Monthly Archives: September 2009

Muhammad vs. Paul on slavery

I’m still reading the Qur’an. I found this passage on slavery.

God maketh comparison between a slave the property of his lord, who hath no power over anything, and a free man whom We have Ourselves supplied with goodly supplies, and who giveth alms therefrom both in secret and openly. Shall they be held equal? No: praise be to God! But most men know it not (16:77).

Compare this with the familiar line from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).

At first glance, Paul seems much closer than Muhammad to our modern ideas about freedom and equality, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Paul’s point is not that all people should be made equal, but that in God’s eyes they already are — that the question of whether a person is Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, is simply not important. Paul’s writings make it very clear that he saw no need for Greeks to be made into Jews, and I suspect that he would likewise have seen no need for the slaves to be set free. Abolitionists can argue that if all men are equal in the eyes of God we ought therefore to treat them equally in society, but Paul’s writings could just as easily be used to dismiss slavery as a non-issue.

Muhammad, on the other hand, seems to be enthusiastically endorsing the institution of slavery, praising God that the slave and the free man are not held equal. I think there are two ways of reading his statement, though. Is God saying that slavery is appropriate because men are not equal, or is he saying that men are not equal because slavery exists? Under the first reading, the message is: “Should all men be held equal and equally deserving of freedom? No! Some should be free and others should be slaves.” The second reading would gloss the same passage thus: “Should we pretend [as Paul does] that being a slave is just as good as being free, that the slave and the free man are in fact equal? No! Being free is clearly better.” The latter reading is supported by Muhammad’s focus on the ability to give alms as the distinguishing feature of a free man. If a free man is better able to do good and serve God than a slave is, the natural conclusion is that it would please God if every man were free. Muhammad clearly thinks that his point about slaves is a controversial one (“most men know it not”), and, given that he is clearly familiar with Christian teachings and often argues against them in the Qur’an, I wonder if this passage might even be intended as a direct response to Paul’s feelgooderism: No, Paul, slaves are free men are not to be considered equal, and all men will not be equal until all men are free.

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Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Islam, Politics

High and low

The Boston Globe has a summary of recent psychological research indicating that some metaphors are so fundamental that our minds conflate their literal and metaphorical senses, such that manipulating the one can influence how people think about the other.

Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how “warm” or “cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how “weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful. What they have found is that, in fact, we do.

The article discusses the following metaphors:

  • Warm/cold: People holding a cup of hot coffee rate a person as happier and friendlier than those holding a cup of iced coffee. When people recall an episode of social ostracism, the room feels physically colder to them,
  • Weighty/light: People answer questions more carefully (as if judging them to be weightier) when writing on a heavier clipboard.
  • High/low: People unconsciously look up when they think about power. People who tell a story while moving marbles to a higher position tell happier stories than those who are moving them to a lower position.
  • Rough/smooth: Handling sandpaper makes people less likely to think a social situation went smoothly.
  • Clean/dirty: Guilt makes people feel physically dirty. Washing their hands makes them feel less guilty.
  • Hard/soft: Sitting on a hard chair makes people think of tasks as harder.

One fundamental metaphor that the article doesn’t mention is the use of “high” and “low” to describe the frequency of sounds — a metaphor that is used in every language and culture with which I am familiar. It seems a strange one to me, given the general rule that large objects produce “lower” sounds than small ones. What makes it natural for us to think of the voice of a grown man or a buffalo as “low” and that of a child or a mouse as “high”? The only explanation I can think of is that you lower something in your throat in order to speak or sing in a “low” voice and raise it for a “high” one.

In any case, the acoustic sense of “high” doesn’t seem to mesh well with the other metaphorical meanings of that word. We may unconsciously look upwards when we think of power, but we certainly don’t associate power with a high-pitched voice. And the expectation that the Most High God have a most deep voice is so automatic that giving him a high-pitched one (as in this video) seems blasphemous. It seems that we expect everything about God to be high (“God is in heaven and thou art on earth”) except his voice.

So why is it that we so universally describe acoustic pitch in terms that clash with our other habitual metaphors? “High,” like “white” (as so exhaustively detailed by Melville), seems to be a concept in conflict with itself.

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Thoughts on the Qur’an, mostly from Sura Al-An’am

I’ve been reading the Qur’an. I’m about a quarter of the way through John Medows Rodwell’s English translation.

It’s pretty slow going for the first several suras, an impressive portion of the text being devoted to endlessly repeating that believers will go to paradise and infidels will burn in hell. The fourth sura offers this charming description: “Those who disbelieve Our signs We will in the end cast into the Fire: so oft as their skins shall be well burnt, We will change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. Verily God is” (here even Muhammad seems to realize that the customary epithets “compassionate, merciful” would sound odd and opts instead for) “mighty, wise!” (4:56) This, astonishingly, is presented as a just punishment for the crime of failing to believe something — not for doing wrong, but for being wrong, for having incorrect opinions. As the Qur’an makes clear in repeated rhetorical questions, its author can imagine nothing more wicked. Now I understand why Muhammad says not to make friends with unbelievers; knowing that your friend is having his skin endlessly burnt off and replaced might interfere with your ability to properly enjoy paradise.

But I already knew that about the Qur’an. Everybody does. Here are a few interesting bits — all from the sixth Sura, it turns out — which I didn’t know about before:

It is He who taketh your souls at night, and knoweth what ye have merited in the day: then He awakeneth you therein, that the set life-term may be fulfilled . . . (6:60)

I suppose this might be talking about death, judgment, and resurrection — but the bit at the end about awakening so that the set life-term may be fulfilled makes me think that it’s talking quite literally about sleeping and waking up, saying that God takes our souls during sleep and returns them to us when we wake up. I find that interesting because it reminds me of an argument used by Sam Harris in a debate with Andrew Sullivan, who found it difficult to believe that his consciousness would simple cease at death.

Presumably, you don’t find it hard to accept that you didn’t exist before you were born, so why is it so difficult to believe that you will cease to exist after you die? . . . Or imagine dying in parts: what if you had a stroke that damaged your visual cortex-where would your faculty of sight be thereafter? If a priest said that your visual self had gone on to heaven before you, would you believe him? . . . There is simply no question that brain damage can cause any of us to lose the specific faculties that constitute our conscious selves. Why is it so hard to imagine that we can lose all these faculties at once?

Or consider the analogy of sleep: each night you fall asleep and surrender your subjectivity to oblivion. You . . . awaken each morning without any sense of having lived for most of the night. You already know, therefore, what it’s like for your experience of the world to cease. Is a permanent cessation really so difficult to imagine?

Harris’s series of analogies doesn’t actually prove anything. Instead it relies on the listener’s judgment, on his subjective sense of what is absurd. The believer always has the option of biting the bullet and saying, for example, “Why, yes, in that case I would believe that my visual self had gone to heaven before me.” Mormonism does this when it comes to our apparent nonexistence before we were born, insisting that, yes, we did exist before birth, that each human soul has always existed and is co-eternal with God, but that memory of the “pre-mortal life” is erased or suppressed at birth. The Qur’an seems to be doing the same thing with sleep, taking the idea of the afterlife to its logical (if absurd) conclusion. Consciousness seems to cease at death, but in fact the soul lives on in another world; therefore, if consciousness seems to cease temporarily during sleep, it stands to reason that in fact the soul has temporarily gone to another world. I’m not sure that this is what the Qur’an is saying — a lot obviously depends on matters of translation and interpretation — but if it is, it offers an interesting new take on the familiar prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

This next line is one I had read before, when, many years ago, I was studying stories about Abraham from various sources (a study that culminated in my discovery that the Mormon Book of Abraham was a transparent hoax and my subsequent resignation from the Mormon church). The “he” in this passage is Abraham:

And when the night overshadowed him, he beheld a star. “This,” he said, “is my Lord:” but when it set, he said, “I love not gods which set.” (6:76)

I love that line. It has a certain Nietzschean grandeur, at least in this translation. One can’t help but notice, though that Abraham’s reason for concluding that the star is not a god is based on ignorance. The star didn’t really “set” or fall or cease to shine; all that happened was that the earth rotated until it was no longer in Abraham’s line of sight. A more astronomically literate prophet might have found in this a metaphor for the true God: If He sometimes seems to be absent, it is only because we have turned away from Him.

One more passage that caught my eye:

Revile not those whom they call on beside God, lest they, in their ignorance, despitefully revile Him. (6:108)

This comes surprisingly close to the Golden Rule and “Judge not lest ye be judged.” It would have been nice if Muhammad had pursued this line of thinking a little further and come up with “Murder not the infidels for disbelieving in your God, lest they, in their ignorance, murder you for disbelieving in theirs.” — but, in fairness, I shouldn’t assume he didn’t until I’ve finished his book.

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Reading: The Odyssey

I’ve read two translations of Homer’s Odyssey:

  • Robert Fitzgerald (29 Aug 2001)
  • Allen Mandelbaum (19 Sep 2009)

I’ve also perused bits of W. H. D. Rouse’s translation, although I’ve read his Iliad and wasn’t impressed. As I might have expected, he manages to mangle even the most beautiful passages. Compare these lines from Mandelbaum’s Odyssey

Tenacious, shameless, driven to deceive,
even in your own land you cannot leave
behind the tales and traps, the lies you love.

with their counterparts in Rouse’s

Irrepressible! everlasting schemer! indefatigable fabulist! Even in your own country you wouldn’t desist from your tales and your historiological inventions, which you love from the bottom of your heart.

The man simply has a tin ear.

That scene, by the way, from Book XIII has always been for me the heart of the Odyssey; I find his reunion with Athena, who knows and loves him as the inveterate old schemer he is, more moving than his reunion with Penelope, who knows him only as a husband. Yes, Odysseus loves his wife and is as true to her as could reasonably be expected given the circumstances, but man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart. The final reunion is Penelope’s scene, not his; Odysseus is no more himself than when sitting under that olive tree with his old friend Athena, plotting.

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Aristotle and the function of man

I’ve been doing some remedial reading of Aristotle these days. The following comes from Nicomachean Ethics I.7:

[A clearer account of happiness] might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, . . . an activity or actions of the soul.

Two things strike me as odd about this line of reasoning. The first is Aristotle’s assumption that “the” function of man — the function most relevant to his happiness — must be something peculiar to his species, and that we can begin by setting aside all functions which man has in common with other organisms. The implication is that in a differently populated universe, one in which man was still man but shared his world with a different cast of organisms, Aristotle’s reasoning might have led to vastly different conclusions. For example, in a universe with many highly intelligent species (and our universe may yet turn out to be such a place) the soul and its virtues would no longer be peculiar to man and could no longer be considered central to man’s happiness.

The focus on a distinctive or peculiar function also raises the question, “Peculiar to whom or what group?” Aristotle focuses on what distinguishes the human species from others, but that focus seems arbitrary. He could just as easily have focused on what distinguishes Greeks from barbarians, or aristocrats from commoners, or each individual from his fellows. Or, going the other direction, he could have thought of himself more broadly as a hominoid and found that happiness comes from exercising our distinctive ability to brachiate. Aristotle rejects both the too-narrow focus (I’m a tanner, so my function is to make leather) and the too-broad (I’m an organism, so my function is to vegetate), zeroing in on the species level, but he never explains why or makes it clear why being a good man is more important than being, say, a good carpenter or a good mammal.

The second thing I noticed is how facilely Aristotle makes the jump from functional organs to functional organisms, passing over one of the most significant (and, before Darwin, baffling) features of biology — namely, that while individual organs tend to be very clearly “for” something, whole organisms have no obvious function at all other than the circular ones of staying alive and reproducing their kind. (More precisely, every organism’s function is to keep its genes alive, whether in original form or as copies, and it’s the genes that have no function other than to go on existing. But Aristotle obviously couldn’t have known that.) Aristotle, being both knowledgeable about biology and skilled in reasoning about purposes, would have been the perfect person to notice this and call it to everyone’s attention, but instead he contents himself with the rather weak move of choosing an organism’s most distinctive organ (the mind, in the case of man) and ascribing that organ’s function to the organism as a whole.


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The Argument from Desire

I’ve recently read two discussions — one by philologist Edward M. Cook (of Ralph the Sacred River), and one by Christian apologist Peter Kreeft — of what is being called the Argument from Desire. Then, by a strange coincidence, John C. Wright also came out with a post about it while I was in the process of composing this one.

The argument, though not the name, comes from C. S. Lewis, who summarizes it as follows in the tenth chapter of Mere Christianity:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This is not strictly speaking an argument for the existence of God, but for an undefined something which is beyond all known human experience. As Kreeft puts it, “What it proves is an unknown X, but an unknown whose direction, so to speak, is known. This X is more: more beauty, more desirability, more awesomeness, more joy.” Still, if even this much can be proved — if we have reason to believe in something beyond this world which is nevertheless intimately connected with human desires and interests — it gives us at least a starting point from which to theologize.

Of course no one would argue that every human desire — including my desire for an ansible and a cloak of invisibility — implies the existence of an object that would satisfy it, only that we are not born with vain desires. Lewis’s argument only applies to natural, innate, instinctive desires, so the first question that arises is how to distinguish these from artificial ones. Kreeft proposes the following criteria:

  1. We generally “recognize corresponding states of deprivation” for natural desires, but not for artificial ones. “There is no word like ‘Ozlessness’ parallel to ‘sleeplessness.'”
  2. Because natural desires come from our shared human nature, they “are found in all of us, but the artificial ones vary from person to person.”

Kreeft’s first point seems not to favor Lewis, who was so far from seeing his unsatisfied desire as a state of deprivation analogous to sleeplessness that he actually dubbed it “Joy” — not the desire for Joy, mind you, but Joy itself. As far as Lewis was concerned, his desire was not for Joy; it was Joy. The desire was itself intensely desirable. In that respect it seems more like an artificial, fanciful desire than a natural, biological one. Are intense hunger, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and so on ever joyous experiences? Wouldn’t it be odd if they were? Fantasizing about the land of Oz, on the other hand, can be rather pleasant.

The second point is also problematic, since so many obviously fanciful desires are nevertheless near-universal. As Wright (who, despite his Lewisian sympathies, finds this particular argument weak) puts it, “Who has not longed to fly to the stars . . . to speak to the trees and rivers and hills, . . . or peer into the thoughts of another, or live his life?” And who has not felt Lewisian Joy, the “desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” a persistent longing which is no less intense for being vague? All of these must be in some sense “natural,” since they come so naturally to us, but it hardly follows that there must exist something which can satisfy them.

Desires, after all, do not exist to be satisfied; they exist to motivate behavior. Often the behavior elicited by a desire will result in its satisfaction (e.g., hunger motivates eating, and eating satisfies hunger) but this need not always be the case. Take for example the proverbial method of motivating a donkey to move by dangling a carrot in front of it, where the donkey’s desire serves its purpose (making the donkey move) even if it is never satisfied. In fact, the minute you actually let the donkey eat the carrot, it will stop walking and the purpose of the desire will be frustrated. You should only let it eat the carrot after you have reached your destination and no longer want the donkey to move; if you want it to keep moving indefinitely, you should never let it eat the carrot. Creating a desire serves to make the donkey move; satisfying the desire serves to make it stop. (Of course this is a highly artificial example, but in principle there’s nothing to stop nature from doing something similar.) So in thinking about desire and satisfaction, we need to keep in mind two important points — important enough to be bulleted:

  • To understand why a given natural desire exists, the correct question to ask is not what would satisfy it, but what evolutionarily useful behavior it serves to motivate.
  • Other things being equal, we should expect a desire to be satisfied only when, and only for so long as, the behavior it serves to motivate is no longer useful.

If there were some behavior which it were evolutionarily beneficial for us to perform only once, or only a specific finite number of times, then we could expect to find a natural desire which could be satisfied in the fullest sense of that word — we reach the intended goal, the desire is completely and permanently quenched, and we move on to other things. Mission accomplished. It’s hard to think of any clear examples of this in the real world, though, which is perhaps only to be expected. The evolutionary project — ensuring that copies of as many of our genes as possible continue to exist for as long as possible — is inherently open-ended, a race with no finish line, and we might expect a similar open-endedness in the desires which were created to serve it.

More typically we find that our natural desires can be satisfied, but only for a time. The satisfaction is temporary, and the desire is quenched and rekindled, quenched and rekindled, in a cycle that can continue indefinitely. We eat, we drink, we sleep — but hunger, thirst, and fatigue are never banished for long. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. This is a confusing state of affairs if we see satisfaction as being the purpose of desire, but it makes perfect sense if we keep in mind that desires exist to trigger behavior and satisfaction exists to turn it off. When the body needs fuel, the desire to eat is turned on; when it has enough, and eating more would actually be detrimental, the desire is turned off — satisfied — but only until fuel supplies begin to run low again.

The on-again off-again nature of hunger is explained by the fact that eating regularly is evolutionarily useful but eating until you burst is not. But what if there were a behavior which, unlike eating, was always useful and never needed to be turned off? Well, in that case we would expect that behavior to be motivated by a desire which could never be satisfied. The most obvious example of this in nature is our desire for life itself. Nature has given most of us an insatiable desire to go on living indefinitely, not because immortality is actually on offer, but to motivate us to extend our finite lives for as long as we possibly can. Other ways of coping with our unacceptable mortality — having children, trying to bequeath something of lasting value to posterity, and so on — also tend to serve evolution’s ends. So long as we keep chasing the carrot of eternal life, pulling our wagonload of selfish genes behind us, the desire serves its purpose, even if satisfaction remains forever out of reach.

Lewisian Joy isn’t as straightforward as a desire for immortality — it’s a vague desire for a certain je ne sais quoi — and so the behavior it serves to motivate is less easily characterized. However, I suspect that it still does serve to motivate broadly predictable patterns of behavior. Someone who is motivated by Joy is likely to seek, as Kreeft puts it, “more awesomeness” — where our idea of awesomeness will tend to be drawn from our other, more straightforward (and more clearly evolutionarily useful) desires. The inchoate longing for “something more” is not as open-ended as it might seem, since our human nature will predictably direct it towards certain goals (such as power, wisdom, and beauty) rather than others (such as trying to ensure that the number of turnips in the world is prime). Given how clever our species is, and how good we are at finding ways to cheat evolution by satisfying our desires without reaching the goals for which those desires were created (see my post on the Genie scenario) — Joy may be a broadly effective way of keeping us from resting on unearned laurels.

I’m getting into just-so-story territory here, but all that’s really necessary to counter Lewis is to come up with an explanation for vague unsatisfiable desires which, however hypothetical and ad hoc it might be, is at least less far-fetched than his own “most probable explanation” — namely, that there must exist some “other world” than the known universe and that it was for this hypothetical world that we were “made.” And, that, I think, is a pretty easy standard to meet.


Filed under Evolution, God, Philosophy, Psychology

Seven heads and ten horns

The Rev. Brendan Powell Smith’s Brick Testament website, which uses Legos to illustrate stories from the Bible, recently (or since my last visit, anyway) added a section on the Revelation of John, including a Lego version of the great beast with seven heads and ten horns. Like many illustrators of the Apocalypse, Smith seems unsure of how to deal with the mismatched number of heads and horns; he arbitrarily allots one horn each to some of the heads and gives two to others.

Now I don’t know if John really had a clear mental image of this beast or not — the fact that he gives the beast seven heads and then refers to its “mouth,” singular, suggests that perhaps he didn’t — but if he did, I suspect he pictured it with all ten horns on a single head. To see why, look at John’s description of the beast (Revelation 13):

And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.

and compare it with its obvious source (Daniel 7):

Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.

The ten horns clearly come from Daniel’s beasts, and I think the seven heads do as well. Put the four beasts together, and you get one lion head, one bear head, four leopard heads, and one head with ten horns — for a total of seven heads, only one of which has horns. John probably imagined his beast as looking less like this

and more like this

Actually, on second thought, he probably didn’t imagine the seventh head looking quite so — what’s the word? — ornithischian. That might make a great premise for a thriller, though: Scientists attempt to clone a styracosaurus from blood found in an amber-preserved mosquito, but the DNA is incomplete and, having learned from Jurassic Park that replacing the missing pieces with frog DNA would be a really bad idea, they decide instead to splice in some genes from lions and leopards and bears. (What could go wrong, right?) Little do they realize that what they have just created is — the Antichrist!

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