Still in my self-appointed mission to provide both pro-lifers and pro-choicers with arguments that are, shall we say, less comprehensible by five-year-olds than the fare usually available in open forums, in this new installment I give non-religious, non-moral reasons to avoid abortion.

(For grown-up pro-choice reasons, see the previous post.)

A stupid way to run a species
One of the reasons why there is little point in discussing scripture as a basis for conduct in a multi-cultural world is that scripture from any religion is at best an incomplete and highly contextualized interpretation of the facts of life. Policies based on morality and religion are transient and pretty hopeless ways of patching up ever-recurrent problems.

A good non-religious rationale against abortion is provided by Neo-Darwinism, which could be described as a blend of evolution and genetics. It is actually the same rationale that Neo-Darwinism provides against eugenics.

When compared with the colossal time-scale of evolution, it becomes clear that the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Shruti, the American constitution, and any body of non-scientific, opinionated writings, are mere blips of jingoistic, forgettable and ineffectual bigotry. The real reason why abortions should be avoided is that every time a woman aborts a fetus, she is effectively cutting short a link between a protoplasmal blob millions of years ago, and a highly developed human descendant species millions of years into the future. The same goes for eugenics. In evolutionary terms, pro-choicers and eugenicists could be compared to a swarm of lemmings jumping into the sea: they are conspiring to destroy the very thing that brought them to be sentient beings in the first place.

A good starting point to understand the issues involved is the recognition that what a brain can understand must necessarily be at least one degree less complex than the brain itself. Therefore, humans will never be able to understand themselves, much less find complete solace in scripture. This is true for individuals, and it is even truer for groups of people, and it is vastly truer for a species as a whole in evolutionary time-scale. When an egg is impregnated with sperm, one can never predict what is going to be the particular genetic influence of the resulting individual. Theoretically, one can select chromosomes to produce a tall, blond, honest, friendly, intelligent charmer. However, we must think of a person not only as a Member of Society, but as a link between past and future genetic set-ups. For all we know, a successful MoS may contribute to delay, say, immunity to Aids by hundreds of thousands of years. Even if one can eventually pre-empt that undesirable outcome by having Aids immunity built into the genetic set-up, nothing can prevent new and more powerful diseases from cropping up at every evolutionary turn. (Some may find a red herring in this by pointing out that, for all you know, the next abortion may be getting rid of the next Hitler. But in a discussion about evolution, the red herring IS Hitler. Though he advocated eugenics, he was himself an evolutionary failure, since as far as we know he left no offspring; all he did was to help prevent other people from leaving their own. In evolutionary terms, he was the equivalent of an Olympic swimmer who kills all his competitors and then drowns in the pool. He should get the ultimate Darwin Award.)

Therefore, the best thing any individual and any society can do is let evolution do what it has been doing all along for millions of years: leave it to chance, chaos and flukes to take care of what comes next. We’d like to be able to control the future: this is not only impossible but undesirable. One can never tell what comes next. At any given time, there may be a worldwide flu epidemic that will kill off all humans on the planet, and the answer to the killing flu virus may well be in the particular genetic set-up of a fetus that will be aborted next month. What we need to do is to let all possible human beings into existence, so that we ensure the largest number of possible genetic combinations, thereby increasing the probability of our species’ survival.

Abortions are not wrong, and I will not revile you for having one any more than I would revile you for blowing your brains up with a grenade. Abortions are just a stupid way of running a species. Individual comfort is placed above the species’ survival. It is easy to agree that any female of any animal, if able to choose, would prefer sex without progeny. Give a cow some measure of foresight and ten to one she will prefer to abort rather than be bothered by calves and milking and overweight. Pro-choicers are lucky that only humans enjoy foresight: it would not be very pleasant to be compared to a stupid, irrational ruminant grazing her pointless life away.

Abortion is stupid not because it prevents geniuses from being born, but because it decreases the number of genetic combinations in actual competition (meaning the people who are in effect born and grow to procreate themselves). In fact, any birth control method, from eugenics to the pill, is a stupid way to run a species, particularly when the method interferes with the woman’s reproductive system. In order to explain why, I’ll make an analogy with shaving.

In the following, whenever I say that genes ‘think’ or something of the sort, I don’t mean that they actually do think. Saying that genes ‘think’ just makes it easier to visualize what happens across hundreds of generations.

It’s probably no news that a man is on average more successful with women if he shaves than if he grows a beard. Men have this ‘beard gene’ that brings on prodigious amounts of facial hair. The reason why men can have long beards is uncertain, but it sure is strange that if unchecked, this cumbersome thing should grow so long as to hinder body movements. But just for the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that the present version of the beard gene has a perfectly satisfying reason to be there. If no man ever shaved, and if facial hair were still a reproductive disadvantage, the beard gene would gradually recede and baby-faces would eventually become the norm even in adult males. As it happens, it’s currently not a cool thing to have long beards, so men shave them off, and women then also choose men who are unnaturally beardless. The snag is that the beard gene in the population at large remains in absolute ignorance that most carriers prefer to shave their beards off, and that the gene makes no difference to men’s reproductive success. Because men do shave, and because nature has a tendency to boost what is useful, the ‘clueless’ beard gene is passed on and possibly emphasized. The gene then ‘thinks’ it is useful and finds its way into the next generation, and so on. The result is that as generations follow each other, men will be ever more prone to having ever more facial hair to shave off. Maybe that’s exactly what has actually already been happening. The clean-shaven look has been around ever since the Greeks, and earlier. Probably, just probably, beards grow longer now because no further back than 3,000 years ago, facial hair lost its charm among ‘civilized’ people. Men’s ability to ‘control’ their looks will backfire (or has backfired) miserably.

The same reasoning can be applied to other modern ‘improvements’. Take liposuction. The more women undergo liposuction, the more it contributes to developing obesity in women in future generations. Take high heeled shoes for women. As more women wear high heels more often, women who are actually chosen as partners will become gradually shorter. Hundreds of generations from now, the “natural” woman will tend to become a fat midget.

Now what has that got to do with my previous assertion that birth control is stupid?

Well, a lot. A woman’s fertility is limited to some days during the menstrual cycle. Since each species has a different fertility cycle, it seems fair to say that a woman’s fertility is defined by her genes. But whether she’s on some kind of birth control or having one kid per year, her ‘fertility gene’ is perfectly unaware of the fact. If the use of birth control methods becomes universal, and if abortion is made legal around the world, this will have the same effect as a preference for clean-shaven men will (or indeed has had). Women who are naturally more fertile than average will probably decide to have as many children (that is, few) as women who are naturally less fertile. Therefore, in the world at large there will be proportionally fewer progeny carrying higher fertility genes than there would have been in a natural setting. The result is that as generations follow each other through future millennia, women might be less and less capable of bearing children (without the merciful benefit of casting off the menstrual cycle), and thus the ability of human beings to create variety within the species might be severely limited. Maybe that’s exactly what has actually already been happening. Humans’ partiality to sex without progeny is nothing new, and women’s reproductive cycle has certainly developed alongside that partiality. But our wish to control our bodies artificially may backfire (or may already have backfired) miserably.

The three-shaves-a-day male and the fat-midget female may be taken by hurried thinkers as an argument for eugenics, as future cenarios to be avoided by eugenics. This would be a stupid argument. If anything, it is an argument against fashion.

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In the next few posts, I’ll provide both pro-lifers and pro-choicers with arguments that are, shall we say, less comprehensible by five-year-olds than the fare usually available in open forums.

The sky is not the limit
A perception pro-lifers have of pro-choicers is that they rely on blind faith on their particular prejudices about life and death to justify their defence of abortion. To me, all this indicates is that a pro-lifer’s grasp of the pro-choice rationale is tenuous at best. In fact, pro-choicers do not care if a woman is pregnant of ‘unborn humans’: this is not the issue at stake. This view was famously mocked in 1971 by the philosopher Judith J Thomson, who compared pregnancy with waking up to find that you have had a famous violinist plugged into your vital organs and being told that if he does not remain there for the next nine months, he will die.

Now think of yourself as a moral man, a saver of lives. Suppose that by some queer accident a famous violinist gets plugged into your vital organs for nine months, and if you unplug him, he will die. After that, he’ll be a semi-invalid for sixteen more years and it’ll be your duty to nurture him. Of course, if you’re a man, it would take a VERY queer accident to get you pregnant; but a real pregnancy, especially the first one, is not much different from that: a non-pregnant woman must feel she is as autonomous a being as a man does.

So, taking it all in, I think one may safely assume that, being a moral man and a saver of lives, you will gladly carry that weight around for the specified length of time, in the certainty that a human life hangs on your efforts. You will lose job opportunities, you will do without simple pleasures, you will live with fatigue and discomfort, your body will irretrievably change for the worse, you will depend on other people’s help, you will be uncertain of the future, &c. Nine months pass and then the glory of your achievement will be apparent. Everybody’s happy, including you, the violinist, music lovers, your country and your deity. You will expect no thanks, of course: this is no more than your duty. I commend you.

Of course, after such privations, you’ll expect your duty’s done and you can move on to other endeavours. Well, sorry, you then learn that by another queer accident, you’ll get plugged to a famous mathematician, either a him or a her. You smile politely though deep down you’d rather not have anyone plugged into you again. But you’re a hero, now. You’ve been through all this before and you know the rewards are worth a thousand times the suffering, so you say, “Let him/her come. I don’t care if it’s a him or a her.” Well, it’s a girl. Who’d have thought it possible? You start feeling there are a lot of gaps in the work you had been wanting to accomplish, a lot of gaps in your knowledge, a lot of gaps in your pleasures. But then, what are you, next to a famous mathematician? Nine months later, you’ve saved her life.

Well, now back to work. Some months later, a single mistake, one more queer accident and there you are. Maybe a dustman, this time. Or a dustwoman: you don’t really care. But nine more months?!? AND with so much music and maths to look after already!! Some questions keep cropping up out of your subconscious mind: “Why me? What about MY life, for deity’s sake?” Somebody shows you the way to unplug the little dear, and a million to one you will do it. It might be only a dustperson, after all.

Notice that I’m not talking about anyone in particular. I’m talking about what happens, and what human beings are like. I’m just describing, not prescribing.

Personally, I can envisage having a fully-fledged human being plugged into my vital organs for a week or so. But only once. The second time that happened, I’d certainly let them go. The definition of a sentient being includes the idea of autonomy. If for some reason I lose my autonomy, I can be expected to want it back, even if I’ve lost it because some other person cannot live autonomously.

Some pro-lifers criticize pro-choicers for their philosophy of “me me me, who cares about anyone else?”

This is an interesting point. So let me start a different analogy.

Suppose you drive by a lake every evening on your way back home. One evening you spot a drowning child. The water’s cold, but that shouldn’t bother you if you’re saving a life – which you then do, with considerable effort. Who wouldn’t? (This analogy is to be understood as bearing the proviso: “no other options are possible, except saving or not saving the child.”) To your chagrin, this is then repeated every evening for days on end, a different child every time; and every evening you stop your car, get out, jump in, swim, grab the kid, swim back, &c. What do you think will happen after some weeks? You will catch yourself considering a different route back home, even if you know that there is a child drowning in the lake. You might actually try and find an alternative route, or fake other business, but eventually you’ll drive by the drowning child without so much as a nod. There is a limit for everything. For some people, the mere knowledge that there will be a drowning child on their way back home is enough to make them decide on a different route anyway. And who’s to blame them? We’re talking about real people here, not imaginary saints.

You know what I’m driving at, don’t you? Your morality and your religion are not worth much after you get the know-how to interfere with a natural but inconvenient bodily function. That’s what humans are like. Morals are nothing when personal comfort is repeatedly at stake. If you say that personal comfort is not reason enough to allow a person to die, I say that I have demonstrated to you that even a life-saver will choose not to save a life once a limit is reached. What pro-choicers are saying is “do not presume to prescribe what that limit should be for other people.”

the radical agnostic

April 9, 2008

If there is any peril in having a reality-based outlook at a time when religion seems to be on a lot of people’s minds, I think it comes from those who have yet to learn the main lesson of the 20th century: diversity and nature are more important than personal conviction.

I call myself a ‘radical agnostic’.

A radical agnostic couldn’t care less about questions of providence, creation and the existence of God. However, the radical agnostic is bold enough to admit that after all there just miiiiight be a God who’ll ultimately round up all ‘reality-based’ outlookers and send them packing down to Hell.

The existence or inexistence of God, the transcendence or non-transcendence of dogmas, the need or non-need of tradition are questions that don’t make a jot of difference, cosmically speaking: our ignorance is so mind-bogglingly vast, and the possibility of finally bridging it so utterly remote, that both believing and disbelieving seem like acts of arrogance and presumption.

Indeed, religious beliefs get special help from arrogance and presumption. The radical agnostic sometimes suspects that “I believe” actually means “I want”:

“I want in God (to live well, not to suffer, to go to heaven, to live eternally, my enemies to suffer, &c).”

… and it’s no wonder that all religions seek to deny the very thing that promotes them: while their survival and growth depends mainly on family and ethnic ties more than on any inherent truth or strength in their dogmas, they at the same time try to cynically sustain that ‘believing’ is an expression of selflessness capable of helping to congregate white and black, rich and poor in a common ideal. Hmm. And you’d better start believing now, or else…!

Yes. Ironically, the message spread by gospels of all religions is, “believe, or else your soul won’t be able to reap the fruits desired by your animality,” fruits such as happiness, pleasure, memory and relief from pain. Forget spiritual rewards: belief is the hope you’ll get your animal urges satiated.

Atheists, of course, get their fair share of arrogance & presumption. Saying things like “I know there is no god.” has the same logical & presumption status as “I know what’s happening in Alpha Centauri right now.”

I may sound like I’m against anybody who’s not a radical agnostic. But I think diversity of nature is the key concept here. In spite of all I’ve said, I think humanity may slowly come to recognise that different people believe different things simply because they are differently constituted; therefore, arguing endlessly about what’s true or logical or believable will be seen in a more benevolent light for what it is: just a harmless pastime. Nobody knows anything, and humans will have to evolve into something greater than human before anything new is actually learnt.

I stand by my epigraph, always: “You’ll never get any further than plausible.”

dare win

December 15, 2007

“Right now, we are engaged in the late 20th century version of the struggle between those who believe that the human species is so flexible, so potent, that even when we face great crises, as in the past, we will find the solutions, and so therefore we should go full speed ahead, not worry about it, concentrate on the science and technology; this is in dire opposition to the natural science viewpoint that we have genius but it is not so great as to allow us to separate ourselves that way from the environment in which the species evolved. I believe we need a thorough naturalistic worldview of the human condition, because we are now facing crises — particularly with reference to the environment — that will be better met through this view of ourselves as belonging to this planet, as a very biological species.”

Edward O. Wilson, in Darwin: The Legacy BBC video, 1998

maths and men

September 7, 2007

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When I see how science is sometimes championed against religion, I am a little taken aback

Because, you see, the science that is thought to be able to explain and make use of the Universe… is based on mathematics; and that cannot be right. For one thing, the idea that mathematics and physics are somehow intertwined belongs to the realm of philosophy. Of course, this could be only me splitting hairs; but there are many more reasons to discredit mathematics as our next saviour. We boggle in amazement at the marvels that the marriage of maths and physics has produced in our lifetime; but you see, that’s just the effect that colour, movement and excitement from some useful or entertaining gadgets has on our naked-ape brains, which are barely out of the caves, groping about for meaning in everything.

Mathematics is a sort of game. We add or multiply real-world objects and get apparently consistent results. We can explain quite a lot of things by using maths, such as why apples fall on our heads while we take a nap under an apple tree. With maths, we can also develop ideas into concrete objects. But as we use mathematics to move further and further towards explaining the very small and the very big, our concepts begin to behave very oddly. Can that be because very small and very big things are themselves odd to our middle-of-the-way brains? I don’t think so. I think the oddness is itself a result of the inadequacy of numbers to describe the real world with total precision (or, in other words, to calculate and produce truth).

Let me give you a simple example. You’re doing some experiment with a particle accelerator, and for some reason you need to know the exact length between opposite corners of a 1-inch square. Piece of cake, you say: it’s the square root of 2 (let me call this “V2” here). However, V2 is what’s called an “irrational” number, meaning that after the point, we get an infinite number of digits. V2’s infinity starts at 1.4142135623730950488016887… and then this completely random series of digits extends infinitely to the uttermost reaches of the Universe and beyond, towards multiple universes and then back again infinite times and it never EVER ends. You could fill the entire Universe infinite times with the digits of V2 and you’d still be infinitely away from reaching a number that would give you 2 if multiplied by itself. All you’d get is something like 1.999999999… extending infinitely and back infin… oh, it does get boring.

If you always look on the bright side of life, this means that mathematics can describe orders of magnitude that are infinite times smaller than what can actually exist in or between the littlest particles. But to me, all it means is that mathematics can never be precise, it can only be approximate. And there’s the snag: the real world cannot be an approximation: everything must be precisely whatever it is.

Now look around you. We live in a maths-driven, maths-organised society. If you look (for want of a better word) “between” the wonders that mathematics has produced, you’ll see a lot of things that are left behind – the molecules that continuously fall off the not-completely smooth surface on a hard-disk, the diminutive speck of smoke that goes up from a chip when you turn on your iPhone –, which are sometimes treated as garbage, sometimes as dust, sometimes as minor bothers, but most often just get ignored. They are, so to speak, the difference between 2 and what you get when you multiply 1.414213… by itself – the residue of imprecision.

The trouble is we ignore them at our own peril. Forgotten things tend to collect, just as an infinite sum of V2’s leftovers could collect a residue exactly equal to 2. When enough of the real world residue generated by the use of mathematics collects somewhere, we give it a name: pollution, squalor, rap music (joking!).

On the other end from practical concerns, there’s theoretical inquiry, philosophy and mysticism: ideas, theories and beliefs that help give shape to our concept of ourselves and our place in time and space. What mathematics does to those pursuits mirrors exactly what it does to society: because no precision can obtain from mathematics, a lot of detritus is collected near the outer boundaries of the marriage between maths and physics, maths and mysticism, &c. But because we’re used to thinking of mathematics as infallible, the detritus that eventually gets collected is thought to constitute physical entities in their own right. Some of the resulting ideas may lead to interesting insights; but many of the mystic theories put forward by physicists and other scientists make use of residual garbage that goes unrecognized as such. The result is a plethora of different sorts of increasingly wacky explanations for the very small and the very big, the places where human-created digits and concepts cease to make any sense because that’s where infinity takes over. The film/book What the Bleep do we Know is a case in point.

William Golding, author of Darkness Visible, once said in a interview, “a Universe that goes on forever is the ultimate damnation”. I would say that the ultimate damnation is a maths-driven Universe. Since neither science nor religion will ever be able to answer any of our deepest questions, couldn’t we just leave it be and concentrate on what’s here?

Laws are little more than a method for making money out of people’s natural inclinations.

insoulting

August 30, 2007

Here’s my contribution to the Urban Dictionary:

insoult, v.

To affront somebody’s soul by suggesting it is going to Hell because they do not believe in God, or do not believe in the same God as you do.

A: Mrs Christian was deeply insoulted when she read Mr Jew’s book.
B: Was she? I wonder how she would feel if she heard Mr Muslim’s prayers.

A: Could atheists and agnotiscs sue all religions for insoulting them?
B: They could, in theory. But what if we DON’T have souls?