"Truth" and Consequences

In an earlier post, I tried to honor some of the brave Muslims, secular Muslims, and ex-Muslims who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to help humanity break free from clerical dogma. I admitted to my limited knowledge of all those who should be so honored. Here, to start, I’d like to add three more names to the honor role: the “Iranian dissident” Abd Al-Karim Sorush, the “Kuwaiti columnist” Ibtihal Al-Khatib, and the “Libyan liberal” Muhammad Al-Houni.

From the Middle East Research Institute’s “Arab Culture Blog”, in turn from “Rooz, Iran, 16 March 2008”, the following information about Sorush is available:
Iranian dissident intellectual Abd Al-Karim Sorush has said that Muhammad’s inspiration for composing the Koran was earthly, like a poet’s inspiration when writing his poetry. In response, senior Iranian ayatollah Nouri Hamadani called Sorush’s statements worse than Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses… In a demonstration in Qom, some 100 clerics and their students demanded [Sorush’s] execution…
That brings to mind the warning from the Roman poet Caius Valerius Catullus (87–54 BCE): “I can imagine no greater misfortune for a cultured people than to see in the hands of the rulers not only the civil but also the religious power.”

History has shown that Catullus’ premonition was well founded: such “misfortune” occurred during the darkest days of Europe’s Dark Ages, when Christian clerics ruled and the punishment was torture and death for expressing opinions different form those of the clerics’, and similar is now occurring in most of the Muslim world. But it’s being confronted by such brave Muslims as the “Kuwaiti columnist” Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib. For example, on Al-Arabiya TV (on 14 March 2008) and in the face of “numerous death threats for her criticism of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah…”, she stated:
I want a state that is not based on religion – a civil state… one of the conditions is to protect people who want to practice their religion… establish a civil regime that protects everybody, and tells you that, just as you are free to follow your Sunni path, I am free to follow my Shiite path, and Christians and Jews have their rights too… This way we are all equal and protected by the secular regime, which treats us all without discrimination.
Recently, Michael Shermer summarized the dynamic well:
…as soon as a group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance, and thus reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group dangerous to individual freedom.
The danger to individual freedom from those who claim some “absolutes” (some “absolute standards of right and wrong” or some “absolute truth”) was recently addressed by the “Libyan liberal” Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Muttalid Al-Houni.

Before showing you what I mean, however, I should first acknowledge that Al-Houni’s criticisms of the suggestion to implement some aspects of Shari’a law in Britain (suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) are much more perceptive than were mine (given in an earlier post). Thus on the one hand, Al-Houni explains that even if Shari’a criminal law were excluded (i.e., if implementation were restricted to Shari’a law regarding personal status), Williams’ suggestion is tantamount to abandoning human rights (especially the rights of women and children). And on the other hand, Al-Houni points out that Williams’ suggestion emboldens Muslim fundamentalists:
At present, these [fundamentalists] are picking fights with the secularists in Islamic countries, and their attitude is: “How can you oppose shari'a law in your own countries when we see that the Anglican Church is seeking its implementation in Europe?”

This message is wrong, and it is detrimental to all pleas for modernism and secularism in the Islamic world. Such [pleas] are weak enough as it is, overpowered as they are by the tsunami of Islamist extremists who accuse [those who voice] them of subordination [to the West], treason, and heresy. Such statements by some Anglican clerics are nothing less than support for the ideas of Islamist extremists, and are also an attempt to make fundamentalist religious thought triumph over secular thought in the Islamic countries.

I believe that monotheistic religious fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, can, despite the deep-seated historical hostility among them, ally with each other and join efforts to wage war on Enlightenment thought… The[ir ideologies all] contain the same germ – the claim to absolute truth that applies to all times and all places.
I note that the “Libyan liberal” Al-Houni’s remarks are made more poignant by the above-mentioned experiences of the “Iranian dissident” Abd Al-Karim Sorush and the “Kuwaiti columnist” Al-Khatib.

I also acknowledge the wisdom in Al-Houni’s assessment, and in this post, I’d like to comment further on his point that all religious fundamentalists make the grievous error of “the claim to absolute truth that applies to all times and all places.” My summary (which isn’t certain, but whose probability of validity seems to be very close to unity) is:
Religious truth isn’t real, and scientific truth can’t be realized.
To see what I mean by that summary and, thereby, to understand the error made by all religious fundamentalists, it’s critical to appreciate that “truth” is an ambiguous concept, which is the reason for the quotation marks. Specifically, “truth” has different meanings in open vs. closed systems.

By system I mean as given by the first entry in my dictionary: “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole…” By closed system is meant that the system is “complete unto itself, distinguishable from and not interacting with its external environment”. Examples of closed systems include games (from games of chance to all sports), pure mathematics (in contrast to applied mathematics), stories, and all organized religions. An open system, in contrast, interacts with its environment. Examples of open systems include human cells, immune systems, and bodies, educational, legal, and governmental systems, transportation systems, and so on. To see the different meanings for “truth” in open vs. closed systems, consider some examples.

In closed systems, truth is unambiguous. In the game of poker, for example, it’s true that a flush always beats a straight; in the game of bridge, the ace of trump beats all other cards; in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out; in pure mathematics, 1 plus 1 always equals 2; and so on. Similarly, in one of H.C. Anderson’s fairy tales, for example, it’s true that a little boy was the first to remark that the Emperor had no clothes; also, as all connoisseurs of Superman comic books know, Superman is invulnerable to everything except kryptonite; in the Torah, it’s true that Moses received commandments from God; in the Gospels, it’s true that Jesus is the Son of God; and in the Koran, it’s true that Muhammad received messages from the angel Gabriel. Each of those statements is true within its respective closed system; stated differently, each statement is certain.

In open systems, in contrast – that is, in reality – truth can’t be determined with certainty; at most, it can be approached only asymptotically; at best, we can ascertain only the probability that some claim is true. Newton’s “laws” (or better, Newton’s “principles”) of motion, for example, seem to be true (with Einstein’s correction to Newton’s second “law”), as do Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics and the “laws” of thermodynamics (with Einstein’s correction to the first “law”). But we can’t be certain of the truth of any such scientific principles: someone may yet demonstrate their limitations (and no doubt win a Nobel Prize in Physics for doing so). That is, because we can never know with certainty what might be “around the next bend” (in space, or time, or space-time), then we can never be certain about any open-system truth.

As a result, in reality, we’re forced to deal with probabilities. We must hedge even on the claim that, in reality, 1 + 1 = 2 . For example, if you react one molecule (or one mole) of carbon dioxide with one of water, the result is not two molecules (or moles) of carbonic acid but only one. Similarly, if you get one hole in your jeans adjacent to another hole, then again, 1 + 1 = 1 (albeit a bigger hole). With regard to such examples, pure mathematicians would quickly point out that the mathematical concepts of addition and of uniqueness have been violated, but as Einstein said:
Insofar as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
Further and importantly, for a claim to be scientific (that is, for a claim to realistically describe some aspect of nature), then as Karl Popper maintained, it must be falsifiable (that is, it must be possible to test for the probability that the claim is true, which simultaneously is a test for the probability that it’s false, since the sum of the two probabilities is unity). His extension to Einstein’s statement (which was quoted in the previous paragraph) is commonly known as Popper’s principle:
Insofar as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and insofar as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.
As examples, whereas it’s impossible to falsify the claims that God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, that the crucified Jesus appeared to the apostles, that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, etc., including the impossibility of falsifying the claim that God exists, then it follows from Popper’s principle that such claims have nothing to do with reality.

In reality, it’s impossible to show that any scientific claim is true (i.e., that it’s probability of being true is exactly unity) – or that it’s false (i.e., that it’s probability of being true is exactly zero) – including the claim made in this sentence! Such a counter intuitive result seems to be justified, however, because in spite of Descartes’ claim to the contrary, we can’t be certain even that we exist: all of us may be just simulations in some humongous computer game! Consequently, if we can’t be certain of even our own existences, it follows that we also can’t be certain of any claim made to some scientific truth.

Nonetheless, hope continues that we can asymptotically approach scientific truth fairly closely, since (for example), I estimate the probability that I exist (and by extension, also that you exist) to be unity to within about 1 part in 10^25 (i.e., 0.999999999999999999999999 ). For example, for isolated physical systems (isolated in attempts to make them closed) it does appears to be true that electrical charge, momentum, and mass-energy are conserved, but again, we can’t be certain – although I expect that most physicists would put the probability that such results are true to be at least 0.999999999999999; that is, to at least to within 1 part in 10^15 (if I counted all those nines correctly).

Such results for reality are in stark contrast to truths in closed systems: in pure math, it’s certain that 1 + 1 = 2 (it’s a definition, as Russell and Whitehead demonstrated); in baseball, it’s certain (i.e., the probability is exactly unity) that “three strikes and you’re out”; in poker, it’s certain that a flush will beat a straight; in Judaism, it’s certain that “the Jews are God’s chosen people”; in Christianity, it’s certain that “Jesus was born of the virgin Mary”; in Islam, it’s certain that “there’s no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”; and so on. Within each of those games, such truths are contained in the rules of the game, but as soon as one steps out of those games into reality, none of such claims is perforce true – and many if not most are just plain silly. For example, the last time I was at bat, I must have swung and missed at least 50 fastballs (pitched by my daughter!), before being “out” – because I was worn out! [In honor of the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson, we call it “Calvinball”.]

When the distinction between open- vs. closed-system truth is clear, then the significance of the quoted remarks by the Iranian dissident Abd Al-Karim Sorush, the Kuwaiti columnist Ibtihal Al-Khatib, and the Libyan liberal Muhammad Al-Houni can become clearer. For example, Al-Houni’s comment, “The[ir ideologies all] contain the same germ – the claim to absolute truth that applies to all times and all places”, can be restated in a form such as: “The foolish religious fundamentalists of the world (whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or whatever) don’t seem to realize that their claims to absolute truth are simultaneously admissions that they’re dealing only with closed systems: similar to ideas in games, comic books, sports activities, pure math, and fairy tales, all religions are just closed-system games.”

Similarly, Al-Khatib’s plea for separation of religion from politics, so that “we are all equal and protected by the secular regime, which treats us all without discrimination” can be seen to be a plea that all people have the freedom to believe what they want (be it the beliefs in some religious fairy tale or as evaluated from the best available evidence), since forced belief in some state-supported “truth” has always been and always will be detrimental to the people – except, of course, for the political and clerical parasites promoting such nonsense and leaching off the producers of the world.

And from the response by the clerics to Al-Karim Sorush’s suggestion that “Muhammad’s inspiration for composing the Koran was earthly, like a poet’s inspiration when writing his poetry” (which is totally reasonable assessment in the open-system known as ‘reality’ but which conflicts with the closed-system truth of the clerics) becomes clearer. Again, the response was: “In a demonstration in Qom, some 100 clerics and their students demanded [his] execution…” Thereby, one gains a glimpse of the hideous lengths to which the damnable clerics of the world have gone and continue to go to protect their closed-system truths, their fairy tales, their word games, and their parasitic existences.

The French writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) summarized it well:
Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church [and the last mosque] falls on the last [cleric].
Zola risked his career and his life when he wrote, in a front-page article in the Paris daily L’Aurore in an open letter entitled “J’accuse” to the President of France:
The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice. I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity, which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.
Similar could be written by the brave Muslims, secular Muslims, and ex-Muslims now confronting fundamentalist Islamic clerics, who foolishly, intolerantly, and hideously claim that their closed-system truths are true in the open-system known as reality.

And of course it’s not just Islamic clerics who perpetuate such stupidity. As E. Haldeman-Julius said of all of them:
[The clerics] have tricked, terrified, and exploited mankind. They have lied for “the glory of God.” They have collected immense financial tribute for “the glory of God.” Whatever may be said about the character of individuals among the clergy, the character of the profession as a whole has been distinctly and drastically anti-human. And of course the most sincere among the clergy have been the most dangerous, for they have been willing to go to the most extreme lengths of intolerance for “the glory of God.”
Yet, maybe I should add that I expect that most clerics are too dumb or too poorly educated to realize that religious truth isn’t real and scientific truth can’t be realized, but I suspect that leading clerics in every religion know that they’re pedaling stupidity but are hooked on the profits that their con games provide.


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