom we supposedly have. After hearing the story, one of my uncles went so far as to yell, right next to his daughters, that he would kill them if he knew one of his daughters was going to marry a Muslim – the Christian version of honor crimes, that was traditionally practiced up till recently, I would say. The rationale behind such a stance by most is that it’s not a two-way street; a Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman, and therefore why should their daughter, sister or whatever female relative they think they own be given away to a Muslim.

But I wonder. Had it been possible to do so, would it no longer be a taboo? Would suddenly all our prejudices and hatreds simply cease to exist? Would we truly live in harmony together regardless of what God we do or do not believe in?

Brag about our tolerant society all we will, but the truth is, when push comes to shove, we are anything but tolerant.

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Against Article 308: The Rape and Marry Law

It’s been a frustrating couple of days for those keeping up with women’s rights in Jordan. The news about a 19-year-old who was exonerated after raping a 14-year-old girl in a tent for 3 consecutive days sent shock waves through the Jordanian community. This was due to article 308 of the Jordanian penal code which exempts a rapist from punishment if he marries his victim. The cherry on top was Dr. Khazai, a professor of sociology in Jordan University who claimed that women are different from men, and can overcome such an ordeal if they want to, and that the wife (remember, a 14-year-old kid) should start having kids so they put the situation behind them. 

Fortunately, we managed to translate the anger and frustration into something useful. Tweet after tweet, facebook group after group and as a first step, a couple of us met and constructed an initial action plan, the first fruit of which is this petition that I hope you will sign and share (LINK: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/308_jordanian_law/)

Realistically speaking, changing such a law won’t come that easy nor quickly. Our esteemed parliament, who only manage to be productive when it comes to their pensions hearing, still have about 30 temporary laws to vote on, I’ve been told. But the first step is speaking out and gathering awareness towards this injustice. Because the only thing worse than a law marrying rapists to their victim is it happening with no one to protest it. 

So speak up people!