Monday, May 25, 2009

My Tamil Tigers

The Tigers have finally silenced their guns. After three decades of war Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora begin a new chapter in their tormented history. While the nationalists are in single-minded jubilation, the international Tamil community and many moderate Sinhalese are in the process of trying to make sense of all the loss and suffering that has came along with this historic event.

I grew up without being exposed directly to too much violence, but the war was always in our consciousness. My parents fled to Jaffna from Colombo after their house was burnt down in 83. I was born an year after, arriving into a family traumatised by the pogroms of Black July.

During my early childhood I would be entertained by the young Tiger annas (an affectionate term for older brothers) who stopped by our house from time to time to talk to my dad. These were the years when the peaceful liberation movement had just turned into an armed struggle. It seemed that every Tamil family proudly welcomed 'the boys' into their homes when they needed to hide out from the government or needed medical assistance for their injuries.

Though I was forbidden to speak politics outside the house, I was raised with the tales of their sacrifice and I idolised my Tiger heroes. I saw it as an epic saga of battle between good and evil and I knew of many legendary characters involved in the idealistic beginnings of the LTTE.

There was Lt. Shankar who outran the Government forces whilst bleeding from a fatal bullet wound on his stomach. He managed to lose his pursuers and reach his fellow cadres. He then handed over his gun and fell unconscious in the arms of his friends.

There was Lt Seelan (Charles Lucas Anthony) who when injured and no longer able to run, ordered his subordinate to shoot him so that he wouldn't be caught alive. The first conventional fighting unit of the LTTE was named the Charles Anthony Brigade in his honour and Pirabakaran named his first born after his old second-in-command.

There was Colonel Kittu, who was betrayed by Indian intelligence to the GoSL. Rather than being captured alive or surrendering the weapons he had procured, he chose to blow himself up along with his ship when it was boarded.

My favourite member of the Iyakkam is also possibly the one of the most respected figures in the Tamil diaspora. In 1987, Ltn Thileepan, a soft spoken skinny bespectacled young man, began a satyagraha in response to the Indian occupation. He promised to fast until requests for the rights of Tamil civilians were met. Refusing Prabakaran's pleas to drink even a glass of water, he died after fasting for 11 days. It was Thileepan's death which swung the full backing of the Tamil community unreservedly behind the LTTE.

He was also the one of very few early Tigers whose names are still unsullied by the atrocities that were to be committed in the name of freedom.

The Tigers morphed from a people backed movement into a powerful, secretive, intimidating, military dictatorship. A fanatical personality cult formed around it's leader, and questioning him was tantamount to betraying the cause in some quarters.

Along with the ingenuity and almost fanatical courage that they showed on the battle field, they ruthlessly massacred fellow armed resistance movements. They enforced boycotts on elections and killed politicians who did not subscribe to their own goals. Most unforgivably, they held their own people as human shields in their final desperate struggle to hold on to power.

I understand those who supported them unwaveringly to the very end. I too value the outstanding dedication and bravery shown by the Tiger cadres. I also know of the hospitals, schools, the police and judicial systems run by their efficient administration in the Wanni region.

I appreciate the sacrifice and risk taken by those in the diaspora who donated a large percentage of their own wealth into preserving what they saw as the final defense of their people. When you see an existentialist threat there really aren't too many options left to you.

But I think the Tigers had outlasted their usefulness. They became the primary excuse for the Government to continue on with its persecution, and in the eyes of the International community, they turned what was really a human rights struggle into an ethnic war.

The immediate next step is humanitarian aid to the IDP camps. We need to lobby for the NGOs and media to get in there immediately. We need to lobby governments to pressure Sri Lanka into allowing unfettered access. We need to help remove any more excuses the GoSL has for keeping these camps active. And we need to enlist the help of the expat Sri Lankan community to achieve these goals.

What comes after that will have to wait. We are angry and frustrated. Now is not the time to make lasting mistakes. Now is the time put out the fires. The rebuilding comes later.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Political Compass

Economic Left/Right: 0.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.03

I scored a bit more to the right before the Global Financial Crisis hit. Now I'm a bit more receptive towards economic intervention by the Government.

No Libertarians in foxholes?

Take the test.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hitler was an Atheist, Darwin was racist and other fun facts.

This was originally posted in reply to a blogger who felt that lack of belief in the Creator leads to immorality. Luckily, having just read a couple of chapters in TGD, as recommended to me by Randy from the TNA, my response was ready-made.

I keep an open mind to the possibility that God might exist, but overwhelming evidence suggests that the probability is vanishingly small. Until I’m provided with falsifiable testable predictions and peer-reviewed evidence, I may just continue on with my current assumption, which I feel is the only honest assumption I can make.

My main objective here is to defend Atheism as something that does not automatically lead to moral relativism. The definition of Atheism is just the lack of belief in a Theistic God. The word Atheism does not suggest any specific moral code. You can be a bad atheist or a good atheist. You can be a bad guy with a moustache or a good guy with a mustache. I passionately feel that lack of belief in a Theistic God will not be of any danger to the individual’s moral codes. It may in fact lead to him being morally superior to the Theist as belief in god often comes with static, absolutist immoral proscriptions. It also opens up avenues for rational Universalist frameworks like Utilitarianism where reason can be used to navigate the complex waters of modern ethical behaviour.

Q1: There is plenty of evidence out there that Darwin was very racist.

Darwin’s personal moral character is not relevant to whether or not his science is correct. Evolution is no longer just Darwin’s alone. Countless scientists have tested, verified, modified and built upon his theory in the 300 hundred years since then, especially in the last 50 years with the discovery and analysis of DNA and genetic biology. Atheists don’t consider Darwin to be a prophet or moral guide. Most of us just think he’s one of the heroes of science (along with Newton and Einstein) who’ve contributed most to scientific progress.

Was he actually a racist? By today’s standards everyone was racist in his era, including Lincoln. Darwin was more liberal than most of his contemporaries. He strongly opposed slavery when most of his compatriots didn’t. Some biographers have even gone so far as to suggest his motivations for seeing through the development of this theory was to silence the pseudo-scientific rationale that was bandied around in favour of Caucasian supremacy and the racial subjugation of ‘lesser races’.

Q2: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong were all three atheists. Their governmental regimes killed 100 million combined. It was Stalin who said “1 death is a tragedy, 1 million is a statistic.”

Was Hitler Atheist? There is evidence to suggest he was not. In the Mein Kampf Hitler writes “I be the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland into the Reich.” sank down on my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such a time.” There he was referring to his reaction when the First World War was announced. He also wrote “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew. I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” He repeated this statement to the Reichstag in a speech in 1938. Rudolf Hess, his close friend, calls Hitler a “good Catholic”. After his annexation of Austria in November 1938 he says “I believe it was God’s will to send a boy from here into the Reich, to let him grow up and to raise him to be a the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland to the Reich.”

It’s true that he could have been lying about his faith to gain votes and support from the largely Christian public and military. Some of his speeches after 1940 suggest that this might be so. Though he still believed in providence and God he started railing against Christianity. He was obviously not above lying to his people. After all, he is Hitler.

But that leads to the crucial point; the people who carried out his orders, those who actually killed the Jews and allowed the holocaust to happen, the soldiers and generals and citizens of Germany were all pre-dominantly Christian. If Hitler lied about his faith then he was only doing so to encourage and motivate the faithful. Can you imagine an atheist wanting to discriminate against a race of people? The motivation posited for the extermination of the Jews comes from a long European Christian tradition or blaming the Jews for their saviour’s death. Hitler utilised this to terrible effect.

Stalin definitely was Atheist, but he didn’t do his evil in the name of Atheism. He never mentioned Atheism as a motivation for killing people; he did not spur up the Atheistic mob anger to do his killings. He did it for the dogma of Communism and his personal thirst for power. Atheism doesn’t tell you to suppress others and their thoughts. Communism does.

Atheist individuals can be evil, just like religious individuals; but it takes religion and political dogma to make good individuals do evil things.

Q3: Darwin was convinced that eventually the dominant species would win out. Therefore, it seems to me that the whole of evolution is based on the idea that there is inequality. Therefore, it would be contrary to the best purposes of evolution to have a system of morality.

Hitler’s so called ‘Social Darwinism” was pseudo scientific prattle, nothing to do with the scientific theory of evolution. Very much like the pseudo scientific nonsense espoused by Hindus and New Agers to justify their unjustifiable beliefs.

In evolution it is the gene that seeks to survive by replicating and being selfish. The organism itself cannot be considered the basic unit of biological evolution simply because it cannot replicate exactly. To illustrate, my dog will eventually die and cannot clone itself or give birth to an exact copy. So there is no point for the dog itself to be selfish if it weren’t for competition that is occurring at the genetic level. The genes of the dog on the hand will replicate and live on in progeny. The genes of the dog compete in a pool of similarly self-replicating genes. From the perspective of the gene, the organism is merely its expression, a mode of supporting its survival and multiplication.

An organism that is powerful physically and obtains resources at the expense of others will increase the chances of its genes replicating. But this is only the most primitive of tactics.

Most animals live in social structures that help them survive much better than they would in solitary. This requires co-operation and altruism. Being altruistic to your children is the most obvious example, but it extends further. Bees, ants, meerkats, woodpeckers, mole rats look after their younger siblings. This kind of altruism favours genetic kin (linked story is about the debate between kin altruism and group altruism. I think it shows the scientific method in practice, where scientists are pleased when their long-held views are challenged).

The other kind of altruism is reciprocal. Flowers provide bees with nectar in exchange for pollinating. Hyenas hunt in packs and share their kill. Honeyguides search for bee hives and then lead ratels to the hive. Ratels break the hive and share the spoils. Honeyguides do not have the strength to break the hive and ratels (a type of badger) do not have wings to search for them. But together they accomplish their goal.

Humans are at a completely different league when it comes to social structure and we have developed instinctual morality and reason that makes it almost incomparable to what is going on in the rest of nature.

The altruism towards kin is of course very evident. And there is also altruism for the group, similar to that exhibited by individual bees in a colony. For many years we were loyal to our own tribes and hostile to external tribes as we competed for resources. As our social structures grew larger we started cooperating with external tribes and then other civilisations of tribes.

We develop punishments to punish those who don’t reciprocate; we seek out dependably altruistic mates, and friends. We try to be as altruistic as possible and cultivate a reputation for dependability.

Most of this happens on a subconscious level, we just feel fulfilled when we are useful to others and have friends who you can depend on. We crave social affirmation. It is our evolutionary instincts that are telling us social behaviour is desirable, just like it tells the ratel to follow the enticing flight of the honeyguide.

So genes are always selfish but the organism, the human, can be genuinely altruistic. He wants his society to survive, he wants his family and friends to do well, and over the course of human civilisation his feelings of goodwill extends over greater circles of association.

Yes selfish instincts, group loyalty and such that are given to us through evolution, but that is most certainly not nearly the whole picture.

Understanding that the well-being of individual and the well-being of society are driven by evolutionary forces will allow us to use reason to decide on which of our instincts to follow in complex situations. Selection pressures only result in rules of thumb, biological evolution is far outpaced by social evolution. It takes reason to apply our broad evolutionary instincts to specific moral problems.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

There are such things as Moral Absolutes

My main problem with religion is the lack of respect for reality. More importantly the lack of respect, and even derision shown towards the only successful method of discovering the Universe.

Most things in religion are so dangerously arbitrary. They do not follow the logical rules of falsifiability, repeatable testing and empiricism.

How can one trust the moral judgments of someone who backs them up with superstitious motivation? Especially in situations with numerous variables, where right and wrong are hard to discover, except through rational discourse.
The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action. - Einstein

I recently stumbled across this post which argued that there were no moral absolutes. I would fully agree that evolution is the source of morals and whether a particular action is ethical or not is dependent on context.

But that should never imply that morals are subjective. For anyone who believes in an external reality, for anyone who is a methodological naturalist, there are right answers and wrong answers to every moral situation. It doesn't matter how complex and grey those situations are. The complexity of the situation only determines for how long we disagree on the exact right answer and for how often we change our minds. It doesn't change the fundamentals of the situation.

If morality is proscribed by evolution, and evolution is a result of natural physical laws, then morality is an apex manifestation of the fundamental laws of nature.

As one of our great righteous heroes pleaded just a few decades ago, 'let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.'

ED: I'm talking about Moral Universalism not absolutism

Friday, May 01, 2009

Science the Random Adaptive Machine

The machine in this hilarious video reminded me of a passage in Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann's entertaining book The Quark and the Jaguar.

The first section is on Complex Adaptive Systems. These systems seek out rules and patterns in the information that is presented to them. They are then able to make useful predictions. For example a child learning a language does not have a look-up table memorised with every combination of words. Rather she/he constructs tentative rules based on the regularity with which various words occur together and the order in which they occur. Even at a surprisingly young age children can form meaningful (albeit not very grammatically accurate) sentences that they have never heard before.

The following passage is a segue into the chapter entitled "The Scientific Enterprise":
Nowadays robot design might include a form of communication among the legs, but not through a governing central processing unit. Instead each leg would have the capacity to influence the behaviour of the others by means of communication links. The pattern of strengths of influence of the legs on one another would be a schema, subject to variations produced, for example,, by input from a generator of pseudo-random numbers. The selection pressures influencing the adoption and rejection of candidate patterns might originate from additional sensors that measure what is happening not just to an individual leg, but also to the robot as a whole, such as whether it is moving forward or backward and whether its belly is far enough off the ground. In this way the robot would tend to develop a schema that yielded a gait suited to the terrain on which it was traveling and that was subject to alteration when the character of that terrain changed. Such a robot may be regarded as at least a primitive form of complex adaptive system.

I am told that a six-legged robot something like this has been built at MIT and that it has discovered, among other gaits, one that is commonly used by insects...when the robot uses this gait depends on the terrain.

Now consider, in contrast to a robot that learns a few useful properties of the terrain it needs to traverse, a complex adaptive system exploring the general properties, as well as a host of detailed features, of a much grander terrain, namely the whole universe.