Saturday, 24 September 2016

Equal is Unfair: The Commentary on the Egalitarianism of Thomas Piketty

Equal is Unfair
Don Watkins and Yaron Brook

In the last 60-years, the sword of egalitarianism has cut down the lives of millions in many third world countries, but the egalitarian idealists avoid falling on the sword of their own ideology as they operate out of the safe spaces in Western countries.

In my earlier article on Equal is Unfair, I look at the book mainly from the angle of its discussion on how the egalitarian insistence on equality led to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge nightmare in which one-fourth of the country’s population was slaughtered in just four-years.

But the focus of Equal is Unfair is not on the mass-murdering organizations such as Khmer Rouge. Written in a polemical style, the book offers detailed critique of the works of several influential egalitarians—one of them being the French intellectual Thomas Piketty. In this article, I focus exclusively on the book’s commentary on Piketty’s ideas.

In his bestselling work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty has ignored the production problems and placed the distribution problems at the heart of economics. In the name of fighting inequality, he has proposed an annual global wealth tax of up to 10 percent, and a top marginal income tax rate as high as 80 percent.

Don Watkins and Yaron Brook point out that for many egalitarians even such a confiscatory tax regime does not go far enough. “There are critics of economic inequality who are largely indifferent to its impact on opportunity and want to level down society even if it means crippling economic progress.”

Piketty accepts that inequality is not necessarily a bad thing, and it can contribute to economic growth. But economic growth is not his concern, equality is. He wants to fight inequality through a confiscatory tax regime even though such taxation will wreck the economy. He has given lot of data to prove that inequality is rising.

Don Watkins and Yaron Brook point out that there are several flaws in Piketty’s data, and that despite high inequality majority of Americans are leading better and better lives. The real prices of the goods that we buy today are “far lower than they were in the 1970s, contributing to a dramatic rise in the average American’s standard of living.” Also we have access to facilities like Skype, FaceTime, Google Maps, Wikipedia, etc., which add immense value to our lives.

Piketty declaims that the salary of the top managers in companies is too high. But Don Watkins and Yaron Brook argue that it is for the owners to decide what the salaries should be. Even if it is true that the compensation of the top level management is too high then this problem could and eventually would be solved by the free market.

Egalitarians want to impose their own views of what constitutes fair pay. They think that they, and not the shareholders, should have the power to decide how a business handles it finances.

The key point that Piketty has made in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that there are certain flaws in capitalism that cause wealth to accumulate in the hands of unproductive heirs rather than value-creating entrepreneurs.

Don Watkins and Yaron Brook argue that Piketty’s propositions on wealth inheritance are not based on laws of capitalism or economics—it is just pure speculation. They also point out that the egalitarians are invoking a collectivist framework when they suggest that wealth belongs to society and must be used for “social benefits.”

When the egalitarians like Piketty talk about a social system with equality, they do not mean equality of rights, they mean equality of results. They believe that individuals do not earn their success because success is dependent on luck. Piketty has said in his book that the government must seek to reduce inequalities as much as possible because success mainly comes from factors such as inheritance, cultural capital, etc.

Don Watkins and Yaron Brook look at the careers of few celebrated industrialists and present a full picture of the vision, work, and planning that is required for creating a fortune. They point out that “human capital is primarily intellectual, and it consists, not of creation ex nihilo, but of building on the achievements of others and taking them further.”

The egalitarians don't plan to uplift mankind, their agenda is to “destroy values as an end in itself.” Piketty acknowledges that the confiscatory wealth tax and inheritance tax will not help lift up those below the top. He accepts that the very high tax brackets will not yield much revenues to the government. “The point,” Piketty says, “is to put an end to such incomes and large estates.”

The aim of Piketty’s egalitarianism is to destroy the rich without any hope of helping the poor. This is nihilism of the worst kind and it will ultimately lead to the destruction of both, the so-called rich and the poor. Equal is Unfair is a good book to understand why we must not believe a single word that these egalitarian intellectuals say.


Related:

Book Review - Equal is Unfair by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Charvaka Doctrine of Materialism

The Charvaka School, which arose in India in the 600 B.C.E or earlier than that, preached materialism, atheism, empiricism, and scepticism. It is believed that Brhaspati Laukya, also known as Brahmanspati, was the original founder of the School. It is because of him that the School is also known as the Lokayata.

Brhaspati Laukya was the author of the Barhaspatya-sutras. As this work is no longer extant, it is difficult to have a clear picture of the Brhaspati Laukya’s thoughts. To learn about the Charvaka philosophy we have to rely exclusively on the presentations made by the School’s avowed opponents, most of whom were deeply religious.

Ancient texts such as Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, Katha Upanisad, Bhahma-Sutra, Vatsayayana’s Kamasutra, Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Manu Smrti, and few others have references to the Charvaka thought. But ideological opponents are seldom free of prejudices and personal predilections. They are inclined towards highlighting the negative aspects, while ignoring the positive. Therefore it shouldn't come as surprise that most of the references are derogatory.

The religious texts condemn Brhaspati Laukya for questioning the authority of the religious elders and making destructive criticism of the gods. Brhaspati rejected the idea of god—he believed that god was a product of human imagination. The references also allege that the Charvaka School made no attempt to develop a complete system of thought, their entire focus being on refuting the orthodoxy of others.

But from these references we can draw the inference that the Charvakas took an empirical, scientific, and naturalistic approach to metaphysics. They believed that metaphysical enquiry cannot be extended beyond matter, and all knowledge comes from sensory experience.

Of the recognized means of knowledge (pramana), the Charvakas recognized only direct perception (anubhava). The School held that inference can be either right or wrong, and therefore it cannot be relied to provide knowledge. Unless a direct relationship is established between perception and object or phenomenon, certainty is not possible.

According to the Charvakas, consciousness does not accrue to the particles of matter; it is only when the particles get arranged in a particular manner that life is created. The School rejected the theory of eternal soul. If there is a soul, then it goes out of existence at the time when the body dies.

By denying the idea of a soul passing from one body to another, the Charvakas rejected the popular religious notion that the religious merits or demerits that are acquired during the present birth will lead to improvements or failures in the next birth.

They rejected the idea of there being a god who is omnipotent and has the power to judge our actions. The Charvakas argued that if a judgemental and omnipotent god existed, partiality and cruelty on his part would become inevitable. Hence it is better to live in a world without god, rather than have a cruel and partial god.

The Charvakas also argued that if an omnipotent god existed we would have found a way of perceiving him through our senses. Since we can’t perceive god through our senses, he does not exist. The School asserted that instead of running after an imaginary god, people should focus on improving their earthly existence.

The Charvakas were against the priestly class. They believed that the priests were, in most cases, the sole beneficiaries of the elaborate religious rituals in which offerings are made in the name of gods. They also argued that only those individuals who are devoid of intellect and manliness tend to oblige the  priests by practicing such religious rituals.

The concept of egoism has a central role to play in the Charvaka philosophy of materialism. The School has preached that every individual must give priority to fulfilling his own needs rather than using his resources to fulfil the needs of others. Charvakas believed that there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure and they advised their followers to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

On David Kelley’s Idea of The Legacy of Ayn Rand

The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand
David Kelley

Through the lens of David Kelley’s polemical work, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, a few critical issues in Objectivism get revealed. The book proposes ideas that seem to contradict some of the shibboleths of Objectivism. These shibboleths have very little to do with the fundamental tenets of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but most Objectivists accept them as incontestable facts.

The foremost shibboleth that Kelley takes an aim at is the idea of Immanuel Kant being a monster. Kelley says that he has met Objectivists “who casually denounce Kant as the most evil man in history without having read a word of what he wrote.” Unfortunately this is true—in case of Kant, many Objectivists tend to claim certainty even though they may lack the knowledge.

Kelley asserts that the Objectivist position on Kant does not show the full picture—it does not take into account the individualism that is there in Kant's ideas. Kant was not a collectivist; his philosophy was used for developing collectivist doctrines because he made certain errors in his thinking.

“One effect of Kant’s system was the emergence of philosophical collectivism, because Kant taught that happiness should be sacrificed to duty. Kant himself, however, was not a collectivist. He thought the source of our duties was not society but a higher, “noumenal” self residing within every individual. In acting from a sense of duty, he claimed, we are treating this higher self, in ourselves and in others, as an end in itself. In political philosophy, accordingly, Kant was an individualist, advocating individual rights and a limited government. It was because there is no such thing as the noumenal self that later thinkers such as Hegel, who wanted to preserve the ethics of duty, turned to society as its source and object.”

Kelley says that if Thomas Aquinas, instead of Hegel, had succeeded Kant then the Kantian ideas would have led to some sort of Christian mysticism, which is as consistent with Kant’s premises as secular collectivism is.

On the issue of moral judgement, Kelley raises some thought provoking points. He says that we can only make an objective moral judgement when we have sufficient evidence, and it takes significant amount of time and energy to gather such an evidence. He also points out that we have to consider the motives that inspired the action in order to pass a moral judgement.

“There’s obviously a moral difference between a person who kills someone accidentally, while playing with a loaded gun, and a cold-blooded killer who shoots his victim deliberately. The consequences are the same, but not the moral status of the agents.”

In the chapter, "Objectivism," Kelley gives the impression that he is not fully convinced about Ayn Rand’s theory of measurement-omission for concept formation, because he seems to suggest that it is possible that in future we may acquire evidence against this theory. “As an inductive hypothesis about the functioning of a natural object—the human mind— the theory of measurement-omission is open to the possibility of revision in the same way that Newton’s theory of gravity was. And the same is true for the other principles of Objectivism.” But in his book A Theory of Abstraction, he has clarified that he does not reject the theory of measurement-omission.

Kelley’s views on whether Objectivism is a closed system or an open system can be deemed controversial. He suggests that Objectivism must be an open system of thought, “where inquiry and debate may take place within the framework of the essential principles that define the system.”

According to Kelley, a lot of work needs to be done to enable Objectivism to serve as an alternative to Kant’s philosophy. Objectivism is a young system and many issues in various branches of philosophy have not yet been adequately addressed in the Objectivist theory. These issues must be addressed by rational and independent minds whose only concern is the truth. According to Kelley, to enable such minds to do their work, Objectivism must remain an open system.

You get the feeling that Kelley is being iconoclastic when he says that loyalty to truth matters much more than the loyalty to any particular person, including Ayn Rand. “The greatest contributions to this development will come from the most rational and independent minds, whose only concern is the truth. They will not function with double vision, as Peikoff demands, keeping one eye on reality and the other on Ayn Rand’s texts.”

On the issue of Ayn Rand’s association with Nathaniel Branden, Kelley says that most Objectivists seethe with “borrowed anger” against Branden, and they have “denounced him as a moral monster” without knowing all the facts. But the Branden issue is of no consequence as far as Ayn Rand’s literature and her philosophy are concerned, and whatever Kelley has written on this subject is, to my mind, an unnecessary distraction from the book’s core theme.

It is not possible for me to pass a moral judgement on David Kelley; I don’t have the complete information. After all, Kelley has said on the subject of moral judgements that one needs sufficient amount of evidence to make an objective judgement, and the collection of such an evidence is a time consuming and exacting process. Due to the lack of evidence, I continue to be unsure if Kelley’s intention in writing such a book is principled or otherwise.

However, whatever his intentions may have been, it is clear that the issues that he has raised are most relevant to Objectivism. There is immense amount of logic in all the points that he makes and the right answers to his issues must be discovered. Overall, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand is an interesting book, it's full of quotable lines, and if you are close to Rand’s ideas you will discover in it an amazing amount of firepower.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Philosophy and Carnage in Ancient Greece

Wars of the Ancient Greeks
Victor Davis Hanson

When we think of ancient Greece, we remember the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. But the Greeks were also great military strategists.

In the Wars of the Ancient Greeks, historian Victor Davis Hanson says, “The phenomenal record of Greek military prowess is unquestioned. After Xerxes’ failed invasion of 480, Greece remained free from foreign invasion until the Roman conquest three centuries later — and the triumphant legions of Rome owed much of their battle success to the hallowed Greek approach to warfare. No non-western invader after 480 could occupy and hold the Greek mainland for long until the Ottoman subjugation two thousand years later.”

The book begins with Plato's quote on war: “Always existing by nature between every Greek city-state.” The Greeks of that era were convinced that war, and not philosophy, was the most important thing that the humans do. Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic have a strong focus on war and the use of land.

Apparently in ancient Greece good philosophy and good military prowess went hand-in-hand. Hanson points out that the Greek hoplites conducted unprecedented slaughter of their enemies in various battles. The only people who could kill the Greeks in large numbers were the Greeks themselves.

“Thousand of Persians were slain at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea against a few hundred Greeks. Alexander destroyed an empire of millions while losing less than a thousand phalangites in pitched battle; indeed he killed more Greeks and Macedonians than did his Eastern enemies. More Greeks perished in the internecine Peloponnesian war than all those slain by Darius and Xerxes a half century earlier. When Carthagians, Persians, Italians and Egyptians looked for military guidance there was usually a Greek willing to offer his society’s martial expertise for a price.”

It is noteworthy that the Greeks achieved success in wars even though they were morally opposed to militarism. Their philosophers, intellectuals, artists, religious thinkers, and even the common citizens, constantly demanded justification and explication for the use of military force. Every major war that the Greeks undertook — from the conflict between Sparta and Athens, to Alexander’s ferocious rampage through Asia — was trenchantly opposed and vilified by the major Greek thinkers. According to Hanson, the high level of intellectual debate “ironically often refined and ratified rather than simply hindered Hellenic attack.”

How do we account for the lethal military prowess of the Greeks? Apparently the Greek hoplites used simple tactics—usually consisting of armour-wearing troops armed with spear marching in disciplined phalanx formation—but they were virtually invincible when faced with rival armies that used different tactics.

Hanson rejects the idea that geography or climate has anything to do with the success of Greek military campaigns. He says that “ideas and values, not location or weather, were what distinguished the Greeks.” The Greek civilization was characterized by the rise of the city-state, where there was a culture of free inquiry, rationalism, and capitalism.

The philosophical success of the Greeks led them to make similar advancements in science, with the result that they were able to develop superior fighting equipment. The armour, shield, and the weapons, that the hoplites used were better than what the non-Greek armies had.

In Greek culture the generals were expected to be the masters in astronomy and geometry, along with having courage, practical sense, and knowledge of tactics and strategy. These generals trained their men to fight in phalanx formation which, it seems, was effective for breaking through the enemy formations and holding territory. The non-Greek armies in that era were not trained to fight in phalanx formation.

Aristotle, in Politics, has suggested that the hoplite fighting skills are related to their superior armour and the ability to fight in phalanx formation: “The earliest form of government among the Greeks after monarchy was composed of those who actually fought. In the beginning that meant cavalry, since without cohesive arrangement, heavy armament is useless; and experience and tactical knowledge of these systems did not exist in ancient times, and so power again lay with mounted horsemen. But once the Poleis grew and those with hoplite armour became stronger, more people shared in government.”

Written in an engaging prose, the Wars of the Ancient Greeks is quite readable. The book has lot of maps, photographs, and illustrations to add pictorial information for better understanding of Hanson’s solid analysis.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity

Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity 
James S. Valliant 
C. W. Fahy

The story of Christ, it seems, is now coming out of the closet. In Creating Christ, James S. Valliant and  C. W. Fahy present new evidence to show that the Roman emperors have played a critical role in the development of Christianity. The Romans and the Jews were the two dominant cultures in the 1st-Century CE. The Romans were the conquerers, but the Jews, not ready to accept defeat, had launched an apocalyptic rebellion.

Valliant and Fahy argue that the “Roman government, in direct response to this bitter clash of cultures, created Christianity.”

The Flavian general Vespasian and his son Titus were the Roman emperors in the era when the key tenets of Christianity were formulated. Both Vespasian and Titus had proclaimed that they were the messiahs of the Jewish prophecy—this was part of their official propaganda and imperial cult. Their strategy seems to have worked because during their reign peace was achieved, and many Jewish leaders of that period accepted Vespasian and Titus as messiahs.

“Was their arrival in power and glory as the princes of peace the advent of Jesus’s prophecy? Or is it possible that Jesus’s prophecy was written while these Flavian emperors ruled in order to prove their messianic pretentions after they had conquered Judea?” Valliant and Fahy ask in the first chapter, “Crux Dissimulata.”

The authors cite several facts: the Gospels have been written during the reign of Flavian emperors, who attained power after crushing a religion inspired rebellion of messianic Jews some 40-years after the alleged death of Jesus — few friends of the Flavian emperors make an appearance in the New Testament — the oldest Christian catacombs were the original burial site of the relatives of the Flavian emperors — the husband of Vespasian’s granddaughter was counted among the first popes of the first Christian church in Rome.

The coins that were being issued in the millions by the Flavian emperor Titus indicate some kind of linkage with early Christianity. These coins bear the symbol of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor which is also the symbol that the Christians used to symbolize Christ for the first three centuries before the Emperor Constantine replaced it with the symbol of the Cross.

By taking all of this evidence into account Valliant and Fahy reach the conclusion “that Christianity is somehow intertwined with imperial Rome.”

In the book's introduction we are informed that Creating Christ is the result of a 30-years of research. The book is extremely evidence based—it covers a large number of historical and religious texts. It surveys artifacts and coins from that era to find new details. That it covers such a vast expanse of evidence in 383-pages is, in my view, a feat of concision. Here I can only look at some of the major features of the book to give readers a feel of its content and arguments.

Valliant and Fahy reject the popularly believed theory that the Christians were being persecuted by the Roman emperors. “The evidence suggests that the persecution of the Christians was not at all common before the Christian faith started to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century.”

The basis of the theory that the Christians were being hunted down and slaughtered by the Roman empire is the famous account of the 2nd-Century historian Tacitus. In his The Annals, Tacitus has suggested that the Roman emperor Nero tried to pin the blame for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE on the Christians. But Valliant and Fahy assert that there are many flaws in Tacitus’s account.

In 64 CE, the Gospels had not been written—they would not be written until the Flavian era that followed Nero’s rule. Also, the very few Christians who existed in that period were the “tax-paying citizens who render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and turn the other cheek while walking the extra mile for Romans.” It is unlikely that Nero would vilify and prosecute such people who were essentially the supporters of the empire.

Valliant and Fahy suggest that Tacitus is “confusing one group of devotees of a Jewish messiah with another group who were, indeed, creating very serious trouble for the Roman government and were, in fact, quite active in Rome at that time.” In other words, the Christians that Tacitus is blaming for the Great Fire were the hardcore group of messianic rebels. The historian, Flavius Josephus, a Jew who adopted his Roman name after being captured by Vespasian during the Jewish War, has commented extensively on the messianic rebels.

The view that the book presents of the role that Flavius Josephus has played in Christianity is dramatically different from what is popularly believed. Josephus’s major work, Wars of the Jews, was produced during the reign of Vespasian with official Roman approval. He was also the author of works like Antiquities of the Jews and Against Apion. He believed that the Roman victory over Jews was inevitable and he was remarkably Christian. Understandably, he was regarded as a traitor by his fellow Jews.

It is noteworthy that Josephus’s books were written during the same period when the Gospel was written, and “there are striking similarities between the stories told about Jesus, Josephus, and the Apostle Paul. The most remarkable coincidence between Josephus and Paul, however, is a dramatic event that both of them experienced: a shipwreck on their way from Judea to Rome.” The parallels between the lives of Josephus and Jesus are equally striking. For instance, Josephus has narrated a story where he emerged alive after three days in a tomb.

“So, after spending three days in a cave while presumed dead, Josephus is revealed by a woman to be alive after all. Jesus spent three days in his tomb, as well, which was also a cave, before he was discovered by a woman, Mary Magdalene, according to all of the Gospel accounts.”

The book conducts a detailed survey of the writings of Josephus to draw out the similarities between his ideas and that of Jesus and Paul. The ideas of these three personalities were in complete sync with the official Roman propaganda. Valliant and  Fahy make the allusion that Josephus may have had a rather direct role to play in the writing of the Gospels.

“In the works of Josephus, we are surely at the confluence of the same ideological rivers that produced the Gospels. And, while it may never be possible to determine the authorship of the Gospels with certainty, in the circle of semi-observant “Jews” surrounding the Flavian court we have certainly found a number of leading candidates. They were at the same place at the same time and shared the same background, education, agenda, and even the same iconography with the earliest Christians.”

The Flavian Roman Emperors were travelling down a well-trodden path when they encouraged the development of a new religion for legitimizing their rule. The Roman monarchs who preceded them also used foreign religions to establish the legitimacy of their rule over their newly conquered subjects. Julius Caesar, for instance, had claimed descent from Aeneas, a Trojan hero of the Greek epic, The Iliad.

Considering that inventing new gods was the Roman way of maintaining sway over conquered people, it would have been strange if the Flavian emperors had not used a foreign religion to demonstrate their divine favor and legitimacy as rulers. The miracles that Vespasian is said to have performed are similar to the miracles that the Gospels attribute to Jesus. There are striking similarities between Jesus and Titus. “The prophecies of Jesus in the Gospels readily lend themselves to establishing Titus as the Jewish Messiah.”

One of the side-effects of the symbiotic relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity is the rise of anti-Semitism in the world. “The Gospels systematically, even melodramatically, absolve the Roman Empire of any culpability for the death of Jesus, laying the blame exclusively on the Jewish people with such heavy hand that it inspired centuries of anti-Semitic retribution.”

Creating Christ is audacious and briskly written. It presents an interesting perspective on how and why the core ideas of Christianity got developed.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Niall Ferguson on the Decline of British Empire and the Rise of a New Empire

Empire: The Rise And Demise of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power

Niall Ferguson

Was the British Empire brutal and destructive or was it a good thing? Niall Ferguson persuasively argues that the empire enhanced global welfare by facilitating the spread of parliamentary institutions, growth in literacy, and the recognition of the virtues of the minimal state, and rule of law. In other words, the empire was a good thing.

He contends that today’s globalization is the result of the integration of the world that the British Empire achieved before 1914. He says that the leftists hate the British Empire mainly because it led to globalization which they regard as “no more than the latest manifestation of a damnably resilient international capitalism.”

However, Ferguson is not an apologist for imperialism. He also describes a few of the British Empire’s negative consequences — the racism, violence, and exploitation. He talks about the exploitation of slaves: the concentration camps where thousands died following the Boer Wars; the brutal treatment of political opposition in the colonies; the pseudo-science of eugenics that was used to legitimize white supremacy; the corruption; and the famines.

But he insists that the British Empire did much more than spreading the suffering, and he provides a comprehensive account of what he sees as the Empire’s positive contributions. He contends that the Empire pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labor, and it led to global peace. He points out that the British Empire achieved so much even though it had a small government.

“The British Empire was the nearest thing that has ever been to a world government. Yet its mode of operation was a triumph of minimalism. To govern a population numbering hundreds of millions, the Indian Civil Service had a maximum strength of little more than a thousand.”

Yet the empire was not a British invention—in fact, the British were late entrants to the field that was dominated by European powers like the Spanish and Dutch. The British began as pirates, and traders, but to their own surprise they soon found themselves to be the owners of a substantial chunk of the planet. "They had robbed the Spaniards, copied the Dutch, beaten the French and plundered the Indians. Now they ruled supreme."

The book draws comparisons between the British imperialists and other empires, and it reaches the conclusion that the British were much more humane. Ferguson argues that the Belgian rule in Congo was much harsher than the British rule in other parts of Africa. He points out that the Japanese imperialists committed the worst atrocities because they had no conception of human rights, and they “regarded the alien races as no better than swine.”

It is clear that Empire is a history book written with the agenda of inspiring the rise of a new empire, one that is led by the United States. Ferguson rejects the idea that the exercise of global power is a bad thing. He asserts that the time has now come for the United States to play a wider role in world affairs. He believes that only an empire backed by the military and economic strength of the United States can ensure world peace and provide the framework for the spread of efficient and corruption-free governance.

In the book’s last chapter, in a section that is aptly titled “Bearing the Burden,” Ferguson states that “the most successful economy in the world — as Britain was for most of the 18th and 19th centuries — can do a very great deal to impose its preferred values on less technologically advanced societies.”

He points out that “in 1899 Rudyard Kipling, the Empire’s greatest poet, addressed a powerful appeal to the United States to shoulder its imperial responsibilities”:

Take up the White Man’s Burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons in exile
To serve your captives need;

In context of Kipling’s poem, he accepts that no one would use such politically incorrect language today. However, he points out that the “reality is nevertheless that the United States has— whether it admits it or not — taken up some kind of global burden, just as Kipling urged. It considers itself responsible not just for waging a war against terrorism and rogue states, but also for spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy overseas.”

The suggestion that imperial rule by United States is the only way of improving life in less advanced countries is a contentious argument. It begs many questions. For instance, why can’t all countries develop the ideas of liberty, capitalism and better governance by their own efforts? Why should people in the advanced countries sacrifice their life and wealth to spread civilization? Why should the people in underdeveloped countries accept the hegemony of the United States?

While the idea of the United States developing into a global empire and accepting its global responsibilities is quite unpersuasive, the historical perspectives that Ferguson has presented on the British Empire cannot be outrightly dismissed. The book offers an informative and sobering account of the history of the last 400 years, and it is worth-reading.  

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Nyaya Theory of Epistemology

Aksapada Gautama was the author of the Nyaya-Sutras which is the foundational text for the Nyaya School of logical reasoning. It is generally believed that he lived in the 2nd-century or the 3rd-Century BC.

The word “Nyaya” stands for “formal reasoning,” while “Sutras” stand for “aphorisms,” and therefore the title of the treatise “Nyaya-Sutras” may be translated as “The aphorisms for formal reasoning.”

The Nyaya School has made contributions in epistemology, theology, and metaphysics. In this article I focus on the key tenets of the Nyaya theory of epistemology which was quite advanced for the period when it was first proposed.

In the Nyaya-Sutras, Aksapada Gautama rejects the philosophy of scepticism and proposes that human beings have the ability to acquire valid knowledge. The Nyaya School says that the information on objects and processes that human beings get through their senses is correct and can be used for developing knowledge.

While refuting the philosophy of scepticism, the Nyaya-Sutras presents the argument that if none of the means of gaining knowledge were valid, then the demonstration of the invalidity of these means of knowledge cannot itself claim validity.

The first sutra (aphorism) in the Nyaya-Sutras states that salvation can only be achieved through knowledge, and therefore every human being must make efforts to gain knowledge. The treatise goes on to describe the four avenues through which human beings can attain knowledge:

1. Pratyaksha (Direct Perception)
2. Anumana (Inference)
3. Upamana (Comparison)
4. Shabda (Verbal Testimony)

Pratyaksha (Direct Perception) is the knowledge that people gain through direct contact between the senses and the object that is being perceived. The Nyaya School rejects the idea of consciousness having an effect on realty—it states that perception is not dependant on inference.

Anumana (Inference) is the knowledge that precedes perception and is of three kinds: purvavat, or a priori; sesavat, or a posteriori; and samanyatodrsta, or common sense. Inference can lead to valid knowledge, and if inference leads to false knowledge then it is the person who is to be blamed and not the method itself.

Upamana (Comparison) is the knowledge that comes through an analysis of the similarities and differences in objects or processes.

Shabda (Verbal Testimony) is the knowledge that we get by listening to people who can be relied upon to speak the truth. The knowledge derived from verbal testimony is non-perceptual and non-inferential.

The Nyaya School maintains that for the achievement of salvation, human beings must attain sixteen categories of knowledge:

1. Pramana: Knowledge achieved directly through the senses.
2. Prameya: Ontology
3. Samsaya: Doubt
4. Prayojana: Purpose
5. Drstanta: Paradigm cases that can establish a rule
6. Siddhanta: Established doctrine, tenet or conclusion
7. Avayava: Premise of a syllogism
8. Tarka: Indirect reasoning. It can also refer to a reductio ad absurdum.
9. Nirnaya: Beliefs gained through valid means.
10. Vada: An appropriate discussion
11. Jalpa: Arcane debates for defeating an opponent, rather than establishing the truth.
12. Vitanda: Cavil
13. Hetvabhasa: Persuasive but fallacious arguments
14. Chala: Quibble unfairly to contradict a statement
15. Jati: Use false analogy to post an unfair reply in an argument
16. Nigrahasthana: The point of defeat in a debate

Out of the sixteen categories of knowledge (except for Pramana and Prameya), fourteen are the derivatives of the art of disputation. Pramana and Prameya are by themselves broad enough to cover all the concepts, but the Nyaya School has proposed 16 categories to ensure clarity of the concepts and to distinguish its ideas from other schools of thought.

According to the Nyaya School, three elements are involved whenever an individual is acquiring knowledge:

1. Jnatr: The knower, or the person who seeks the knowledge
2. Jneya: The metaphysical aspect of reality (an object or process) that is knowable
3. Jnana: What is finally known (the knowledge)

In the Nyaya-Sutras there is lot of emphasis on the science of definitions—it has been stated that it is important to accurately define every concept so that the philosophical arguments that are being proposed do not get mired in obscurity.

The relation of the words to their meanings is conventional and not natural. Particular words can have specific meanings, but the meanings can be affected by the context in which they are being spoken and the way in which they are being used in the sentence. To enable the hearer to understand the exact meaning of the verbal-proposition, the words must be clearly defined for every context and way of usage.

Aksapada Gautama’s Nyaya School has developed separately from the Vaiseskika School, and both schools hold independent positions in metaphysics and epistemology. But their differences are minor. At a later stage the Nyaya School and the Vaiseskika School came together to develop a holistic theory of the universe and human consciousness.

Related:

On Kapila’s Sankhya System of Philosophy

Panini—The Science of Language

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The No Man’s Land of Bertrand Russell’s Philosophy

Bertrand Russell believed that philosophy is the no man’s land which exists between theology and science.

In the introduction to his 900-page opus, The History of Western Philosophy, he writes:

“Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge--so I should contend-- belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy.”

Despite his assertion that philosophy is a no man’s land, Russell insists that human beings must depend on philosophy for finding some kind of answers to all the questions about the nature of existence. Here’s the list questions for which he expects philosophy to provide the answers:

“Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly?”

Russell claims that we have to depend on philosophy for answers to “almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds” because we have no other alternative for gaining knowledge, given that science and theology are incapable of taking us to the truth.

The answers, he says, cannot be found in a laboratory. He rejects science, or the idea of gaining knowledge through the study of objects and processes, as a source of philosophical knowledge because he thinks that complete knowledge is beyond the grasp of human beings.

“Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance.”

He rejects theology as a source of knowledge because he seems to think that the knowledge that we get through theology is “all too definite,” and “their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion.”

“Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe.”

From all this we can infer the basic tenets of Russell’s bizarre theory of epistemology—he believed that science is the vehicle for indefinite knowledge, theology is the vehicle for definite knowledge, and philosophy is the no man’s land between indefinite-science and definite-theology. Surely, this does not make any sense.

He goes on to propose that human beings have no alternative except to endure uncertainty. Only the tolerance of uncertainty will enable us to live a life without the support of “comforting fairy tales.” But how can skepticism free us from fairy tales? Russell does not explain how he arrives at such illogical conclusions; he presents his ideas as arbitrary assertions.

“It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

Along with being a philosopher, Russell was also a mathematician. Apparently, he pursued mathematics by denying reality. They gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature 1950 "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”

But since Russell believed that uncertainty is the fate of mankind, how could he be certain that his humanitarian ideals were right? Why should he be regarded as a champion of freedom of thought when he believed that human thoughts have nothing to do with reality?

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Nathaniel Branden on “How Ayn Rand Affected His Self-Esteem”

The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
Nathaniel Branden

In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden has twice discussed his association with the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. He has analyzed his relationship with her purely from the point of view of psychotherapy.

His intention, it seems, is to show how his self-esteem was affected because of his failures to acknowledge reality and communicate his views clearly to Ayn Rand.

In my view, the references to Ayn Rand in the book are an unnecessary distraction. For making a case for his ideas on self-esteem, he did not have to present a chronicle of the reasons for which his relationship with Rand went downhill.

The first reference to Ayn Rand is in the chapter, “The Practice of Self-Responsibility.” Here’s the excerpt:
In my twenties I formed an intense relationship with novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. Over the course of eighteen years, our relationship passed through almost every form imaginable: from student and teacher to friends and colleagues to lovers and partners—and, ultimately, to adversaries. The story of this relationship is the dramatic centerpiece of Judgement Day. In the beginning and for some years, the relationship was nurturing, inspiring, valuable in many ways; I learned and grew enormously. But eventually it became constricting, toxic, destructive—a barrier to my further intellectual and psychological development.  
I did not take the initiative and propose that our relationship be redefined and reconstituted on a different basis. I told myself that I did not want to cause pain. I waited for her to see what I saw. I looked to her rationality and wisdom to reach the decision that would be right for both of us. In effect, I was relating to an abstraction, the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, rather than to the concrete woman in front of me. I did not confront the fact that her agenda was very different from mine and that she was totally absorbed in her own needs. I delayed facing the fact that nothing would change unless I made it change. And because I delayed, I caused suffering and humiliation to us both. I avoided a responsibility that was mine to take. No matter what explanations I gave myself, there was no way for my self-esteem to remain unaffected. Only when I began to take the initiative did I begin the process of regaining what I had lost.  
We often see this pattern in marriages. One partner sees before the other that the relationship is finished. But he or she does not want to be “the bad guy,” the one to end things. So instead manipulation begins, to lead the other to make the first move. It is cruel, degrading, lacking in dignity, and hurtful to both people. It is self-demeaning and self-diminishing.  
To the extent that I evade responsibility, I inflict wounds on my self-esteem. In accepting responsibility, I build self-esteem. 
In the chapter, “The Practice of Self-Assertiveness,” he makes the second reference to Ayn Rand:
I have already mentioned the relationship that I began with Ayn Rand a month before my twentieth birthday and that came to an explosive parting of ways eighteen years later. Among the many benefits that I received from her in the early years, one was an experience of profound visibility. I felt understood and appreciated by her to an extent that was without precedent. What made her response so important was the high esteem in which I held her; I admired her enormously.  
Only gradually did I realize that she did not tolerate disagreement well. Not among intimates. She did not require full agreement among acquaintances, but with anyone who wanted to be truly close, enormous enthusiasm was expected for every deed and utterance. I did not notice the steps by which I learned to censor negative reactions to some of her behavior—when, for example, I found her self-congratulatory remarks excessive or her lack of empathy disquieting or her pontificating unworthy of her. I did not give her the kind of corrective feedback everyone needs from time to time; in its absence we can become too insulated from reality, as she said.  
In the later years, after the break, I often reflected on why I did not speak up more often—I who was (at least relatively) freer with her than anyone else in our circle. The simple truth was, I valued her esteem too much to place it in jeopardy. I had, in effect, become addicted to it. It seems to me in retrospect that she had a genius for inspiring just such addictions by the subtlety, artistry, and astonishing insightfulness with which she could make people feel better understood and appreciated than they had ever felt before. I do not deny personal responsibility; no one can be seduced without consent. In exchange for the intoxicating gratification of being treated as a demigod by the person I valued above all others and whose good opinion I treasured above all others, I leashed my self-assertiveness in ways that over time were damaging to my self-regard.  
In the end, I learned an invaluable lesson. I learned that surrenders of this kind do not work; they merely postpone confrontations that are inevitable and necessary. I learned that the temptation to self-betrayal can sometimes be worst with those about whom we care the most. I learned that no amount of admiration for another human being can justify sacrificing one’s judgement. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Sophie’s [Nihilist] World

Sophie’s World
Jostein Gaarder

When Sophie’s World was published in the 1990s it was hyped in the media as a beginner’s guide to philosophy, and millions of philosophy-starved readers picked it up. The book became a runaway bestseller.

Alas, the book does not offer any practical tips on how to go about a philosophical quest. It is nothing more than a cookie-cutter tract on some kind of pseudo-religion—it dishes out a nihilist view of the universe. It projects the idea that the reality is a figment of imagination, and the person who is imagining the reality is also an imagination.

Sophie Amundsen, the novel’s eponymous heroine, is a 14-year-old schoolgirl living with her mother in a Norwegian suburb. Her father is away from home most of the time. One day Sophie receives an anonymous letter with a rather philosophical question: “Who are you?” Thereafter she receives another anonymous letter asking: "Where did the world come from?"

While she is still pondering over these questions, she receives an anonymous three-page typewritten letter which turns out to be the first lecture in a course on the history of philosophy. This is followed by a series of further lectures that get delivered by a dog.

Then a videotape arrives in which the mysterious teacher who has been sending the lectures reveals himself. His name is Albert Knox—he tells Sophie that the quest for philosophical truth is like a “detective story.” Along with studying the works of the philosophers, the philosophical detectives must also take an introspective dive into their own self.

Knox becomes Sophie’s philosophical guide. He narrates to her a tour of the Acropolis in Athens. Like a magic carpet, the videotape transports Sophie to the Acropolis in 402 B.C., where Plato introduces himself to her.

Sophie manages to find where Albert Knox lived and through a hole in the wall they step into his apartment, and then begins her journey through the important pages of history.

During her lectures the who’s who of philosophy that Sophie interacts with include the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Berkeley, Darwin, Freud, Sartre, and few others. She meets legends like Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Robespierre—she witnesses the historical events like the French and the Russian revolutions.

But her philosophical learning is rather superficial in nature. It is inexplicable that Jostein Gaarder takes his protagonist on a tour of more than two-millennia of history only to give her summaries of what seems like the Wikipedia version of philosophy.

Meanwhile there is another front in which Sophie needs play the detective. She needs to find out who is she. Is she real? Is she a figment of her own or someone else’s imagination? From time to time she receives letters that are intended for another 14-year-old, Hilde Moller Knag. Why is Hilde’s mail being addressed to Sophie? Sophie soon finds out that her and Hilde’s birthday are on the same date, and that Hilde too had an absentee father.

The novel delves into a strange amalgamation of realty and illusion that is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. There is uncertainty about Sophie’s metaphysical status. She can’t deny the possibility that the world that she regards as material might be immaterial. She frantically tries to discover the truth about her metaphysical status and the nature of reality.

The answers that Sophie is seeking involves several aspects that are cartoonish in nature. There is a magic mirror and a talking dog. A world of illusion is equated with reality. Free will is equated with predetermination. Towards the climax, Sophie realizes that she is a character within a novel, and that the world is a novel within a novel, within a novel, going on to an infinite number of novels.

But she is able to think for herself, and that leads to the possibility that somehow she has become independent of the mind of her creator who is the writer of the novel in which she is the character. She struggles to find out the extent to which she is free. She agonizes about what the limits to her free will are. She is confused about her identity and consciousness.

Jostein Gaarder is a high school philosophy teacher—he purportedly wrote the book to inspire his young students with a taste for philosophy. There is no doubt that Sophie’s World led to many young readers developing a taste for philosophy, but did the book guide them towards right kind of philosophical ideas? A nihilist denial of reality can create confusion in the minds of the readers about what the purpose of philosophy is.

One of the core objectives of philosophical study is to develop the ability to judge philosophical ideas. There are so many philosophers out there—how do we know whose ideas are good for humanity and whose are bad? How do we analyze and evaluate the ideas? Sophie’s World sees no difference between Plato and Aristotle. It puts Locke on the same pedestal with Hume and Kant.  It does not inform the readers that all philosophical ideas are not necessarily good.

Trying to learn philosophy from a book like Sophie’s World is as futile as trying to master astronomy through a study of astrology. In my view, the readers would do better to try a book like Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy for having a concise account of the lives and ideas of the major philosophers in history.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

On Kapila’s Sankhya System of Philosophy

King Anshuman and Kapila
Kapila, the most deified sage in Hindu tradition, is the originator of Sankhya School of philosophy which has a strong atheistic element in it.

The Sankhya system has extensive commentary on epistemology, but its main focus is on metaphysics—it proposes metaphysical dualism in a strictly atheistic sense.

Literally Sankhya means “to count,” and this name has been used because the Sankhya philosophy is designed to enumerate the important principles of the entire universe. The system has also been called Samkhya which means buddhi (mind)—this definition indicates that the philosophy regards rationalism as the suitable approach for gaining knowledge.

In this article, I am focussing on the key tenets of Sankhya metaphysics and Sankhya epistemology.

Sankhya Metaphysics

The Sankhya system proposes that the universe consists of two entities: Prakriti (nature), and Purusa (spirit). Prakriti and Purusa cannot be derived from each other. Here’s description of the Prakriti and Purusa concepts:

The Three Gunas of Prakriti

The principle or the primal entity from which the objective universe gets evolved in its infinite diversity is called Prakriti. Human beings cannot conceive Prakriti through the means of sense perception; its existence can only be known through inference and rationalization. The first and unique cause of the universe, Prakriti constitutes of three gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

Literally a guna means “a quality,” but in this case it means “a constituent” of Prakriti. The different meaning of guna has been used because the Sankhya system asserts that their can’t be any distinction between a substance and an attribute.

An attempt to think of an attribute of an existent being separate from that existent is to indulge in an illegitimate abstraction. The attribute of the existent and the existent are in a complete union, and every material existent represents a concrete union of both.

The three gunas of Prakriti are distinct manifestations and can be conceived as distinct aspects of the existents, but they cannot exist separately from each other. Every existent in the universe has all three gunas in varying degrees of potency.

Sattva denotes whatever is pure and sublime. Rajas signifies whatever is active. Tamas signifies whatever is stolid and offers resistance. The nature of the existent depends on the guna that is most potent in it—dominance of the Sattva leads to the highest manifestations; Rajas is dominant in manifestations marked by change, activity and passion; Tamas dominates the manifestations of the lowest order.

The existence of three gunas does not lead to divisiveness or antagonism in the universe. There is harmoniousness in the working of Prakriti. Just as the flame flickering in a lamp is the result of the cooperation between three distinct entities—the oil, the fire and the wick—the manifestations of Prakriti are the result of harmonious interaction of the three gunas.

The three gunas enter into different existents in varying levels of potency, and lead to the creation of infinite substances which are there in the universe. The Prakriti is omnipresent and complex, and it is constantly moving and changing. Nothing in the physical universe is permanent. Change is a continuous process.

As the Prakriti is capable of producing the human mind and intellect, it can be regarded as a full materialistic explanation of the world.

The Component of Consciousness: Purusa

The concept of Prakriti is conceived from the idea that when there is an effect their must be an underlying cause. Purusa, the second fundamental element which the Sankhya system acknowledges, is conceived from the idea that every object must point to a subject; in other words, the existence of a non-sentient implies a sentient.

Purusa roughly translates into the element that leads to awareness or sentience. Sankhya proposes that a truly empirical evidence of Purusa is impossible to find, and hence, like in case of Prakriti, the existence of Purusa is also conceived through inference and rationalization.

Both Purusa and Prakriti are eternal and independent of each other. Prakriti is dynamic and complex, whereas Purusa is static and simple. Purusa is passive, whereas Prakriti is active. Creation as we know it happens when Purusa and Prakriti cooperate and act as a single entity.

Even though Purusa is omnipresent like Prakriti, its manifestations are confined to limits of the bodies and the internal organs in which it is based. A living organism’s body is made out of many parts which are designed to work in perfect harmony so that that the needs of the sentient entity residing in the body, the Purusa, are fully met.

There cannot be a spirit, or soul, without a living organism, or a living organism without a spirit. Prakriti is the medium in which Purusa can manifest itself, but it is not its source.

The Sankhya system rejects the idea of a super-soul. It says that if everyone had the same Purusa, they would perceive reality in the same way, but that is not the case. Different people perceive the world around them in different ways—their can be agreement or disagreement between them on what reality is like.

Sankhya Theory of Epistemology

The Sankhya system proposes that there are three sources of knowledge: perception, inference, and reliable tradition. The order of the three sources is important because inference must only be used when it is not possible to gain knowledge through perception, and if both perception and inference fail we can rely on tradition.

According to the Sankhya system, perception is a reliable source of much of the basic knowledge that human beings need to survive. Perception does not lead to creation, and if men pass different judgements of the same object then that is because they impose their subjective ideas on the information that they receive through their sense organs.

But perception will not provide philosophical knowledge. Sankhya school maintains that inference is the suitable method for philosophical inquiry.

The knowledge that comes to human beings is personal and fragmentary. At best, we can have partial knowledge. But partial knowledge is filled with contradictions and is flawed—it can lead human beings astray and give rise to conflicts.

To avoid contradictions and the conflicts, human beings must practice humility and charity in their interactions with fellow men. People should see the world with the eyes of others, just as they see it with their own eyes. The idea of toleration, which is a most fundamental feature in Indian thought, has originated in the Sankhya system.

But if all knowledge is partial and hence imperfect, then the question arises: What is the truth? According to the Sankhya school, truth is the comprehensive knowledge in which one part supplements and corrects the other. In other words, complete knowledge is one in which all aspects of the object are clearly understood and there is no room for doubt.

The Sankhya system holds that even with human senses, such comprehensive knowledge is possible by the use of perception, inference, and reliable tradition.

According to the religious texts, Kapila is an eternal being who has existed since the beginning of creation. But the historical evidence suggests that he may have lived in the 6th-century BCE, or the 7th-century BCE. His Sankhya system is the oldest philosophical system in the Indian subcontinent—it has influenced almost every subsequent philosophical system that has emerged in the region.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith

Atheism: The Case Against God
George H. Smith 
Prometheus Books 

In the introduction to Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith remarks that what he is offering in his book is essentially a “minority viewpoint.” But in his sobering thesis he builds a solid case against some popularly accepted theistic ideas, and therein lies much of the book’s value.

While it may not be possible to persuade those who are deeply religious, anyone else, even those who have mixed feelings on god, cannot come away from this book without reexamining their basic convictions on not just god and religion, but also on issues related to morality.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Smith’s thesis is the broad intellectual territory that he covers while refuting the concept god. Along with religious ideas, the fields that he traverses include science, ethics, epistemology, history, and psychology.

It is noteworthy that he uses "god" with lower case “g” to refer to the generic idea of god. He uses “God” only when he is referring specifically to the God of Christianity.

Smith points out that atheism is the absence of theistic belief and therefore what it represents is not a belief, but the lack of a belief. A person is an atheist, because he is not a theist. The word atheist will not tell you why the person is not a theist, or what else he believes in.

The theists use terms such as “immaterial” or “incorporeal” to explain the attributes of god. But Smith argues that “immaterial” or “incorporeal” tell us what god is not (that he is not made out of any material substance; that he is not physical)—these words don't tell us what god is. He says that anything that exists must have a specific nature, and it must be created from some material.

According to Smith, the “unknowable” is the central tenet of theism, and that is why it is imperative for the religions to declare war on reason. “If faith is to gain a foothold, reason must be attacked, which brings us to the issue of epistemological skepticism.” The theists are skeptics; they deny knowledge; they believe that facts can’t be known with certainty and it is not possible for men to perceive and understand reality.

But there is a contradiction in the claim that god is unknowable. Smith argues that if god is unknowable, then we can’t know that he exists, but to assert that a god exists is equivalent to claiming knowledge of god. “Insofar as faith is possible, it is irrational; insofar as faith is rational, it is impossible.”

In his critique of the skeptic ideas of the theists, Smith has made a good use of the theory of epistemology that has been proposed by Ayn Rand in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and other works. His discussion of Rand’s theory of concepts and the contextual nature of knowledge is particularly interesting.

The theists often claim that it is the fear of god’s wrath that inspires people to be moral. But Smith says that the concept god has had a disastrous effect on the idea of mortality—it has led to a situation where people think that morality has nothing to do with reality, and that in order to be moral one must shun reason and blindly follow the dictates of religion.

By destroying the idea of supernatural morality, atheism brings morality to the realm of reality, so that the moral ideal becomes reachable to man’s mind. The course of action that a man takes in his life is a matter of his personal choice. If he discards reason in favor of nihilism and pessimism, then the issue is with his own mind. Atheism cannot be blamed for the choices that men make.

The idea that God is a supernatural being with much greater powers than man is soundly refuted by Smith. He asks the readers to consider a hypothetical situation where an alien form of life, much superior to man, is discovered in some other solar system. “These advanced creatures have an immense life span, superior strength, agility and mobility, and a superior capacity for memory and abstract thought. Does it follow, in virtue of these superior capacities, that these creatures should be designated as gods?”

Smith points out that if we refer to these superior creatures as “god,” then we will face a very absurd situation where any creature that is superior to another creature will get designated as a “god.”

He demolishes the standard theistic idea of god being omniscient and omnipotent. He points out that omniscience contradicts the attribute of omnipotence. “If God knows the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it—in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it prior to its actual happening—in which case he cannot be omniscient.”

In this context, he also cites the problem of evil. “If God does not know there is evil, he is not omniscient. If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent.”

Many theologians claim that there is no conflict between science and religion, as these are concerned with different spheres of human existence. But as science is dedicated to understanding reality, it rests on the premise that existence exists and reality is knowable. Theology, on the other hand, rests on faith; it rejects reason, which is the primary means for understanding realty, and it propagates that what we see as reality is simply a creation of god’s will and it can never be understood. Therefore the conflict between science and theology is irreconcilable.

“Reason and faith are opposites, two mutually exclusive terms: there is no reconciliation or common ground. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.”

Overall, Atheism: The Case Against God is a hard-hitting book against the irrational belief in god. Smith’s writing is clear, colorful, and well organized. If you are person of reason, the book will make you feel good about it. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Hutus Versus Tutsis - The 100 Days of Massacre

Military vehicles bring water for Rwandan refugees
at Camp Kimbumba, Zaire, in August 1994
Between April and June 1994, in a space of only 100 days, more than 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda. The scale of the killings was unprecedented, even for a violence-prone country like Rwanda.

It is believed that around 200,000 Hutu extremists participated in the campaign of slaughter—they were targeting the members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as the Hutu moderates. Around 2,000,000 Rwandans fled the country during and immediately after the genocide.

The genocide was trigged by the assassination of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana whose plane was shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994. Everyone onboard the plane was killed. The identity of the person or the group that fired at the plane continues to be a mystery. Initially it was rumoured that the Hutu extremists were responsible. But later it was alleged that the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front may have orchestrated the killing.

On the night of 6 April 1994, the organized campaign of killing began. The next day the country’s Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, was assassinated. It is believed that her killing was part of a campaign to eliminate the moderate Hutu and Tutsi politicians. After that the campaign of slaughter went on for 100 days.

There is a significant historical background to the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. In 1890s, the colonial era began in Rwanda with Germany taking control of the country from the Tutsi monarchs. After the First World War, the Belgians took over and they administered the country indirectly through the Tutsi monarchs till 1960.

Both the Germans and the Belgians followed the policy of divide and rule, and they deliberately nurtured the differences between Tutsi and Hutu communities. As they preferred to deal with the Tutsi elite, they strengthened the hegemony of the Tutsis, and fuelled the feeling among the Hutus that they were being exploited in a country where they were in majority.


Refugees fleeing Rwanda
The surprising thing is that there aren't any tribal differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus and the Tutsis are not even tribes; they are collectivist socio-economic and socio-political categories. They speak the same Bantu language and French, and most of them are Christians. Their culture is quite similar.

The strife between the Hutus and the Tutsis is mainly a class warfare. The Tutsis are perceived to have greater wealth and social status than the Hutus. Also, the Tutsis are mostly engaged in cattle ranching, while the Hutus are low class farmers.

The Colonial governments of Germany and Belgium issued ID cards, measured noses and cranial dimensions, to clarify who is ‘Hutu’ and who is ‘Tutsi.’ The entire power structure in Rwanda was defined by such biological classifications of the population.

Collectivism of the most venal kind got established in the country, and divided the population into two antagonistic groups. It became generally accepted that there are irreconcilable class differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis.


The first major Hutu uprising began in 1959 and it led to a Hutu led regime coming to power in 1961. In the months of violence, it has been estimated that about 20,000 Tutsis were killed and many more were forced to flee the country.

Since then the violence between the Hutu and Tutsi groups has been flaring periodically in Rwanda and their have been several mass killing campaigns, such as in 1963, 1967, 1973, and 1990. From 1972 to 1994, between 80,000 and 200,000 Hutus were killed by the Tutsi forces.

Such senseless slaughter will not end as long as the collectivist idea of class-based or biological classification of human beings is accepted. Individualism can bring an end to this conflict. But there is no intellectual movement in this part of the world to propagate the ideas of individualism. Collectivism of different kinds is the only ideological option before the people.

The idea that Hutus and Tutsis can’t mix and that they will always kill each other is firmly ingrained in the mind of the Rwandans and they can’t see beyond their class identities.